The wild devils of the north.

AMONG THE INDIANS APPROACHING the agencies along the White River in August 1875 was a short, muscular warrior who had been living in the north with Crazy Horse’s Hunkpatila band of Oglala, a man of two names. Indians seem to have known him generally as Charging Bear (Mato Watakpe) but in Army and newspaper reports he was mostly called Little Big Man (Wicasa Tanka Ciqala), sometimes altered to Little Bad Man, possibly in error, or perhaps in the same sarcastic spirit that prompted a Chicago Tribunereporter to refer to Spotted Tail as “Variegated Caudal.”1 A white rancher who met the short, muscular Oglala at a sun dance in 1881 remarked that, “while owning a scant five feet in height, [he] had the breadth and depth of chest, and length and power of arms of a giant.”2 Little Big Man came to the White River country with two hundred lodges of northern Indians, not out of respect for Young Man Afraid, who brought the invitation, or to meet and talk in council with the Allison commission, but to ensure that no sale of the Black Hills took place.

Of all the Indians who played an important role in the Sioux war or the events leading to the killing of Crazy Horse none left fewer traces than Little Big Man. About the others there are often stories, the text of remarks in council, detailed genealogies, sometimes drawings depicting hunting or war exploits, even the transcripts of interviews or written accounts of ceremonies and religious beliefs. Little Big Man’s passage through events is central and vivid but brief. He was said to have killed the white rancher Levi Powell with his own rifle in March 1872, but the name of Little Big Man did not enter the written record until a year later, in the annual report of the agent for the Oglala, J. W. Daniels, who placed him second among the leaders of hostiles who had been attacking whites along the Platte—Crazy Horse, Little Big Man, and Little Hawk.3 This report made slight impression. Two years later military officers, including General Sheridan, thought they were hearing about Crazy Horse for the first time. About Little Big Man’s origins it is reported that he was one of twins born about 1840 to Yellow Thunder, an important Oglala chief met by Francis Parkman in 1846, and Her Holy Breath. His twin sister, Tocha Cesli, married a white man at Fort Laramie about 1860. A brother, variously known as Poor Bear or Fishgut (Howatezi), scouted for the Army in the mid-1860s, but was later accused of numerous thefts and killings, including the murder of two pregnant white women on the Sweetwater in July 1873. Army officers at Camp Robinson knew this brother as Sioux Jim and called for his arrest on sight.4

As the Indians gathered along the White River near the Red Cloud Agency in September 1875, Little Big Man soon attracted attention for his threats to block a sale of the Black Hills. This friend of Crazy Horse was not alone in his determination to hold on to the hills. Early in the summer the Tokala or Kit Fox society, a men’s group that performed the policing duties of the akicita, formally vowed to enforce the consensus of the chiefs. No sale would be permitted until the commission agreed to the central demand of the Indians. Any man who broke ranks and touched the pen would be killed—a threat all knew was serious. This core demand had been prompted by President Grant’s threatening remark in Washington that the rations given to the Indians could be taken away at any moment. That was not the way the Sioux had understood the Treaty of 1868. It was the whites who wanted the Indians to live at an agency. How could they do this unless food was provided for them? Without government rations they must roam and hunt or starve.

The author of the Indians’ countermove was Red Dog, a longtime chief reported to have scars on his body from eighteen wounds received in battle, and father of two noted warriors, Fills the Pipe and Kills a Hundred. Originally a Hunkpapa, Red Dog had married into the Oyuhpe band of the Oglala and lived with them thereafter. In 1870 he had gone to Washington with Red Cloud on his first trip; some people said it was Red Dog who persuaded Red Cloud to move the agency to White River. In July, he had gone to the agencies on the Missouri with Slow Bull, a son-in-law of Red Cloud, to urge the Hunkpapas and Miniconjou to meet with the commissioners, and he was often asked to speak for Red Cloud in council.5 At a meeting that summer it was Red Dog who summed up in a phrase what would become the chiefs’ position:

Chief Red Dog got up and told them that if they did not sell the Hills, the whites would take them from them without paying for them. Red Dog told them to let the Hills go into the hands of the Great Father … till some of our children could read and write; that these would figure the value of the Black Hills with the Great Father and sell to the government … and let it pay the Indians to the seventh generation.6

The commissioners—Senator Allison and seven others—had planned to hold the council on the Missouri River, perhaps at Fort Sully, but that hope was soon scrapped. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail and their followers flatly refused to go east for the meeting. The first commissioners to reach the White River country came in July and then lingered for the next two months waiting for the Indians to arrive, to agree on a place to meet, and to decide on a day to begin talking. At the end of August the full commission boarded a train in Omaha for Cheyenne, then traveled north by Army ambulance to meet in council, in the words of the Chicago Tribune reporter James Howard, “with the dusky deadbeats now fattening upon the bounty of the government.”7 Howard, who sometimes signed his stories as “Phocion” after the Athenian statesman, believed that mixed-blood interpreters were inflating Indian hopes for the price gold-hungry whites would pay for the Black Hills. This made him angry. In his view no special payment was necessary at all. He believed that the “Sherman treaty” of 1868 needed a modest revision only—subtract the Black Hills from the great Sioux reservation in return for continued rations, and announce, not negotiate, the amendment. But the Tribune’s man on the ground feared that the “obstinacy” of the “hungry cormorants” might make it impossible for the commission to write a new treaty at all. In that event, he warned, the northern Indians, disappointed in their dream of a “Big Bonanza treaty,” might turn to fighting.

Not all Army officers feared this outcome, Howard reported.

General Crook is of the opinion that the Sioux desire just that sort of performance; and furthermore, that a good sound drubbing is the only thing that will make the insolent fellows keep their proper station. In the spring, not less than 30,000 miners will go into the hills, whether a treaty is made or not … then it would be “nip and tuck” between the miners and savages, and the miners would hold their own, and the Hills too.8

“Good sound drubbing” was Phocion’s variation on a frontier theme. Whites more generally said the Indians needed a “whipping,” by which they meant the sort of crushing and bloody military defeat required to break the Indians’ fighting spirit for good and all. Variations of the word “whipping” appear repeatedly in letters, memoirs, news stories, and official military dispatches. The word is used so often it seems clear that what frontier military officers meant by “whipping” was, in fact, whipping. Rare was the soldier who had not been whipped in his youth. General Sheridan described the beatings he received as an Ohio schoolboy on the third page of his Personal Memoirs. The school was run by “an old-time Irish ‘master’ ” who practiced the biblical dictum that “to spare the rod was to spoil the child.” If some schoolboy offended the order of his classroom, Patrick McNally would “apply the switch to the whole school” until the guilty party was delivered up. The lesson stuck. In the late 1850s, following McNally’s lead, Sheridan hung nine Cascade Indians for its “salutary effect” on the tribe, caring little for the facts in each individual case. One of the nine had saved the lives of whites with a timely warning that very morning, but he dangled from a cottonwood tree with the others. Sheridan was ready to do the same to warring Cheyenne in Texas in the late 1860s, urging in an official paper that the Indians “be soundly whipped, and the ringleaders in the present trouble hung, their ponies killed, and such destruction of their property as will make them very poor.”9

Ulysses Grant’s childhood was also shadowed by a schoolmaster “with his long beech switch always in his hand. It was not always the same one either. Switches were brought in bundles from a beech wood near the schoolhouse … [and] often a whole bundle would be used up in a single day.” Grant insisted he “never had any hard feelings.” It was the custom of the time, he said. But how else to explain the freshness of Grant’s feelings fifty years later, if they were not hard? Captain Anson Mills, who served under Crook, remembered teachers from the same mold in the log schoolhouse he attended in Indiana from the age of six. “These schoolmasters were almost invariably Irish, and governed entirely by fear, punishing cruelly,” Mills wrote. “Of course the children became stupid, uninterested, and learned slowly.”10

Stupid, uninterested, and slow is the way to describe a broken spirit, and that is what Phocion hoped the Army might impose on the prideful Sioux. Howard’s low opinion of Indians in general was common on the frontier; he placed them in “the class known as cumberers of the earth … [who] should be cut down.” Did he have extermination in mind? Many whites certainly did, and said so. Howard probably shared their view without imagining the details, but in his dispatches to the Tribune he tempered his scorn for the “scalp-lifters,” urging only that they be treated firmly as recalcitrant children with heavy recourse to the beech switch.

But forcing the Indians to mind was not so easy. The commissioners reached the Red Cloud Agency on September 4 but failed to bring the chiefs to bay for three weeks. First came a protracted dispute over a site for the talks. Spotted Tail had interpreted an earlier remark by one of the commissioners, the Reverend Samuel D. Hinman, as a promise to hold the council on Chadron Creek, about thirty miles east of the agency. Red Cloud declined to ride so far. Spotted Tail insisted. The commission asked the two chiefs and some close associates11 to resolve the matter. They failed. Finally, after much palaver and delay, Senator Allison ruled that the meeting would be held six or eight miles east of the Red Cloud Agency on the bank of a creek known as Little White Clay, at a spot marked by a lone cottonwood tree.

One date was set for the general council, then another. By mid-September as many as fifteen or twenty thousand Indians had arrived, and their camps stretched forty miles along the White River. The grassy hills back from the river were covered with vast herds of Indian ponies—as many as fifty to a lodge, scores of thousands in all, serving as a kind of ticking clock. The commission had arranged for contractors to drive several thousand cattle to the agency to feed the Indians, but the grass could not long sustain so many ponies, and the Indians from the Missouri River were particularly anxious to head back across the prairies before the onset of winter—which in that part of the world could arrive with a blizzard more or less at any moment after the first week of September.

As the weeks went by the Indians debated endlessly among themselves. James Howard and the other reporters sent dispatches recording the steady escalation in the price the Sioux thought would be right for the Black Hills. Sometimes it was expressed in dollars—six million, thirty million, seventy million, a hundred million. As the asking price went up white officials insisted that the value of the hills was going down; it was said that a second expedition under Professor Walter P. Jenney of the New York School of Mines had failed to confirm Custer’s reports of gold from the grass roots down. By the time the Indians and the commissioners were at last ready to sit down and talk they were in the midst of a small city. The old-time traders like Nick Janis and James Bordeaux who had lived for decades with the Indians said they had never seen a greater number gathered in one place—not at Fort Laramie when the treaty was signed in 1868, not even on Horse Creek in 1851, when Indians came from all the tribes on the northern plains for the wakpamni—the great distribution. In 1875, some said twenty thousand Indians were camped along the White River, some thought more.

To fill newspaper columns before the negotiations began Howard offered his readers a diet of wild Indians, beginning with Indian women, always an object of fascination for white men with a pen.

Many of the warriors brought their favorite squaws with them, who, being favorites, of course had a monopoly of all the fine store clothes. They presented … an appearance quite romantic and fascinating, showing an independence of the use of soap that would scarcely be allowed in a belle of [Chicago’s] Prairie Avenue. Some of these dusky Cleopatras wore [buffalo] robes worth from two to five horses … Some of the warriors claimed as many as four wives, but the majority content themselves with two—one for work, and the other as a sort of personal servant and mistress.12

Howard’s ethnographic fieldwork next took in the dances held by the Indians inside the stockade of the Red Cloud Agency. “Some old women, above 80, kept up the noise and stiff-legged jump for hours,” Howard reported. But what really caught his attention was a war dance in which, he wrote, “many of the warriors appeared almost naked.” Painted in “hideous” fashion, they sang of their victories and shook the scalps they had ripped from enemies. In the great crowd of Indians peacefully camped along the riverbanks Howard singled out Little Big Man’s group, the wild Indians from the north who went armed at all times. “You can scarcely approach one,” Howard wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “save in the company of a more civilized Indian; and then you always find the wild individual nervously fingering a navy revolver or repeating rifle.”13 Naked warriors, scalps, nervous men with guns—all contributed to the frisson of danger Howard described for his readers. “Another noble red man,” Howard reported, “sports a necklace made of the nails and ends of fingers of whites killed. Nice, ain’t it?”

If that wasn’t enough to prove the Indians savage, Howard offered up the example of Little Big Man, who had once, he says, killed six Crow in a single day—three women and three children. In the great camp surrounding the agency, furthermore, the chief “goes whistling about”—but not with the usual whistle strung around the neck of Sioux warriors, made from the wing bone of an eagle and blown in war to frighten enemies, and by sun dancers as they beg for pity from the spirit being. Little Big Man’s whistle, Howard tells us soberly, “was made out of one of the bones of the forearm of a white woman killed in 1868.” Even that is not horror enough. Another warrior, the Tribune informed its readers, wore a “highly-ornamented robe … the fringe of which was composed entirely of white women’s hair, wavy, soft, and silken black, brown and auburn in its shades.” These trophies came from “the massacre of some emigrant families”; the women had been “outraged and killed,” and their children “abandoned to death by exposure.”14

Did Howard really believe what he was writing? Was any of it true? In a single paragraph, the Tribune’s correspondent has concentrated all the classic horror stories of the frontier, and all had been true somewhere, sometime, somehow. Very likely Howard did see a necklace of human fingers. A year later soldiers would find the necklace when they attacked an Indian camp—Indian fingers, it would turn out, but fingers all the same. It is the race of these trophies that gives the game away: white fingers, the silken locks of white women, the forearm bone of a white woman, emigrant women “outraged.” It seems clear that all this horror was fed to Howard for a reason, and was preliminary to a land grab from the Indians.15

But no land grab occurred. The Indians proved maddeningly elusive. Even after they agreed on a place to meet, and a time to meet, and the subject to meet about, they would never quite pin down what they were willing to sell or what they wanted to be paid for it. The opening session on Monday, September 20, achieved little. Red Cloud, still unhappy about the site, refused to attend, and in the middle of Allison’s opening speech Red Dog interrupted to say, “It will take seven days for us to study in our minds about this, and we will now hold a council among ourselves.”16

Red Dog was as good as his word; the Indians took a week to decide what to tell the impatient commissioners, who had a hard time understanding what the problem was. All should have become clear on September 23, when a struggle between Sioux factions at one dicey moment threatened to bring open violence. But the moment passed, and Allison continued to press. On Sunday the 26th he told twenty of the principal chiefs they must come prepared to negotiate on the following day. They did. Some three hundred chiefs and leading men assembled by the lone tree on the bank of Little White Clay Creek early Monday afternoon. The commissioners were shaded from the sun by a tent fly. The cavalry was out in force to ensure the peace. Red Cloud told the commissioners he wanted one of his own people—he pointed out a mixed-blood among the Indians—to write down all that was said, and then added that he had selected Red Dog to speak for the Oglala. The heart of his remarks was paraphrased in the Chicago Tribune:

Red Dog said six generations of Indians had been fed by the government. His people now want guarantees of food and clothing seven generations more. He said the Indians were ready to make a treaty. He wanted pay for the gold already taken out of the Black Hills and wanted to sell only such portion of the Black Hills as gold had been discovered in, and, for relinquishing their right therein, he wanted a light wagon, a span of horses, six work cattle, a gun and ammunition for each head of an Indian family. He also insisted that the southern boundary of the Indian reservation be changed to the middle of the North Platte River … He also wanted back pay for what had been taken out of the Black Hills. He again repeated that he would only dispose of that portion of the Black Hills where gold was found. He meant he would not dispose of the Big Horn, Powder River country as suggested by the Commissioners. He said he didn’t want any other roads running through the Black Hills or through the reservation except the one the thieves travelled by. He meant General Custer’s trail from Bismarck.17

Later a military officer asked Red Cloud what was meant by “seven generations.” The chief pointed to his son, Wicasa Wanka (Above Man),18 a boy of fifteen, and said, “My son is the first generation.”19

The chiefs all had a point of view, and each wanted to get his requests on the table. Red Dog was followed by Little Bear, a Miniconjou, who unfolded a similar list of demands for better or at least different treatment on the reservations: new agent and interpreters; Catholic priests, not Protestants, to run a school; a duplicate list of annuity goods so the Indians could be sure they were receiving everything intended for them. He added that “when the white men had a good thing they got rich on it. His people wanted to get rich out of the Black Hills.”

After Little Bear, Spotted Tail told the commissioners that troops stationed at the agencies would be better used keeping whites out of the Black Hills. Also, he wanted it understood that whites married to Indians were considered family and must be allowed to live with their relatives at the agencies. Spotted Bear of the Cheyenne River Agency on the Missouri suggested that the value of the Black Hills was about $70 million—bad news for the commissioners, who had a much smaller number in mind. Over subsequent days the commission spelled out its offer: $6 million for the hills outright, or $400,000 annually to lease the hills for an open-ended period, plus a side offer of $50,000 a year for the Big Horn country (where many whites also expected to find gold).

The Indians did not say yes and they did not say no. Their final best offer was unrolled by Red Cloud himself on the last day of discussions, September 29, in a stately address almost biblical in tone:

For seven generations to come I want our Great Father to give us Texan steers for our meat. I want the Government to issue for me hereafter, flour and coffee, and sugar and tea, and bacon, the very best kind, and cracked corn and beans, and rice and dried apples, and saleratus and tobacco, and soap and salt, and pepper, for the old people. I want a wagon, a light wagon with a span of horses, and six yoke of working cattle for my people. I want a sow and a boar, and a cow and bull, and a sheep and ram, and a hen and cock, for each family. I am an Indian, but you try to make a white man out of me. I want some white men’s houses at this agency to be built for the Indians. I have been into white people’s houses and I have seen nice black bedsteads and chairs, and I want that kind of furniture given to my people … I want the Great Father to furnish me a saw-mill which I may call my own. I want a mower and a scythe for my people. Maybe you white people think I ask too much from the government, but I think those hills extend clear to the sky—maybe they go above the sky, and that is the reason I ask for so much.”20

There it was, exactly what Allison had been asking for—what the Indians wanted. From the senator’s point of view they wanted the moon. There was no give and take, nothing like a negotiation. Things had gone completely wrong. Newspaper writers like Howard thought the problem was the mixed-bloods—they had convinced the chiefs the Black Hills were made of gold and the whites would pay accordingly. Spotted Tail came a good deal closer to the nub in a private meeting with the commission on its last night at the Red Cloud Agency. The two sides should try again with a smaller group—just two chiefs from each tribe—at another meeting in Washington with the Great Father. “Then when we are away from our young men, who do not know anything, we can look these things all over in the right light, and make a good, strong treaty, and preserve peace forever.”21

The man was a realist, but so was Senator Allison. He had concluded that buying the hills was impossible. The next day, Thursday, September 30, the commission packed up and headed for home.

While the commission was making its way to the railroad, a full day to the south, General Custer in New York City in an expansive mood explained to a local reporter how they had gotten it all wrong. The problem began with the commissioners themselves, he said.

[They] were not sufficiently well acquainted with the Indian character … [the first mistake was] in letting the Indians have so much of their own way. Indians are like children that get spoiled if they are petted, and had the Commisioners been firm and backed up by strength, they would have [succeeded] … It is the result of holding the council right in the heart of the Indian country, where the chiefs had the squaw men to advise them. Each of these men were anxious to make the payment as large as possible … They should have held the council at some spot remote from the Indian agencies … The fact of the matter is they [the Indians] are too much pampered and require a little different treatment. An equitable and just arrangement should be made, and after a certain show of strength, in order to convince them that business is meant, there will be no difficulty.22

“A certain show of strength”—that was to be Custer’s job.

The failure of the Allison commission was momentous. It is true that the Indians wanted a lot for the Black Hills, and that the commission hoped to pay little, but it was not Indian overreaching or white parsimony that ran the effort aground. To find the true cause we must go back to the abortive second meeting of the council on September 23, when divisions among the Indians almost led to fighting. James Howard, who shared the eagerness for an agreement felt by the Tribune’s readers, had reported that “the temper of the Indians never was better,” but this was not true. By the time the chiefs and their men began to gather by the lone tree—Spotted Tail and his Brulé riding in first, followed by Red Cloud and the Oglala, then the rest—a foreboding of violence hung over the meeting. Runners were reported to have come in from the camps in the Powder and Tongue river company, where the hearts of the Indians were said to be very bad. It was known that Little Big Man had visited Spotted Tail in his lodge the previous night and the two men had quarreled. Spotted Tail was for a sale at the right price; for Little Big Man no sum would be enough. Behind this quarrel were the threats already made by Little Big Man to kill a commissioner, and by the Tokala warrior society to kill any chief who touched the pen before the central demand had been met. Anticipating trouble, Red Cloud and Old Man Afraid had appointed the akicita itancan(chief of police), Drum Carrier, also called Sitting Bull, to organize a force of about a hundred men to keep order. Young Man Afraid was placed near the lone tree where he could keep an eye on things and signal Drum Carrier in a moment of need.

Prior to the meeting came a grand pass in review by the Indians, who never missed an opportunity for gorgeous drama. First were the chiefs in their feathered bonnets and scalp shirts, many carrying lances or coup sticks wrapped in fur or dangling feathers, followed by men on their war horses, painted and decorated. Among the reporters probably none knew how to read the distinctive dress, painting, and paraphernalia—the meaning of a horse’s tail, for example, tied up in red trade cloth in the mode for war, or the difference between stone-headed clubs and tomahawks—some for public occasions only, and some for killing. The New York Times reporter summed it up as “a splendid sight.” Almost all the Indians were armed; only a few Yanktonai from the Missouri arrived without their guns. Some of the Indians dismounted and seated themselves in a great three-quarter circle with its two horns stopping well short of the commissioners’ tent fly. This gap in the line troubled some of the old hands watching. They knew Indians liked to be close to the talking, unless they feared fighting. Then they kept their distance, and they were keeping their distance now.

Many other warriors arriving on horseback said they preferred to remain mounted. The commission didn’t like this but was in no position to issue orders, hence many Indians sat on their horses in a mass surrounding the meeting ground. Each man held his rifle—mostly breech-loading carbines of a late model, reporters noted—in his right hand, upright, with the rifle butt resting on his right thigh. An Indian crier in a loud voice announced the beginning of the meeting, at which time a hundred or more chiefs lined up behind Spotted Tail to shake hands one by one with the commissioners. When the greetings were concluded Red Cloud, in his middle fifties, entered the circle accompanied by Little Wound. Red Cloud paused. Spotted Tail and his friend Two Strike approached him. All four sat down and began to talk privately. Almost immediately they were joined by other chiefs, including Man That Owns a Sword (brother of Hunts the Enemy) and Old Man Afraid of His Horses, the oldest at about seventy-five of the important chiefs.

The council was never formally called into session. None of the chiefs addressed the commissioners, but while they talked Little Big Man was much in evidence. At the outset during the grand pass in review, “the dreaded chief of the north … arrived in a perfect state of nudity,” wrote the Times reporter. He may have meant Little Big Man wore only moccasins and a breechcloth, but it is possible he was actually naked. Showing buttocks and genitals to an enemy was a signal of contempt. Little Big Man was mounted on a spirited gray war horse, followed by a band of “evil-looking warriors” fifty or more in number. It was his custom to paint in red the wounds he had received in battle. The reporter noted that he was “thickly painted,” his hair wild and loose—a small, compact, tightly muscled man full of threat and danger. He and his men remained on their horses and were constantly moving, guns in hand—sometimes passing behind the commissioners’ tent and the hundred cavalry troops under Captains Teddy Egan and Anson Mills keeping watch nearby; sometimes disappearing into the brush along the river, then pushing their way back through the throng of Indian onlookers.

Red Dog, speaking with the chiefs, had remarked that “it did not look good for both whites and Indians to come into council armed.” American Horse stressed the same point, saying it made whites nervous to be surrounded by armed men. It was better to remove the guns and carry them outside the great circle, he said. Now arose Bull Eagle, a Miniconjou with a history of anger toward the whites. In the Fetterman fight ten years earlier, Bull Eagle had been shot in the thigh and seriously injured. “He lay on the prairie … bleeding freely and groaning—but like a wounded bear, to show that he still had a strong heart.”23

In 1872, while a brother was fighting the whites on the Yellowstone, Bull Eagle had disrupted a meeting at the Cheyenne River Agency between chiefs there and the Reverend Samuel D. Hinman, who was now sitting under the tent fly with the rest of the Allison commission. At Cheyenne River, Bull Eagle had snatched paper from the hands of a white man keeping notes and tore it up, “saying that all white men are liars, and ought to leave the Indian’s country and never come to it again.”24 Now he took issue with American Horse, said it was the whites who first brought armed men to the council—he meant the hundred troops under Egan and Mills—and the whites must live with the result. American Horse denounced Bull Eagle as a fool and threatened him with a beating if he did not shut up. Bull Eagle stormed off and a few minutes later was seen talking with Little Big Man. Almost immediately Little Big Man began moving his men—now grown to several hundred—toward the flank of the dismounted cavalry under Egan and Mills. More men joined the Indians every moment.

“In a few minutes,” the Tribune reported, “the [cavalry] force was heavily covered by Winchesters, Sharps and Remington rifles at not more than ten to fifteen paces.”

The troops now “stood to horses,” carbines in hand. In the view of the Tribune, “A single shot fired today would have made indiscriminate slaughter.”

Watching this rapid unfolding of events the commissioners grew concerned, then nervous, at last alarmed; urgently they messaged Red Cloud and Spotted Tail to take things in hand. Young Man Afraid, nearby, signaled to Drum Carrier to end the trouble.

And now occurred something extraordinary, alarming at the moment and more troubling the more it was thought of later. The great circle of Indians had been only three-quarters complete; none found a place directly in front of or near the commissioners, and observers wondered about this strange gap in the line, opening a lane to the cavalry. At this moment of rising tension, when Little Big Man and his group were crowding in on the troops, most of the mixed-bloods and some of the interpreters who had been watching near the commissioners’ tent began to get up and move away—not in a rush, but not quite casually, either, saying nothing. The reporters, military officers, and commissioners all noted it. That was the moment when it seemed the ball was about to begin. The reporters listed the evidence later: the gap in the circle, Little Big Man and his warriors crowding close, the sudden disappearance of the mixed-bloods, who must have received warning, the fact that “an unusually large number of shells for breach-loaders were sold yesterday by the traders,” the existence of a still-larger band of warriors “armed cap à pie” (head to foot) and hidden in a spot ideal for blocking any relief from the garrison at Camp Robinson, seven miles distant.

All the cavalry-men were to be shot down at the first fire, the horses stampeded, and then the commission were to get particular Jerusalem from that vacant space in front, which was held by Little Big Man and his crowd … A thousand facts known here all point to a corroboration of a plan for a massacre of the whole outfit by the young men under the lead of the wild devils of the north.25

The “danger was very great,” said the Times; but disaster was “happily averted,” wrote the Tribune reporter, by the “coolness and good judgement” of Young Man Afraid of His Horses. Drum Carrier and his men rode directly into Little Big Man’s group, crowding them back. It was fight or give way. The confrontation was between factions of Sioux; the whites were almost an afterthought. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail commanded the allegiance of many hundreds of fighting men on the field. It was no secret which way this was going—the akicita had quirts out and bows in their hands ready for beating, with all-out battle not far behind. Little Big Man and the wild devils of the north gave way; the cavalry troops held their fire; the commissioners kept their seats. The moment of danger passed. “Meanwhile the Young Man was smoking his pipe as contentedly as though in his own tepee,” noted the admiring reporter of the Tribune.

The council did not end at that moment, but it never got any closer to reaching agreement. Little Big Man appears no more in the proceedings. When he departed for the north is unknown but he had made his point: selling the Black Hills meant fighting, and the chiefs who touched the pen would be first on the list for killing. Of course nothing was said about this by the chiefs. Only Spotted Tail came close when he remarked that the young men “did not know anything.” But the endless list of Indian demands for the hills finessed the danger: they never rejected the commission by saying no, they never angered the wild devils of the north by saying yes.

In any negotiation between equals that would have been that, but the parties were not equals. Red Dog was right when he told the chiefs they were in a tight spot: if they did not sell the Black Hills, “the whites would take them … without paying for them.” Allison saw it the same way, but argued that one further step would be necessary. “We do not believe,” he wrote in the report issued in mid-November, “their temper or their spirit can be changed until they are made to feel the power as well as the magnanimity of the government … They never can be civilized except by the mild exercise, at least, of force in the beginning.”

Allison’s report would contain many thousands of additional words about civilizing and improving the Indians but official Washington did not wait to receive or read it. On the 3rd of November, while Allison was still scribbling, President Grant met in the White House with the men he expected to solve the Sioux problem: Secretary of War William Belknap; the new secretary of the interior, Zachariah Chandler; General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman; the commander of armies in the West, General Philip Henry Sheridan; and the new commander of the Department of the Platte, General George Crook. The president’s new policy, never announced or acknowledged, had three points: the Army would withdraw from the Black Hills and let gold seekers go where they liked; the northern Indians would be ordered to report to an agency before the end of January; those who refused would be attacked by the Army as hostiles.26 Sheridan and Crook, traveling back west together by train after the meeting, discussed plans for a campaign against the hostiles while winter kept them still trapped in their lodges.

Ulysses Grant, grown weary of the endless frustrations of his peace policy, had made up his mind: no more wild Indians roaming the plains.

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