Saturday, August 20, 2022

The Grattan Massacre—Shavetail Glory Seeking Sparked First Sioux War


Fort Laramie a few years before the Grattan Massacre painted by Alfred Jacob Miller.

Note—Yesterday we saw how badly foolish grandstanding resulted in the disastrous last battle of the American Revolution at Blue Licks.  Today we see the same fatal arrogance produce comparable results sparking the First Sioux War and decades of warfare and tragedy culminating if the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

John Lawrence Grattan was less than two months out of West Point and was rumored to have made the acquaintance of a razor on one or two occasions.  He had newly arrived at Fort Laramie on the Oregon and Mormon Trails to join the small detachment of the 6th Infantry Regiment which had been posted there to protect the emigrant wagon trains.  He wasn’t even a real officer yet.  In the tiny Regular Army of 1854, he had to wait for a slot to open up in the regiment.  As a courtesy and to let him play soldier he was made a brevet (temporary) 2nd Lieutenant.  Let that sink in for a moment.  There couldn’t possibly be anything more pitiful in the Army than a brevet shavetail.  And yet he was allowed to leave the Fort in command of 29 soldiers accompanied by one drunken translator to enter a camp of as many as 4,000 Brulé and Oglala Sioux to arrest a cow thief.  What could possibly go wrong?

The murder of a peaceful and friendly chief, the massacre of the hapless Grattan and all of his men, and the spark of the First Sioux War and fifty years of sporadic bloody war on the High Plaines.  That’s what.

All those thousands of Sioux were camped near Fort Laramie under the provisions of the 1851 Treaty of Ft. Laramie in which the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations were guaranteed their traditional ranges on the High Plains and in the eastern Rockies in exchange for granting safe passage for the emigrant wagon trains headed West and the establishment of a handful of military posts to protect them.  They were also guaranteed the issuance of $50,000 a year in provisions—a huge sum in those years—to be administered by an Indian Agent.  The camp had assembled from a wide range of individual bands to await the arrival from the east of the Agent and that year’s rations.

Of course, any assembly that large presented a management problem for the chiefs and elders.  Young men grew restless and bored, especially as the huge gathering had scared the buffalo far from the Fort limiting hunting.  Despite the efforts of the chiefs young men would sometimes sneak off on an adventure—raiding the emigrant trains for horses or livestock.  In the Plains Indian culture such raiding was considered a good way for a young warrior to prove his manhood and skills.  It was not considered warfare.  If bands from other tribes or the wagon trains were foolish enough to let their stock be stolen, it was on their own heads, just as it was to try and either steal the stock back or demand justice from the tribal elders.  


Scouting an emigrant wagon train on the Oregon Trail by Charles Russell.

On the whole, the chiefs had succeeded in keeping this kind of thing to a minimum.  Under the terms of the Treaty complaints from the emigrants were to be taken to the Chiefs by the Agent and the Chiefs would customarily make some restitution to resolve the issue.  But the Agent was away.  In that case the task was usually handled informally by James Bordeau, the highly respected proprietor of the trading post adjacent to Ft. Laramie.  The Army, pointedly, had no jurisdiction.

On August 17 a cow belonging to a Mormon immigrant strayed away from the train and was spotted and killed by a young visiting Miniconjou named High Forehead.  The Sioux were highly social people and such visits between bands and tribes were common and because of intermarriage among the tribes there were usually relatives to visit.  Now in the larger course of things, the loss of a single cow was a minor affair.  But to the Mormon family who lost her it was a significant tragedy—she represented fresh milk and the promise of future wealth by giving birth to calves.  The aggrieved Mormons appealed for help to the small garrison at the Fort.

Brulé chief Standing Bear offered a horse from his own herd as compensation, but the Mormon demanded $25 in cash, which the chief surely did not possess, and the delivery of High Forehead to the post for prosecution.  Standing Bear refused to deliver the suspect on the grounds that he had no authority over a Miniconjou and that to do so would violate the prized traditions of hospitality of his people

Lt. Hugh Fleming, the senior officer in command, knew that the matter was not the Army’s concern, but decided to act anyway.  He did not turn to the reliable Bordeau for assistance but decided to dispatch an armed patrol not just to negotiate compensation, but to arrest High Forehead for what could be a capital crime.  He assigned command of the unit to the completely green Grattan who was eager for glory and the chance to prove himself.  A witness to the preparations for departure later reported, “There is no doubt that Lt. Grattan left this post with a desire to have a fight with the Indians, and that he had determined to take the man at all hazards.”


The pre-Civil War regular Army on the High Plains--Infantry troops and officers--note white pant stripes--and a Dragoon (light cavalry) trooper with yellow stripes and trim.

To assist Grattan as translator, Fleming selected not Bordeau, but a trading post lay-about Lucienne Auguste who was not even fluent in the Brulé dialect.  He was also drinking all morning and continued to drink on the way to the camp.  By the time they entered the sprawling village he was quite drunk.

In addition to Auguste Grattan had with him a sergeant, a corporal, 27 privates and even trailed two small artillery field pieces.  Needless to say, when they barged noisily into the camp, they created quite a stir, especially as the drunken Auguste taunted and shouted insults in his broken dialect taunting the warriors quickly gathering around them as women and boasting that the soldiers were not there to talk, but to kill them all.  But even Auguste soon realized the seriousness of their position and advised Grattan to go first to Standing Bear to resolve the situation.

Naturally, Grattan ignored the only sound advice he got all day from Auguste.  He went directly to find High Forehead and confronted him at the lodge where he was staying.  Grattan demanded the man surrender himself, but High Forehead refused and said that he would “rather die.”  Only then did Grattan go to Standing Bear who tried to negotiate, repeating his offer of a horse from his own herd.

Meanwhile people from the village had gone to the post to fetch Bordeau to assist in translating.  Bordeau hastened to the scene of the escalating confrontation between Grattan and the Chief and noted that agitated armed warriors were gatherings.  His offer of assistance was rebuffed by Grattan and realizing that the situation was about to get out of hand, he decided to return to his trading post and warn his associates to arm themselves because a fight was likely coming..  Then he watched as events unfolded in the village not far away.

After an extended argument in which Grattan did all the shouting and Standing Bear remained adamant in his refusal to turn over High Forehead, both men turned away from each other.  Grattan moved towards his men massed a few yards behind him, seemingly intent on launching an attack.  One of his men acted on his own, firing a single round striking Standing Bear in the back.  He would die nine days later near the Niobrara River.

                                    Red Cloud in his later years as a great Chief.

The agitated warriors opened fire on the troops from all sides.  Grattan and Auguste were the first to fall.  His men tried to fall back but were quickly overwhelmed.  18 of the men retreated to an outcropping of rocks and tried to make a stand.  They were quickly overwhelmed by warriors led by rising war chief Red Cloud.  One wounded soldier was later recovered by died of his wounds shortly after.  It was a complete massacre of the troops involved.

The camp remained in an uproar through the night.  The next day some rode against the trading post.  They looted it of supplies but let Bordeau, his traders survive.  They made a demonstration against the Fort but did not attack it.  The Chiefs struggled to control the rage of their young men who wanted to attack the exposed wagon trains on the trail.  After three days the old cool heads prevailed, and the camp broke up with the various bands scattering to their hunting ranges.

The Army had Bordeau and his men retrieve the bodies of the slain soldiers, who they buried in a common grave except for Grattan whose mutilated body was identified only by his watch.  Eventually his remains were moved to Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas and the enlisted men were re-interred at Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Nebraska.

When word of the Grattan Massacre reached the East Coast there was national outrage and the young Lieutenant was cast as a hero and martyr.  The War Department was at first powerless to act.  The small Army was spread too thin in the West.  It would take time to assemble a punitive force to seek revenge.  They could not even rely on the traditional local militias or hastily raised volunteers from the unsettled region. 

Although there were no more battles with the Army in the next months some bands of warriors harassed the immigrant trains with intermittent raids.

Mexican War hero Col. William S. Harney was given command of the western Army assembled to quell a wide-spread native rebellion even though most tribal leaders on the Plains did not consider themselves at war.

To command the troops being painstakingly assembled Mexican War hero Col. William S. Harney had to be recalled from leave in Paris.  He returned and took command at Ft. Kearney of 600 men from the 6th Infantry, 10th Infantry, 4th Artillery, and his own 2nd US Dragoons.  The four mounted companies led by Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke and five companies of infantry under Major Albemarle Cady.  On August 24, 1855, just four days after the anniversary of the massacre, the force took to the field to find and exact retribution on the Sioux. Harney swore, “By God, I’m for battle—no peace.”

The scattered bands north of the Platte River got word of the approaching army from Indian Agent Thomas S. Twiss.  About half of them came in voluntarily to Fort Laramie and were treated as friendly.  The rest now under Standing Bear’s successor as Brulé chief Little Thunder remained at large.  They told Twiss that they considered themselves at peace with the Army, but would not surrender, as demanded, the warriors involved in the Grattan Massacre including Red Cloud. 

On September 3, 1855 Harney found a large camp on the Platte River in northern Nebraska at a place called by the natives Blue Water and by the Army Ash Hollow.  Harney’s cavalry attacked the village of about 250 trapping it against infantry pressing from the other side.  As warriors fought women, children, and the old to refuge in caves along the river into which Harney order merciless fire.  Many warriors broke out of the trap and were pursued in an hour’s long running fight through the prairie.  The Army killed 86, half of them women and children, and took 70 prisoners, few of the warriors. 

On October 25 the three warriors sought by the expedition surrendered themselves, were held for a year at Fort Leavenworth, and then released.   

Without authority Harney ordered the tribes to send representatives to a treaty council at Fort Pierre in March 1856, where forced them to sign a treaty which called for an end to harassment of the emigrant trains and consolidate the traditionally decentralized leadership of the various bands into a tribal government with Federally recognized Chiefs who could be held accountable for breaches of the peace. 

Twiss protested the high-handed action and Harney removed him from office without the legal authority to do so. Commissioner of Indian Affairs George W. Manypenny successfully lobbied the Senate to reject the treaty and Twiss was reinstated.   However even without a new treaty general peace prevailed for nearly ten years, thus ending what has been called the First Sioux War.

The Sioux revile the memory of Harney and call him Woman Killer.  Even many Whites, including Topographical Engineer Lt. Gouverneur K. Warren who witnessed the battle were appalled by Harney’s brutality.  The New York Times editorialized:

The lamentable butcheries of Indians by Harney’s command on the Plains have excited the most painful feelings.  The so-called battle was simply a massacre, but whether those Indians were really the same who have cut off emigrant trains with so many circumstances of savage cruelty, or whether it is possible to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty in retaliating these outrages, are points on which we have no reliable information.

In 1865 and 1866 increase encroachment of settlers and the beginning of construction of the Transcontinental Railroad triggered the Powder River War and Red Clouds War which ended with a new Treaty of Ft. Laramie in 1868 and the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation.

What began outside the walls of Ft. Laramie in 1854 culminated in the snows of Wounded Knee in 1890.

In turn violations of that treaty, especially the invasion of the sacred Black Hills by gold seekers led to the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 and the subsequent pursuit of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and their allies.  The buffalo herds were wiped out. The Great Sioux reservation was broken into five small remnants on desolate land.  Promised delivery of rations was chronically late and subject to theft and embezzlement by crooked Indian Agents.  That gave rise to the Ghost Dance and, ultimately, to the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

It is a long, sad, sordid story that began with that damned fool shavetail.


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