Letter from Wild West – August 2010

Cheyennes Were Not Always No. 2 in the Fighting
Lakotas come to mind first when we think of northern Plains warriors

Who routed George Custer at the Little Bighorn? Indians—lots of Indians. The more specific answer inevitably goes, “the Sioux, the Cheyennes and the Arapahos.” And that’s as it should be. Most of the Indians at the “big village” on June 25, 1876, were Sioux, including the Big Two—Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. But while far more Sioux (Lakotas, Dakotas and Nakotas) than Cheyennes were on the frontier, it was not always so in battle. “In fact,” says Indian wars historian John Monnett, “the tribe which had their villages attacked by Army troops most frequently in the 19th century were unquestionably the Cheyennes.” Sand Creek is the most infamous example.

“With their big names, big battles (especially Custer’s Last Stand) and media attention, the Sioux seem to overshadow the Cheyennes,” says historian Gregory Michno, “although the Cheyennes were in nearly as many fights overall.” He examined 675 Indian-soldier clashes for his Encyclopedia of Indian Wars: Western Battles and Skirmishes, 1850–1890 and reported the Sioux were in 98 fights and caused 1,250 casualties (12.7 per fight), while the Cheyennes had 89 fights and caused 642 casualties (7.2 per fight).

Their combined fight total (187) falls short of the Apaches (214), but the Apaches avoided big battles and caused only 566 casualties (2.6 per fight). The Comanches are fourth with 72 fights (230 casualties caused, 3.1 per fight). For Arapaho aficionados, that tribe participated in only six fights (inflicting 29 casualties, 4.8 per fight). Indian casualty figures are less reliable, but soldiers did more than their share of “inflicting.” Of the 21,586 casualties Michno counted, 14,990 (69 percent) were Indians and 6,596 were military men and civilians.

“Most Plains tribes were culturally identical in their strategy and tactics in battle,” Monnett says. One can argue over which was the top fighting tribe, but all were deadly enough to settlers and soldiers under siege. The Sioux held sway on the northern Plains. But as Michno points out, Kansas settlers always talked about the Cheyennes first, and those in Arizona thought first of the Apaches, while Texans mostly had Comanches on the brain. Nobody thought of Comanches more than Texan Cynthia Ann Parker, captured by them at age 9 and later captured back by Texans when she was wife of Peta Nacona and mother of Quanah.

John Koster’s cover story makes a case that Roman Nose was the heroic champion of the Cheyenne Nation. Certainly, Roman Nose, like other famous Cheyennes (Black Kettle and Dull Knife come to mind) is not as well known as Sioux standouts Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud. That is understandable. “Roman Nose, a Northern Cheyenne of the Crooked Lance soldier society but never a chief, came south to Kansas in 1866 to fight with the Dog Soldiers,” says Monnett. “He was never really known as a diplomat or eloquent spokesman for his people during peace negotiations.” However, Monnett adds, “he is remembered today as an inspirational warrior of daring and bravery,” which supports Koster’s assessment. Like Custer, Roman Nose is best known for the fight in which his daring got him killed. “At Beecher Island, his superstitions kept him out of the fight at first, and he probably would have sat it out had not others called him a ‘chicken,’” says Michno. “Not much tactical sense charging head on into an entrenched group of soldiers with repeaters.”

In my youth (shortly after the Indian wars), I was shocked to learn that Indians named “Sue” and their ally “Shy Ann” had wiped out Custer. Nothing about Arapahos registered. I knew more about Apaches from TV’s Broken Arrow. But while learning to spell and watching Cheyenne (Clint Walker’s character was raised by the tribe), I concluded that Cheyennes were cool and that the Sioux were not forced to become ferocious fighting men because of their name.

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