On Aug. 19, 1854, a West Point second lieutenant barely out of his teenage years led 29 U.S. Army soldiers, and two civilians into a Sioux Indian camp in eastern Wyoming, and were all killed on the spot or died a few days later.
It was all because hungry Indians ate a lame cow that had either been abandoned or wandered away from a Mormon emigrant party heading west on the Oregon Trail.
For the next 70 years, Native Americans across the nation would be embroiled in countless deadly battles against white civilization taking over their tribal lands.
The history books would add names like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, Little Big Horn, Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, and the carnage wouldn’t end until 1923.
Before the 1840s, the few white non-Indians in the northwestern part of America generally had good relations with the Indians, but as the Oregon Trail and other travel routes opened up and large numbers of white immigrants started moving in, relations soured.
The newcomers were hunting the same game that the Indians needed for survival. The buffalo was nearly entirely wiped out, and the immigrant cattle and horses were eating up grasslands next to the trails.
Immigrants were pursuing Manifest Destiny to make the United States a coast-to-coast nation, while the Indians were fighting to retain their ancestral lands and way of life. Conflict was inevitable, and tragically violence soon became commonplace.
“The land is sacred. These words are at the core of your being,” said Mary Brave Bird of the Lakota Sioux. “The land is our mother, the rivers our blood. Take our land away and we die. That is, the Indian in us dies.”
The government finally came to terms with the Plains Indians — Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho and Crow — promising to pay them each $50,000 a year in food and goods for 50 years. That agreement worked well until late in the summer of 1854 — and the cow incident.
A large gathering of four or five thousand Sioux were camped around Fort Laramie in Wyoming — then Nebraska Territory — waiting for weeks for local Indian agent John Whitfield to return, bringing the food and supplies.
During that time, a wagon train of Danish Mormon emigrants heading west on the Oregon Trail either abandoned a lame cow, or it wandered away. The cow was shot by an Indian, cooked and eaten. One of the emigrants complained to the Fort Laramie commander — Lt. John L. Grattan, fresh from West Point — and demanded compensation of $25.
Meanwhile, Conquering Bear, who had been selected as chief of all the tribes by the whites, heard that a Miniconjous Sioux named High Forehead was the one that shot the cow.
The chief immediately went to the fort to offer a good horse from his personal herd, or a cow from the tribe’s herd in compensation. The offer was refused and the emigrant stuck to his original demand.
Further negotiations failed, and Conquering Bear asked 2nd Lt. Hugh B. Fleming, the fort commander, if the matter could be settled by the Indian agent — as authorized by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty.
Lt. Grattan — who graduated from West Point one year after Fleming — was eager for blood and glory and said that the Indians needed to be taught a lesson because of ongoing skirmishes, and asked to be allowed to capture High Forehead.
Foolishly, Fleming approved the request.
George Emory Fay in his book “Military Engagements between the United States Troops and Plains Indians” quoted a later commander at Fort Laramie who said, “There is no doubt that Lt. Grattan left this post with a desire to have a fight with the Indians, and that he had determined to take the man at all hazards.”
Fort chaplain William Vaux described Grattan as a man with “an unwarrantable contempt of Indian character, (and) I have reproved him for acts which I conceived highly improper, such as thrusting his clenched fist in their faces, and threatening terrible things if ever duty or opportunity threw such a chance his way…”
With 30 men, an interpreter and a fur trader, Grattan marched into the crowded Indian camp and set up two howitzer cannons, demanding that Conquering Bear turn over the warrior. He refused.
The interpreter was a French-Native American named Lucienne Auguste, who was hitting the bottle as they rode to the Indian camp. He was highly intoxicated by the time they got there, and in broken Dakota dialect, started taunting the Indians — calling their warriors women, and saying the soldiers were not there to talk, but to kill them all. “I will eat their hearts before sundown,” he yelled.
The Indians were furious, and warriors began surrounding the Grattan party.
After one nervous soldier shot an Indian, guns blazed away and arrows rained down on the soldiers. The chief was killed, and within minutes so also were Lt. Grattan and 30 others.
Only trader James Bordeau — who was married to a Sioux and had a nearby trading post — lived to tell what happened.
Newspapers around the nation headlined “Grattan Massacre” and screamed for revenge.
What followed a year after the Grattan slaughter was an even worse event in American history.
The army ordered celebrated Indian fighter Gen. William Harney, to lead a retaliatory attack against the Sioux. He chose a village of 250 Sioux led by Chief Little Thunder camping near Ash Hollow, Neb.
Little Thunder immediately offered to surrender. Harney ignored the offer and attacked. The village was destroyed and more than 100 Sioux killed. For the rest of his life, the general was called “Squaw Killer Harney.”
A witness to Harney’s atrocity was a Sioux boy named Crazy Horse. Twenty-one years later, the U.S. Army would meet him again in Montana at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
In August 1862, as the Civil War raged elsewhere, four Santee Sioux killed a white settler and family while on a hunting party. Then bands of Dakota Sioux in southwest Minnesota plotted attacking settlements throughout the Minnesota River valley and driving the whites out of the area. As many as possibly 800 settlers were killed.
Then the Army retaliated.
By late 1862, soldiers had captured more than a thousand Dakota. They were tried and 303 warriors sentenced to death for rape and murder. No attorneys or witnesses for the defense were allowed, and many were convicted in less than five minutes.
President Lincoln commuted the sentence of 284 of them.
The day after Christmas, 38 of the captured Dakotas were hanged in Mankato, Minn., — the biggest one-day mass execution in American history.
Hundreds more Dakotas were sent to prison in Iowa, where half of them died, and the rest expelled from Minnesota and sent to Nebraska and South Dakota.
In November 1864, Col. John M. Chivington, an ordained Methodist minister and soldier, led the 3rd Colorado Cavalry on an unprovoked attack on the Cheyenne Indian reservation at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado.
Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle wanted only peace with the whites, and even flew an American flag and a white flag over his lodge.
Chivington attacked anyway. In the hours of battle that followed, he lost nine men, while murdering 105 Indian men, women and children.
An Army judge called his actions “a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation.”
Chivington was never prosecuted.
Among the many battles that ensued during those troubled times, the Army lost a bitter battle with Oglala Sioux Chief Red Cloud and Lakota Sioux Chief Crazy Horse in north-central Wyoming, with Capt. William J. Fetterman and 81 soldiers killed, their bodies scalped, stripped, and mutilated.
The 1870s were no better. On June 25-26, 1876, Col. George Armstrong Custer and 307 of his men were killed or wounded at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Fourteen years later, nearly 500 U.S. 7th Cavalry soldiers killed or wounded about 300 Sioux while attempting to disarm them at Wounded Knee Reservation in South Dakota, with Army casualties about 70.
America’s tragic Indian battles finally ended with Posey’s War in 1923 with the death of two Paiute Indians in southeastern Utah.
It was a tough hundred years for a growing nation.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Seeing it differently…
“When a white army battles Indians and wins, it is called a great victory, but if they lose it is called a massacre.”
— Chiksika, Shawnee (1760–1792), war chief, Shawnee Nation Kispoko
A hateful spirit…
Colonel John M. Chivington of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry was well known for his antipathy towards Native Americans. He opposed making treaties with the Cheyenne, telling a meeting of church deacons, “It simply is not possible for Indians to obey or even understand any treaty. I am fully satisfied, gentlemen, that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet in Colorado.”
Bad military decision…
The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie specifically assigned matters like the cow incident to the Indian agent for disposition. Had Second Lieutenant Hugh Fleming, commander of Fort Laramie, followed the regulations and waited for the return of the Indian agent to settle the dispute — as requested by Chief Conquering Bear — the Grattan Massacre wouldn’t have happened.
Condemnation of Sand Creek Massacre…
“Because of Chivington’s depraved slaughter, the central plains exploded with retaliatory attacks from Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho Indians. Fortunately, not everyone applauded Chivington’s behavior–many Americans, particularly in the east, strongly condemned Chivington’s attack and the barbaric mutilations.
“Subsequent congressional and military investigations denounced Chivington, but claimed they could not punish him because he had resigned from the army and was no longer under military jurisdiction.”
— This Day in History
Medal of Dishonor…
Twenty 7th Cavalry soldiers who slaughtered the Indians at Wounded Knee received the Medal of Honor. The National Congress of American Indians is seeking to have the medals revoked. In 1990 — a century after the killings — Congress passed a resolution expressing “deep regret” for the massacre.