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Interview with Fetterman Fight Author John Monnett

By Candy Moulton 
Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 03, 2009 
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John Monnett
John Monnett
The Fetterman Fight of December 21, 1866, was initially referred to as the Fetterman Massacre, as the Sioux prevailed. Like many other events involving Indians, that clash needed reexamination. John H. Monnett was just the man to do it. He teaches Native Americans in American History to upper-division undergraduate students at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Monnett's courses deal particularly with the resistance period from the 17th to the 19th centuries and examine the many roles Indians have played in events shaping the nation. Often he finds these roles have been "misinterpreted in one way or another."

The native Kansan's latest book, Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed: The Struggle for the Powder River Country in 1866 and the Making of the Fetterman Myth, puts the December battle under the microscope and also examines the bigger picture—Red Cloud's War. Monnett also wrote Tell Them We Are Going Home: The Odyssey of the Northern Cheyennes (2001), a moving account of that tribe's flight from Indian Territory to their northern Plains homeland. His other works include Massacre at Cheyenne Hole: Lieutenant Austin Henely and the Sappa Creek Controversy (1999); Colorado Profiles: Men and Women Who Shaped the Centennial State (1996, with Michael McCarthy); The Battle of Beecher Island and the Indian War of 1867–1869 (1993); and A Rocky Mountain Christmas: Yuletide Stories of the West (1987). Monnett recently spoke with Wild West about his work.

'Can Indian sources be biased? Of course. So can military records, in which some officers tried to put themselves and their commands in the best possible light in comparison to others'

Have you participated in excavations at Indian battle sites?
I am a historian by profession. I think it's too strong to call myself even an amateur archaeologist. I have tagged along on several private property digs of stage stations on the Overland Trail that were important to the raiding years of the 1860s, as well as the site of Lieutenant Lyman Kidder's demise in 1867 near Goodland, Kan., and the site of the Hungate Massacre, which caused some hysteria among Denver residents during the Indian war in Colorado in 1864. The only official state dig I have asked to participate in was years ago, when the state of Arizona archaeology department unearthed a grave alleged to be that of the outlaw John Ringo.

How do you put together accounts of Indian war battles?
I am probably a bit unusual in the way I weave original source material into my writing. I write a lot on the military history of the resistance period, and I firmly believe that to do so properly a historian should not "choose sides," or approach a body of research with preconceived sociopolitical conclusions. Certainly, Indian people have a responsibility to tell their side of American history and colonialism and even to decolonize their history, as many wish to do today. But virtually all antagonists in the Indian wars resided or intended to reside in the Americas. We are all Americans. Some of us simply have ancestors that were here long, long before others and suffered terribly at the hands of newcomers because of conflicting political and economic ambitions. Most of us, too, have at least some history or archaeological record of being "the invaders" at one time or another. Consequently, I feel all military history should be balanced, since military history usually involves two or more groups with different motives and ideologies that were at odds with one another to the point of war.

You often include Indian perspectives?
I feel it a must to include as many original Indian eyewitness testimonies as possible, and even a modicum of ethnohistory in a work to balance military and other Euro-American records. Of course, most original Indian testimony was given to white stenographers and interviewers, whose cultural lens filters may have overshadowed original intent at times. I am leery of secondary source Indian testimony, like latter-day oral traditions, that cannot be traced back to at least one or two original Indian sources.

Where do you find original Indian sources?
I consider original winter counts, ledger drawings, etc., to also be original source documents, and, of course, archaeological evidence likewise constitutes primary source material if there is enough of it from which to draw conclusions or raise additional questions. Can Indian sources be biased? Of course. So can military records, in which some officers tried to put themselves and their commands in the best possible light in comparison to others. The military experience at Fort Phil Kearny in 1866–67 is rife with such self-serving reports. That's why historians, especially in this field, must always seek corroboration, if it exists, of multiple and often divergent sources.

What is the significance of the Massacre at Cheyenne Hole?
In 1999 I wrote a book published by the University Press of Colorado about the alleged Massacre at Cheyenne Hole in northern Kansas in 1875 (in which the 6th U.S. Cavalry attacked and destroyed a Southern Cheyenne camp). It was the last fight of the Red River War. There were many unanswered questions as to the specifics of the fight. But looking back on it today, I think the more overriding significance of the event is that it illustrated just how dangerous life was for Cheyennes trying to move north and south to see relatives in Indian Territory and Montana during the 1870s. Of course, white settlers who were filling up Kansas at the same time sometimes fell to traveling Indians in times of conflict, whom they didn't realize still moved through western Kansas in the 1870s. They became victims, too. William Y. Chalfant also wrote a book on this event shortly before me, and I think that between the two of us we probably got most of it right. Of course, new information always turns up in history.

How do you compare Red Cloud and Crazy Horse with Dull Knife and Little Wolf?
Red Cloud and Crazy Horse are the two greatest Oglala leaders in Lakota history judging from the charisma they seemingly had for their many followers. Red Cloud was the greater orator and statesman in his later life, while Crazy Horse remained the consummate rebel hero to the end. The Dull Knifes are a highly esteemed family in Cheyenne history. Morning Star, while garnering much subsequent attention for the Northern Cheyenne trek north from Indian Territory in 1878–79 because of the highly publicized outbreak from Fort Robinson, was really only second in stature at the time of the odyssey. Little Wolf, sweet medicine chief of all Cheyennes, was actually the primary figure in that seminal episode in Northern Cheyenne history.

What about Black Kettle?
Black Kettle was more of a peace chief. From my limited study of him, I get the impression that he was a very intelligent individual who recognized the numbers he was up against with the hordes of gold seekers and others coming to Colorado within a few short years. I do question, however, how much influence his personality played in controlling the bulk of the Southern Cheyennes of the 1860s. He was not liked by all, especially the Dog Soldiers. I also have a suspicion that a few militants with families and friends were usually in his "peaceful" encampments, though how many, and whether he knew about them and tried to expel them, I cannot say.

Which of your subjects do you find most intriguing?
I really feel compassion for the Northern Cheyennes' trek to the northern Plains in 1878–79. Of all the research I have conducted and books and articles I have written, this topic has stirred in me the most interest and passion. Of all the other great forced migrations of Indian people in American history—the Trail of Tears, the Long Walk and the ordeal of the Nez Perce—the Northern Cheyenne odyssey seems the most dramatic to me. These people were the only ones to win the right to settle back permanently in their traditional homelands through their own daring, self-determination, sacrifice and fortitude.

What led to the Fetterman Fight?
The factors that led to Red Cloud's War, climaxed by the Fetterman Fight in 1866, are many. Certainly the determination of the federal government to provide a cost-effective route to the Montana gold country via the Bozeman Trail across the Powder River country and through prime hunting ranges of the Lakotas is significant. What often goes unstated are the ecological advantages the Powder River country offered to Indian people in terms of not only game abundance, but wood and water resources as well. It was prized land for both Lakotas and Crows. The Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes wrested these lands from their Crow enemies in a bloody war in 1856–1858. Barely half a decade later, here come the whites. With fresh memories of the casualties and other costs of the Crow War, the Lakotas and Cheyennes were not about to let the whites wrest the Powder River country from them.

Did the fight affect incursion into the Powder River Basin?
The Fetterman Fight called attention to how utterly unprotected travel on the Bozeman Trail really was because of the federal economies in manpower and weaponry during the immediate post–Civil War years. Although breechloading rifles had reached the forts on the Bozeman Trail by 1867, and troops effectively defended themselves in the Hayfield and Wagon Box fights, the only whites the troops were protecting by that time were themselves. The Union Pacific Railroad had reached toward Salt Lake City by 1867, making the route north from Utah shorter. The government closed the Bozeman Trail to civilian traffic in January 1867. Throughout Red Cloud's War the Indians held the balance of power in the Powder River country.

How were the tribes impacted?
By 1868 the federal government was quite willing to temporarily concede the Powder River country to Red Cloud, since the forts were by then obsolete. But although Red Cloud technically won the war, he lost the peace. The convoluted Treaty of 1868, negotiated at Fort Laramie, made the Lakotas "reservation Indians" and had hidden provisions allowing the government to build roads and withdraw the so-called unceded hunting ranges in the Powder River country at some later date. The same year the treaty went into effect, the government created Wyoming Territory, indicating the intention to eventually open the Powder River country to white settlement. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills five years later, the Powder River country would once again become contested land during the Great Sioux War of 1876–77.

What did you learn about Crazy Horse's role in the fight?
The biggest surprise I had in researching my book on the Powder River conflict of 1866 revolved around the actions of Crazy Horse. I was excited about the prospect of uncovering new tidbits of information about his legendary actions as a decoy on Lodge Trail Ridge at the start of the Fetterman Fight. To my shock, I found just the opposite. Of course, the military primary sources don't mention Crazy Horse at the Fetterman Fight, because none of the officers at Fort Phil Kearny had heard of him yet, and those who encountered him at the fight didn't live to tell about it. All primary source materials on the fight, once the battle reached Lodge Trail Ridge, are Indian eyewitness testimonies. Virtually no Indian original source suggests Crazy Horse was in the Fetterman Fight, let alone participating as a decoy. Fellow Oglala American Horse was a decoy, and possibly George Sword was, too. They were interviewed at a later date, and none mention Crazy Horse.

So where did the erroneous accounts originate?
The stories we hear today I traced back to Mari Sandoz, in her novel Crazy Horse, Strange Man of the Oglalas, published in 1942. If Sandoz had access to any aged warriors or children of warriors at that late date who remembered Crazy Horse in the elaborate detail she described in her novel regarding the Fetterman Fight, she did not have the presence of mind to credit them by name or in any other way in her book. Also, no information is present in her notes she transcribed for Eleanor Hinman when the two women interviewed He Dog and other aged Lakotas regarding their memories of Crazy Horse during the 1930s. Most modern stories of Crazy Horse's exploits at the Fetterman Fight that I've heard or read echo Sandoz' vivid prose. Of course, this in no way diminishes Crazy Horse's stature.

Was Crazy Horse even there?
I just cannot see him not being in the battle at all. There just are not any primary eyewitness Indian sources to nail it down.

What inspired the title Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed?
Non-Indian students of the Fetterman Fight have often wondered why Lakotas and Cheyennes have always called the battle "Where a Hundred Were Slain," "Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed" or, most frequently, "Hundred in the Hand" when Fetterman died along with only 80 men. I originally intended to title my book Hundred in the Hand, but Joseph Marshall III came out with a novel with that title shortly before my book went to print, so we decided to change the title. Indian variations on the name always have 100 in the title because of a Lakota prophet who shortly before the ambush had a vision that 100 soldiers would fall to his people in the ensuing battle. His vision was only 19 short—21 short if you don't count the two civilians who were killed in the fight.

Which Indian leader do you find most compelling?
Of all the Native American leaders I have studied, I find Little Wolf of the Northern Cheyennes to be the most intriguing. I don't believe he has been given the credit he deserves in secondary histories about the remarkable Cheyenne trek to Montana in 1878–79. This is probably due to some unfortunate events that took place in his life on the reservation in later years. (He shot and killed fellow Cheyenne Starving Elk while intoxicated.) But, unlike Chief Joseph in 1877, he brought his people home and helped see to it they could remain there forever. I am currently researching information for a biography on this unusual and remarkable Cheyenne chief.

Candy Moulton is a regular contributor to Wild West and author of the Spur Award–winning biography Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People.


9 Responses to “Interview with Fetterman Fight Author John Monnett”


  1. 1
    Marshall says:

    I have one big question. Why is it that when the Army kill all the Indians in a battle it's called a "massacre", but when the Indians kill all the soldiers it's called a "fight"? Isn't that a double standard?

    • 1.1
      Alan Johnson says:

      Actually, you have it turned around. When Indians won it was called a massacre in American press and literature of the time. Fetterman "fight" came into usage only because the double "Fs" roll off the tongue. For years, the Battle of the Little Big Horn was called a "massacre." But "Custer's Last Stand" became the most common term.

      • 1.1.1
        Alan Johnson says:

        I should also add that these terms came into usage in the 19th century. There was no such thing as "political correctness" the way modern day racial reactionaries use the term, when refering to the races in that era.

  2. 2
    Joe Kelly says:

    Its a massacre because in EVERY battle that the Indians won and held the field they MURDERED all the wounded soldiers. In EVERY battle the army held the field prisoners were taken.

    • 2.1
      Alan Johnson says:

      "Every?" Really? Wrong on both counts. What possible source could you have for this statement?

      • 2.1.1
        Steve Bock says:

        I find that Joe Kelly's response that "EVERY" time in all caps is not only improper usage in a reply even if he wishes to add emphasis to his assertion, Alan is correct where did you get your sources sir, you sound very opinionated and uninformed.

  3. 3
    anthony wands says:

    could you supply me with more information on my great grandfather on his military history after 1866 and where he served. His name was Alexander H. Wands and he was a Lt. under Henry Carrington at Fort Phil Kearny, wyoming, any info will be greatly appreciated.

    anthony wands
    6 Spring Street
    Waterville,Me. 04901

  4. 4
    Dylan says:

    this is crap

  5. 5
    Dylan says:

    just "kidding"



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