Interview With Historian Paul Hedren | HistoryNet MENU

Interview With Historian Paul Hedren

By Johnny D. Boggs
3/30/2012 • Interviews, Wild West Interviews

Paul Hedren boasts unprecendented knowledge of the Great Sioux War. (Photo by Sarah Duke)
Paul Hedren boasts unprecendented knowledge of the Great Sioux War. (Photo by Sarah Duke)
George Armstrong Custer scholars are ubiquitous, but few living historians have the grasp of the Great Sioux War that Paul L. Hedren does. Since 1980 his books have included First Scalp for Custer: The Skirmish at Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska, July 17, 1876; Fort Laramie in 1876: Chronicle of a Frontier Post at War; Fort Laramie and the Great Sioux War; and Great Sioux War Orders of Battle: How the United States Army Waged War on the Northern Plains, 1876–1877. The retired National Park Service superintendent continues his studies with After Custer: Loss and Transformation in Sioux Country (winner of the 2012 Western Heritage “Nonfiction Book” Wrangler; see review), which examines not so much the U.S. military response after the 7th Cavalry’s defeat at the Little Bighorn as the impact of the subsequent war on culture, environment and geography across the northern Plains. Wild West caught up with Hedren at his Omaha, Neb., home.

‘There are pretty dramatic human and environmental consequences lurking in this great drama. Of course, this is what makes Western history so immensely fascinating’

What was the genesis for After Custer?
This new book is the outgrowth of several things. I wrote a traveler’s guide to the Great Sioux War some years ago that provided an opportunity to explore the back roads and farthest corners of the northern Plains. I was searching for war-related sites in this vast five-state region—in After Custer I came to call it “Sioux country”—but I also never missed pausing at every roadside marker I’d encounter along the way or miss stopping at every city and county museum I’d see. Of course, those signs and museums almost always showcased local ranching, railroads, forts, reservations, mining enterprises and whatnot, and it increasingly occurred to me that every bit of it was related in one way or another to the saga of the Great Sioux War, the last great Indian war on the northern Plains.

Did your extensive research lead to any personal revelations?
One thing hit me hard. I grew up celebrating things like the construction of the transcontinental railroads and the “beef bonanza” and see them still as extraordinary national accomplishments that truly helped define America. But this book forced me to see it all in quite a different light. The Indian barrier had to be removed before the Northern Pacific could advance westward from Bismarck. The northern buffalo herd had to be eliminated before cattle could spread across the same range. And the plight of the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes in the early reservation era is a pretty tough story. I don’t mean to sound overmelancholy, and I hope the book doesn’t read that way, but there are pretty dramatic human and environmental consequences lurking in this great drama. Of course, this is what makes Western history so immensely fascinating.

What were the consequences of the Little Bighorn?
The Army’s defeat at the Little Bighorn had shocking consequences all around. Despite the loss of his friend Custer, General Philip Sheridan was not about to lose this war, and he doubled down as only the Army could, flooding Sioux country with a fresh round of capable and determined commanders and troops that mercilessly harassed the Lakotas and their Northern Cheyenne allies until they either gave way or fled to Canada [as Sitting Bull did]. The tribesmen resisted as long as they could but simply were unable to cope with the death of yet one more warrior or the destruction of one more village. This had the tribesmen on an emotional roller coaster, experiencing surging confidence after the Powder River and Rosebud battles, a sense of invincibility at Little Bighorn and then a disturbing collapse as the war’s fortunes turned and the alternatives of Canada or the agencies were forced upon them.

How did the Northern Pacific factor in?
My friend Paul Hutton keenly observed in his book Phil Sheridan and His Army that had the Panic of 1873 not brought the nation and this railroad to its knees, this Sioux war would have been fought in 1873 or 1874, not 1876, and he’s absolutely right. The NPRR was destined to build a northern transcontinental line that spanned Sioux country. The Sioux proved able obstructers when railroad surveyors explored the Yellowstone River valley in the early 1870s. But by 1878, when railroad construction resumed, the Sioux were either agency residents or exiled in Canada, and still the Army carefully guarded NP surveyors, bridge builders, graders and track layers. I tell both stories, that of construction and the Army’s efforts at shielding the enterprise.

What about the buffalo hide industry?
In the early 1870s the country had demonstrated its capacity to rub out the southern buffalo herd, and it seemed rather inevitable that the same fate awaited the northern herd, and all that was required was access to the land and shipping. In my discussion of the buffalo story in Sioux country in the early 1880s I pay some heed to the simple story of killing buffalo. But I pay greater attention to the work of men like William Hornaday of the Smithsonian Institution, who went to Montana in 1886, not to save live buffalo but to kill 100 more for their skins and bones. As a former National Park Service historian and superintendent, I found that quite ironic. Hornaday couldn’t find 100 animals and settled for 30. Fortunately, before all was lost, the saving of live animals gained stride in places like Yellowstone National Park, abetted by men like George Bird Grinnell and none other than Buffalo Bill Cody.

How do cattle fit into the picture?
In the view of many, including me, the story of the open range is one of the American West’s epochal moments. I explore how cattlemen went about building an industry in the 1880s in Wyoming, Montana and the Little Missouri River country of Dakota Territory. The open range era did not survive the 1880s, and I tell of its calamitous end, too, and unhesitatingly remind readers that this was Sioux and buffalo country first.

The Great Sioux Reservation broke up?
The longest chapter in After Custer explores the travails faced by the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne people after the fighting ended. It became one fitful event after another into the 1890s, from the killing of some of the great chiefs, tumultuous relocations, the surrenders from Canada, the impositions of assimilation and the tireless assault on the land that resulted in the cutting up of the singular Great Sioux Reservation into the much smaller individual reservations we know today. I love the quote from one old Sioux whose name seems lost to posterity: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: They promised to take our land, and they took it.”

What’s the next project for you?
I have a new book coming this summer that explores the Black Hills gold rush in 1875 and 1876. It’s told through the eyes of Captain Jack Crawford, the flamboyant, self-proclaimed “Poet-Scout of the Black Hills,” who wrote dozens of letters to the Omaha Daily Bee newspaper, reporting on the rush. He’s a nearly unknown eyewitness to this colorful story. That the Black Hills gold rush is inextricably linked to the Sioux War, and that Crawford found his way to the war front and wrote some letters from there, too, which are in the book, fits a pattern for me, doesn’t it?

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