- Historic Sites
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
Colonel Shafter quickly connected the Few Tails and Plenty Horses incidents. “So long as Indians are being arrested and held for killing armed men under conditions of war,” he telegraphed General Miles on February 23, four days after the apprehension of Plenty Horses, “it seems to me that the white murderers of a part of a band of peaceful Indians should not be permitted to escape punishment.” Miles quite agreed and gave orders not to release Plenty Horses to civil authorities, at the same time pointedly alluding to the need for energetic action against the murderers of Few Tails. Miles also brought the matter to the attention of District Attorney Sterling, whose investigations disclosed that the Few Tails killing came under the jurisdiction of the state courts. Meade County officials protested that their finances could not sustain an expensive prosecution of the Culbertsons, but critics charged that the real explanation lay in a public sentiment that simply would not sanction the conviction of white men for killing Indians. From Young Man Afraid of His Horses, a powerful Oglala chief, came a suggestion for the simplest, most direct means of ensuring justice in both cases. Asked to turn over Plenty Horses as well as another Indian accused of murdering a white man, he responded:
No, I will not surrender them; but if you will bring the white men who killed Few Tails, I will bring the Indians who killed the white soldier and the herder; and right out here in front of your tepee I will have my young men shoot the Indians, and you have your soldiers shoot the white men, and then we will be done with the whole business; they were all bad men.
Reluctantly the state’s attorney in Meade County moved against the Culbertsons. The United States Attorney General had directed Sterling to provide him with federal legal assistance, General Miles had turned over the damning evidence against the brothers collected by army investigators, and the Indian Bureau had agreed to pay the travel expenses of Indian witnesses. The Culbertsons’ trial was set for May 12, although it was later postponed. Against this background, on March 27 General Miles ordered Plenty Horses released to the United States Marshal for South Dakota for trial in the federal district court at Sioux Falls.
As March gave way to April, Plenty Horses still had no defense counsel, and he grew so despondent that visitors to his cell at Fort Meade feared that he might try to take his own life. Both he and his father, Living Bear, had written repeatedly to John H. Burns, a Deadwood lawyer known as a friend of the Indians, imploring him to help. But Burns could not afford to take the case without fee, and the defendant and his family could not scrape together the three to five hundred dollars Burns felt would be needed. Both Burns and Lieutenant Colonel Edwin V. Sumner, commandant of Fort Meade, wrote to the Philadelphia-based Indian Rights Association and described Plenty Horses’ predicament. In turn the association’s corresponding secretary, Herbert Welsh, attempted to get the Indian Bureau to provide counsel. Failing in this, he pledged two hundred dollars in association funds toward the defense. This was still not enough for Burns, but it enabled Plenty Horses to engage two able young Sioux Falls lawyers, George P. Nock and D. E. Powers.
Pretrial formalities took place the second week of April in the Sioux Falls Masonic Temple, which housed the federal district court when it came to town. Curiously, because of the importance of the case, two judges, Edgerton and Shiras by name, presided. District Attorney Sterling handled the prosecution. The judges overruled efforts of counsels Nock and Powers to have the case dismissed, heard a plea of not guilty, and set April 23 as the date of the trial.
Sioux Falls sported a festive air as the trial opened. Widespread public interest had filled the town with hopeful spectators. Rough-looking frontiersmen in broad-brimmed slouch hats and pistol belts mingled with farmers, towns-people, and reporters for eastern newspapers. They jammed the improvised courtroom to suffocation and crowded against the two deputy marshals who guarded the entrance. Plenty Horses commanded universal fascination. He sat without a trace of emotion, a faded blue blanket covering a cheap red shirt and well-worn trousers, plain buckskin moccasins on his feet, thick braids of hair tied with strips of flannel falling on his chest. His father, Living Bear, proved more animated as he gave way to touching shows of affection for his son and sorrow over his plight; each morning he followed as two deputies escorted Plenty Horses to the courtroom and each evening enacted the same ritual as Plenty Horses was returned to his cell. The colorful array of witnesses, lodged at the Merchants’ Hotel, also excited interest. White Moon and Rock Road, erect in their blue uniforms with brass buttons and white trim, made no effort to contain their hatred of the man who had killed Big Nose. Conspicuous, too, were thickset Pete Richard, Broken Arm, Bear Lying Down, and the Oglala He Dog.