Up until 1863, relations between white people and the Lakota Indians, in what is now western North Dakota, were very good. Almost all of the Lakota interactions involving white people were with traders, trappers and occasional explorers or artists.
The only incident to be called a battle occurred in mid-July 1851, southeast of present-day Minot, and it was called the Battle of Grand Coteau. In the two-day standoff, one Metis hunter from southern Manitoba and an estimated 15 to 80 Yanktonai Lakota were killed.
During the next dozen years, the relationship between the Lakota and white people generally remained friendly, but in 1863 and 1864, there were six battles that took place in northwestern Dakota Territory, which I will refer to as the Dakota territorial battles, and about 500 Lakota were killed. Also, much of the food and provisions the Lakota needed to get through the winter were destroyed.
The underlying cause for these battles was a Native American uprising in Minnesota in 1862, in which a number of Minnesota settlers were killed. A major reason for the uprising was because of treaty violations by Indian agents and other governmental employees.
After the uprising was crushed, soldiers were sent west from Minnesota to locate Lakota Indians who had taken part in it and bring them to justice, and this contributed to the Dakota territorial battles. However, the vast majority of the Lakota killed in the Dakota territorial battles had nothing to do with the Minnesota uprising — including two of the Lakota involved in the battles, Sitting Bull and Gall.
Enraged at what the soldiers had done during and after the Dakota territorial battles, Gall reportedly led a group of Hankpapa Lakota who killed white men near Fort Buford. What Gall did not know was that in 1865, Gen. Alfred Sully had contracted Bloody Knife to be one of his scouts. Bloody Knife had a Hunkpapa father and an Arikara mother, and was the same age as Gall. The two grew up in the same Hunkpapa camp, but since the Hunkpapa and Arikara were “mortal enemies,” Bloody Knife was considered an outcast by many of the other Hunkpapa children.
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It is reported that one of the leaders of the gang who bullied, taunted, teased, humiliated and frequently beat up Bloody Knife was Gall. Because of the treatment Bloody Knife and his brothers had received, he, along with his mother and siblings, left the Hunkpapa to live in his mother’s Arikara village. In the fall of 1862, Gall was reported to have led an attack on their village, killing Bloody Knife’s two younger brothers. Largely because of Bloody Knife’s past history with Gall, he eagerly accepted Sully’s order to locate the suspected primary perpetrator of the killing of the white men near Fort Buford.
Bloody Knife led a group of U.S. soldiers to a Hunkpapa camp near Fort Berthold where Gall had put up his tepee. He and some of the soldiers entered the tepee to arrest the suspected killer, but when Gall “resisted, he was bayoneted several times.” Gall was then left for dead, however, he miraculously survived.
In 1866, Gall went to the Powder River region of northeastern Wyoming and southern Montana to join Chief Red Cloud, who was actively involved in an attempt to keep white settlers out of the bison-rich region occupied by his tribe. To protect the settlers who had arrived, the U.S. government built nearby military forts, and soon, fighting broke out between American troops and Red Cloud’s Lakota braves.
Because of the success of the Lakota in these battles, the U.S. government felt forced to negotiate with Red Cloud and the other Native American chiefs who supported his efforts. At Fort Laramie, Wyo., in 1868, U.S. government officials met with tribal leaders to negotiate a treaty that “would bring peace to the region.” The government created a Great Sioux Reservation that “encompassed all of western South Dakota, as well as part of northern Nebraska and eastern Montana, and the government provided annuities for those Indians who agreed to live there.”
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The government also closed all of the forts located on the reservation and prohibited white people from settling in the Indian Territory. The southern Lakota tribesmen were willing to live on the reservation, but many of the northern Lakota, including Sitting Bull and Gall, were not.
After the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty, Gall allied himself with those Lakota who refused to live on the reservation. The Lakota witnessed the construction and occupation of a number of military forts in northwestern Dakota Territory, and white farmers began to settle on the land. In 1869, the Lakota who had rejected the Fort Laramie Treaty met in south-central Dakota Territory to form an organization that would “protect their traditional way of life.” Sitting Bull was made supreme chief and Gall became a war chief.
Recalling that the Lakota were able to draw small units of soldiers out of their forts and ambush them in the Powder River area, Gall, with groups of his followers, attempted to do this in northwestern Dakota Territory, but had very little success. He had better luck harassing the troops and rustling a number of the Army’s cattle.
In the summer of 1872, the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad sent surveyors into northern Dakota and Montana territories, “seeking the best route for the nation’s northern transcontinental line.” Since the planned railroad would be going through valued Lakota hunting grounds, the surveyors received a military escort under the command of Col. David Stanley. Twice, a band of Hunkpapa, led by Gall, attacked Stanley’s soldiers in the Powder River area of southwestern Montana, but were driven back by Gatling guns (rapid-fire, multiple-barrel machine guns).
When the survey was completed that year, Stanley’s soldiers returned to Fort Rice, and Gall with 100 warriors followed them back. Gall and his warriors kept an eye out for any small group of soldiers who might venture out of the fort. On Oct. 5, Gall spotted two white officers and a cook venture from the fort to hunt for game, and they were attacked and killed. One of the officers was Lewis Dent Adair, a first cousin of the wife of President Ulysses S. Grant.
This “open defiance” by Gall made him “a truly national figure because of his bold escapades during the 1872 campaign." Because of the brazen actions of Gall, Gen. Philip Sheridan decided to send a much larger escort force with the railroad surveyors in 1873. Over 1,500 soldiers, including the 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. George Custer, assisted with the escort duty.
On Aug. 11, Gall led a force of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in a “charge up a steep bluff along the Yellowstone (River), in what became known as the Battle of the Yellowstone.” Gall’s horse “was shot from under him during the fray, but the agile warrior leaped on a fresh horse and got away.” This battle marked Gall’s first encounter with Custer.
A reporter for the New York Tribune wrote, “The Hunkpapa war chief stood out because of his muscular frame and familiar red blanket.” It has been written that “Gall was very tall and weighed a muscular 260 pounds, with a barrel chest and arms like tree limbs.”
The U.S. Army now knew that, because of Gall, they had a very formidable force to deal with. The best solution was to force Sitting Bull and Gall to surrender and to compel them and their followers to live on a reservation. However, implementing this would require a massive show of force in an ultimate showdown.
We will continue the story of Chief Gall next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.