27 April 2010

Historic Battle of Blue Creek Attracted Carrion Birds

The mighty Sioux Expedition of the U.S. Army was traversing the western frontier of the Nebraska and Dakota Territories in 1855, dealing with conditions and noting the apparent scenes and situations. Included among the historic record was a particular journal that is a dramatic record for two species along the North Platte River, noted among so many other ancillary entries in a journal from many other places on the frontier.

Lieutenant Gouverneur Kemble Warren was an officer with the Sioux Expedition led by General William Selby Harney, U.S. Army. The caravan, comprised of a few hundred men with associated stock-drawn wagons and equipment, left Fort Pierre, traversed through the eastern sand hills, and after a hiatus at Fort Kearny on the Platte, continuing westward to what would be a day of infamy of the American west.

Lt. Warren's journal conveys the minutiae of events, when after the tragedy of battle, he mentioned of a couple of types of birds, which contribute unique details essential to any consideration of historic ornithology.

Using the original notes written by Warren, the scenario for the scene is best presented as actually experienced by this military officer. The following transcription of the pertinent days is based on the hand-written journal of the Lieutenant, and is derived from an interpretation of a printed copy of the microfilm record and ancillary documents which help with proper spelling of names. Although this is a lengthy account to get a couple of records for birds, the historic context is very profound and conveys a few days in the middle 1850s when military forces were encroaching upon the typicals ways of life on the plains.

To set the scene, the military caravan of the Sioux Expedition was going westward along the lower extent of the North Platte River, west of the Platte River fork in the Nebraska territory.

"Sunday Sept. 2

"The last part of the descent into Ash Hollow is exceedingly bad. I think with 20 men in a week the whole could be made so that teams need not be even doubled in ascending.

"It has been very hot to day and one horse gave out. Two had been left at morning camp. - About noon passed a return train from Laramie. Report 40 Lodges of Brules under Little Thunder encamped opposite Ash Hollow, 2 miles from river. ...

"During the evening no Indians came in from the camp which was plainly visible from the Bluffs about 5 miles distant and the lodges were variously counted between 26 & 33. The guide Lesson said the camp was on a small running stream about knee deep.

"Genl. Harney having concluded to attack them in the morning and sent for most of his officers obtained their opinions and unfolded his plans. The result was that the mounted force / 1 co. of Art. under Capt. Howe, 1 Co. dragoons under Capt. Steele, 1 Co. do under Lieut. Robertson, 1 mounted Inf. under Capt. Heth / under Col. Cooke was to set out quietly at 3 next morning and gain a position in rear of their camp. The Infantry under Maj. Curry (Five companies under Maj. North, Capt. Todd, Capt. Wharton, Lieut. Patterson and Lieut. McCleary) to set out at reveille (4 a.m. their usual hour of march) and proceed directly to the Indian Camp.

"Capt. Van Vliet and Lieut. Clark quartermasters stayed behind to guard the train as did also Lieut. Balch with his stores.

"Monday Sept. 3rd

"The plan made last night was fully carried out, the only exception being that the Infantry were not allowed to cross the river till it was sufficiently light for us to see their lodges, and thus give all the time that could be allowed for the mounted force to get into position.

Genl. Harney and his staff accompanied the Infantry. After crossing the river and advancing about a mile some Indians mounted were seen on the low round hills to our right, and having satisfied themselves set off at a gallop for their villages. As soon as we could see the Indians camp we discovered they were running off up the valley of the stream, and by the time we came opposite it had struck nearly all the lodges and gone. The hindermost kept about a mile in advance. We did not go through the villages but left it about 1/2 mile to our left.

"Capt. Todd's Co. formed the advance as guard, and I having obtained permission from Genl. Harney, accompanied him.

"It soon became evident that we were not going to come up with the enemy, and Genl. Harney was very apprehensive he would escape especially so from the first thrust. Maj. Northrup, who had been sent to the right to reconnoiter had reported that he believed the ground was too bad for the mounted men to reach their position. In order to gain time and to learn something of the desperation of these Indians, Genl. H. sent the Interpreter Campbell forward to propose a talk upon which the Chief Little Thunder came out to meet him and said he would come in if the troops were halted so as not to approach nearer his people. This being done a halt took place on both sides, and the talk began and lasted about half an hour. Both sides being anxious spectators but few knowing it nature and none the result. I heard only a portion, as I was much of the time on a hill to our right, reconnoitering.

"I could see Indians on all the prominent hills, and a large number were on the side of the steep rocky bluffs to our left front. A number of men were immediately in front of us and when they saw me horses went our further to our right to watch me. Not being able on my part to see anything of our mounted force and being apprehensive that my position would lead them to think or suspect what it was waiting for, I came down, and reported.

"The substance of the talk was Genl. H. you sent for me to come and fight you or have a talk and now you are running away. Little Thunder said he did not want to fight and he was afraid to talk with so many soldiers. He acknowledged there were bad men in his party but that he had done all he could for peace. He said if we were bad why would we be here. Why not have gone off like the other Indians. He said the Indian agent had sent for him. I do not know all he said about the agent. Genl. H. told him we did not want him to stay here. That they only did so to steal and plunder. Only the other day they had gone into some emigrants camp, and kicked over his coffee pot. That their great father had paid them to keep off this road and let his white children pass and that as for the Indian agt. He (Genl. H.) did not mind what he said more than the [letters not legible]ing of a prairie day. That they must fight he wanted to fight them They had fallen on 30 of our men at Laramie hundreds at once and wiped them out, and none stood up to help them, now he was ready to fight, he wanted them to come on, he had not come here for nothing.

"This talk was much lengthened till finally a great stir was observed and judging (or as it afterwards proved aright) that they had discovered the mounted force in their rear. Genl. H. told him to go and to tell his young men they must fight, he mounted and was off like an arrow.

"The advance was sounded and by the time the chief had joined his comrades, the firing in our part commenced, with the mini ball. The range being at least 1/3 or half a mile. The Indians at full speed ran in every direction [words not legible] the top of the hills and if any were killed before this was affected they were carried off. The Ind. assembled in a large body on top of the hill which toward us was very steep and cut up with ravines. The creek was also between us and the Indians.

"This creek was an unexpected sight to most of us, beautiful clear water sandy bottom thick grassy on banks 3 to 4 ft. deep 20 to 30 wide and exceedingly crooked.

"The Sioux call it Mee-na To wakh-pah Creek, or Blue Water Creek.

"Capt. Todd as soon as he began ferry crossed the stream and moved up the heights to our left. Majr. Cady with two companies towards the right. The reserve was soon detached to support Capt. Todd. The firing of our troops in the Indians rear was now heard and as this was the first certain information we had of their presence our man sent up portrayed shouts.

"The Indians immediately fled from the hill. Crossing the valley toward the east receiving a flank fire from Maj. Cady, and direct in their rear from those who had gained the hill all however at great range. They were pursued at full speed by the dragoons for several miles between 8 & 12 and, many killed, all the troops joined in the chase, but those not mounted were soon distanced.

"The mounted Inf. lost precious time from getting entangled in a slough.

"The recall was sound about 9 a.m., and the troops had all returned by 12, bringing in many prisoners and horses.

"I went as far as Genl. Harney's staff went; none of which could get ahead of the Infantry during the fight with getting their fire. I picked up a little Indian girl and took her to Genl. H. and there handed her over the Campbell. At this time the recall having been sounded, I went with others in search of the wounded. The sight on top of the hill was heard rendering - wounded women & children crying and moaning, horribly mangled by the bullets. Most of this had been occasioned by these creatures taking refuge in holes in the rocks, and armed Indians sheltering themselves in the same places. These latter fired upon our men killing 2 men & wounding another of the artillery company. Our troops then fired in upon their retreat. Two Indian men were killed in the whole and two as they came out. 7 women were killed in the hole & 3 children. 2 of them in their mother's arms. One young woman was wounded in the left shoulder the ball going in above and coming out below her arm. I put her on my horse. Another handsome young squaw was badly wounded just above her left knee and the same ball wounded her baby in the right knee. Her case interested me much she cried so much, and was continually turning to her babe and singing in the most distressing tones 'tu-kee-ee-e-e' (chick-a-see-e-e-e) with sobs and sighs. Her words mean o god - my poor child. Her father has also been killed. I had a litter made and put her and her child upon it. I found another girl of about 12 years lying with her head down in a ravine and apparently dead observing her breath. I had a man take her in his arms she was shot through both feet. I found a little boy, shot through the calves of his leg & through his hams. I took in my arms. He had enough strength left to hold me round the neck, with his piteous look we proceeded down the hill and placing them on the bank of the Blue Water. I made a shelter to keep off the sun and bathed their wounds with the stream. This same office has performed for those brought in wounded by the others in the morning. One little girl was shot in the right breast. A boy in the thigh another in his arm. A poor Ogallallah woman was shot badly in the shoulder by a dragoon after the fight was over he saw her concealed in the grass and mistook her for a man. This woman and the one I brought down the hill on my horse were in some way left behind. All the others were brought to Dr. Ridgeley and from him and all his assistants received all the attention that skill and humanity could bestow.

"I did not get back to camp till the last of the command (10 P.M.) at which time it was raining hard. During the morning we had the prospect of a thunder shower to the S.W. and heard the noise. At 9 o'clock P.M. we had a slight one from the N.E.

"After getting to camp I aided in dress their wounds.

"I had endeavored to take a topographical sketch of the scene, but the calls of humanity prevented my doing much.

"The wounds received by our men were very severe. 5 of them mortal ones.

"The Indian men did not fight while running would do but when cornered they defend themselves nobly. The spirit of our men in no instance foiled them in their attack on these desperate savage and all that stopped were killed some it is said with the sword.

"One of the Indian guides ?Desomet who went out with the dragoons armed with my shot gun had a most narrow escape with his life.

"The infantry took him for an enemy and charged upon him, he laid down the gun to show he was a friend (he could not speak English) and the arrival of some one who knew him saved his life. The gun however was captured by a man of Capt. Todd's Co. who claimed to have shot an Indian with his own gun. The hero of this achievement felt very little next morning when I proved the gun was mine and the man who carried it was alive. I was disgusted with the tales of valor on the field, for there were but few who killed anything but a flying foe.

"The feeling of sympathy for the wounded women and children and deep regret for their being so, I found universal. It could not be helped.

"Many papers were picked up belonging to the mail that was robbed at the time 3 men killed, and other evidences showing there were plenty of bad Indians in camp. [word not legible] were also found supposed to have been taken at the Gratton massacre. In fact Little Thunder did not deny that his band were engaged in their affairs. Little Thunder it is thought is not killed and as he impressed us favorably we felt glad he was not.

"Campbell says there is 31 lodges of Brules 11 of Ogallallahs. There were between 60 & 70 prisoners (5 Ogallallahs the squaws & 3 children 2 of the latter wounded, of Chanta Pertan gah - he is probably a good Indian I have his papers). There were horses & mules taken & all the lodges with nearly all their property. The Indian camp was broken up with great haste breakfast was just cooking. Many of them had not eaten. When I gave the little girl I took first, a piece of chocolate, no one could get her to leave me, she was so hungry.

"There were altogether perhaps 80 or 90 men 160 squaws children."

Clouds had filled the sky nearly all day, according to Warren's meteorological report, given in his official government report. "... Showers were in several parts of the horizon with thunder; 9 p.m., commenced raining hard." This would have soon after sunset.

"Tuesday Sept. 4th

"The mounted force under Col. Cooke were sent out this morning to scout and complete the gathering of the plunder.

"I went with him and had an opportunity to perfect my sketch.

"There was no evidence of any Indians having returned. Gen. Harney moved camp from Ash Hollow to mouth of Blue Water. Encamped on north side of Platte.

"Days march, 3 miles.

"The wounded baby died this morning. Its mother does nothing but cry and moan and as my tent is near the hospital tents it distresses me greatly.

"Wednesday Sept. 5

"Genl. Harney having decided to leave a company at Ash Hollow in charge of the wounded I went down with him accompanied by Capt. Todd to lay out a fort for them. It was all done by noon. Genl. H. said it must be a square and enclosed all around. It was so laid out (see sketch) being 100 feet square with sod walls, 3 feet thick at bottom and six feet high. It was right at the edge of the bank in the best way we could to command the bank of the river. The fort was commenced in the afternoon. It is called for Gratton. (All the officers opposed building this fort.)

"I commenced preparing a sketch of the Blue Water Cr. & battleground and my reported completed both in pencil.

"Day warm.

"Thursday Sept. 6

"Completed my sketch and report in and made copies. Wrote to Father, Capt. Humphrey, and St. [name not legible].

"Genl. H. moved camp over the Blue Water, just before sunset we witnessed the passage of grasshoppers in a cloud across the Platte directly over our heads. Had a heavy rain right afterwards.

"Friday Sept. 7

"To day went to examine the progress of Ft. Gratton found one side and one bastion done. One other side and bastion completed during the day.

"Examined Ash Hollow on the west side found no way of getting up superior in its natural state to the one now used.

"Des Coteaux went out to examine the Indian camp and found two women and two children unable to bring them in he left them. Their feet were sore and they had no moccasins. It was reported to Genl. Harney.

"Saturday Sept. 8

"Maj. ?Harve's Co. went out to reconnoitre, Lesson & his squad, Ben & myself. The Indians seen yesterday could not be found. We (Ben & myself) separated a little from the command and got a good fright by afterwards taking them for Indians. We made a wide circuit to avoid them.

"The Ravens, Bussards & wolves have begun their work with the dead and already little but the bones of some of them were left."

"We found considerable property still lying on the ground.

"Sunday Sept. 9

"Genl. Harney started up the Platte having decided to leave an interpreter. My man Ben Cadotte was wanted and the Quarter-master employed him at $100 per m. Genl. H. requesting it and taking also Campbell from the day we left Ft. Kearny. Genl. H. detailed a man to take Ben's place in my cart.

"I paid Ben off giving him $25. I then went to Ft. Gratton. Let Capt. Wharton have a small compass. Saw the tomb marks put up. Left $10 with Capt. W. to expend for the wounded. Day very warm. Reached camp about 3 P.M. Odometer 147.30. Days march 20.34 miles."

Thus ends one military man's original written account of what happened at Blue Water Creek.

News reports were spread across the settled nation.

An article in the St. Louis Republican, as reprinted in the New York Times, started its rendition with this reporting: "Gen. Harney has signalized his advent into the Sioux country by one of the most gallant and complete victories ever obtained over an Indian enemy. The victory is so thorough as to strike terror into the whole of the savage tribes occupying that extended section of country."

The article reported 450 military men were involved, in the battle directed by General Harney. About 70-80 Indians were killed, with fifty women and children taken prisoner.

Losses of the U.S. military were five or six killed, with as many wounded.

"The letters speak of the engagement as a very gallant and well conducted affair, as it undoubtedly was, to be successful in killing so many of the enemy; and the capture of their women and children."

General Harney's official three-page report was published in 1856, as an executive document issued by the U.S. Senate.

Harney left camp at 4:30 A.M., and proceeded towards the Indian camp, he wrote, "with a view to attacking it openly in concert with the surprise contemplated through the cavalry."

The Indians were aware of the confrontation, and were already breaking camp, and after an unsuccessful parlay with Little Thunder, Harney said he ordered infantry to advance as "skirmishers" which soon opened fire.

"The results of the affair were, 86 killed, 5 wounded, about 70 women and children captured, 60 mules and ponies taken, besides an indefinite number killed and disabled. The amount of provisions and camp equipage must have comprised nearly all the enemy possessed; for teams have been constantly engaged in bringing into camp anything of value to the troops, and much has been destroyed on the ground.

"With regard to the officers and troops of my command, I have never seen a finer military spirit displayed generally; and if there has been any material difference in the services they have rendered, it must be measured chiefly by the opportunities they had for distinction."

Birdly Considerations

The sordid setting of the battle ground was enticing to two types of birds attracted to the forlorn carcasses of unburied Indians lying atop the prairie grasses along lower Blue Creek. The military patrolled the battle field, yet apparently did not bury any of the native people, and certainly kept anyone of Little Thunder's band from returning to provide proper rights for their deceased relatives.

The Common Raven and bustard, or Turkey Vulture, were indifferent to the cause, but took advantage of a macabre source of food, as their presence was noted in Lt. Warren's notes.

There were other indications, beyond a battle field, of some other bird species seen by this officer on the western frontier. A few bird were noted in the Lieutenant's journal for this 1855 expedition, though most of the natural history information was gathered by Ferdinand V. Hayden, the expedition geologist and naturalist.

While steam boating up the Missouri River, after departing from Fort Leavenworth, there was a notation on June 22nd, of having seen a turkey on its banks, near the confluence of the Little Sioux River.

Some large gulls, were shot on July 8th, north from the White River confluence on the Missouri River. Travel troubles due to a sandbar constriction were the primary topic of the day.

A day or so after departing the scene of the massacre, on September 11th, Warren killed six ducks and a curlew, with the latter skinned. They were near the famous Courthouse Rock landmark. Two days later, while near the other prominence of the North Platte, 19 ducks were shot along the route near Scotts Bluff. Nine more were taken on the 14th.

The next few notes of ornithological interest occurred along the White River, in the Mauvaises Terres or Bad Lands district of southern Dacota country.

On October 6th, he shot a large hawk and preserved it. On the 8th, his narrative says: "Shot 3 male owls with long feathers to their ears, skinned two; eyes black surrounded with a narrow yellow rim just at the lashes." The following day, along their route, further down the river: "prairie chickens are numerous on the river bank and live on the wild crax or snow berry. I shot 4 at camp." These would be Sharp-tailed Grouse, not the Greater Prairie-Chicken, as the latter did not occur any further up the river than the mouth of the Vermilion River, Warren noted in his government report, also indicating that quail had not been seen above the mouth of the Running Water.

In the vicinity of Bear Creek, a tributary of the White River, the autumnal abundance of fowl was enticing the shooting desires of Mr. Warren. On the 13th: "Shot 5 teal on this creek." On the 14th: "shot to day 2 large hawks (females) preserved one."

The final bird note made by G.K. Warren was on October 21st. It was a stormy day, with considerable sleet during the day. Scrawled in his journal were these words: "Killed a female horned owl & skinned it, also one male meadow lark one unknown bird one female ?plover (possibly the American-Golden Plover collected by Hayden), one lark prairie chicken."

According to the map for the expedition, they were at Fort Pierre.

Thus ends Lieutenant Warren's journal, and the few but vivid records of distinctive importance to historic ornithology of the western frontier during a time of great turmoil as cultures clashed and claims to land were forever changed.

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