In November 1876 Colonel Ranald Mackenzie’s cavalrymen and their Indian allies caught warriors sleeping at a large Cheyenne village on the Red Fork of the Powder River in Wyoming Territory.
Just before dawn on Saturday, November 25, 1876, Cheyenne warrior Brave Wolf finally re- turned to his lodge. His village, along the Red Fork of the Pow- der River in Wyoming Territory, had been celebrating a recent victory in a skirmish with the Shoshones, and the revels had lasted all night. The tepees hugged the south bank, half-hidden by gaunt stands of willows and cottonwoods along the valley floor. Bluffs to the north and south provided shelter from the biting cold winds of a fast-approaching winter. The snowcapped granite sentinels of the Bighorn Mountains rose in the distance. Brave Wolf set down his thunder bow, also known as a contrary lance, and lay down to sleep fully clothed.
Brave Wolf had become a contrary— one who fears thunder—after his wife left him. He now followed such rituals as speaking and behaving in opposites, living a solitary life and carrying his 5- foot-long lance everywhere for protection against the thunder. He remained an excellent fighting man, as he had demonstrated that June at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. On this chilly November night he could not sleep. He remembered the words of Box Elder, an 80-year-old medicine man whom many claimed had the gift of prophecy. Although blind, the old man sometimes saw the future with crystal clarity. Recently, Box Elder had had a disturbing vision—blue-clad soldiers and enemy Indian scouts attacking the village. It was hard for Brave Wolf to dismiss that vision, as his people’s own scouts had reported a large force of soldiers in the area. Although Brave Wolf was not alone in his belief the reports were accurate, Last Bull, leader of the Kit Fox warrior society, had insisted everyone stay and dance. “No one shall leave the camp tonight,” Last Bull had commanded. He and the other tribal leaders had done little or nothing to prepare for a possible attack. Brave Wolf was not taking any chances—his moccasins remained on his feet, his weapons within easy reach.
The Cheyenne people, who referred to themselves as Tsistsistas (“the people”), had participated in the Plains Indians’ greatest victory over the bluecoats just five months earlier. On June 25 at the Montana Territory river known as the Little Bighorn, or Greasy Grass to the Indians, Cheyennes and their Lakota allies had slaughtered 7th Cavalry Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the five companies of his immediate command. The surviving cavalrymen under Major Marcus A. Reno and Captain Frederick W. Benteen would never forget that shocking defeat—and on November 25, 1876, it was very much on the mind of the entire U.S. Army and the American public, as well.
The sun had appeared over the bluffs, heralding a new day, by the time Brave Wolf finally drifted off to sleep. Within minutes he woke to the sound of gunfire. True to old Box Elder’s prediction, white soldiers were descending on the village in a torrent, eager to erase the stain of Custer’s defeat.
The impending clash (west of present-day Kaycee, Wyo.) would become known as the Battle of Red Fork, or the Dull Knife Fight, after one of the principal Cheyenne chiefs. Obscured by the sheer magnitude of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the November engagement was one of the decisive Army victories of the Great Sioux War of 1876–77. The Northern Cheyennes would suffer more than just a temporary reversal at Red Fork; the battle would break their power forever.
The Plains Indians had largely been on the run since their triumph at the Little Bighorn. In August 1876 Brig. Gen. George Crook had pursued the hostiles with grim determination, resulting in the nearly disastrous Horsemeat March, so called as soldiers were reduced to shooting and eating their horses. Finally, on September 9 Crook achieved a small victory when his command stumbled on a Lakota village at Slim Buttes (near present-day Reva, S.D.), destroyed its 37 lodges and found enough food to stave off imminent starvation. The victory was like a few drops of water to a parched man—it revived the Army but could not quench its terrible thirst for revenge.
Lieutenant General Phil Sheridan was determined to break the power of the Plains Indians once and for all. He ordered Colonel Ranald Mackenzie of the 4th Cavalry to Camp (later Fort) Robinson in Nebraska Territory, to disarm the Sioux under famed leader Red Cloud. Although not involved in the fighting in the mid-’70s, Red Cloud had won a war named for him some 10 years earlier and remained a potent symbol of Indian resistance. Mackenzie had already made a name for himself during the Civil War and in the Texas Panhandle during the 1874 Red River War. However, a head injury sustained during a fall from a wagon in 1875 had come close to ending his promising career and his life, and he had begun to show sings of mental instability—bouts of foul temper, suicidal despondency and arrogance to superior officers. Sheridan and others tolerated these outbursts, as Mackenzie remained indispensable to their overall plans.
After Mackenzie completed his Fort Robinson assignment, Sheridan sent him to Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory, where Crook was organizing the Powder River Expedition against Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse. Crook’s principal subordinates were Mackenzie, commander of the cavalry, and 23rd Infantry Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge, head of the infantry and artillery. The cavalry comprised two companies from the 3rd Cavalry (H and K), six from the 4th (B, D, E, F, I, M) and two from the 5th (H and L). Company K, 2nd Cavalry, was also on hand, assigned as Crook’s bodyguard. Dodge’s command included six companies of the 9th Infantry, two companies of the 14th Infantry, and three companies of the 23rd Infantry. Batteries C, F, H and K of the 4th Artillery were also present, but serving as foot soldiers. The officers had deemed it too difficult to haul artillery through the rugged terrain of the Powder River country.
In early November the expedition gathered at Wyoming Territory’s Fort Fetterman, jumping-off point for the coming campaign. The troops passed the time drilling in the snow, no doubt welcoming the repetitive exercises as a means to keep warm. Crook, meanwhile, busied himself in conference with Indian scouts. The Powder River Expedition was notable for the diversity of Indian tribes represented in its ranks. There were Arapahos, Bannocks and Major Frank North’s Pawnees, and Crook hoped Crows would join them later in the campaign. Latecomers also included the Shoshones, led by veteran scout Thomas Cosgrove and organized along military lines. But the most striking aspect of the expedition was the presence of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors on the government’s side. There were 57 Sioux auxiliaries, men from the Oglala, Brulé and Sans Arc bands of the Lakota Nation. At least one of them, a young warrior named Charging Bear, had been taken prisoner at Slim Buttes two months earlier. Also accompanying Crook were 10 Cheyennes, who did not say why they joined him.
The expedition left Fort Fetterman on November 14, heading north for Cantonment Reno, a forward supply base on the west bank of the Powder River. The powerful force consisted of 61 officers, 1,436 enlisted men and 367 Indian scouts. Lieutenant John Bourke noted that “the present expedition impresses me as the best equipped and best officered of any which I have ever served.” Not wanting to repeat the terrible privation his soldiers experienced during the Horsemeat March, Crook made sure they were issued the latest winter gear, including warm overcoats. Supplies and ammunition were plentiful, carried with the help of 187 six-mule teams and 308 pack mules.
The expedition marched through a snowstorm on November 17, arriving the next day at Cantonment Reno. Soldiers quickly erected tents beside the log buildings to accommodate the large expedition. Crook decided to rest at Reno until he could obtain reliable information on Crazy Horse and the hostiles. As a first step he dispatched six Arapaho and eight Sioux scouts to the eastern flanks of the Bighorn Mountains. While he waited for their return, Crook met with representatives of his Indian auxiliaries to ensure they followed his rules. Many of the men bought whiskey and got roaring drunk. One soldier from the 5th Cavalry was in such an inebriated haze he lost his footing and fell into a creek. The trooper dragged himself out but wasn’t found till the next day. Frozen in his wet clothes, he died of exposure, one of the first casualties of the campaign.
In the meantime, the Sioux and Arapaho scouts moved into the Bighorns, setting up camp at Clear Creek, about 50 miles west of Reno. Having shed all trappings of the white man, they appeared an ordinary band of warriors. A young Cheyenne named Many Beaver Dams (also referred to as Beaver Dam) happened along and asked to share their campfire. He let slip that Crazy Horse and his people were encamped on the Rosebud, not far from where they had battled Crook to a stalemate back in June. The scouts then captured Many Beaver Dams and brought him back to Cantonment Reno. Convinced the young Cheyenne was telling the truth, Crook telegraphed Sheridan, telling him of his intention to pursue the elusive Crazy Horse. “We start out after his band tomorrow,” Crook added with his customary terseness. The command left Cantonment Reno at dawn and arrived at Crazy Woman Fork late in the afternoon of November 22. Crook then ordered the troops to prepare for a 10-day march to the Rosebud.
But the unexpected arrival of the friendly Cheyenne Sitting Bear the next morning gave Crook pause. Sitting Bear reported that Many Beaver Dams’ fellow villagers had noted his absence and taken flight. They had headed to Crazy Horse’s encampment, both to join the Oglala leader and warn him of the soldiers’ presence. Having lost the element of surprise, Crook reconsidered his plans to attack Crazy Horse. However, Sitting Bear also told of a large Cheyenne village in a remote mountain valley along the Red Fork of the Powder, roughly 35 miles from Crook’s present position at Crazy Woman Fork.
Crook decided to change his plans and go against the Cheyenne village instead. He understood the cavalry had the best chance of reaching the village in a timely fashion and delivering a crippling blow. Mackenzie was to take all the cavalry save one company and head south and west to the encampment. Crook would remain behind with the supply wagons and infantry.
Mackenzie left Crazy Woman Fork on the morning of November 23. The going was rough in spots, particularly when mountain streams barred the way. But Crook’s scouts soon brought back word the Cheyenne camp was relatively near, perhaps 15 miles away. Mackenzie decided on an all-night march to reach his objective, so the men ate heartily and then pushed off at about 4 p.m. Though they remained in the foothills, even these lower-elevation peaks were formidable obstacles. Riding with his Pawnee scouts and familiar with the rigors of the trail, Luther North (Frank’s brother) admitted they experienced “the hardest march we ever had.” At times the troopers had to dismount and guide their horses on foot by the light of the rising moon. It was said the cavalrymen dismounted and mounted no less than 20 times that night.
About 2 a.m. the column entered a lush valley the troopers called Sioux Pass. When scouts brought back word they were almost upon the Cheyenne camp, the Indian auxiliaries daubed their faces in war paint and, despite the cold, stripped to breechclouts. Suddenly, as the command prepared for its final approach, the sharp crack of a carbine echoed through the canyons —a trooper dispatching his worn-out mount. When Mackenzie heard the shot, he let loose a string of four-letter oaths, assuming the report had alerted the Northern Cheyenne village.
Truth was, the Cheyennes had known for days the soldiers were coming, having heard back from their own scouts less than a week earlier. Still, the elders hadn’t moved the camp or hustled their women and children to safety. Why the Cheyennes chose to stay is a convoluted tale of tribal politics, pride and overconfidence on the part of at least some leaders. Aspects of the decision remain a mystery.
The Cheyenne village comprised 200 lodges—about 1,600 people. Among its principal chiefs was 65-yearold Morning Star, also widely known as Dull Knife, after once having had difficulty stabbing an enemy through a buffalo hide shield. An advocate of retaliatory raids after the November 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, he had later signed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Although some of his followers allied themselves with the non-treaty Sioux in the fights on the Rosebud and Little Bighorn, Dull Knife was apparently not involved.
Dull Knife’s village might have been relatively small, but its lodges contained sacred objects central to the tribe’s spiritual power and the very essence of its identity as a people. Among the villagers was Black Hairy Dog, a holy man and keeper of the sacred arrows—objects of great veneration the Cheyenne believed gave them dominion over animals and human enemies. Dull Knife was one of the Four Old Man Chiefs, leaders who symbolically represented the Four Sacred Beings and were the guardians of creation. The other three were Little Wolf, Old Bear and Black Moccasin (the last would not actually be in the village when the soldiers attacked). Kit Fox leader Last Bull had been most adamant about remaining in the village and fighting the soldiers if they came. By November 24 the blind seer Box Elder had had his vision about soldiers attacking the camp and Cheyenne scouts had brought word the soldiers were almost certainly on their way. Last Bull, though, was adamant about celebrating the recent Cheyenne victory over the Shoshones, in which 30 enemy scalps were taken. “We will stay here,” he had declared, “and dance all night.”
Advancing soldiers heard the throbbing of the ceremonial drums as the Cheyennes danced and sang around four great fires. By dawn on the 25th Brave Wolf and most of the other Indians had drifted off to their lodges. Spearheading Mackenzie’s attack were the soldiers’ Indian allies—Shoshones and Bannocks under Lieutenant Walter Schuyler on the right, Major North and his Pawnees to the left and the Sioux, Arapaho and government Cheyennes in the center with Lieutenants William Philo Clark and Hayden DeLany.
The soldiers were right behind the scouts, charging headlong into the valley in column of fours. A Cheyenne sentry fired the first shot, its barking report soon answered by the sharp crack of government Springfields. North and the Pawnees were on the wrong side of the Red Fork, so Mackenzie ordered them to ford the river. They did, but the marshy ground slowed them down, giving the Cheyenne villagers more precious moments to get away. Still, bullets thudding into Cheyenne lodges took their toll. Young Two Moons, who had donned a war bonnet for the occasion, saw his friend Crown Necklace fall with a mortal wound.
Mackenzie sent Companies H and L of the 5th Calvary, Company K of the 3rd, Company F of Mackenzie’s own 4th and some Pawnee scouts to secure the village. Noticing warriors off to the right attempting to round up their ponies, Mackenzie dispatched aide Lieutenant Charles Hammond to order Lieutenant John McKinney of Company M, 4th Cavalry, to cut off the Indians. McKinney tried as best he could to comply, but several warriors were able to conceal themselves in nearby deep ravines. A line of Cheyenne warriors suddenly popped up on the lip of one such ravine and poured heavy fire into the unsuspecting troopers. McKinney was first to fall, his body riddled with six slugs. The same fusillade also wounded First Sergeant Thomas Forsyth, Corporal William Linn and four others. The other troopers, many of them raw recruits, fell back in near panic.
At that point some of the Cheyenne warriors left the ravine and ran forward. Yellow Eagle counted coup on McKinney and retrieved his gun. Bull Hump shot an Army horse and retrieved a saddlebag full of welcome ammunition. Both sorties were successful, and the Indians returned to the ravine. Sergeant Frank Murray and the two wounded noncoms, Linn and Forsyth, managed to reach the badly wounded McKinney and shield him until they could get him to the surgeon. (Forsyth would later receive the Medal of Honor for his efforts.)
Captain Henry W. Wessels Jr. saw what was happening and led his Company H, 3rd Cavalry, forward. “Dismount and fight on foot!” Wessels bellowed, a move designed to reduce casualties. Lieutenant Harrison G. Otis took command of his badly shaken Company M and managed to restore a semblance of order. Company M went back into the fight, helped by two relief units—Company H of the 5th Cavalry and Company F of the 4th. Shoshone scouts atop a 50-foot-high bluff provided covering fire for the soldiers and finally forced the Cheyennes from the ravine. They left behind some half a dozen dead warriors. The soldiers claimed to have killed 10 others nearby, and at least two warriors died later of wounds.
Once the cavalry had control of the village, some soldiers engaged in looting and souvenir hunting. Among the Cheyenne belongings were trophies from the Little Bighorn fight—a Company G, 7th Cavalry, guard roster; a pillow made from a guidon; and various pieces of uniform and equipment. They also found the scalps of both a white girl and a Shoshone girl, each about 10. Perhaps more grisly was a necklace of human finger bones.
Orderlies took the bleeding McKinney to surgeon Louis LaGarde. The lieutenant reportedly mumbled, “My poor mother! Tell her!” and then died. The loss of such a promising officer was a bitter pill for Mackenzie to swallow. Also upsetting was the relatively high number of casualties—a reported seven killed and 26 wounded. Estimates of Northern Cheyenne losses vary. Indian agents later reported 38 killed, 65 wounded; Gerald Roche, a civilian reporter on the scene, estimated as many as 60 noncombatants died. Chief Little Wolf, according to some accounts, was wounded while defending the women and children.
To avoid more casualties, Mackenzie decided against assaulting those Cheyennes entrenched in the rocky crags above the Red Fork. The hostile Indians had long-range rifles and were deadly marksmen. Instead, the colonel sent for his infantry, whose “Long Tom” Springfields were more than a match for Indian firepower.
Mackenzie’s men had captured some 600 ponies, and he ordered the village put to the torch. Flaming brands soon lit up the Cheyenne lodges, the conflagration punctuated by the staccato explosions of ammunition stored in the tepees. Dull Knife asked for a parley, which Mackenzie granted; an interpreter translated his remarks. The chief had lost two sons in the fight, and he was prepared to surrender. Not so the other chiefs.
As events unfolded, the Cheyennes withdrew before Crook could send up the infantry. The pack train had already arrived, bringing welcome rations and ammunition. Mackenzie and his men camped near the burning village that night. A detail buried one soldier on the battlefield, while soldiers packed the rest of the dead—now frozen stiff—on mules for interment elsewhere. They placed the wounded on mule-drawn travois, making them as comfortable as possible. A few Cheyennes reportedly slipped down from the hills during the cold night to mourn their losses. Mackenzie’s command left the Red Fork valley about noon on Sunday, November 26.
Brave Wolf and the other surviving Cheyennes were left in dire straits. They had lost literally everything— food, buffalo robes, clothing and personal keepsakes. The fire had destroyed Brave Wolf’s thunder bow, and he ceased to be a contrary. With snow falling and temperatures dropping, he and the others headed for their only refuge —Crazy Horse’s camp. That first night they camped four miles from the battle site, and 11 Cheyenne babies froze to death in their mothers’ arms. It took the displaced villagers about 12 days to reach Crazy Horse’s camp in Montana Territory (about 20 miles northeast of present-day Ashland, Mont.). The Oglalas could hardly believe the spectacle before them—ragged and starving men, women and children stumbling into camp, many more dead than alive, with the horrors of battle and ensuing march etched in their faces. The Sioux gave what they could in the way of clothing, food and shelter, but there would be no lasting recovery from the devastating ordeal. A few weeks later the Cheyennes accepted the inevitable and surrendered. Brave Wolf became a scout for Colonel Nelson Miles and saw duty during the Army’s battle with Chief Lame Deer’s Minneconjous on May 7, 1877. Mackenzie’s victory at the Battle of Red Fork had indeed been decisive; things would never be the same for Brave Wolf or the other Northern Cheyennes.
Eric Niderost, a longtime contributor to Wild West, writes from Union City, Calif. Suggested for further reading: Morning Star Dawn: The Powder River Expedition and the Northern Cheyennes, 1876, by Jerome A. Greene; A Good Year to Die: The Story of the Great Sioux War, by Charles M. Robinson III; The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, by George Bird Grinnell; and Sagebrush Soldier: Private William Earl Smith’s View of the Sioux War of 1876, by Sherry L. Smith.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.