Praise, Condemnation for Massacre of Sioux Indians
It did not take the Native Americans of the northern plains long to realize the value of treaties signed by the white men. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie sought to maintain peace by compensating the Plains tribes for allowing pioneers on the Oregon Trail to pass through their lands. However, soldiers from Fort Laramie broke the treaty and murdered a chief over the matter of a single cow.
Three years after the treaty was signed, a lame cow wandered into a Brule and Oglala Sioux camp and was killed for food by a warrior named High Forehead. The cow’s owner demanded compensation, so the chief, Conquering Bear, offered any one of the 60 horses in his own herd. The owner refused and instead demanded $25. The Treaty of Fort Laramie stipulated that disputes such as this were not military affairs and should be settled by the nearby Indian agent.
Disregarding the treaty, 30 soldiers led by a young, hot-headed second lieutenant named John Grattan, fresh out of West Point and spoiling for a fight with the Indians, rode into Conquering Bear’s camp and demanded the arrest of High Forehead. When the chief refused and stood up to end the negotiations, he was shot in the back and killed by one of the soldiers. Enraged by the murder of their chief, the Indians killed Grattan and 29 of his men, with the sole surviving soldier later dying in the hospital at Fort Laramie.
The press worked itself into a frenzy about the “Grattan Massacre,” and President Franklin Pierce appointed Colonel William S. Harney to “whip the Indians” to avenge Grattan. One year later Harney got that revenge, attacking a Sioux camp in an engagement history calls the Battle of Bluewater Creek (or the Battle of Ash Hollow), on Sept. 3, 1855. But this was no battle—this time, it was a real massacre.
Harney with his 600 troopers found a camp of 250 Brule Sioux in a place called “Blue Waters” along the Platte River. After pretending to want to negotiate, the soldiers fell upon the village, indiscriminately butchering men, women and children. More than 80 villagers were slaughtered, many of them women and children, with untold numbers wounded. Over 50 women and children were taken prisoner, and all of the village’s equipment and supplies of dried buffalo meat for the upcoming winter were destroyed. The village was wiped out.
The first Indian to come upon the massacre site was a young man who would later be the great leader called “Crazy Horse.” He told his people what he found, how many of the victims were women and children, and how all of the bodies had been horribly mutilated. From that moment on, the Sioux called Harney “Woman Killer.”
The following two newspaper articles (both printed in Columbus, Ohio) show the power of the press to do both harm and good. The first was typical of many articles praising Harney and his men for committing the massacre, calling the slaughter “one of the most gallant and complete victories ever obtained over an Indian enemy.” The second article, however, represents the minority view—those who were appalled at what Harney had done—declaring: “Gen. Harney is a brutal wretch, and deserves universal and eternal execration.”
[Note: the following articles refer to Harney as “General” because he was given a brevet (temporary) promotion to brigadier general during the Mexican-American War. His active rank at the time of the Sioux massacre was colonel.]
This article was printed by the St. Louis Republican on Sept. 24, and reprinted by the Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio) on Sept. 27, 1855:
Great Battle with the Indians—80 to 100 Killed—the Indians Completely Routed—All Their Camp Equipage and Provisions Captured—American Loss Trifling
Gen. Harney has signalized his advent into the Sioux country by one of the most gallant and complete victories ever obtained over an Indian enemy. The victory is so thorough as to strike terror into the whole of the savage tribes occupying that extended section of country. Still, there may be hard fighting to do before they are completely subdued. As yet, we are without details, our own letters not having come to hand. But other letters, immediately from the battleground, have been received in this city, from which we gather some of the details of the battle.
The engagement took place on the 3d inst., at the Sand Hills, on the north fork of the Platte. The entire force of the United States troops who participated in the engagement is stated at four hundred and fifty men. Maj. Cady was in command of five companies of the 6th Infantry, Col. Cooke had command of two companies of the Second Dragoons, one company of infantry, mounted, and a company of artillery. The whole force [was] under the command of Gen. Harney.
The battle commenced early in the morning, and lasted several hours. Gen. Harney ordered Col. Cooke’s command to place themselves in position some distance in advance of the infantry, and so as to come down with full force upon the enemy. This movement was successfully performed about three o’clock in the morning. The engagement was then brought on by the infantry, who attacked and drove the Indians in the direction of Col. Cooke’s command. They were of course ready and eager for the fray, and commenced a desperate attack upon the enemy. They soon routed them, and a running fight followed for some ten miles. At a point of rocks, a portion of the Indians are said to have made a stand, and to have fought with great desperation. But they were completely routed—having seventy or eighty men killed, and fifty women and children taken prisoners. They suffered also the loss of all their camp plunder—a large amount of dried buffalo meat, their lodges, and fifty horses. The Indian women, it is said, fought furiously.
On the part of Gen. Harney’s force, five or six were killed, and as many wounded. No officers were among the killed.
The Indians who were concerned in this battle were the Brule Sioux of the Platte—the same who were concerned in the massacre of Lieut. Grattan’s command, near Fort Laramie, and the murder of the mail party, and who have frequently defied the United States to meet them in battle. Among the papers found with them, were the way bills of the mail which they had captured.
The letters speak of the engagement as a very gallant and well conducted affair, as it undoubtedly was, to be successful in killing so many of the enemy and the capture of their women and children.
This war will not end here. The Indians will not be satisfied with a single engagement, though the result has been most disastrous to them. It is not probable that they will again risk a general engagement, but their policy will be to annoy and harass our troops, by inviting pursuit into distant and inaccessible portions of the country, and there giving them battle. But they will find General Harney, and the forces under his command, ready to meet and chastise them at any point and under all circumstances.
We hope to receive full accounts of this battle by today’s mail. All that we have stated is from authentic sources.
This article condemning Harney was printed by the Ohio State Journal (Columbus, Ohio) on Oct. 17, 1855:
Gen. Harney’s Massacre
By a letter from a soldier who was engaged in the Battle of Blue River, where the United States troops, on the 3d of September, massacred near one hundred Indians, including a good many women and children, we learn that the conduct of Harney, on that occasion, was most atrocious and bloodthirsty. The Indians were anxious to treat, and willing to do all in their power to remedy the mischief that roving parties of their young men had perpetrated, but Harney was resolved to murder them, and after detaining them in a pretended conference, until he had surrounded them, broke up the sham negotiations, and slaughtered men, women and children in the most barbarous manner. The hideous ferocity of the murder was only equaled by the more than savage villainy of the violations of all rules of honorable war, to get the poor Indians hemmed in by his forces. Gen. Harney is a brutal wretch, and deserves universal and eternal execration. The Battle of Blue River is more disgraceful to the country than the bombardment of Greytown, or any other of the pusillanimous and reckless war-like performances of the Administration. About fifty Indian women and children were taken prisoners at Blue River, and kept closely guarded. They said to the soldiers that there was no danger whatever that they would run away, for as the men were dead and their winter stores gone, who would kill meat for them? They must live with the soldiers or starve.