More Cattle — More Cattle Wars

Some background

Florida’s cattle were the first in North America, brought here by the 1521 expedition of Ponce de Leon.  Cattle ranching began before the Seventeenth Century around America’s first city, St. Augustine.  When Florida became a US territory in 1821, it was a frontier region plentifully stocked with wild cattle.  By the eve of the American Civil War, Florida was second only to Texas in the per capita value of southern livestock.  Central and South Florida were open range areas.

Here’s something else about Florida: it was a thoroughly dangerous place in the early 1800s for man and beast.  Even in areas where the land was firm (unlike the swampy and quicksand laden savannah), thick saw grass could cut man and beast to ribbons.  Humans were in constant danger from heat and humidity, malaria and yellow fever, poisonous snakes, large panthers, and constantly irritated insects.

Florida crackers couldn’t move herds without drovers, but more to the point, Florida ranchers needed drovers who were familiar with Florida’s seacoasts and swamps.  The vegetation in Florida was so thick that entire herds could wander or vanish within an hour in the trackless region.  Drovers were critical to the cattlemen because there was no rail system anywhere south of the Florida/Georgia border.  Significant demand for Florida cattle in Cuba drove the industry for over a decade, beginning in the late 1840s.  After 1850, free-ranging cattle in South Florida, south of an imaginary line from Orlando to Fort Myers, not only attracted cattle drovers and hardy pioneers, but the area also attracted murderers, rustlers, armed robbers, military deserters, and runaway slaves.

In 1859, Florida’s semi-wild herd approached around 700,000 head — nearly five times as many cattle as people.  South Florida was “cow country.”  Except for Key West and Tampa, only about 3,500 people lived south of present-day Orlando/Kissimmee.

The distance from South Florida to the Georgia railhead was between 300-400 miles.  A cattle drive over this distance would take around a month.  Discussions about moving rail systems south did occur, but for some reason, cattle ranchers resisted it.

The Remington Connection

1861 was the year Frederic Remington was born in Canton, New York.  Today, we remember Frederic Remington as a painter, illustrator, and sculptor who left us with depictions of the Old West.  He gave us images of cowboys, Indians, and the old US Cavalry.

Frederic’s father’s name was Seth Pierrepont Remington. His mother was Clarissa Bascom Sackrider.  Seth’s family were prominent hardware merchants — immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine from around the mind-1600s; Clarissa’s family originated in the French Basque Country in the early 1600s.  Her ancestors helped establish the colony in Windsor, Connecticut.

During the Civil War, Seth Remington served as a colonel in the Union Army.  Before then, he was a newspaper editor, a staunch Republican active in local politics, and a breeder of horses.  Frederic’s other family included cousin Eliphalet Remington, the Remington Arms Company founder, and legendary mountain men Jedediah Smith, Jonathan T. Warner, and Robert “Doc” Newell.

Frederic grew into a large man, healthy, strong, and active in such outdoor activities as hunting, riding, swimming, and fieldcraft.  Seth, who wanted his son to attend the US Military Academy, enrolled him in several private military preparatory academies.  Still, despite these efforts, Frederic was a poor student in the one subject he needed most for the USMA: mathematics.  Frederic’s problem wasn’t intellect; it was a lack of interest.  He was pleasant, laidback, good-humored, generous, and kind-spirited.  His strength was in his ability to draw or sketch humans, animals, and landscapes.

Frederic attended art school at Yale University.  In his third year, his mother called him home to help attend his ailing father, who passed away from consumption in the following year.  Frederic subsequently headed west to Montana.  He intended to start a cattle ranch and invest in mining, but lacking the necessary capital, he sought other opportunities.

Eventually, three events prompted him to pursue art as a vocation.  The first was his failure as a saloon keeper and hardware store owner.  The second was that his wife, fed up with his lazy lifestyle and business failures, left him.  The third was his realization that the west was shrinking.  Barbed wire fencing reduced the vast prairies to pastures, hunters (intentionally) killed off vast herds of buffalo, and Army policy destroyed the free-roaming American Indian.  These realities prompted Frederic to capture Old West images on canvas.

By 1890, easterners proclaimed that the Old West was officially a thing of the past.  There was no more American frontier, they said.  Of course, this wasn’t altogether true, but it was an adequate predictor of things to come.  Wyatt Earp was still alive, just an older man who was no longer involved in law enforcement.  John “Doc” Holliday had passed away from consumption, and Butch Cassidy’s remaining days were almost in single digits.  The old west cattle ranches had become a corporate enterprise, and technology had begun to change the ways of the ranch hands.

But in 1890, Florida still had cattle ranches; they still had cowboys (whom everyone called Crackers), saloons were ever-present, and Florida had gunfights as real as anything one might have encountered in Dodge City, Kansas.

Harper’s Weekly wanted to do a story on the Old East (Florida) and sent Frederic Remington to write about it and illustrate it.  Remington arrived in Arcadia in 1895, and he could not have been less impressed with Florida cattlemen or the flatlands that extended as far as the eye could see.  It was not, Remington wrote, a country for a high-spirited race of moral giants.  Neither was Mr. Remington impressed with Florida’s scrub cattle.  They were “scrawny creatures,” he complained.  As for the cow hunters, they were “wild-looking individuals” who always presented an unkempt appearance.

Frederic Remington’s problem was that he didn’t dig deep enough into Florida culture.  He missed the cattle roundups, cattle drives, cattle rustling, thoroughly dangerous gunslingers, and the hostile Indians of South Central Florida.  Today we can drive to Kissimmee and spend a day or week in Disney World (but not much more than a week), but in 1895, Kissimmee was known as a thoroughly lawless and dangerous place and had been for more than 20 years.

The Civil War didn’t ravage Florida in the same way as it did other Confederate states, but Floridians did join the citizens of other southern states in the humiliation and suffering of Union Reconstruction.  People were dirt-poor and remained that way for a very long time.  In 1865, if Floridians could save their state, it would have to be through its massive cattle population that ranged on Florida’s enormous prairie.

Once the Union lifted its blockade of Florida ports, cattlemen could establish trade with beef-hungry Cuba.  If a rancher could deliver his annual herd to buyers in St. Augustine, Tampa, and other port cities, he could sell them for hard money (cash), which was in short supply.  For a time, Spanish currency was more abundant in Florida than American dollars.

An armed robbery was rare in Florida but did produce deadly results.  Most of the theft involved cattle rustling, and the way Floridians dealt with it was through vigilante justice.  Vigilantism was prominent and necessary because few people were ever arrested or convicted of cattle theft.  In plain truth, dirt-poor Floridians were unwilling to convict their neighbors for stealing cattle because it was a community endeavor.  Everyone was involved in it.  Lawlessness was rampant and walking down the street in Orlando, one was likely to observe a gunfight or a brawl outside any of a dozen saloons.  Orlando was so violent that respectable citizens didn’t leave their homes at night.

Moses and William Barber migrated to Northern Florida from Georgia in 1833 and settled near the town of MacClenny.  Indians killed William in 1841, but Moses (Old Mose) established one of the largest cattle empires in the state.  In 1860, Mose owned land valued at $21,400; he owned other property valued at $116,000.  He also owned 100 slaves.  When the Civil War erupted, federal authorities seized the Barber family’s cattle to feed Union troops and seized Mose’s slaves as contraband.  Old Mose’s son Isaac lost his life at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.  Isaac’s death prompted Moses Jr. to convince his father to uproot the remaining family and move them south of Orlando to Kenansville, where the Barber clan reestablished their ranching interests.

William, Luke, and David Moselle fled religious persecution in France to settle in North Carolina before the American Revolution.  Luke’s descendants later migrated to Alabama.  William’s clan moved to South Georgia.  David’s offspring relocated to Florida.  David’s grandson, also named David, anglicized his name from Moselle to Mizell and settled in present-day Lake City in the mid-1830s.  Indian hostilities resulted in the deaths of two family members — an event that prompted David Jr. to enlist in the army against the Indians.  The army stationed him at Fort Christmas in Central Florida.

David Jr. convinced several family members to join him in settling near Orlando.  Four of David Jr.’s sons fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  Sons Thomas and Joshua lost their lives; John served as a captain, while David saw little action because of an illness.

Despite his service in the Confederacy, Captain John Mizell gained favor with reconstruction officials.  He obtained a judgeship in the Orlando area and convinced the Reconstruction governor to appoint his brother David as Sheriff of Orange County.  The Mizell’s became the most powerful political family in the area.  It also earned them the title “Carpetbagger” by their pro-Confederate neighbors.

The government was particularly oppressive to the Barber family by instituting stiff taxes on large herds of cattle.  John and David Mizell had a duty to enforce the law and government regulation.  In doing so, they incurred deep resentment from pro-Confederate sympathizers and from among the dirt poor folks who saw the Mizell brothers as oppressive agents of Yankee aggression.  Deep post-war resentment permeated central Florida.

The Mizell’s attempted to enforce cattle regulations by making an example of Jackson (Jack) Barber, a son of William.  According to Barber family accounts, the Mizell’s harassed Jack at every opportunity.  Sheriff Mizell arrested Jack numerous times, and although acquitted each time, he was still required to pay “court costs.”  Eventually, the Mizell’s did manage to get Jack convicted — of what, no one today is quite sure — and Jack ended up spending time in the Chattahoochee prison.

Jack’s nephew Deed Barber ran afoul of the Mizell family when they caught him removing a prize steer from Mizell’s property.  The animal belonged to Mose Barber but had strayed onto the land owned by Morgan Mizell.  Deed was 14-years old at the time.  Sheriff Mizell wanted to arrest Deed for cattle rustling, but Morgan diffused the situation by agreeing to slaughter the animal and divide the meat between the families.  It was a prized animal, but Morgan’s solution was probably the best one without proof of ownership.

The Barber-Mizell crisis came to a head in 1868 when Sheriff Mizell seized a large portion of the Barber’s heard for back taxes.  Of course, Old Mose had it in his head that he wouldn’t pay any damn taxes to the Yankee government, and he’d warned David Mizell what might happen if he ever stepped foot on Barber land.  David may have thought that Mose was only blustery; if he felt that, he was wrong.  Old Mose and Moses Jr. were very serious about protecting their land from carpetbaggers.

The Barbers decided to challenge the Mizell’s in court during the fall term.  Everyone was on edge.  Most people anticipated that it would be one-helluva court battle.  A delay in the trial caused a rescheduling of the hearing (the reason is unknown to me), but two days before the rescheduled hearing, the courthouse burned down, along with all of its records.  Investigators later discovered bottles of turpentine around the gutted remains of the courthouse.  It was clearly a case of arson, but there were no witnesses.  Later, the jailhouse was set on fire as well.  Matters in Central Florida were heating up to boiling temperature.

In early February 1870, Robert Bullock filed a complaint against Mose Barber for an unpaid bill for the sale of some cattle.  Judge John Mizell issued a warrant for the arrest of Mose and sent Sheriff David Mizell to make the arrest.  On the evening of 21 February, Mizell stopped for the night to water and rest his horses at Bull Creek. David thought it would be a nice outing, so he took his son Billy and his nephew Morgan. As darkness settled on their small camp, gunfire suddenly erupted from the surrounding woods, fatally wounding David but leaving the boys unscathed.

Morgan instructed the younger Billy to tend to his father while he rode back to Orlando for help.  Along the route, Morgan met a man named George Sullivan, who rushed to Bull Creek to assist Billy.  As Sheriff Mizell lay dying, he asked his son to tell the family not to avenge his death.  Unhappily, the Mizell’s were as stubborn and as ornery as the Barbers, and Judge Mizell was not known for his forbearance.

When John Mizell learned of David’s death, he immediately called for a posse of twenty men and instructed them simply, “Bring the Barbers to justice, and take no prisoners doing it.”  John appointed David B. Stewart to replace his brother as Sheriff.

The first person Sheriff Stewart arrested was Needham Yates.  Needham was Jack Barber’s uncle.  Along with Needham Yates, Steward also arrested Needham’s sons, William, and Needham Jr.  Next on the list came Moses Jr.’s son Isaac.  When the posse caught up with Isaac, they tied him to a tree and then shot him to death.  News of this atrocious act spread quickly, which enabled Old Mose, Moses Jr., and Jack to escape before the posse arrived at the Barber ranch.  Isaac’s widow, the fearless Harriet Geiger Barber, waited for the posse, including Judge Mizell.  She soundly cursed these men, but the undeterred posse seized Barber cattle and quickly departed.

While Judge Mizell and most of the posse returned to Orlando, a few other posse members decided to pursue Old Mose, Jack, and Moses Jr.  Deputies Jack Evans, Joe Moody, and Bill Duffield almost succeeded in capturing the Barber trio, but Old Mose and Jack escaped leaving Moses Jr., in the hands of the law.  That night, Evans, Moody, and Duffield made camp along the shore of Lake Conway.  The lawmen, fearing that Moses might attempt to escape during the night, shackled him in irons.  They later testified that when they awoke the following day, they found that Moses had escaped.   As dutiful law officers, they tracked him to the shores of the lake.  Moses must have been a very remorseful person because not only did he drown himself trying to escape custody, but he also shot himself numerous times.  This incident may have been the first instance in the United States of a drowning/suicide while trying to escape.  Within a few weeks, eight more members of the Barber family died violently.

The Barber-Mizell feud, which began just after the Civil War, lasted until 1940.  Over many years, the feud resulted in the killing of 41 people. 

Moses Barber died in November of 1870 at the age of 62. Jack became a respected citrus grower near Lake Conway in Orange County; he died in 1916. Judge Mizell, who led the campaign against the Barbers, became an influential figure in the state Republican Party, which held power until Reconstruction ended in 1876.

John Mizell eventually worked his way down the east coast of Florida, settling in a farming community just north of Fort Lauderdale. When the town incorporated on June 6, 1908, as Pompano, Mizell was elected the first mayor.

Old Bone

Bone Mizell by Frederic Remington

Frederic Remington never had to dodge any bullets or street brawls during the Barber-Mizell feud, but he did eventually meet the most famous Mizell character of them all.  Morgan Bonaparte Mizell, known to everyone simply as “Bone,” was the son of Morgan Mizell, who was riding with his uncle, Sheriff David Mizell, the day of the ambush at Bull Creek.

Bone Mizell was a Florida cowboy, a drunk, and a practical joker who spoke with a lisp.  He covered up his embarrassing speech impediment with a sharp wit that delighted his many admirers.  He would sometimes light his pipe with dollar bills, and he occasionally rode his horse into a saloon and had his first drink while still in the saddle.

Bone was range foreman on a ranch near the Peace River outside Acadia, Florida, in DeSoto County.  He was an expert horseman, crack shot with either pistol or rifle, and a respected wrangler.  He was a fun-loving scruff whom everyone liked. Bone’s real fame, however, came from his tall tales and outrageous practical jokes. Frederic Remington immortalized Bone Mizell in a painting titled “A Cracker Cowboy.”

Sometime around 1890, Bone’s long-time friend John Underhill died while at cow camp in Lee County, and Bone laid John to rest in a solitary grave out on the range.  A short time later, a young Jewish man from New Orleans drifted into cattle country and became friendly with Bone.  The young man was already in failing health from a vigorous lifestyle and soon passed away.  Bone buried him next to John Underhill.  After a few years, the young man’s parents learned of their son’s death and sent money to an undertaker to return his body to New Orleans for a proper burial in the family plot.  The undertaker hired Bone to collect the body.

As Bone rode out to the gravesite, he recalled John Underhill telling him that he always wanted to take a train ride but never had enough money to afford it.  And he remembered the young man telling him that he was tired of traveling, never wanted to see the inside of another train, and never wanted to revisit New Orleans.  Bone thought about this and decided it didn’t seem right that you had a young fellow who was tired of traveling and another fellow who never got to take a train ride.  So, Bone unearthed John’s body, delivered it to the undertaker; Mr. Underhill finally got to ride on a train — and, on top of that, he got a Jewish funeral with all the trimmings.

Bone Mizell was a product of his environment, and just like everyone else in South/Central Florida, he was known to dabble in cattle rustling from time to time.  The courts dropped most of the charges against him, but the Fort Myers court did convict him in 1896 and sentenced him to two years imprisonment at hard labor. 

Such was Bone Mizell’s reputation that the prison was primed for his arrival.  He was met officiously by the warden, who gave him a tour of the facility, fed him a nice dinner in the warden’s quarters.  Shortly afterward, the warden presented him with a pardon and returned him to Acadia by train, a fully rehabilitated man.  Almost.

Bone remained a hard-drinking fellow until the day he died in 1921.  He just keeled over at the train station in Fort Ogden.  The cause of death was simple and to the point — as was the custom in Florida back then: Cause of death, moonshine.


  1. Bass, M. I.  Florida’s Frontier: The Way Hit Wuz.  Magnolia Press, 1992.

Linton, R. B.  Pine Castle: A Walk Down Memory Lane.  Book Crafters, 1993.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Civil War, Feuds & Rivalries, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Old Florida, Politicians, Range War | 3 Comments

Conflicting Loyalties

The Story of William Wells

We aren’t quite sure when William was born.  We think it was sometime in 1770 at a place called Jacob’s Creek in Pennsylvania; there is no record of his birth.  He was the son of Captain Samuel Wells, an American patriot who served in the Virginia militia early in the American Revolution.  In 1779, Captain Wells moved his family to an area known as Bear Grass Creek in Kentucky.  His decision to relocate his family coincided with a similar decision made by hundreds of other settlers with their eye on the Northwest Territory.  Captain Wells’ wife, William’s mother, passed away within a year of the family’s arrival in Kentucky.  William would have been around ten or eleven years old.

The Northwest Territories had been a contested area for well over 100 years.  French colonists jealously guarded their territories and their trapping interests.  They did this by enlisting local Indians to help keep British trappers, explorers, and settlers (and their Indian allies), away from New France.  Because both French and British officials enlisted the aid of American Indians, the Northwest Territory became an intensely contested part of the world.  Everyone was a target for violence.

Both French and British officials took advantage of the Native American’s appetite for flattery.  Essentially, the Indians would support whoever gave them the best stuff.  It was not uncommon to find Indians fighting for the French also fighting with the Indians who were friends of the British.  Trade relationships were the key to understanding human affairs in the Northwest Territory.  At the conclusion of the French & Indian War (1763), France ceded all of its North American lands to the British — and did so without first consulting with their Indian allies.  The Indians were not pleased.

The British were every bit as sensitive to Indian trade relations as were the French.  To preserve a healthy relationship with their Indian allies, King George III issued a Royal Proclamation of 1763, which settled the border dispute between colonial Pennsylvania and Virginia and established a boundary for Indian homelands that no British subject could encroach.

By the mid-1760s British colonists had already developed a uniquely American culture.  In addition to hard work, a willingness to take risks, and exhibited extreme loyalty to their wives and children, the settlers were defiant of English authority, stubborn, and fiercely independent — the sort of thing one might expect from a free people.  If western settlers had it in their minds to enter Indian territory, no piece of paper would keep them out.  The King’s prohibition was such an affront to the settlers that it became an early cause of revolutionary thought.  Besides that, from the settler’s point of view, if they could ignore the King, they could damn well ignore the Parliament, as well.

By 1779, famed frontiersman Daniel Boone had already moved west from Boonesborough and established a new settlement called Boone’s New Station in an area known as Cross Plains.  Fifteen families settled at Boone’s New Station.  In 1780, Daniel’s brother James was killed by Shawnee raiders while hunting within present-day Bourbon County.  Two years later, Daniel Boone’s son Israel and his nephew Thomas lost their lives during the Battle of Blue Licks[1].

Captain Samuel Wells lost his life in an ambush during the evacuation of Boone’s New Station in 1782, and William (now an orphan) went into the care of William Pope and his family.  A Miami[2] and Delaware[3] raiding party took thirteen-year-old William Wells and three other youngsters’ captive two years later.  The Indians carried the boys into Indiana Territory, where, in time, Chief Gaviahate (translated to Porcupine) adopted William and raised him along the Eel River in northern Indiana.  Because of his red hair, Gaviahate renamed William Apekonit.

William adjusted to life with the Miami and adopted their ways as a young brave of the tribe.  He frequently accompanied other young warriors on raids and helped decoy flatboats on the Ohio River to go ashore where the Indians robbed them for their cargo.  Historians do not know how many raids William participated in — only that he did — and this tells us that William successfully assimilated into the Miami tribe within a few years.  This relationship was set into stone, more or less, when William/Apekonit married a Miami woman and had a child with her.  The woman, named Wea, was later captured by James Wilkerson in 1791 and taken as a hostage to Cincinnati.[4]

During these formative years, Apekonit came under the influence of a Miami war chief named Little Turtle, whom history remembers as one of the Indian’s more adroit combat leaders.  During the Battle of the Wabash in 1791, where Major General Arthur St. Clair suffered America’s worst defeat by native Americans, Wells served as the leader of Indian riflemen.  A year later, Wells traveled to Louisville in an effort to negotiate the release of Indian hostages.  While there, William met with his brother Sam, who convinced him to travel to Cincinnati to meet with Brigadier General Rufus Putnam.

Putnam was an experienced militia officer whose long service began with the French & Indian War.  He initially commanded engineers[5] in the Continental Army and, later, two regiments in the Battle of Saratoga and under Anthony Wayne, the 4th Regiment of light infantry.  He was also one of the principal organizers of the Ohio (Land) Company.  During Wayne’s Ohio Campaign (1792-93), Brigadier General Putnam confronted Shawnee, Lenape, and Seneca tribes.

In 1792, Putnam hired Wells to help broker a treaty with the Indians at Vincennes.  Through these efforts, Miami hostages were set free.  Putnam then appointed Wells to serve as a captain in the Legion of the United States[6] and assigned him to supervise spies and interpreters targeting the confederated Indian councils in northwest Ohio.

While Wea was in captivity, Wells married the daughter of Little Turtle, a woman named Wanagrapeth.[7]  Wells and Wanagrapeth had four children.

In 1793, Wells filed a report with General Anthony Wayne at Fort Jefferson informing them that efforts to reach an agreement with the Grand Council had failed, primarily because Alexander McKee[8] and Simon Girty disrupted the negotiations.[9]  Additionally, Wells notified Wayne that more than 1,500 warriors awaited him near Fort Washington.  Wayne appreciated the warning, but he found his relationship with Wells somewhat perplexing because Captain Wells would only obey Wayne’s orders if he found them practicable.

Captain Wells led a military recovery operation to the site of St. Clair’s defeat, where he uncovered several field cannon that the Miami Indians had buried.  General Wayne decided to construct Fort Recovery at this location.  In 1794, Wells led the Legion’s advance to the Maumee River (near Fort Wayne, Indiana).  Being aware of an impending Indian attack by the Shawnee war chief Blue Jacket, Wells warned Anthony. Wells’ scouting party later discovered and captured the British officers supplying Indians with shot and powder.  A few days before the Battle of Fallen Timbers, where Anthony defeated Blue Jacket, Wells received a hand-wound while attempting to infiltrate a band of Delaware.  Despite his wound, he escaped with his life and served as an advisor to General Wayne during the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

In 1795, Wells served as an interpreter at the Treaty of Greenville, at which the Indian Confederation of Miami, Piankeshaw, Kickapoo, and Kaskaskia Indians ceded most of the Ohio Country to the United States.  During these negotiations, it must have been uncomfortable for Wells to stand between General Wayne, his military commander, and Little Turtle, his father-in-law, during these negotiations.

Following the Treaty of Greenville, Little Turtle requested that Wells be appointed Indian Agent for the Miami nation.  Wells moved his family into the home constructed for him by the Army at Fort Wayne.  Both Wells and Little Turtle traveled with General Wayne to Philadelphia, where President Washington received them warmly.

During Thomas Jefferson’s administration, Wells wrote a letter to the president recommending the establishment of a trading post at Fort Wayne.  His idea was to encourage friendly relations with area Indians.  President Jefferson did authorize the trading post but appointed John Johnston as its manager.  Jefferson needed Wells to implement his Indian policy, which called for the civilizing Indians and using treaties to gain as much of their homelands as possible — and within the shortest period of time.  Johnson was entirely on board with Jefferson’s scheme — Wells was not, so it is no surprise that the two men had a troubled relationship.

After assuming his duties as territorial governor in 1801, William Henry Harrison appointed Wells as a justice of the peace and charged him with creating a postal service between Fort Wayne and Fort Dearborn.  Three years later, Harrison came to resent that Wells sided with Little Turtle in his opposition to the Treaty of Vincennes of 1804, which proposed that the Indians relinquish large areas to the American settlement.

In 1805, Harrison sent former acting territorial governor John Gibson and militia colonel Francis Vigo to investigate Wells and Little Turtle on suspicion of financial corruption.  Gibson, who spoke several Indian languages and dialects, concluded that “Wells appeared more attentive to the needs of the Indians than he was to the people of the United States.” There being no evidence of corruption, however, Wells was retained.  After Sweet Breeze died in 1805, Wells sent his daughters to live with his brother Samuel in Kentucky.  Afterward, Wells and Little Turtle had an amicable meeting with Governor Harrison.

In 1808, Wells and Little Turtle signed Harrison’s Treaty of Grouse Land, but once more concerned about the Indians, Wells led a delegation of Indian chiefs to Washington, D. C. to meet with President Jefferson.  Whether or not this effort was worthwhile, Wells’ insubordination infuriated Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, who promptly fired Wells and replaced him with John Johnston.

Wells married his third wife, Mary, a daughter of Colonel Frederick Geiger, in 1809.  They and Wells’ children returned to Fort Wayne, where Wells was discharged as Indian Agent by his replacement.  After signing the Treaty of Fort Wayne in the Autumn of 1809, the Shawnee War Chief Tecumseh and his brother began to organize a militant Indian confederation.  Wells gave due warning to the government in Washington, but Dearborn had a long memory and ignored the warning.  The alarm did nothing to help Wells’ relationship with Tecumseh, either.

With the full support of the Miami chieftains and Kentucky Senator John Pope, Wells traveled to Washington to challenge John Johnston’s decisions.  Ultimately, the decision was left to Governor Harrison, who sided with Wells — not because he trusted Wells, but because he feared that the Miami Indians might join Tecumseh.  Wells was able to keep the Miami tribe out of the Shawnee Confederation.  When Little Turtle died in 1812, Wells buried him near his home, a 1,300-acre farm outside Fort Wayne.

Following President James Madison’s momentous decision to declare war on Great Britain in 1812, he notified nearly everyone west of Naples, Italy — except for the settlers living in the Northwest Territory.  They found out when British soldiers and their Indian allies began shooting at them.  Much to the surprise of everyone living at or near Fort Dearborn (present-day Chicago), hundreds of Potawatomi Indian warriors appeared one morning, surrounded the fort, and demanded their surrender.  William Wells led a band of Miami Indians from Fort Wayne to aid in Fort Dearborn’s evacuation.  Captain Nathan Heald, commanding Fort Dearborn, was the husband of Rebekah, a daughter of William Wells.

Captain Wells intended to offer protection to the garrison and their families (around 100 people — about a third women and children) while they abandoned the post and retreated to Fort Wayne.  Wells negotiated with the Indians for the garrison’s release, and this would have been fine had Captain Heald not destroyed the garrison’s supplies before marching away.  Heald’s destruction of whiskey stores is what angered the Indians most; it is why they attacked the withdrawing garrison.  Historians remember the subsequent massacre as the Battle of Dearborn.  It wasn’t much of a battle.  Nathan and Rebekah were both wounded, taken prisoner, and later ransomed to the British.

When Wells learned that Heald had destroyed the whiskey, he knew the Indians would attack.  In the Miami tradition, he painted his face black — a sign that he knew he was about to die.  William Wells was one of the first to die in the Indian assault.  As a sign of respect to Wells, the Pottawatomi consumed his heart. 

William Wells was a man with conflicting loyalties.  The Miami Indians were his adopted family; he had no other.  His country was frequently at war with his only family, and yet he endeavored to serve his country as best as he was able to do so.  One might argue that he served his family with compassion and his country with distinction.  Others have suggested that he was a traitor.  Readers can decide this question for themselves.

Wells County, Indiana, is named in honor of Captain William Wells, Legion of the United States.


  1. Carter, H. L.  The Life and Times of Little Turtle: First Sagamore of the Wabash.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  2. Clayton, A. R. L.  Frontier Indiana.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
  3. Heath, W.  William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.
  4. Sonneborn, L.  The War of 1812.  Rosen Publishing Group, 2004.
  5. Sword, W.  President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.


[1] One of the last battles of the Revolutionary War, which occurred ten months after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.  The battle involved British forces augmented by Indian raiders who attacked the settlement near the Licking River.

[2] Miami Indians in the Illinois area were also called Myaamiaki.  They speak the Algonquian language and are part of the Great Lakes tribes that occupied North-Central Indiana.

[3] Also, Lenape whose traditional territories included Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and the Lower Hudson Valley.

[4] Wea was the mother of William’s son, William Wayne Wells, a graduate of the USMA, West Point.

[5] Responsible for constructing the fortifications at Sewall’s Point, Providence, Newport, Long Island, and West Point.

[6] The Legion of the United States was a re-organization and extension of the Continental Army (1792-96).

[7] Sweet Breeze.

[8] Alexander McKee (1735-1799) was a British-American colonel who served as an Indian Agent with the British Indian Department during the French & Indian War, the American Revolution, and the Northwest Indian War.  He was instrumental in organizing the American Indian tribes against the Americans during the Revolutionary War and Northwest Indian War.

[9] Simon Girty (1741-1818), like Wells, was captured and raised by the Indians.  He assimilated Seneca culture and served as a principal advisor to the Indians during the Northwest Indian War and, like Wells, participated in St. Clair’s defeat.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Colonies, Colonial America, History, Indian War, Northwest Territory | 4 Comments

Cowboy Hats

… and why folks wear them.

Actually, they are WESTERN hats.  Worn out west.  But because they were popularized in the “cowboy” films dating from the silent era, people started calling them cowboy hats.  Of course, stockmen wore western hats, along with many other people, because not everyone who lived out west was a rancher.

The first “western” hat, a broad-brimmed hat with a high crown, didn’t originate in the United States.  Mongolian horsemen wore similar hats as far back as the thirteenth century.  The hat has an important purpose, which is why folks wore them.  The high crown provides insulation and warmth in cold weather.  It does get mighty cold “out west.”  A wide brim keeps the sun off the wearer’s face and out of his eyes.  It also keeps the rain channeled away from the wearer’s head.  It was popular by those who lived on the western plain, hence “The Plains Hat.”  It is not a coincidence that it somewhat resembles the Mexican sombrero.  Westerners learned a lot about clothing from Mexicans.

While still a young man, doctors diagnosed John B. Stetson with life-threatening consumption.  With this knowledge, Stetson left his father’s hat-making business and headed west.  Otherwise, he reasoned, he may never get to see the wild-wild-west.  During his journey, Stetson met drovers, bullwhackers, and “cowboys.”[1]  Mr. Stetson was not well impressed with what those fellows were wearing on their heads: flea-infested coonskin caps.  Returning to Philadelphia, Stetson began manufacturing hats suitable for western wear.  The first was the plains hat, shown above.  The plains hat was practical and durable.  Heck, one could even water his horse from the plains hat.  Within a short time, the Stetson hat became the best-known hat in the American West.  It still is.  Stetson hats have been made for Texas Rangers, park rangers, cavalry troops, and even U. S. presidents.

Stetson’s first hat style in 1865 not only became popular among westerners but was appreciated in the east, as well.  Modern production western films, striving for accuracy in western attire, depict Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), and Captain Call (Tommy Lee Jones) wearing the “Boss Plains” Stetson.  Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) wore his hat with the brim turned up on the sides.[2]  Its wearer often modified the shape of the crown and brim by applying steam and then shaping it by hand or some other device.  Today’s basic western hat style has remained essentially unchanged in its construction and design since 1865.

Why were the brims turned up?  Stockmen started that trend; the flat brim got in the way while attempting to rope a cow or horse.  But there was an even more popular hat in the old west: The Derby (bowler) hat, mostly worn within western cities.  Bat Masterson and Luke Short were two famous gunfighters who wore the Derby hat.

Was there a connection between Stetson’s design and the earlier Tricorn hat?  Other than the fact that it was worn on the head, no.  The purpose of the tricorne was simple: to accommodate the wearing of white wigs when they were fashionable.  It is possible that migrants wore the tricorne hat en route to their western destinies and that in time the fasteners to keep the corners up became dysfunctional.  Now picture the tricorne hat without its corners.  Could this have inspired John Stetson?  Who knows?

There aren’t that many cowboys anymore — some, but not many — but there are a lot of people who celebrate America’s “old west” history by wearing western hats.  Even New Yorkers wear them — and give themselves away the moment they say something.  The genuine stockman knows, though.  If a real cowboy observes some dude at the mall wearing a western hat and highly polished boots, he’s likely to think to himself, “All hat, no horse.” And, in case you’re interested, I own three western hats and 475 horses.  I run those horses under the hood of my Ford F-350.  Yeah, okay, go ahead and laugh — but I never arrive at my destination with saddle sores.


[1] In those days, the term “cowboy” was synonymous with thug, rascal, or blackguard. During the American Revolution, the term cowboy was applied to British loyalists, its meaning “marauder.”  A person who worked as a stockman was generally referred to as a cowherd, cowman, or ranch hand. 

[2] William H. Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid) wore a stovepipe hat.  What was he thinking?

Posted in History, Western Gear | 10 Comments

Let the games begin …

Many of the things we attribute to the old southwest tradition were handed down from other times, places, and cultures.  I want to discuss American rodeo, but I must first acknowledge the origin of modern rodeo events.

Bull jumping

Men have been messing around with bulls since the time of the Minoans (between 3,000 and 1,450 BCE) (please note that “BCE” does not mean before cellphones or ethernet).  The Minoans of the island of Crete didn’t have professional golf back then, so they amused themselves with the equally aggravating sport of pulling bulls to the ground by their tails.  It was aggravating because once a very angry bull was on the ground, what then?  It may have been “then” that the Minoans came up with such other amusements as bull jumping, bull riding, and bull wrestling.  No one in the ancient world kept score, so we don’t know how many Minoans were gored, stomped, or kicked in the head.

In Spanish Mexico, haciendas challenged one another in demonstrations of horsemanship, including all the skills expected of the vaquero: cattle wrangling, bull riding, and bullfighting.  To my knowledge, these American demonstrations began in the early sixteenth century.  I’m not entirely sure about this, but I suspect that bull riding evolved after far too many shots of tequila, which then turned into one of those los dobles desafíos van primero things for which Spaniards are famous.

Today, and every year since zero, people travel to Pamplona to run with the bulls.  It is an exciting event because not every bull appreciates the competition.  My wife and I visited Pamplona on 12 July 2018 and watched the event.  Neither of us likes tequila, and we’re both in our 70s.  So, even though we didn’t do any running, it was still an interesting event.


When the Spaniards colonized Mexico, the settler’s first mandate was to raise horses; their second was to keep Indians from learning how to ride them.  However, by 1528, the Spaniards had established vast estancias and since most Spaniards were steadfast in avoiding any semblance of manual labor, they had little choice but to train Indians as herdsmen.  The Indians not only became excellent horsemen, but they also began the evolution from traditional Spanish Charro (horseman) to Mexican vaquero (cowboy).[1]  Some historians also credit the Mexican Indian as the inventors of the charreada, which originated in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua, and Guanajuato.  The charreada, which is the forerunner of American rodeo, involved demonstrations of ranching skills and animal husbandry.

Today, Mexican charreada include nine events for men and one for women.  They all involve horses and cattle.  Before 1910, Canadian, Mexican, and American horsemen competed for trophies and recognition, but following the Mexican Revolution (ending in 1921), international competition ceased because Mexico’s land reform initiatives broke up the old Spanish hacienda system.  Fearing the end of this long-held tradition, Mexican charros formed associations to keep the charreada alive.  Motion pictures of the 1920s and 1930s helped maintain public interest in the charreada while promoting the popularity of old Mexican music (singing vaqueros).  Singing cowboys also found audiences in the United States through such Hollywood stars as Ken Maynard, John Wayne, Dick Foran, Gene Autrey, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers.

In Mexico, participants in charreada wear traditional charro clothing, which includes tight-fitting suits, chaps, boots, spurs, and wide sombreros.  From the fairgrounds of Spanish Mexico to the racetracks, fiestas, and festivals of modern Mexico, charreada and rodeo[2] continue to attract audiences to observe horsemanship, roping, and cattle wrangling.

Before we get to the subject of the American cowboy, which everyone knows was that fellow who ranged cattle from South Texas to Montana, an activity that began in earnest around 1850, there was another and somewhat older American horse and cattle tradition: a cowman called the Florida Cracker.

The term “cracker” was used in the Elizabethan period to describe braggarts and blowhards — “crack” meaning an entertaining conversation (to crack a joke).  William Shakespeare used the term in his play, King John, “What cracker is this same that deafs our ears, with this abundance of superfluous breath?”

In the mid-1700s, the ruling classes in Great Britain and the American colonies applied the term cracker to Scots-Irish and English American settlers in the remote southern backcountry.  We know this because of a letter dispatched to the Earl of Dartmouth: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers: a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”

Florida Cracker Bone Mizell

The term easily transferred to southern Georgia and Florida cowboys, many of which were the descendants of earlier colonizers who had moved south to seek their fortunes.  In Florida, those who owned or worked cattle were traditionally called cowmen, but by the 1800s, they were also referred to as cow hunters because they sought out cattle scattered over wooded rangelands during roundup periods.  Beginning around the 1820s, the terms cowman and cracker were used interchangeably because of similarities in their backwoods culture.

The Florida Cracker was distinct from the Spanish vaquero and the western cowboy because they did not use lassos to herd or capture cattle: their primary tools were well-trained dogs and cow whips.  Cracking whips to move/herd cattle resulted in the term “cracker.”  Because Florida horses and cattle were smaller than Spanish or Texas breeds, they were collectively known as scrub breeds.  The cattle averaged 600 pounds on market day.  They had large horns and large feet, which suited them to grazing on the swampy grasslands of the central peninsula.

Today, cattle ranchers in Florida proudly refer to themselves as “crackers.”  Others, primarily punk Negroes, and white liberals from the northeast, derisively refer to all southerners as crackers … which, of course, displays their profound ignorance.  The most famous of Florida Crackers was Bone Mizell (1863-1921), the subject of a Frederic Remington painting.  Florida’s Silver Spurs Rodeo began in 1941 and has since become one of the largest rodeos in the United States — billed as the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi River.

As previously indicated, many of the American cowboy’s skills and traditions originated with the Spanish vaquero.  Rodeo, which initially meant “round up,” also evolved from Spanish/Mexican traditions, but there may never have been the popular sport we know today as American rodeo were it not for a black cowboy named Bill Pickett.

Bill Pickett

Willie M. “Bill” Pickett was Texas-born in 1870.  He was the second oldest of thirteen children of Thomas J. Pickett, a former slave, and Mary “Janie” Gilbert.  Bill had four brothers and eight sisters.  As with most children in the early 1880s, Bill left school after the fifth grade to become a ranch hand.  Now, contrary to the scenes depicted in Hollywood movies, ranching is not only hard work but also dangerous.  The average life expectancy of a cowboy between 1850-1900 was 25-years.  Gunfights and Indian engagements factored in a few of these, but most young men were killed in horse accidents which caused broken necks and concussions.  More than a few cowboys died after an irritated cow gored them, and a few more came to the end of their roundup by being struck by lightning.[3]

If anyone was “asking for it,” though, it was probably Bill Pickett.  The man was fearless.  Bill Pickett, you see, invented bulldogging in the 1890s — his own unique method of capturing steers.  From a galloping horse, Bill jumped onto the back of a racing steer, and after grabbing ahold of the animal’s horns, he would lean into the animal, bite its upper lip, and pull on its horns to throw the animal to the ground.  He then tied off the animal’s hooves to keep them on the ground.  Despite his profession, Bill lived to the age of sixty-one (although his death in 1932 was attributed to being kicked in the head by a horse).  People fascinated by the publicity of Pickett’s bulldogging began showing up as local rodeos to watch him do it.

Shortly after the 1904 Cheyenne Frontier Days celebration, the famous 101 Ranch of Oklahoma hired Pickett to perform during “wild west” exhibitions, which took him throughout the United States and Europe.  Everyone was impressed with Bill Pickett, including other cowboys who duplicated his stunts.  There were soon enough of these bulldoggers for promoters to stage contests that became a regular part of the rodeo exhibitions.

Anna Mathilda Winger (aka Tillie Baldwin)

Women joined the rodeo as competitors in 1913 when Tillie Baldwin demonstrated her trick riding and horse racing skills.  She was the first female to take on the bulldogging contest.  It didn’t kill her — but neither did her activities encourage a rush of females to join the rodeo – a fact that may go a long way in settling the argument about which sex has the most brains.

Within a few years rodeo associations outlawed the “lip-biting” aspect of bulldogging.  Today, we remember bulldogging as an event entirely attributed to Bill Pickett.  All of Pickett’s honors came to him long after his death, however.  In 1971, Bill was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame; in 1989, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame; in 1997, the Texas Trail Hall of Fame, and in 2003 the National Multicultural Western Heritage Hall of Fame.


  1. Allen, M.  Rodeo Cowboys in the North American Imagination.  Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998.
  2. Bennett, D. Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship.  Amigo Publishing, 1998.
  3. Candelaria, C.  Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture.  Greenwood Publishing, 2004.
  4. Clancy, F.  My Fifty Years in Rodeo: Living with Cowboys, Horses, and Danger.  San Antonio: Naylor Press, 1952.
  5. Hanes, B.C.  Bill Pickett, Bulldogger: The Biography of a Black Cowboy.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
  6. Johnson, C.  Guts: Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett.  Fort Worth: Summit Group Publishing, 1994.


[1] A Spaniard will argue vociferously that there is a world of difference between charros and vaqueros, and it’s true.  The Spanish horse tradition originated in Salamanca, Spain … gentlemen horsemen who are masters of the horse, who observe long-held traditions in etiquette, mannerisms, and dress.  Vaqueros, who are fine horsemen, are generally not regarded as gentlemen.

[2] In its original use, the word rodeo meant the roundup of cattle for branding, counting, and preparation for marketing.

[3] One of my personal acquaintances years ago, a Marine officer, paid for his college education by engaging in bull riding contests in California.  By the time he was 40 years old, the man could hardly walk.  After he died at age 55, his widow told me that he’d lost his mental capacity several years earlier.  She suspected it came from having his brains scrambled in the rodeo. 

Posted in Charreada & Rodeo, History, The Horsemen (and women), The Ladies | 5 Comments

The Sioux — Part IV

The Great Sioux War

On-going Indian raids and battles on the northern plain region of the United States, which lasted from 1850-90, are collectively known as the Sioux Wars.  These generally refer to the Dakota War of 1862, Red Cloud’s War (1866), the Black Hill’s War (1876), and the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890).

President Ulysses S. Grant’s Indian policy, although well-intentioned, was an epic disaster for almost everyone.  In 1875, Grant began exploring other options in dealing with the Indians.  In November, Grant summoned Major General Philip Sheridan (Commander of the Department of Missouri) and Brigadier General George Crook (Commander of the Department of the Platte) to confer on the Black Hills problem.  At its conclusion, Grant decided to stop evicting white trespassers from the Sioux territory because the Indian problem would go away when whites far outnumbered the Sioux.  There was also a discussion about a military campaign against the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, who had so-far refused to meet with US negotiators.  Erwin Watkins, an Indian agent, advised Grant to “ … move against them in the winter; the sooner the better, and whip them into subjugation.”

Grant was concerned about launching a war against the Lakota without due provocation, so the government sent a message to the Indian agents instructing them to order all Lakota Sioux to return to their reservation no later than 31 January 1876 or face potential military action.  Not everyone believed this was a wise move since frigid winter conditions was a “war stopper.”  Washington denied a request for an extension of the 31 January by-date.  In any case, General Sheridan believed that the directive was a waste of time.  “It [the order] will in all probability be regarded as a good joke by the Indians.”[1]

The Great Sioux Wars of 1876, also known as the Black Hill’s War, was a series of battles involving the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and the United States.  The conflict evolved around the US government’s intention to seize the Black Hills of the Dakotas where gold had been discovered, and the Sioux and Cheyenne’s refusal to cede the Black Hills to the United States.  The conflict began with the Battle of Powder River and ended with the Battle of Wolf Mountain.

The Battle of Powder River occurred on 17 March 1876 in Montana Territory.  It was a US Army assault on a Northern Cheyenne encampment led by Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds.  Six companies of Cavalry located and assaulted a village of around 70 lodges.  Overall, the operation was poorly executed and did little more than solidify the resolve of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne to resist the U. S. Army.  Reynold’s men burned the encampment and stampeded the herd but withdrew under Indian fire.  Reynolds, having left several wounded soldiers on the battlefield, was later court-martialed.[2]  At the time, Reynolds believed that he’d sortied against Crazy Horse, but Old Bear, Two Moons, and White Bull were Cheyenne the leaders.

The Battle of Rosebud Creek was fought on 17 June 1876.  The United States Army and its allies, the Crow and Shoshone Indians, assaulted a force of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne.  The battle was fought to a standstill as the US Army commander General George R. Crook decided to forego the battle and await replacements.

The Battle of the Little Big Horn unfolded when Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, Commanding Officer of the US 7th Cavalry, was ordered out of the main Dakota column to scout the Rosebud and Big Horn River valleys.  On 25 June 1876, Custer discovered a large village on the west bank of the Little Bighorn.  Having split his forces just before engaging the Sioux, the 7th Regiment lost 270 men (five cavalry companies), including Custer.

The Battle of Slim Buttes was another lackluster operation by General Crook.  Reinforced by the 5th US Cavalry, Crook sought Indian villages but came up empty-handed.  Running short on supplies, he turned his column southward toward the mining camps to find food.  Crook’s foray was called the Horsemeat March because his mounted troops ended up giving their mounts over for food.  On 9 September, an advance company en route to Deadwood for supplies stumbled across a small village near Slim Buttes, which the soldiers attacked and looted.  When Crazy Horse learned of this assault, he launched a counterattack, which the soldiers easily repulsed.

The Dull Knife Fight evolved following Custer’s annihilation when Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie, commanding the US 4th Cavalry, was transferred to the Department of the Platte.  Initially stationed at Camp Robinson, Mackenzie formed the core of the Powder River Expedition to locate northern villages.  On 25 November, Mackenzie discovered and defeated Dull Knife.  These Cheyenne, with their lodges and supplies destroyed, with their horses confiscated, soon surrendered.  They requested to remain with their Sioux brothers at a reservation in the North but were taken instead to Oklahoma, which was a difficult transition for the Indians.  A year later, Little Wolf and Dull Knife led their braves back to the northern territories and divided themselves into two bands.  Dull Knife was again captured and imprisoned at Camp Robinson.  Without warmth, food, or water, the Cheyenne again bolted.  Many of these people died “while attempting to escape” at the so-called Fort Robinson Massacre.  In time, the government granted a northern reservation to the Cheyenne.

The Battle of Wolf Mountain unfolded after Colonel Nelson A. Miles, Commanding the 5th US Infantry, established a cantonment along the Tongue River from which he sent out forays against hostile Indians.  He fought Crazy Horse at the Battle of Wolf Mountain, with additional engagements at Clear Creek, Spring Creek, and Ash Creek.  The effect of Colonel Miles’ aggressiveness was that it either pushed the Sioux into surrendering, or it prompted them to withdraw into Canada.  Miles later commanded the US Army during the Spanish-American War.

The Battle of Wounded Knee (termed a massacre by General Nelson A. Miles) occurred on 29 December 1890.  Continuing hostilities led the US Congress to revoke all treaties with the Sioux Nation, including those that protected reservation lands.  The US Army then embarked upon a nearly exclusive scorched earth strategy — an intentional destruction of the Indian’s main source of food, the American Bison.  The northern plains Indians would either submit to US authority, or they would be exterminated — the choice of which was left up to the Indians themselves.  It was a time when Indian society was under a great deal of stress — which led many Indians to forsake all foreign religious influences and return to their native beliefs.

A Paiute prophet named Wovoka, founder of the Ghost Dance religion, believed that a Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, had returned to earth in the form of a Native American.  Wovoka assured everyone that the white invaders would disappear from Native lands, their ancestors would lead them to good hunting grounds, buffalo herds and other game animals would return in abundance, and the ghosts of their ancestors would return to earth to live in peace.  But in order to achieve this miraculous event, the Indians would have to regularly perform the Ghost Dance while wearing protective shirts that would protect them from bullets.[3]

Local whites became alarmed by the sight of so many Great Basin and Plains Indian tribes performing this Ghost Dance.  They worried, with some justification, that it might be a harbinger of renewed Indian uprisings.  The Indian agent at the Standing Rock Reservation, where Chief Sitting Bull lived, shared this concern.  In time, US officials thought it would be a good idea to arrest the chiefs who urged the ghost dance and put an end to the so-called “Messiah Craze.”

At first, military officials suggested seeking the assistance of Buffalo Bill Cody (a friend of Sitting Bull) to aid their plan for arresting Sioux chiefs, thus reducing the likelihood of violence.  Indian Agent James McLaughlin overruled the military plan, however.  He instead sent Indian Police to arrest Sitting Bull.[4]

Sitting Bull may have formed a friendship with Cody, but he was no friend of James McLaughlin.  McLaughlin claimed, “Sitting Bull is a polygamist, libertine, habitual liar, active obstructionist, and a great obstacle in the civilization of those people, and he is so devoid of any of the nobler traits of character, and so wedded to the old Indian ways and superstitions that it is very doubtful if any change for the better will ever come over him.”  In McLaughlin’s mind, it was necessary to act against Sitting Bull with haste; word had come to him that Sitting Bull and his band had readied their horses to leave the agency and join with other ghost dancers in the Badlands.

McLaughlin’s decision to employ Indian police was an example of progressive policy at the time, that is to say, that the use of Indian police would demonstrate to every observer that the traditional roll of tribal chiefs was at an end.  But McLaughlin was not so foolish to rely on Indian police alone; he stationed a contingent of 100 US soldiers on a hill within a mile of Sitting Bull’s camp.  There, the soldiers set up Gatling and Hotchkiss guns and trained them on Sitting Bull’s encampment.  

Forty-three Indians police officers arrived at Sitting Bull’s house to arrest him on 15 December 1890. McLaughlin’s plan was to quickly take Sitting Bull into custody and make a rapid withdrawal from the encampment; nearby soldiers would prevent any tribal members from pursuing his police.  That isn’t how things turned out, though.

Although the facts of what transpired on 15 December 1890 were never established, what we think happened is that Indian police lieutenant Bull Head and Sergeant Shave Head broke into Sitting Bull’s house and shot him, along with his deaf son, Crow Foot.  McLaughlin denied this version of the story.  In his version, Sitting Bull was ordered to dress quickly and accompany the police.  Sitting Bull dressed slowly, intentionally stalling so that his supporters could be mobilized.  As he was being helped into the transport wagon, Sitting Bull called for help.  A supporter named Catch the Bear shot Bull Head, who in turn shot Sitting Bull.  At the same instant, Shave Head was shot by Strike the Kettle, and Shave Head then shot the medicine man. (This story, or one like it, could never be told in China, India, or Afghanistan).

Forty-one remaining Indian police officers were no match for 150-200 Sioux tribesmen, but as the tribal men withdrew to a nearby wood, the US soldiers opened fire on the encampment, mostly hitting the Indian Police.  The military made no distinction between the police or suspects.   

With Chief Sitting Bull lying dead and fearful of reprisals, the Hunkpapa band fled Standing Rock to join Chief Spotted Elk (also known later as Big Foot) and his Miniconjou band at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.  A few days later, Spotted Elk and his band journeyed to the Pine Ridge reservation to seek shelter with Red Cloud.

On 28 December 1890, while en route to the agency, Spotted Elk and 350 of his followers (including around 120 women and children) met a detachment of the US 7th Cavalry under Major Samuel M. Whiteside.  The Indian scout and interpreter (a half-breed) by the name of John Shangreaux, advised Whiteside not to disarm the Indians immediately, as doing so would lead to violence.  Accordingly, the troopers escorted the Indians about five miles west to Wounded Knee Creek, where the Indians were told to make camp.  Later that night, Colonel James W. Forsyth arrived with the rest of the 7th Cavalry.  The number of soldiers under Forsyth was around 500 men.  The soldiers quietly surrounded the Indian camp and set up their rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns.

At daybreak on 29 December, Colonel Forsythe ordered Spotted Elk to surrender all weapons; he then segregated all Lakota Sioux to await the arrival of trains, presumably to take the Lakota to a detention facility.  Soldiers then searched the encampment and confiscated an additional 38 rifles; more weapons were discovered on their persons and confiscated.  None of the elders were armed.  While the search was underway, an Indian named Yellow Bird began haranguing the young soldiers conducting the search.

But … what triggered the massacre?

The evidence isn’t clear.  Some say that Yellow Bird began to perform the Ghost Dance, telling the young warriors that their shirts were bulletproof.  Tensions among the Indians mounted.  Black Coyote, who spoke no English, refused to hand over his rifle.  One Lakota later testified that Black Coyote was deaf.

Whether true, when Black Coyote decided to retain his weapon, two soldiers grabbed him from behind and a struggle ensued.  The rifle discharged.  At that moment, Yellow Bird threw dust into the air and five young Lakota men with concealed weapons threw aside their blankets and fired their weapons at the troops.  After this opening salvo, the firing from both sides became indiscriminate.  In the end, Spotted Elk’s band killed 25 soldiers and wounded 39 more.  Of the 350 Lakota, only 51 survived.[5]

As of 2010, the population of the Sioux nation was 112,176.  Not every tribe has done well over the years, however.  The largest grouping in 2010 was the Oglala Sioux with nearly 25,000 persons remaining.  The least populated group is the Wahpekute; in 2019, only one person remained alive.  Nevertheless, when compared with other tribes (Comanche, 12,284, Apache, 63,193; Kiowa, 9,437; Cheyenne, 11,375), the Sioux seem to have survived better than most.  Have the Indians assimilated into mainstream American society?  Some have, most have not — and as some would argue, with good reason.


As Shawn Regan wrote in a Forbes Opinion a few years ago: “Imagine if the government were responsible for looking after your best interests.  All your assets must be managed by bureaucrats on your behalf.  A special bureau is even set up to oversee your affairs.  Every important decision you make requires approval, and every approval comes with a mountain of regulation.  How would this work?   Just ask any Native American.”

Presently, all Indian lands are owned and managed by the federal government; nearly every aspect of economic development is controlled by federal agencies; reservations have a complex legal framework that hinders economic growth; energy regulations make it difficult for tribes to develop their own resources, and of course, the federal government has consistently mismanaged Indian assets.

Serious problems continue to plague Indian society.  Between 36-44% of native American children fail to complete secondary education.  Native American unemployment ranges from 37-63%, depending on where they live.  In matters of crime, 124/100,000 of native Americans experience violent crimes: murder, rape, assault — double that found in mainstream US society.  Statistically, no one is more victimized by male society than Indian women.  Abusive behavior is learned in the home.  Abusive fathers produce young men who grow up to become parents.  Parents that do not value education produce children who do not value education.  Fathers who beat their wives produce children who are abusive toward their spouses and children.  It is a vicious — and never-ending cycle.

Life has not improved for most American Indians because their tribal governments and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs are satisfied with these status quo.  A rational person might conclude that government continues to victimize Native Americans, and Native Americans now willingly accept “progressive” mediocrity as part of their new social norm.



  1. Chaky, D.  Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and US Soldiers on Upper Missouri, 1854-1868.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  2. Gibbon, G. E.  The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations.  Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
  3. Harring, N.  Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and the United States Law in the 19th Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  4. Hassrick, R. B.  The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
  5. Hyde, G. E.  A Sioux Chronicle.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1993


[1] The Lakota chief Short Bull recounted the Indian’s reaction.  Since winter was a time for shooting teepees, the Indians would go to council in the spring.  “Shooting teepees” meant hunting for buffalo, whose skins were used to insulate Sioux lodges.

[2] Such is the proposition of J. W. Vaughn in The Reynolds Campaign on Powder River, but I can find no corroboration that Reynolds was court-martialed.

[3] Wovoka’s prophesy and remedy was similar to that of Isatai’i of the Southern Comanche in 1874.  Isatai’i convinced the Comanche that they would be invulnerable to the white man’s bullets if they but took up the tomahawk against the whites in seeking revenge and the extermination of all whites.  As allies of the Comanche, both Kiowa and Cheyenne found Isatai’i’s message appealing — more so than the Comanche, whose motivation for bloodshed at Adobe Walls was far more practical than revenge.  The Comanche wanted to kill the white buffalo hunters, whose efforts caused widespread starvation among the Comanche bands.  Word of Isatai’i’s  sun dance may have reached Wovoka through the southern Cheyenne.

[4] Initially, two of the Sioux tribes more powerful war chiefs, Spotted Tail (Rosebud) and Red Cloud (Pine Ridge) favored the idea of Indian police, but only so long as the police answered directly to them, which would be consistent with Sioux customs.

[5] The US Army eventually awarded twenty medals of honor to soldiers who participated in the Battle of Wounded Knee.  Contemporary Lakota activists have urged the Army to rescind these awards, arguing that the soldiers behaved dishonorably.  This argument may be rational considering Forsythe’s intent to employ automatic weapons against a group of people that included 120 women and children.

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The Sioux — Part III

In 1865, Major General Grenville M. Dodge ordered the Powder River Expedition against the Lakota aligned tribes.  Dodge sent three columns into the Powder River country — but in the final analysis, the expedition did little more than increase the Sioux’s determination to resist white encroachment.

Realizing that military force was not producing a desirable result, the United States negotiated several treaties with the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.  In exchange for money, the Indians agreed to withdraw from the overland migratory routes in the Powder River territory.  The Indians who agreed to these terms, however, were the so-called Laramie Loafers: Indians who lived from US government handouts and resided near Fort Laramie.  Red Cloud, whose assent was needed for any workable treaty, could not be found.  Moreover, locating him was a dangerous undertaking for any white official and so the US government employed a few of the loafers to locate Red Cloud and invite him to parley.

On 2 March 1866, Red Cloud and his Oglala Sioux rode into Fort Laramie.  The war chief promised to remain peaceful until the government’s chief negotiator, E. B. Taylor, arrived with presents.  The thinking among the Sioux was that they were simply defending their territory.  This was their right.  It was their land — except, of course, for the fact that the Sioux had recently taken it from other tribes.

The Crow, meanwhile, began a clandestine campaign to set the white soldiers against their enemy, the Sioux.  To cement this relationship, the Crow became allies of the US Army, serving as scouts, and advising them on what to expect from other tribes.

Negotiations between Red Cloud and other Indians leaders, and the US’ chief negotiator, opened on 12 June 1866.  It was a short-lived negotiation because on the following day, Colonel Henry B. Carrington arrived with the 18th US Infantry (about 1,300 soldiers).[1]  His orders were to establish forts in the Powder River country.  Red Cloud, accusing the Americans of bad faith, promptly withdrew from the fort.

Other Sioux leaders remained to listen to the American’s proposals.  The Lakota would gain $70,000 annually; the Cheyenne $15,000 annually — but only if they agreed to cooperate with the US government.  It was an interesting proposal, but the problem was that the Americans were not negotiating with the Indian’s true decision-makers.  The Crow, remember, did not want Sioux Indians to cooperate with the white soldiers.  The US negotiator believed he was making progress and duly reported his good news to President Andrew Johnson.  Johnson gleefully reported that the Indians had submitted to US authority.  What Johnson didn’t know, of course, was that well mounted Sioux Indians surrounded Colonel Carrington’s regiment.

Carrington departed Fort Laramie at the head of 700 soldiers, a 35-member regimental band, 300 civilians (wives and children of soldiers and civilian contractors), 226 supply wagons, and around 1,000 head of cattle.  Of his 700 troops, two-thirds were recently recruited, most were on foot, and all of them were armed with antiquated muzzle-loading muskets.  In total, Carrington had around 100,000 rounds of ammunition.  Carrington’s mission was to build forts — not engage Indians, so he didn’t send out any mounted scouts.  The only positive aspect to Carrington’s campaign was that noted frontiersman Jim Bridger served as Carrington’s principal advisor.

Carrington never stood a chance against the highly mobile Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.  Red Cloud commanded 13,000 warriors.  In total, including women and children, there were around 33,000 Indians in the Powder River country.  In 1866, the Lakota had but few firearms — but as we shall see, they didn’t need them

After leaving two companies as replacements at Fort Reno, Carrington marched north to establish the new Fort Kearny, which he established at Piney Creek, near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming.  Leaving 400 soldiers at Kearny, two companies of the 18th Infantry advanced 91 miles to the Bighorn River, where they established Fort C. F. Smith.

Two Cheyenne War Chiefs, Dull Knife and Two Moons, visited Carrington at Fort Reno on 16 July.  They told him that they desired peace with the white eyes.  They also warned him that Red Cloud was nearby with 500 warriors.  That very day, Indians murdered two civilians while they were hunting.

Red Cloud’s war against the Powder River forts began in earnest the following day.  Having infiltrated Fort Reno pickets, Sioux Indians stampeded 175 horses and mules.  Two-hundred mounted soldiers pursued the Indians in a fifteen-mile running fight, but the stolen animals were never recovered, and the soldiers ended up losing two dead and three wounded.  When the soldiers returned to the fort, they found the bodies of six civilian traders.

On 20 July, Red Cloud attacked a wagon train near Crazy Woman Fork of the Powder River.  Two civilians died.  A second attack on a wagon train a few days later stopped all migratory movements.  Carrington, who relied on supply trains for food and ammunition, was forced to detail soldiers as security for the supply trains.  Crews working to construct Fort Kearny were under constant attack.  Over several weeks, Indians killed six soldiers and 28 civilian contractors and made off with numerous horses and mules, dozens of cattle, and destroyed a hay-cutting machine.

In November 1866, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel William J. Fetterman reported to Fort Kearny from Fort Laramie.[2]  While an experienced combat officer, Captain Fetterman had no experience with Indians.  Worse, perhaps, Fetterman was full of himself even to the extent of an immature confrontation with Colonel Carrington about the colonel’s passive approach in dealing with the Lakota.  He foolishly bragged that with eighty good men, he would ride through the Sioux nation at will.

On 6 December Second Lieutenant Horace S. Bingham led a squadron of cavalry to provide security for a wood-cutting train.  At some point during the day, Indians attacked Bingham and then quickly withdrew.  Thinking he and his men had driven off the Sioux with gunfire, Bingham imprudently led his men in pursuit of the Indians.  Several of Bingham’s men were killed in the action.

Carrington wisely realized that drawing whites into an Indian trap was a common Indian tactic and advised his officers to consider their circumstances before deciding to pursue hostile Indians.  Fetterman was outraged by Carrington’s advice.  It was Fetterman’s understanding that General Cooke expected his soldiers to pursue aggressive campaigns against all hostiles, wherever and whenever found.  The boy colonel had apparently not considered that US soldiers were significantly outnumbered by their enemy.

After another attack on the wood train on the morning of 21 December, Carrington ordered a force of 49 infantry and 27 mounted troops to relieve them.  Fetterman requested Carrington’s permission to command the detachment, which was granted.  Lieutenant George W. Grummond, another of Carrington’s critics, commanded the mounted men.  Post quartermaster Captain Frederick Brown requested permission to join the Fetterman detachment.  Two civilians also joined Fetterman, which brought his force to a total of 81 officers and men.  The infantry marched out first, followed by the cavalry.

Carrington instructed Fetterman not to cross Lodge Trail Ridge because of the difficulty of reinforcing him should it become necessary to do so.  As Grummond was leaving the fort, Carrington again reminded him of his orders and instructed Grummond to remind Fetterman, as well.

Upon leaving the fort, Fetterman’s force turned north and crossed over the Sullivant Hills toward Lodge Trail Ridge.  Within moments of their departure from the main road, a Lakota decoy party under Crazy Horse appeared on Lodge Trail Ridge and, contrary to his orders, Fetterman took the Indian’s bait.

Grummond soon joined Fetterman at a creek crossing and the combined force formed a skirmish line and marched over the ridge.  On the other side, in the Peno Valley, Fetterman led his men into an ambush involving around 2,000 Sioux warriors.  None of Fetterman’s men survived.  Their bodies were later discovered scalped, beheaded, dismembered, disemboweled, and castrated.  The only dead soldier who was not mutilated was Bugler Adolph Metzler, a teenager.  Forensic evidence at the battle site suggested that Metzler fought off several Indians with his bugle, which he used as a bludgeon.  Aside from his fatal head and chest injuries, the Indians honored him by covering his body with a buffalo robe.

Carrington dispatched a civilian by the name of John Philips to carry a message to General Cooke.  Struggling through deep snow and frigid temperatures, Philips reached Fort Laramie in four days and delivered his message.  Cooke immediately relieved Carrington of his duties and replaced him with Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells.  When General U. S. Grant, then Commanding General of the U. S. Army, learned of the Fetterman disaster, he relieved General Cooke.

Red Cloud wisely avoided major engagements with the army; he accomplished his goals by confining his activities to small raids on soldiers and civilians at the three Powder River forts.  The Fetterman Fight was the worst military defeat suffered by the United States on the Great Plains until the Battle of the Little Big Horn ten years later.

The failure of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 prompted another negotiation in 1868.  It was a departure from the earlier treaty in the sense that the United States government was no longer interested in Indian culture or preserving tribal customs.  It may not have been “politically correct,” but it did address the reality of the American west, and the nature of Indians tribes.  The army implemented a heavy-handed approach toward either assimilating the Sioux into American culture and social norms or eradicating them.  As but one example of this policy, Fort Laramie’s commander informed a group of Sioux that they were no longer welcome at the fort because they were south of their newly established territory.  It was an effort by the Army to irritate the Sioux because in fact, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 contained no proscription about Indians traveling outside their territories; only that they may not reside outside of those territories.

The Treaty of 1868 (modified on three separate occasions by the Congress), lasted only a few years.  The United States broke this treaty when it led an expedition of 1,000 men into the Black Hills, which was an event that led directly to the Great Sioux War of 1876 and the eventual seizure of the Black Hills in 1877.

(Continued next week)


  1. Chaky, D.  Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and US Soldiers on Upper Missouri, 1854-1868.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  2. Gibbon, G. E.  The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations.  Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
  3. Harring, N.  Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and the United States Law in the 19th Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  4. Hassrick, R. B.  The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
  5. Hyde, G. E.  A Sioux Chronicle.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1993


[1] Carrington was an engineer and a political appointee.  He had no combat experience.  He did build solid forts, however.  Carrington’s junior officers were hotheads; they wanted a fight, and even though most had served in the Civil War, they knew nothing about Indian warfare.

[2] Fetterman’s permanent rank was Captain.  He was 33-years old.

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The Sioux — Part II

The Lakota Sioux

Before 1650, the Lakota Sioux lived east of the Red River and lived on the fringes of the prairies in the southern part of present-day Minnesota.  By 1700, they had migrated to the eastern Dakotas.  They were also, by then, well horsed and in a transitional period from subsisting on corn, wild rice, and small woodland animals to the American Bison for meat and ancillary goods (housing, clothes, tools).

The Lakota were moving west but remained a nomadic culture.  By 1720, the Lakota had begun to dominate the prairies east of the Missouri River and it was at this time that they divided into two main groups: Saone and Oglala.  The former occupied the area adjacent to Lake Traverse near the borders of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota.  The Oglala occupied the James River area.  Before 1760, however, both groups had crossed the Missouri River.

In 1776, the Lakota defeated the Cheyenne for possession of the Black Hills.  Earlier, the Cheyenne had taken it from the Kiowa.  Defeated, the Cheyenne moved west to the Powder River country and the Lakota made the Black Hills their home.  As Lakota territory expanded, so too did their contact with rival groups.  Eventually, the Lakota Sioux allied with the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho — important because with dwindling buffalo herds, inter-tribal warfare was becoming more common.  The Lakota alliance fought the Mandan,[1] Hidatsa,[2] and Arikara[3] for control of the Missouri River in North Dakota.  The Lakota were aided in their victories by epidemics that ravaged the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes.

Both the Saone and Oglala groups encountered the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804; the Lakota refused to allow the expedition to continue upstream.  The Americans were sure that a battle would unfold, but hostilities never materialized, which was probably a good thing for the Expedition.

A typical year among the Lakota would involve a communal buffalo hunt in early spring; in the summer, scattered Lakota bands gathered into large tribal encampments and conducted traditional rites and ceremonies.  Such gatherings enabled political leaders to discuss matters of mutual concern, plan their seasonal movements, resolve disputes, and devise campaigns or war parties.  In the fall, the Lakota broke up into smaller bands to facilitate hunting for winter stores.  The period between fall and winter was a time for raids and war parties.  In the dead of winter, the Lakota settled into their camps doing little more than observing traditions and caring for their stock.

The Lakota Sioux were a fierce tribe — not to be trifled with by anyone.  In 1843, the southern Lakota attacked the Pawnee in Nebraska, killing many and burning over half the lodges in Chief Blue Coat’s village.  In 1850, the Sioux were the most powerful tribe on the American northern plain, a reputation they retained for several decades.[4]

Before 1848, numerous European settlers had passed over the Great Plains to California.  However, the discovery of gold in that year increased migrant traffic exponentially.  Respectable Indian agents feared an Indian uprising among the most powerful tribes in North America.  On the recommendation of Thomas Fitzpatrick and David D. Mitchell, the U. S. government opened negotiations with the plains’ tribes living between the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers with the view of protecting the right of way for migrants.  Called the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the negotiation took place 30 miles downriver at the mouth of Horse Creek.   In attendance were representatives from the Lakota, Cheyenne, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, Shoshone, Crow, and Arapaho.  Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache refused to send representatives because the meeting place was in Sioux territory.  To these three tribes, the Lakota Sioux were a detested enemy.

The United States Senate ratified this treaty with approved modification of the signatories.

The Treaty of 1851 acknowledged traditional territorial claims of the tribes, as the tribes did as well among themselves.  All the land covered by the treaty was Indian territory, and the United States did not claim any part of it.  Hardly realized at the time, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 would be used in judicial proceedings more than 100 years later.  For this, the tribes guaranteed safe passage of settlers over the Oregon Trail; they allowed the construction of roads and forts in exchange for an annuity of $50,000 each year for 50 years.

The Fort Laramie Treaty was a grand effort, of course — and broken almost immediately by the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne who attacked the Crow and continued to do so over the next two years.  In 1858, the failure of the United States to prevent the mass immigration of miners and settlers into Colorado during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush did not help.  Miners seized Indian lands to prospect on them.  They founded towns, started farms, constructed roads, and competed with the tribes for food and water.  Not once did the United States seek to enforce the Treaty of 1851.

The situation worsened in 1854.  Approximately 4,000 Brule and Oglala Sioux were camped near Fort Laramie in the late summer.  On 17 August, a cow belonging to a Mormon traveling on the nearby Oregon Trail strayed and was killed by a Sioux brave named High Forehead.  As a result, Lieutenant Hugh Fleming, commanding the small garrison, consulted with the Sioux chief Conquering Bear, to discuss this loss of livestock.  Fleming was unaware that such matters were, by the terms of the treaty, to be handled by the local Indian agent, which in this case would have been John Whitfield, who was scheduled to arrive in a few days.  Conquering Bear attempted to negotiate with Fleming, offering him a horse from his stock, or a cow from the tribe’s herd.  The Mormon, however, demanded payment of $25 instead.  Fleming asked the Chief to arrest High Forehead and deliver him to the fort, which the chief refused to do.

Two days later, a young second lieutenant by the name of John L. Grattan led a detachment of soldiers to the Lakota camp to arrest High Forehead.  By every account, Grattan (a recent graduate of the USMA) was determined to take High Forehead into custody and seemed unaware, upon entering the Indian camp of no less than 1,200 warriors, that he was seriously outgunned.  Grattan’s detachment consisted of the lieutenant, a sergeant, a corporal, 27 privates, and a half-breed interpreter by the name of Lucien Auguste.  Auguste, who was drunk in the saddle, entered the camp loudly berating the Lakota men by called them women.  Grattan first went to High Forehead’s teepee and demanded that he surrender, which he refused to do.  Next, Grattan approached Chief Conquering Bear, who attempted to negotiate but Auguste was a poor speaker of the Lakota language.  He informed Conquering Bear that the soldiers were not there to arrest anyone but to kill them all.  James Bordeaux, a local merchant, observed this confrontation and high-tailed it back to the fort and warned everyone that a fight was coming.

Ending his conversation with Conquering Bear, Lieutenant Grattan began walking back toward his column when a nervous soldier fired his weapon, the bullet striking a nearby warrior and a fight evolved.  Conquering Bear, who was wounded in the exchange, died nine days later.  Lieutenant Grattan and his entire detachment were killed by warriors led by Red Cloud, an emerging war chief.  Having been killed, the Lakota mutilated his body; the only way anyone could identify Grattan’s body was by the watch he carried on his person.

The American press called this incident a massacre — which could be true.  More likely, though, it was a case of Indians defending themselves from well-armed, poorly led soldiers.  Nevertheless, the Army wanted retribution for Grattan’s death, and they achieved it in the Battle of Blue Water Creek on 3 September 1855.  Within an encampment of 230 Sioux near present-day Garden County, Nebraska, the army killed eighty-six Sioux — half of whom were women and children.  This action, led by Colonel William S. Harney, restrained the Sioux for ten years, but the fight wasn’t over.

The American Civil War prompted the US Army to withdraw almost completely from the western regions of the United States.  During their absence, the Indians engaged in wars against one another, which of course had been going on long before the arrival of Europeans.  In this period, however, one of the contentious issues was dwindling numbers of buffalo, which in addition to Indian hunters, were being killed in large numbers by white settlers and government agents.  Historians estimate that between 1850 and 1865, one-hundred thousand buffalo were killed each year, which threatened the plains tribes with starvation.

Among the many failures of the United States in its dealings with Indians was the so-called Indian Peace Commission, established in 1867, and which lasted only until the next year.  Among its suggestions was that the US government stop recognizing Indians as sovereign nations, refrain from making peace with them, and use the military to force them into submission.  These suggestions offer us an entirely new meaning to the concept of a peace commission.  The Commission’s lasting effect was another ten years of ghastly hostilities between the United States, the Indians, and anyone who was caught in the middle.

From 1866-68, the United States Army engaged the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho in what became known as the Powder River War (Also, Red Cloud’s War) in the Wyoming and Montana territory.  The primary issue among the Lakota was their ability to feed themselves.  Dwindling game populations caused the Lakota to expand their hunting ground, which led them to encroach the territories that were set aside by treaty for other tribes.

By tradition and treaty, the rich grasslands of Wyoming and Montana belonged to the Crow.  Everyone who signed the Treaty of 1851 knew this, but when people are starving, treaties take a back seat to putting food on the table.  By the time gold was discovered, the Sioux had already driven the Crow back to the headwaters of the Yellowstone and claimed this Crow land for themselves by right of conquest.

As European migration increased, hunting land and wild game populations decreased.  This was taking place in an areas regarded by many Sioux as the last unspoiled hunting grounds of the Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota Sioux.  Red Cloud’s War came as a result of two expanding empires —that of the Sioux, and that of the United States.

(Continued next week)


  1. Chaky, D.  Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and US Soldiers on Upper Missouri, 1854-1868.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  2. Gibbon, G. E.  The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations.  Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
  3. Harring, N.  Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and the United States Law in the 19th Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  4. Hassrick, R. B.  The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
  5. Hyde, G. E.  A Sioux Chronicle.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1993


[1] The Mandan called themselves Numakiki, plains Indians who lived in semi-permanent villages along the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota, having migrated there from the eastern portion of North America.  They spoke the Siouan language and fed themselves by raising corn, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, buffalo, and fishing.  By 1800, diseases reduced Mandan villages from nine to only two.  Today, only around 1,300 Mandan survive.

[2] Hidatsa Indians are of the Siouan language group but related to the Crow.  For hundreds of years, the Hidatsa occupied the Knife River area of North Dakota, their first villages dated to around the 1300s A.D.

[3] The Arikara people speak the Caddoan language, which is closely related to the Pawnee language.  As of 2007, there were only ten native speakers remaining out of 720 of total population.  Arikara are enrolled with the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes as a formal Indian nation.

[4] The proof of this was the Battle of Massacre Canyon on 5 August 1873.  Fifteen hundred Lakota Sioux warriors attacked a band of Pawnee during their summer buffalo hunt.  More than 150 Pawnee were killed, including women and children, many of whom were mutilated, and some of whom were set afire.  It was one of the bloodiest attacks in Indian history —which given the cruel and inhumane history of inter-tribal warfare, is an amazing statement.

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The Sioux — Part I


What makes the study of Native Americans interesting, and challenging, is that there is no “one” human group to study.  There are many American Indian groups, and while they possess commonalities, the various tribes developed independently according to their own unique traditions and their physical environment.

The Sioux are one of these Indians groups, conveniently referred to by some as the Great Sioux Nation (GSN) — which is actually a linguistic category through which scholars attempt to understand who they were, and how they became who they are.  The Sioux language is spoken by around 30,000 people today (in the United States and Canada).  It is the fifth most spoken language among the Indians, behind Navajo, Cree, the Inuit languages, and Ojibwe.

Whenever scholars speak of the GSN,[1] they are referring to one of three cultural groups: (a) Northern, Central, and Southern Lakota (also known as Teton and Teton Sioux); (b) Western Dakota (also known as Yankton and Yanktonai Sioux); and (c) Eastern Dakota (also known as Santee and Sisseton Sioux).

Scholars also examine the GSN according to the region or environment in which they live.  There may be 18-20 regional (non-political) designations, all of which are found in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

The word Sioux is an English language adaptation from the French word, Nadouessioux which originated around the year 1640.  In recent times, some Sioux tribes have reclaimed their traditional names, such as the example of the Rosebud Sioux, among whom some refer to themselves as Sichanjgu Oyate.  Likewise, some people within the Oglala Sioux call themselves Oglala Lakota Oyate.

The Dakota (Eastern) Sioux

Anthropologists believe that Dakota Sioux lived in the Central Mississippi Valley around 3,000 years ago.  Through a succession of devastating Indian wars, notably with the Iroquois between 500-800 AD the Sioux were pushed steadily westward into present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin.  By 1300 AD the Sioux had already become a northern tribal society and referred to themselves as the Seven Council Fires.  As late at the 1500s, Santee Sioux lived adjacent to Lake Superior and sustained their populations through gathering wild rice and hunting woodland animals.  Tribal conflicts between the Santee Sioux and Ojibwe Indians[2] pushed the Santee into lands belonging to the Western Dakota.  As the Sioux developed into a horse culture, the Lakota expanded their territories westward, leaving the Dakota Sioux to defend the eastern territory.

Late in the 17th Century, the Indians entered into an alliance with French explorers and merchants who were attempting to dominate the North American fur trade against the British.[3]  The Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa were the first to trade with the French; Dakota Indians joined the alliance later.  Trade with the French gave the Dakota access to European goods.  The first encounter between the Dakota and French occurred when Radisson and Groselliers[4] reached present-day Wisconsin between 1659-1660.

One consequence of French and Indian interface was ever-escalated hostility between tribal groups.  The Dakota resented the fact that the Ojibwe traded with their traditional enemies, the Cree and Assiniboine and this anger led to hostilities between 1720-1736.  This conflict pushed the Dakota out of their Leech Lake territory, south along the Mississippi River and St. Croix River Valley.  Quite suddenly, French trappers and merchants were in great danger from the Indians, who would kill any Frenchman discovered trading with a tribal enemy.  It was this set of circumstances that led to the massacre of Jean Baptiste de La Verendrye and twenty others near Toronto.

Indian animosities last far longer than tribal friendships, as evidenced by the fact that the Dakota and Ojibwe were still at war in 1770.  The fighting began when the Meskwaki (Fox) Indians engaged their traditional enemy, the Ojibwe.  Although there was never any deep affection between the Sioux and Meskwaki, the Sioux accepted the Meskwaki offer to join with them in their war with the Ojibwe — as a reserve force.  The Meskwaki initially believed they could easily overpower the Ojibwe.  When the Ojibwe proved themselves too strong, Dakota Indians joined in and it seemed certain that this alliance would win the day.

After Ojibwe reinforcements arrived from Sandy Lake, the Dakota were driven back, over the rocks at a fall, many falling to their death in the crushing water below.  Other Dakota, seeking to escape by canoe, capsized, adding more souls to a watery grave.  Heavy losses were experienced by both the Ojibwe and Dakota, but the Meskwaki were so thoroughly destroyed that survival forced them to join with their relatives, the Sauk Indians.[5]  The Dakota and Ojibwe subsequently agreed to an informal boundary at the mouth of the Snake River.

As the Sioux were pushed further into the northern plains, they adopted many of the customs of their neighbors, notably the horse culture, while at the same time retaining many of their woodland features.  By 1803, the Sioux were well-established in their new environment, and this enabled them to develop their distinctive social norms.  Notwithstanding these differences, a renewed sense of community bound the Sioux together as an extended family.  This relationship continues today.

The Dakota signed their first treaty with the American government in 1805.  Zebulon Pike wanted to establish military outposts in the area of the St. Croix River (present-day Hastings, Minnesota) and at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers (near present-day St. Paul, Minnesota).  In exchange for the use of 100,000 acres of land, Pike offered the Dakota a new (non-French) opportunity for trade.  In their agreement, the Sioux stipulated that Pike must allow Sioux access to the land for the purpose of hunting and travel.

The US government asserted an interest in stopping inter-tribal warfare among the Dakota, Ojibwe, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Sauk, Meskwaki, Iowa, Potawatomi, and Ottawa.  Warring tribes would interfere with the westward migration of white settlers.  What followed was the 1825 Treaty of Prairie du Chien (Wisconsin).  A second treaty followed in 1830 involving the Western Dakota, who ceded their lands along the Des Moines River.  A third treaty in 1858 created the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.  The Yankton Sioux Chief named Struck by the Ree realized that the onslaught of white settlers could not be stopped.  He told his people:

“The white men are coming in like maggots.  It is useless to resist them.  They are many more than we are.  We could not hope to stop them.  Many of our brave warriors would be killed —  our women and children left in sorrow, and still, we would not stop them.  We must accept it, get the best terms we can, and try to adapt to their ways.”

When United States created the Minnesota Territory in 1849, the Eastern Dakota were pressured to cede more of their land.  For these Indians, the reservation period began in 1851 with the Treaty of Mendota (which in return for their relocation to the Lower Sioux Agency on the Minnesota River, the US government promised Mdewakanton and Wahpekute Indians $1.4 million).  Also in that year, the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (which, in exchange for 21 million acres of land, the Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota would receive $1.6 million).  Somehow, I suppose through a system called “creative financing,” (or fraud) the US government managed to retain 80% of these funds with only the interest (about 5%) being paid to the Indians over 50 years.[6]

The US government set aside two reservations for the Sioux along the Minnesota River, each measuring around 20 miles wide and 70 miles long.  The government later stipulated that these reservations were only intended as temporary because (unknown to the Indians at the time) it was the government’s intent to force the Sioux out of Minnesota.  Apparently, this was necessary because Minnesotans were making plans for the arrival of Somalians.

Minnesota Statehood

After Minnesota became a state in 1858, representatives from several Dakota Sioux bands accompanied Chief Little Crow to Washington to discuss broken treaties.  Meanwhile, state officials divided Indian land into townships and established plots for white settlers.  Logging and agriculture eliminated surrounding forests and prairies — all of which disrupted the Dakota’s annual farming cycle.  Hunting settlers dramatically reduced available game for the Indians and diminished the Indian’s ability to trap and trade furs for goods.

By 1858, the Dakota Indians were clinging to a small strip of land along the Minnesota River.  The white land-grab forced the Dakota to become reliant on the government’s “treaty payments,”  The problem was that the government payments were always late — and neither Indian Agents or local merchants would sell them food on credit.  In this environment of much suffering, the Dakota understandably became increasingly discontented with their arrangement with the whites.  Starving braves began stealing food from settlers to feed their families.

On 1 January 1861, George Day (Commissioner for Dakota Affairs) wrote a letter to President Lincoln that outlined his findings concerning the Indian’s complaints.  He reported numerous violations of law, fraud committed by government agents in excess of $100,000.  He named the corrupt officials.  As expected, the government did nothing to punish corrupt officials.

On 4 August 1861, tribal representatives of the northern Sisseton and Wahpehton met at the upper Sioux agency and successfully made their case for a much-needed increase of food.  Eleven days later, southern Mdewakanton and Wahpekute made their way to the lower Sioux agency for supplies, but agency officials turned them away.  Minnesota State Senator/Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith refused to distribute food to the Indians without cash payments.  White settlers had no sympathy for the Indian’s situation.  One merchant, Andrew Myrick, suggested, “If they’re hungry, let them eat grass.”

Tribal payments finally arrived in St. Paul on 16 August 1862 and were promptly dispatched to Fort Ridgely the next day — but the cash shipment arrived too late to prevent hostilities.  The Dakota War began the next day when a few Santee Sioux murdered a white farmer and most of his family, pillaged their home, and made off with their livestock.  The Santee then urged raids on white settlements all along the Minnesota River.

On 18th August, Little Crow led a band to attack the Lower Sioux Agency.  The body of Andrew Myrick was later discovered with his mouth stuffed with grass.  In total, there were around 4,000 members of the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands scattered throughout Minnesota — most of whom wanted nothing to do with raiding white settlements and did not participate in the early killings.

Afterward, battles took place at Fort Ridgely (18 August)[7], and Birch Coulee (2-3 September).[8]  After the Battle of Wood Lake on 26 September,[9] most Dakota fighters surrendered.  Little Crow was forced to a retreat into Canada.  On 5 November, a court-martial was convened to consider the murder and rape charges filed against 303 Dakota Sioux.  All these men were sentenced to be hanged.  They were afforded no legal counsel, were denied the right to call or provide witnesses, and many of these men were convicted in less than five minutes.  President Abraham Lincoln later commuted the death sentences of 284 Dakota men while approving the execution of 38 Santee Sioux.  The hanging was the largest mass execution in American history on US soil.  Of those who went to prison, half died while confined.

Little Crow was eventually killed on 3 July 1863 near Hutchinson, Minnesota while gathering berries with his teenage son.  Little Crow had wandered onto the land of Nathan Lamson, who shot Little Crow for the reward.  When the Indian’s identity was confirmed, white settlers scalped his remains, decapitated him, and put his head on display in St. Paul.  City officials retained this gruesome trophy until 1971.  For killing Little Crow, Lamson was paid $500.00.

In the aftermath of the uprising, the federal government suspended all treaties with the Dakota; the Forfeiture Act of 16 February 1863 stripped the Dakota of all lands, and all annuities to them were forfeited to the U. S. government.  The actions of some Dakota Indians and the federal government’s reactions caused many Sioux to flee to Canada.  By 1867, fewer than fifty Dakota Sioux were living in Minnesota.

(Continued next week)


  1. Chaky, D.  Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and US Soldiers on Upper Missouri, 1854-1868.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  2. Gibbon, G. E.  The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations.  Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
  3. Harring, N.  Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and the United States Law in the 19th Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  4. Hassrick, R. B.  The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
  5. Hyde, G. E.  A Sioux Chronicle.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1993


[1] Excluded are the Nakota who refer to themselves as Assiniboine (Hohe) Indians in the United States, or Stoney Indians in Canada.  They are Dakota-speaking people who broke away from the main branches of the Sioux.

[2] The Ojibwe Indians speak a branch of the Algonquian language and affiliate with Algonquin, Nipissing, Oji-Cree, and Potawatomi Indians.  Always one of the more dominant tribes in Canada and the Northern United States, the Ojibwe today number around 340,000 people, 170,000 of which live in the United States.

[3] Although the French had a monopoly on Canadian fur trade, two enterprising French explorers learned from the Cree Indians that the best fur country lay north and west of Lake Superior.  Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groselliers sought backing from French authorities to establish a trade center in the Upper Great Lake region.  Although refused, the determined Frenchmen set out anyway.  A year later they returned with premium furs to prove the worthiness of their suggestion.  Rather than congratulating them, French authorities arrested them for trapping without a license, fined them, and confiscated their furs.  Undeterred, Radisson and des Groselliers approached a group of English businessmen in Boston, who introduced them to Prince Rupert of England.  Rupert, who was a cousin to King Charles II, financed the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company in 1688.

[4] Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groselliers were brothers-in-law noted in history as explorers and fur traders in French Canada in the mid-to-late 1600s.

[5] The Sauk are an Eastern Woodlands culture who primarily lived in the area of present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin.  Sauk tribes today number three federally recognized affiliations, including the Meskwaki, and can be found in Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

[6] Proving that the untrustworthiness of the US federal government is its one consistent feature.

[7] Captain John Marsh (later killed) commanded 210 soldiers facing 800-1,000 Dakota braves.  This battle resulted in the death of four white soldiers, and 13 wounded; Dakota casualties were 2 killed, 5 wounded.

[8] Captain Hiram P. Grant with around 150 men faced off against 200 Dakota, resulting in the death of 13 white soldiers/civilians, 47 wounded, with the loss of 90 horses; Dakota casualties were two killed and an unknown number of Indian wounded. 

[9] Colonel Henry Sibley commanding around 2,000 soldiers defeated a Dakota force of 700.  Sibley lost 7 men killed with 50 wounded, and Little Crow lost around 30 killed with roughly twice that number wounded.

Posted in American Indians, History, Indian Territory, Indian War, Sioux Indians | 3 Comments

On The Border

For three hundred years, Spain, France, and England asserted their claims over vast swaths of the North American continent.  They did this by sending soldiers, settlers, trappers, and merchants to plant their flags, construct fortifications and trading posts.  They signed treaties with one other and with the people who already inhabited the land and jealously guarded their claimed domains.  By 1764, France was out of the running for a North American empire, and within another fifty years, Spain would suffer a series of rebellions that changed Spanish America.

The truth is that Spain may have claimed large territories in North America, but they never entirely controlled these lands.  Most of the territories claimed by Spain remained unpopulated, which made their assertions weak and ineffective.

On the other hand, the British didn’t have that problem; they understood that to claim title to the land, it had to be occupied and administered by British officials.  Almost from the beginning of British settlements, colonial settlers began to expand westward, and this, of course, brought them into conflict with both French settlers and native tribes.  Still, few British settlers crossed over the Mississippi river for quite some time.  For its part, the British government seemed consistently sensitive to the fact that loosely confederated Indian populations controlled the western territories, and it did not serve Britain’s interests to be always at war with native people.  British subjects who did cross over the Mississippi River did so illegally.

Most of the land that became the United States remained unsettled until after the American Revolution.  Between the end of the French and Indian War and 1870, Indians remained the undisputed owners of much of the land; they maintained their hold on it by instilling fear in those who encroached on their territories.

In 1801, there was no “western border” in the United States.  It was a work in progress, and the “border” (such as it was) frequently changed.  In the minds of the frontiersmen, the land was up for the taking.  All they had to do was assume the risk of being massacred by Indians who simply would not go quietly into that good night.  What opened up this land, at least in the minds of the frontiersmen, was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  Looking back in time, one may argue that no president did as much to enlarge the size of the United States as Thomas Jefferson.

It wasn’t until 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain, that the United States even had a border with Mexico.  Even then, it mainly existed in the minds of Mexicans and Americans who had inaccurate maps and imagined what it would take to control the vast unexplored territories that expanded westward to the Pacific coast.  Mexican politicians learned from their American counterparts that they could not leave their territories unpopulated and claim to own them.  As it had been with the Viceroyalty of Spain, the problem for Mexico was that few Spaniards/Mexicans had much interest in settling a dangerously hostile frontier.

The seeds of distrust between politicians in Mexico and the United States began when American filibusters began invading Mexican territories, sometimes accentuated by regional rebellions by Mexican landowners seeking to create petty empires.  As best they could, Mexico addressed these problems directly by using their military to put down every challenge to Mexican sovereignty.  More than a few American “pirates” met their fate while standing in front of a firing squad.

Still, none of Mexico’s efforts were sufficient.  First, as previously noted, few Mexicans were interested in settling Mexico’s northern-most territories.  Second, the territories themselves were simply too large for the Mexican government to control.  But there was hope — a risk that by inviting Americans to become citizens, Mexico might be able to rule the province of Tejas one day.  Mexican officials settled on the idea of letting Texian settlers deal with the Indian problem.  The scheme did work for a while, but it was a short while.

The story began with a “hostile” problem that morphed into a much larger one involving immigration.  In the beginning, Mexico lost Tejas.  In the end, they also lost Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma.  Within fifty years, the US/Mexico border changed from its location at the western edge of the Louisiana territory to an area six hundred miles south.  At the end of the Mexican/American War in 1848, the United States claimed the Rio Grande as its southernmost border.  It was then, and in some circles, it remains now a disputed claim.

Both the United States and Mexico sent commissioners, surveyors, engineers, scientists, soldiers, and laborers to the border.  It was known as the Joint US/Mexican Boundary Commission, and it was their job to determine the actual location of the official border.  The process of completing this work wasn’t easy or cheap, and political infighting, corruption, and financial mismanagement plagued the commission from the beginning.

In October 1849, the United States appointed John B. Weller and Andrew Gray to the post of boundary commissioner, sent to mark a physical line that had only previously existed, vaguely, in the treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe.  Surveyor Gray departed San Diego, California, and proceeded to the Gila River to begin his work.  En route, he came across a group of lost American pioneers, so he turned around and led these people to the California coast.

Soon after the two commissioners finally met, Gray and Waller argued.  The event remains somewhat murky because accounts of what subsequently transpired are inconsistent.  Some people claimed that following angry words, Weller struck Gray.  Other witnesses testified that Weller attempted to strangle Gray, but almost everyone agreed that Gray shot Weller in the thigh and then continued his work while Weller recuperated.

The work was challenging — made more so by the high desert heat, dangerously frigid winters, poor nutrition, and water scarcity.  Surveyors discovered that their maps were inaccurate.  In one example, surveyors found themselves standing in a dry creek bed where mountains were supposed to exist.  In another example, surveyors discovered misplaced canyons and arroyos.  In desperation, the Joint Commission abandoned their work to find supplies in the northern Sonora village of Santa Cruz.  The commission anticipated a short journey but was quickly beset by rising creeks, muddy landscapes, and hostile Indians.  It took them several weeks to find their way to Santa Cruz, and they all arrived with debilitating illnesses.  One of the Mexican surveyors died.

The war ended in 1848; by1851, the survey effort was such a shamble that survey work became secondary to staying alive.  But the US Congress could not understand why the survey was taking so long or why it cost so much money.  Fed up, some members of Congress argued for sending the Army to the border, to seize ports, claim Mexico for the United States, and settle the matter once and for all.  What actually happened was the $10 million Gadsden Purchase but even with that, resolving the border issue took another ten years.

Meanwhile, the Apache did not seem to care about a line drawn in the sand, and so the border made yet another transition: from a disputed border to a bloody one.  The Apaches noticed that American soldiers would not cross the line drawn in the sand and cross into Mexico to pursue them.  Cross-border raiding soon became a favorite Apache pastime — and one shared with Mexican bandits who made frequent raids into the United States to raid small towns, rustle cattle, and murder anyone who got in the way.

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered the US Army to keep lawless bands from invading the United States, even if it had to cross into Mexico to punish cross-border outlawry.  Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, who had only just assumed the presidency, protested Hayes’ authorization and sent Mexican troops to the border to safeguard Mexican sovereignty.  Eventually, Diaz agreed to a joint US/Mexican border security arrangement, but the border region remained an extremely volatile place from Texas to California.

Another border issue was the fluid nature of the Rio Grande, which frequently changed its course — an issue not finally addressed until 1889.[1]

When Mexico discovered oil in the early twentieth century, financial mismanagement led to a debt crisis.  High debt became the genesis of the so-called maquiladoras that drew people from both sides closer to the border area, but Mexico’s debt problems only grew worse.[2]

The free trade agreement in 1994 allowed US-owned/Mexican-operated Maquila plants to import tax-free materials and produce goods cheaper than was possible in US labor markets.

After 1960, the demand for illicit drugs in the United States fueled yet another industry, which brought massive profits to the people who ran it — the drug cartels. Between 1910-1980, Mexicans flooded across the border to live in the United States, many deciding to settle within 200 miles of the border, which from a practical standpoint, changed the US southern border yet again. In the 1970s, large-scale massacres began taking shape along the border, which beyond a few headlines, did nothing to encourage greater cooperation between the US and Mexico.

Today, with only a few exceptions, the US/Mexico border is a perilous place.  It is overrun by destitute peasants, consumer prices are high, the food and water are bad, and the border region no longer provides a protective barrier against violent chaos.  Whatever happens in the Mexican cities of Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Cuidad Acuna, Juarez, Nogales, and Tijuana is felt in equal measure in Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, Del Rio, El Paso, Tucson, and San Diego.  People live in fear for their safety, and neither the US nor Mexican governments seem disposed to doing anything about these deplorable conditions.

Recently, despite an increase in Mexican military forces and federal police, Mexican drug cartels terrorize Juarez and El Paso citizens, along with landowners of both countries fifty miles north and south of the US/Mexican border.  There is, by the way, almost no one you can talk to in El Paso who doesn’t have a relative living in Mexico — which, of course, means that the war on drugs no longer confines itself to Mexico; it is an international event.

It might help if Mexican and American politicians in border cities and states were not accepting substantial kickbacks from the drug cartels or if Mexican army officials and federal/local police were not on the take. Still, the jaw-dropping reality of the US/Mexico border region is that lawmen who refuse to accept payoffs wind up dead.  Today, a criminal insurgency has taken over the lives of decent people on both sides of the border.

On 20 June 2021, says journalist Alfredo Peña, a massive gunfight broke out in the border city of Reynosa, Mexico, across the river from McAllen, Texas.  Shooters, armed with automatic weapons and driving 14 motor vehicles, sped into Reynosa and shot everyone they could find.  In all, fourteen people (including taxi drivers, shopkeepers, students, and law officers were shot and killed.  It was not a fight between competing drug lords; it was intimidation, plain and simple.

In 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador assured the people of Mexico that a solution to border violence was within his grasp.  He promised “hugs, not bullets” to dismantle the drug cartels that operate with impunity in Mexico.  Someone should ask El Presidenté how his solution is working out.

I have no personal knowledge of the complicity of Mexican officials, but according to Peña, a politician by the name of Garcia Cabeza de Vaca who proclaimed “no truce for violent persons” is himself under investigation for links to drug cartels.  Peña also tells us that in Tamaulipas, Mexico, several past governors have ties to organized crime. One former governor was even extradited to Mexico from Italy to face corruption charges.

But it is no better north of the border.  US President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder conspired to provide weapons and ammunition to the Mexican drug cartels, one weapon of which was used in the murder of Border Patrol officer Brian A. Terry.  Neither Obama nor Holder have ever been required to account for their part in wholesale murder and mayhem in Mexico — and, of course, no one that high up in the political food chain is ever in danger of a thorough investigation.

Today, literally tens of thousands of Mexicans/Central Americans are flooding the US/Mexico border.  They are doing this at the invitation of President Biden and Vice President Harris.  In asserting our humanitarianism, the Biden administration encourages illegal migration and contributes to the human suffering of brown-skin people even before they reach the US border.  The coyotes are getting richer, and the drug cartels, who are no longer the focus of US law enforcement personnel, are moving their products into the US with few challenges.


There has been no substantial improvement along the US’ southern border since 1842.  Why?  Because no one in Washington DC or Mexico City feels threatened by the border violence that now exists.  In fact, it is making them wealthier.


  1. “South of the Border Was Once North,” L. Rohter, New York Times, 26 September 1987.
  2. “Cartel gun battle with armored trucks kills 8 in Camargo, Mexico,” A. Peña, Rio Grande Valley News/AP, 26 April 2021.
  3. “At least 15 die in multiple attacks near US-Mexico border,” A. Peña, Associated Press, 20 June 2021.


[1] Five such disputes arose between 1899 and 1977.

[2] In the 1960s and 1970s, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico borrowed huge sums of money from international creditors for industrialization, particularly to fund infrastructure improvement programs.  At the time, these countries had strong economies, so the banks were happy to provide loans.  Initially, developing countries relied on the World Bank for such loans, but after 1973, private banks had an influx of funds from oil-rich countries and sovereign debt was viewed as a safe investment.  Mexico borrowed against future oil revenues with the debt valued in US dollars, so that when the price of oil collapsed, so too did the Mexican economy.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, Colonial America, History, Indian Territory, Mexican Border War | 3 Comments

A Texas-Canadian Cowpoke

Some Background

Regardless of their diverse body types and coloration, scientists believe that all of the world’s cattle come from the humped cattle of Asia.  From Asia, cattle expanded to Africa and then introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors.  Over thousands of years, Asian cattle evolved into many types, including a longhorn variety.  When Columbus continued his expedition to the Americas in 1493, he took with him many of these longhorn species.  Descendants of these animals were the first cattle in Mexico.

Longhorn cattle have a strong survival instinct — which means that they are strong breeders.  Disposition-wise, they tend to be strong-willed and among men who earn their living as stockmen, often dangerous to themselves and their horses.  Among large herds of domesticated cattle, there are always hundreds that wander off into the brush.  If they are not recaptured and returned to the herd, they become feral animals.  In the case of the longhorn, they existed for around two hundred years on the plain of present-day South Texas and increased their numbers.  During this time, these cattle developed resistance to drought and other hardy characteristics, such as their mean stubbornness.

The people who migrated to the Mexican province of Tejas took with them their own breed of cattle.  Early Texians discovered these wild longhorn animals between the Nueces River and Rio Grande, captured them, and bred them with animals derived from English specimens.  The result of this cross-breeding was a tough animal with long legs and exceptionally long horns that extended up to around seven feet in length.  They were adaptable to their environment, healthy, fertile, and structurally sound.

Through the 1840s, longhorn cattle provided beef mainly for Texas consumption; there was no national market for these animals.  Beginning in the 1850s, however, the demand for beef increased, along with its price, which made some ranchers quite wealthy.  The American Civil War was an economic disaster for Texans.  The state suffered through twelve years of reconstruction policies.  Between 1850-1877, the population of Texas Longhorn cattle increased to well over five million head.  There was no substantial market for these animals in the financially ruined south, but there was a very high demand for beef in the north — if the ranchers could find a way to move them to northern markets.

Joseph McCoy was a livestock trader in Chicago.  He wanted to bring Texas Longhorn cattle to Chicago and distribute them to eastern markets.  One of the problems encountered in moving cattle from Texas was the blood tick found on Texas Longhorn cattle.  Longhorn animals were impervious to the disease carried by this blood tick; Kansas cattle were not.  In a short time, the relationship between Texas and Kansas cattlemen became somewhat hostile.  Well, “somewhat” evolved into a hesitance of Texans to risk getting shot while moving Texas cattle through Kansas.  Joseph McCoy brokered an arrangement between Texas ranchers, the Chicago meat industry, and the railroad companies.

Additionally, McCoy constructed a hotel, brokerage, bank, and stockyard at a small railroad town named Abilene.  Abilene was one of America’s first cow towns.  McCoy’s plan was for Texans to drive their cattle to Abilene, and then he would ship them to Chicago by train.

McCoy’s plan was the start of a very lucrative business.[1]  One Texas cattleman bought 600 head of longhorn cattle for $5,400, drove them to Abilene, and sold them to McCoy for $17,000.  Between 1867-1881, McCoy sent more than 2 million head of cattle from Abilene to Chicago.[2]  After 1880, the cattle business began to decline.[3]

A Cowboy Named John Ware

Historians believe John Ware was born into slavery around 1845 in northern Texas.  As already noted, the cattle industry rapidly expanded after the Civil War, and there was a sudden demand for experienced cowhands.  John Ware was just such a man.  In the spring of 1882, John met Tom Lynch in southern Idaho.  Lynch, a Canadian, was looking to purchase cattle in Texas on behalf of Sir Hugh Allan, owner of the North-West Cattle Company (also, Bar U Ranch).  Lynch managed to obtain 3,000 head of Texas Longhorn cattle and hired John Ware to help move the herd to the Rocky Mountain foothills.  The drive began in May and took six months to reach Alberta.

Seasoned stockmen were in short supply on the Canadian range, and Lynch persuaded Ware to remain with him at the Bar U.  Four years later, John moved over to the Quorn Ranch near the Sheep River.  The owners of the Quorn Ranch were a consortium of English investors in Leicestershire.  There was a sizeable cattle herd at the Quorn, but the primary interest among these Englishmen was raising horses for the British market.  Ware became the foreman of the horse raising end of the business and earned a good reputation for his knowledge and ability.

According to an article appearing in the Macleod Gazette, “John [Ware] is not only one of the best-natured and most obliging fellows in the country, but he is one of the shrewdest cowmen, and the man is considered pretty lucky who has him to look after his interest.  The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride.”  In a similar fashion, English investor Edward J. F. Hills wrote of John Ware’s reputation as “the best rough rider in the northwest” of the “rough Montana cowboys,” and of Ware’s personal kindness in helping him master range-land skills.

John Ware established his ranch along the north fork of the Sheep River, not far from the Quorn Ranch.  He called his ranch Walking Stick and registered his brand as 4-nines (9999) (later changed to 3-nines).  In 1892, he married Mildred Lewis, the daughter of a Canadian homesteader and cabinet-maker named Daniel V. Lewis.  John and Mildred were married in the Calgary First Baptist Church.

In 1902, John sold his foothills property and moved eastward to a homestead on the Red Deer River (northeast of Brooks).  Ware expanded his herd and, with Mildred, raised his family of four sons and two daughters.  Tragically, Mildred passed away in April 1905 from typhoid fever, and pneumonia and John sent his children to live with relatives in Alberta.  In September, while herding cattle, John’s horse stumbled into a badger hole and fell on him, killing him instantly.

Since his death, cowboy John Ware has become a Canadian folk hero.  Canada’s government officially recognizes John Ware by such place names as Ware Creek, John Ware Ridge, and Mount Ware … all of which are located near his first ranch.  John’s children were still very young when their parents died.  We do not know what became of them.


  1. Barnes, W. C.  “Wichita Forest Will Be Lair of Longhorns,” The Cattleman, April 1926.
  2. Breen, D. H.  “Ware, John.”  Dictionary of Canadian Biography 1901-1910.  Online resource.
  3. Dobie, J. F.  The Longhorns.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.
  4. Barrett, N. Jr., Long Days and Short Nights: A Century of Texas Ranching on the Y O (1880-1980).  Y O Press, Mountain Home, Texas, 1980.


[1] Several factors contributed to the rise of the American cattle industry: increased railroads, refrigerated cars, and removing hostile Indians from the range. 

[2] Joseph McCoy’s reliability as a cattle broker gave rise to the expression ‘The Real McCoy.’

[3] Factors of decline included the closure of open ranges and limited pastures, increased agriculture on the plains, periodic droughts, excessively cold winters, and less demand for beef in the north.

Posted in Canadian Cowboys, Civil War, History, Kansas, Texas | 3 Comments