By early July 1876, the sore and weary troopers of Colonel Wesley Merritt’s 5th Cavalry were cursing the heat, the dust and their own hard luck. For a month they had plodded the wastelands of Wyoming and Nebraska, living on hard crackers and muddy water, all the while searching for hostile Indians rumored to be streaming north in bloodthirsty hordes, eager to join the Sioux and Cheyenne under a Hunkpapa medicine man named Sitting Bull.
But the 5th had found no Indians, and certainly no glory–only an endless succession of sand buttes, prickly pear and sagebrush, all hidden in a swirl of alkali ‘thick as cream.’ As far as Merritt’s soldiers were concerned, they had been sent on another useless ‘water haul,’ chasing phantoms across a wilderness that stretched on forever.
Then, on July 7, a courier in a lurid red shirt galloped breakneck into camp. His dispatches carried an incredible report, news that made more than one trooper’s heart sink right down into his boots.
Both the message and the man who bore it were destined to be enshrined in American history. The message spoke of the worst disaster the U.S. Cavalry would ever see; the messenger was 30-year-old William Frederick Cody, already celebrated across the continent as ‘Buffalo Bill.’ And just 10 days later, when the 5th Cavalry met the Indians at last, Buffalo Bill Cody would seal his fame for all time on a lonely plain near a sluggish little stream in northwestern Nebraska known as Warbonnet Creek.
The real story of the fight at Warbonnet Creek began years before, when geologists found traces of gold in Dakota’s Black Hills. Immediately, rumors buzzed East, claiming the Black Hills were literally mountains of gold, where anyone with a pocketknife could carve out the precious ore like butter. The administration of Ulysses S. Grant, rocked by scandals and facing an economy flat on its back, saw in the Black Hills gold a possible political salvation.
There was, of course, one small problem. The Black Hills were on land originally set aside by the U.S. government for those members of the Sioux tribe who chose to follow the old lifestyle of roving hunters. Still, no one in Washington was about to let a few Indians and some buffalo stand in the way of economic paradise. The Sioux would simply have to go, one way or the other.
So it was, in 1875, that the commissioner of Indian Affairs issued an edict barring the use of the Black Hills by the Indians, and demanding that all tribes now encamped there should return immediately to the confines of the Great Sioux Reservation in present-day South Dakota. The response of the Sioux and their Cheyenne allies was immediate–they gathered weapons and fled the reservation, determined to make a last stand for their people in the beloved Black Hills. To the U.S. Army went the thankless task of rooting them out.
General Phil Sheridan, commanding the Division of the Missouri, had a plan to do just that. A reiteration of the successful 1874 campaign against the Comanche, the plan involved sending a number of troop columns into country where the hostiles were known to be hiding, then having the columns slowly converge, all the while sending out scouts to make sure the Indians did not slip away before the net closed tight. Since each separate column was kept strong enough to defeat the enemy all by itself, it seemed certain the Sioux would eventually be driven into a corner and hammered into submission.
By 1876, a column under Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, including the 7th Cavalry under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, began marching west from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakotas; General George Crook moved north from Fort Fetterman, Wyo.; and Colonel John Gibbon’s small infantry force, strengthened by a battery of Gatling guns, headed east from Fort Ellis in western Montana.
These were the main thrusts. Farther south, other forces were on the move. Sheridan knew of a large feeder trail snaking from Nebraska’s Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Indian agencies; warriors, guns and ammunition flowed north over this trail, trickling a steady stream of reinforcements to the Black Hills hostiles.
To cut this line of supply, Sheridan mobilized the U.S. Cavalry’s 5th Regiment. For more than a decade the ‘Dandy Fifth’ had held a proud record of Indian fighting, and its commander, Lt. Col. Eugene A. Carr, was an experienced veteran of many campaigns. Carr, described as a ‘bearded Cossack’ by the press, was ordered to place the 5th at ‘the crossing of the Main Powder River Trail leading from the vicinity of Red Cloud Agency westward to Powder and Yellowstone Rivers. Arriving at this point, you will follow the trail westward, proceeding such distances as your judgment and the amount of supplies which you carry will warrant.’
While the 5th was mustering, momentous events were taking place on the other side of the continent. General Crook had been seeking a guide to lead his men across the badlands of Montana. Accordingly, one of his officers telegraphed for the services of the most famous scout in America–Buffalo Bill Cody, ex-Pony Express rider, famed buffalo hunter, hero of numerous dime novels and–most recently–theatrical performer. Cody had been portraying himself in Scouts of the Plains, a blood-and-thunder melodrama that played to theaters packed with delighted Easterners. But the life of the stage had recently soured for Cody, whose young son Kit had died that April, and Crook’s telegram was just the tonic he needed. The same night it arrived, he took his usual curtain call and then proudly announced that he was through with playacting for a while; his country had called, and Buffalo Bill was setting out on a real campaign with the U.S. Army to fight the ‘redskin savages.’ With the cheers of the crowd still ringing in his ears, Cody ran out the stage door and headed for the depot.
As his train passed through Chicago, Cody somehow learned that the 5th Cavalry was moving into the Powder River country. He promptly gave up any thought of joining Crook. The Dandy Fifth was the same regiment Cody had scouted for back in 1869, when a battle against Chief Tall Bull’s band of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers at Summit Springs, Colo., first thrust the name Buffalo Bill into the headlines. In that battle, Carr’s cavalrymen successfully struck an Indian village, killing 52 Cheyenne, including Tall Bull. According to members of the 5th Cavalry, Cody was the one who killed Tall Bull, shooting the chief out of the saddle at 30 yards. Now, seven years later, Cody was determined to cast his lot with the 5th.
Cody officially signed the paybook as scout in Cheyenne, Wyo., on June 10, 1876. One trooper recalled, ‘All the old boys in the regiment upon seeing General Carr and Cody together, exchanged confidences, and expressed themselves…that with such a leader and scout they could get away with all the Sitting Bulls and Crazy Horses in the Sioux tribe.’ A soldier’s wife was similarly impressed with Buffalo Bill: ‘I remember his fine figure as he stood by the sutler store, straight and slender, with his scarlet shirt belted in and his long hair distinguishing him….’ Actually, Cody’s unique costume was cause for some snickering in the camp. Back in ’69 he’d worn a frontiersman’s buckskins, yet now he sported a bright red fireman’s shirt; his black velvet pants were trimmed with scarlet, adorned with silver bells and fancy embroidery. This outfit was apparently some Eastern stage manager’s idea of what Mexican vaqueros wore, and it was adopted for Cody’s theatrical performances. When some unkind wags in Philadelphia joked that a real scout, whose job often entailed stealth, would scarcely roam the plains in a red shirt and bells, Buffalo Bill had been furious. He vowed to someday wear his stage duds on an actual campaign. Throughout the 5th’s long, weary ride, Cody stuck to his velvet pants, bells and all.
The command left Cheyenne for Fort Laramie, where they met a new scout, Baptise ‘Little Bat’ Garnier. Garnier, though he could not have known it, was soon to make his own peculiar contribution to the Cody legend. Also joining was an old pal of Cody’s, Jonathan White, who was seen trailing around behind Cody so often that the troopers soon dubbed him ‘Buffalo Chips.’
The night before the regiment left Fort Laramie, Bill posted a letter to his wife, Louisa, expressing his first misgivings about the prospect of more Indian fighting. ‘I have always been horrified at the idea of killing Indian women and children,’ he wrote. ‘Poor things, I do not blame them for fighting for their husbands and fathers, right or wrong–many white women would do the same.’
The 5th left Fort Laramie at dawn on June 22, riding toward Custer City. The force consisted of Companies A, B, C, D, G, I, K and M, totaling some 350 officers and men.
Company C, with Little Bat as scout, roamed in advance of the main force, searching for signs of Indians. Two days after starting out, a large trail was struck. First Lieutenant Charles King remembered, ‘It looked like a great highway, deserted and silent, and it led from the thick timber on the Cheyenne Valley…and disappeared over the dim, misty range of hills in the direction of the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail reservations.’
The regiment camped near the South Cheyenne River, hoping to ambush any tribesmen using the trail to travel north. For nine days the 5th waited and waited, but saw only small bands of Indians whose nimble little ponies were easily able to outrun the 5th’s plodding patrols.
While in this camp on July 1, the troopers were surprised to learn that Carr was no longer their commanding officer. Brevet Major General Wesley Merritt had been appointed to take over command of the 5th. That same day, Merritt and his staff arrived in camp. Cody echoed the sentiments of many soldiers when he wrote Louisa, ‘I was sorry that the command was taken from General Carr, because under him it had made its fighting reputation.’
Like Custer, Merritt had been a successful Union cavalry leader during the Civil War and had become a brevet major general. After the war, he had commanded cavalry in Texas, where he had fought Comanche, and when he was promoted to colonel of the 5th Cavalry on July 1, 1876, he was quite prepared to fight again. But Merritt and his men were in for a shock just two days later. At dawn on July 3, as sleepy troopers were just stirring from their bedrolls, a dozen or more painted Cheyenne warriors rode their ponies almost into the middle of the soldiers’ camp before realizing their peril and dashing hellbent back across the prairie to safety. Cody led two companies of the 5th in pursuit, but a fruitless daylong ride only left Merritt’s men even more spent and discouraged.
Realizing that every hostile in Nebraska must by now know of the Army’s presence, Merritt finally broke camp and dispersed his command into separate companies in order to make a wide sweep of the countryside. By July 6, the 5th had reassembled near a small Army stockade at the head of Sage Creek. Early the next morning, Cody came pounding into camp bearing ghastly news. General Crook’s column had struck the Sioux and Cheyenne over two weeks before at Rosebud Creek and in a fierce fight had been stopped cold. Then, on June 25, George Armstrong Custer and half of the 7th Cavalry had been wiped out at the Little Bighorn in Montana. Gibbon’s tiny column now had its hands full just burying the dead. Sheridan’s whole plan had gone down to complete disaster. The northern Plains Indians were proving to be a far more effective fighting unit than almost any blue-coated soldier had imagined. And if the reputation of the U.S. Army was to be saved, the worn-out regulars of the 5th were the last force left in the field to do it. As for Cody personally, the ‘massacre’ of the 7th and Custer’s shocking death may have indeed inspired a desire for revenge. Cody and Custer had come to know each other fairly well during the Indian Wars.
On July 14 came yet more bad news. The commander at Camp Robinson claimed that hundreds of Cheyenne–perhaps as many as 1,000–were preparing to flee the Red Cloud Agency and join up with Sitting Bull. Merritt immediately turned back toward Rawhide Creek crossing on the trail between Fort Laramie and Camp Robinson. It would take a long forced march to head off the Cheyenne, and the 5th’s supply wagons, under the command of a Lieutenant Hall, were ordered to follow along as best they could.
By July 16, Merritt had reached a small Army post on the Custer City road, where he briefly rested his command. This isolated spot, about equidistant from the Red Cloud Agency and Fort Laramie, would position the 5th to readily respond to alarms from either direction. Amazingly, the tireless Hall came up with the supplies only two hours behind the main column.
Horsemen and wagons next proceeded across the prairie to a point where the Indian trail crossed Warbonnet Creek. By the time final bivouac was reached late that night, the 5th had covered 85 miles in little over 30 hours. In that time the soldiers had had nothing to eat except some hardtack hastily snatched from saddlebags while still on the move.
While the rest of the force bivouacked in a hollow on the west bank of the Warbonnet, Company K was given the unwelcome task of posting its exhausted men as night sentinels. King stationed most of his pickets out of sight in ravines, while he and a few others waited on a nearby hill to better survey the countryside at first light. Trooper Christian Madsen, a sharp-eyed and eager young man, was given a telescope and positioned on a smaller hill to the north.
Dawn broke blood-red a little before 4 a.m. on July 17. Fifteen minutes later, as drowsy soldiers were boiling coffee in their tin cups, a corporal abruptly jumped up and pointed toward the southeast. He shouted to King, ‘Look, Lieutenant–there are your Indians!’
Some 10 miles away, a small band of Cheyenne could just be seen in the hazy dawn, riding slowly over a ridge before descending into a wide, shallow ravine leading down toward Warbonnet Creek.
Merritt and Cody ran to join King on his hilltop observation point. In the growing light, dozens more Cheyenne, knotted in small groups of riders, could be seen snaking down the ravine. Amazingly, the warriors seemed oblivious to the soldiers positioned in front of their advance; instead, they appeared to be fascinated by something they saw far to the west, in the direction of the old Sage Creek camp.
A moment later, Merritt realized what the Cheyenne were watching so intently: Hall’s blue supply wagons were just then rolling into view in the distance. The wagon train itself was safe enough–a guard of infantrymen was concealed under the canvas covers–but two messengers riding well ahead of the wagons were totally unaware of the oncoming Cheyenne, who were already starting to whip their ponies forward to snatch up this unexpected prize. Seven of the warriors soon broke off from the rest, riding hard to intercept the couriers.
Merritt faced a real dilemma. He had wanted the Cheyenne to get as close as possible before he launched his attack, to avoid yet another futile horse race. But if he was going to save his couriers, he had to do something and do it fast. Just then, Cody spoke up. He suggested that a few picked men–naturally including himself–could ride out and scatter the seven Cheyenne, leaving the rest of the 5th free to charge at full strength. Cody, another scout and six troopers of Company K were given the assignment.
Merritt ran down the hill to join the 5th as it crossed Warbonnet Creek and formed its ranks on the east bank of the stream, just behind a high rise concealing them from the oncoming Cheyenne. Responding to whispered commands, the troopers thumbed cartridges into their Springfields and waited for whatever the next few fateful minutes would bring.
As scouts and soldiers saddled up, King kept the seven warriors under observation. He waited until they were no more than 100 yards from Warbonnet Creek, then jumped up and waved his hat, shouting: ‘Now, lads, in with you!’
Instantly, Cody and the rest of his little band galloped around the hill and launched themselves at the seven Cheyenne. Trooper Madsen, still posted on his lonely hilltop to the north, had a clear view of all that happened next, as did Sergeant John Powers of Company A, who was moonlighting as an on-the-scene correspondent for the Ellis County Star.
Cody, astride a powerful horse, was well in advance of the other would-be rescuers, so far in front that upon rounding the hill he nearly ran headlong into the leading warrior, a young man sporting a magnificent headdress so long its feathers nearly trailed on the ground.
Cody and the lone Cheyenne fired at each other almost simultaneously, Cody using his Winchester carbine and the Indian replying with a heavy revolver. Cody’s aim was better: his first shot passed through his opponent’s leg and killed the pony he was riding.
At that moment Cody’s own horse stumbled in a prairie dog hole, pitching Bill headlong to the ground. The scout scrambled up in an instant, just as his wounded opponent sent another bullet whizzing past his ear. Kneeling, Cody took careful aim and fired his second shot, one that hit the young Cheyenne square in the face and dropped him dead on the brown prairie grass.
While Cody’s companions scattered the other six Cheyenne, he ran forward with a bowie knife and stripped the scalp of his dead foe. He later recalled that, swinging the grisly trophy above his head, he cried out in triumph, ‘The first scalp for Custer!’ And perhaps he did, though no one else on the field that day ever recalled his dramatic oratory afterward.
The warriors still straggling up from the rear began surging forward to see what all the shooting was about. Companies B, I and K of the 5th broke cover, formed line abreast and charged directly toward the oncoming Cheyenne, bugles blaring. The Indians, whose numbers were far, far less than the rumored 1,000, immediately turned and fled in the opposite direction, back toward the Spotted Tail Agency. In their flight, they abandoned blankets and provisions.
The three companies pursued only a short distance, never coming close enough to fire a single shot at their retreating enemy. The 5th’s sole casualty that day came when a horse tumbled down an embankment, leaving a trooper named Jeffers badly bruised. Later, Merritt led the whole command along the trail of the fugitives, stopping only when he felt assured that all the Cheyenne were back within the confines of the agency. The fight at Warbonnet Creek, such as it was, had ended.
Shortly thereafter, the 5th was sent north to reinforce Crook, but not before Merritt had submitted a lengthy report of his campaign to Washington. Of the actual fighting, Merritt said only ‘…a party of seven Indians were discovered near the command, moving with the intention of cutting off two couriers who were approaching from Sage Creek. A party was sent out to cut these off, killing one of them….’
Carr, stilling smarting over the loss of his command, was disgusted with the whole business. He later wrote of his astonishment at seeing such a long report made about what was essentially nothing, recalling, ‘There were not over 30 Indians in sight at any one time, and we had over 400 men.’ The 5th’s total victory spoils amounted to one dead Cheyenne, a dozen ponies and a few sacks of flour.
Back East, people saw things much differently. The triumph at Warbonnet Creek was glorious, a just revenge on treacherous savages. Newspapers played up Cody’s accomplishment; the New York Herald, for instance, filled nearly a column with news of the faraway event. And for Easterners eager to learn more of the thrilling combat, Little Bat Garnier was able to add a few choice details: The dead Indian was Yellow Hand, an important chief of the Cheyenne; his death at the hands of Cody was enough to make all the other hostiles turn tail and run. Alas for history, Garnier was not one to let the truth stand in the way of a good yarn. Cody’s victim was in truth Hay-o-wei, a name which translates as Yellow Hair, so called for a blond scalp he had once taken. Yellow Hair was the son of a chief named Cut Nose, but was himself of no particular importance–that is, not until he had the questionable luck to be killed by Buffalo Bill Cody, thereby instantly becoming a legend.
Cody started the ball rolling the very next day. He wrote Louisa: ‘We have had a fight. I killed Yellow Hand, a Cheyenne chief, in a single-handed fight. [I am going to] send the war bonnet, shield, bride [bridle], whip, arms and his scalp….I have only one scalp I can call my own: that fellow I fought single-handed in sight of our command, and the cheers that went up when he fell was deafening.’
Unfortunately, Cody’s parcel reached his wife before his letter. Thinking her husband had sent some fine new gift, she eagerly reached inside. Upon pulling out the rancid scalp, poor Louisa fainted dead away. She later made Cody promise he would never again scalp another Indian. Yellow Hair’s accoutrements, including his missing topknot, can be still be seen today in the Buffalo Bill Museum at Cody, Wyo.
Cody’s famous fight was, of course, single-handed only in a loose sense; he did have some small help from the 5th Cavalry. Still, a man can be forgiven for bragging to his own wife. However, since everything he did or said was grist for the popular press, the legend overtook the truth in short order. Within a few months, Cody was treading the boards once more in a stage production titled The Red Right Hand; or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer. The show was a success almost everywhere Cody took it.
Over the years, the story just kept getting better and better. The fight became not only single-handed but also hand-to-hand, a titanic hour-long, no-holds-barred, death struggle fought with knife and tomahawk against a Cheyenne chief backed by no less than 29,000 followers.
The names Cody and Custer became closely associated in the minds of the public, mainly because of several popular dime novels. In Buffalo Bill with General Custer, a typically fanciful work by Prentiss Ingraham, the brave scout Cody was made out to be the only white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. In the same mold was Buffalo Bill’s Grip; or, Oath-bound to Custer. Cody does not participate in the battle, but he does arrive before Custer’s body is cold. After being captured by the Sioux and then rescued by a Pocahontas-like lndian maiden, Cody gets his revenge–against Yellow Hand in a one-on-one knife fight.
Cody himself came to prefer showcasing Custer’s Last Stand rather than his own ‘First Scalp.’ When he began his Wild West show in 1883, Cody championed Custer repeatedly. The Last Stand became the climax of each show. An actor named Buck Taylor played Custer, and in every performance, the circle of cavalrymen would grow smaller and smaller. Then, after Taylor and his fellow actors had bit the dust, Buffalo Bill would appear, remove his showy hat and bow his head mournfully. The words ‘Too Late’ would be projected on a screen–a fitting end to the show. As late as 1904 there were posters out that depicted Custer’s final moments and said ‘Custer’s Last Stand as presented by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.’ Not that Cody ever completely grew silent about his own heroism at Warbonnet Creek. He was not that kind of guy.
After a couple of decades, the story had reached such outlandish proportions that skeptics were already beginning to insist the whole thing was pure moonshine, and that Cody had never seen an Indian wilder than the cigar-store variety. Still, the U.S. government considered the Warbonnet fight important. It was just about the only victory American soldiers were going to get in that dreary centennial year of 1876, so the most had to be made of it. Washington officials cheered the skirmish as though it had been a second Gettysburg. Thus, in the end, the legend of Buffalo Bill and the Indian served just about everyone well.
In 1930, Congress invited an aged Chris Madsen, then a retired law officer of considerable fame himself, to help relocate the spot where the Warbonnet battle took place. Madsen, his memory undimmed by the passage of 54 years, did so without difficulty. In 1934, no less than two monuments were dedicated there, a place still pretty much smack in the middle of nowhere. One stone obelisk commemorates the heroism of the 5th Cavalry; the other marks the spot where Buffalo Bill killed his Indian.
Both markers still stand. They ensure that, whatever else may be forgotten, Americans will remember Warbonnet Creek and the man who took the first scalp for Custer.
This story wa written by Robert B. Smith and originally appeared in the December 1996 issue of Wild West Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!