In the Shadow of Wounded Knee: The Untold Final Story of the Indian Wars
by Roger L. Di Silvestro,Walker & Co., New York, 2005, $25.
The December 29, 1890, calamity at Wounded Knee, in which many Lakota women, children and men were cut down by U.S. troops, may have ended the Indian wars, but it did not end the drama in turbulent South Dakota. Among the warriors who wanted revenge was a 21-year-old Brulé Lakota, Tsasunka Ota (meaning Many Horses, although whites translated it as Plenty Horses or Young Man with Plenty Horses). On January 7, 1891, Plenty Horses shot down Lieutenant Edward Wanton Casey from behind. The hostilities that had lingered after Wounded Knee ceased, but Plenty Horses was arrested in February and stood trial the following spring in Sioux Falls, S.D. That trial has been largely forgotten but is too significant to be cast aside—that’s the argument of Roger L. Di Silvestro, a senior editor at National Wildlife magazine. “The Indian wars did not end at Wounded Knee, nor even with Casey’s death, but rather in the Sioux Falls federal courthouse, where a lone warrior awaited his fate at the hands of a society that had killed countless numbers of his people and seemed determined to kill at least one more.”
Di Silvestro’s book deals primarily with Casey, Plenty Horses and the murder trial but also with another shootout between whites and Indians that occurred four days after the lieutenant’s death. In that affair, some South Dakota ranchers, led by the three Culbertson brothers, killed a middle-aged Lakota, Few Tails. “Following the shooting of Few Tails,” Di Silvestro writes, “the Lakota Indians, who had been settling down after Wounded Knee, were once again close to panic, particularly on Pine Ridge.” William B. Sterling, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota, was the prosecutor in the trials of both Plenty Horses and the Culbertsons. First he prosecuted an Indian for killing a white officer and soon after he prosecuted whites for killing an Indian. Plenty Horses and many others believed he would end up on the gallows, but he did not, and the Culbertons also got off, perhaps in part due to the bad feeling that existed over the acquittal of Plenty Horses.
Sterling had lost both cases, but who had gained in the two verdicts? The Culbertsons obviously were the big victors in the second trial, and though the brothers were hardly popular, other white settlers no doubt considered the verdict a victory. The outcome of the Plenty Horses case—it was ruled that Casey died in the line of duty, essentially a casualty of war—was more than just a victory for the Indians, Di Silvestro contends. “The court virtually had to find him innocent or open up a Pandora’s box of questions about Wounded Knee that no one wanted answered or even asked,” he writes. One of those questions might be: If the back-shooting Plenty Horses got away with murder, didn’t all those soldiers at Wounded Knee do the same? No matter whether you answer yes or no, it’s a question worth asking today. Wounded Knee has not been forgotten, of course, but Plenty Horses has certainly disappeared into obscurity. This book takes a large step in correcting that, while also reminding us that some of the most intriguing history can be found in the shadows of major events.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.