Grattan Massacre

Indian Wars begin on the Northern Plains

Following the loss of an emigrant cow to Indians camped some 15 miles east of Fort Laramie, the post commander took action.

A small force, commanded by Lieutenant John Grattan, was dispatched with orders to arrest the guilty party. Contrary to rumors that circulated at the time, Grattan was not drunk nor had he been drinking. Unfortunately, the interpreter assigned to him was militantly inebriated!

As the command approached the Indian village, the interpreter not only shouted obscene insults at the warriors, he also rode his horse to and fro at a full gallop. The Indians in all likelihood interpreted this activity on the basis of their own experience. Since a horse was galloped so it would have its second wind when ridden into battle, the Indians undoubtedly assumed that the whites (or at least the interpreter) were preparing for combat!

In any event, the soldiers rode practically into the village and demanded the surrender of the guilty party. In the confusion of the next few moments, the exact sequence of events has been lost to history. A shot or shots were fired, the mountain howitzer was fired by the soldiers, Conquering Bear was fatally wounded — and Grattan’s entire command was annihilated in a matter of minutes! Actually, friendly Indians rescued several badly wounded survivors, but they succumbed to their wounds before they could be returned to the fort.

There you have it in a nutshell — the effective beginning of the Indian Wars on the Northern Plains. The next year General Harney’s troops retaliated by over-running Little Thunder’s village of Brule’s on Blue Water Creek, six miles northwest of Ash Hollow.

Into the last decade of the century, Indians and whites episodically painted the buffalo grass with each other’s blood — from Blue Water Creek to Sand Creek, from Beecher’s Island to the Little Big Horn. And finally to the little stream called Wounded Knee.