The Ordeal of Plenty Horses


The next morning, May 29, the local newspaper reported, Plenty Horses and his Indian friends “marched over to the photograph parlors of Butterfield and Ralston and had their beauty transferred to pasteboard.” Then they proceeded to the railroad depot to board a train for the reservation. A large crowd had gathered to see them off. Ever fond of speeches, the Indians put forward American Horse to say what was on their minds. “What must the Indian do?” the chief asked his white audience. “Die, starve or fight? We ask not much. Give us a chance to learn your ways and do not charge us three prices for what white man gets for one. The spot of snow is melting. Soon the Indian will be no more. Give us a chance, keep your treaty.”

A month later, on July a, 1891, a jury sitting in Sturgis, South Dakota, duly found the Culbertson brothers not guilty of murdering Few Tails. “There was doubtless truth,” observed the Indian Rights Association’s Herbert Welsh, “in the popular belief that the verdict of acquittal, in the trial of Plenty Horses for the murder of Lieutenant Casey, rendered a verdict of guilty in this case an impossibility.” The people of the Black Hills, on the edge of the Sioux reservations, had yet to absorb the tolerance displayed by their fellow citizens in distant Sioux Falls.

The Plenty Horses verdict might have set an important precedent had not the Ghost Dance War—if indeed in historical perspective it can be dignified by that term—turned out to be the last major armed conflict between whites and Indians. As Judge Shiras recognized, war may exist in fact if not in legal theory. Though not an independent sovereignty endowed by the canons of international law with the power to declare war, the Sioux nonetheless possessed the capability of making war. For the judge’s purposes the fact that both belligerents perceived themselves to be at war was sufficient to establish the existence of war. Implicit in his reasoning and hinted at in his charge to the jury—as also evident in military attitudes—were the intolerable implications of the opposite interpretation. If there was no war, how could the failure to bring murder charges in the civil courts against the soldiers who cut down Big Foot’s band at Wounded Knee be explained and justified?

Only when entangled in the white man’s system of justice did Indians have any interest in the semantics of armed conflict. Ordinarily they cared little by what term the white people chose to describe the hostilities that periodically erupted between the two races. But to some Indians who found themselves in predicaments similar to that of Plenty Horses, the precedent of Judge Shiras’ decision might have made a difference. It might have made a difference to the forty Sioux hanged after military trial in 1862 for complicity in the Minnesota uprising, or to the Kiowas Satanta and Big Tree in 1871 when an exasperated General William T. Sherman packed them off to Texas to stand trial in a state court for a wagon-train massacre, or to Modoc Captain Jack and his cohorts in 1873 when a military commission had them executed for the killing of General Edward R. S. Canby during a peace conference in California’s lava beds. But the Indian “wars” had drawn to a close, and the chief consequence of Judge Shiras’ decision was to save a young man in whom two cultures had collided.

The preoccupation of the principals in the case with the war issue had left the motives for the killing largely unexplained. Although not permitted to tell his own story from the witness stand, Plenty Horses granted a lengthy interview to reporter John A. McDonough of the New York World . Describing the confrontation with Casey, Plenty Horses said:

Advice was given this man who wanted to spy on our camp to leave at once. He became very angry and said that he would go away then but return later with soldiers enough to capture our chiefs. I understood him to say that his object in taking them was to kill them. You can understand my state of mind at hearing that we were to suffer still more because we arose to demand the food and clothing the Government owed us. All this passed before my mind and then I thought that right at my side rode a spy from our enemy who was boldly announcing his determination to come back and do us still further injury. He turned to go and a moment later fell dead with a bullet from my gun in his brain.

The only other participant in this meeting who understood English well enough to relate what had been said was Pete Richard. His accounts give no hint of belligerence in Casey’s speech or demeanor. Nor did attorneys Nock and Powers, who presumably had the story from Plenty Horses, charge Casey with any threats in this conference, although Powers suggested in the second trial that while riding with the officer before meeting Richard, Plenty Horses inferred from some remark that the camp was to be attacked and its occupants killed. However, such an approach, besides being contrary to Casey’s known character in dealing with Indians, could not have advanced his immediate purpose, whether it was to talk peace with the chiefs or to get close enough to spy on their camp.

A more likely explanation of Plenty Horses’ motives is the one he himself gave in March to the grand jury that charged him in Deadwood. It stands as a powerful and eloquent indictment of an Indian policy aimed at making over a whole people in the image of their conquerors. As recalled by the foreman of the jury, Valentine T. McGiIIycuddy, a former agent at Pine Ridge, he declared: