Includes bios of Red Cloud and Gall.
Coloradan Robert W. Larson is a retired teacher who spent 30 years at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where he taught Western and Gilded Age American history as well as Latin American history. His books New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood, 1846- 1917 and New Mexico Populism: A Study of Radical Protest in a Western Territory led to the college naming him the Albert M.Winchester Distinguished Scholar in 1977.Larson also wrote the book Populism in the Mountain West, a history of the University of Northern Colorado and articles in many historical journals.
In more recent years, Larson turned his attention to the northern Plains Indians,writing magazine articles about Red Cloud for Montana: The Magazine of Western History and then a biography, Red Cloud: Warrior-Statesman of the Lakota Sioux (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997). His essay on Red Cloud appears in Chiefs and Generals: Nine Men Who Shaped the American West, edited by Richard W. Etulain and Glenda Riley (Fulcrum Publishing Company, 2004).
Next, Larson focused on Gall. His article “Gall:‘Fighting Cock of the Sioux’” was the cover story in the June 2006 issue of Wild West Magazine, and in the spring of 2007, the University of Oklahoma Press published his Gall: Lakota War Chief, the first full-length biography of that formidable Sioux warrior. He recently took time to answer questions for Wild West.
Your earlier books were about the Southwest.What drew you to the northern Plains Indians?
Larson: As a young boy living in Denver I had a great interest in the Plains Indians, particularly the Lakotas. Their participation in the Battle of the Little Bighorn had captured my imagination. In doing my doctoral work at the University of New Mexico, however, I found the history of the Southwest to be a more appropriate subject for my dissertation, given the plethora of primary materials available to do research on this region. Thus, I made the logical decision to focus on New Mexico’s statehood movement, first as a dissertation and then as a book. When I retired from the University of Northern Colorado in 1990, I felt I had fully pursued as many projects on Western history as I could, including populism in the Mountain West, which extended my historical interests up along Colorado’s Front Range and spread them throughout the upper parts of the American West. Retirement seemed a proper time to return to my first passion in Western history: the study of the Lakotas and the Northern Cheyennes in their conflict with the U.S. Army, especially the 7th Cavalry, during the Indian wars.
Why focus on Red Cloud first?
Larson: My articles and monographs up to this time had been primarily political in nature, and Red Cloud was one of the most astute politicians ever to represent his people during the last decades of the Westward movement. His leadership during the so-called Red Cloud War gave him the credentials to force the federal government and the U.S. Army to recognize the right of the Lakotas to use the Powder River country as one of their main buffalo hunting grounds. Through his diplomatic skills and often his pure stubbornness, he made the U.S. Army back down in its plans to develop a fortified road through these game-rich lands. In the process, he won for his people probably the best treaty they could have acquired, the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
What, if any, misperceptions surround his life?
Larson: While Red Cloud was often regarded by federal officials as the sole authoritative voice of the Lakota Sioux, this designation is not entirely correct. The Lakotas were a strong-willed people and there were many other voices among them who openly disagreed with him. Included in this category would be such chiefs and warriors as Sitting Bull, Gall and Crazy Horse. What I found especially surprising about Red Cloud was his exceptional intelligence; he was truly a quick study, a conclusion that has been reached by other historians with whom I have discussed Red Cloud’s life.
And why choose Gall next?
Larson: Gall, surprisingly enough, has never been the subject of a full-length, scholarly biography. It is hard to believe that he has been bypassed in this regard, given his major role at the Little Bighorn and during the U.S. Army’s Yellowstone campaigns. This is one of the reasons I was eager to do the research and writing about this Hunkpapa Sioux war chief called the “Fighting Cock of the Sioux” by many soldiers who fought against him.
What lessons did Gall learn at Killdeer Mountain?
Larson: Gall, like Sitting Bull and other Hunkpapa warriors, learned the costly lesson that their trade muskets and bows and arrows were no match for the U.S. Army’s long-range rifles and heavy artillery at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain in 1864. The Lakotas were ready to remedy this situation even before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where they utilized Henry and Winchester repeating rifles against the members of the 7th Cavalry. Also, both Gall and Sitting Bull probably learned a great deal from one of the unsung heroes of the Indian wars, the Dakota Sioux war chief Inkpaduta, or Scarlet Point, who used at Killdeer Mountain the knowledge he gained fighting the Army during the Minnesota Uprising of 1862.
Was Gall an opportunist?
Larson:Gall was controversial because of his easy transition to reservation life and his break with Sitting Bull in Canada over the question of surrendering to the U.S. government. Many of his tribal critics regarded him as an opportunist because of his position on these two questions. I felt he was more of a realist, or pragmatist, who recognized that his people had no options other than reservation life by the 1880s, given the strength and numbers of their white adversaries.
When Sitting Bull was chosen as the “supreme chief” was that unprecedented among the Sioux bands?
Larson: It was indeed a rare precedent when the independent-minded nontreaty Lakotas made Sitting Bull their supreme leader in 1869. With the Lakotas divided into seven tribes, often led by strongwilled leaders, it was unusual to grant so much authority and power to one man. It was undoubtedly a reflection of their fear and apprehension regarding the invasion of their lands by white settlers that led to Sitting Bull’s elevation to such power.
How did the Allison Commission effect the relations between soldiers/civilians and the northern Plains tribes, particularly the Sioux?
Larson: The mission of the Allison Commission greatly affected the Lakota Sioux and the Northern Cheyennes in its efforts to acquire the Black Hills, regarded as sacred by these two northern Plains tribes. But the commission was strongly supported by gold seekers throughout the West, many of them having been devastated by the Panic of 1873. The failure of the Allison Commission to gain control of these Hills through diplomatic efforts led to more forceful ones, involving the military this time and ultimately resulting in the Great Sioux War.
Was Gall’s attack on the horse handlers a turning point in the Battle of the Little Bighorn?
Larson: Gall’s strategy at the Little Bighorn of killing the horse holders was one of the crucial decisions made by the Indians in this epic battle, because, without horses, the 7th Cavalry lost that mobility that had given it such an advantage in previous Indian battles. Thus, outnumbered and forced to fight on foot, Custer and his five companies of cavalrymen were doomed to annihilation.
Why was Gall’s account of the battle believed,when so many other Indian accounts were discounted?
Larson:Gall was the first major Indian participant at the Little Bighorn to give his account of the battle. In 1886 he gave it to a respected officer named Edward S. Godfrey, who had fought under Major Marcus A. Reno’s command at the battle. Godfrey, who later became a brigadier general, believed that Gall’s account was an honest and straightforward one and helped to publicize it through his magazine articles and speeches. Gall’s account dwelt primarily on his own role at the battle, a common or traditional approach taken by Sioux warriors when describing battles in which they were active participants.
What brought about the break in relations between Gall and Sitting Bull in Canada?
Larson: The break was caused by their disagreement over whether to surrender in 1881 and accept reservation life. When the once large buffalo herds began to diminish in numbers, the Lakotas in Canada began to face starvation. Gall assumed leadership among these discouraged and hungry Indian exiles, while Sitting Bull balked, hoping he could work something out with government officials and the officers of the North-West Mounted Police, which could better the lot of his people.
How do you compare the reservation years for Red Cloud and Gall?
Larson: Gall made a much better adjustment to reservation life than Red Cloud. He became a district farmer at Standing Rock to teach other Lakotas, particularly the members of his band, how to cultivate the land in accordance with the policies of the federal government. He became a judge on the Court of Indian Offenses to adjudicate legal controversies in a way his people could understand. He also worked for better relations between the Standing Rock Indians and those federal authorities responsible for their oversight. In short, he became what ethnohistorians would call a culture broker. Red Cloud, on the other hand, wanted to remain the major spokesman for the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation and often clashed with his reservation’s Indian agents as a result. Federal authorities were quite patient with him until he led the opposition to the government’s plan to partition the Great Sioux Reservation into six separate ones in the late 1880s. Because of this opposition, his many trips to Washington in behalf of his people became far fewer.
How about their relations with their agents?
Larson:Gall got along very well with Major James McLaughlin, his agent at Standing Rock. His leadership of the more cooperative Indian faction on the reservation made him one of McLaughlin’s favorite Indians; in fact, McLaughlin utilized Gall and his faction to oppose Sitting Bull’s followers, who often resisted McLaughlin’s policies. Red Cloud had problems with most of the Indian agents at Pine Ridge, particularly with Valentine T. McGillycuddy, with whom he feuded for seven years. Red Cloud was, however, shrewd enough not to go as far as Sitting Bull did, and, as a result, remained a figure of power until the early 1890s.
Anything you’d like to add?
Larson: Western historians have done a pretty thorough job of studying most of the northern Plains Indians. Their efforts to study the tribal culture of these Indians have probably not matched those in which they probed the history of the Indian wars.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.