The Sioux Indians of the nineteenth century were a loosely connected group of nomadic horsemen made up of several subgroups speaking a language with common roots. After acquiring the horse, the most tenacious subgroup, the Lakota Sioux, pushed the less aggressive inhabitants of the Great Plains south, west, and north. Within a hundred years they ruled a great portion of the high plains, from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. By nature the Lakota were a combative people and, even before the United States took possession of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, had made mortal enemies of nearly all the other tribes on the plains.
From their first contact with representatives of the United States the Lakota were defiant. With the exception of a few incidents of petty thievery by West Coast tribes, Lewis and Clark had trouble only with the Lakota, who blocked their progress along the Missouri River and made war on Indian nations with whom the United States was making alliances.
Between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the opening of Montana’s gold fields, the Lakota concentrated their energies on keeping the Crows, Shoshones, Arikaras, Pawnees, and others in a subservient position with regard to the fertile buffalo hunting grounds of the northern plains. But once the people of the United States began to move into that same territory, the Lakota were forced to divert increasing amounts of resources to stemming the flow of pioneers.
In the 1860s a chief of the Oglala band by the name of Red Cloud rose to prominence and led the Lakota and their allies in a successful war against the United States that stopped pioneer emigration into Montana over the Bozeman trail. After two years of war, Red Cloud, along with Spotted Tail of the Brules Sioux band, signed the treaty of 1868 that excluded whites from their territory and, after trips to Washington, settled in northwestern Nebraska on reservations named for them. They became known as “friendlies,” living on the reservations and, in exchange for their passivity, receiving their subsistence from the United States government. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail had won their war and had been recognized as supreme leaders of their people by the U.S. But the political structure of the Lakota was very different from that of the United States. A Lakota leader was only a leader when the people followed him, and the fact that two chiefs had retired to reservations did not mean that the Lakota would cease hostilities toward the United States or any of the other nations on the northern plains.
The Lakota, under other chiefs, continued to wage war on their neighbors, red and white. Two chiefs who emerged during the 1870s were Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas band and a charismatic young warrior named Crazy Horse of the Oglalas.
What were known as the northern Sioux or the “hostiles” fought the United States Army nearly to a standstill in the Great Sioux War of 1876. But the superior resources of the United States finally wore the Sioux down. In the winter of 1876 Sitting Bull retreated into Canada, but Crazy Horse, with his defiant band of starving Oglalas, remained hostile in the north until the spring of 1877. Crazy Horse became a symbol of resistance for the Sioux, and though his position as chief was not hereditary, he ascended to that position and was, at once, held in increasing esteem by some of his people and loathed or envied by others.
On the United States side the war was executed by an array of generals who had won their fame in the Civil War. At the head of the army was General Sherman. Under him was Sheridan. And under Sheridan, among others, were Generals Crook, Gibbon, Terry, and Custer.
Perhaps the most experienced of these generals, in both Indian fighting and management, was Crook. He had served throughout the West and recently secured the surrender of the Apaches in Arizona. He was a fair man, respected by the Indians, but he was rugged and a dogged adversary in battle. He was known for uncommonly efficient supply trains and relentless winter campaigns and was comfortable with long night marches and early-morning attacks. Among his hand-picked officers for the campaigns of 1876 was a young civilian surgeon, temporarily contracted to the U.S. Army, named Valentine Trant McGillycuddy.
McGillycuddy would go on to become Indian agent at the Red Cloud Agency (later known as the Pine Ridge Reservation) in the new state of South Dakota. He would also be a signatory to South Dakota’s constitution, the first president of the South Dakota School of Mines, a businessman, the chief medical insurance inspector for the state of Montana, one of the first licensed doctors in the new state of California, and a volunteer to the natives of Alaska during the influenza epidemic of 1919; he would finally retire as the houseeeee surgeon for the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California.
Crook, who had his choice of any officers or surgeons for his Sioux campaign, called the newly married McGillycuddy from Washington. It was true that McGillycuddy, although still in his twenties, had been with the geological survey teams that mapped most of the country over which Crook planned to campaign, but Crook never tapped that expertise. The two men were not old friends. Their paths had crossed only a time or two. But Crook was known for being a prophetic judge of character. He must have seen something that told him the young surgeon could play a key role in the turbulent years that were just beginning.
Copyright © 1999 by Dan O’Brien