Powder River: Disastrous Opening of the Great Sioux War

Powder River: Disastrous Opening of the Great Sioux War

by Paul L. Hedren

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ISBN-13: 9780806156125
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 472
Sales rank: 1,139,926
File size: 18 MB
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About the Author

Paul L. Hedren is a retired National Park Service superintendent residing in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the author of Fort Laramie and the Great Sioux War and Great Sioux War Orders of Battle: How the United States Army Waged War on the Northern Plains, 1876–1877.

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Powder River

Disastrous Opening of the Great Sioux War

By Paul L. Hedren


Copyright © 2016 the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5612-5



When Colonel Joseph Jones Reynolds and six companies of cavalry struck a Northern Cheyenne village on the Powder River in southeastern Montana on March 17, 1876, he opened an Indian war that bloodied the northern plains for more than eighteen months. The war's long and excruciating course featured a score of battles large and small and many unfathomable deaths, including Custer at the Little Big Horn River and Crazy Horse at Camp Robinson. Reynolds, in fact, thought that he was attacking Crazy Horse and Sioux Indians, then the focus of the government's attention on the northern plains. Instead they were mostly Northern Cheyennes, a people who turned instantly to war.

The Powder River fight was a disaster for the army. Reynolds had marched his troops to the Powder River through the afternoon and night of March 16 and into the wee hours of March 17 and then deployed them in the half-light of dawn for an attack on a village that no one in his command had yet seen. Reynolds's inadequate reconnaissance had a profound influence on the outcome of the engagement, ultimately allowing his foe to escape. The colonel was the senior officer on the field but never really seemed in command, as officers went about ignoring or challenging his orders. In prowling the captured village, he grew annoyed by the tedious pace of his soldiers as they burned tipis filled with foodstuffs, clothing, buffalo robes, munitions, and cultural finery. He also seemed rattled by the casualties incurred by his command and by a presumptive order from George Crook to rally their separated forces twenty miles upriver, a distance yet to be traveled that day. Finally calling it quits after nearly five hours in the Cheyenne camp, Reynolds departed the field with an almost reckless haste, even abandoning his dead, and the next morning lost the captured Indian pony herd.

With tribesmen steeled and the army perplexed, the Powder River battle set the wrong tone for this unfolding Great Sioux War, as the conflict was known almost from the start. Reynolds was brought to account almost immediately. Recoiling from the personal attacks and charges leveled at him by Crook, fellow officers, and a newspaperman, he blamed others for the failings that day. Ultimately Reynolds and two company commanders were court-martialed for their actions on March 17 and convicted.

The story of Reynolds at Powder River, and the Great Sioux War of which the event was a signal part, had a long and compelling history. The collision of events on the northern plains in 1876 had generations of precedents. The Sioux and their allies, especially the Northern Cheyennes, occupied a rich and diverse landscape that itself had evolved well before these tribes came on the scene in the early eighteenth century. This lush countryside was spotted with remarkable natural phenomena and resources, including vast herds of buffalo. When whites appeared on these same plains late in the eighteenth century, a collision course was assured. Certainly no one then foresaw this ultimate Indian war, but whites, since arriving on the Atlantic seaboard in the early seventeenth century, had consistently viewed the frontier as a land of opportunity and spilled continually westward. They were emboldened by notions of Manifest Destiny, the self-righteous claim to everything in sight, and untroubled by the claims of the Native peoples who had already occupied these lands for centuries. Three centuries elapsed before attention turned to the northern plains, which had become Sioux Country, but then change came with lightning speed. The Great Sioux War of 1876–77 was the triggering action that ultimately transformed the northern plains from what it had been to what it is. That trigger was first pulled at Powder River.

* * *

Understanding the story of Powder River is well served by looking far back. America's Indian wars were always about land. The area of the northern plains, largely Sioux Country in the nineteenth century, was the largest geographic province of the North American Great Plains, that confounding and dynamic heartland of the continent. The boundaries of the northern plains meander. As on the central and southern plains, geographers have commonly used the 100th meridian to define the region's eastern border because that is the proximate limit of twenty-inch annual rainfall in America and the relative separation between the tall-grass prairies of the East and the short grasses of the West. The 100th meridian is a mere blip on most maps, of course: a straight and invisible north-south line dividing the Dakotas and Nebraska in half, slicing away the western third of Kansas and the panhandle of Oklahoma, and splitting Texas in two. Readily perceived boundaries also exist, fortunately, especially in the Dakotas. The gently arcing Missouri River serves as a functional dividing line, a place where, as a literary sage keenly observed with only the barest embellishment, one sees the river's green and lush eastern side and its tan and dusty western side. The western bounds of the Great Plains are much more readily visible, where flat land meets the Rocky Mountains.

On the southern margins, the northern plains roughly begin at the Platte and North Platte Rivers in Nebraska and Wyoming. The land south of there is often referred to as the high plains, a subset of the central plains. From the Platte River and its northern branch, the region opens broadly as it rolls hundreds of miles northward into the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Thinking of the northern plains as a featureless, flat plain is broadly misleading, although that impression is an old and lingering one. The plains have a gentle roll, a grain, to them and are often highly eroded, scored by greater and lesser rivers and spotted with interesting and often dramatic geological phenomena. Physical geographers particularly note distinctive and compelling northern plains features like the Sand Hills of Nebraska; the slender Pine Ridge Escarpment winding through Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota; the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming; the White River and Little Missouri River badlands of South Dakota and North Dakota, respectively; the uniquely eroded Big Open countryside sandwiched between Montana's Musselshell, Yellowstone, and Missouri Rivers; and the Cypress Hills and Wood Mountain of southern Saskatchewan.

This diverse physical landscape is supported by comparably distinctive vegetative cover. Profuse and nutritious buffalo and grama short grasses cover the ever dominant prairie, while pine and cedar forests typically speckle the pronounced highlands and blacken hills and mountains. The illusions of rolling seas of grass or nearly literal "black" hills (as viewed from afar) spawned on the plains are sometimes magical. Sinuous prairie river floodplains feature their own distinctive woody and bush vegetation, including vast intermittent groves of sheltering cottonwood trees, the ubiquitous timber monarchs of the plains.

The northern plains are also known for their quirky weather attributes. As one geographer observed, nowhere else has wind done more effective work than on the Great Plains, where it blows harder and more consistently than anywhere else on the continent. Strong winds, hot winds, and cold winds are all accepted norms, giving rise to countless tales. "Does the wind blow this way here all the time?" asked a ranch visitor one day. "No, Mister," answered the cowboy. "It'll maybe blow this way for a week or ten days, and then it'll take a change and blow like hell for a while."

Sometimes the seemingly omnipresent winds are welcomed. A down-slope warm wind, known to people of the plains as a chinook, flowing down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado is a winter delight that briefly moderates the cold and evaporates the snow. Northers are the dangerous opposite, amounting to frigid belting winds out of the arctic north that drop temperatures swiftly, sometimes last for days, and invariably occasion the suffering of people and animals. Worse yet are blizzards, the "grizzlies of the plains," which combine extreme cold, harsh winds, sleet, and snow. Incessant winds, chinooks, northers, and blizzards coupled with periodic droughts, summer cloudbursts, and tornados are common features on the Great Plains and among the unusual conditions that people must overcome in order to survive and succeed there.

In this unique grassland setting, many remarkable large and small animal species evolved and thrived, including American antelope or pronghorns, grizzly bears, gray or so-called buffalo wolves, and even prairie dogs. Without question, however, the dominant species was the buffalo, an extraordinary animal with an outsized head, muscular hump, and shaggy brown coat perfectly adapted to the extreme environmental conditions of the grasslands. As many as twenty-four million buffalo filled the Great Plains in the early nineteenth century, not as one gargantuan herd as is sometimes imagined but in innumerable lesser herds numbering thousands and sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands of bulls, cows, and calves grazing micro-ranges across the landscape. The buffalo gave rise to a distinctive human culture. Buffalo meat, both fresh and dried, was a healthful and savory Plains Indian staple, augmented by the animal's tallow and marrow. Buffalo hides and fur provided Indians with robes, shirts, leggings, mittens, belts, lodge covers, and bedding and such utilitarian wares as straps, bags, shields, ropes, bindings, and even boats. Buffalo sinew, bone, and horns became bowstrings, thread, tools, and ornaments. The buffalo inspired Indian social, political, and religious beliefs and rituals. Buffalo migrations governed the movement of the tribes and fixed the cycles of life. Hunted in prodigious numbers, the cumulative herd on the northern plains had been reduced to some two million animals by the mid-nineteenth century at the time of the great Indian wars. Colonel Reynolds stepped into this world when he attacked the Northern Cheyenne village on the Powder River that day but probably never grasped even its slightest nuance.

* * *

The Great Plains was Indian country too. Native peoples had been pioneering in the West long before the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome flourished and fell, and had their own unique affinities for the land. Archaeological and biological evidence suggests ancient links between Asia and America dating to thirteen or fourteen thousand years ago, when the last Ice Age was in retreat and Pleistocene mammals were becoming extinct. The story of humankind in America is a complex one, still unfolding. The original migration from Asia was across the Bering Strait, though there is no guarantee that this was the only route. However Indians came to America and the plains, these early peoples lived close to the land and close to the edge. They survived by hunting and gathering strategies suited to their locales and moved about constantly, adapting to changing environmental conditions and embracing new technologies. In time these Native peoples gave their habitat place-names that described locations, natural features, and local animal life. They knew where plants, herbs, minerals, and other natural resources might be gathered for food, medicine, ceremonial purposes, and art. They became highly skilled hunters, resourceful and resilient, and all of this before they acquired tribal identifications.

Powerful forces of change also came to the West. When corn and beans arrived on the plains around 700 A.D. (some sources say 1100), coinciding with changing climatic conditions, many Indian people surrendered their mobile hunting life and adopted a sedentary farming existence. In turn, when horses began appearing in the West in the early sixteenth century, spreading from Spanish America into the far north, some village people gave up their sedentary existence to become mobile hunters. Horses revolutionized the West, changing how Indian people lived their daily and seasonal lives and organized their societies. Horses spread north through elaborate systems of trade and were in the hands of Kiowas (who were still northern plains people living near the Black Hills), Pawnees, and Poncas by the late seventeenth century. By the early eighteenth century the Cheyennes had gained horses; and by mid-century the Shoshones, Crows, Arapahos, Blackfeet, and Assiniboines had them too. It was probably the Cheyennes who drove horses to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara villages along the Missouri River where the Arikaras traded horses to the Sioux.

The interaction of Indians, horses, buffalo, and grasslands created a new order on the Great Plains linked directly to the annual cycle of the buffalo. Mounted hunters mirrored the actions of their mobile food supply. Tribal group numbers fluctuated in response to the movement of the herds. Bands dispersed into smaller groups during winter months and congregated in larger bodies in the summer for communal hunts and ceremony, to renew relationships, and to reaffirm their oneness as a people. Horses, more than a simple commodity of exchange, became a measure of wealth and prosperity and central to the Plains Indian hunting and warrior ethos. As one chronicler of this dynamic time on the plains put it, "raiding for horses became both a cause of war and a way of war."

This was the world of the Lakota Sioux in the early seventeenth century. The Lakotas (Tetons) together with the Nakotas (Yanktons/Yanktonais) and Dakotas (Santees) formed the three divisions of the Sioux Nation that emerged from the forest and lake country at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in today's northern Minnesota. They had been pushed to the forest and prairie margins by Chippewa Indians, with whom the Sioux periodically warred during this time of transition. The three divisions reflected geographical and linguistic differences, although all Sioux speakers were intelligible to one another. At first the Sioux were distinguished only as the Sioux of the East and Sioux of the West, reflecting preferred geographical positioning relative to the Mississippi River, with the Santees largely living astride that river and other Santees and the Yanktons and Tetons occupying the prairie countryside between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The Sioux of the East hunted buffalo but also cultivated corn and harvested wild rice, while the Sioux of the West were exclusively hunters. In 1660 French-Canadian explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson called the Sioux the "nation of the Beef," because of their widespread embrace of buffalo hunting and consumption.

By the eighteenth century the entire Sioux Nation had shifted westward, partly pushed by better-armed Chippewa and Cree Indians, partly in reaction to buffalo herds that were themselves contracting westward, and partly lured by white fur traders. The Lakotas particularly gravitated to Hudson's Bay Company and Montreal traders coming from the north to the Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Upper Missouri River and French traders coming to those same villages from Saint Louis. Through trade the Sioux, like other area tribes, were introduced to a dazzling array of utilitarian and domestic wares in exchange for dressed furs of beaver and later buffalo. During this period the Teton Sioux occupied lands east of the Missouri in today's South Dakota but were moving westward. This migration brought about significant cultural changes, many developed through contacts with other tribes, including the Cheyennes and Arikaras. It was during this period that the Sioux obtained horses and evolved their distinguishing buffalo hunting economy.

By the end of the eighteenth century the Lakotas were fully mounted and continued their expansion onto the northern plains. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed the Upper Missouri country in 1804–1805 they reported Tetons living on both sides of the river. By the 1830s the Lakotas almost exclusively occupied lands west of the river, ranging as far as the Black Hills but also maintaining trade relations on the Missouri, including most particularly at Fort Pierre, a trading post established in 1832 by the American Fur Company expressly for the Sioux. As Sioux migrations continued, they allied with the Cheyennes and Arapahos and drove the Kiowas and Crows from the Black Hills, claiming that resource-rich landscape as their own. By the mid-1840s the seven principal Lakota bands or subtribes — Brulé, Oglala, Sans Arc, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Blackfeet Sioux, and Two Kettle — were well dispersed across the Black Hills landscape and beyond, each with favored homelands. The Brulés and Oglalas preferred lands south of the Hills and trade at Fort William (Laramie), an American Fur Company post established in 1834 on the Laramie River in eastern Wyoming. The Sans Arcs occupied the country west and southwest of the Hills, while the Two Kettles and Miniconjous generally resided east and north of the Hills in the lower Cheyenne River countryside. The Hunkpapas and Blackfeet Sioux, meanwhile, preferred lands farther north in today's western North Dakota and eastern Montana. The Hunkpapas often traded at Fort Union, yet another American Fur Company post, established in 1828 at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. The tribes' attachments to trading posts served many purposes, acknowledging that traders were sources of brass kettles, knives, awls, blankets, and other functional wares and most importantly firearms, lead, and gunpowder. The posts were also accepted as health and social centers and places of cross-cultural exchange at a time when Indians and whites alike embraced trade and were not yet competing for the land.


Excerpted from Powder River by Paul L. Hedren. Copyright © 2016 the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. 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.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Part I. Prelude,
1. The Long Road to an Inevitable Sioux War,
2. Pointing the Gun,
3. Organizing a Campaign,
4. The Trail North,
5. Hot Pursuit on a Frigid Night,
Part II. The Battle,
6. Egan's Charge,
7. Destroying Old Bear's Village,
8. Abandoning Private Ayers,
9. Withdrawal,
10. "I See My Horse",
11. Lodge Pole Creek,
Part III. Aftermath,
12. The Rancor Begins,
13. Misplaced Justice,
14. Justice Served,
15. Loose Ends,
A. Big Horn Expedition Order of Battle, March 1–27, 1876,
B. Powder River Order of Battle, March 16–18, 1876,
C. Big Horn Expedition Killed and Wounded,
D. Henry E. Noyes General Court-Martial Orders,
E. Alexander Moore General Court-Martial Orders,
F. Joseph J. Reynolds General Court-Martial Orders,

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