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The Ordeal of Plenty Horses
Caught between two cultures, a young Sioux sought to make himself a hero—by killing an army officer
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
Although the slaying of Casey angered as well as saddened the Army, it did not deflect General Miles from his program for ending the troubles without further bloodshed. Within a week, in fact, his strategy of persuasion fortified by intimidation paid off. On January 15, 1891, the Sioux leaders surrendered and laid out their camp at Pine Ridge Agency. A week later the array of regiments that Miles had assembled paraded in final review and began to disperse to home stations. The last Indian “war” had ended.
The Indians at Pine Ridge assumed that the peace relieved Plenty Horses of any threat of reprisal. The killing had occurred in time of war, when everyone was on edge and fearful of an attack by the very forces to which the slain officer belonged. Nobody thought it wrong to kill an enemy under such circumstances. Red Cloud explained to a reporter that he and all other Sioux chiefs deplored the death of Casey, a true friend of the Indian, but regarded it as a misfortune of war for which no one could be blamed or punished.
But the Army thought otherwise. Casey had been treacherously gunned down from behind during a friendly talk aimed at peace, and that, according to white standards of warfare, could not be excused. Before leaving Pine Ridge, General Miles had instructed Colonel William R. Shafter to find and arrest Plenty Horses when it could be done quietly and without exciting the Indians. On February 19 Lieutenant S. A. Cloman and a troop of Oglala scouts seized him in a small camp of Corn Man’s band north of the agency. He was quickly removed from the reservation and clapped in the guardhouse at Fort Meade, about a hundred and twenty-five miles to the north, near Sturgis, South Dakota.
Next arose the vexing question of what to do with Plenty Horses now that he had been arrested. Miles had intended to turn him over to civil authorities for criminal trial, although the precise legal justification for this course—or any other course, for that matter—remained unclear. But the United States District Attorney for South Dakota, William B. Sterling, was demanding the person of Plenty Horses, and a federal grand jury in Deadwood dutifully handed down the required indictment for murder. By now, however, army officers had begun to have second thoughts. Partly they sensed that if Plenty Horses’ offense was not an act of war, then some military deeds during the recent troubles might not stand up as acts of war either. Partly they felt genuine sympathy for Plenty Horses, entangled in the complexities of a system of justice he did not understand and could not cope with. But mainly the Army’s change of heart sprang from another tragedy with which the Plenty Horses affair had become inseparably linked in the public consciousness.
On January 11, before the surrender and while residents of settlements outside the reservations still feared a general Indian war, two Oglala families broke camp on the Belle Fourche River and resumed their journey by wagon toward Pine Ridge. Bearing an official pass from their agent, they had been hunting near Bear Butte. When scarcely three hundred yards from the night’s campsite the travellers were met by a fusillade of rifle bullets fired from ambush. The two horses pulling the lead wagon dropped in their traces. Few Tails, the driver, slumped dead in his seat, a bullet through his face and one in his chest. Clown, his wife, jumped from the wagon and was knocked down by bullets. In the second wagon One Feather lashed the horses into a run as a shot struck his wife, Red Owl, and as his thirteen-year-old daughter and infant child cowered amid the meat in the wagon bed. Pausing later to abandon the wagon and place his family on horseback, One Feather fought a courageous rear-guard action against his assailants, who finally gave up the pursuit rather than get too close to his Winchester. Two weeks later One Feather’s family reached Rosebud Agency exhausted and hungry, Red Owl weak from loss of blood, the infant dead of starvation. Clown survived, too. In an extraordinary five-day feat of determination and endurance, with a bullet in her breast and another in her leg, she made her painful way across a hundred miles of frozen prairie to Pine Ridge Agency, where she arrived on January 18 almost dead from her wounds and exposure.
Military investigations established beyond question that the perpetrators of this cold-blooded act were three Culbertson brothers who owned a ranch near the scene of the killing. The Culbertsons contended that the Indians had stolen horses from them and had fired first, but this hollow explanation collapsed under the weight of accumulating evidence. Pete Culbertson revealed truer motives when he boasted: “I have shot one of those damned Government pets, and if any more of them want to be fixed, let them come this way.”