GEORGE CROOK LEARNED a stern lesson during the Civil War: men get credit for what appears in the newspapers. No correspondents had been attached to his command in the Shenandoah; when Sheridan took credit for victory at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill there was no public record to contradict him. The brooding Crook did not intend to make that mistake again. On his summer campaign in 1876, the Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition, the general arranged to bring a full complement of the writing fraternity: Robert Strahorn of the Chicago Tribune, who had charged on the Cheyenne village on the Powder River in March; T. C. McMillan of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, despite a persistent cough that suggested tuberculosis; Joseph Wasson, part owner of the Owyhee Avalanchein Idaho, who had accompanied Crook on previous Indian-fighting campaigns; John F. Finerty of the Chicago Times, game for any adventure; and Reuben Davenport of the New York Herald, youngest of the reporters at twenty-four.
There was evidently something awkward and risible about Davenport. The other correspondents, the scouts, and some of the military officers joked about him, thought him the greenest of the greenhorns, and occasionally fed him tall tales about frontier life and Indian ways, several of which made their way into print. But Davenport in fact knew his way around. The previous year he had traveled with Professor Walter Jenney in the Black Hills, then ridden a hundred miles cross-country to cover the government’s effort to buy the hills from the Sioux at the grand council near the Red Cloud Agency. With Louis Bordeaux as interpreter Davenport interviewed Spotted Tail and in his story even attempted to reproduce some of the chief’s replies in the original Lakota.
Davenport’s interest in Indians was unusual. The rest of the correspondents focused their stories on the military men or the scouts, especially Frank Grouard. As the summer progressed Finerty of the Chicago Times expressed a particularly low opinion of Indians. He says he got it sitting around campfires, listening to Army officers talk about frontier life. Finerty was just thirty, had been born in Ireland, fought with a regiment of New York volunteers during the Civil War, and had worked for Chicago papers for the previous eight years. His first big assignment on moving to the Times was to join Crook for the summer campaign in 1876. The instructions of his paper’s editor, W. F. Storey, were terse: “Spare no expense and use the wires freely, whenever practicable.”1
In mid-May, Finerty took the train from Omaha to Cheyenne, and it was probably there that he saw his first Indians. By October, he had completed his education. As a writer Finerty liked to string adjectives, and he rolled them out by the yard for the red men, whom he found “mysterious, untameable, barbaric, unreasonable, childish, superstitious, treacherous, thievish, [and] murderous.” The women he described as “squatty, yellow, ugly and greasy looking.” Summing up, he found the Sioux nation to be “greedy, greasy, gassy, lazy, and knavish.”2
But name-calling aside, Finerty grasped from the beginning that as fighters the Sioux were not to be despised. His first night on the trail, dining on “plain military fare” in an officer’s tent, he listened attentively to Captain Elijah Wells, a veteran of the Battle of Cedar Creek. Too bad, Wells joked, that Finerty and McMillan had cut their hair short—“it would be a pity to cheat the Sioux out of our scalps.” Crook might know the Indians of the far West and of Arizona, remarked Wells, but the Sioux and Cheyenne were a different order of being. “The Indians were in stronger force than most people imagined,” the captain said. “General Crook … hardly estimated at its real strength the powerful array of the savages.”
As Finerty and Captain Wells made their way north from Cheyenne, Crook was also on his way to join the summer campaign after a flying visit to Camp Robinson and the Red Cloud Agency. Wells was right. Crook was overconfident. At the outset of his summer campaign, he was sure he knew what made the Indians tick, and he fully expected to get the better of them. For one thing, he believed the Sioux and Cheyenne were few; in Washington some said the northern Indians would be hard pressed to gather five hundred warriors at one time. Crook intended to press the hostiles relentlessly, just as he had in Arizona, where he made his reputation as an Indian fighter and won his general’s star. He believed it was his Apache scouts that had given him the edge. The hostiles held whites generally in contempt, soldiers included, but they feared their brother Apache, who knew their tricks, their hideouts, and their secret trails leading from one desert spring to the next. Chasing the Apache with their own had worked in Arizona, Crook felt, and it would work in his campaign against the Sioux and the Cheyenne. On his way to the Red Cloud Agency in mid-May, “rolling over the endless plains” in an Army ambulance with his aide, Lieutenant Bourke, the general predicted that the Sioux and Cheyenne would prove an easier foe than the Apache. The Plains Indians were comparatively rich, he observed, and, having more to lose than the impoverished Apache, would be less willing to risk it in war. Sitting Bull and his people had too many horses and too much property and valued it too highly. In Crook’s view they couldn’t long withstand the kind of punishment the Apache had endured. Bourke thought this made sense.3
But when the general got to the agency the reception was cool. It was a job just getting the Indians to sit down to talk. When they did, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail were dismissive of Crook’s fight on the Powder River, beginning with the fact that the soldiers didn’t know the camp was Cheyenne. Crook might go on insisting till the end of his life that it was the village of Crazy Horse his men had charged in March, but the chiefs knew better, just as they knew the fight was no victory for the whites. The botched affair was the talk of the plains. Spotted Tail rubbed it in with one of Crook’s officers: “If you don’t do better than you did the last time you had better put on squaw’s clothes and stay at home.” Red Cloud was as little impressed, telling Crook to his face that “an expedition went out and whipped some Cheyennes and now we have trouble and here is the man”—meaning the general himself—“who made all this trouble.”
Who ordered this expedition, Red Cloud asked, the president or the secretary of the interior?
Crook said it was both.
Then both had made a mistake, Red Cloud said. “This is a peaceful house.” The chiefs could talk to the northern Indians, there was no need for all this trouble. Red Cloud was not tempted by Crook’s promise that his warriors could have all the ponies captured in the north. “I don’t want to go anywhere,” the chief said with finality. The longer the talk went on, the clearer the answer: it was no. The chiefs did not want their young men to go out with Crook as scouts.
Crook and Bourke were convinced that the chiefs “had been tampered with.”4 They suspected it was the doing of the new agent at the Red Cloud Agency, James Hastings. After inquiry Frank Grouard confirmed their suspicions; he said he had learned from Three Bears and Sitting Bull the Oglala that it was not Hastings himself who had urged the chiefs to say no. The message had come indirectly, from the agent’s clerk, a man named McCavanaugh, put into Lakota by the interpreter Billy Garnett. Talks at an end, Crook left the agency the same day, May 16, for the beginning of the campaign. Fort Fetterman was 120 miles straight west, Fort Laramie about midway. The general had plenty of time to think. He was in a sour mood.
In later years, Crook described in his unfinished autobiography the spirit of the Indians he had been sent to whip. “These Indians … were insolent … and declined to be restrained in their freedom in the slightest particular,” he wrote. He called them “refractory” and “hostile.” At the Black Hills conference in 1875, Crook wrote, “every white man found himself surrounded by these Indians, stripped to the buff, painted, ready for action … [They] looked as if they would want no better fun than to kill everybody there, just to see them kick.”
After the Powder River “affair”—Crook would not call it a victory, nor a defeat, nor even a battle—“the Indians became more defiant than ever.”5 This was the sort of language he had used about the bushwhackers who challenged him at the beginning of the Civil War. Nothing stirred Crook’s pugnacity more than disrespect, insolence, defiance, haughty demeanor, or a resistant spirit. Someone had told the general—probably the Sioux at Red Cloud—that Crazy Horse was expecting Crook, and would begin to fight him “as soon as he touched the waters of the Tongue.”6That kind of dare left the general itching for a fight.
It was not just Crook and his soldiers, reporters in tow, who were making their way by stages to the North Platte and the vast unconquered Sioux country beyond. Shadowing them to the east, up along the Black Hills and then west to the Powder and Tongue river country, traveled a constant stream of Sioux and Cheyenne, bound for the buffalo herds in the north and the sun dance to be held in June—the yearly occasion for the gathering of the bands. Early in the year James Hastings insisted in a letter to Washington that “the Indians here are perfectly quiet … the recent newspaper reports that an Indian outbreak was imminent are entirely groundless.”7 But Captain William Jordan, commander of the military post at Camp Robinson only a mile and a half away from the agent’s office, did not trust Hastings to know what was going on, or to tell him if he did. Jordan got a different version of events from his twenty-five-year-old brother Charles, a clerk in the agency, who had married a niece of Red Cloud, Julia Walks First. All the previous fall Indians had been traveling freely between the agency and the northern camps exactly as they pleased. When the Army began to move onto a war footing about the turn of the year, Captain Jordan quietly called in Billy Garnett and hired him to keep track of the agency Indians—“when certain ones arrived [or] … when a certain Indian withdrew to the north and how many lodges went with him.”8 As spring came, Hastings continued to deny that his charges were disappearing, but he also protested often to the Indian office in Washington about one of the things driving them: hunger. Promised beef cattle failed to arrive, supplies were low. Hastings warned Washington that unless provisions came soon the Indians “will be reduced to a starving condition.” Making the problem worse was an influx of Indians from the north; they had been ordered to come in, and many did—more than a thousand of them by the end of February. In the last week of April the Oglala chiefs Pawnee Killer and Red Cloud separately came to Captain Jordan “begging for the first time since I have been here  for something to eat for their families … If the beef does not arrive soon, I think the Indians will be compelled to … join the hostiles to keep from starving.”9
It seems elementary—if Washington wanted the Indians to settle at the agencies, Washington would have to feed them. But distances were great, contractors were venal, the weather often blocked travel, Congress was slow to appropriate funds and quick to cut them. Hunger remained a fact of life at the agencies for sixty years,10 but in 1876 Indians had an alternative—the road north—and they took it. Hastings complained constantly of the supply situation, but minimized the exodus it caused. “From the best information I can get,” he wrote in early June, “not more than 400 Cheyennes and 400 Sioux have left the agency, including women and children. They belong to that part of my people who have been in the habit of going north every summer.”11
The truth was very different; at least two thousand had departed, perhaps more. In the last days of May, Captain Teddy Egan, scouting with a company of the 2nd Cavalry north of the agencies, encountered a large band of Oglala—he guessed it at six hundred to eight hundred fighting men—threatening a wagon train corralled for defense near Sage Creek. Egan did not know it, but the band was led by the Oyukhpe Oglala chief Big Road, and among the Indians was a son-in-law of Red Cloud, probably Slow Bull, as well as the chief’s son Wicasa Wanka (Above Man). Called Jack by the whites, the boy was about eighteen years old and armed with a fancy Winchester, ornamented in silver, which had been given to his father in Washington the previous year by the commissioner of Indian affairs.12 Others in the band going north were Little Big Man and Black Elk with his twelve-year-old son of the same name. No big fight occurred; the soldiers, the Indians, and the wagon train all went separate ways. But when Egan got to the Red Cloud Agency he found it nearly deserted; he was told a thousand men had gone north from Red Cloud with their families, as well as another hundred or more from the Spotted Tail Agency.13
Much the same was happening at the agencies on the Missouri River. In previous years the agents and the military had always given the same explanation for this annual migration: “grass fever.” When spring came the ponies got fat on the new grass and the Indians, restive after the confinement of winter, grew anxious for the open road and a hunt. The year 1876 was the pattern as before. No great alarm was sounded about the Indians going north in May and June, but soon—before eight weeks were out—the military and the agents would count again, carefully this time. They would find that by mid-June thousands of Sioux had departed for the buffalo country along the skein of rivers running north into the Yellowstone—the Bighorn and Little Bighorn, the Tongue, the Powder, and the Rosebud.
Crook’s doubts about the scout Frank Grouard had been put to rest on the winter campaign to the Powder River in March. Over the following months the Sandwich Islander made himself so useful he was commonly described as first among Crook’s scouts. In an early dispatch Robert Strahorn wrote that the general “would rather lose a third of his command, it is said, than be deprived of Frank Grouard.”14 There was no mystery about it; Crook was looking for Indians, and Grouard found them.
Before crossing the North Platte, Crook sent Grouard with a few men ahead to check on the trail. The patrol was followed closely by Sioux, nearly ambushed on the Dry Fork of the Powder, then chased all the way back to Fort Fetterman. “I have always considered that trip as close a call as I ever had,” Grouard told his biographer.15
Soon after Crook’s column was on the road Grouard was sent ahead again when some Crow scouts failed to show up as promised. This time he traveled with Louis Richard and Big Bat Pourier, who was called Left Hand by the Crow and spoke their language. They were two weeks on the trail, survived numerous close brushes with the hostiles, and finally met up with the Crow on the bank of the Bighorn River. Much talk was required before several Crow chiefs agreed to sign on as scouts and raised a company of about 170 to follow Grouard and Big Bat to the soldier camp on Goose Creek. There on the night of June 14 the crier, known as Old Crow, made a rousing speech by the light of the campfire, translated sentence by sentence by the scouts. “Crook was bristling for a fight,” said Chicago Times reporter John Finerty. The Crow were bristling too. First the chief listed the many outrages committed by the Sioux, then stipulated how they would get even:
Our war is with the Sioux … We want back our lands. We want their women for our slaves—to work for us as our women have had to work for them. We want their horses for our young men, and their mules for our squaws. The Sioux have trampled upon our hearts. We shall spit upon their scalps. The great white chief sees that my young men have come to fight. No Sioux shall see their backs.16
Next morning about daybreak the officers heard “an old Crow Warrior,” loud and agitated, riding through the camp—at times bellowing pugnaciously, at others pleading, or lifting up his hands and face and praying, even weeping. “Great tears rolled down his cheeks,” remembered Crook’s aide-de-camp, Azor Nickerson. The warrior was dressed for war—“stripped almost naked,” said Bourke—and carrying his rifle, swinging it in the air. The sight was enthralling and mysterious. The old hands explained that the warrior was preparing for battle, pleading to the Great Spirit for aid in killing his enemies—the Indians called it “crying for scalps.”17 The Crow chiefs told Crook that the Sioux “are numerous as grass,” and said the hostile village would be found on the Yellowstone. Grouard, when Crook asked him, thought the Rosebud a better bet. By this time Crook took Grouard’s word as gospel. The general put his infantry on mules so they could travel faster, left his wagons and the bulk of supplies behind on Goose Creek, and on June 16 marched north toward the Rosebud, hoping to surprise the Sioux in their village.
By this time Lieutenant Bourke had begun to know a few things about the Sioux. Much of it he picked up from Frank Grouard, who was running a kind of campfire seminar in Sioux politics, religion, and social organization. The letters, diaries, and memoirs of military officers who traveled with him often cite things Grouard told them about the Indians. Bourke’s curiosity had begun to quicken; his diary account of the frustrating failure to sign up scouts at the agencies was frequently interrupted to describe something interesting about the Indians—the way they painted a streak of vermillion or red ochre down the part in a man’s hair, the decoration of a plain wool blanket with a beaded strip across the middle, the fact that a pipe’s bowl was slightly elongated below the draw hole so the bitter tobacco juices might collect there instead of traveling down the stem. “Each Indian takes three or four whiffs,” Bourke noted, “and then passes the pipe along to his neighbor on the left.” One day during the summer campaign Grouard told Bourke how the Indians made a shield using the skin from a buffalo bull’s neck, which might be an inch thick. The women would cover the untanned hide with earth, then build a fire over it. The slow heat cured the rawhide to a hardness that could “turn a lance point and repel arrows.”18 Knowing the enemy is a basic rule of war, but Bourke wasn’t interested solely in what would help the general win; he wanted to know who the Sioux were.
Sometimes Grouard told the soldiers what they wanted to hear, and one of the things they always wanted to hear was how many Indians had been killed in battle with the whites—the bigger the number, the better they liked it, especially when the whites had been beaten. Only a couple of days out on the summer campaign, Grouard showed Bourke and two newspaper writers—Joseph Wasson and the all-ears Reuben Davenport—around the “desolate solitude” of old Fort Reno, one of the Bozeman Road posts abandoned by the Army eight years earlier. “A lonesome spot,” Bourke called the post cemetery with its weathered headboards. Strange, bleak feelings warred in the lieutenant’s heart. Just up the road, Fetterman and his eighty men had been “surrounded by thousands of Indians and after a desperate fight … slaughtered to a man.” In fact, Grouard told his companions, the brave little force had been attacked by eight thousand Indians—Grouard said he had it from the Indians themselves. And the brave eighty, he added, had killed and wounded 185 of their attackers. The first number was preposterous, the second seriously exaggerated, but they made Bourke feel better.19
On another occasion Bourke and a fellow officer, Schuyler, spent a whole afternoon listening to Grouard explain the political organization of the Sioux. Few whites knew much about this at the time—there were chiefs and subchiefs and warriors and that was all they knew. But Grouard started to explain about the secret men’s societies like the Cante Tinza (Brave Hearts), the Tokala (Kit Fox), and the “Owl Feathers,” a nickname for the Miwatani, who decorated their headdresses with the feathers of owls. Bourke’s notes refer also to the concept of “dreamers.” There came a time in the life of young men when they went out alone into the wilderness “crying for a vision” (hanbleceya). Fasting and praying for many days, usually four, they were sometimes visited by an animal spirit—a bear, a wolf, an owl, even a bighorn sheep. Woman Dress, a grandson of Smoke, son of Black Twin, and nephew of No Water, was visited in a dream on the morning of his second or third day fasting on a hilltop. “Looking up,” Woman Dress related, “he saw before him a mountain sheep with its curling horns and large yellow eyes. The sheep remained an instant, then vanished and in its stead was its skull.”20 Thereafter, he said, the sheep gave him unique protection and powers.
Bear, wolf, or owl dreamers used special prayers, performed certain ceremonies, sometimes associated in small, informal groups. Bear dreamers were healers; owl dreamers could foretell death; horse dreamers could call on the power of the sky beings. Grouard told the officers about the society lodges, often maintained and guarded by a man who served also as village herald. The Sioux understood the concept of an oath, Grouard said; returning scouts, called “wolves,” were particularly enjoined to report truthfully what they had learned about an enemy village or a buffalo herd. In front of the village elders—the chiefs known as wakiconza (deciders)—the scouts held “in each hand a piece of dried buffalo manure,” and only then reported what they had seen.
Like the Sioux, Grouard was drawn to mystery, but he was sensitive to the skepticism of Bourke and Schuyler. He told them about a Hunkpapa medicine man named Yellow Grass in Sitting Bull’s band who claimed the Great Spirit for father and said he had been born in the sky, not on the earth. “A very bold-faced impostor,” Grouard called him.
This Yellow Grass claimed the ability to make ammunition through magic power. He would swallow a cartridge, allow the process of digestion to work awhile, then unveil “box after box, each holding its cool thousand of bright metallic cartridges.”21 Grouard explained the trick: Yellow Grass purchased the boxes of ammunition in the ordinary way from the mixed-blood Metis traders in the north, then hid them in his camp, and at the right moment sent the women of the village to find them. “All scoffing was silenced and the impostor’s influence waxed apace,” said Grouard.
But some mysteries the scout did not try to explain. Speaking to Schuyler once, Grouard said the Sioux believed the sky was dominated by thunder beings who made the weather. Hailstorms were the result of sky battles between spirits riding white horses and black horses—real horses, the Sioux insisted, huge in size. Grouard said the Sioux knew the sky horses were real because they sometimes found their huge bones in the fossil beds along the Niobrara and the White River where it runs north through the Badlands.22 The crashing of thunder in a storm was the sound of the sky horses’ feet as they charged across the heavens; their spirit riders cast lightning to the earth. When a man was killed by lightning it meant that he had ignored the commandments of a vision.
“They represent lightning on their war ponies with paint,” Schuyler wrote. “They believe they fight after the plan of the spirits.”23
Schuyler was a practical fellow, a rising star in the frontier army, scion of a famous New York family, brother of a well-known American diplomat posted in Russia. What Grouard said interested the young officer, but Schuyler was not frightened by painted horses.