Most Americans know something about the Indian wars on the Western frontier, if only that a U.S. Army officer named George Armstrong Custer fought and died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Of course, Wild West subscribers know more than the average Joe about not only George Custer but also George Crook, Nelson Miles, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, the Battle of the Rosebud, Wounded Knee and many other events and personalities from the era (the latter half of the 19th century) when the U.S. Army collided with Western tribes. Yet the public conception of many episodes and aspects of the Indian wars is false. The problem stems in part from what I call “Everybody Knows” history —oft-repeated platitudes that have little basis in truth but are accepted as fact. Reiterate the same tale in enough films, TV shows, books and magazines, and it becomes “true” by dint of saturation. The Western Indian wars are replete with examples of this phenomenon.
One popular misconception is that clashes with Indians on the frontier during the Civil War increased because the Union withdrew troops from the West to fight in the East, leaving the Indians free to raid at will. In fact, the number of soldiers in the West increased during the Civil War. Between the Mexican War and the Civil War only three mounted U.S. regiments patrolled the entire West. Counting both mounted and foot soldiers, about 5,000 men were stationed west of the Mississippi between 1853 and 1863. By 1863 volunteer units were arriving in number, increasing the available force in the West to between 15,000 and 20,000 men by war’s end.
An examination of primary sources on the Indian wars— including government reports, letters, journals, period manuscripts and news accounts—reveals that the region witnessed 24 Indian battles in 1861, when the Regulars marched east. But the volunteer regiments soon swelled the ranks on the frontier, and the number of Indian battles also increased. There were 45 in 1862, 58 in 1863, 64 in 1864 and 72 in 1865. When the Civil War ended in 1865, there was a corresponding drop-off in fighting as the volunteer units disbanded, falling slightly to 63 battles in 1866. What this illustrates is a self-fulfilling prophecy—more soldiers translates to more fighting and more casualties, at least in terms of sheer numbers.
Such patterns also appear in microcosm. With regard to the fighting in Texas in the 1860s—the bloodiest decade in state history—historians often compare troop strength and tactics to Indian raiding patterns. Here we find a pattern matching the rest of the West: In 1861 and 1862, when troop strength dropped to a low of between 500 and 1,000, civilian deaths from Indian attacks also dropped, from 25 to 12, respectively.
In 1863 Texas and the Confederacy increased troop strength on the frontier from 1,000 to 2,000, and casualties climbed to 66. In 1864, incorrectly said to be the worst year of Indian raiding during the Civil War, troop strength decreased from 2,000 to 1,200, then leveled off at 1,500. The number of settlers killed by Indians also fell to 23—the second lowest number of civilian deaths during the decade. By mid-1865 all organized Confederate and state forces had disbanded, and tens of thousands of Union soldiers had arrived, though most of them did not serve on the frontier. That year also saw the end of a 15- year drought. With good grass and plenty of water, the Indians again swept into Texas, and the killings increased to 34.
In 1866 the Comanches and Kiowas were not at war with the United States, were largely at peace with surrounding tribes and had no ratified treaty with Texas. Thus, they could devote their attentions to the sparsely patrolled Lone Star frontier. Civilian killings did climb to 65, but that is still fewer than in 1863 when 1,000 to 2,000 soldiers patrolled the frontier.
By late 1866 U.S. cavalry regiments finally rode to the frontier in force. In 1867 records logged 2,479 soldiers and 37 settler deaths. In 1868 frontier troop strength reached 3,226 men, yet civilian killings increased to 42. In 1869 the Army consolidated its frontier forces. Troop strength dropped to 2,257, and casualties fell to 17. Again, the lowest numbers of settler deaths correlates with the lowest numbers of troops on the frontier, while some of the highest numbers of deaths occurred while troop levels were at their peaks.
The evidence suggests that increased troop numbers did not necessarily curtail the number of raids or killings. Other measures seemed to have as little impact. The Texans had put forth great effort to solve the problem of Indian raiding, from increasing troop numbers to shifting force strength, reorganizing units, employing rangers and militia, and changing tactics from passive patrols to search-and-destroy missions. The frontier still experienced quiet periods and active raiding periods, with no seeming correlation to the shifting military situation. So what did influence the ebb and flow of raids?
One surprising factor was climate. In 1865 farmers and ranchers almost certainly greeted the end of Texas’ long drought as auspicious. Unfortunately, more water and better crops meant better feed for Indian ponies. For many years learned men and land promoters alike adhered to the adage that rainfall followed the plow—a trope finally and dramatically disproven in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. What did appear true, however, was that raiders followed the rainfall. Indeed, it was more of a factor in shaping raiding patterns than Texas Rangers. More often than not Indians were pursuing their own agendas, not reacting to white initiatives; if anything the whites reacted to the Indians’ moves. But as they learned, in a guerrilla war pure military force does not always prove decisive, or even effective. Smallpox and cholera accounted for far more Indian deaths on the frontier than did soldiers’ bullets.
Another commonly repeated assertion is that the U.S. Army had learned total war from its experience in the Civil War and then applied that strategy to the Western Indian wars. In fact, the military had used such tactics on Eastern Indian tribes at least as early as the American Revolution, Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s 1779 scorched-earth campaign against the Iroquois in western New York being one example. The Pequots could certainly testify to the tactic, as they were nearly exterminated as a people in 1630s New England.
Another common misconception regarding warfare is the suggestion that Generals Miles, Crook, William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, drawing on their Civil War experience, determined that winter campaigns were the surest way to bring the Indian tribes to submission. This accepted wisdom also withers under examination. From 1850 to 1865 just 43 percent of all Western Indian battles occurred in winter (October–March), 57 percent in summer (April–September). From 1866 to 1880 winter campaigning accounted for just 36 percent of the total fights.
Another commonly held assertion regarding arms is that the Plains tribes needed the government to supply them with guns and ammunition for hunting game. But mixed-blood soldier-warrior-trader-interpreter George Bent, who lived half his life with the Cheyennes, explained that Indians used arrows, not bullets, to hunt buffalo. Each man’s arrows bore his personal feathering, coloring and marking, Bent explained, thus avoiding quarrels as to which buffalo belonged to which man. “If guns had been used,” Bent said, “there would have been constant squabbling.” Firearms were for killing humans.
If we believe our novelists and filmmakers, Indians always attacked at dawn. Wrong. Between 1850 and 1890, in fights for which the time of day was recorded, Indians attacked in broad daylight 110 times and at dawn 10 times. Likewise, during the same span the Army mounted 221 daylight attacks and 44 at dawn. The soldiers and Indians each made only six nighttime assaults. Both sides were apparently hesitant to chance entering the spirit world in darkness.
On November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington attacked a camp of Cheyennes and Arapahos on Sand Creek in Colorado Territory. Historians have often termed the affair the worst massacre of Plains Indians and claimed that the resultant reaction by the infuriated tribes led to greater retaliatory slaughter and even sparked the Indian wars. This is another assertion that does not stand up to the facts. In Colorado Territory in 1864 records ascribe 91 white casualties to Indian fighting. In 1865, after the supposed furious Indian retaliation, casualties dropped to 42, and in 1866 there were only four. In Kansas over the same three-year span white casualties numbered 33, five and zero, respectively. In Nebraska Territory the numbers dropped from 88 to 39 to two. In New Mexico Territory they dropped from 12 to three to one. Rather than prompting retaliation, then, the Sand Creek attack seems to have had an ameliorating affect on the fighting in Colorado and surrounding states and territories.
With regard to casualties, the greatest numbers came in two wars: one with a tribe in the forefront of the Indian wars, the other with a tribe few people—then or now—considered a major threat to white settlement. The “winner” in this contest depends on how we do the counting.
The dark horse finalist is the Snake War, fought mostly among soldiers, white civilians and the Northern Paiutes. This conflict, lasting from 1864 to 1868, tallied 1,782 casualties, yet it never achieved a place in the American consciousness as did the wars with the Lakotas, Cheyennes, Comanches and Apaches. There are two main reasons. First, the Paiutes—often labeled with the pejorative “Diggers,” as their scarce food supply largely comprised edible roots—were never taken seriously as warriors. Second, the war itself was followed by more spectacular battles, waged by headline-grabbing Army and Indian personalities. The Snake War lacked a Custer, Sheridan, Miles or Ranald Mackenzie. Crook was present but had not yet made a name for himself. There was no Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise or Geronimo. There was no 7th U.S. Cavalry. Few reporters covered the battles. The Paiutes never attracted the artists and photographers the way the Plains tribes did. They drew no Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Charles Schreyvogel, Laton Alton Huffman or Will Soule.
The other contender for most casualties is the Dakota War of 1862. Whites waged four Sioux wars against the Dakota, Nakota and Lakota people: the First Sioux War of 1854–56; the Dakota War, or Dakota Uprising; Red Cloud’s War of 1866–68; and the Great Sioux War of 1876–77. The Dakota War tallied about 1,390 soldiers and Indians killed or wounded. Add the 600 white civilians killed in the initial uprising and massacre that began the war, and the casualties number almost 2,000.
In either case, casualties of the Snake War and Dakota War each exceed those of the Great Sioux War—widely thought of as our deadliest frontier conflict. Whether “Great” refers to the battles or the Sioux Reservation, that war was not so great in retrospect, accounting for an estimated 847 casualties. But historians give it top billing because of the iconic Battle of the Little Bighorn, perhaps for the single fact that it resulted in the Last Stand Hill death of Custer, today’s personified lightning rod of rampant American militarism. Regardless, in terms of casualties, numbers of men engaged and cost to taxpayers, the Dakota War trumps the Great Sioux War.
Next on the Western war list would be the Red River War of 1874, with an estimated 684 casualties. The Yavapai War of 1871–75 tallied 652 casualties, the Nez Perce War of 1877 recorded 418 killed and wounded, while the Modoc War of 1872–73 accounted for 208 casualties.
Which were the most and least effective of the 10 Indian-fighting cavalry regiments in the West—effectiveness equating to numbers of fights and casualties inflicted? The most effective certainly was not the 7th Cavalry, which many people seem to automatically assume was the premier regiment, given the fascination with Custer and his infamous Last Stand in Montana Territory. Those regiments organized earliest did not necessarily participate in the most actions, and those organized last didn’t necessarily engage in the fewest. Overall, the unit with the most battles (208) and the most casualties inflicted (1,225) was the 1st Dragoons, redesignated the 1st Cavalry in 1861. Second or third is a close contest between the 8th Cavalry (organized in 1866 along with the 7th Cavalry), with 166 fights and 682 casualties inflicted, and the Mounted Rifles (which became the 3rd Cavalry), with 140 fights and 885 casualties. Near the bottom are the two black regiments, the 9th and 10th Cavalry (the buffalo soldiers), with 64 and 63 fights, respectively. Among the least effective of the regiments was the 7th Cavalry, with only 40 fights (10th place out of 10) and 645 casualties inflicted (sixth place). Then again, perhaps the 7th was more “effective” in an ironic sort of way than its poor battle record suggests. By losing half its number at the Little Bighorn, the regiment spurred the U.S. government to bring the Indian wars to a close.
The June 25, 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors killed Lt. Col. George Custer and about 268 soldiers and civilians, is often termed the largest battle loss by the U.S. military at the hands of American Indians. While that is true with regard to the fighting west of the Mississippi River, another iconic battle east of the river claims the title. On November 4, 1791, on the present-day Ohio-Indiana line, perhaps 1,000 Shawnees, Miamis and other warriors under Little Turtle and Blue Jacket, attacked General Arthur St. Clair’s 1,400-man encampment, ultimately slaughtering 832 soldiers and civilians. History records the battle as St. Clair’s Defeat.
Back in the West, Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully’s August 7–9, 1864, fight with the Sioux in the Dakota Territory Badlands cost him 109 soldier casualties. The August 23, 1862, Dakota attack on New Ulm, Minn., inflicted 105 white casualties, and the subsequent fight at Birch Coulee on September 2–3 tallied 91 soldier and civilian casualties. The Dakota War accounted for its fair share of the top fights in terms of white soldier and civilian casualties. The Sand Creek fight in 1864— popularly recalled as a massacre of innocent, unarmed Indians—recorded 76 soldier casualties, putting it in eighth place on the list of 1,400-plus fights in the West between 1850 and 1890. Yes, some still assert that the cause of many of those soldier casualties was “friendly fire,” but the documented reports of soldier deaths and wounds from arrows contradicts that assertion.
Debate continues as to whether the civilian volunteer soldiers who fought Western Indians during the Civil War were more aggressive and bloodthirsty than their Regular Army counterparts. Certainly volunteers participated in some of the infamous “massacres” of the West. On January 29, 1863, Colonel Patrick Connor led his California vols against the Shoshones at Bear River, Idaho, killing 224; and Colonel Chivington and his Colorado troops killed about 130 Cheyennes and Arapahos at Sand Creek in November 1864. Then again, on January 23, 1870, Major Eugene Baker led his 2nd Cavalry Regulars in a massacre of Blackfeet at the Marias River in Montana, killing 173, including 53 women and children; and at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry under Colonel James Forsyth killed 128 and wounded 33 surrendered Lakotas. Just who was “bloodier” is a toss-up. We must remember, too, that about the only difference between a Regular and a volunteer was that one man joined a Federal force while the other joined a state unit.
A number of Indian wars episodes stick in the pub- lic imagination due to the irony of the situations. For example, on the morning of December 21, 1866, Captain William J. Fetterman supposedly said, “Give me 80 men, and I’ll ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” With those words he promptly rode out of Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming Territory, with 80 men and was duly massacred. John H. Monnett addressed this in his 2008 book Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed and could find no record of such a statement until 38 years after it was supposedly uttered. Fetterman’s commanding officer at the time, Colonel Henry B. Carrington, and Carrington’s first and second wives, were instrumental in starting the story, and author Cyrus Townsend Brady gave literary form to the suggestion in his 1904 book Indian Fights and Fighters. Bottom line, Fetterman never said it, but as Monnett argues, “Irony often outlasts historical fact.”
It is often said that George Custer didn’t listen to his scouts at the Little Bighorn, with fatal consequences. This is not irony but a moral lesson similar to those found in a 19th-century McGuffey Reader. But the actual situation is ironic. Although one of Custer’s scouts did report a large Indian camp on the river, the majority warned that the 7th Cavalry had been discovered, and if Custer wanted to bring the Sioux to battle, he would have to attack them immediately. Custer was reluctant, preferring to wait until the next day and thus allow other Army units to catch up. Unfortunately, as it turns out, Custer did listen to his scouts, and that is why he died. This is one case in which the great irony of the situation is relatively unknown and fails to supplant the preferred depiction of Custer as an arrogant hawk refusing to heed good advice.
Another irony surrounds the infamous phrase, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.” Trader Andrew J. Myrick is supposed to have said this to hungry Dakotas in Minnesota in August 1862. For generations historians have passed down Myrick’s phrase, almost always as an illustration of white man’s insensitivity, meanness and stupidity. But did he say it? Studying the correspondence of those present and the historians who later wrote about it, it is impossible to establish the words, the place and the time of the alleged incident. Those who observed the confrontation and later wrote reports and books about it did not mention the incident. Neither did John P. Williamson, the translator that day.
The first time Myrick’s phrase was attributed to a white eyewitness and printed in its popular context is in Winifred W. Barton’s 1919 book about her father, John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux. Thus, the first time a white eyewitness is said to have heard Myrick’s “grass” statement came 57 years after the fact. From that time on Myrick has been pilloried as having told the Indians to eat grass.
It does make good copy: An obstreperous white man telling starving Indians to eat grass, only to get his just desserts by being killed and having grass stuffed in his mouth. It is such great historical irony, in fact, that it will probably never be excised from the annals of legend.
We can trace the origins of other myths to specific authors. Mari Sandoz for one, although a fine writer, was sometimes rather relaxed with her sourcing. For instance, her depiction of Sioux warrior Crazy Horse as head of the decoy party that led Captain Fetterman to his death at Fort Phil Kearny in December 1866 appears to have been purely concocted. Evidence suggests the young Oglala was somewhere in the vicinity, but as historian John Monnett has discovered, virtually no primary sources place Crazy Horse as a decoy in the Fetterman Fight, let alone leading the party. The story originates with Sandoz’ 1942 biography of Crazy Horse, and other authors have since cited her assertion as fact.
Sandoz also claimed that George Custer had a desire to become president of the United States. Again, virtually nothing in the historical record would lead us to this conclusion. Craig Repass puts the myth to rest in his 1985 book Custer for President?, concluding that “no documented statements by Custer, either private or public, pertaining to his presidential aspirations exist,” and that Sandoz was only adept “at fabricating the truth.” Far beyond the depictions of Custer as a glory hunter with delusions of grandeur, movies such as 1970’s Little Big Man have painted him as a certifiable lunatic. That film, based on Thomas Berger’s 1964 satirical novel, was historical fiction and an obvious burlesque of American history. Far too many people, however, get their “history” from such fictional movies and incorporate the ideas into their world picture. Like irony, these popular lampoons make such “good” stories they will likely appear for years to come.
Today we can witness a myth in the making. The National Park Service seems to be on a mission to include the Arapahos as a tribal force in the Little Bighorn story. “The fact remains that the Arapahos as a tribe were never a part of the alliance of Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes in 1876– 77,” explains historian Jerry Greene. “At Little Bighorn there were five individuals who happened on the scene and were at first held as prisoners by the Sioux, who suspected they were scouts for the Army [see John Koster’s “The ‘Arapaho Five’ at the Little Bighorn,” in the June 2012 Wild West]. To accord the Arapahos as a tribe full membership in the intertribal coalition that defeated Custer is nonsense, but because of political correctness this error will likely never be corrected and will prevail as such in the park’s interpretive program.”
Many Americans relish stories about the Wild West and worship the frontier heroes whom they believe define our nation’s very character. Much of what we think we know about their daring deeds, however, is part of the “Everybody Knows” history that collapses under scrutiny. Yet it seems we will always love the old fables and legends. We prefer myth to reality, and thus it will echo down through the years.
Colorado author Gregory Michno is a special contributor to Wild West (his article “Ten Myths at the Little Bighorn” is available to read on our website, www.WildWestMag.com) and the author of many books that challenge myths about the West. Suggested for further reading are his Lakota Noon (1997), Encyclopedia of Indian Wars (2003), A Fate Worse Than Death (2007), Forgotten Fights (2008), Circle the Wagons! (2008), Dakota Dawn (2011) and The Settlers’ War (2011).
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.