The young Brulé Sioux, wanting to avenge the one-sided fight at Wounded Knee, shot down a veteran lieutenant.
The U.S. Army touted the December 29, 1890, bloody incident on South Dakota’s Wounded Knee Creek as a battle of such magnitude that 21 of the troops were awarded the Medal of Honor. Indeed, a Lakota man might have fired the first shot, heated hand-to-hand fighting was involved and the Army suffered 25 killed and 39 wounded. Not everyone agreed it was a legitimate battle, of course. The soldiers unleashed the rapid-fire of Hotchkiss guns and killed at least 130 Sioux (or Lakotas), including many women and children, which earned the clash the label “Wounded Knee Massacre.” Battle or massacre, the debate continues, but most people today agree that it was one of the Wild West’s last and most unfortunate tragedies.
For Plenty Horses, a 22-year-old Brulé Sioux who had graduated from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the bloodshed at Wounded Knee was a travesty that somehow had to be avenged. Less than 10 days later, on January 7, 1891, Plenty Horses found the opportunity he was looking for to shed a white man’s blood.
In mid-December 1890, 1st Lt. Edward W. Casey—40 years old, an 18-year veteran of the U.S. Army and the leader of a crack troop of Cheyenne scouts—left Fort Keough in Montana Territory for the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Various officials considered the Lakota Ghost Dancers a threat to peace, and Casey was there to keep an eye on them. His orders were to show restraint, and for the next two weeks, he kept his Cheyennes from attacking the Sioux. Casey was not involved in the Wounded Knee fight on the 29th, but afterward, groups of revenge-minded Sioux staged various attacks on the reservation, including some at White Clay Creek, where he was stationed.
On the morning of January 7, Casey and two of his scouts rode off to boldly parley with Lakota leaders, in particular with the old peace-minded legend Red Cloud. The trio was stopped by Plenty Horses and another young Lakota, Broken Arm, who escorted them to the outskirts of the Sioux village to await word from Red Cloud as to whether they would be allowed to proceed.
Pete Richard, a mixed-blood relative of Red Cloud, delivered a disturbing message: The soldier and his Cheyenne scouts were not welcome and had better return to their outpost. Exactly how Lieutenant Casey reacted is uncertain, but he soon turned his mount to leave.
Plenty Horses, astride his own horse, about five feet to the left and rear of Casey, raised his rifle and shot the officer through the back of the head, killing him instantly. As Casey’s body fell to the ground, Plenty Horses returned to the village, paying no mind to the two Cheyenne scouts.
The young warrior might not have made the best choice of a victim. Casey, though he had not been promoted in a decade, was still considered a promising junior officer. He was both a student and friend of the Indians. He had received national attention for organizing a band of Cheyenne warriors into a reliable scout troop. Even the artist Frederic Remington had written a complimentary article about him for Harper’s Weekly. Understandably, word spread fast about the killing, and a hue and cry went out for the arrest and punishment of Plenty Horses.
For the next several days, Young Man Afraid of His Horses, the chief of the Sioux Nation, refused to turn the killer over to white authorities. But on February 18, 1891, the chief finally consented. Plenty Horses was arrested and taken 125 miles to Fort Meade, near Deadwood, S.D., for confinement. On March 3, in federal court in Deadwood, he was indicted for murder. Because he was worried that Plenty Horses could not get a fair trial in Deadwood, U.S. Judge Alonzo Edgerton changed the venue to the federal court in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The trial began at the federal court- house in the Masonic Building on April 23, 1891, with Oliver P. Shiras of Dubuque, Iowa, as presiding judge. The chief prosecutor was William B. Sterling of Huron, the U.S. district attorney for South Dakota. Representing Plenty Horses were George P. Nock and David E. Powers, Sioux Falls attorneys provided by the Washington, D.C.–based Indian Rights Association.
J.J. McDonough, a New York World reporter assigned to cover the trial full time, had the chance to interview Plenty Horses before the proceedings began. Plenty Horses did plenty of talking, about himself and the shooting. His comments follow:
I do not deny that Lieutenant Casey came to his death at my hands, and whatever fate the court decrees, I am ready and willing to suffer. He was killed, yes; but not murdered, and I shall go to my grave in that opinion.
My father’s name is Living Bear, and he is a cousin of Two Strike and a member of his band. I am twenty-two years old and returned from the Carlisle school two years ago after spending five years there. They said it would take me much longer to complete my education, and I suppose it might have required five years more, but as I only agreed to stay that time when I went there I would not remain longer. On my return I found that the education I had received was of no benefit to me. There was no chance to get employment, nothing for me to do whereby I could earn my board and clothes, no opportunity to learn more and remain with the whites. It disheartened me and I went back to live as I had before going to school. To forget my school habits and English speech was an easy matter.
At the time, the Sioux were very much dissatisfied with the way the government treated them. All their trouble was told to me over and over again. In the spring following, they began to talk more earnestly of making trouble if justice was not done, and I naturally sympathized with my relatives. It would be very strange if I had not. I have listened to my friends tell of the many sufferings our people have undergone since the white man determined to take away our land, but no one ever described like treatment of the whites by the Sioux. That cannot be denied.
I was at Pine Ridge with my father last winter when the troops were brought in. Then came the killing of Big Foot’s band. I heard the shooting and ran out to help. It was an awful night. The survivors told such a pitiful tale that we all went into camp not far away, and it was said that there would be war. Everybody seemed to feel that the government had injured him too much to ever give in. There was ghost dancing and much excitement at the time. The day Casey was killed I was out from the camp watching that no troops came to harm my father and relatives. Of course I was in a bad frame of mind. Our home was destroyed, our family separated, and all hope of good times were gone. There was nothing to live for.
Only a few Indians were near me when I first saw Casey coming. He had passed some Oglalas, and was making his way toward me. He rode up and extending his hand said, “How Kolla” [How do you do, friend]. I shook hands and spoke to him in English. Behind him was White Moon, the Cheyenne scout. The soldier said he wanted to go to the camp, but I said no we could not allow it. Then he rode up the hill a little way with me, when Pete Richard, Red Cloud’s son-in-law, came and told Casey to go back. There was a circle formed. Casey was in the center and around him were Bear-That-Lays-Down, Broken Arm, Pete Richards, White Moon and myself. Advice was given this man, who wanted to spy on our camp, to leave at once. He became very angry and said that he would go away then but would return with soldiers enough to capture our chief. I understood him to say that his object in taking them was to kill them. You can understand my state of mind at hearing that we were to suffer still more because we arose to demand the food and clothing the government owed us. All this passed through my mind and then I thought that right at my side rode a spy from our enemy who was boldly announcing his determination to come back and do us still further injury. He turned to go and a moment later fell dead with a bullet from my gun in his brain.
It was not self-defense, the lawyers can make what they may out of it, but there was no such thing as murder. We were at war with the whites. If we had sent a spy into their camp with the express intention of getting points to use against them for an attack, they would not have hesitated to kill him if captured.
If they are going to punish every man who shot another when not engaged in actual fighting, then why not arrest the soldiers who killed poor old Big Foot? He was lying before his tepee dying of fever, unable to raise his hand, and yet a dozen bullets were fired into his body. And look at the six Indians found long after the battle— one man and the rest women and children, all shot down within eight miles of Pine Ridge by scouts or soldiers. Why not investigate that? I suppose they say it can’t be done, but it can. There are many similar cases to mine. We were at war, and the Indian style of fighting to the bitter end is just as fair as the white man’s. Besides, we were only fighting for our rights. The people of our race do not love to fight so much that they will risk their friends’ lives. Our chiefs do not advise us to fight, but we went out because hunger and cold forced us.
No man can say that the Sioux were always a warlike nation. They were so powerful that all bands feared them and we had peace. Then the white man came and we were his friend until the time arrived when our people could not longer stand the treacherous way of treating with them. I know all these things for my forefathers have told the story in council and by the fireside. They report our people as fighters and it is true, for we have been driven to it. But no man can say we are not fair fighters. The Sioux never laid in ambush to slaughter your soldiers, but met them in open day and battled man to man. Custer and his men fell, but it was a battle he brought on and no unfair means were used. Look at the Wounded Knee affair. They say now that the Indians fired the first shot, but that I do not believe. They did not go into ambush to shoot, but stood up like men in the sunlight and fought until they all lay dead or wounded. That is the Sioux character.
Plenty Horses’ trial lasted six days. On April 29, after 24 ballots, none of which was closer than eight to four, the jury reported that it could not reach a verdict. The final ballot was six for conviction on the murder charge and six for manslaughter. Judge Shiras dismissed the jury and set a new trial for May 25, 1891.
By the time the second trial rolled around in Sioux Falls, the Army brass, based on statements of Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles and others, had begun to get nervous about pressing the case. The concern centered on the question of whether Plenty Horses had committed murder by shooting Casey from behind or had, as the Brulé warrior claimed, killed in an act of war.
On May 28, after three days of testimony, Judge Shiras directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty. He gave as his reason that, in his opinion, the defense had indeed proved that a state of war existed on the reservation when Casey was killed. He went on to say that the various conflicts between the Army and the Indians were actually battles, and, if they were not, it would be hard to justify the killing of Big Foot and his followers at Wounded Knee. He also said he did not believe that if the situation were reversed—and Casey had killed Plenty Horses—Casey would have been tried for murder. “The killing of Casey was a cruel act, but it was an act of war,” the judge concluded.
The jury, as directed, without leaving the courtroom, quickly acquitted Plenty Horses. The audience greeted the verdict with cheers. Plenty Horses appeared to be the coolest person in the room and used the occasion to pick up some travel money by signing autographs for $1 apiece. He no doubt felt very proud that he had achieved his objective. Other Sioux—including Red Cloud—were also glad.
But at least one newspaper suggested that Plenty Horses was not beloved by all his people. Perhaps the fact that he had shot Casey in the back of the head had something to do with it. Perhaps other tribe members just wanted peace, and no more of the kind of trouble brought on by any killing. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported on May 30, 1891: “The vindication of the United States court had not restored him [Plenty Horses] to popularity among the other redskins. With the exception of his old father, all the Sioux seemed to fight [sic] shy of him, and the Cheyenne would not even look at him.” Powers, one of the defense attorneys, told a reporter: “In two years from now I do not believe that Plenty Horses will be alive. He certainly would not stand confinement for that time. It is my opinion that he has consumption.”
After the trial, Plenty Horses returned to the Rosebud Reservation and dropped out of sight. But, according to Roger L. Di Silvestro in his 2005 book In the Shadow of Wounded Knee, Plenty Horses not only proved Powers wrong but also married and raised children on the reservation before dying in 1933.
G. Sam Carr, of Huntington, N.Y., has long had an interest in Indians and Deadwood. Suggested for further reading:In the Shadow of Wounded Knee: The Untold Final Story of the Indian Wars, by Roger Di Silvestro.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.