Most inhabitants of northwest Nebraska know that Crow Butte, probably the best-known promontory in the hundred-plus mile long Pine Ridge escarpment, got its name from an 1849 battle between the Crow and Brule Sioux Indians.
But details of the fight, one of many intertribal battles for control of hunting range and access to European trade goods that took place in the 18th and 19th century, are sketchy in the minds of most people who live in the region.
That few people know the ‘real’ story isn’t so surprising, however, Chadron historian Jim Hanson explains in the latest issue of the Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, because there are so many different versions of the incident which gave Crow Butte its name.
And the differing accounts of an incident that was obviously important to the tribes involved, as well as to their neighbors and the European settlers who were just beginning to migrate to the region in large numbers, are part of what fascinates Hanson about the story.
“The intertribal battle, with only one known casualty, was so interesting to both Indians and whites that it was described repeatedly and there are more accounts of it than any other fight between tribes,” Hanson writes in the Quarterly’s Fall/Winter edition. “In the telling, the circumstances changed and the description became more bizarre.”
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The basic account of the incident, reconstructed by Hanson from the many accounts, but with primary emphasis on information from participants, reads like the stuff of a Hollywood action film. In the fall of 1849, James Bordeaux, a Indian trader who had been working for the Pierre Chouteau fur trading company, sensed that there would soon be a demand for horses and mules from people taking the arduous Oregon Trail route across the country, and began buying up animals from Indians in the White River valley of the Pine Ridge.
Bordeaux figured that he could overwinter the animals on the Platte River and double his money by selling them to emigrant wagon trains, whose own stock were worn out by the time they reached Fort Laramie on the North Platte, Hanson writes.
The plan went off track, however, when a band of about 32 Crow men came from their village in Montana with the aim of stealing horses from their enemy, the Sioux. Discovering Bordeaux’s herd before they reached the Brule Sioux village that was their target, the Crow rounded up the 82 horses and mules and headed west, burned the trading post and sent Bordeaux and his family fleeing for safety to the nearby Sioux camp of Chief Grabbing Bear.
The Sioux quickly gave chase, and were soon able to catch up to the Crow warriors, who were slowed by having to drive so many horses. In the vicinity of Ash Creek, which drains from the Pine Ridge into the White River, the Crow divided the party in two groups-one to continue with the horses and the other to delay the pursuers.
A counter attack by the Crow who remained hidden in the Ash Creek stream bed gave the main group time to make their way out of Pine Ridge to the plains, but a renewed push by the Sioux drove the Crow warriors from their hiding place to the foot of the then unnamed promontory, where they abandoned their horses and climbed a trail to the top.
Unable to take the butte by force in the face of a hail of arrows, bullets and stones launched by the Crow fighters on top, the Sioux elected to camp at the base and wait out the enemy. The Crow, meanwhile, built fires, sang and danced to demonstrate their defiance.
On the morning of the fourth day of the siege, the Sioux no longer heard or saw any sign of the trapped men on the butte. When they scaled the peak they found long rawhide lines that the Crow had used to rappel down the sheer south face of the butte, which had been left unguarded because it seemed too steep to be used as an escape route. They also found one (or possibly three) dead Crow, who had been wounded in the initial skirmish, and a pack dog, and recovered about a dozen of the stolen horses that had been abandoned in the Crow’s flight to the top of the butte.
The fight was significant enough in the minds of the Sioux that it was included in a contemporary winter count-a pictographic representation of the year’s important events- created by a Brule historian named Brown Hat and another created by Iron Shell, another Brule. Written notes accompanying those Brule hide paintings, created by white men, give only minimal details of the incident represented.
That the story quickly gained currency is shown by an 1855 map of Nebraska, published in New York, that shows ‘Dancer’s Hill’ in the Pine Ridge, but the next documented account doesn’t surface until 1867, when Bordeaux, acting under provisions of the just-negotiated Fort Laramie Treaty, filed suit against the Crow tribe for the loss of his horses and mules.
In that suit, Hanson notes, Bordeaux misstated the location of the incident, perhaps inadvertently, and exaggerated the value of the 34 mules and 47 horses that he claimed had been stolen. He sought a total of $16,400 from the government, an amount that Hanson estimates was double what he would have paid for the animals. Sworn as witnesses to the suit were two of Bordeaux’s fur trader contemporaries.
In an 1874 response to the suit, an agent for the Crow tribe says that a chief named White Bear acknowledged haven taken some horses from the Sioux, but claims that the animals were later returned to a Chouteau Fur Company representative. That agent, Robert Meldrum, apparently took the livestock without paying for them, although he and his company would have had no legitimate claim of ownership, according to Hanson.
The lawsuit languished in court for years with little action, but was revived in 1890 by two retired fur traders, who were later joined in the suit by James Bordeaux’s son, Louis,
The other two men later died, leaving Louis Bordeaux as the sole claimant in 1914, when the suit was thrown out for good because of the long interval since the theft occurred and the contradictory evidence presented.
Although the suit went nowhere, it did generate written statements by witnesses who claimed to have been present at the battle. Though inconsistent in many details, they generally support the basic narrative of the story.
Other contemporary accounts, written by newspaper reporters in search of a good story, may bear a more distant relationship with the truth. In an 1877 report, a New York Sun writer says that the Crow made their way off the cliff top using ropes made of blankets.
An 1885 version, published in the Lincoln Daily State Journal, doesn’t mention the horse stealing at all, and makes the Crow fighters heros of the story.
The story was transposed to a different locale, with different participants, in an 1889 account, collected by an anthropologist from the Pawnee tribe. In that version the Pawnee took refuge on a different butte, in the Platte River valley, and starved for days before escaping.
Through the years other versions of the story appeared, each attested to by someone claiming to have their version on the highest authority. One bizarre version, published in the Crawford newspaper in 1903, describes a pitched battle between Crow and Sioux, and has a group of older men remaining on the butte to deceive the besiegers below. When the Crow men finally die, clouds ridden by young maidens whisk them into heaven and the Sioux are so impressed that they make a treaty with their enemies to share use of the White River valley.
Such a treaty never existed, Hanson notes, and the two tribes never shed their enmity for each other.
Other variations on the story of the besieged Crow warriors surfaced repeatedly in books and papers, including a telling by the famed Nebraska historian John G. Neihardt, who used an account by the Lakota elder Black Elk but “replaced much of the factual information with his own mythos,” Hanson said.
In assembling his version of the Crow Butte story Hanson relies in part on a 1967 article prepared by his father, Cr. Charles Hanson, founder of the Museum of the Fur Trade. That account used information from Charles Hanson’s detailed research of James Bordeaux, and accounts by Bordeaux’s children and grandchildren.
While exact details of the incident at Crow Butte may be subject to dispute, the power of the story itself is demonstrated by the many retellings documented in James Hanson’s artcle.
Those widely different versions of a single event are a lesson in themselves, Hanson concludes. “It should caution use to be wary of oral history, whether within our own families or being told to us by political demagogues,” he writes.