This Month in Lakota History - August

Important events in Lakota history that happened in August include the Indian Peace Commission meeting with six of the seven Lakota oyates at Fort Sully in 1867, the U.S. abandoning of Fort Phil Kearny and Fort Reno in 1868, the killing of Spotted Tail by Crow Dog in 1881, and a visit to Pine Ridge Reservation by U.S. President Coolidge in 1927. But for this report, we will examine the August killing of a cow that led to the deaths of over 100 people and the recent renaming of a landmark in South Dakota.

It was Thursday, August 17, 1854, when a Mniconjou citizen named High Forehead shot and butchered a cow belonging to a Mormon who was traveling west on the Oregon Trail. High Forehead was visiting relatives in a temporary Sicangu village near Fort Laramie. Its residents had been waiting three weeks for the distribution of food and supplies that their leaders had negotiated for three years earlier in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. So when the commander of Fort Laramie called the leader of the Sicangu village to the fort after the owner of the cow complained and demanded compensation for the loss of his cow, the leader willingly went because he knew the treaty. 

Article 4 of the 1851 treaty stipulated that the Sicangus must make restitution for any wrongs committed “by any band or individual of their people.” But High Forehead was not a Sicangu citizen. Therefore, the Sicangus had no obligations under the treaty with regard to the killing of the cow. 

Nevertheless, their leader, Conquering Bear, went to the fort on Friday, August 18th, and offered that the cow’s owner could choose any horse from his herd as compensation. The owner refused. The owner was also offered money or a replacement cow from the Sicangu herd. He refused the compensations. Conquering Bear then suggested that the Indian Agent settle the dispute, which is what the treaty required. But the agent, who the Sicangus were waiting for to distribute their treaty annuities, had been delayed and wasn’t expected to arrive until the 26th

So the fort commander decided that High Forehead must be jailed to await his punishment, and told Conquering Bear to deliver him immediately. Conquering Bear said he could not comply because he had no authority over a citizen of another nation and besides, he explained, the treaty stipulated restitution instead of punishment. Then he returned to his village. 

After Conquering Bear left, ambitious 24-year-old Lieutenant John Grattan insisted that he be assigned the task of arresting High Forehead and bringing him to the fort. The commander granted his request, and the next day, 29 soldiers and an interpreter volunteered to go with him. 

On Saturday, August 19, 1854, these 31 men took two cannons and went to the Sicangu village, where they met with Conquering Bear. During protracted discussions, Conquering Bear again offered compensation for the cow, which Grattan refused. Finally, Conquering Bear pointed out High Forehead to Grattan, and then turned and was walking towards his lodge when a soldier shot him, most likely in the back. He died nine days later. Grattan order the cannons to be fired, and then both sides starting shooting. Grattan and the 30 men with him were killed. 

When the Indian agent arrived at Fort Laramie, he conducted an investigation that determined that there were no regulations that “give officers the right to arrest and confine any Indian for an offence of no more magnitude than stealing a cow.” He pointed out the brashness and inexperience of Lieutenant Grattan, writing that “if the lieutenant had understood the character of Indians, I doubt whether he would have done as he did.”  

A few months later, Lt. Col. William Hoffman arrived at Fort Laramie with two infantry columns and conducted his own extensive investigation of the Grattan affair. It included a statement by the fort chaplain, William Vaux, who stated: “Mr. Grattan, I know, had an unwarranted contempt of Indian character which frequently manifested itself in my presence.” He continued, “The cause [of the debacle] can be traced to the fact of the garrison being left under the command of inexperienced and rash boys.” This and the previous quotes are from Donald Danker’s article, “A High Price for a Lame Cow,” that was published in Kansas History in 1987.

Hoffman’s investigation concluded in support of the Sicangus and against Grattan. But Adjutant General Samuel Cooper refuted Hoffman’s position, setting off a controversy finally settled by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who sided with Cooper and against Hoffman. The army position was that Grattan was a hero and had been ambushed; therefore, the Sicangus must be punished. The man tapped to do that was General William Harney.

Just over a year after Conquering Bear was killed, Harney attacked a peaceful Sicangu village along Blue Water Creek, killing 86 and capturing 70, approximately half of both groups being women and children, innocent non-combatants. Shortly afterwards, one of the military’s expedition members named the highest peak in the Black Hills “Harney Peak.” 

Lakotas had always called that landmark Hinhan Kaga, “Making of Owls.” It was atop that place, the “center of the world,” that an Oglala boy was taken by spirits in a vision about 16 years after the Blue Water Massacre. That boy grew to be a man named Black Elk, and in 1931 he climbed to the top of Hinhan Kaga and prayed that his people might live. 

On Saturday, August 19, 1950, Black Elk died. 

On Thursday, August 11, 2016, the United States Board on Geographic Names renamed that sacred place Black Elk Peak.

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)