Sunday, May 25, 2014

How One Cow Started A War

© Andreas Krappweis
Hey everyone! Jennifer Uhlarik here. As I was researching recently, I stumbled across a rather interesting tidbit of information that I didn’t know. Were you aware that a single cow was one of the catalysts that sparked the First Sioux War?

One lonely cow!

It happened in August, 1854, near Fort Laramie, Nebraska Territory (present day Goshen County, Wyoming). A group of Mormon emigrants was traveling over the Oregon Trail when one of their cows wandered away. The bovine ended up in a large encampment of Lakota Sioux with roughly 4800 men, women, and children. There, a visiting Miniconjou warrior named High Forehead shot and killed the cow.

Mormon wagon train leaving
Council Bluffs, IA
The owner of the cow tracked it down but became fearful when he saw the encampment full of Sioux, so he went to Fort Laramie instead. He explained the situation to Lt. Hugh Fleming. Fleming, in turn, approached the Sioux chief, Conquering Bear, to discuss the situation. Conquering Bear attempted to negotiate, offering a horse from his own herd or a cow from the tribe’s herd, but the Mormon man demanded $25 cash. When they couldn’t come to terms, Fleming demanded the arrest of High Forehead, but Conquering Bear again wouldn’t agree since he had no authority over the Miniconjou tribe. They ended their negotiations in stalemate.

Second Lieutenant John Grattan, a fresh graduate of West Point, took matters into his own hands. He had little respect for the Sioux as warriors and went in search of a fight, so he took an armed detachment of thirty soldiers and one interpreter and marched into the Sioux encampment to arrest High Forehead. The interpreter, who was drunk at the time, began to taunt the Sioux warriors, calling them women and promising they would be killed by the soldiers. Grattan went to High Forehead’s tent and demanded that he surrender, to which High Forehead refused. Then, Grattan went to Conquering Bear to again negotiate. The chief once more offered a horse in exchange for the dead cow, but Grattan rejected the offer. He demanded the arrest of High Forehead. Again, the negotiations ended in stalemate. It was as Grattan walked back to his horse that the shooting began.

Red Cloud
The Sioux warriors had gradually flanked the soldiers during the negotiations, and one man became so nervous he fired his gun. The bullet struck the Sioux chief, mortally wounding him. With bows and arrows, the Sioux killed Grattan and eleven of his soldiers. The remaining men retreated to a rocky outcropping nearby, but a group of Sioux led by the rising war chief Red Cloud pursued and killed them all.

For days after the battle, the Sioux wreaked havoc on the nearby settlers, trading posts, and Fort Laramie. After three days, the Indians abandoned the large encampment and returned to their respective hunting grounds, going against the provisions of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. When a burial party went into the encampment, they found the bodies of the thirty soldiers had been mutilated almost beyond recognition.

© Phil Konstantin
When news of the battle that became known as the Grattan Massacre reached the War Department, a plan for retaliation was formed. They sent Colonel William S. Harney to Fort Kearny with the intent to garner revenge. The Indian agent in the area forewarned the Sioux of the coming battle, and half the Sioux forces went to Fort Laramie and presented themselves as friendly. The other half under Chief Little Thunder’s leadership, remained at large, although they desired also to live peacefully.

On the morning of September 3, 1855, a 700-soldier force of descended on an encampment of 250 Brulé Sioux. Harney and his men killed more than one hundred men, women, and children that day, and also took roughly seventy prisoners. The Battle of Ash Creek, as it became known, began a long history of attacks and retaliations that would continue for many years on the Western frontier. In fact, The Battle of Ash Creek can be directly linked to one of the most famous cases of retaliation in all of Indian war history. One of the young boys who witnessed the massacre of family and friends at Ash Creek grew to be known as the great Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse, who twenty-one years later, rode into battle against Custer on the banks of the Little Big Horn.

It's your turn. How do you think the situation with the runaway cow should have been handled? Could war have been prevented?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and made the top 10 and top 3 in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and five fur children.


  1. Wow, what a story. I blame the owner of the cow, whose stubbornness and desire for money caused the sad events that followed and the repercussions for many decades. What happened to making peace?

    1. So very true, Vickie! I found it interesting that the Sioux tried to make restitution with a cow or horse from their own herds, but the settler wouldn't agree. Very unfortunate. I wonder if he'd have done things differently if he realized at the time what a can of worms his stubborness would open?

  2. What an incredible story. Sounds like the Sioux chief was being very reasonable. The owner should have taken the cow or the horse. Amazing that his unwillingness to accept the offer ended in hundreds of deaths. Very sad. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Nancy! :)

  3. My current unpublished novel is based on a similar situation in NW WA, the Pig War. An American settler shot a British pig owned by the Hudson Bay Company and a stalemate over the price of the pig almost led to war. Fortunately cooler heads and peace prevailed. I find it interesting that Colonel William S. Harney was sent to protect the American settlers from Indians here on the San Juan Islands around 1859! Thank you for sharing this bit of history.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Deb. I'll have to look up the Pig War! Sounds quite interesting. :)

  4. I think the Mormon man should have gone along with a trade and not demanded $25 as the Indians were knows to be traders. Also, since it was his cow that 'trespassed', so to speak, lol, he should have respected the Indian ways and apologized for his cow getting loose and wandering into their encampment. After all he lost a cow, why wouldn't he want a cow (or a horse) to replace it?