In the summer of 1872, surveyors from the Northern Pacific Railroad were seeking the best route for the nation’s northern transcontinental line through the Yellowstone River valley. Because this pristine area was one of the important hunting grounds for the formidable Lakotas (Sioux), the railroad surveyors were given military escorts. Protecting one group of surveyors coming from the west was a force under Major Eugene M. Baker, and protecting another coming from the east was a force under Colonel David S. Stanley. A band led by Gall, a war chief of the Hunkpapas, the northernmost of the seven Lakota tribes, was the first to encounter the soldiers under Stanley. He reported Colonel Stanley’s presence to fellow Hunkpapa Sitting Bull, who had already successfully dealt with Baker’s smaller force 160 miles away.
Gall attacked Stanley’s men twice in the wilderness area where the Powder River joins the Yellowstone. During their second encounter, at the Battle of O’Fallon’s Creek, Gall, now fighting in coordination with Sitting Bull, was driven back by Stanley’s Gatling guns. The Sioux City Daily Journal proved that Gall was already gaining a fearsome reputation when it boasted about Colonel Stanley’s decisive counterattack. ‘If Mr. Big Gaul [sic] ever again attacks any party crossing the plains, he will…first look sharply to see if they got any Gatlins [sic] with them.’
Gall enhanced his new notoriety when he followed Stanley’s 17th Infantry column back to Fort Rice on the Missouri River. With approximately 100 warriors, the ever-alert Hunkpapa war chief’s band, which was always on the lookout for stragglers, caught and killed two white officers and Stanley’s mulatto cook; each of these men had foolishly gone out to hunt alone. One of the officers was 2nd Lt. Lewis Dent Adair, a first cousin to President Ulysses S. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant. Gall also horrified many of Stanley’s men by displaying the scalps of at least two of these victims on a hillock near Fort Rice. Because of the prominence of Lieutenant Adair and the open defiance of Gall, Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan decided in 1873 to send a much larger force — more than 1,500 soldiers, including most of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry — back to the Yellowstone. Although Gall’s name had appeared in federal records as early as 1866, he became a truly national figure by his bold escapades during the 1872 campaign.
The close cooperation between Gall and Sitting Bull in opposing the U.S. Army’s 1872 and 1873 Yellowstone expeditions was a factor in the Northern Pacific’s decision to delay for six years the construction of its transcontinental rail line through Montana Territory. The railroad’s financial collapse, which triggered the national Panic of 1873, was a much more important factor. Nevertheless, the alliance of these two Hunkpapa leaders was impressive — and it actually went back well before the early ’70s.Sitting Bull was 9 years old when Gall was born in 1840 on the banks of the Moreau River in what would become South Dakota. For more than two decades, he watched young Gall grow into an increasingly powerful and fearless warrior. The older man would eventually become a mentor to the fatherless Gall. They both belonged to a prestigious warrior society, the Strong Heart Society, and together they organized an even more prestigious warrior society for their Hunkpapa comrades.
Although Gall’s and Sitting Bull’s early exploits as warriors were largely confined to counting coup against such traditional tribal enemies as the Crows and Assiniboines, the encroachment of white settlers into their hunting lands in Dakota Territory created a new set of enemies for them. During the early stages of America’s Civil War, a bloody Sioux war called the Minnesota Uprising was put down by the state’s first governor, Henry H. Sibley. In 1863 Sibley and Alfred Sully, both of whom had been made brigadier generals by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, invaded the Dakota country. They were in pursuit of the routed followers of the chief Sioux leader of the Minnesota Uprising, Little Crow, who was killed at the Battle of Wood Lake in Minnesota. Sitting Bull and Gall’s Hunkpapas, joined by other Lakota tribes, soon became involved in a series of battles on the side of their Sioux brethren from Minnesota. In the summer of 1864, Gall and Sitting Bull fought against a large force of blue-coated soldiers under Sully’s command in the bitterly contested Battle of Killdeer Mountain near the Badlands of North Dakota. Two weeks later, both were involved in an attack on a wagon train carrying 150 emigrants to the gold fields of western Montana Territory.
An 1862 gold strike in the Bannack area had already exacerbated the strained relations between Indians and white intruders. It had led to the development of the controversial Bozeman Trail, which was blazed through what would become Wyoming to connect the Oregon Trail with the promising Montana Territory gold fields. The Powder River country, which was directly in the path of the Bozeman Trail, was a treasured Lakota hunting ground wrested from the Crows. When the Army built forts along the trail to protect the gold seekers, the great Oglala Sioux leader Red Cloud besieged two of the forts. The effort by the soldiers at Fort Phil Kearny (in present-day Wyoming) to lift the siege at their post led to the December 21, 1866, Fetterman Fight, in which Captain William Judd Fetterman and approximately 80 of his men perished in an ambush engineered by Crazy Horse and his mentor, Minneconjou Sioux Chief High-Back-Bone (also known as Hump). Six months later, another attack by Cheyenne warriors, known as the Hayfield Fight, showed that Fort C.F. Smith in Montana Territory was also vulnerable.
Gall’s participation in these Powder River hostilities was probably limited. In late 1865, he was almost killed while encamped near Fort Berthold, in what would become North Dakota, where he had hoped to trade with Arikara Indians. He was spotted by Bloody Knife, who would later become Custer’s favorite scout. Bloody Knife, whose mother was Arikara, had lived in his father’s Hunkpapa camp and grown up with Gall and Sitting Bull. A deep animosity developed between him and Gall and lasted until Bloody Knife’s death at the Little Bighorn in 1876. Harboring old resentments against Gall, Bloody Knife led a detachment of soldiers from the fort to Gall’s tepee. There, the unsuspecting Hunkpapa war chief was bayoneted in a vicious attack that almost cost him his life.
Largely because of Gall’s iron constitution, he survived his wounds to play an important role in the ratification of the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868. Because of Red Cloud’s tenacious campaign against the intrusive Bozeman Trail, this treaty not only closed the forts along the trail but also gave the Lakotas an enormous tract of land, which was later called the Great Sioux Reservation. It encompassed all of western South Dakota, including the Black Hills, and provided annuities for those Indians who agreed to live there. The treaty also set aside as ‘unceded Indian territory’ the Powder River country in Wyoming. Although most of the southern Lakota tribesmen were willing to live on the new reservation, a number of northern ones, including many Hunkpapas, were not.
The federal government even sent the intrepid Jesuit missionary Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet to Gall and Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa village to discuss the Fort Laramie Treaty. Only an imposing escort of strong-willed leaders, such as Gall and Sitting Bull, saved the popular priest from a possible assassination attempt at this tense meeting. In the end, Sitting Bull and the other leading chiefs refused to attend a July 1868 conference to ratify the treaty.
Sitting Bull did, however, send a delegation headed by Gall to Fort Rice for the conference, probably as a courtesy to Father DeSmet. Gall not only denounced with eloquence the treaty but also threw off his blanket to reveal his ugly wounds that had been inflicted by Army bayonets at Fort Berthold. But a generous offering of gifts induced Gall and the other delegates to agree to the treaty. Many of the older Hunkpapa chiefs were critical of Gall’s surprise turnabout. Yet Sitting Bull, who truly understood his valued protg, was not. ‘You should not blame Gall,’ he remarked. ‘Everyone knows he will do anything for a square meal.’
Neither Gall nor Sitting Bull understood the binding nature of a treaty. In fact, at an 1869 meeting on the Rosebud, involving many Lakotas who had rejected the Fort Laramie Treaty, it was decided to organize all nontreaty Indians in an effort to protect their traditional way of life. Sitting Bull was made supreme chief; Crazy Horse, an Oglala warrior who had broken with Red Cloud, became his chief lieutenant; and Lakota leaders such as Gall and Crow King were made war chiefs.
This new coalition of nontreaty warriors proved that it had the will to resist white encroachments during the 1872 and 1873 Yellowstone campaigns. During the 1873 campaign, Gall made himself conspicuous on August 11 in what became known as the Battle of the Yellowstone, his first encounter with Custer. In an intense Lakota and Cheyenne charge up a steep bluff along the Yellowstone, occupied by such members of the 7th Cavalry as Custer’s brother Tom, Gall was spotted by New York Tribune correspondent Samuel J. Barrows. The Hunkpapa war chief stood out because of his muscular frame and the familiar red blanket that often marked his presence in any Hunkpapa war party. Gall’s pony was shot from under him during the fray, but the agile warrior, according to Barrows, ‘leaped on a fresh horse and got away.’
Coincidently, the equally dashing Custer had his 11th horse shot from under him during that same battle. Incidents such as this one explain why many soldiers called Gall the ‘Fighting Cock of the Sioux.’
The determination shown by Gall and other warriors at the Yellowstone created serious problems for the Grant administration. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 by an expedition led by Custer, for instance, prompted a gold rush that was in clear violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty. During the winter of 1875-76, the growing number of defiant Indians who gathered in the treaty-sanctioned ‘unceded Indian territory’ of the Powder River caused great alarm in Washington. Conferences in the Executive Mansion (now called the White House) led to an ultimatum that all these nontreaty bands must return to their agencies on the Great Sioux Reservation by January 31, 1876, or face the consequences. But whether through defiance or because of severe winter weather, most did not return.
To enforce the federal government’s ultimatum, General Sheridan planned a three-pronged attack against these obstinate nontreaty bands, who were now joined by many heretofore cooperative Lakotas from the Great Sioux Reservation. Brigadier General George Crook would approach the Powder River country from the south, Colonel John Gibbon from the west and Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry from the east. Serving under Terry was the experienced Indian fighter Colonel Custer and his 7th Cavalry. Crook was turned back by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors at the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876; Gall was probably there, but there is no evidence that he took an active part as Crazy Horse did. Eight days later, Custer and his 7th Cavalry, moving ahead of both Terry and Gibbon, attacked a huge encampment of Lakota Indians and their Cheyenne allies along the Little Bighorn River.
Gall’s role at the Battle of the Little Bighorn would become a controversial one. The encampment of Gall and Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapas was one of the first to be struck by the three companies under Major Marcus Reno and their Arikara and Crow scouts led by Bloody Knife. In the first stages of the battle, Gall was more of a victim than an active participant; two of his wives and three of his children were killed by the Army’s Indian scouts during Reno’s surprise attack. Although Gall was involved in the early phases of Reno’s ultimate rout, which forced the embattled major to retreat across the Little Bighorn River, the Hunkpapa war chief was denied the opportunity to meet Bloody Knife in combat; Gall’s mortal enemy was killed by a Lakota bullet that splattered his blood and brains all over the unfortunate Reno.
In fact, Gall spent most of the early phases of the battle scouting Custer’s five companies on the other side of the Greasy Grass, as the Lakotas called the Little Bighorn. His diligent search for the whereabouts of his family also continued. When he finally found the bodies of his dead family members south of the Hunkpapa camp, he was devastated. ‘It made my heart bad,’ he later remarked. ‘After that I killed all my enemies with the hatchet.’
Gall eventually did lead a party of warriors across the Greasy Grass, but only after Crazy Horse and Crow King had preceded him. Following his crossing at Medicine Tail Coulee, Gall led a resolute charge against the dismounted troopers of Captain Miles W. Keough on a slope north of Deep Coulee. His main contribution was to exhort his warriors to stampede the horses of Keough’s embattled troopers, thus making it almost impossible for them to retreat. Gall was also one of the warriors who cut down those desperate members of Captain George F. Yates’ Company E who were charging down a hill to reach the Greasy Grass. One historian claimed that four or five of Yates’ men ran right into the avenging Gall’s arms and were promptly killed. The ubiquitous Gall even dashed across Custer Hill on horseback; he participated in the attack where Custer and approximately 40 of his men were killed during their so-called Last Stand.
Although Gall was probably not the bellwether at the Little Bighorn, as many historians have maintained, his observations have shaped today’s understanding of the battle. In 1886, at the Little Bighorn’s 10-year commemoration, Gall became the first major Indian participant to give his version of this bloody conflict. He related his experience to Captain Edward S. Godfrey, who had fought under Reno on that hot and dusty day. Although much of his rendition was convincing to Godfrey and other Army officers, many Lakota veterans at the Little Bighorn were dubious. For instance, some criticized Gall for focusing on his own deeds at the battle. This rebuke was unfair given the common Lakota practice of not commenting on the battle achievements of others.
Although at 44, Sitting Bull had a minimal role in the combat at the Little Bighorn, he did exhort many younger warriors to fight. Thus, he and Gall were important figures at the battle for different reasons. Sitting Bull’s famous vision just prior to the Battle of the Rosebud of soldiers and their horses falling upside down into the Indians’ camp had given the Lakotas great confidence at both the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn. Moreover, the two men continued to cooperate during the difficult months after defeating Custer. During the final phases of the Great Sioux War (1876-77), Gall fought alongside his mentor at such battles as Ash Creek and Red Water. Colonel Nelson A. Miles, however, continued his zealous pursuit, eventually forcing the Hunkpapas and their allies to cross the Canadian border. There on the buffalo-rich plains of Saskatchewan, many Lakota Sioux would live in exile for four years.
The early months spent by these nontreaty Indians in Grandmother’s Land, as they called this remote western province of Queen Victoria, were reasonably happy. The Canadian government was represented by Major James M. Walsh of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), a strict but fair-minded man. The main problem for the Sioux exiles was the attitude of the U.S. government; it pressured the Canadian authorities in Ottawa to expel these defiant nontreaty Indians or at least discourage them from staying. During the late 1870s, Sitting Bull and Gall remained friends and allies while camped for the most part near the NWMP post at Wood Mountain (just north of Montana Territory). Sitting Bull, however, tended to rely more on his nephew One Bull to help him accomplish his goal of remaining free and content. Curiously, Gall assumed a rather low profile in Canada during much of the time.
More serious problems for these exiles occurred when a decline in the number of buffalo in Canada began to match an earlier decline of bison south of the border. This development soon worsened relations between the Lakotas and such Canadian tribes as the Crees, Bloods and Blackfeet, who also depended on the buffalo for survival. Although the Canadian government was willing to give the Canadian tribes a reservation for their support, it was unwilling to make a similar offer to the Sioux. Because of the buffalo’s diminishing numbers, many Lakotas, including Gall and his band, would often cross the international boundary in search of game. These crossings antagonized the U.S. government; more important, they were telling indications that the nontreaty bands were hungry and approaching starvation.
These difficult times made many of the Lakota exiles homesick. A growing number were eager to join their families on the Great Sioux Reservation. Sitting Bull, however, was still opposed to surrendering to federal authorities; he did not want to leave Canada and live under a government he did not trust. In the summer of 1880, Gall, on one of those illegal buffalo hunts south of the border, encountered an old friend, Edwin H. Allison. Allison was driving cattle to Fort Buford in North Dakota. He wanted Gall to arrange a meeting for him with Sitting Bull so he could convince the Sioux leader to surrender. When Allison’s eventual meeting with Sitting Bull failed to achieve positive results, he won a pledge from Gall that he would bring 20 lodges of his people to Fort Buford for surrender.
When Sitting Bull heard about Gall’s pledge, he heaped bitter criticism upon his old friend. Gall, who had a mercurial temper, exploded with rage. He insisted that the Hunkpapas at their Canadian camp should leave Sitting Bull and follow him to Fort Buford. In the end, the stubborn Sitting Bull was left with only 200 loyal followers, while Gall may have ultimately brought as many as 300 lodges to the fort. After this bitter incident, the two men were never again really close.
Gall’s surrender at the Poplar River Agency in northeastern Montana in January 1881 was not a happy one. The commanding officer at the agency, Major Guido Ilges, provoked hostilities in which eight Indians were killed. He had insisted that Gall and his people be escorted to Fort Buford immediately, despite heavy snows and temperatures 28 degrees below zero. The angry Gall arrived at Fort Buford after a four-day march, but his stay there was only temporary. In late May, he, along with most of the one-time Hunkpapa and Blackfeet Sioux exiles, were sent to their permanent reservation home at the Standing Rock Agency in Dakota Territory. Sitting Bull, who surrendered at Fort Buford in July 1881, was still considered too dangerous; the aging chief was forced to live under guard near Fort Randall for two years before he could join his kinfolk at Standing Rock.
When Gall reached Standing Rock on May 29, 1881, he found a new mentor in Indian agent Major James McLaughlin. McLaughlin, who had a talent for manipulating people, was married to a Sioux woman who helped him understand and control his Indian charges with great effectiveness. He believed in rapidly assimilating Indians into the nation’s economy as small farmers; Christianizing them was also a goal he shared with many advocates of Indian reform back East.
Gall proved to be exceptionally cooperative on almost all counts. He served as a district farmer to help educate his people in good agricultural practices. He presided as a judge on the Court of Indian Offenses to acquaint them with the new judicial procedures that would govern their lives. He eventually became a convert to the Episcopal Church, being baptized and later buried by priests from that church. Some historians have felt that Gall’s change of heart was clearly the result of opportunism on his part. Others believe that Gall, like so many other Lakota warriors, was just facing reality.
When Sitting Bull arrived at Standing Rock in 1883, he tended to resist McLaughlin’s drastic changes, becoming in the process the leader of the tribe’s traditionalists. To blunt Sitting Bull’s influence, McLaughlin elevated to leadership positions Gall, Crow King and a brilliant Blackfeet Sioux leader named John Grass. These men represented what some historians call the ‘progressive faction’ at Standing Rock, and were organized to oppose Sitting Bull’s more suspicious followers in the reservation’s tumultuous politics. This move further frayed the old friendship between Gall and Sitting Bull.
The schism between Sitting Bull and Gall was aggravated when McLaughlin persuaded John Grass and Gall to support the Sioux Act of 1889. This new law divided the Great Sioux Reservation into six smaller ones and opened up the reservation’s surplus acres to white homesteaders. Gall’s safety was soon menaced by Sitting Bull’s angry followers, who resented Gall’s support, albeit reluctant, of the controversial Sioux Act. When Sitting Bull embraced the Ghost Dance religion in 1890, a new divisive issue was introduced to complicate the strained relations between the two men.
The Ghost Dance religion was the result of an electrifying vision of a Paiute shaman from Nevada named Wovoka. He claimed that if a dance the whites called the Ghost Dance was performed often enough by Indians throughout the West, their ancestors and the buffalo would return and the intrusive whites would disappear. Lakota leaders such as Gall and Red Cloud were skeptical of the new religion. But Sitting Bull, probably for political reasons, allowed his followers to participate in the Ghost Dance despite McLaughlin’s strong objections. These Ghost Dancers were so intimidating that Gall and John Grass asked McLaughlin for 10 guns to protect themselves and their bands from Sitting Bull’s more zealous adherents.
A controversial attempt by McLaughlin’s Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull resulted in the stubborn chief’s untimely death on December 15, 1890. When some of Sitting Bull’s outraged followers joined Big Foot’s Minneconjou band in their trek to Pine Ridge, where the most determined Ghost Dancers were, a tragic event occurred. Soldiers clashed with Big Foot’s people on December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee Creek — the last major battle between the Lakota Sioux and the U.S. Army.
Gall’s response to Sitting Bull’s death is still subject to conflicting interpretations. Until his death in 1894, the leader of Standing Rock’s cooperative Indian faction did remain loyal to McLaughlin. But Gall’s years with Sitting Bull as a close friend and ally must have meant something to him. Nine months after Sitting Bull’s death, he encountered McLaughlin’s influential Sioux wife, Marie Louise. He expressed his alarm over the tales of brutality surrounding the bungled attempt to arrest Sitting Bull. Her response was to scold him and warn him not to believe all the stories that were being circulated by the troublemakers who were responsible for the chaos at Standing Rock during the past year.
Gall’s forbearance in the face of Mrs. McLaughlin’s biting criticisms was as much a result of Major McLaughlin’s support for Gall as it was of the respect Gall felt toward the charismatic Indian agent. To minimize Sitting Bull’s alleged obstructionism at Standing Rock, McLaughlin had lauded Gall’s accomplishments while denigrating Sitting Bull’s. The result was that Gall, at the time of his death, was almost as well known as his old mentor. During the following years, however, Gall’s renown was dramatically eclipsed by Sitting Bull’s. His accomplishments were downgraded almost as much as Sitting Bull’s had been during his declining years.
This article was written by Robert W. Larson and originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!