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Destined for greatness and an early death, Spotted Tail, the great chief of the Brulé Sioux, was born in 1823 on the White River in South Dakota. His sister was the mother of Crazy Horse, and he was a first cousin to Conquering Bear, the man named by the U.S. government as the chief of the tribe at Fort Laramie in 1851. Spotted Tail was not a hereditary chief but received recognition based on his ability and character.

The Sioux spelling of Spotted Tail’s name is Sinte-Galeska. In 1942 his grandson, Stephen, told the story of how he got this unusual name: “In early days he was hunting…along some River and he met some white men trappers. One of this man was skinning a raccoon and this man showed him the coon’s tail which had black rings around the tail and he named him after this and called him ‘Spotted Tail.’” The warrior incorporated the trophy into his war headdress, wearing it in his first battles. Spotted Tail showed martial prowess as a teenager. By the time he was 30, he was an honored Shirtwearer, his war garment decorated with more than 100 locks of hair from enemy scalps.

As a young warrior, Spotted Tail played an important part in the first sizable battle between the Lakotas and the U.S. Army on August 19, 1854. The skirmish occurred when a hot-blooded young lieutenant, John L. Grattan, along with an intoxicated interpreter and 29 infantrymen, attempted to arrest a visiting Minneconjou in the Brulé camp eight miles east of Fort Laramie. A lame ox (sometimes referred to as a cow) from a Mormon wagon train had been killed by the Minneconjou warrior. Grattan marched to the Indian camp to arrest the offender but instead precipitated a fight in which he and all of his men died (see “First Shot in the First Sioux War,” by Eli Paul, in the December 2005 Wild West). Spotted Tail organized and led the assault on the flank and rear that created panic among the troops and facilitated their demise.

Following the so-called Grattan Fight, Conquering Bear’s brother, Red Leaf, planned a raid of vengeance. With him went his two brothers, his half brother Long Chin and his cousin Spotted Tail. Near Horse Creek on November 13, the war party attacked the westbound mail wagon headed for Salt Lake City, killing three whites, destroying the mail and taking $20,000 in gold.

In the meantime, the War Department had begun preparations to whip the Sioux, naming veteran William S. Harney as commander of the punitive expedition. In September 1855, Brevet Brig. Gen. William Harney and 600 troops caught 250 Brulés in camp on Blue Water Creek in Nebraska, killing 86 and taking 70 prisoners, including Spotted Tail’s wife and baby daughter. Gallantly fighting side by side with Iron Shell, the second-in-command, the young warrior earned the lasting admiration of his people. While severely wounded from two shots through the body, he was able to escape after dispatching a number of Harney’s dragoons and stealing a horse.

Harney let it be known that there would be no peace until those who had killed the whites near Horse Creek were in custody. On October 18, 1855, Spotted Tail and the four others in the war party surrendered at Fort Laramie to prevent further response. Expecting to be executed, they were surprised to be sent to Fort Leavenworth. Later they moved to Fort Kearny and gained their freedom in September 1856. While imprisoned, Spotted Tail learned to read and write English, acquiring useful skills in dealing with whites when he became chief. His incarceration was also important in another way. It permitted him to observe the overwhelming power of the whites in numbers and technology, and brought the realization that, in order to survive, diplomacy had to take precedence over armed conflict whenever possible. Spotted Tail returned a hero, for he had offered himself in sacrifice for his people.

During the next few years, from 1856 to 1863, the Brulés kept to themselves in their lands in southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas, hunting game and fighting Pawnees. During this time, Spotted Tail began to assume more responsibility, becoming Chief Little Thunder’s trusted lieutenant. Peaceful times for the Brulés came to an end on November 29, 1864, when Colonel John M. Chivington led the 3rd Colorado Cavalry in a savage attack on a Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho village at Sand Creek, in west-central Colorado. Riding at dawn with orders to take no prisoners, the troops caught the Indians unprepared. The carnage that followed shocked even some of the most hardened Indian-haters. When the fighting ended, at least 130 Indians were dead, the majority of them women. About 15 soldiers died. When news of the butchery reached the East, condemnation followed, and officials held several investigations. Chivington escaped recrimination by resigning his commission.

The survivors met in camp on the Smoky Hill River and planned vengeance. Couriers carried war messages to associated bands and allies, among them the southern Brulés and Oglalas. While Spotted Tail did not want to make enemies of the whites, he accepted his responsibility as a war chief to lead his tribesmen into battle.

The avengers’ first target was Julesburg, Colorado Territory, a stagecoach stop and important crossing of the Platte River. With Spotted Tail in the lead, the warriors attacked in full force on January 7, 1865, killing four noncommissioned officers and 11 enlisted men of the 7th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry stationed at nearby Fort Rankin. Returning on February 2, the raiders burned the town, keeping the 7th Iowa troops contained in their post. Troops from Fort Laramie rushed to the rescue. They engaged the war party in western Nebraska Territory at Mud Springs on February 4-6 and Rush Creek on February 9. While the fights were inconclusive, the soldiers withdrew, realizing that they were overwhelmingly outnumbered. At this point, Spotted Tail and his warriors decided they had had enough of war, and they eventually ended up at Fort Laramie. The rest of the coalition kept fighting all summer.

Early in June, military leaders turned their attention to the friendly Sioux bands that had been camped near Fort Laramie, which now included Spotted Tail and the southern Brulés. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton decided to send them farther east to Fort Kearny, where they would be out of the firing line, and they could put in a crop to provide for their support until the Indian Bureau assumed responsibility. The large party of about 1,500 left on June 11, with an escort of some 200 7th Iowa Cavalry and Indian police commanded by Captain William Fouts. The group spent the night of June 13 camped on Horse Creek. At a secret meeting, most of the chiefs and headmen decided that they would rather die than go to Fort Kearny to starve and be near their Pawnee enemies. The next morning, the Sioux turned on Fouts and his men, killing the captain and fleeing north. Spotted Tail and his followers kept far away from the whites during the next months.

During the harsh winter that followed, Spotted Tail lost his favorite daughter. It was her wish that her burial be at Fort Laramie. Some said that she had fallen in love, at least from a distance, with an 11th Ohio officer stationed there. When Spotted Tail made the request to Colonel Henry Maynadier, the officer assented, arranging for an elaborate funeral. The Brulés arrived at Fort Laramie on March 8. Post sutler John Collins described the scene: “[The daughter’s body] had been placed in a plain box covered with Indian cloth. The box was set up on four posts, near sand bluffs, west of the garrison. On the head end the head of her favorite pony was nailed and its tail was nailed on the other end to ‘travel with her to the Happy Hunting Ground.’ In the box were placed the trinkets and ornaments she wore when alive.” Greatly touched by the ceremony, Spotted Tail never again took up arms against the United States.

Later that year, in the Powder River country of what would soon be Wyoming Territory, Red Cloud and his coalition of Oglalas, Minneconjous, Sans Arc, some Hunkpapas and Northern Cheyennes waged war against whites who had blazed a trail along the east side of the Bighorn Mountains, intruding upon the last best hunting grounds of the western Sioux. Warriors virtually made prisoners of the men in the three forts protecting the Bozeman Trail, and by 1868 the time was right for treaty making. The U.S. government agreed to abandon the trail, and the Sioux agreed to take up reservations in the western half of Dakota Territory. The peace commissioners also dealt with associated bands, appointing Spotted Tail the chief of all the Brulés.

Late in the summer of 1868, Spotted Tail’s group moved to an area on Whetstone Creek near the Missouri River. Displeased with the site, the chief decided to live at a point more than 30 miles from the agency. This marked the beginning of Spotted Tail’s dealings with the Indian agent and the Office of Indian Affairs. His reign was stormy to say the least, trying as he did to balance the needs of the people against the desires of the government and the countervailing ambitions of others in his tribe to assume his position. In 1869 he killed Big Mouth, a leader of one faction of the Oglalas, after the latter attempted to shoot him. At the same time, he resisted efforts to make Indians into farmers and succeeded in getting his people to a location on the Beaver Creek on the south bank of the White River.

In 1874 Lt. Col. George Custer’s exploratory expedition into the Black Hills confirmed the presence of gold, establishing a rationale for the acquisition of some of the Sioux’s new lands. On May 26, 1875, Spotted Tail, Red Cloud and other headmen met with President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House, where he urged the Indian leaders to agree to sell the Black Hills and threatened to starve them if they did not. Ultimately, government representatives rejected a demand by the Sioux for $60 million. In the so-called Great Sioux War that followed in 1876-77, Spotted Tail kept his people under control. He became involved in the negotiation that led to the sale of the Black Hills, became chief of both the Brulés and Oglalas when Red Cloud fell out of favor with Brig. Gen. George Crook (Spotted Tail, to his credit, never actually tried to lead Red Cloud’s Oglalas) and helped to engineer the surrender of Crazy Horse.

The death of Crazy Horse on September 5, 1877, as the result of an attempt to imprison him at Fort Robinson, caused some tribesmen to swear vengeance against Spotted Tail for getting him to surrender in the first place. On August 5, 1881, Crow Dog, one of Crazy Horse’s relatives, met Spotted Tail on the road and shot him in the chest, killing him instantly. Some said the real reason was a dispute over a woman, others over property. In the trial that followed, a jury found Crow Dog guilty of murder and sentenced him to be hanged. A successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ex Parte Crow Dog (1883), determined that the federal government did not have jurisdiction over crimes involving Indians on Indian land, and he gained his freedom.

William Philo Clark, the officer who captained the Indian scouts for General Crook, wrote that Spotted Tail was by far the ablest Indian he had ever known. There is no doubt that Spotted Tail was extraordinary. A courageous and skillful warrior, he became a wise and resourceful chief. He skillfully avoided the first attempts of the government to remake Indians according to white beliefs and practices. He promoted education, seeing it as a tool in preserving Sioux culture and tradition. Thus, it is fitting that a tribal university established on the Rosebud Reservation in 1971 bears his name. Unlike Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, he used diplomatic skills that largely avoided conflict. When cornered he fought, but when possible he talked. A contemplative man of action, he led his people well. Spotted Tail is buried in the Rosebud Cemetery just north of Rosebud, S.D.


Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.