4

Crazy Horse was as fine an Indian as he ever knew.

MUCH HAD HAPPENED TO William Garnett since he had watched the making of the Shirt Wearers in the Powder River country in 1868. At the end of a year in the wild with the Indians he had returned to the Fort Laramie area, where his mother had set up her lodge with Red Cloud’s Oglala. The site of their new agency was a compromise. The government in Washington wanted the Oglala to move to the Missouri, where feeding them would be cheaper and easier, but Red Cloud refused. In the early 1870s, tired of arguing, the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a new agency for the Oglala on the north bank of the North Platte River about thirty miles downstream from Fort Laramie. Officially it was known as the Red Cloud Agency; informally it was called the Sod Agency for the buildings constructed of slabs of prairie sod stacked like bricks. Garnett lived on the agency for a time with his mother and then took a job with Baptiste Pourier, known as Big Bat to distinguish him from his close friend Baptiste (“Little Bat”) Garnier, a mixed-blood guide and hunter. Billy Garnett was only sixteen or seventeen when he went to work for Pourier, mainly as a wrangler, caring for horses.

Baptiste Pourier was a “Missouri Frenchman,” one of the many French-speaking whites from the river towns of St. Charles and St. Louis, who opened up the northern plains and Rocky Mountains as trappers and traders in the first half of the nineteenth century. As a youth of sixteen, Pourier sought and won a job from another St. Charles native, John Richard, who had established himself in the Fort Laramie region in the 1830s. When Pourier went west with Richard in 1857, he was joining one of the leading families in Sioux country, a sprawling network of brothers and their Sioux wives and mixed-blood children. Over the next dozen years Pourier became an intimate member of the Richard clan and in 1868 he married Richard’s daughter, Josephine, a girl of sixteen who wore the traditional tight braids of the Sioux.

Many whites in the Fort Laramie region were married to Sioux, but Richard’s connections among the Oglala were unusually deep. The mother of the clan was Richard’s wife Mary Gardiner, born in 1827, the mixed-blood daughter of the white trader William Gardiner and the Oglala White Thunder Woman. Mary Richard was already the mother of two sons who later became noted men among the Oglala—Rocky Bear (Inyan Mato), who took his father’s name, and Black Tiger. The father of the boys had been killed in battle, some said by the Pawnee. White Thunder Woman was a sister of the Oglala chief Smoke, and of Walks as She Thinks, the mother of Red Cloud, which meant that her daughter Mary was connected by blood or marriage to half the leading men of the northern Oglala—a network of uncles, brothers, cousins, and nephews who all fought the whites in the Bozeman War. After the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 Richard’s Sioux relatives split, some remaining in the north living a traditional life while others settled along the Platte with Red Cloud, Man Afraid of His Horses, American Horse, and other chiefs who had touched the pen. It was there that Billy Garnett’s mother, Looks at Him, set up her lodge in Red Cloud’s camp.

When the elder John Richard married the mixed-blood Mary Gardiner about 1841, she had lived part of her life with the Oglala, following her mother’s death when she was still a small child, and part with her white father in St. Charles on the Missouri, where she went to school. Mary’s six children with the elder John Richard included four sons known as “those wild Reshaw boys”—John, Junior; Louis; Peter; and Charles—and two daughters—Josephine and Rose. Baptiste Pourier was especially close to John Richard the younger, roughly his own age, who grew into a tall and slender man whom the Indians called Wasicun Tamaheca (Lean White Man) or Tamaheca for short.1

After reaching the Fort Laramie region with the elder Richard in 1857, Pourier spent his first winter trading with the Oglala alongside the younger Richard, who had learned Lakota at his mother’s knee. Later, Pourier and the younger Richard also traded with the Crow along the upper Yellowstone, and both men became fluent in both languages. Over the next dozen years, Pourier freighted goods to the military and the gold camps, helped to put up the first buildings along Cherry Creek in eastern Colorado, the site that would become the city of Denver; and engaged in the usual range of frontier business speculations with horses, cattle, and military contracts, working sometimes for the Richards or others, and sometimes for himself. Increasingly, Pourier hired out to travelers and then the military as a scout and guide, finally taking on a full-time job as interpreter and scout at Fort Laramie about 1869.

When Billy Garnett went to work for Pourier he was casting his lot with the white half of the mixed-blood community, the men who conducted their working lives in English, hiring out to the military, trading with the Indians, buying and selling, dressing white. But things did not go well for young Garnett in his new job. Not long after he signed on, “two blooded mares” were stolen from the herd in Garnett’s care. By “blooded,” Baptiste Pourier meant horses of Arabian or thoroughbred stock, “American horses” in the vernacular of the plains. These were not your average Indian ponies worth one buffalo robe or ten dollars. Likely it was Garnett who identified the thief who drove them off. In any event Pourier believed it was Crazy Horse who took his horses.

“Crazy Horse was as fine an Indian as he ever knew,” Pourier said in later years, and he supported his opinion with the story of how he recovered his stolen horses. Pourier spoke Sioux, he was not afraid to enter the Sioux camps, and he went out to Crazy Horse’s lodge to retrieve his horses. He approached the chief directly and asked for their return.

Crazy Horse told his wife to get them, but she did not want to do it—did not want to give them up—but he ordered her again to get them, saying they belonged to Bat, and she delivered them. Bat says he was the only Indian who would have given them up.2

In relating this tale Pourier said he made no argument for return of the horses, but only “asked for them.” It is likely that in the lodge when Pourier came was not only the chief’s wife but his only child. By the time of the horse theft in the early 1870s, Crazy Horse had finally taken a wife. Her name was Black Shawl Woman (Tasina Sapawin). Like Crazy Horse, she was in her early thirties, and she was the older sister of Red Feather, a noted warrior from his teens who had been on the raid in 1870 when Crazy Horse’s friend High Backbone was killed by the Shoshones. Crazy Horse and Black Shawl had one child, a girl known as They Are Afraid of Her. It is likely that Baptiste Pourier was one of only two white men ever to see the daughter of Crazy Horse. From this moment forward Pourier would be deeply involved in the unfolding conflict which ended with the chief’s killing; at the fatal moment, Pourier would be standing only a few feet away.

——

Pourier got his horses back, but Garnett lost his job. He soon found another with Pourier’s close friend, the younger John Richard, and his partners, Jules Ecoffey and Adolph Cuny. Among many other enterprises the three men were running an eating and drinking establishment near Fort Laramie for travelers and off-duty soldiers known as the Three Mile Ranch. There a man could get his horse fed and watered, buy a can of beans, eat an elk-steak dinner, play a game of cards or billiards, and drink a glass of whiskey, or two or three.

Billy Garnett had not been working long at the Three Mile Ranch when the younger John Richard on May 17, 1872, asked Cuny if he might borrow the boy for the day. He said he wanted to fetch some horses down at the Sod Agency. But Richard was dressed for an outing, not for work, and he was wearing a fine white straw hat with a wide black band, probably a Panama. Garnett thought it must have cost four or five dollars. Richard planned to stop off first at the fort with some friends—Louis Shangreau and Pete Janis, the son and nephew, respectively, of two longtime Laramie-region traders, Antoine Janis and his brother Nicholas, both “Missouri Frenchmen” from St. Charles. Richard, Shangreau, and Janis all were in their twenties, all had Oglala mothers, and all were armed on this day. Richard and Shangreau carried Winchester repeating rifles, in addition to revolvers. Pete Janis, as usual, was armed with two revolvers with ivory grips; the Indians called him “White-handled Six-Shooters.”3

John Richard Jr. stood out as something different and notable in the community of Fort Laramie mixed-bloods. He had a bold and impulsive character, a habit of getting into serious trouble, and a gift for getting out of it by exploiting circumstances and connections. Two years earlier, in September 1869, Richard had shot and killed a soldier sitting outside the sutler’s store at Fort Fetterman. The commander of the fort, in reporting the incident, described it as “an act of bravado,” and others added that Richard had been drunk at the time.4 After the killing, Richard wasted little time in making his escape north, where he spent a winter in exile with his Oglala relatives beyond the reach of civil and military authorities. Despite the damning circumstances of the murder and his flight, he engineered a pardon as reward for his success in organizing a trip to Washington in June 1870 by Red Cloud and other chiefs to meet with the Great Father—President Ulysses S. Grant—who was at this time committed to a “peace policy” of negotiating with Indians rather than fighting them. A wide range of military officers and other officials wrote on Richard’s behalf, urging his pardon for a string of reasons: he had helped the Army during the Bozeman War; there had been a history of bad blood between Richard and the dead soldier; and Richard, outside the law, living with the Oglala, might stir up war. The result was an order from the attorney general of the United States to authorities in the Wyoming Territory: nolle prosequi; do not prosecute. Richard returned to Fort Laramie at the end of June 1870 a free man.

It was not quite two years later, in May 1872, that Richard asked Billy Garnett to accompany him down to the Sod Agency to fetch horses. When the four men reached a crossing place on the Platte near Fort Laramie, Richard divided the party in two. He told Garnett to take the buggy waiting on the far side of the river—he pointed out the rig with its two gray horses—and drive down the north bank of the river until he reached the camp of Yellow Bear, a few miles short of the agency. Richard would meet him there with Louis Shangreau and Pete Janis after descending the river by boat. Garnett noted that a case of whiskey was in the boat, but did not worry, as Richard had quit drinking some time previously.

It took Garnett a good part of the day to make the journey driving the grays. Once or twice he was close enough to the river to see Richard and his friends in the boat; they were shooting birds. About midday, Garnett stopped in an Arapaho village where an old man and his wife fed him a lunch of fry bread, bacon, and coffee. Perhaps an hour later, four or five miles on, he passed the large village of Man Afraid of His Horses. Still farther along, around four in the afternoon, Garnett reached Yellow Bear’s camp and sat down to wait for Richard and his friends to arrive in the boat. They appeared a couple of hours later, about half an hour before dark. At that point Garnett learned it was not horses John Richard had come looking for, but women.

Even by frontier standards, Richard at twenty-eight was a much-married man. In 1864, he had married Louise, the mixed-blood daughter of a Brulé woman and Joe Merrivale, a Mexican. A few years later Richard parted from Louise in the Indian way—he simply moved out—and married a sister of Yellow Bear, the chief of the Spleen (Tapisleca) band, also in the Indian way. When Richard took off for the north after killing the corporal at Fort Fetterman in September 1869, he took this Oglala woman with him, and that winter, somewhere in the Tongue and Powder river country, he married her sister as well.

The marrying of sisters was common among the Sioux and other plains tribes, and it was not unusual for men or women to marry many times, coming together and parting with little formality. The Oglala man Chase in Winter, a childhood friend of Billy Garnett, spelled out the rules to a pension examiner many years later:

When we don’t want to live together any more, the man goes by himself and the squaw goes by herself and we tell people we are not living together and in our custom that is similar to a divorce and each has the right to again take a husband or a wife. The only tribal custom is that each, the man and the woman, tell people they are separated.5

Marriages were sometimes long, sometimes short. Fast Thunder, who called Crazy Horse cousin, had married Cane Woman (Sagyewin) on the Belle Fourche River in 1866 when he was in his mid-twenties. They remained together until his death in 1914. But after the Bozeman War ended Fast Thunder moved with Red Cloud down to the Sod Agency and there, in 1872, feeling the need of another wife, he married Eagle Feather Woman—for two months. Largely forgotten now, Fast Thunder was a noted figure in the 1870s; he would be with Crazy Horse when he was mortally wounded, and he would help lower the chief’s body to the ground. Fast Thunder’s two-month marriage was by no means unusual. He Dog’s brother Short Bull was once married to Good Enemy Woman (Toka Waste Win) for twelve days.6 When a man parted from his wife it was said that he “threw her away.” After his pardon, Richard threw away the two sisters of Yellow Bear in order to marry a fourth wife, fifteen-year-old Emily Janis, the fiery daughter and oldest child of Nick Janis. This made her a first cousin of Richard’s friend Pete Janis.

But now, in May 1872, a year had passed since Richard had married Emily at Fort Fetterman, and for some reason Yellow Bear’s sisters were back on his mind—especially the younger one. Garnett heard later that it was Pete who suggested they fetch the woman.7

As soon as Richard pulled his boat into shore late in the day, Billy Garnett noted that his gait was unsteady and some of the whiskey was gone. Richard told him to hitch the horses back up and drive the buggy to Yellow Bear’s lodge, as he was planning to fetch the chief’s sister and take her away with him. Garnett immediately sensed trouble. He reminded Richard that he had thrown the Oglala woman away and had replaced her with a fine-looking half-blood. Let well enough alone, he suggested; get in the buggy, let’s be on our way. But Pete interrupted, told Billy to get the horses, and started with Richard down to Yellow Bear’s lodge. When Garnett caught up with them a few minutes later with the team and buggy, he found Richard just entering the lodge with the chief. Richard had his Winchester resting on one arm, holding it comfortably to his chest. Garnett remained outside, watching Indians one by one bend to enter through the opening to the lodge, a graceful sideways swooping motion. A dozen entered, then twenty, then forty. None of this looked good to Garnett, who felt increasingly apprehensive. Soon Pete Janis came out to say he couldn’t budge Richard; Billy should go in and talk to him and bring him back out. Garnett did not want to enter the crowded lodge; he said he’d already done his best to reason with Richard, adding that it was Pete who had interrupted his efforts and ordered him to get the horses. But Pete pressed and Garnett quit arguing and entered the lodge.

Even thirty-five years later, Garnett remembered in detail the scene inside Yellow Bear’s lodge. It was crowded with men sitting or standing. Smoke and light came from a small fire in the center. Things were tense. Above Yellow Bear’s head hung a clutch of stuff from one of the lodgepoles—a smoking apparatus, a couple of knives, and a revolver. Yellow Bear’s eyes wandered across the hanging revolver, but he was sitting on some rolled-up bedding, leaning against a tripod backrest, the very picture of a man at his ease in his own lodge. The gun was out of reach. Richard was seated partway around the inside of the lodge, chatting with the chief, his Winchester rifle casually across his lap. His hand played with the gun absentmindedly. His thumb touched the hammer.

Richard was in a mood both expansive and erratic, boasting of exploits in the Indian way, then turning sharp and needling the chief. He said he had come to fetch that youngest wife of his. That would be fine, said Yellow Bear. The woman belonged to him. But she was away, down at the agency where a scalp dance was being held to celebrate the return of a war party from a raid into the Ponca country, bringing a scalp. Other Indians in the lodge confirmed what Yellow Bear had said; they had been at the agency and had seen the woman there. Richard’s conversation wandered away, then returned. He claimed the woman was right here in Yellow Bear’s camp. The chief assured him not.

Richard’s finger was now touching the trigger of his rifle. Garnett was sitting a few places away next to the Oglala known as Slow Bear. With a knife, Slow Bear was cutting the inner bark from red willow branches to make kinnikinnick, the mixture of bark and tobacco that Indians liked to smoke. This was a slow, almost thoughtful process, sliding the broad blade of a butcher knife under a sliver of the delicate inner bark, using a thumb to secure it, then peeling back the curly strand.

Nearby was the chief’s brother, a broad-chested man known as Yellow Horse. The lodge was shoulder to shoulder with warriors. Garnett believed he was too far from the entrance to bolt out in case of trouble. He had no knife to cut through the wall of the lodge. For two hours he remained trapped in the dim light of the lodge while Richard sparred verbally with Yellow Bear.

Garnett sensed the Indians all turning on Richard, telling him no, Yellow Bear’s sister was not in the camp. All were listening intently, all were thinking about Richard’s rifle, all were waiting for some line to be crossed. A hundred times Garnett wished he were out of there.

But something was seething inside Richard. Surrounded by forty Indians, with no chance in the world of escape if they turned on him, he continued to goad and taunt the chief. If he could not have the woman, perhaps he should reclaim the horses he had given the chief. They were tied up right outside the lodge. Perhaps he should kill these horses, Richard said. Yellow Bear, all sweet reason, told Richard they were his horses—he could kill them. But he added reasonably that not all the horses tethered outside had been given to him by Richard—some were the foals of Richard’s horses. These of course belonged to the chief. And the chief had other horses of his own. These Richard could not take away or kill. Garnett found himself hoping that killing a horse would be enough. Stabbing or shooting horses in the heat of anger was a common Indian way of settling scores. Perhaps shooting a horse or two would rid Richard of his demons and they could go on their way.

By the end of two hours everyone in the lodge knew lives were hanging in the balance. When the hammer of a Winchester is pulled back there is an audible click. Garnett heard it. Richard’s hand was on the gun. He rose. He took a step toward the entrance as if the talking were done now. No one would have blocked his departure. But then in an instant he swung back, the gun came up, and Richard fired almost point-blank into the chest of Yellow Bear, who fell back dead. Instantly, the whole lodge exploded with men lunging to their feet, grabbing at Richard and his rifle. The broad-chested Yellow Horse seized Richard from behind and held him up off the ground. Somehow, Richard got his hand on his revolver. Indians held his arm up in the air. Shot after shot ripped up through the gathered lodgepoles and hide cover at the peak of the lodge. Slow Bear and others stabbed Richard repeatedly. Their big, flat-bladed butcher knives left inch-wide wounds. When Yellow Horse dropped Richard he fell dead or dying to the ground. Slow Bear fired a bullet into his head.

The lodge was filled with struggling men, shouts, gun smoke, flying blood flecks. Garnett surged for the entrance and in a tangle of bodies fell through the opening into the night air. Pete Janis had already disappeared. Garnett found himself fleeing through the dark with Louis Shangreau—stuck with him, really; Shangreau was slow and lumbering. When Garnett wanted to cross the river, Shangreau said he could not swim and pleaded with the boy not to leave him. So they took off north through the sand hills along the north bank of the river, making a wide detour to escape the bands of Indians who were charging on their ponies back and forth along the shore, looking for the two mixed-bloods so they could kill them. When the fugitives at last reached the Sod Agency, Garnett begged the clerk for someplace to sleep. The following day Richard’s wife of a year, the fifteen-year-old Emily Janis, rode back to Yellow Bear’s camp full of rage and fury. She attacked the chief’s body with an ax and then set it afire.

Early the same day Billy Garnett was tugged back to consciousness by his former boss, Baptiste Pourier, pulling at his foot. Pourier was Richard’s brother-in-law, but the connection went deeper. The two men had known each other since they were fourteen, had lived together with the Indians in their winter camps, were in business together, and were as close as men can be. By Garnett’s own account, both men wept open tears as Garnett described the crazy slow progression of events which led to Richard killing Yellow Bear, a man “whose name was a sweet sound to all Indians because of his mild and just character, his peaceable disposition, his exemplary behavior, and his love for all members of his race.”8 Why Richard threw his life away was impossible to explain. Whiskey was part of the reason, but something in Richard himself was the real source of trouble.

Garnett also came close to death that day, and he knew it. For the better part of a week he refused to leave the agency buildings, not even to visit his mother’s lodge, which was pitched just outside the agency stockade. He worried the Spleen band Indians would kill him on sight. But the Indians, fearing trouble, had packed up and hurried a hundred miles north to a favorite hunting country along the White River. Garnett, reassured, went back to work for Baptiste Pourier, but he long remembered every detail of the killing of John Richard. It wasn’t solely his own close shave that stuck with him; it was being trapped for two hours in smelling distance of a man looking to die.

Soon after the Oglala moved to the Sod Agency, government officials began a new campaign to move them to a site on the Missouri River. Convenience of supply was one motive; moving the Indians away from the Union Pacific Railroad was another. But Red Cloud refused to go. He said the game had all been hunted out along the Missouri, whites came selling whiskey there, white horse thieves were waiting to steal Indian ponies there. In 1873, exhausted by Red Cloud’s stubborn refusals, the government compromised again, and agreed to move the Oglala agency about eighty miles northeast to the headwaters of the White River, site of a trading post since the 1830s and a favored winter camping ground of the Oglala and Brulé Sioux. Officials thought the new site was in the Dakota Territory; by the time they learned it was in Nebraska it was too late—yet another set of agency buildings was already under construction. Spotted Tail and the Brulé also moved to the same area. That August a new agent arrived to take charge of the Oglala, J. J. Saville, a medical doctor recommended by the Episcopal Church in keeping with the president’s “peace policy.” One of Saville’s early acts was to hire Billy Garnett, recently turned eighteen, as an interpreter for the new Red Cloud Agency.

Even after the Oglala moved away from the Platte River, life was dangerous for whites in the north. Red Cloud and the other treaty chiefs had little control over band members once they left the agency, and none over the Indians who had refused to touch the pen. There was a steady coming and going between the new agencies on the White River and the “unceded territory” that the Treaty of 1868 recognized as the legitimate hunting grounds of the northern Indians. White officials guessed that as many as twenty-five men and their families daily traveled north or south on what was sometimes called “the Red Cloud Trail”—a heavily trodden road which made a beeline north from the agencies.9 In the spring, the traffic northbound to the hunting grounds was heavy; in the fall it was reversed. Nothing about this traffic violated the treaty, but officials did not like it. White ranchers and freighters blamed every missing horse on the “coddled” agency Indians, who went out raiding when the grass was good, it was said, and then returned to the agency to eat government rations all winter. The fact that Indian ponies were just as often run off by white horse thieves rarely found notice in local newspapers like the Cheyenne Leader, which wasted no opportunity to trumpet its conviction that the Indians needed a good whipping before peace would come to the plains. It was not just horse stealing that fed anger. The bodies of whites (and Indians) were often found in lonely spots, killed without apparent reason. No theme emerges from the scattered reports of violence except the violence itself. Outside the agencies and the military posts it was not peace that reigned but a kind of Hobbesian anarchy in which every man’s hand was raised against his neighbor.

These killings fed the tension on the plains. When a white cattleman named Levi Powell failed to return from a routine check on his herd in the early spring of 1872 the news spread quickly. Powell had come up from Texas with a herd of cattle the previous fall. When he was delayed by bad weather north of Cheyenne, he decided to winter over on the river near Fort Laramie before continuing on to Montana. The winter passed without incident until March 5, when Powell disappeared; nineteen days later his body was discovered along the North Platte River. He had been shot twice through the head—either bullet would have killed him—and his horse, gun, hat, coat, and boots had all been taken. Indians were immediately suspected. Red Cloud stoutly denied that the killers came from his agency, but white officials thought he was lying and resented his lordly manner in rejecting responsibility. It smacked of defiance, which they hated above all things. To punish the Oglala, white officials banned the sale of ammunition by the agency trader, a new tool of coercion provided by the Treaty of 1868.

In the old days traders came and went freely on the plains, setting up store in the Indian camps and selling them anything that the Indians had furs or dressed buffalo robes enough to buy. But once the treaty was signed Washington prohibited independent traders from the reservation, and told those with official appointments what they could buy and sell. In the spring of 1872, just as the Indians were preparing to go on the spring buffalo hunt, they found it impossible to obtain cartridges or powder and ball. The northern Indians had always argued that signing the treaty would end their freedom; banning the sale of ammunition confronted the Indians with their growing dependence. Hope of ending the ban was one of Red Cloud’s goals when he made a second trip east with a large group of chiefs in May 1872. In Washington, the murder of Levi Powell was repeatedly cited as the reason for the ban, and it was not until the chief promised to help find and deliver the killers that officials agreed that the sale of ammunition for hunting might at last resume.

But Red Cloud was probably right when he denied that his own young men were responsible. Years later evidence appeared that Powell was killed when he chanced upon a group of Sioux in a sweat lodge on a creek bank. A boy tending the fire outside shouted a warning as Powell rode up. Seven Oglala emerged to confront the white man. Among them, the story goes, were Crazy Horse and his friend Little Big Man. The two men had long been close. “In the Sixties,” Billy Garnett said, “Crazy Horse and Little Big Man were harassing on the Platte. They carried on a lively business in horse stealing and the killing of white people.”10 Powell did not know who faced him in March 1872, and was evidently slow to sense the danger of the moment. With one hand he held a Henry repeating rifle over the pommel of his saddle while he soothed the neck of his horse with the other. The Indians spoke to him. He tried to make reply but did not take fright or bolt as they approached. One of the Indians reached out to touch Powell’s rifle, then gestured as if to inquire whether he might inspect it. Powell relaxed his grip and let the rifle go. It passed around the circle of Indians, from one to another until it reached Little Big Man. According to the story, he raised the rifle to aim in a testing kind of way, then without word or warning leveled the gun at Powell on his horse and killed him with a bullet to the head.11

The murder of Powell left a lasting bitterness. Later two more killings of whites by Indians brought soldiers to the Red Cloud Agency and came close to sparking a general war.

Heavy snows made the first winter at the agency on White River a difficult one. Food supplies for the Indians were freighted northeast by oxteam from Cheyenne. A man named Charles Clay had the contract, but for most of the month of January 1874 his teams could not get through; supplies of bacon, flour, coffee, and sugar all ran low and then ran out. The cattle issued twice a month came from grazing areas along the Platte a hundred miles to the south. Every month or six weeks the beef contractors would drive a large herd north, enough for two or three issues at once, but the system faltered under a succession of blizzards. Real hunger came to the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies. Charging Girl, a daughter of Red Cloud, remembered that some of the Indians made the 150-mile round trip to Fort Laramie to get food from relatives living there. Before the weather eased things got so bad that Indians had to kill and eat their ponies, already half starved themselves on their winter diet of cottonwood twigs and bark.12

The Oglala’s new agent, John Saville, who had hired Billy Garnett, did not much like Indians, calling them “vicious and insolent.”13 The Indians did not think much of him, either. Saville was asked to conduct a census of the Oglala under his control, but the Indians, led by Red Cloud, refused to be counted. About the beginning of 1874, Saville’s nephew, a personable young man named Frank Appleton, newly appointed to a position as clerk, arrived on crutches at the agency from Cheyenne, where he had broken his leg in an accident. He told Harry Young and others that he hadn’t wanted to come at all but was pressed by his father to take the job. One night in Cheyenne, he said, he had woken from “a dream that something awful was to happen,” but he quit worrying when the broken leg seemed to be it.

At the beginning of February his harried uncle put young Frank in charge while he rode forty miles north and east to the Spotted Tail Agency to seek the help of the agent there in asking the military to protect them with a permanent post on the White River. While Saville was gone on the afternoon of February 8, an Oglala on his way north stopped off at the Red Cloud Agency with a bad heart and a desire for revenge. He told agency Indians a brother had been killed by whites down on the Platte and he intended to settle the score by killing a white man before continuing on his journey. The agency interpreter, Joseph Bissonette, tried to talk him down but warned the white staff to take no chances and stay inside the stockade after dark. That night, as usual, Appleton bunked down in the agent’s quarters with Harry Young, Mike Dunn, Paddy Simmons, and Billy Garnett, then still going by the name of Hunter. Another white employee, Paddy Nolan, had set himself up in a chair to guard the entrance of the stockade, and all felt secure.

But for several days men had been shingling the roof of the agency commissary and someone—very possibly Harry Young, who had done some of the nailing—left a ladder outside the stockade. In the small hours of the night the Sioux with the bad heart climbed the stockade wall using the ladder and went to the building where Appleton and the others slept. He rapped on the window and the door. Appleton was the one to respond, stepping outside to ask what was wanted. When the answer came in Sioux he turned back toward the sleeping room to fetch Billy Garnett as interpreter. He had taken but a step or two when the Indian raised his rifle, a Winchester, and shot him in the back, just under his left shoulder blade.

The shot and Appleton’s cry raised the agency while the Indian disappeared. Mike Dunn set out immediately for the Spotted Tail Agency to warn Saville. Billy Garnett hurried down to Red Cloud’s camp, where he told the chief, “Come, they have killed a clerk, they have shot him.” Harry Young reported that Red Cloud was joined in the dying man’s room by the chiefs Man Afraid of His Horses and Little Wound. When Red Cloud arrived he took Appleton’s hand in his own and “with tears trickling down his cheeks, said, ‘It is too bad. You are a good man. Bad Indian live up north.’ ” 14

It is unlikely that Red Cloud was guessing. He had probably already been told that the killer was a “bad Indian” from one of the northern bands. The shooter was soon identified as the Oglala Kicking Bear, son of Black Fox and full brother of Flying Hawk. All three of these men were noted warriors in the Hunkpatila band of Oglala led by Crazy Horse. Red Cloud’s tears may have been prompted by the recent loss of a son, as Harry Young believed, but it is just as likely the chief dreaded what was bound to happen next: the arrival of a military contingent from Fort Laramie. The killing of Appleton made it almost impossible to avoid. Next day, Saville sent a messenger to the fort, ninety miles to the southwest, to warn that an Indian outbreak seemed imminent. If Appleton’s murder wasn’t enough to raise official fears, another incident near Fort Laramie the following day, February 9, guaranteed a strong reaction: the killing of Lieutenant Levi Robinson and a sergeant surprised by Indians while out on a wood-cutting detail. Over the following days, tension and fear gripped the Red Cloud Agency; some Indians wanted to kill Kicking Bear, others wanted to kill all the whites. The trader J. W. Dear, who made a solid living selling necessaries to the Indians and buying buffalo robes and furs, wrote a friend at Fort Laramie that he was about ready to pull out:

[I] am still safe, tho living in suspense night and day. Am trying to get all robes, hides, furs etc. out of country, then if worst comes to worst will try to make my escape at night. Have shipped since my return near nine thousand dollars in robes, hides, etc. and hope to heaven they may get through safe … I cannot venture out of my room after night. Indians all the time with guns loaded and bows strung. Agent has concentrated every man in stockade with him. Cheyennes held a council yesterday. Told him the Sioux were constantly coming into their camp saying these houses here would soon be covered with blood … What is Agent telegraphing for, troops or what?15

The answer was troops, but Colonel John E. Smith, commander at Fort Laramie, needed time to assemble his men. The Army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs both fretted that sending troops to the agencies might precipitate a general Indian war, but their fears were exaggerated. The arrival of troops at the Red Cloud Agency on March 5 was followed by some harsh words and a few shots fired in the general direction of soldiers’ tents but nothing worse. By summer’s end a proper military camp was under construction under the command of a young veteran of the Civil War, Lieutenant Jesse Lee. The new post was named Camp Robinson after the officer killed in February. Six officers’ quarters along the north side of a parade ground were constructed of adobe brick and pine cut in the nearby hills. Barracks for infantry and cavalry went up on the east and west sides of the parade ground. A hospital was added, then a sutler’s store. Along the southern border of the parade ground were an adjutant’s office and a guardhouse built of stout logs with barred windows and a heavy inner door.

The site of the new post was exceptionally exposed and bleak. Scant brush lined the narrow winding course of the White River, little wider than a creek. No trees sheltered the clutch of buildings, making it exactly the sort of isolated frontier post where the constant wind and dust and sometimes brutal summer heat made officers’ wives weep for the memory of home. From the post a road led a mile and a half east to the Red Cloud Agency. Along this road on the last day of his life would come Crazy Horse, who had been promised a good talk with the commander of the military post. Riding beside the chief in an Army ambulance was the man who had built the post, Lieutenant Lee. The two men had known each other for only a day, but Crazy Horse trusted Lee’s promise that he would not be harmed and would have a chance to explain everything to the post commander.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!