Lakota warrior White Bull
Whether or not White Bull was the warrior who killed George Custer on the Little Bighorn, the Minneconjou Lakota chief distinguished himself in battle over the years, earning every eagle feather in his warbonnet. (Denver Public Library)
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After solemnly surveying the mingled corpses of fellow warriors and 7th U.S. Cavalry troopers on the hillside above Montana Territory’s Little Bighorn River (the Greasy Grass to Indians), the pair of Lakota warriors focused on the lifeless body of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at their feet. “Long Hair thought he was the greatest man in the world,” one said. “Now he lies there.” White Bull, the warrior he was addressing, had killed two men in battle that morning, June 25, 1876. “Well,” White Bull replied, “If that is Long Hair, I am the man who killed him.”

Historian Stanley Vestal recounted this alleged conversation in the February 1957 issue of American Heritage, published a decade after White Bull’s death. Vestal had interviewed the warrior chief and said White Bull had asked not to be revealed as Custer’s killer during his lifetime, to avoid retaliation. 

Stanley Vestal
Stanley Vestal (Oklahoma Historical Society)

“A tall, well-built soldier with yellow hair and a mustache saw me coming and tried to bluff me,” White Bull had told Vestal. The soldier drew a bead on the warrior with a rifle. Before he could fire, White Bull rushed in, and the soldier threw the rifle at him, missing. According to White Bull, the two then locked in hand-to-hand combat. Amid the dust and smoke, he noted, “It was like fighting in a fog.” Grabbing White Bull’s braids, the soldier pulled the warrior close and tried to bite off his nose. White Bull called for help from a pair of fellow Lakotas, but their blows mostly landed on their friend as the combatants whirled around. Finally, the soldier drew his pistol. Wresting it away, White Bull repeatedly struck the soldier over the head with it and then delivered two shots—one to the soldier’s head, another to his chest. Though he didn’t recognize the man he’d killed, White Bull knew he’d slain a worthy opponent.

With the publication of Vestal’s article Minneconjou Chief White Bull joined the short list of possible candidates for the man who killed Custer. While the lens of time will forever blur the specifics of Custer’s death, two facts remain clear—White Bull was a dynamic participant in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and his demonstrated courage over 11 years on the warpath is well documented.

In 1932 Vestal visited the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, in north-central South Dakota, to interview 83-year-old White Bull, who poured out his life story to the prolific journalist and biographer. According to his own account, the future warrior chief entered the world in April 1849 in the Black Hills of what a dozen years later would be designated Dakota Territory. Known as Bull-Standing-With-Cow until the summer of his 16th year, he was born into a lineage of strong Sioux warriors. His father, Makes Room—like his father before him—was a chief of the Minneconjou, and his mother, Good Feather Woman of the Hunkpapa, the favorite sister of the legendary Sitting Bull.

The games of Bull-Standing-With-Cow’s youth often centered on simulated combat. He and his friends formed their own warrior societies and learned the intricacies of warfare by play fighting. To count coup on one’s enemy by striking him with a hand or a stick was considered especially courageous.

Up to four warriors were permitted to count coup on a single foe in the same fight—the most honored being the one who counted first coup. Such feats were recorded in the language of feathers. The man striking first coup could wear a single eagle feather lodged upright in his hair at the back of his head. A second coup was identified by a feather angling upward, a third by a horizontal feather and a fourth by one sloping downward. In their war games Bull-Standing-With-Cow and friends would count coup on each other and keep score by sticking small feathers in their hair. 

As childhood gave way to adolescence, Bull-Standing-With-Cow grew determined to make his reputation as a warrior. In July 1865 noted Minneconjou warrior High Hump recruited volunteers for a war party. White soldiers had violated a recent treaty, and High Hump resolved to seek enemy scalps and horses.

Sixteen year old Bull-Standing-With-Cow didn’t need to be asked twice, and Makes Room saw there was no stopping him. After presenting his son with a fast dapple-gray pony, the chief had half brother Horse Tail, a medicine man, create protective “medicine” for the boy and his horse. Horse Tail hung a leather pouch painted with a war eagle around the gray’s neck, then painted its legs and jawline with wavy red lines. After fastening a soft eagle plume in Bull-Standing-With-Cow’s hair, he finally draped a leather thong suspending an eagle-bone whistle around the boy’s neck.

“Nephew,” he declared, “this medicine will make your horse strong and long-winded.”

Following an evening of singing and dancing, the warriors left camp early the next morning. One evening several days later a scout pinpointed an enemy camp. Anxious to be the first to the fight, Bull-Standing-With-Cow slipped away from camp early. When the sun broke over the horizon, he made a solo charge into the soldiers’ remuda. Cutting out eight horses, he blew his eagle-bone whistle to scare them into a run. 

Unfortunately for him, the whistle also roused the enemy. Moments later the neophyte warrior found himself the target of a running pursuit by 10 mounted bluecoats. Lashing his pony’s flanks while bullets whizzed past, he likely prayed his uncle’s medicine would indeed make his horse “strong and long-winded.” Just when his pony began to tire and the soldiers were about to catch up with him, he encountered his own war party. His pursuers abruptly retreated.

Custer at Battle of the Little Bighorn
The June 25, 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn has spawned many inaccurate depictions. For instance, Custer wore buckskins (not blues) and didn’t use a saber as shown above. Who killed him that day will never be known with any certainty, White Bull’s claims aside. (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

Bull-Standing-With-Cow’s daredevil spirit and eight captured horses made quite an impression on his friends. Meanwhile, the dissatisfied High Hump organized another raid. Near the headwaters of the Powder River the party encountered seven bluecoat scouts driving horses. Bull-Standing-With-Cow was riding down on one of the scouts with his lance when the soldier whirled in his saddle and fired a revolver at nearly point-black range. Miraculously, the bullet missed. Moments later Bull-Standing-With-Cow stabbed the bluecoat in the shoulder, counting first coup. By the time the party turned for home he’d counted three coups and stolen 10 horses. 

When Bull-Standing-With-Cow returned to camp, his father arranged a victory dance for his son. Astride his horse, resplendent in warpaint, the boy warrior rode toward a black pole in the center of the ceremony grounds. “From this day,” proclaimed his Uncle Black Moon, “Bull-Standing-With-Cow will lay down his boy name. From this time, he shall be called by the name of his grandfather, White Bull.”

In the coming years White Bull racked up an impressive string of coups, finally realizing the future he’d envisioned when he and young friends ran about play fighting and sticking small feathers in their hair. As a member of both the Minneconjou and Hunkpapa bands of the Lakota Nation, he fought in nearly every battle waged by either band—and who knows, he just may have counted coup on Custer. 

this article first appeared in wild west magazine

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