Grattan Massacre

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The Indian Wars were a long string of skirmishes, ambushes, conflicts, battles and outright warfare that grew more violent and claimed more and more lives as settlers moved West in ever increasing numbers through what were traditionally Indian lands. The US Government wanted control of the lands and an endless cycle of bloody conflict, negotiation, agreement and treaty slowly pushed the Plains Indian tribes further and further back into rapidly shrinking Indian territories. This cycle created a time bomb in the twenty-five years preceding the events at Fort Laramie (at that time located in Nebraska Territory) in August 1854. So there may not be any single incident that marked the start of the Plains Indians/Sioux Indian Wars, but it is generally agreed that the Grattan Massacre, along with the retaliation of the US Military at Blue Water Creek (a single clash known by several names including the Blue Water Creek Massacre, the Battle of Ash Creek, the Harney Massacre and the Battle of Ash Hollow) are two of the most significant opening clashes. Battles that would soon follow include the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Sand Creek Massacre, the Fetterman Fight and the Wounded Knee Massacre along with many others. The bloodshed would continue between the Plains Indian Tribes and the settlers and US Government for four more decades following the Grattan and Blue Water Creek Massacres.

The Mormon Cow Incident

The Northern Plains Indians had remained relatively peaceful in the years immediately leading up to the Grattan Massacre. In July and early August of 1854 a massive gathering of the various bands of the Lakota, as well as a few Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, were camped along the North Platte River (known as the Shell River by the Lakota) just East of Fort Laramie. They were peacefully awaiting annuity payments due to them as a result of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The Indian Agent carrying those annuity payments was late yet again, and as a result grazing land was scarce and hunting opportunities in decline. There were simply too many people camped in the same place for too long and the available resources had been depleted.
The white leaders didn't want to have to deal with so many different Indian leaders and at some point during the negotiations in 1851 decided Conquering Bear was to be their main point of contact. It was not a position that Conquering Bear wanted and it placed him in a very difficult position with his own people who were not accustomed to a single person speaking for them all, however he vowed to do the best he could. The entire encampment in 1854 had an estimated total population of around 4,000. Estimates seem to vary but somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 of those 4,000 were warriors.
In mid-August 1854, a Mormon caravan going west passed close to the Lakota Brule camp led by Conquering Bear. Stories vary as to exactly how the stray animal from the Mormon caravan ended up in the Brule camp, but an old lame cow or ox either fell behind, wandered away, or was spooked and ran directly into the Indian camp. The Indians' side of the story says that the cow was spooked and left a trail of destruction through their camp. The end result was that a Lakota Minnikonjou warrior named High Forehead finally shot and killed the animal which was then butchered and eaten.
Agent Whitfield was horrified when he learned what had happened in his absence and he'd go on to make the observation that all the immigrant needed to do was walk into the Brule camp and get his cow. The Brule would have given it to him. However the immigrant was too afraid to go collect his errant animal and the caravan continued on to Fort Laramie, leaving the old cow behind with the Indians.
The incident was reported to Second Lieutenant Hugh Brady Fleming, who was Ft. Laramie’s commanding officer at the time. Fleming was not exactly on good terms with the Indians due to an unfortunate incident involving some Lakota warriors taking a ferry for a couple of rides across the North Platte River the year before. The incident, which was not handled well, ended up in the deaths of three or more of the Indians. The ferry ride incident had taught the Lakota to be wary.
Conquering Bear offered to make amends for the animal that was killed and eaten and generously offered the choice of a horse from his own personal herd as a replacement. The Mormon settler who was deprived of his animal refused Conquering Bear's generous offer and demanded an immediate cash payment for the animal that was killed and eaten.
Pursuant to the terms of the Treaty of 1851, this incident was the jurisdiction of the local Indian Agent, John Whitfield, not the military. However, with Conquering Bear's offer rejected by the settler, Fleming ordered the arrest of High Forehead. Whether Fleming chose to ignore the provisions of the Treaty or whether he was simply ignorant of the proper procedure for such an incident, there is no way to tell for certain. Unfortunately, Agent Whitfield, whose territory of responsibility was too large for a single man to handle alone, still had not arrived at Ft. Laramie with the annuity funds. Had Agent Whitfield been present it is very likely that the unfortunate events to come would never have happened.
Conquering Bear refused to turn over High Forehead and until the Indian Agent returned with the Annuity payments there would be no cash funds available to fulfill the Mormon settler’s demand. Conquering Bear, knew that according to the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 the incident with the settler’s animal was not a military concern, and he advised that he had no authority over the Minnikonjou band of the Lakota and he was not going to violate his people’s tradition of hospitality. An attempt to resolve the situation was also made by Man Afraid Of His Horses, however all negotiations ultimately ended in a stalemate.

Grattan Massacre (aka the Grattan Fight) - August 19, 1854

In the Indian Agent’s absence, Lt. Fleming sent a young inexperienced Brevet Second Lieutenant who was known to be short of temper and had no respect for the Indians. His name was John Lawrence Grattan. Fleming was said to have instructed Grattan to take twenty men (one account states twenty-two) the Fort's interpreter and two pieces of artillery (12 pound howitzers) with him to arrest High Forehead. Grattan was not to incite anything that he and his men couldn’t handle without guaranteed success. Unfortunately Fleming’s orders gave Grattan broad discretionary power when it came to the means used to achieve the objective.
Grattan made a request for volunteers to accompany him. Twenty-nine men agreed to go, and Grattan subsequently took the additional volunteers against Fleming's orders, leaving Fleming only ten men available to defend the Fort. One soldier who was asked refused to go. Ordinance Sergeant Leodegar Schnyder refused to join the group when asked to assist with the artillery. Sgt Schnyder had been on the frontier for quite some time, was an experienced soldier and had no confidence in the inexperienced Brevet 2nd Lieutenant ’s ability to handle the situation at hand.
Of the twenty-nine men Grattan took with him, twenty-three were European immigrants. Ten from Ireland, six from Germany and the others had been born in France, England, Scotland or Poland. The youngest was nineteen years old and the oldest was reported to have been thirty-six years old. As for experience Grattan’s volunteers had primarily been clerks, tailors, general laborers, machinists, druggists, painters and farmers and at least one had been a deserter. About half of his volunteers had in at least three years of service but eight had been in service for less than a year. Perhaps Lt Grattan's biggest problem though was his civilian interpreter, a man named Luciene Auguste. Auguste was said to have had a weak grip of the language for which he was to serve as translator, and the Indians despised him. The only thing Grattan had going for him were his two officers, Sergeant William Faren (Faver), a three year veteran who had previously been an Alabama farmer, and Corporal Charles McNulty from Franklin, Pennsylvania who listed his occupation as soldier upon enlisting.
Grattan and his men stopped at the Gratiot Houses fur trading post where some of the annuity goods to be paid to the gathered Indians were being stored. A little later he and his men stopped at James Bordeaux’s trading post which was located very near to the huge Indian encampment.
The civilian translator, Luciene Auguste, was afraid of the coming confrontation and had immediately proceeded to get intoxicated on the trip between the Fort and the Indian encampment. Auguste was not respected or even liked by the Indians and he had only a weak grasp on the Lakota language he was expected to translate. Much to Grattan’s dismay, Auguste, in his inebriated state, proceeded to threaten and taunt the Indians that were hanging around the two trading posts. Grattan was said to have chastised Auguste, perhaps even broke the bottle of liquor he had been so liberally imbibing from, but Grattan had by all accounts lost effective control over his civilian translator’s behavior and Auguste’s inebriation only served to increase tensions with the Indians they came in contact with.
James Bordeaux was a witness to the bloodshed. Bordeaux reported that Grattan had stopped to discuss the situation with him. Bordeaux allegedly counseled Grattan to speak directly to Conquering Bear and to allow the Chiefs (Head Men) to handle the situation. However, if the advice was in fact given, Grattan didn’t act on any of it. Grattan stopped first at High Forehead’s lodge and tried ordering High Forehead to surrender to him and his troops. High Forehead, who was still angry about the ferry incident the year before, refused.
After failing to get High Forehead to willing give himself up, Grattan ended up confronting Conquering Bear and the other Lakota Head Men near the front of High Forehead’s lodge. Grattan had moved his troops into position in front of the lodge, a move that the trader Bordeaux was said to have had counseled him against. The Indian leaders who, besides Conquering Bear, may have included Little Thunder, Big Partisan and Man Afraid Of His Horses, renewed negotiations and again attempted to arrange some kind of restitution for the cow or at least delay action until the Indian Agent returned to properly handle the now dangerous situation.
Warriors from the different bands of Lakota started to move towards the confrontation and began flanking Grattan and his men. Leading one of these groups of warriors was the elder Crazy Horse. The elder Crazy Horse had left his oldest son to watch after his younger brother and the horses near the river, a young man, not yet a warrior, who was destined to become the third individual to carry the name Crazy Horse.
Still hoping to prevent an undesirable outcome, Conquering Bear made an attempt to get Bordeaux to provide translation services for him. Auguste’s translations were described as confusing at best and to make matters worse Auguste continued calling the Indian's names. Conquering Bear had no confidence that what he was trying to communicate to the soldiers was being properly translated by Auguste. Bordeaux on the other hand was married to a "Sioux" woman and spoke the language almost flawlessly and he was on good terms with the Indians. Bordeaux however already realized the perilous situation and refused to get directly involved. He returned to his trading post to prepare his own defenses for the bloody battle he knew was imminent. The Indian women and children had started to move away from the camp towards the river. Conquering Bear tried to warn Grattan that things would not end well if he didn’t take his men and leave. High Forehead still refused to turn himself over to the soldiers and was prepared to fight if necessary. Once again negotiations ended in a stalemate.
What exactly happened next is uncertain. One account claims that one of Grattan’s men, either nervous or spooked by some movement from the Indians, fired a shot and hit Conquering Bear. A second account claims that a shot, or shots, were fired and an unidentified Indian fell, but that the Chiefs maintained control and kept their warriors from attacking, however Grattan decided a greater show of force was required and ordered his men to open fire and Conquering Bear was hit and fell. A third account claims that Conquering Bear called Grattan a number of insulting names and in a show of counting coup jabbed Grattan with a spear. Grattan responded by pulling his side arm and shooting Conquering Bear at close range, and then ordered the cannon be fired. No matter which account is the correct one, as soon as Conquering Bear fell, the Indian warriors that had surrounded Grattan and his men reacted almost instantaneously. Grattan and eleven of his men were killed first while the remaining group of soldiers retreated. Those in retreat however were intercepted and killed. When all was said and done a single soldier, Private John Cuddy, had managed to survive but even he was severely wounded. He eventually made it back to Fort Laramie with the grudging help of the trader James Bordeaux who didn't want to get caught by the Indians harboring a soldier. Private John Cuddy died of his wounds days after the battle on August 22, 1854. He left behind no account of the incident. Conquering Bear lived for nine days before also succumbing to his wounds.
Tensions ran high among the Indians after the short one sided battle. Some rode against Fort Laramie but luckily for those who remained inside the Fort a full on attack was never committed to. Grattan, by disobeying orders and taking more men and arms than he was ordered to, had now left Fleming with only about half of soldiers originally stationed at Fort Laramie prior to the massacre. The Indians could have easily overwhelmed them and taken the Fort. Instead the Indians looted Bordeaux’s trading post and the Gratiot Houses and any other promising settlements in the area and then withdrew. With the Indians gone, those stationed at Fort Laramie had to decide how to get arrangements made for the recovery and burial of the remains of the dead. Not wanting to risk losing the remaining men inside Fort Laramie to another Indian attack, arrangements were made with the local traders to see to the bodies which had been exposed to the elements for three days and had been mutilated by the Indians. Brevet 2nd Lt John L. Grattan’s body was riddled with twenty-four arrows and had been so badly mutilated that he had to be identified by his pocket watch. The bodies were buried in a shallow grave which left a grisly site on the road to the fort to be encountered by travelers. There are accounts of travelers being able to see skulls and military gloves and body parts protruding from the crude grave not long after.

The Aftermath

Eventually journalist embellished tales of the Grattan Massacre hit the nation’s newspapers. The resulting public outrage demanded a military response to the deaths of Grattan and his men at the hands of the Lakota. The fact that Lt. Grattan had violated the Treaty, and was in the wrong when his men killed Conquering Bear, was ignored. Relations with the Lakota and other Northern Plains Indian tribes began to rapidly break down and Indians began to raid along both the Oregon and California Trails.
Eventually the War Department sent General William S. Harney to Fort Kearney, Nebraska. There he assumed command of 600 troops made up of the 6th and 10th Infantry, 4th Artillery and Harney’s own 2nd US Dragoons. This included four mounted companies under the command of Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke and five companies of infantry under the command of Major Albemarle Cady.
On August 24, 1855, they departed Fort Kearney seeking retribution for the deaths of Grattan and his men. On September 3, 1855, General Harney and his men arrived at Blue Water Creek, a location better know today as Ash Hollow, near present day Lewellen, Garden County, Nebraska. Harney refused to accept Little Thunder’s attempt to avoid further bloodshed and Harney’s forces proceeded to kill about 100 Lakota Indian men, women and children and took numerous prisoners. The prisoners were escorted to Fort Laramie and Fort Leavenworth.
Gen. Harney would later learn of the facts that led up to the Grattan Massacre and the knowledge somewhat softened his attitude towards the Indians, however he was to be, forever thereafter, known as “Squaw Killer Harney”.

Graves and Memorials

In 1891 the remains of the soldiers killed in the ambush were exhumed from their original resting place and reburied at Fort McPherson National Cemetery, Maxwell, Nebraska, in one of the cemetery’s largest mass graves. Private John Cuddy’s name is not included on the memorial stone at Ft. McPherson National Cemetery. There is some uncertainty as to what became of his remains, but the most likely scenario is that his remains were exhumed at the same time as the others and reburied at Ft. McPherson National Cemetery in one of the many Unknown Soldier graves. Lt. Grattan’s remains were exhumed and reburied at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, Kansas. It is not known where Luciene Auguste is buried, there are a number of civilian scouts buried at Ft. McPherson National Cemetery, however his name does not appear to be among them, he may lie in an 'unknown' grave at Ft. McPherson National Cemetery or his remains may rest among the soldiers buried in the mass grave.
A historical marker has since been placed about a half mile southeast of where the Grattan Massacre took place and can be found today along Route 157 roughly 5 miles west of present day Lingle, Wyoming.


Brevet 2nd Lt John Lawrence Grattan
Serg't W'm P. Faren
Corp’l Cha’s McNulty
Musican H. A. Krapp
Musician H.E. Lewis
Pvt. Anthony Boyle
Pvt. Cha's Burkle
Pvt. W'm Cameron
Pvt. Michael Collins
Pvt. John Courtenay
Pvt. Cha's Platenius
Pvt. A. Plumhoff
Pvt. S.H. Rushing
Pvt. Stan’s Sanienski
Pvt. Thomas Smith
Pvt. Edward Stevens
Pvt. John Sweetman
Pvt. W'm Whitford
Pvt. John Williams
Pvt. John Donahoe
Pvt. James Fitzpatrick
Pvt. John Flinn
Pvt. David Hammill
Pvt. John Mayer
Pvt. John McNulty
Pvt. John Meldron
Pvt. Patrick Murley
Pvt. Walter Murray
Pvt. Patrick O'Rourke
Pvt. John Cuddy


Chief Conquering Bear
Luciene Auguste (Civilian US Army translator)


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