Into Annihilation: The Arikara Story of Custer’s March to, and the Battle of, the Little Bighorn, part 2

The small society of the Arikara, in facing their age-old enemies the mighty Lakota nation, prehend a powerful ally: the United States.
⁓The Voice before the Void

Into Annihilation: The Arikara Story of Custer’s March to, and the Battle of, the Little Bighorn

from The Arikara Narrative of the Campaign against the Hostile Dakotas, June, 1876

compiled from interviews conducted by the North Dakota State Historical Society with the aged Arikara scouts in 1912 at Fort Berthold Reservation

edited by O.G. Libby and The Voice before the Void

part 2

Preface to the Arikara Narrative of the Campaign against the Hostile Dakotas

The purpose in publishing this material on the Dakota campaign of 1876 is twofold. Merely as a matter of justice to the Arikara scouts, their version of the campaign in which they played an important part should have long ago been given to the public. Nearly every other conceivable angle of this memorable campaign has received attention and study. But during the past generation, the Arikara scouts, true to their oath of fealty to the government as they understood it, have remained silent as to their own part in those eventful days. The present narrative is designed to make public the real story of the Arikara scouts who served with General Terry and under the immediate command of Colonel Custer.

back row John Buckman, Goose front row Bloody Knife, George Armstrong Custer, Little Soldier 1874In August, 1912, the nine survivors of some forty of these scouts met at the home of Bear’s Belly on the Fort Berthold Reservation, and there they related to Judge A. McG. Beede and to the secretary of the North Dakota State Historical Society, O.G. Libby, the various portions of the narrative that follow. The narrators were very scrupulous to confine themselves to just that portion of the common experience to which they were eye witnesses; for the most part what is set down in this account is the testimony of those who were actual participants. The narratives were carefully taken down as interpreted by Peter Beauchamp, a graduate of Hampton Institute, Virginia. After the whole story was put in form it was submitted to the scouts to be read and corrected through their interpreters by all those who had taken part. Thus there has been assembled a complete account of these important events given from the standpoint of an Indian scout. While it is true that these scouts knew nothing of the general plan of the campaign nor of the larger features of the movements in which they took part, nevertheless they have supplied an astonishing number of clear cut facts and observations that have all the definiteness and accuracy of an instantaneous photograph.

In the second place the narratives of individual scouts give us an insight into the lives of a few individuals and families. The true Indian is extremely reticent concerning matters of ritual, family tradition, and tribal observance. Not as much of such details was obtained as was asked for, still the narrative affords, in many instances, a flashlight picture of Indian life.

We were privileged to hear, also, a large number of rare and remarkable ceremonial chants and songs.

At the close, the occasion was celebrated by the organization of a society known as the U. S. Volunteer Indian Scouts. Two local posts are already in existence, to which belong most of the veteran scouts of the Fort Berthold Reservation.

An impartial examination of the evidence offered in the narrative of these scouts will completely clear them from the old charge of cowardice which has so long been voiced against them. These scouts were charged with being to blame for the defeat of Reno’s men in their first encounter with the Dakotas at the upper village on the Little Big Horn. The evidence points clearly to the fact that the thin line of Arikara scouts extending from where the soldiers stood out to the left was overwhelmed and rolled up by a mass of Dakota horsemen who rode out from behind low hills farther to the left. Of these scouts, Bob-tailed Bull was the first to fall and he stood until the attack came, far out to the left, a solitary horseman facing scores of circling warriors. The second leader of the scouts, Bloody Knife, also took a prominent part in the preliminary skirmishing and he was finally killed by a shot from a Dakota marksman on the high ground to the rear of Reno’s position. All of the scouts, when asked their opinion regarding the retreat of the troops from the strong position behind a cut bank on the edge of the timber, were emphatic in maintaining that Reno could have held this well protected position indefinitely. According to Judge A. McG. Beede, who is well acquainted with the Dakotas, they, also, held the same view.

The vigorous efforts made by the scouts to drive off the pony herd of the Dakotas is justified by their understanding of Custer’s orders to that effect which they have given in detail. That they paid more attention to this portion of their orders was the result of the fact that they understood that the pony herd was vitally important in the fighting power of the Dakotas. That they failed in their skillful and gallant attempt to carry out the orders of their chief lay not in their lack of courage but from the fact that Reno’s soldiers failed to hold their own strong line of defense on the other side of the river. This released swarms of Dakota horsemen who crossed the river and swept down upon the handful of scouts who had already started to drive off the pony herd and sent them scurrying for safety to the high ground overlooking the river.

After Benteen had joined his command with Reno’s there does not seem to have been anyone able or willing to give the scouts any order as to their next move. Left to themselves they fell back upon their last order from Custer, that in case of defeat they were to retreat to the base camp. On this retreat they attempted once more to drive off a herd of Dakota ponies that had previously been assembled by various scouts during the earlier part of the day. The Crow scouts tell a somewhat similar story. They speak of their dismissal by Custer after his command was ready to move to the attack; he left them free to stay or go as they saw fit.

This brings out a fact which Custer understood very well and upon which he planned his strategy. He never used his scouts for line fighting. They were trained, as he well knew, for skirmishing, for trailing, for capturing the pony herds of the enemy. In planning this last of his battles he depended upon the scouts to show him the enemy and, if possible, to cripple the fighting power of the force opposed to him by capturing or stampeding their horses. From every detail of this long narrative, Custer’s scouts seem to have performed their part with skill and courage. They even gave such fine examples of personal prowess as those related of Bob-tailed Bull, Bloody Knife, and Young Hawk. That Custer’s plan of battle broke down can not in all fairness be ascribed to any failure on the part of his devoted scouts who carried out his orders in a manner which, had he lived, would have elicited from him the warmest commendation. We may well leave to military experts the task of pointing out the defects in the strategy and in the conduct of the battle of the Little Big Horn. All that this present narrative expects to accomplish is to supply the facts upon which we may base a judgment regarding the behavior of Custer’s Arikara scouts. That they faced a difficult task and attempted to carry out his orders against heavy odds seems fairly well attested by the evidence. From a complete misunderstanding of the duty Custer assigned to these scouts, military men have pretty generally minimized their services and laid them under the heavy charge of cowardice in the face of the enemy. Custer understood the scouts perfectly and did not expect them to do more than what they did. That they did not feel themselves guilty of any failure to carry out orders is evident from the straightforward character of their various narratives. The same impression was given in listening to their own words and watching their facial expressions as they reviewed, bit by bit, throughout the long four days’ session, the part they had played in the events leading up to the loss of their great benefactor and friend.

The Narrative of the Arikara

The story of Son-of-the-Star as told by his son Sitting Bear in the words of Son-of-the-Star as Sitting Bear remembers hearing them

The beginning of the permanent friendship between the Arikara and the whites came about from a meeting held by Grand-father, as they called him, on Mussel Shell River in Montana. There was one representative of the Arikara tribe at this meeting, Bear Chief, and he was given authority to choose a colleague on his return, to be chief with him over the Arikara. White Shield was so named and he afterwards appointed Son-of-the-Star as head of the Arikara police. Each chief, according to Arikara custom, had such a police force. The purpose of the Mussel Shell meeting was peace. And thus the police were to prevent hostilities between the Arikara and the whites. The whole camp was full of respect for the new regime of order and peace, even the oldest of the tribe. The police served to check inter-tribal skirmishes, but not all of the tribes respected the new plan, for the Dakotas continued to plague the Arikara. At this time there were many whites spread far and wide, working in wood camps, on boats, etc., and the Dakotas massacred them. The Arikara and the whites suffered the same fate. This continued from bad to worse; some of the Arikara present at this meeting had helped to defend the whites against the Dakotas. Now Bear Chief died and White Shield was still living when Son-of-the-Star was called to Washington because of his services as chief of police. Son-of-the-Star took with him to Washington: Bull Head; Peter Beauchamp, the interpreter; and three Mandans: Bad Gun, Bald Eagle, and Chief Red Cow’s son, Shows-Fear-in-the-Face. This was about the year 1874. When they arrived at Washington the Indian commissioner greeted Son-of-the-Star. He began the council with these words: “Son-of-the-Star, I have sent for you because I wish to see you. Now I see you for you stand before me. Son-of-the-Star, you have seen me with your own eyes. What is your opinion of me?” Son-of-the-Star replied: “Yes, I have seen you, I admire you, I admire your whole being. We can depend upon you for protection, we have faith that you will protect us. I came at your call because I felt weak. We have kept our promise, we have kept peace. We have tried to protect the whites among us. I see myself that I am weak. You are strong, whatever you need you have ready. You have all that is needed to protect yourselves in the way of weapons. I feel that in comparison with you I am as a little child dodging the blows of someone stronger. To consult with you about this is my one purpose in coming to you. My game and my means for providing for my people have been diminished. It is all the same, you have cattle and you have provisions.” The commissioner said: “Son-of-the-Star, you have touched my heart. I am sorry that both your people and mine have trouble with the Dakotas. You have made tears come to my eyes. Yes, Son-of-the-Star, I have a great many boys (Note: “boys” is used to mean “soldiers” or “warriors”). I will do what you suggest. I will decide to fight Sitting Bull and I will fight him. It will not be ten years, it will probably be two or three years, if Sitting Bull is strong. But if you look around the earth you will see clouds of dust going up to the sky where my armies are setting out after Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull is like a prisoner in a room, four walls shut him in, he cannot escape. I have my boys all around him. If he breaks one circle there will be another around him. He cannot escape, he has no way of burrowing under the earth, and no way of getting away from me. It will probably be about two years after you arrive home that the expedition against Sitting Bull will set out. Son-of-the-Star, you will furnish some boys for this expedition.” Son-of-the-Star replied: “Yes, I have boys, they will take part in the expedition.” Then he asked the commissioner what the plan would be if his boys were to help on the expedition. The reply was: “If I lose one of your boys, his relatives will have money for a long time. In the event that one of the boys is wounded, I will reward him. While the boys are under me, doing any work for the government, should they be injured accidentally in storm, in flood, or by breaking a leg or arm, or by any other accident in service, I will remember that he is under my orders and that he is entitled to a reward. The boys that work in the service shall be rewarded; if they are wounded about the eyes or head, their injuries shall be paid for. I will remember that I am responsible for them and reward them also, for any loss of stock or horses.” Son-of-the-Star replied that he would comply with the wishes of the commissioner. The commissioner then went into another room and brought out a Winchester rifle for each of them and gave it to them. He said: “Any time I issue goods to you, I will also send guns. I will provide you with provisions, I will provide you with cattle. After the Sioux have been broken up, you will probably be visited by straggling Sioux who have no longer any land. I want you to treat them well and share what you have with them. Think of them as prisoners, those taken by the soldiers and held in captivity.” Two years after Son-of-the-Star’s arrival home, he received a letter from the Indian commissioner asking him to carry out his promise. A council was called to take the matter into consideration, and Sitting Bear said, “Those here tonight volunteered to go, though some of them were very young. This is what we consider an agreement between the United States Government and ourselves.”

The first enlistment of the Arikara as United States Scouts as told by Sitting Bear

The first time I heard of the Arikara enlistment was when the steamboat first arrived at Fort Berthold. We were told that this boat had on it three United States representatives. It was announced that a council was to be held by these representatives with the three tribes. At this time there were many honored men alive among the three tribes. In Fort Berthold village there was a large Arikara medicine-lodge and here the representatives of the three tribes met with those representatives from the United States. The Arikara representatives were White Shield, Son-of-the-Star, Shows-Fear-in-the-Face, and Black Road.

White Shield spoke first for the Arikara; Crow Gizzard, Hidatsa chief, spoke second; Red Cow, for the Mandans, spoke third. The interpreter for all three tribes was Pierre Garreau. Before the business was completed, and while the discussion was still going on, an alarm came of a Dakota attack on the village. The Indians left the lodge. It was reported that while the fight was going on one of the United States commissioners went up on the lodge with a paper and prayed for victory for the three tribes. They were victorious and killed five Dakotas, one of whom wore a war-bonnet. Thus the United States representatives were eye-witnesses of our difficulties and troubles. When we came back the steamboat that had brought the United States representatives had gone, for the fight had lasted all day. It was very hot and some horses died of heat. The Dakotas were chased from Timber Coulee to Blue Hills near Rose Glen. I do not know how many Indian representatives stayed behind in the tepee, but White Shield and Son-of-the-Star stayed and they and Pierre Garreau told the rest of the Indians about the prayer of the white man. The white man when he prayed had a book or paper in his hand. The Indians of the three tribes had been so successful in the fight that they looked upon the praying white man as a holy man.

The following spring, the officer in charge at Fort Stevenson asked the Arikara to come down to Fort Stevenson and enlist as scouts, and he particularly named Bull Head. All the Arikara who responded to the call were members of the police force of White Shield. Bull Head was made head of the band by the officer; he had three stripes on his arm and black trouser stripes. On his hat he wore a brass bugle emblem.

An encounter with Sitting Bull as told by the Arikara scout named Soldier

The Arikara scout named Soldier served six winters at Fort Stevenson, enlisting for six months at a time. He said, “I was once working in the woods when I heard a war-cry that the Sioux had carried off the horses.” He rushed out, got on a horse, and met Peter Beauchamp carrying a quiver and a rifle. They rode across a hill and saw two Dakota warriors on a ridge ahead. Soldier told Beauchamp to make ready and be brave in the fight, for Beauchamp was still untried in war. Beauchamp lost patience at his insistence and replied: “I know what is coming, the birds and underground people are hungry and if I am killed they will feed on me, they will get fat on me, that is what I expect.” The Dakotas retreated and the Arikara could not overtake them for the enemy’s horses were swifter. The other scouts tried to head the Dakotas off, but Sitting Bull’s band appeared and drove all the scouts in. Sitting Bull had captured some boat loads of people on the river, but he let them go and dashed out to attack the fort. Bull Head was thrown from his horse and lay still in the grass. Soldier swung around on the Dakotas and was about to fire at them but the scout named Two Chiefs called out to him not to fire. Two Dakota warriors rode up and stood one on each side of the body of Bull Head, as he lay stunned. One of them called out: “I am Sitting Bull, himself.” And Sitting Bull and his companion kept the rest of the Dakotas off from Bull Head so that they did not hurt him. The scouts left Bull Head lying. Later the white soldiers took a wagon out to bring back Bull Head’s body, but Soldier saw someone coming in over the hill, staggering, hardly able to walk; it was Bull Head. The Dakotas had stripped him and took his weapons but did not hurt him because of Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull and Bull Head belonged to the same secret society, the New Dog, and so Bull Head was not hurt by the enemy.

The enlistment of the Arikara scouts as told by Young Hawk

Young Hawk’s father enlisted first at Fort Lincoln and he himself stayed there with his father and after a time his father suggested that he enlist and earn money too. So he enlisted at Fort Lincoln. Thirty other Arikara enlisted also. At this time an army of cavalry came there under Custer from the West. The scouts were put under Custer’s command.

Custer then set out on the Black Hills expedition and Young Hawk accompanied him. “We were told that this expedition was for the purpose of locating gold. We saw men in the party who were surveyors with instruments and they used them on the hills and streams.” Some time after the arrival of the expedition at Black Hills, Custer came up with something concealed in his hands. Then Custer put a yellow nugget in Young Hawk’s hand and it felt very heavy. He was told it was gold.

By the time Young Hawk returned with the expedition, his period of enlistment was up and he went back to Fort Berthold with most of the scouts.

The second enlistment as told by Young Hawk

General Custer had told them that he was going on another expedition and that they might be called upon to serve. After his return Young Hawk decided not to serve any more, but his father insisted that he should go. After a time Son-of-the-Star got a letter from Custer asking for more scouts. It was announced that Son-of-the-Star would call a council in his own house and many came. Son-of-the-Star said: “My boys, I have had a letter from a white man asking for some of you boys to serve as scouts.” He told them that they would serve under Long Hair (which was another name for Custer) and they were not surprised at this, for they had heard him say he would go on another expedition, and, besides, Son-of-the-Star had been to Washington. His words were heard by all present and all that was necessary to say was: “I will go.” Young Hawk’s father said, “I will go and my son, too.”


Continued in part 3.