He was Roman Nose’s best friend.
It was a tense moment, a staredown between two striking figures. On one side, the bluecoated major general, tall, broad-shouldered, handsome and imperious—exuding the same commanding presence he had four years earlier during the Battle of Gettysburg—sat his mount, watching the figure before him. Opposite the officer was a tall, statuesque Indian, displaying no less a commanding aura as he sat on his own nervous pony. Behind each man sat a row of horsemen awaiting the spark that seemed certain to be struck.
“Do you wish war?” the major general asked through his interpreter, the mixedblood Edmund Guerrier.
The Indian shook his head. “If we wanted war we would not have come so close to the big guns of the soldiers,” Roman Nose replied arrogantly, edging his war pony closer to the major general’s mount, ready to kill the white soldier chief. Undoubtedly he would have done just that had it not been for the quiet movement of his friend, Bull Bear, a noted warrior in his own right and probably Roman Nose’s closest friend. Easing his pony forward, Bull Bear grabbed hold of the bridle of his friend’s pony and quietly led him away, thereby perhaps saving the life of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, recently appointed commander of the Department of the Missouri.
In defusing a volatile situation, Bull Bear would seem to have been behaving in a contradictory manner, considering his own militant stance and mistrust of white men. But militant though he was, Bull Bear was no foolish hothead. He could see that this was not the moment for such action; that it was better for the Cheyennes to bide their time.
A Dog Soldier warrior chief every bit as respected as Roman Nose, Bull Bear (O-toah-nac-co) was born about 1835. Little is known of his early life. Two years after his birth, in 1837, there occurred an event that was to profoundly affect his life—a warrior named Porcupine Bear murdered Little Creek in a drunken fight. As a consequence of his action, Porcupine Bear was ostracized from the village, but he was not without followers, who supported his action and subsequently joined him. Eventually, other disaffected Cheyennes, including some from the other Cheyenne soldier societies (there were six), followed them and thus was born a new society, the Dog Soldiers.
Initially regarded as outcasts, the Dog Soldiers gradually came to be respected for their fighting skill, especially as tension between the Indians and the whites increased during the 1850s and 1860s. Whether Bull Bear was born into the Dog Soldiers or joined that society later is not known, but by the time of the Hancock– Roman Nose incident in 1867, he was already a respected Dog Soldier chief.
The years immediately preceding the confrontation between Hancock and Roman Nose had been a time of great travail on the central Plains. Bull Bear and others staunchly opposed the efforts of Black Kettle and the other so-called peace chiefs to turn away from the warpath and accommodate if not welcome the white man.
“The whites are treacherous and not to be trusted,” Bull Bear declared. And he had good reason to feel that way. His brother, Lean Bear, had, after all, been shot down despite displaying the peace medal presented to him as a member of a delegation to Washington early in 1863.
When a detachment of soldiers under Major Edward Wynkoop sought to parley with the Cheyennes in an effort to recover some white captives in the early fall of 1864, Bull Bear confronted Wynkoop, accusing the soldier chief of wanting the captives without offering anything in return. And so, once more Bull Bear argued for war.
“I have never killed a white man, but expect to do so now,” he said. “I will die like my brother.”
Bull Bear did not stand alone, either. Most of the Dog Soldiers backed him, but the peace chiefs held sway until the soldiers’ attack at Sand Creek in November 1864. That event, often viewed as a massacre, gave birth to a reign of terror up and down the South Platte Valley and as far north as what would become Wyoming.
In October 1867, treaty negotiations came to fruition at a place called Medicine Lodge in southern Kansas. Bull Bear and the Dog Soldiers vowed to remain away from the huge gathering until certain the white commissioners had come with peace as their objective. Convinced finally of the commissioners’ honorable intentions, Bull Bear became the first of the Cheyennes to put his mark on the treaty.
In the months that followed the signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, the hoped for peace did not prevail. In September 1868, Lt. Col. George A. Forsyth’s company of frontier scouts, responding to Indian raids in western Kansas, was besieged at Beecher Island (just across the border in Colorado Territory). There Bull Bear encouraged his friend Roman Nose to make what proved to be his fatal charge against the entrenched frontiersmen, a charge Roman Nose led despite the foreknowledge that his protective medicine had been corrupted.
The following summer, when the 5th Cavalry surprised the camp of Tall Bull at Summit Springs, near present Sterling, Colo., the power of the Dog Soldiers was effectively broken. As a consequence of that battle, Bull Bear took his band onto the reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Some accounts suggest he may have taken his people north into Sioux country, but if so, he returned to the reservation the following year.
In all likelihood Bull Bear participated in the Red River War of 1874 on the southern Plains, but it was his last act of hostility against the U.S. government, and on March 6, 1875, he surrendered to Lt. Col. Thomas Neill at Darlington Agency. Warned by the new Indian agent, John Covington, that the Cheyennes in Indian Territory must learn to farm if they were to have a harvest in the fall, Bull Bear told him that the Cheyennes were not yet ready for that.
But in time, Bull Bear acquiesced to white ways, pursuing peace as vigorously as he had once pursued war. He was one of the first Cheyennes to enroll his children in John Seeger’s Indian school.
The exact date of Bull Bear’s death is unclear, but it was probably not long after he surrendered to Colonel Neill at Darlington Agency. No Cheyenne leader had opposed acquiescence to the whites with more vigor than Bull Bear, yet in the final analysis, even he came eventually to recognize the futility of continued resistance.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.