It has been a popular misconception that Native Americans’ sole victory was against George Custer and his 7th Cavalry, otherwise the tribes suffered an endless string of defeats. The truth is, although they ultimately lost their lands and way of life, Indians won significant battles along the way. In this and other entries to my blog, I cover some of the battles that highlight Native military triumphs in the long and costly Indian Wars (1609 – 1924).
Here is the story of one such confrontation known as the:
The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands or Fetterman Fight
The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands, also known as the Fetterman Fight, started a series of hostilities called Red Cloud’s War (1866 – 1868) with the Indigenous tribes as victors. A more complete victory, however, was delayed for more than a century until a Supreme Court case in 1980.
On December 21, 1866, a small band of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors attacked a wood-cutting detail near Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. The fort commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington (above left), sent a mounted force led by Captain William J. Fetterman (below left) to the rescue. No soldier lived to tell the whole story.
Eighty-one soldiers and civilians died in minutes; the worst military defeat suffered by the U.S. Army until ten years later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. How did this bloodshed come to pass?
In 1863, Gold Rush miners blazed the Bozeman Trail through the heart of the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, and Lakota territory despite the warnings of legendary mountain man Jim Bridger, who urged another path. Regardless, from 1864 to 1866, 3,500 miners, settlers and others traversed the trail.
In 1864, furious Arapaho survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre (near present-day Denver) fled north from Colorado Territory to Lakota country attacking white settlements and Army posts along the way, including the Platte Bridge Station (near present-day Casper, Wyoming) in July 1865. Twenty-six solders died.
By mid-July, Carrington had established three posts on the Bozeman Trail, with headquarters at Fort Phil Kearny located on the east flank of the Bighorn Mountains near present-day Story, Wyoming.
Raids and skirmishes continued until June 1866 when the U. S. Interior Department called on Lakota leaders, including the Oglala Chief Red Cloud (above left), to meet at Fort Laramie for a treaty that would ensure security of passage on the Bozeman Trail. During negotiations, Colonel Carrington marched unexpectedly into the Powder River basin at the head of seven hundred soldiers to build fortifications in the area. Enraged, Red Cloud accused the U.S. of bad faith and refused to sign the treaty.
While troops continued wood cutting and building Fort Phil Kearny, Carrington’s scout, Jim Bridger, learned from friendly Crows that more than 2,200 lodges of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho had gathered nearby in a huge camp – all allies dedicated to closing the Bozeman trail.
Warriors harassed the fort at every opportunity. The civilian contractors who cut the fort’s lumber nearby were prime targets and required constant military escort. By mid-December 1865 (shortly after the end of the American Civil War) nearly seventy soldiers and civilians had been killed in over fifty skirmishes practically within view of the post.
“Lakotas, I am for war!”
Bridger (left) warned Carrington that Red Cloud planned to attack the fort en masse. Carrington sent this intelligence to higher headquarters where it was discarded under the assertion that Bridger had too often amplified the threat of Indian violence. It was no exaggeration.
Red Cloud’s distress with the polluting influence of the invaders had developed into a cold determination to fight against formidable odds rather than bow to the Americans.
“Hear ye, Lakotas!” Red Cloud said. “When the Great Father at Washington sent us his chief soldier to ask for a path through our hunting grounds, a way for his iron road to the mountains and the western sea, we were told that they wished merely to pass through our country, not to tarry among us. Yet before the ashes of the council fire are cold, the Great Father is building his forts among us. His presence here is an insult and a threat. It is an insult to the spirits of our ancestors. Are we then to give up their sacred graves to be plowed for corn? Lakotas, I am for war!”
Less than seven days after that speech, Lakota forces with their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies faced Colonel Carrington at Fort Phil Kearny in the opening round of Red Cloud’s War. The inaugural fight would be the most catastrophic.
On the day before the battle, Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors gathered on the butte overlooking the anticipated fighting ground. Red Cloud arranged for a medicine man, the transgender (winkte) Pretty Dress, who possessed the spirit of both sexes. Pretty Dress had special powers and insights so well-known that battles were postponed due to his advice.
Red Cloud waved his arms. Pretty Dress rode blindfolded across the proposed battlefield in an erratic manner four times, each time scooping up “Bluecoats” in his hands while blowing a whistle. Three times he presented his holdings to the war party and three times he was refused for collecting an insufficient number of soldiers to fight. Pretty Dress returned for the fourth time, dismounted, held up his fists, and shouted, “Answer me quickly. I have one hundred or more Bluecoats in my hands.” The assembled warriors cheered. The chiefs saw this as good medicine and the next morning decided it would be a good day to do battle.
Here is the latest review I have received for Animal Parts from the US Review of Books:
Peter Romero, an officer with the Cochiti Pueblo Police Department, has been having a hard enough time as it is lately, what with a struggling marriage and local officials breathing down his neck. But his life is really thrown for a loop when he not only is tasked with killing a cougar who has attacked hikers, but also the cougar shows up in his bed still very much alive. The cat wants revenge for his murdered mate and cub, and he wants Romero’s help. Romero then finds himself embroiled in a thrilling mystery that involves everything from poaching, a black market for animal organs and parts, windigos, and even murder. With the help of the cougar as well as the spiritual world, Peter must find the key to solving the mystery.
This book certainly hits the ground running, forcing readers to hold on as they go through this whirlwind mystery and thriller. This is a story that both captivates the audience and compels them to hold their breath with each turn of the page. It even comes complete with a twist ending. Though this story may be the third installment in the series, it still provides the juicy details that fans of the previous books are looking for without ignoring the desire of luring in a new audience. Readers will fall in love with not only the thrilling adventure the author has invited them into but also the character of Romero. He is a uniquely complex and competent character that readers will definitely be rooting for.
Between 1689 and 1763, there were no less than four colonial wars (often called World War Zero) involving France, Britain, Spain, and their respective colonies. These conflicts were expressions of European competition over balance of power, expansionism, mercantilism, and Native American alliances.
In the summer of 1720, colonial New Mexico Governor Antonio Valverde y Cosío found himself entangled in one episode of these international conflicts: the early days of America’s longest (1622 – 1924) and deadliest war (40 million deaths), The Indian Wars.
Governor Valverde had a problem. Rumors circulated in the Southwest that French troops planned to seize Santa Fe’s gold and silver mines. A recent expedition had reported the French were bribing Pawnee, Otoe, and Missourias with gifts, including firearms, to guarantee their loyalty. Quite often, colonists dreaded other European powers more than they feared their Native American neighbors, and these stories kept frontier Spaniards on edge, especially Valverde.
After relaying his concerns to the viceroy in Mexico City, Valverde appointed his own lieutenant governor, Pedro de Villasur, to lead a long-range scouting expedition eastward to seek out and put an end to French mischief. On June 16, 1720, a well-armed military excursion departed Santa Fe with both Valverde’s and Villasur’s expectations that this mission could be easily accomplished.
Villasur’s force was composed of forty-two regular soldiers from Santa Fe’s royal presidio and sixty Pueblo fighting men under their own war captain. Father Juan Minguez, Indian interpreter José Naranjo, and the French-speaking Juan L’Archiveque accompanied the force. Villasur also used the Pawnee Francisco Sistaca, a Spanish slave, as interpreter to local tribes until the man disappeared.
Villasur guided his men to Taos, crossed over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then angled northeast to the Great Bend of the Arkansas River in today’s central Kansas. From there the Spanish cut northward to the Platte River and followed it downstream to the junction with the Loup River in eastern Nebraska where the Spaniards came upon large numbers of Pawnee and Otoe. Negotiations lasted for several days, with the Indians growing increasingly hostile.
Out-numbered, Villasur withdrew his men upriver to just south of modern-day Columbus, Nebraska, camping next to tall grass and trees on August 13. The horses were turned out to graze and sentinels posted for the night. Sixty Pueblo allies, perhaps distrustful of the lax security, encamped separately nearby.
Pawnee and Otoe warriors attacked at dawn the next morning. The Spanish were asleep at this hour and it is possible the deserter Sistaca had given his brother Pawnee this critical intelligence.
Accompanied by heavy musket fire and punishing flights of arrows, the Natives charged into combat clad only in warpaint, headbands, moccasins, and short leggings. In a brief battle thirty-six Spaniards died. Villasur was killed in front of his tent. Chaplain Minguez fell while rushing to his aid. L’Archiveque, Naranjo, and ten Pueblo scouts also died that day.
Among the Spaniards, only one officer and a dozen soldiers escaped alive, along with fifty of the Pueblo allies. The escape to Santa Fe stretched roughly 600 miles and the sixty-three survivors nearly perished by the time they reached the edge of New Mexico. Friendly Jicarilla Apaches rescued and accompanied them to Santa Fe.
After Interviewing the survivors, Valverde was alarmed to hear that the Indians had been carrying a French flag during the battle. Further, some of the returning Spaniards claimed to have seen Frenchmen in uniform (37 are depicted in Segesser II. See Figure 1.) fighting alongside Pawnee and Otoe warriors.
The fate of the Villasur force had become one of the most grievous episodes in New Mexico’s colonial period. The slaughtered soldiers represented more than a third of the royal garrison, and Santa Fe went into mourning. Stricken, Governor Valverde, wrote in his report: “When I contemplate the fields with the spilt blood of those who were the most excellent soldiers in all this realm … my heart is broken.”
Subsequently, many Spaniards questioned Valverde’s decision to allow the inexperienced Villasur to lead such an important mission. Authorities in Mexico City charged Valverde with facilitating the murder of troops through the botched expedition.
After seven years of investigation, Valverde stood before a board of inquiry. The court fined Valverde, the richest man in New Mexico, two hundred pesos. A lenient judgement under the circumstances.
Nevertheless, the historic importance of the Villasur Expedition is undeniable. The defeat of the Spanish allowed France free reign in conducting trade with Native Americans in the region until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Given this heritage, the influence of the expedition in the territorial and economic evolution of the United States is profound.
But the story does not end there.
Today, an extraordinary piece of art (named the Segesser after a previous owner) remains a visible connection to the event that rocked New Mexico long-ago. In 1988, supporters of the Santa Fe Palace of Governors and the state acquired the 17-foot-long 137 square-foot painting on bison hide under the slogan “Save Our Hides.”
The artwork, painted by contemporary artists from survivors’ testimony, consists of two sections. Segesser I (at the top of Figure 1), depicts a fight between Spanish-allied Pueblo Indians and Plains Apache, that occurred sometime between 1693 and 1719. Segesser II (at the bottom of Figure 1), illustrates the Villasur Massacre. Below, the faded paintings have been reproduced for better viewing.
In Figure 2, uniformed soldiers fire at an enemy to the right. Mounted fighters are the Spanish and their Indian allies.
In Figure 3, Villasur lies mortally wounded behind his white tent (lower left). The blue-robed and wounded Chaplain Minguez (center) runs to deliver last rites before his own death. In the same frame, brightly painted and naked Plains Indians fight French soldiers wear European-style uniforms and tricorn hats.
Figure 4 shows the New Mexico force’s last stand. Spanish defenders, Soldado de Cuera – leather jacket soldiers – hold bull hide shields and wear period hats. Muskets of the day, Miquelet-lock flintlocks, were normally fired from the hip.
Native Americans demonstrated, as they were to prove repeatedly, they were a military force to be reckoned with and a serious obstacle to Euro-American westward expansion.
The artwork is not only a rare example of the earliest known depictions of colonial life in the United States, they carry the very faces of men whose descendants live in New Mexico today. The Segesser hides are on display in the New Mexico History Museum, Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.
A swirling mass of feathered, painted men and horses. The whistle of bullets and arrows. The coppery smell of blood and acrid odor of burned gun powder. The co-mingled screams of men and horses. The shrill wail of trumpets drowned by the ululating trill of warriors tasting victory. A last stand of men in blue, then the silence of a terrible peace on a hillside in June, 1876.
Today, when Americans read or hear about the Indian Wars, they are routinely exposed to a Hollywood version with familiar names like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and George Armstrong Custer. All three fought at The Battle of the Little Bighorn where Custer and five of his cavalry companies lost their lives.
The battle, mythologized in our national memory, is correctly described as a calamity, but is Custer’s Last Stand the worst Army disaster inflicted by Native Americans?
Eighty-five years prior, on a day so cold, men loaded musket balls with their lips instead of frozen fingers, the new U.S. Army was handed its most decisive (and little known) defeat by Indians. Near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio, an Indian confederacy humiliated the young Army at the Battle of the Wabash, commonly referred to as St. Clair’s Defeat. Of nearly 1,100 soldiers, militia, and camp followers, only 24 were unharmed – a casualty rate three times that of the Little Bighorn.
For comparison, let’s review the two conflicts in reverse order:
The Little Bighorn, June 1876
After gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills in 1875, the U.S. Army ignored existing treaties and invaded the region. As a consequence, many Sioux and Cheyenne left their reservations to join Lakota leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana. By late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans had gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River in defiance of a War Department order to return. In mid-June, three columns of U.S. soldiers marched to enforce the order. The Sioux turned back the first column on 17 June at the Battle of the Rosebud. Brigadier General Alfred Terry then ordered Custer’s 7th Cavalry to scout ahead for enemy troops.
On the evening of 24 June after an overnight march, Custer’s Crow and Arikara scouts arrived at an overlook above the Little Bighorn River. At sunrise, the scouts, reported a massive pony herd and signs of a big village 18 miles distant. Custer prepared for attack but did not order further reconnaissance, fearing he may have already been discovered.
Despite incomplete intelligence on enemy size (Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe may have numbered as many as 2,500 warriors) Custer divided his 12 companies of cavalry in preparation for an attack on the morning of 25 June. Three companies each were placed under the command of Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen. Five remained under Custer (one other company had previously been assigned to escort the pack train).
At mid-day, Reno attacked the village intent on capturing the women and children as hostage. Word spread quickly. Sitting Bull rallied warriors to protect the helpless. Crazy Horse set off with a large force to meet the Americans head on (accounts from this point vary).
Custer’s men, inexperienced and exhausted from the overnight march, were overwhelmed and retreated to a nearby hilltop. Troopers of the 7th Cavalry put up a dogged defense. A group of braves attacked the cavalrymen from the north in a surprise charge causing panic while the attackers counted coup with lances, coup sticks, and quirts. Nevertheless, soldiers defending the northern portion of Custer’s field inflicted most of the Indian casualties in a tenacious defense. Although some soldiers ran, they ultimately fought as long as they could.
Custer’s troops were annihilated within an hour of engagement. Indian warriors termed this segment of the fight a buffalo run and called it a last stand.
Lakota and Cheyenne forces then regrouped to attack Reno and Benteen hunkered on hills nearby. The fight continued until dark and for much of the next day. On 27 June, reinforcements under General Terry arrived and Native forces withdrew.
Of 647 men in the 7th Cavalry, 16 officers, 242 troopers,18 men who fought with Reno and Benteen, and 10 Indian scouts were lost. The Custer family made up nearly one-third of the total officers killed: Custer, two of his brothers, his brother-in-law, and a nephew.
As so often happens, the military scrambled to find a scapegoat. Custer was faulted for dividing his command prior to battle (an accepted mode for attacking villages) and of attacking too early (a curious accusation given Custer’s promotions for daring during the Civil War). Major Reno and Captain Benteen were criticized for disobeying Custer’s orders and failing to help. Indian agents were reproached for under-reporting the number of warriors off the reservations.
Left nearly destitute in the aftermath of her husband’s death, Libbie, Custer’s wife, became an outspoken defender of his legacy. Largely as a result of her books and lectures, Custer’s image as the gallant fallen hero amid the glory of Custer’s Last Stand has persevered in American cultural memory.
Battle of the Wabash, November 1791
The treaty ending the Revolutionary War recognized United States sovereignty of all land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes. Indian leaders such as Little Turtle and Blue Jacket refused to recognize American claims to the area northwest of the Ohio River. As a consequence, during the mid and late 1780’s, American settlers suffered approximately 1,500 deaths by hostile Natives. Whites often retaliated, adding to the cycle of violence.
President George Washington ordered Major General St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory, to crush Little Turtle’s Miami tribe. Preparations at Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, Ohio) were slowed, however, by logistics and supply problems. Additionally, new recruits were poorly paid, trained, disciplined, food supplies were substandard, and horses were short in number and of poor quality.
The expedition, consisting of regular and levy troops, set out in October 1791 with the objective of Kekionga, capital of the Miami tribe, near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana. General St. Clair, sick with gout, had difficulty maintaining order. Indians shadowed his force. Snow and frigid temperatures slowed the march. This combination of morale-degrading conditions had devastating effect: desertion dwindled the force from two thousand to around 1,120 men and camp followers.
While St. Clair lost soldiers, Little Turtle’s Western Confederacy, consisting of Miami, Shawnee, Delaware, and Potawatomi, added numbers bringing the total to more than 1,500 warriors. In a prelude to the War of 1812, most Indian nations sided with the British against the U.S. Accordingly, British military officers accompanied Little Turtle as advisors.
On the evening of 3 November, St. Clair’s force established a camp on a wooded hill near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio, 58 miles northwest of Dayton. Warriors waited until dawn, then struck after the soldiers had stacked their weapons and gone to breakfast.
Advised by his British officers, Little Turtle directed his first attack at the militia, who fled across a stream without their weapons. The regulars immediately grabbed their own muskets and fired a volley into the Indians, forcing them back. Little Turtle flanked the regulars and closed on them. St. Clair’s artillery wheeled into position, but Indian sharpshooters dropped the gun crews.
Colonel William Darke ordered his battalion to fix bayonets and charge the main Indian position. Little Turtle’s forces retreated to the woods, then encircled Darke’s battalion, destroying it. Numerous bayonet charges met with similar results until the U.S. forces collapsed in disorder. St. Clair had three horses shot out from under him as he tried unsuccessfully to rally his men.
After three hours of fighting and faced with total annihilation, St. Clair attempted one last bayonet charge. As before, Little Turtle allowed the bayonets to pass through, but this time the soldiers ran for nearby Fort Jefferson. The Indians pursued, but broke off and returned to loot the camp of supplies and torture to death the abandoned wounded.
The main battle lasted three hours. In it, 632 military were killed and 264 wounded. Nearly all two hundred camp followers were slaughtered. While Little Turtle and Blue Jacket were the immediate victors, they would pay a future cost.
A congressional investigation found mismanagement by contractors and the Quartermaster, as well as a lack of discipline and experience in the militia. Congress eventually authorized the formation of a new army, The Legion of the United States. It would be better trained, better supplied, with a proven leader, Major General (Mad) Anthony Wayne. His first assignment: finish what St. Clair had failed to do.
Both battles would have long-lasting impact on America’s future, politically, militarily, and for the Native American way of life.
For its part, Custer’s Last Stand turned out to be the last, large-scale Native resistance to American encroachment. The Sioux victory at the Little Bighorn serves as a brilliant end piece to 380 years of warfare but is often referred to as the Indians’ last stand.
At St Clair’s Defeat, Indians of the Old Northwest would eventually lose their traditional life-style as well, but this shining moment in Native American history yielded repercussions as far as Europe. St. Clair’s Defeat showed the world America was weak and not in control of its territory. England, France, and Spain coveted this rich and strategically important area. In a little over 20 years, the War of 1812 would follow.
While the Little Big Horn may be considered the end of the Native American era, St. Clair’s Defeat marked the beginning of the American era. The annihilation of St. Clair’s forces threatened the existence of the four-year-old U. S. government itself and created a turning point in policy by underscoring the necessity of a strong defense, an issue relevant to this day. Consequently, a re-energized American military sealed the ultimate fate of Native Americans as the United States developed into the predominate force in North America.
The 7th cavalry suffered a 52% casualty rate with 286 killed and 49 wounded at the Little Bighorn, but the casualty rate at St. Clair’s Defeat was substantially higher with 88% officers lost and 97% enlisted dead or wounded (most non-ambulatory wounded died) for a total of over 900 military and civilian casualties, more than any battle of the Revolutionary War or conflict up to the Civil War. Approximately one-quarter of the entire U.S. Army had been wiped out.
Libbie’s campaign, Hollywood lore, and popular opinion aside, when viewed strictly from a military standpoint, St Clair’s Defeat, the forgotten battle, stands as Native Americans’ most ruinous victory over the U.S. Army.
 Anton Truer, The Indian Wars, (Washington D. C.: National Geographic Society, 2016) 94
I sponsored the 18th tee and two military golfers at the recent Coronado (CA) Rotary Club Golf Tournament. Our club raised $80,000 for worthy charities, many of them veteran support charities. I have included some happy military golfers and my tee poster.