Reviewed by Chrys Ankeny
By R. Eli Paul
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2004
Anyone with an interest in the Wild West or the Indian wars knows about the fight the Sioux (or Lakota) Indians put up against white settlers and the U.S. Army. During the American Civil War, the Sioux fought settlers and soldiers in Minnesota and along the Platte River road. Soon after, the Sioux fought the soldiers along the Bozeman Trail in what became known as Red Cloud’s War. In 1876-77 the Sioux put up their most famous fight in what has been labeled the Great Sioux War. And the Sioux made their last fight at Wounded Knee in 1890. All that fighting has somewhat overshadowed the First Sioux War, which began in 1854 with a debacle once known as the Grattan Massacre but now generally referred to as the Grattan Fight—since 2nd Lt. John Lawrence Grattan’s foolish, inflexible behavior outside Fort Laramie brought on the tragedy. That one-sided engagement led to General William S. Harney’s punitive expedition and the September 1855 Battle of Blue Water Creek in what is now western Nebraska. The Sioux (or Lakotas) signed a treaty in 1856 that brought peace for a while, but neither the Plains Indians nor the United States would forget this first war, which set the stage for greater wars between these two expanding powers.
Eli Paul, who edited the autobiography of Red Cloud, first visited the battlefield along Blue Water Creek in 1977 and has gathered information on it ever since. He uses many contemporary sources, including accounts by participants, to tell the story of Grattan’s deadly folly in ’55 and Little Thunder’s disaster (Harney attacked his village, killing dozens of men, women and children) the next year. “A goal of this book,” Paul writes in the preface, “has been to find and use new sources of Lakota history, as well as to distill old accounts, in order to tell this story thoroughly, concisely, and fairly.” He achieves his goal, incorporating statements from such Indians as Man Afraid of His Horses, who tried to reason with Grattan; Big Partisan, who saw his friend Conquering Bear die; and Little Thunder himself. As the title suggests, the focus of this well-researched book (the main text is 166 pages, while most of the rest of the 260-page book is devoted to his sources and end notes) is what happened at Blue Water Creek. Paul writes: “The longer term significance of the First Sioux War is that, no matter the commander, his personality, or the decade, the destruction of Indian villages continued to prove an effective military tactic. It remained the goal and the practice, not the exception, even after the Lakota nation was broken.”
Some 16 pages of maps and illustrations accompany Paul’s fine text, which does justice to a war that, as he writes, “is the foundation for understanding the entire history of conflict between the United States and the Lakota people.” Some readers might wish that the author had devoted a little more space to the Grattan Fight, which is covered concisely in his first chapter (“Origins”). Never fear, for another 2004 book on the subject has appeared. Paul N. Beck’s The First Sioux War: The Grattan Fight and Blue Water Creek 1854-1856 (University Press of America, Lanham, Md. $28, paperback) delivers more details on the Army’s first real military disaster in the West. Congressman Thomas Hart Benton complained about the “heavy penalty for a nation to pay for a lame runaway Mormon cow, and for the folly and juvenile ambition of a West Point fledging.” Although obviously much of the same ground is covered, Beck’s account is worth a read, too, if you want to find out more about that cow and Grattan’s foolishness and you aren’t bothered by the fact that the 182-page book includes just one map and no illustrations.