Share This Article

The West Point graduate, onetime college professor, factory superintendent and railroad engineer became an Indian agent and then turned the tables on his past by becoming a ‘white renegade Indian’.

“Along about sundown several squaws very finely dressed in mackinaw blankets came up to the sutler store with an old gentleman whose hair, long, white and curly, hung down over his shoulders and down his back,”

Lieutenant Eugene Fitch Ware wrote about a visitor to Fort Laramie in 1864. “He had a very venerable white beard and moustache. His beard had been trimmed with scissors so that it was rather long but pointed, Van Dyke fashion, below the chin. He was dressed thoroughly as an Indian. He wore nothing on his head and had on a pair of beaded moccasins.”

Some of the officers at the Nebraska Territory (present-day Wyoming) post, Ware recalled, were discussing Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s 1863 campaign at Vicksburg. The old man with the white beard and beaded moccasins chimed in, “Grant did just what Napoléon did,” then used his staff to draw battle diagrams in the dust. “The old gentleman went all through the Napoleonic campaign and then went through the Grant campaign, with all of us looking on silently and listening,” Ware wrote. “He finished the demonstration at great length, talked very sensibly, and everybody, whether they knew him or not, paid attention to what he said….I met a man who told me that this man belonged to a very fine Eastern family. That he was educated in West Point, had been a major in the Regular Army and made up his mind years before to become an Indian and live with the Sioux. That his name was Major Twiss, was married into the Sioux tribe, came down to Fort Laramie occasionally and went back up into the unexplored Indian country, nobody knew where.”

Thomas Sanders Twiss was an enigma. Born in 1803 to a respectable family near Troy, N.Y. (one of his brothers was a physician), he graduated second in West Point’s class of 1826 and served as an assistant professor at the military academy before resigning his commission three years later. From 1829 to 1847 Twiss was a professor of mathematics, philosophy and astronomy at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina). From there he took a job as superintendent of Nesbitt Manufacturing in Spartanburg, S.C., and later worked as a consulting engineer for the Buffalo and New York Railroad. From 1855 to 1861 he served out of Fort Laramie as Indian agent of the Upper Platte District—acquiring the honorific title of major, though the Indian Office hadn’t been part of the War Department since 1849. After his dismissal on grounds that are a little hazy, he became not only an “Indian”—when not lecturing junior officers on Napoleonic tactics—but also a military adviser to Indians at war with the United States. No one saw him at Laramie during Red Cloud’s War, and the Indians’ strategy in that 1866–68 conflict was rather involved compared to the raiding and ambushes the Lakotas had used in earlier skirmishes. In the minds of the establishment Twiss had become the worst kind of renegade—a white man and former soldier in the service of hostile Indians.

Fighting renegades were rare in the West. French and British fur traders and mountain men often married Indian women for reasons practical as well as romantic: The women were priceless interpreters and visible tokens of peace. Instances of white men with Indian wives taking up arms against the United States, however, were more common in earlier Eastern wars, in which whites and Indians fought other whites and Indians. Thomas Twiss, officer, gentleman, engineer and philosopher, was likely motivated by a conscientious understanding that Indians had been wronged, as well as out of love for his Lakota wife and their children.

Indian Agent Twiss, working for the Department of the Interior, had arrived at Fort Laramie on August 10, 1855, in the tense aftermath of the Grattan Massacre. On August 17 the prior year an Indian had killed a stray cow from a passing Mormon wagon train. Two days later hotheaded young Army 2nd Lt. John Grattan and his drunken interpreter, Lucien Auguste, had staged a parley with Brulé Lakota Chief Conquering Bear, during which the chief offered to swap a good horse for the cow but refused to hand over the cow killer, a guest of the village. As the chief was walking away from the stalled negotiations, a nervous soldier shot an Indian. Both sides drew down. The soldiers fired muskets and two howitzers into the Indian village, fatally wounding Conquering Bear. The enraged Lakotas porcupined Grattan with arrows, tomahawked Auguste and wiped out the 29 soldiers as they sought cover. The Brulés fled after looting a nearby trading post. They spared its owner, James Bordeau, whose wife was Lakota.

To address the uprising, the Army turned to Brig. Gen. William Selby Harney, a two-fisted Indian fighter who had seen action against the Seminoles and would later propose hanging Mormon leader Brigham Young. He had arrived at Laramie some months before Twiss, his orders to punish the Indians who had inflicted what whites deemed a massacre and Lakotas legitimate self-defense. Twiss, from his agency at Fort Laramie, warned the friendly Indians to remain on the South Platte River and its tributaries while Harney hunted for the hostile Indians farther north. The friendly bands listened to Twiss, and by September some 400 lodges and 4,000 Lakotas had gathered in the safe zone. “There is not, as I can find, within this agency, a single hostile Indian,” Twiss wrote the Interior Department 10 days after his arrival. “On the contrary, all are friendly.”

One band remained outside the bastion of the Black Hills: a band of Brulé and Minneconjou Lakotas headed by Little Thunder, a strong but sensible chief. Some of his warriors had taken part in destroying the Grattan detachment and saw themselves as the aggrieved party. These Lakotas had received word of Twiss’ warning, but they were in the midst of “making meat” and reluctant to break off the hunting and drying of buffalo meat until they had enough for the winter. Harney, eager to inflict a defeat on the Sioux, learned that some of the warriors from this band had demanded food from civilians in a passing wagon train and kicked over a settler’s coffee pot when rejected. It wasn’t as bad a provocation as picking off a stray cow, but it was enough. Little Thunder’s scouts saw Harney coming a long way off and reportedly delivered a message of pride mingled with conciliation: “If you wish peace, we are willing; if you wish to fight, we are also willing.”

Harney didn’t wish peace. According to Lieutenant Gouverneur Kemble Warren, a member of Harney’s advance guard and a diarist during the expedition, the troopers surrounded the Lakotas on September 3 but weren’t all able to get into position in time, so Harney resorted to a delaying tactic: Arranging a parley with Little Thunder, he accused the Lakotas of being thieves, blamed them for the massacre and told the chief to prepare his men to fight.

Little Thunder had barely returned to his camp before Harney’s surrounding troops opened fire with musketry and artillery and then charged with cavalry. Some of the Lakotas broke free of the ambush, but the band lost 86 people, some horribly mangled by artillery shells. Harney’s men captured about 70 women and children. The Army lost some halfdozen cavalrymen dead and about the same wounded in what became known alternately as the Battle of Blue Water Creek or the Battle of Ash Hollow.

As the Regulars patched up the wounded Indian women and children, an appalled Warren and his fellow officers took in the carnage. The lieutenant found one woman who had been shot in the left knee, the ball passing through to strike her baby in the right knee; the baby later died. The soldiers then looted the camp for supplies and souvenirs and burned everything they couldn’t carry away. They also scavenged some pemmican the Brulés had made at the cost of heading south to safety, using it as a substitute for chewing tobacco.

Harney thought to pacify the Indians with his iron fist. Instead, they began ambushing small groups of soldiers and killing or robbing teamsters they caught on the trail. They even attacked a mail wagon. Rumor soon spread that Harney intended “to kill every Indian he could catch, whether Sioux or not.”

Twiss, though new to the country, knew that most of the Lakotas, his own Oglala wards in particular, understood that war with the whites would spell disaster. The Indian agent promised Harney he would work to ensure peace with the Indians: “I pledge my head for their good conduct and fidelity.”

Twiss arranged a conference between Harney and some of the principal Lakota chiefs. After coolly refusing to shake hands with them (“I assumed all the austerity I could put on”), Harney told the Lakotas they would have to return all the property they had looted, surrender the warriors who had attacked the mail wagon and remain south of the Platte, away from the Overland Road. Some of the Indians told him that hunting was no good south of the Platte and that they couldn’t feed their people. The general was adamant.

Two weeks after Harney left for an optimistic sortie against the Black Hills, the Lakotas handed over three warriors who had attacked the mail wagon—Red Leaf and Long Chin, brothers of the slain Chief Conquering Bear, and a cousin named Spotted Tail. Two boys had also attacked the mail coach, but the Indians refused to relinquish these teenagers. Two grown Lakota men volunteered to take the boys’ places. All five warriors were dressed in their finest war costumes and singing their death songs, fully expecting to be shot or hanged but resigned to lay down their lives for the greater good. Twiss, the former philosophy professor, was mightily impressed with their valor and self-sacrifice. He sent the Indians in chains to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and wrote to the Indian Office, telling both sides of the story. President Franklin Pierce pardoned all five and sent them home the following year. Twiss became an honored figure among the Oglalas and the Brulés.

Harney was feared rather than honored; the Lakotas called him “Mad Bear” and “the Hornet.” As he buzzed about the countryside looking for more villages to attack, the Lakotas temporized, seeking peace and offering to return white hostages. The frigid weather killed a third of Harney’s horses and wiped out his beef cattle herd. His soldiers came down with scurvy, and some died. The next spring Harney called for a peace conference at Fort Laramie for further verbal intimidation. Meanwhile, word got back to the general that Twiss had told the Oglalas to keep away from the peace conference. Harney had Twiss arrested and suspended him from his post as Indian agent.

The Lakotas eventually conferred with the general at Fort Pierre in March 1856, and both sides softened. Harney had learned from the commander and post chaplain at Fort Laramie about interpreter Lucien Auguste’s drunken provocation leading up to the Grattan Massacre. The general did not drink himself and had no tolerance for anyone who showed up drunk on duty. In a change of heart he promised to protect the Lakotas from the whites if they stayed away from the road, and he released the 70 women and children captured at Ash Hollow as a goodwill gesture. Harney not only shook hands with Little Thunder but also named him chief of the Brulés. The Brulés elected and deposed their own chiefs, but Harney was truly serious about peace. He wrote to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis: “With proper management a new era will dawn upon such of the Indians as yet remain. The Sioux seek it and look forward to it with a hope which I trust may not be blighted. They have been deceived so often by the whites that they would never again give them their confidence.”

Twiss, meanwhile, had convinced the Interior Department to restore his job, with the warm support of the Oglalas. The agent had an invalid wife back in New York, but at Laramie he had met Mary Standing Elk, an Indian girl much less than half his age, and she presented him that same year with Fannie Twiss, the first of their seven children.

Of course, whites continued to flood the West, decimating the buffalo and other game upon which the Indians subsisted. “These wild tribes have heard that all of the Indian tribes to the eastward of them have ceded their lands to the United States, except small reservations,” Twiss wrote a few years after Ash Hollow. When the “wild tribes” tried to block a military surveying party in June 1859, Twiss proposed a plan he hoped—as a man now linked by blood ties to the Lakotas— would give the Plains tribes a future.

That September, a year after Mary presented him with James, his first son by either wife, Twiss conferred with the Lakotas, Northern Cheyennes and Northern Arapahos at Deer Creek and worked out a mode of survival: The Indians would agree to settle in fixed areas and subsist on $115,000 a year while learning to farm and breed livestock (see “Indian Life” in the February 2011 Wild West). The Oglalas, Mary Standing Elk’s people and Thomas Twiss’ adopted tribe, would live on Horse and Deer creeks, the Brulés on the White River east of the Black Hills, the Cheyennes on Laramie Creek and the Arapahos on the Cache la Poudre River. The Indians all signed in a single day. Congress rejected the treaty. Twiss was disgusted and leaned more and more toward the Oglalas’ point of view.

President Abraham Lincoln removed Twiss as Indian agent for the Oglalas in 1861. The annuities to the Indians that year hadn’t included the usual powder and lead—the Indians had become increasingly dependent on guns for hunting, as the remaining game became more wary—and the number of troops heading east for the Civil War made the situation in the West increasingly perilous. Lincoln removed Twiss at the worst possible time, for while the agent may have come to favor the Indians, he clearly sought peace, which was imperative at this point. Some accounts have him taking a cut off the top of the annuities, but this could have been a calumny—the Indians had a sharp eye for crooks, yet they continued to accept Twiss, Mary, their children and their pet bear. “The picture of this Indian agent, an honor graduate of West Point and a former Army officer, hobnobbing with these illiterate French traders and their halfbreeds, drinking with them and sharing in their shady deals, is really an astonishing one,” wrote historian George Hyde. “Twiss took his Indian wife and children to Powder River and joined the Oglalas there.”

Twiss was to scrawl one more signature in Western history, perhaps in disappearing ink. When the Army first began to encroach on the Bozeman Trail just after the Civil War, the onetime agent’s father-in-law, Chief Standing Elk—advised by Twiss—told Red Cloud not to sign away the trail but to keep resisting. The Lakotas, Northern Cheyennes and Northern Arapahos fought the war-weary United States to a stalemate, and eventually the Army evacuated the forts, which the Lakotas then burned. The resulting 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, in its provision of annuities and vocational training to help the Indians take up farming and craft skills, sounds much like the agreement Twiss had offered Congress a decade and several hundred lost lives before.

After the white Mrs. Twiss died in 1866, Thomas Twiss formalized his already permanent marriage to Mary Standing Elk, and they took up farming and sent their children to school in Rulo, Neb. Twiss died on January 18, 1871, once more among white people, except for his Indian family. Most of his children moved back to the Oglala Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, S.D., and dozens of Twiss descendants still live there—many of whom will proudly point out that their great-grandfather graduated second in his class at West Point, not dead last like George Armstrong Custer.


John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor. Suzie Koster and Minjae Kim helped research this article. Suggested for further reading: The Indian War of 1864, by Eugene F. Ware; Spotted Tail’s Folk, by George E. Hyde; and Fort Laramie and the Sioux, by Remi A. Nadeau.

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.