Wild West

ON THE TRAIL OF PAWNEE KILLER

Oglala Lakota war chief Pawnee Killer lived up to his ominous moniker in 1873, but years earlier he started Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer down his vainglorious path to death on Montana Territory’s Little Bighorn River. Having achieved the rank of brevet major general, Custer reverted to his Regular Army rank of captain at war’s end in 1865. A year later he was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 7th U.S. Cavalry. He’d climb the ranks no further. “Custer’s downfall began on June 1, 1867,” author T.J. Stiles writes in his 2015 book Custer’s Trials. That was the day the colonel set out on a fruitless nine-day scout for Pawnee Killer, a man who knew when to fight and when to run.

Custer first encountered Pawnee Killer that spring while leading the 7th Cavalry on an expedition under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock—celebrated hero of Gettysburg and future presidential hopeful—to pacify the Southern Cheyennes and their Sioux allies. On Dec. 21, 1866, upward of 1,000 allied Cheyennes, Lakotas and Arapahos—Pawnee Killer among them—had ambushed a U.S. Army detachment under Captain William J. Fetterman near Fort Phil Kearny (in what would become Wyoming), killing all 79 soldiers and two armed civilians. While the overwhelming defeat was an embarrassment, the Army ruled out a costly war against the Plains Indians. Instead, it sent Hancock and Custer to broker peace—or else—with elements of the same tribes that had destroyed Fetterman’s command.

“Now, I have a great many soldiers, more than all the tribes put together,” Hancock had warned Cheyenne Chiefs Tall Bull and White Horse in council at Fort Larned, Kan., on April 12, 1867. “I have heard that a great many Indians want to fight. Very well; we are here and are come prepared for war.” The general demanded the return of all captives, “white or black,” returned a captive boy to the Indians and promised gifts if the

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