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The Short, Violent Life of Buffalo Calf Road Woman (Part 3: A Destitute Submission)

February 11, 2017

After she was named 'Brave Woman' for her heroic actions at the Battle of the Rosebud, then was credited with shooting General Custer from his horse as he tried to cross the Little Bighorn River, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, her two small children, her husband Black Coyote and her brother Comes in Sight--all members of Little Wolf's band of Northern Cheyenne--fled with the rest of their people into the Bighorn Mountains to avoid the anticipated retaliatory vengeance of the United States Government.


News that the U.S. Army had been defeated by the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of the Rosebud and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 17 & 25, 1876), and that George Armstrong Custer had been killed, reached the Eastern cities while the nation was engaged in the celebration of its Centennial. The populous was stunned and outraged (ironically, considering the circumstances 100 years earlier), that a primitive band of uncivilized brutes could out fight one of the best armies in the world. That a celebrity commander (Custer was considering a run for the Presidency), was killed intensified the nation's indignant, vengeful mood. Newspapers and the citizenry angrily shouted for swift retribution and anxiously awaited the government's response.

Missouri District commander, General Phil Sheridan, promptly took action. He placed the Sioux and Cheyenne Agencies under military law, subordinating Indian reservation administrators to army commanders. Guns and horses were confiscated from Agency Indians, increasing the hardship 'friendly Natives' were already subjected to by their corrupt overseers. The army's Indian Scouts Corps was temporarily disbanded as distrust and ethnic hatred were rampant. More reserve troops were called up and, in early August, Congress authorized funding for an additional 2,500 men to reinforce the Bighorn/Yellowstone Expedition. The Great Sioux War was rapidly moving into its final stages.

In the 'theater', the staggered remnants of the 7th Cavalry returned to Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, to be repopulated and reorganized. By August 1st, General Crook, who encamped at Goose Creek in Wyoming after withdrawing from the Rosebud fight, was reinforced and moved his troops back 'into the field.' General Terry, supported by the 5th Infantry, moved south and joined Crook in the Rosebud Valley on August 10th. The combined force of almost 4,000 men set out to pursue the Lakota who had headed northeast toward the Little Missouri River.

Persistent, unseasonal rains created muddy conditions that exhausted the troops. Wagons and supplies were left behind as the column slogged its way toward the Black Hills. On August 20th, Shoshone, Ute and Crow allies called council, deemed the campaign a failure and went home. On August 26th, Terry and Crook split up again. Terry returned to Fort Lincoln. Crook, who may have felt a need to redeem himself, having been repulsed at the Battle of the Rosebud and, consequently, was in no position to help Custer a week later, embarked on his infamous Horsemeat March.

General Crook

Crook's command consisted of 1,500 cavalry, 450 infantry, several hundred Indian scouts and a contingent of White civilians. Among the civilians were 'Buffalo Bill' Cody (who served as chief scout for a short time), and frontiersmen 'Big Bat' Pourier, 'Captain Jack' Crawford and 'Buffalo Chips' White. Also attached to Crook's command were correspondents from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Rocky Mountain News, Chicago Times, New York Herald and Alta California (San Francisco) newspapers. Crook's 'Army of Vengeance' set out on what was one of the most grueling expeditions in U.S. Military History.

Crook feared the hostiles would scatter rather than meet him in battle. As the only troops still in pursuit, he resolved to find the savages as quickly as possible and teach them a lesson. He rationed his men for 15 days and mounted his infantry on mules (complications of that conversion to temporary cavalry is described as being more entertaining than a circus). Crook was determined to show that distance, bad weather, the loss of horses or the absence of rations would not deter the U.S. Army from hunting down and destroying its enemies.

Over the next several weeks, Crook pushed his troops hard. They were soon running short of supplies. Rations were cut in half for both men and animals. During the grueling marches in horrid weather many horses and mules gave out. Crook ordered abandoned animals to be shot and butchered for food. A reporter said it was almost comical to watch a trooper ride his horse until it collapsed, shoot it, then immediately start to butcher it. Regardless, they relentlessly pushed on. One officer wrote that he saw "men who were very plucky sit down and cry like children because they could not hold out." They endured "hunger, marching in the rain, sleeping on wet, muddy ground, eating horse meat."


However, Crook's Horsemeat March paid off. On September 8th, Captain Anson Mills, who was dispatched to nearby gold mining camps to commandeer food for the starving troops, came upon Oglala Chief American Horse's village. Approximately 260 Minneconjous, Brules and Cheyenne were camped in a secluded valley near Slim Buttes, in (now) northwest South Dakota. Messengers were sent to Crook and shortly after midnight on September 9th, Mills' 125 men attacked and occupied the sleeping village. The Indians fled into the hills but kept up constant long range fire on the soldiers.

Crook force marched the rest of his command to the site. The soldiers' ire was inflamed when they found in the village, in addition to "teepees full of dried meats, skins, bead work and all an Indian's head could wish for," items that had been captured at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Attached to American Horse's lodge was a 7th Cavalry Regiment guidon. Bloody gauntlets that had belonged to the slain Captain Miles Keogh were recovered. Also found were cavalry saddles, letters belonging to 7th cavalry personnel, officers' clothing, jewelry, government-issued guns and large amounts of U.S. currency.

American Horse's Lodge with Custer's Guidon

Word of American Horse's plight quickly spread to neighboring Indian villages. Crazy Horse, who was camped ten miles away, quickly assembled 600 to 800 warriors and rode out. He desperately wanted to recover the 300 lost ponies and the mountains of food and supplies that had been captured. He also believed he could annihilate Mills' small force. However, General Crook had already arrived.

Scouts informed Crook that Crazy Horse's relief attack was imminent. Chicago Tribune reporter John F. Finerty wrote: "In anticipation of that afternoon tea party which was promised to be given by Crazy Horse, Crook deployed his forces to give that chieftain the surprise of his life." Crook concealed most of his men, exposing only enough to encourage an attack. Finerty described the ensuing battle: "Then followed the most spectacular and tragically gripping and gratifying drama of the whole Sioux War, enacted with a setting and view for those of us in the ambushing corps that could not be improved upon." The circumstance "was not unlike the situation which Crazy Horse had chosen for his Battle of the Rosebud . . . [The Indians attacked] like the Napoleonic cuirassiers at Waterloo," with the same result.

Lured into an attack against, not the 100 or so of Mill's soldiers, but against Crook's full force of 2,000 men supported by artillery, Crazy Horses' glorious charge dissolved into a chaotic retreat after the first withering volley. The U.S. Army had taken its first step toward satisfying the nation's call for merciless vengeance against the hostile savages.


Soon after his victory at the Battle of Slim Buttes (September 9-10, 1876), General Crook got word of a Cheyenne village in the Powder River Country (current day Johnson County, Wyoming). He dispatched Colonel Ranald Mackenzie from Camp Robinson, Nebraska, to investigate. With 1,000 soldiers and over 400 Pawnee, Shoshone and Arapaho scouts, Mackenzie consolidated his troops and organized the expedition at Fort Fetterman, on the North Platte River in Wyoming Territory.

On November 14th, Mackenzie's column, supported by 168 wagons, a half a dozen surgeons, 7 ambulances, 219 drivers, 400 mules and 65 pack-train attendants set out to locate the Cheyenne. Scouts ranged up to 40 miles out from the main body of troops, but remained in constant communication. They scoured every draw and canyon in the Powder River Basin and Bighorn Mountain foothills.

Cheyenne Chiefs Dull Knife & Little Wolf

On November 22, while Mackenzie's force was waiting out a severe snowstorm, a report came of an "extremely large" Cheyenne village. It was in the Bighorn Canyon region at the source of Crazy Woman Creek near (current day) Hole-in-the-Wall Country. Despite the frigid, stormy weather, Col. Mackenzie mobilized a cavalry force of 1,000 men, over 300 of which were 'friendly' Indians. On November 25th, he finally located the village of Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf in a secluded valley on the Red Fork of the Powder River. Among the many hundreds of Cheyenne in that village were Black Coyote and his wife Buffalo Calf Road Woman, heroine of the Battle of the Rosebud; the 'Brave Woman' that her tribe still claims is the one who shot Custer from his horse.

The Cheyenne were distracted, celebrating a recent victory over a Shoshone band, and were unaware the cavalry was near. At dawn the next day, Mackenzie led a furious attack on the village. Totally surprised, the Indians panicked and fled. Many (including Black Coyote and Buffalo Calf Road Woman), left behind their clothes, blankets and buffalo robes as they scattered into the frozen, snow covered hills.

Dull Knife managed to gather some warriors and offer resistance. Fighting with the Pawnee scouts was particularly savage. Outnumbered and nearly overwhelmed, the Cheyenne fighters finally retreated and rejoined their refugee families. Close to 200 lodges, along with all the contents, were burned. Nearly 700 "head of stock" were captured. The Cheyenne, including Buffalo Calf Road Woman and her children, found themselves homeless and without food or clothing in the bitter Wyoming winter.

The Bighorns in Winter

It was reported: "From the desperate cold of the night immediately following . . . eleven babies froze to death in the arms of their shivering, famished mothers." Mackenzie's troops were in no mood to offer harbor or mercy, having found items in the village that had been stripped from Custer's dead. General Crook nearly gloated when he telegraphed the War Department, declaring he'd delivered ". . . a terrible blow to the hostiles, as those Cheyenne were not only their bravest warriors but have been the head and front of most all the raids and deviltry committed in this country."

Dull Knife and Lone Wolf's bands (including Buffalo Calf Road Woman and her small children), made their way north along the snow covered Bighorn Mountains. Many suffered severe frostbite, and all were starving when they finally reached the upper Tongue River. The bereft and suffering survivors joined Crazy Horse's Oglala Sioux encampment on Beaver Creek.

Crazy Horse

Concerned over the tribes' lack of resources and the destitute condition of the Cheyenne refugees, Crazy Horse felt he had no choice but to negotiate for peace. He sent a delegation to find Colonel Miles, commander in the region, to inform him of his intentions. But, Crow Army Scouts intercepted and murdered them. Infuriated, Crazy Horse saw that peace was not forthcoming and angrily demanded revenge. He led a series of raids trying to draw Miles out from Fort Keogh and into battle.

In December, Miles finally accepted the challenge and marched up the Tongue River Valley with about 450 men. On January 8, 1877, the army, who was set up in positions protected by two artillery pieces with clear zones of fire, was attacked by Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Chief Two Moons in what is called the Battle of Wolf Mountain. Frustrated by the army's firepower and the failure of desperate flanking attacks, the Indians fell back into a defensive position. A furious counterattack by the U.S. infantry, who were hampered by deep snow and worsening weather finally forced the Sioux and Cheyenne to withdraw from the field. They had only achieved a tactical draw.

The Battle of Wolf Mountain

The army's relentless pursuit continued throughout the rest of the harsh winter. As the situation became more and more desperate, warriors and families began slipping away from camp and returning to the reservations. Finally, in May of 1877, Crazy Horse accepted his fate and led the remaining hostiles to Fort Robinson in northwest Nebraska to surrender. With the Sioux were Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife, Standing Elk, Wild Hog and Little Wolf. Among the nearly 1,000 Cheyenne who 'came in' to Fort Robinson were Black Coyote, Buffalo Calf Road Woman and their two children. The Great Sioux War was over.

A Destitute Submission

The Cheyenne wanted, and expected, to be permitted to live on the Sioux reservation. That privilege was prescribed in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie which ended Red Cloud's War. Both Dull Knife and Little Wolf had signed that treaty. However, less than a year after "Custer's Last Stand", as the news media was now calling that phase of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the government was not in a charitable mood. A decision was made in Washington that the Northern Cheyenne should merge with their distant relatives, the Southern Cheyenne. They were ordered to relocate to the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in the Indian [Oklahoma] Territory.

Cheyenne Headed for Oklahoma

Destitute and decimated from over a year of war with the United States and the severe deprivations suffered during the long, brutal winter of 1876-77, 972 Northern Cheyenne began a nearly thousand mile trek to their new, alien home. Plodding along with the subdued, bedraggled band of displaced refugees was Buffalo Calf Road Woman, (Brave Woman), and her family.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman

{To follow-- Part 4: The Final Surrender}

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