Read an Excerpt
Lakota War Chief
By Robert W. Larson
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Like a Roman Warrior
On January 10, 1881, a large party of soldiers escorting a destitute group of Lakota captives reached Fort Buford in the remote northwestern corner of Dakota Territory. The tired troopers, who were struggling against the bitter cold as much as their prisoners were, served under the determined command of Major Guido Ilges. Ilges's captives numbered more than three hundred, including seventy-four seasoned warriors whom the major caustically called "full grown bucks." One of the intransigent warriors, Black Horn, was in shackles, but the best known and most prized of Ilges's prisoners was the Hunkpapa Sioux leader Gall. He, along with most of the other able-bodied men, trudged alongside the sturdy wagons that carried his band's women, children, and old people to their new destination. Their snowy midwinter trip from the Poplar River Agency had taken four days; indeed, when it started on the morning of January 6, the temperature had been twenty-eight degrees below zero.
Even General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had shown little sympathy for the stubborn Lakotas holding out against the federal government, was anxious about the weather. He felt a genuine concern for the blue-coated soldiers stationed in the frigid northern plains; they, like the Sioux, had to face "the rigors of this winter."
When Gall entered the large compound at Fort Buford, he had little reason to be happy. In early October 1880, he had made a promise to Edwin H. Allison, sometime emissary of Major David Hammet Brotherton, Fort Buford's commander. He had assured Allison that by December he would bring his people from their Canadian exile to the Poplar River Agency, in Montana Territory. He now had second thoughts about this promise. In fact, he and his people had categorically refused to surrender when they had arrived at Poplar River on November 26. Instead of encamping at the agency, they had chosen a site in a wooded area across the Missouri River from the agency.
The situation worsened during the ensuing two weeks. Gall's Hunkpapas were joined by another Lakota Sioux band, the Sans Arcs, under the leadership of Chief Spotted Eagle. With Spotted Eagle's arrival and the arrival of other Lakotas, Gall's encampment grew from thirty-eight lodges to seventy-three. The U.S. Army and many of the agency employees at Poplar River, all of whom were familiar with Gall's reputation as the Fighting Cock of the Sioux, grew increasingly wary. As for Gall, his ambivalence grew in proportion to the increasing number of tipis dotting the willow thickets and cottonwoods along the Missouri.
The last five years had been difficult for the forty-year-old warrior, whose strength and vigor belied his age; few warriors could demonstrate the physical prowess Gall did as they reached middle age. During the months after the Little Bighorn, Gall had remained one of Sitting Bull's most trusted war lieutenants, but he and Sitting Bull's followers, being separated from Crazy Horse's elusive band by army forces under Colonel Nelson A. Miles, had been compelled to cross the Canadian border in May 1877.
Throughout their four-year stay in Grandmother's Land, Gall continued to support Sitting Bull. Life had been better at first. The Canadian government was much more sympathetic toward them than the United States government had been, allowing the Lakotas to settle in a still bountiful area of hills, trees, and grasslands stretching west from Wood Mountain in present-day Saskatchewan. But there had been problems, such as the increasing scarcity of buffalo and the hostility of such Canadian tribes as the Crees, Bloods, Blackfeet, and Piegans. Moreover, the United States government exerted strong pressure on Canada to expel the Lakotas from their sanctuary in Saskatchewan. With near starvation becoming a reality among most of these Lakota bands, Gall finally broke with Sitting Bull and allowed supporters from approximately twenty of his lodges to return to the United States. Sitting Bull's anger over this move only compounded the tensions between these two old friends. This schism was undoubtedly on Gall's mind as he encamped near the Poplar River Agency, debating his decision to surrender.
In response to the ominous gathering of Lakota Sioux bands at the Poplar River Agency, Major Ilges, in command of some four hundred men, was sent to the agency from Fort Keogh, a new post Colonel Miles's men had built on the Yellowstone River in 1877. Ilges made the difficult 192-mile journey to the agency in nine days, traveling through deep snow, with temperatures ranging from 10 to 35 degrees below zero. Upon his arrival at Poplar River in late December, Gall took the initiative and asked for a conference with the major. In the tense meeting that followed, the Hunkpapa war chief revealed his strong ambivalence toward giving up the free and nomadic life his people had long enjoyed. He told Major Ilges that, while he was ready to surrender, his people were not prepared to do so until the advent of spring. Then they "would elect whether or not ... to remain at this agency or go to Fort Keogh or Buford." Gall's sensitivity to the needs of his band had characterized his leadership role during the years of struggle that had marked the Indian wars of the 1860s and 1870s. The veteran chief also wanted to visit Fort Buford before he made any final decision; in fact, his request for such a visit was coupled with a demand that Ilges provide him with both transportation and a military escort.
The major was exasperated by Gall's forceful manner throughout their meeting, and he lacked specific instructions from his superiors for how to handle Gall's demands in a decisive way. He did know, however, that the army was anxious to solve the Sioux problem, and the surrender of Gall and Sitting Bull was essential to that solution. He gave Gall and his people three days to reach a consensus, but he made it clear that after three days, Gall was going to Fort Buford and his followers were going with him.
Despite Gall's reservations, he was probably ready to submit if he could get the right terms. He had said as much to Major Brotherton's emissary Edwin Allison three months earlier. Allison, an experienced scout who spoke Gall's language fluently, was a longtime friend of the Hunkpapa warrior. Indeed, Gall respected the controversial Allison, often called Fish by the Sioux, even though many of Gall's friends did not. Even more convincing proof that Gall was ready to surrender were the lodges Gall had brought from Canada as a token of good faith. Consequently, although Sitting Bull was still pondering his future, Gall was in the process of luring almost two-thirds of Sitting Bull's supporters southward across the international boundary. In the end, Sitting Bull was left with perhaps as few as two hundred loyal followers.
Unfortunately Gall's leadership over these new Lakota followers was not very secure. Major Ilges's three-day ultimatum undoubtedly put uncomfortable pressure on Gall because about sixty warriors were present during his stormy conference with Ilges. One of them, Crow, requested another interview with the willful major. During this much more acrimonious meeting, Crow, accompanied by twelve headmen from his camp, insisted on waiting to see what action his "only chief" Sitting Bull would take, making it clear that they would abide by any decision Sitting Bull would make. Major Ilges, probably not that familiar with the legendary independence of most Lakota warriors, urged Crow to go to Fort Buford and reminded him of the desperate need for food and clothing among his people.
Following this stressful meeting, two important developments occurred. First, Ilges received a telegram from one of his superiors on December 28. In these new instructions he was authorized to "compel the surrender of 'the Gall' and his people by such means as to ... [Ilges] may seem best adapted to that end." The second development was Crow King's arrival at Poplar River. Crow King, a great Hunkpapa warrior in his own right, probably exercised as much influence on these proceedings as Gall did. About ten days earlier, Fish Allison had persuaded Crow King and two other warriors to meet Major Brotherton at Fort Buford. The war chief, after spending Christmas Eve at the fort, returned to the Poplar River Agency with glowing reports about the conditions at Fort Buford.
A meeting was convened by Major Ilges on December 31, 1880, which included Crow King, his two Indian comrades, Allison, the Indian agent at Poplar River, and approximately sixty warriors, including Gall and Crow. Crow King extolled the virtues of Fort Buford and urged Gall and Crow, along with their followers, to go there. He insisted that this was the wish of Sitting Bull "for whom he was acting and speaking." Although Sitting Bull would later clash with Crow King over these bold assumptions, he had undoubtedly made a great impression on the once dubious warriors at this gathering. None of them declined to go to the fort. Some, however, insisted that it was too cold to leave as early as January 2, the date set by Major Ilges for their departure.
Crow was deeply disturbed by these new plans, and he abruptly terminated the meeting by telling Major Ilges he was tired of hearing the major talk. On the following evening, Crow went to the home of Major Ilges's interpreter, Joseph S. Culbertson, and asked him to tell Ilges "that he and his people would not move until spring." He then called the major's men cowards, saying they could not handle guns and were "afraid to fight." Crow warned Ilges that if the military forces stationed at Poplar River attempted to interfere, his people would fight. Later that evening, Gall, who also had a mercurial personality, approached the post trader at the agency. Not to be outdone by Crow, he advised the trader and his employees to "leave the agency at once as he liked them and did not like to see them killed." Gall, more so than most Lakota leaders during the wars leading up to his surrender, often traded at various forts and posts with both civilian traders and their Indian allies, many of whom he befriended and sincerely liked. He told these agency employees also that the Lakotas encamped near the agency would "fight and wipe out the soldiers and kill everybody at the soldier camp."
Gall and Crow's intemperate conduct gave Major Ilges the pretext he needed to launch an attack. At 11 a.m. on January 2, 1881, soldiers from the Seventh and Eleventh infantries, sporting a Rodman three-inch gun and under the command of Captain Ogden B. Read, assembled approximately three miles below the vulnerable Indian encampments. At twelve o'clock, Major Ilges brought an even larger force, a battalion of soldiers primarily from the Fifth Infantry. These soldiers brought the total number under his command to three hundred. The infantry companies under Ilges would constitute the western column of an elaborate pincer movement designed to engulf these disgruntled Lakota camps. He also mustered into service nineteen Indian scouts and volunteers, including a group of Yanktonais, whom Ilges feared might join their Sioux brethren. A Howitzer gun increased the already enormous advantage enjoyed by Major Ilges's troops in what would become known as the Battle of Poplar River. Historian Robert M. Utley has characterized this conflict as a classic example of "military overkill."
When Major Ilges's forces crossed the frozen Missouri, they encountered virtually no resistance. The first Lakota village, thirty-two lodges tucked in among the willows and thick underbrush along the river, was almost deserted. A "few superannuated bucks" came running toward Ilges's troops to deposit "a few worthless muskets," but the total number of weapons found in this Miniconjou Sioux camp amounted to sixteen rifles, plus "guns of different patterns" and two pistols.
A short time later, Ilges's command reached Gall's Hunkpapa Sioux village of forty lodges and was greeted by an almost perfect silence; not one Indian was to be seen. Ilges responded to this intimidating calm by putting his Howitzer into position and sending "a few shells" into the nearby woods to convince these defiant Indians that his men were determined to escort them to Fort Buford immediately. But it took a subsequent search of the village to prompt the first shot to be fired from the huddle of forlorn tipis. The solitary gunshot was met by an avalanche of return fire, but the results were meager at best. One Hunkpapa warrior was killed, and two were wounded, including a woman.
Shortly thereafter, Captain Read arrived with his infantrymen; they constituted the eastern arm of Ilges's pincer movement. Read, too, had crossed the icebound Missouri, meeting virtually no opposition. The joining of the two columns was marked by an artillery bombardment of these almost defenseless Sioux villages, accompanied by loud demands for their surrender. This strategy soon bore results. Weary Hunkpapas raised a white flag and, along with a few of their Lakota allies, trickled out of the adjacent thickets to surrender. Among these chastened Indians was the proud Gall. According to Captain J. M. Bell, one of the officers on the scene, Gall "came riding out on his pony with his blanket wrapped around him and arms folded." Bell commented that Gall "looked around him as like an old Roman as any man I ever saw." Whether Gall wore the red blanket that had become his trademark or carried his trusted Winchester 76 is not definitely known, but the seasoned war chief's appearance almost always created a little awe among his enemies.
The term "battle" is probably a misnomer for this encounter. The tired and underfed Indians were unable to offer any real resistance. Even so, they suffered eight casualties, compared with none for Major Ilges's well-armed soldiers. Crow, and to a lesser extent Gall, had undoubtedly provoked the army to take this aggressive action, and their own followers paid the biggest price for their provocative language. But the pleas of both men that Major Ilges should wait until spring before marching their people to Fort Buford were more than justified. The weather was bitterly cold, and the snow was deep along the wintry route across Montana to Fort Buford at the western edge of Dakota Territory.
Major Ilges and his superiors, however, did not want to delay this difficult journey. They were determined to place these stubborn Lakota Sioux holdouts under strict military supervision at an established military post, such as Fort Buford. Military leaders feared a last-minute reunification of all these restless Sioux bands, the majority of which had fought for years to maintain their traditional lifestyle. The military was also apprehensive about the more pliable Yanktonais at Poplar River uniting with the Hunkpapas, Miniconjous, Sans Arcs, and other Lakota tribes under Gall's shaky leadership.
An even greater concern among the top generals campaigning in the West was the attitude of Sitting Bull and his approximately 150 warriors. They had migrated below the Canadian border some fifty miles northwest of the Poplar River Agency. General Alfred H. Terry hoped that the surrender of Gall's supporters would convince Sitting Bull to follow suit; the Battle of Poplar River, however, appeared to have the opposite effect. Sitting Bull's nervous camp hastily recrossed the international boundary; the charismatic Hunkpapa chief and medicine man now had even stronger reservations about surrendering. Terry and other officers soon hatched plans to send Major Ilges northward for a campaign against Sitting Bull if further negotiations failed to materialize.
Gall's surrender at Poplar River must have been both bitter and frustrating. He had left his Canadian exile without Sitting Bull because he and his supporters felt it was the only feasible option for a starving people living miles from their familiar hunting grounds in the United States. Too proud to be genuinely humble, Gall could exercise little influence over Major Ilges. The rigid army officer, whose instructions from his superiors were too brief and vague to give him much self-confidence, would not grant Gall any significant concessions. He would not even let Gall's followers postpone their military escort to Fort Buford until the weather improved. Gall's leadership was also imperiled by the tactless Crow, whose primary loyalty was still with Sitting Bull. Gall's role in this one-sided confrontation with the army and his mortifying surrender were in sharp contrast to his feats of valor along the Yellowstone in the early 1870s or those at the Little Bighorn or the other battle sites during the waning days of the Great Sioux War.
Excerpted from Gall by Robert W. Larson. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.