Wars of the Fighting Sioux

Have no fear, you readers who objected to special contributor Gregory Michno’s take on frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in the February 2020 Wild West. We’re moving on. In the April issue we published a couple of the negative letters about his article “Half Horse, Half Gator and All Hogwash,” along with Michno’s response. Arriving by email after deadline for that issue was this recommendation: “Don’t let Gregory Michno contribute another article. That’s all. Thank you.” And thank you, sir—we do read and sincerely appreciate all reader comments. While it is my duty to inform you and all our other faithful readers that another Michno article appears in the issue you are now holding, I’m confident—at least after you read his June 2020 feature “Worst of the Sioux Wars”—that you won’t consider this decision unfortunate. For one thing, he’s an expert on the subject.

Among Michno’s many well-researched books are Encyclopedia of Indian Wars: Western Battles and Skirmishes, 1850–1890 and Forgotten Fights: Little-Known Raids and Skirmishes on the Frontier, 1823 to 1890. His Sioux (Lakota) specific works include 1997’s Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat (published soon after his award-wining June 1996 Wild West article Lakota Noon at the Greasy Grass) and 2011’s Dakota Dawn: The Decisive First Week of the Sioux Uprising, August 17–24, 1862. In an August 2015 Wild West interview Michno mentioned that when he presented evidence that the 1864 Sand Creek conflict might be viewed as a battle instead of a massacre, he was accused of being too pro-white. “Of course,” he went on to say, “when I showed the Lakota and Cheyenne point of view in Lakota Noon, I was considered too pro-Indian. Maybe if both sides find something to complain about, you are on to something.”

Michno recognizes that disagreements and controversy go with the territory when one writes honestly about history. “You have to realize that everyone’s perspective is different,” he says, adding that in both Dakota Dawn and Lakota Noon, “I tried to pinpoint locations in time and space to provide more micro-scale detail.…If I can make it understandable to me, I assume the reader will also benefit.” One of the benefits of reading his article in this issue is an opportunity to bone up on and compare the various Sioux wars with the U.S. Army, beginning with the 1854–56 First Sioux War and ending with the Ghost Dance War of 1890–91 (featuring the infamous Wounded Knee battle turned massacre). The one most written about is the Great Sioux War of 1876–77, primarily because the big battle in that war pitted Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry against Sitting Bull’s Sioux and Plains Indian allies at the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. There shouldn’t be too much controversy (except perhaps among readers who believe Custer is “absolutely the most”) when Michno writes that in sizing up the five Sioux wars, “the one that rates as the deadliest—and remains the most overlooked by historians and the public—is the second, the Dakota War of 1862.”

In August 1862 of that second war (aka the Sioux Uprising), according to Michno, “The Dakotas in Minnesota erupted and killed as many as 800 white settlers within a week, depopulating 23 southwestern counties.” Battles followed in Minnesota, and the fighting spilled over into Dakota Territory. On July 28, 1864, Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully attacked an Indian village at Killdeer Mountain (in present-day North Dakota) comprising more than 1,500 lodges and an estimated 8,000 Indians, making it “even larger than the ‘big village’ Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacked on the Little Bighorn.” Sully had much better results than Custer did, however, recording just 15 soldier casualties against 150 Indian casualties. Those are just some of the facts Michno presents, though he once commented: “There are no facts. There are only our interpretations of them, all filtered through individual lenses, bounced like a pinball through the synapses of our brains and true only for the one doing the filtering.” Agree or disagree with him, the man can write. WW