December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
Caught between two cultures, a young Sioux sought to make himself a hero—by killing an army officer
On January 8, 1891, newspapers throughout the United States headlined a tragic event in the Indian troubles rocking the Sioux reservations of South Dakota. A talented and popular army officer attempting to enter a hostile encampment to talk peace had been treacherously slain by a young Sioux warrior. The death of Lieutenant Edward W. Casey shocked and saddened his legions of friends and admirers. For Plenty Horses, his killer, it was part of an ordeal that personalizes in one tragic figure the cultural disaster that befell the American Indians after dwindling land and game forced them to submit to the grim life of the reservation.
The killing of Lieutenant Casey took place as the last important Indian conflict in American history drew to an unhappy close. The Sioux had suffered a decade of cultural disintegration under the impact of reservation programs aimed at “civilizing” them. Old customs and institutions had been perverted or destroyed and no satisfactory new ones substituted. A massive land grab, a succession of broken promises, and hunger and sickness completed the plunge into despair. In desperation many of the people turned to the Ghost Dance religion, which held forth the bright promise of a return to the old way of life—the white people would be swept away, the buffalo would once again blacken the plains, and generations of ancestors would come back to life to dwell with the faithful in paradise.
Among other tribes that danced the Ghost Dance in quest of the millennium, the new religion retained the pacifist teachings of its founder, a Nevada Paiute named Wovoka. But among the Sioux, oppressed by special misfortunes, it took a violent turn. The apostles Short Bull and Kicking Bear urged their followers to hasten the day of deliverance by force, and they invented “ghost shirts” to stop the bullets of any white people disposed to resist. The excitement reached a peak in November, 1890. The agent at Pine Ridge appealed for military support, and in the next few weeks the Army flooded the five Sioux reservations with the largest concentration of troops the nation had seen since the last days of the Civil War.
Some five hundred lodges of the most fanatical dancers, largely Brulé Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation, took refuge in a natural fortress located in the extreme north-western corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was on these Indians that Generals Nelson A. Miles and John R. Brooke focused their attempts to calm the excitement and prevent an armed collision. By the end of December their efforts had largely succeeded, and the dancers made their way, fearfully and hesitantly, up White Clay Creek to Pine Ridge Agency.
Then, on December 29, the 7th Cavalry tried to disarm Big Foot’s band of Miniconjou Sioux on Wounded Knee Creek, twenty miles east of Pine Ridge Agency. The exploding artillery shells that cut down the old chief’s people also shattered the precarious peace. Frightened and angry, Two Strike’s Brulés stampeded back down White Clay Valley. Many Pine Ridge Oglalas, including the venerable old chief Red Cloud, went along. About fifteen miles north of the agency, at a place called No Water, they met the followers of Short Bull and Kicking Bear and went into camp. Altogether there were about four thousand Indians, some eight hundred to a thousand of them fighting men. As mangled survivors of Wounded Knee drifted in to stir passions further the chiefs heatedly argued the next move.
General Miles adroitly exploited the divided opinion of the Sioux leadership. He ringed the big camp with an overwhelming array of military power—close enough to make the Indians nervous and to agitate the debate over war or peace but not so close as to set off another stampede. In this tense atmosphere, as Miles carefully applied both military and diplomatic pressure, Plenty Horses and Lieutenant Casey confronted each other.
Senika-Wakan-Ota, Plenty Horses, was a youth of twenty-two in 1891. His family belonged to the band of old Two Strike, since the death of Spotted Tail the most important chief of the Brulé Sioux tribe. Plenty Horses’ father, Living Bear, was a cousin of Two Strike and a respected headman of the band. Plenty Horses himself—tall, handsome, with broad shoulders and deep chest, low forehead, prominent nose, and large brown eyes—looked the very embodiment of the ideal Sioux warrior.
But beneath the veneer Plenty Horses also embodied the cultural dilemma of the Indian generation to which he belonged. In his formative years he had been steeped in the values of the old Indian way of life, which centered on hunting, warfare, and an intensely personal religion bound to the phenomena of nature. The rest of his years had been passed in a reservation environment, where government officials and missionaries assailed these values and sought to transform his people into placid Christian farmers embracing the values of white America. The aim, as one Commissioner of Indian Affairs put it with unintended irony, was to make the Indian feel at home in America.
For Plenty Horses the acculturation process had been particularly intense, for he had spent five years, from 1883 to 1888, as a pupil at the Indian boarding school at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Here Captain Richard H. Pratt went about the task of converting Indians into white people with dedicated zeal. Teachers remembered Plenty Horses as a quiet student of average intelligence who made little progress during his five years at the school. Even so, when he returned to his home on the Rosebud Reservation, he was no longer an Indian. But as anyone could plainly see, he was not a white person either. Later he explained:
I found that the education I had received was of no benefit to me. There was no chance to get employment, nothing for me to do whereby I could earn my board and clothes, no opportunity to learn more and remain with the whites. It disheartened me and I went back to live as I had before going to school. To forget my school habits and English speech was an easy matter.
Once more Plenty Horses donned blanket and moccasins and wore his hair in long thick braids. But because he resembled the white man too much in other ways, his own people would not accept him fully. Like other Carlisle graduates who went back to the reservation, Plenty Horses lived miserably in a shadow world neither Indian nor white. His countenance and demeanor suggested a state of perpetual melancholy, both reflecting and containing the conflict within. Even among a people noted for stoicism Plenty Horses’ stoical character occasioned remark. He grew less and less confident in his command of English. When he used it at all, it was with evident labor and a fear of conveying unintended meaning. For young people thus confused and frustrated the Ghost Dance held a powerful attraction. Although apparently skeptical of the religion, Plenty Horses promptly threw in with the dancers and embraced their purposes.
Ned Casey struggled with no such problems of adjustment or identity. A graduate of West Point in 1873, he had served for almost two decades as an officer of the 2and Infantry. His low rank did not reflect his stature in the military community but rather the ponderous workings of the promotion system, which was controlled strictly by seniority. Genial, gregarious, well-liked, and respected, he was a superb soldier. “The sun will never shine upon a better,” declared artist Frederic Remington. Casey had demonstrated outstanding leadership as a field officer in the Sioux campaigns of 1877 and had won plaudits for gallantry in the Battle of Muddy Creek that May. Four years as a tactics instructor at West Point testified to his intellectual endowments and gave him a reputation as an expert tactician. Besides obvious abilities, Casey enjoyed excellent family connections. The Army’s infantry-tactics manual was written by his father, General Silas Casey, a distinguished veteran of the Mexican and Civil wars, and his brother, General Thomas Lincoln Casey, had headed the Army Corps of Engineers since 1888. With good reason Ned Casey, even though still a first lieutenant at forty, was widely regarded as a prospective general.
Lieutenant Casey’s most recent achievements were as an officer of Cheyenne Indian scouts. His station, Fort Keogh, Montana, stood near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and in 1889 he asked authority to enlist a scout troop from among the young men of the reservation. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs opposed the scheme as detrimental to government civilization programs, but Casey prevailed. The Cheyennes had ably served General Miles as scouts in the late 1870’s, and Casey had no difficulty attracting recruits. He gave them firm, conscientious, and sympathetic leadership sharpened by uncommon insight into Indian character. They repaid his solicitude with veneration and affectionately named him Big Nose. Quickly he molded them into an elite unit.
In the Pine Ridge operations of 1890–91 Casey’s scouts served creditably as a reconnaissance force. In the tense days following Wounded Knee they were attached to a cavalry squadron, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George B. Sanford, that occupied a position on White River near the mouth of White Clay Creek, about eight miles north of the “hostile” camp at No Water. Other units were deployed to the east and west. General Brooke supervised the White River line, while General Miles exercised overall command from Pine Ridge Agency. Casey’s scouts acted as Brooke’s eyes, keeping the Sioux village under observation and even meeting almost daily with warriors who slipped out to exchange news. On January 6, in fact, a half-dozen Sioux conferred with Lieutenant Casey himself. Their report of sentiment in the camp convinced him that he might further the cause of peace by personally talking with some of the Brulé and Oglala chiefs. With this in mind he set forth the next morning on the fatal ride up White Clay Creek.
Plenty Horses set forth that morning, too, his heart black with recent experiences. He had fled to the Bad Lands with Two Strike’s band following the appearance of soldiers at Rosebud and Pine Ridge in November. A month later he had come to Pine Ridge Agency after General Brooke’s patient diplomacy detached Two Strike’s people from the more fanatical followers of Short Bull and Kicking Bear. On December 29 Plenty Horses had heard the distant rumble of guns and hastened to Wounded Knee. “It was an awful sight,” he remembered. “The survivors told such a pitiful tale.”
The next day Plenty Horses joined with other young men in attacking and routing the 7th Cavalry at Drexel Mission, then rode down White Clay Valley to the big camp at No Water. It rocked with intense excitement. Inflamed by Wounded Knee, the Indians danced the Ghost Dance and worked to erect defenses against the attack they feared would come. On the morning of January 7, Plenty Horses later stated, “I was out from the camp watching that no troops came to harm my father and relatives. Of course I was in a bad frame of mind. Our home was destroyed, our family separated, and all hope of good times was gone. There was nothing to live for.”
Plenty Horses was one of a party of about forty Sioux that chanced on Casey and two Cheyenne scouts, White Moon and Rock Road, on the slope of a low hill about two and a half miles north of the No Water camp. After a round of friendly handshaking and an exchange of pleasantries most of the Sioux drifted down the hillside to where other Indians were butchering cattle. About ten, including Plenty Horses, remained to talk with the white officer. Through Rock Road, who could speak a little English, Casey asked if one of the Indians would volunteer to ride back to the village and persuade some of the chiefs, perhaps even Red Cloud, to come out for a parley. Old Broken Arm, whose left arm hanging limp at his side explained his name, turned to a tall slender man with a painted face named Bear Lying Down and directed him to carry the message. Bear Lying Down had married a sister of Plenty Horses’ mother and thus was his uncle.
As Bear Lying Down galloped up the valley Casey, for reasons that are not apparent, sent Rock Road back to White River. Then he proceeded at a slow walk, following the trail of Bear Lying Down. Plenty Horses rode beside him, and they conversed in English. White Moon and Broken Arm followed.
At the No Water village Bear Lying Down interrupted a council in Red Cloud’s tepee, where some of the chiefs had been debating whether to heed General Miles’s appeal to come to the agency for peace talks. The invitation had been relayed by Pete Richard. Richard was one of a veritable tribe of mixed-bloods, part French and part Indian, that moved comfortably in both white and Indian worlds. Several generations of Richards (or Reshaws) had figured conspicuously in Sioux affairs for a half century. Of massive frame, swarthy countenance, and bristling black mustache and eyebrows, he spoke English haltingly and with a heavy French accent. He handled Sioux much better, and as Red Cloud’s son-in-law he carried considerable influence with the chiefs. They had just decided to hold a conference with Miles when He Dog, who was Red Cloud’s nephew and an Oglala subchief in his own right, came in with Bear Lying Down. After listening to Casey’s message Red Cloud told Pete Richard to hurry out and warn the officer to turn back, that the vicinity was full of crazy young bucks who might kill him, and that Red Cloud and others had already agreed to go to the agency the very next day and talk with General Miles.
Richard and Bear Lying Down met Casey and his companions about one and a half miles from the Sioux camp. After shaking hands all around they sat their horses in a rough circle while Richard and Casey talked. As Richard later described the meeting:
The Lieutenant shook hands with me, and I asked him where he was going, and he answered, “General Brooke sent me down here.” I then told him that he had better go back, and that Red Cloud had sent me down to tell him so, and that the Chiefs were going in to see General Miles the next day. He then asked me if it would be safe to go to the top of the hill above the camp. I told him that he had better go home at once for the young fellows were just the same as if they were drunk or crazy. I then showed Lieutenant Casey a pass that General Miles had given me, and told him that if Red Cloud could not come into the Agency, he would steal away and go to General Brooke’s camp. I then told him again to go away at once, and he said he would go.…
During this conversation Plenty Horses had slowly backed his horse out of the circle and posted himself about three or four feet behind Casey. As Richard and the officer wheeled their horses to depart Plenty Horses took his Winchester from under his blanket, calmly raised it to his shoulder, and fired one shot. The bullet tore into the back of Casey’s head and came out just under the right eye. The horse reared and pitched its rider from the saddle. Casey crashed to the ground on his face, dead.
White Moon started to leave, but Richard called him back and told him to take Casey’s horse and accouterments with him. White Moon refused all but the horse. Broken Arm dismounted and turning the dead man on his back opened his overcoat and took his two pistols. Plenty Horses, meanwhile, had begun to ride slowly toward the village. “Why don’t you shoot Plenty Horses?” White Moon asked Richard in sign language. “Why don’t you shoot him yourself?” Richard signalled back. Dispatching Bear Lying Down to alert Red Cloud to the killing, Richard accompanied the Cheyenne scout down the valley to report to General Brooke. That afternoon Casey’s scouts, now commanded by Lieutenant Robert N. Getty, rode out to recover the body of their beloved Big Nose.
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.”
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.
On the trial’s second day the Indian visitors were given a treat. It turned out to be a pathetic reminder of the descent from past glories of these once-powerful lords of the plains. A corral on the edge of town contained seventeen buffalo, a pitiful remnant of the millions that once provided the Sioux with almost every material want and contributed so vitally to the shape of their political and social institutions and spiritual beliefs. The last of the great herds had vanished nearly a decade earlier, and the sight of these few survivors brought such joy to the Indians that they cavorted about like excited children. Broken Arm and He Dog even climbed into the pen and tried to hug the animals, only to be thrown roughly aside by a surly shake of the head. They then, as a reporter described it, “scampered about, although at the risk of their lives, and in general made so free with the animals that the latter looked around as though dazed at the proceedings.”
The defense strategy became apparent even in the selection of jurors and followed a consistent course in the cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and the questioning of defense witnesses. Nock and Powers sought to demonstrate that the Army and the Sioux, and specifically Casey and Plenty Horses, viewed themselves as belligerents engaged in warfare and that the killing of a belligerent during a state of war could not be regarded as a criminal offense within the competence of the civil courts. The prosecution vigorously contested the admissibility of evidence bearing on the state of mind of the Sioux and conditions in the No Water camp. The judges failed to resolve the question definitively. They ruled that the court had jurisdiction over the case but that evidence on the war issue could be introduced “in a general way as a mitigating circumstance.” Three days of testimony established beyond doubt that Plenty Horses had fired the fatal bullet and also indicated fairly conclusively that, in the aftermath of the bloody affair at Wounded Knee, the Indians in the No Water camp regarded themselves as at war with the white soldiers.
Paradoxically, the central figure of the trial played almost no part in it. Throughout he sat impassive and expressionless, betraying no emotion, speaking but rarely and then only to Nock or Powers. Almost certainly he understood very little of what happened. On one occasion he expressed admiration for the oratorical style of Sterling even as the District Attorney roundly excoriated him. There can be little question that Plenty Horses viewed the whole proceeding as some sort of ritual the white people had to honor before slipping a noose around his neck and hanging him.
The ultimate irony in this strange lack of involvement in his own trial came on April 28, when Nock and Powers called Plenty Horses himself to the stand. The Indian witnesses had given their testimony through an interpreter, and Philip Wells was sworn for this purpose along with Plenty Horses. Pointing out that the defendant had been a Carlisle student for five years, District Attorney Sterling objected to an interpreter. After asking Plenty Horses a few questions in English, Judge Edgerton sustained the objection. Nock argued heatedly that to convey the exact meanings essential to his defense Plenty Horses must speak in his native tongue. To force him to use English would seriously prejudice his case, and it could not be allowed. Testily Judge Shiras reaffirmed his colleague’s ruling. “Then we refuse to permit Plenty Horses to testify,” declared Nock, “and we also close our case.” Stunned, the crowd filed quietly from the courtroom. “I wanted to tell them all that I am not guilty of murder,” said Plenty Horses on the way out. “If they do not care to hear me I am satisfied. Probably it is better that way.”
The next day, after eloquent and emotional summations by prosecution and defense, Judge Shiras charged the jury. Although the Sioux did not constitute an independent nation with legal authority to declare war, he said, they still had the power to go to war. If the jurors felt that a state of war existed in actual if not legal fact, they should acquit the defendant. If they judged a war not to be in progress and Plenty Horses to have shot Casey with malice and deliberation, they should find him guilty of murder. If in the second circumstance the killing had occurred without premeditation and in a condition of great mental excitement, the verdict should be manslaughter. The jury, composed largely of farmers of average intelligence, deliberated all night and finally, at noon on April 30, confessed to a hopeless deadlock. The vote stood, on the twenty-third as on the first ballot, at six for murder and six for manslaughter—in effect a hung jury, though there was no question in its collective mind of Plenty Horses’ guilt.
After the jury was dismissed, Plenty Horses sat without evident emotion as he had throughout the trial. Not so Living Bear; all morning he had paced the corridors, repeatedly asking a deputy how things were going. Now he made his way through the crowd to attorney Nock and, with tears streaming from his eyes, pumped the lawyer’s hand and poured forth his gratitude. Later Plenty Horses relaxed a bit. He would have to face another trial, but now he saw that it was not just a formality before taking him to the gallows. “I thought last night that they would hang me sure,” he said, “but now I feel that it will not be so. My father is glad once more.”
The second trial, which opened in the same courtroom on May 23 and featured much the same cast of characters, followed a script similar to the first. Plenty Horses looked pale and wasted, the result of prolonged confinement, and endured the proceedings as impassively as ever. A bright red shirt and yellow neckerchief, the gift of an admirer, added color to his appearance. Broken Arm, Bear Lying Down, He Dog, and the scouts White Moon and Rock Road told their stories again, while the eloquent and able old chief American Horse described conditions among the Sioux after Wounded Knee. The defense trapped White Moon in some inconsistencies. Mortified, he bought a jackknife and repaired to the hotel room occupied by He Dog and Woman’s Dress. When these two returned to their room after lunch, they found White Moon sprawled on a bloody bed, the knife driven into his chest to the hilt. A doctor, hurriedly summoned, gave emergency treatment, and within a day White Moon had so far recovered as to board a train for his home in Montana.
Once more the prosecution and defense wrangled over the relevance of the war issue. In the previous trial Nock and Powers had demonstrated that the Indians regarded themselves as engaged in war with the white soldiers, but no evidence had been presented to show how the Army viewed the question. In fact, District Attorney Sterling had recently called on General Miles at his Chicago headquarters to see if he would come to Sioux Falls and testify that there had been no war. “My boy,” the newspapers reported Miles as replying, “it was a war. You do not suppose that I am going to reduce my campaign to a dress-parade affair?” And with that the general sent a staff officer, Captain Frank D. Baldwin, to appear for the defense. Baldwin’s testimony, together with military reports introduced in evidence, clearly established the Army’s view that, as Miles had declared, it was a war. Baldwin also conceded under questioning that Casey could even be regarded as a spy in enemy territory, although he made it plain (”as a cold smile played around his gray mustache,” observed a reporter) that “we do not call such a thing spying, we call it reconnoitering.”
Baldwin’s testimony coupled with the military documents proved decisive. “There is no need of going further with this case,” Judge Shiras announced after the lunch recess. To astonished participants and spectators he explained that the guilt or innocence of Plenty Horses turned wholly on the war issue. The defense had shown beyond doubt that war existed. If Wounded Knee was not a battle in a war, the soldiers were guilty of murder. Had Casey shot and killed Plenty Horses while reconnoitering the No Water camp, he surely would not have been charged with murder in the civil courts. The slaying of Casey, therefore, could only be called an act of war, and Judge Shiras could not accept any verdict other than acquittal. After a brief discussion without even leaving the room, the jurors obediently complied with their instructions, although a poll later taken by a newspaperman disclosed that left to their own deliberations, they would have convicted Plenty Horses of manslaughter.
Before the judge could dismiss the defendant and gavel the trial to a close, the courtroom exploded with cheers, for public sympathy had swung to the sad, lonely figure in the prisoner’s dock. As Powers grasped the hand of his client in congratulation a watching reporter could find no hint of joy in Plenty Horses’ demeanor. “On his face there was no trace of delight, as before there had been none of anxiety or fear.” Another observer, however, saw tears on the Indian’s cheeks and heard him murmur, “I am free! Good, good, good!” For an hour after the formal adjournment of the court well-wishers crowded around Plenty Horses, shaking his hand. Later, in the street outside, the Indians who had gathered for the trial enacted a similar ceremony. “I am glad you are free,” said the stately American Horse. “You killed Casey; that was bad. He was a brave man and a good one. He did much for the Indian, but the whites cruelly starved us into such a condition that the young men were crazy and you did not know what you did.”
Meanwhile the witness most responsible for the abrupt termination of the trial chatted with Nock and Powers. Captain Baldwin and Lieutenant Casey had been close friends ever since their service under General Miles against the Sioux in 1877. Baldwin could not hold back his tears as he talked about Casey’s death. “But Casey was on hostile ground,” he said, “and died like a soldier. If he could be alive today and appear as a witness, he would not desire the punishment of this poor savage.”
That night at the hotel, unbending enough to describe his feelings, Plenty Horses commented: “I am awful glad. I will go back to the agency and be a good Indian. I will ride my pony and be once more happy.” Expressing gratitude to his attorneys, he invited them to come out and visit him at Rosebud and offered them a ride on his father’s ponies, “with the additional inducement of plenty of dog soup,” according to one listener.
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:
I am an Indian. Five years I attended Carlisle and was educated in the ways of the white man.… I was lonely. I shot the lieutenant so I might make a place for myself among my people. Now I am one of them. I shall be hung and the Indians will bury me as a warrior. They will be proud of me. I am satisfied.
But Plenty Horses did not make a place for himself among his people. Today old Indians on the Rosebud Reservation dimly remember him as a lonely figure living quietly with his wife, Josephine, and son, Charles, in a one-room log cabin on Oak Creek, “quite unloved” by neighbors and acquaintances. Agency files record his death on June 15, 1933, a year after the death of his wife and son. For Plenty Horses the fame he had sought with his people had flashed as briefly as it had brightly.