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COMMENTARY

YOURS: Harney’s violent history

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Eric Zimmer

William Selby Harney’s name should no longer be inscribed on the Black Hills landscape no matter what we rename Harney Peak. His personal history speaks for itself.

While living in St. Louis between army tours in 1834, Harney — in a fit of rage — beat a slave child named Hannah to death with a piece of rawhide. According to historian George Rollie Addams, Harney fled Missouri fearful of a community irate over the brutal murder. He was ultimately tried and acquitted, in large part because Hannah was African American and he a veteran in the antebellum South.

Harney resumed his career as an Indian fighter, serving against the Seminoles in Florida and Sauk and Meskwaki warriors in Illinois during Black Hawk's War in the 1830s. He also fought in the Mexican-American War in 1847.

But it was his exploits at Blue Water Creek in Nebraska that earned him the nicknames “Mad Bear” and “Woman Killer” by regional Lakotas.

The wrath of Harney and those under his command stands out even among the violence of the so-called “Indian Wars.” His actions rival in their ruthlessness the atrocities committed at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864 and Wounded Knee in 1890. In 1854, two Lakota bands engaged 29 American soldiers under the command of Lieutenant John L. Grattan, who had been dispatched to arrest a group of Lakotas accused of killing a settler’s cow.

As Grattan and his men attempted to retreat, the warriors pursued and killed them all. This incident was but one of several skirmishes that occurred between 1853 and 1855. As the historian Jeffrey Ostler writes, Americans harbored “an attitude of righteous innocence” about the incident, in which popular opinion unfairly blamed the Lakotas.

Following Grattan’s death, the Army sent 600 soldiers under Harney’s command to arrest the Lakota leaders deemed responsible. Harney, who as Ostler writes “had a reputation for treating ‘friendly’ Indians with compassion,” nonetheless “took a hard line against those he saw as enemies of the United States.”

Indeed, on the morning of Sept. 2, 1855, Harney caught up with the Lakotas, who were camped along Blue Water Creek. Despite an olive branch from Little Thunder, a Lakota leader, Harney ordered an attack that killed 86 Lakotas, more than 40 of whom were women and children. The soldiers hunted their victims down on horseback then took 70 survivors captive. One of Harney’s soldiers later described the gruesome scene, where “wounded women and children crying and moaning, horribly mangled by bullets,” lay sprawled across the ground.

The evidence is clear. Harney’s actions, both on and off the battlefield, are deplorable under any standard of human decency. Even in his own time, Harney was an unnecessarily violent man who was and is unworthy of the geographical honor that has for too long been bestowed upon him.

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