HALF-BREED, LIKE THE term “mulatto” in the slave-owning South, was a hard word to shake in the western frontier world of the 1850s when Billy Garnett was born in a Sioux lodge near Fort Laramie. Shortened to “breed” it could be a fighting word; softened to “mixed-blood” or “half-blood” it was almost a courtesy. But whatever the word, Billy Garnett was it, born smack in the middle of two peoples destined to fight, half Indian and half white. The white half came from his father, First Lieutenant Richard B. Garnett, a West Point graduate from an established Virginia family who arrived to serve with a company of infantry at Fort Laramie in 1852. In the lieutenant’s view this was not a plum assignment. A letter written to a Washington friend, Miss Pattie Brumley, describes the frontier post as “my doom.” The letter is studded with italics, quotation marks, and loops of arch wordplay. After a season in the nation’s capital the change was “so violent and sudden” that he was left feeling like someone “who has fallen from some dizzy height and is just slowly recovering his consciousness.” He misses his Washington friends “fearfully.” If he is to be “kept long in the ‘wilds,’ what will prevent me from turning an ‘outside barbarian?’ And there will be no ‘Parthenia’ I fear, to humanize and restore me to my former condition.”1
Garnett was right; no “Parthenia” came to his rescue, then or later. He never married.
But at Fort Laramie Garnett managed to occupy himself. Not long after he arrived in June he took command of the post when his company captain went on leave. Like many Army officers in isolated posts on the western frontier, Garnett found a bed partner among the Indians drawn by the easier life where whites lived. Their lodges were set up along the creeks running into the Laramie River near the post, their ponies grazed on the flats, their children, half- and full-blood alike, played noisily in the shadow of the fort. Soon after Fort Laramie had been established as a fur trading post in 1834 a band of Oglala Sioux under Bull Bear had been coaxed south from their old winter camping grounds near Bear Butte with promises of good trade. The next year the rest of the Oglala came and gradually the post and the surrounding Laramie plains, well known for their abundant game, grass, and water, became a center of Teton Sioux life. By the time Lieutenant Garnett arrived on the scene Indians had been living in sight of Fort Laramie for nearly twenty years. These Indians even had a name—Wagluhe, translated as “Loafers”—and were considered a distinct band among the Oglala.
The whites at Fort Laramie lived surrounded by Indians—not only the Wagluhe established more or less permanently around the fort, but the bands of northern Oglala and Brulé Sioux who came and went with the seasonal flow of trade, and the numerous mixed-blood children of Sioux women and their French-speaking husbands who had come west as trappers and traders. In the 1850s many of these men worked at the military post, cut hay or wood on contract for the Army, or operated trading posts along the overland trail nearby. When a man took a Sioux wife he was soon surrounded by the lodges of his wife’s numerous relatives—enough of them, sometimes, to make a small village.
Whites traveling past Fort Laramie on the overland trail were of two minds about Indians. Some were disgusted, like the Reverend P. V. Crawford, who wrote in his journal in 1851 that “the Indians seated themselves on the ground and commenced to pick lice from each other’s heads and crack them between their teeth as though they were precious morsels. There was more filth than I expect to see among human beings.” Others found the Sioux and their Cheyenne allies to be tall, clean limbed, and attractive. Addison Crane, passing by the fort just about the time Lieutenant Garnett was arriving in the summer of 1852, noted that “the Indians which I saw at the fort impressed me very favorably. They are a well-formed race—tidy and neat in their dress, and of pleasing expression of countenance.” Lodisa Frizzell, passing by Fort Laramie the same summer, said the Sioux were “the best looking Indians I ever saw … tall, strongly made, firm features, light copper color, cleanly in appearance.”2
It was from this shifting community of Indians that the thirty-five-year-old lieutenant chose the woman who became the mother of William Garnett. In the summer of 1854, when Garnett was conceived, Looks at Him was fifteen years old. Her relatives must have been numerous as her father, Fool Elk (Hehaka Gnaskiyan), had seven wives. In the eyes of the Sioux a man and a woman living together were husband and wife. Lieutenant Garnett was the second husband of Looks at Him; she had already been married to the French trader and trapper John Boye, who was the father of her first child, a girl called Sally.3
Billy Garnett was born the following spring in the bottomland along the Laramie River about twenty miles west of the fort, near the point where Sybille Creek empties into the river. When filling out official forms in later life Garnett always wrote that the date of his birth was April 25, 1855, so it is probable that someone made note of it. His father had departed by that time, transferred to New York City for a tour of recruiting duty, before moving on to Fort Pierre on the Missouri River. Billy never saw his father and did not know his name until he was fully grown, but some connection between the two survived, if only in the choice of the boy’s given name: William had been the name of both his grandfather and his uncle, Richard’s twin brother, who died the summer Billy was born during a yellow fever epidemic in Norfolk, Virginia.
Billy’s young mother may be glimpsed, indirectly, in a photo of a group of Indian women taken at Fort Laramie in 1868 by the noted Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner. They are dressed in their best—long, full dresses of trade cloth, decorated with the ivory eyeteeth of elk, highly prized by Plains Indian women. Several are sitting on the ground in the manner Sioux women considered fitting, on one thigh, with legs and feet tucked in modestly to the side. Their braids hang in front, over the breast, signifying that they are married. But something about this photo a modern observer might find odd: the women, with one exception, direct their eyes away and down. At first look you might think they were angry or offended, but it is not so. To look directly at a man, or any stranger, was considered unseemly by the Sioux. But one of the Indian women gazes directly at the photographer—not brazenly, but openly and with interest. We may imagine that Billy’s mother, Looks at Him, was like her son, in the middle—modest in the traditional way, but also frank and comfortable with the way whites behaved.4
In its first years the trading post at the junction of the Laramie and North Platte rivers had several names: Fort William, then Fort John, finally Fort Laramie after a half-mythical French Canadian fur trapper believed to have been killed in the area in 1821. The Sioux Indians came to buy guns, powder and ball, trade cloth and blankets, beads and vermillion, iron pots and steel knives, mirrors and sewing needles, and a growing list of other necessaries, among which often was whiskey. In return they traded furs and skins, especially the hides of winter-killed buffalo tanned with the hair left on and softened to an almost felt-like texture. Shipped east by the scores of thousands these buffalo robes warmed laps in horse-drawn sleighs throughout New England and the upper Midwest. Not long after the post was established it began to appear on the maps of the overland route west from the Missouri River to Oregon. When gold was discovered in California in January 1848, the trapper and explorer Kit Carson carried news of the discovery east. In the summer of 1849, anticipating a flood of travelers and fearing conflict with the Indians, the United States government purchased Fort Laramie from the American Fur Company for use as a military post.
Throughout Billy Garnett’s early childhood a large Indian and mixed-blood community lived peacefully on the Laramie plains near the fort, which was lively with the coming and going of soldiers, Indians, trappers, and travelers—especially in June when the wagon trains reached a midsummer peak. Laramie was the halfway point for travelers hurrying to get over the mountains to California and Oregon before the snow began to fly. By mid-July traffic began to fall off. In the early years, when the gold fever was at its height, Army officers counted as many as fifty thousand travelers passing by the fort. Numbers were down by the time Billy was born, and the decline continued year by year until the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad ended it for good in 1869. But during the 1850s and early ’60s Fort Laramie was the great meeting ground of Indians and whites on the western frontier. The noted saddlemaker John Collins, on a first trip west in April 1864 and later Fort Laramie’s licensed trader, confessed himself “greatly surprised at the number of well-dressed squaws about the post. The half-breed children showed the ‘early settlement of the country by whites.’ ” 5
Everything changed in November 1864 when a village of southern Cheyenne and Arapahos was attacked by an undisciplined force of civilian militia from the newly established community, soon to be city, of Denver, Colorado. Some two hundred Indians were killed, most of them women and children. The Sioux were infuriated by this unprovoked attack on their friends and allies, which was followed the next spring by open war across the central and northern plains. Fort Laramie was not spared the bitterness between white and Indian. Twice the summer he was ten years old, Billy Garnett was present when the soldiers hanged Indians at the fort; in both cases the victims were accused of raping white women. Billy knew the first man, a Cheyenne named Big Crow who was camped near the fort while his two sons were attending school. The charge against him was lodged by a married woman whose husband had been killed at the time she was captured. Ransomed by friends and on her way home, she passed through Fort Laramie. There she saw Big Crow in camp with some soldiers, and she accused him of “leading on” the Indians who had killed her husband and raped her.
Of this event Billy remembered two things: the fact that Big Crow had never been out with the hostile Indians and had been living at the fort right along; and the manner of his execution. On April 23, 1865, as a crowd watched, soldiers led Big Crow from the guardhouse, wrapped him in chains, and hanged him from a newly erected scaffold just outside the fort. Billy was watching from the crowd when a squad of soldiers fired two volleys into the body of the writhing man.
A month later it happened again. The commander of Fort Laramie, Colonel Thomas Moonlight, erected a second scaffold near the first and hanged two members of the Tapisleca, the Spleen band of the Oglala, Two Face and Black Foot, blamed for mistreatment of a white woman actually captured by the Cheyenne. In fact, as Moonlight was informed, Two Face and Black Foot had purchased the woman from the offending Cheyenne and themselves brought her to the fort. It made no difference. Moonlight brushed aside objections from the post trader, who knew the facts. “You think there will be a massacre,” Moonlight said. “Let me tell you there will be two Indians who do not take part in it. Goodday, sir.” The two Oglala went to the scaffold singing brave songs. Moonlight ordered that the bodies be left hanging by their chains “as an example to all Indians of like character.” Many months passed before the bodies rotted and fell to the ground.6
With tensions rising along the overland trail, the longtime trapper and trader James Bordeaux, a leading figure among the Missouri French, moved his family to the fort from his unprotected trading post on the North Platte east of Laramie. But even after “all the mixed-blood families camped at Laramie, it was not always gloomy,” Bordeaux’s daughter Susan later told a writing friend. She was only two years younger than Billy Garnett, but their mothers came from different Sioux bands.
We got rations regularly. The soldiers would all chip in and get up a dance. There were many fiddlers among the half-breeds and soldiers. There were quite a number of half-breed girls, all dressed up in bright calico with ribbons in their hair and on their waists, that fly around in a quadrille as well as anybody, stepping to the music in their moccasined feet … Stick candy and ginger snaps were passed around. We were just as happy and enjoyed it just as much as if we were dancing in marble halls with chandeliers.7
Wedged into Fort Laramie was a schoolroom, along with the sutler’s store; the blacksmith and carpenter shops; the parade ground and stables; the officers’ quarters, called Bedlam, and the enlisted men’s barracks; “suds row,” where enlisted men’s wives did laundry; the hospital; the adjutant’s office; and the guardhouse, where enlisted men with loaded weapons wore a path in the hard-packed ground of the post, pacing out a tour of guard duty by day and by night. In that school was a teacher—“not a Catholic,” according to Billy Garnett8—and seated there to be taught in 1866 or 1867 was a class of Indian and mixed-blood children. Billy at eleven or twelve was among them, left by his mother at the fort to get some schooling. Likely he was staying with relatives. Later he could both read and write, but he did not learn how at Fort Laramie. He stuck at that school for only two days and then lit out, making his own way nearly seventy miles down the North Platte River, all the way to Scott’s Bluff, where his mother was living with her third husband.
Among the Sioux, the children and the buffalo-skin lodge belonged to the woman; men might move on, but the family remained. After Lieutenant Richard Garnett moved away in the late 1850s, Looks at Him and her two children returned for a time to her first husband, father of Sally, John Boye—or Bouyer, as it came to be spelled. In later life, Billy told a writer that “Bouyer bought my mother back”—probably from her father, Fool Elk. But that arrangement did not last long either; sometime during the 1860s Bouyer was killed by Indians, and Looks at Him was soon attached to a new white man knocking about the Laramie area, John Hunter.
At various times Billy Garnett referred to several brothers and sisters with differing last names. One of them was called “Puss Garner,” according to John Bratt, an Englishman who came to America in the early 1860s and made his way overland to the Fort Laramie area. Puss Garner was probably one and the same as Sally Boyer, Billy’s older half sister. In 1867, Bratt, then twenty-five, took a clerk’s job at a road ranch attached to Fort Mitchell, a small Army post just west of Scott’s Bluff and about seventy miles down the North Platte River from Fort Laramie. The term “ranch” at that time meant a stopping place along a main-traveled road where food, supplies, and a night’s lodging might be obtained. One of the owners of the ranch was John Hunter, a trader, freighter, convicted seller of whiskey to Indians, and general all-around exploiter of frontier opportunity who lived near the ranch buildings in a skin lodge with Looks at Him. Nearby in her own lodge lived Looks at Him’s aged mother, Gli Naziwin (Comes and Stands Woman or Antelope Woman)—seventy plus, in Bratt’s view.9
“Billy was then about 12 years old and a manly little boy,” Bratt wrote.10 Another white man working around Fort Mitchell that summer said Billy liked to hang around the soldiers cutting hay for the fort, and that he was “a very talkative boy.”11 Bratt described Billy’s sister Puss as “a beautiful half-breed.” He noted that she was ardently courted by two men working in the vicinity: Bob Mason, who soon departed for Texas to buy cattle although he was “very much in love with her and promised to come back some day and make her his squaw wife”; and John Duval, who was disqualified, in the view of Antelope Woman, by the fact that he was a Negro. It is clear Bratt was a little sweet on Puss himself. He describes her appearance on one gala evening, when the stage had pulled in at the ranch and the place was lively with “officers, soldiers, stage drivers and tenders, Indians and half-breeds, bullwhackers and mule skinners.” Puss had often hung around the store with her little sisters and brothers, but on this night she was
rigged up in all her finery and looked very pretty. Her coal-black eyes looked like bright diamonds. She wore a beaded buckskin jacket, short skirt, leggins and moccasins, with a new red blanket thrown around her shoulders. Her long black hair was plainted in one long braid which hung down her back … Her features were regular, her teeth white and even. She stood between her mother and Grandmother Antelope.12
What’s remarkable about this simple description is the fact that Bratt is describing a young Sioux woman without quite knowing it—the single braid down the back is a sign she was of marriageable age but unmarried; the “buckskin jacket” would be more accurately called a yoke, a kind of cape of deer or antelope skin, often heavily beaded or quilled in a wide band across the chest and shoulders. This, with the skirt and the leggings, was the entirely traditional dress of a girl on a dance night. We may imagine that this young woman was close to the age, and probably looked very much like, the fifteen-year-old girl who had caught the eye of Lieutenant Richard Garnett. But despite the fact Bratt called her “Garner” she was not the daughter of the officer.
For a time John Hunter and Bratt were involved, in part as allies, in a complex struggle for ownership and control of the ranch, which survived on the Army’s sufferance. It is clear that Hunter was an equally hard man to live or deal with. “John was cross-eyed, but could shoot straight,” Bratt wrote.
He could also drink bad whiskey, play poker, swear, and was treacherous and cold-blooded as an Indian, yet with all this he had a winning, persuasive way about him that usually succeeded in taking the last dollar from the soldiers, and sometimes the officers, the stage-tenders, freighters, bullwhackers and mule-skinners.13
About the time the lovestruck courtiers were lining up outside Looks at Him’s lodge, Hunter triggered a fight with the Army when he persuaded his partner, Jack Sibson, to sell whiskey to a couple of soldiers from the fort. An hour later a sergeant arrived with a telegram from the commander at Fort Laramie ordering Sibson to vacate the premises. While Hunter was trying to work this maneuver to his advantage things deteriorated at home. The twelve-year-old Billy Garnett came to see Bratt one day to say that Hunter was “mean to his mother, brothers and sisters, his grandmother and himself; that he often whipped them with a quirt; that he had done this last night and that he [Billy] would not put up with it another minute.”14 Billy asked if he might borrow a gun and some ammunition. Bratt gave him two revolvers and fifty cartridges.
Some hours later, about three-quarters drunk, Hunter came rapping on the window and kicking on the ranch door, demanding that Bratt deliver up his Indian wife and family. He was certain all were hiding within. Bratt had no idea where Billy had taken his mother and the rest. He said so, and the next morning watched Hunter mount his favorite horse, cast about to pick up his family’s tracks, and then disappear up the trail. Hunter found them soon enough, staying some miles along in the direction of Fort Laramie at the ranch of another old plainsman with an Indian wife, Antoine Reynal. What Hunter said is unknown, but the meeting did not go well. Perhaps Looks at Him was not ready to forgive the quirting, or perhaps Billy blocked the door with his two revolvers. In any event Hunter came back alone. Eventually the dispute was solved in the Indian way: Hunter distributed presents to his offended family and relatives and, after promises he would behave better in the future, the quarrel was patched up and they resumed living together.
In the fall of 1867, John Bratt gave up his clerk’s job at the road ranch near Fort Mitchell and headed off for Pine Bluffs to join an outfit cutting railroad ties for the Union Pacific Railroad line. He left in mid-September, riding a thoroughbred mare that had belonged to Bob Mason, the man who swore he would return from Texas to marry Puss Garner. About the same time John Hunter sold out his interest in the ranch and bought another near Fort Laramie, an infamous place of entertainment formally called the Six Mile Ranch for its distance from the fort, but known as the Hog Ranch by the soldiers who frequented the women there. The place was described a few years later by one of General Crook’s aides-de-camp, Lieutenant John Gregory Bourke, who recorded in his diary that on mild afternoons he and another of Crook’s staff, Lieutenant Walter S. Schuyler, would go riding,
taking the best road from the post … [past] a nest of ranches … tenanted by as hardened and depraved a set of wretches as could be found on the face of the globe. Each of these establishments was equipped with a rum-mill of the worst kind and contained from three to half a dozen Cyprians, virgins whose lamps were always burning brightly in expectancy of the upcoming bridegroom, and who lured to destruction the soldiers of the garrison. In all my experience, I have never seen a lower, more beastly set of people of both sexes.15
In the decade between 1867 and 1877 eight people were murdered at the Six Mile Ranch, including two owners. The first of them was Billy Garnett’s stepfather, John Hunter. The occasion of the quarrel was again whiskey. In August 1868, Hunter had been summoned to the office of the post commander and banned from entering the military reservation “on any pretence whatever.” Some fast talk got the ban lifted, but that fall Hunter told one lie too many when he was caught selling whiskey to some Army teamsters at the post. When the Army came to protest, Hunter said the guilty party was another freighter and trader named Bud Thompson. In October, angry at the lie, Thompson killed Hunter.16 With his death Looks at Him, now in her middle twenties, was once again cast adrift without a protector. It was common among Indian families in times of hardship to separate for a time; children might go to live with grandparents or an aunt. After the killing of Hunter, Looks at Him sent her son Billy off with two of her brothers. We know that Billy had been on his own once before, in the spring of 1867 at Fort Laramie when he was left behind to attend school. It was probably late that same year when he left his mother and his brothers and sisters again. He spent that winter and all the following year living with the Sioux on the plains near the Black Hills, sometimes with the band of Red Cloud, sometimes with others.17
It was near the headwaters of the Cheyenne River in the summer of 1868 that Billy had been playing in the Oglala camp with some Indian boys when they noticed the men on horseback. Passing around the camp, the men gathered up four famous warriors and took them to the big council lodge in the center of the camp circle. There the four men were seated on buffalo robes in the center of the shaded area within the lodge. At one end of the lodge the elder chiefs sat. In front of the chiefs were the leading warriors of the tribe. Along either side were younger men. Watching from just beyond the inner circle were the wives of many of the councilors, waiting to serve a traditional feast of buffalo and dog stew. Next came the mass of men and women of all ages who made up the camp, singing and calling out. Beyond them, on the very edges of the crowd, was a throng of children, Billy Garnett among them, peeping and peering and craning their necks to see.
When it was time for the chiefs to speak the crowd fell silent. The four men seated on the robes had been selected by the Hanskaska, the chiefs’ society. All were famed as fighters, and all were veterans of the Bozeman War: Man That Owns a Sword, American Horse, Young Man Afraid of His Horses, and Crazy Horse. At least three, perhaps all four, had been selected as decoys in the Battle of One Hundred Slain. According to He Dog, the northern Oglala, successors to the Smoke people, had divided twice in recent years, first into bands led by Man Afraid of His Horses (the Payabya or Payabyapi, or Below) and by Red Cloud (the Ite Sica, or Bad Faces). Later, the first group divided again, into a northern half led by He Dog, Big Road, Holy Bald Eagle, and Red Cloud, and a southern half, which on this occasion, in the summer of 1868, had gathered to appoint the four Ongloge Un to lead the band. When the candidates were all present the chiefs proceeded to instruct them in what was required of Ongloge Un, the Shirt Wearers. He Dog said these instructions were given by Smoke, son of the old chief who had died in 1864; the young Smoke was also a man of influence and the father of five sons, including three who became prominent: No Neck, Charging Bear, and Woman Dress. Garnett later recalled,
The speaker told them that they had been selected … to govern the people in camp and on the march, to see that order was preserved, that violence was not committed; that all families and persons had their rights, and that none imposed on the others … To maintain peace and justice … they first counselled and advised, then commanded, and if their authority was not then respected, they resorted to blows, and if these failed to secure obedience … they killed the offenders without further parley, as was their legal right.
These rules were well known and understood by all the tribe, but in addition there were some instructions that were secret in nature. He Dog, who was made a Shirt Wearer a few years later, alluded to these instructions:
When we were made chiefs, we were bound by very strict rules as to what we should do and what not to do, which were very hard for us to follow. I have never spoken to any but a very few persons of what they made us promise then. I have always kept the oaths I made then, but Crazy Horse did not.18
Among the difficult instructions were rules requiring chiefs to put aside envious or dismissive thoughts of other band leaders; to confront enemies without fear, believing it is better to leave your body naked where it falls, stripped for battle, than to die old and rot inside a wrapping of buffalo hide on a scaffold; to “look after the poor, especially the widows and orphans”; to be bighearted, think of the good of the people, and not give in to anger, even if your own relatives are lying bloody on the ground in front of you; and, perhaps most difficult of all, to practice restraint, stay away from other men’s women, and subdue sexual jealousy or possessiveness, even though—as Oglala elders put it to scholars years later—“Many dogs go to your tipi to urinate.”19
Also present on this occasion was Black Shield, later called Calico (Mnihuhan), then about twenty-five years old. Calico was a nephew of Two Face, one of the men Billy Garnett saw hanged at Fort Laramie in 1865. Calico himself had been lucky to escape hanging in the incident, which helped spark the Bozeman War. According to Calico, after the instructions had been given the chiefs presented to each man a special shirt made from the skin of the bighorn sheep. As the candidates stood there in the center of the people, Calico said,
Four men were then called who had led war-parties that had returned after striking an effective blow at the enemy without a man or a horse being wounded; four others, also, who had counted first honors in battle. The first four sewed the hair on the newly made shirts; then the other four sewed the feathers on: the first feather on the right shoulder of each shirt, the second on the left, the third on the right elbow, the fourth on the left.20
Shortly after this ceremony, the Oglala separated, going different ways. According to He Dog, many of the Oglala determined to remain in the north with the northern Cheyenne and some of the Arapahos, to go on living as they liked and to defend the Powder and Tongue river country, the last good buffalo country of the Sioux. Among this group, Crazy Horse, Little Hawk, Holy Bald Eagle, and Big Road were the leading men. They intended to keep away from the whites.
A second group, probably more than half of the Oglala, went south to the country around Fort Laramie with chiefs who had signed the treaty, including American Horse, Young Man Afraid of His Horses, and Man That Owns a Sword—three of the four new Shirt Wearers. Red Cloud was the leading man in this second group, which now intended to live close to the whites. By the end of 1868, or early the next year, Billy Garnett followed the Red Cloud people south with his uncles and was soon living again in the lodge of his mother, close to Fort Laramie.