An old, lame cow was the spark that increased tensions between the U.S. Army and Plains Indians in the 1850s

Native History: How a Lame Cow Started the Plains Wars

Christina Rose


This Date in Native History: An old, lame cow and a group of greedy emigrants spurred one young lieutenant’s lust for glory, resulting in the death of 30 soldiers and one Brule chief. In retaliation, on September 3, 1855, General William S. Harney brought his Sioux Expedition into a Lakota village along Blue Water Creek, and killed 100 innocent Lakota. The young Crazy Horse was among them, and he never forgot the events of that day.

General William S. Harney (Wikimedia Commons)Both the Grattan Massacre and Blue Water Creek Massacre—also referred to as the Battle of Ash Creek—were the basis of the ensuing Plains wars, including Little Big Horn, the massacre at Sand Creek, and the massacre at Wounded Knee.

It all began with the westward bound group of recently converted Mormon, Danish emigrants who passed by Fort Laramie with a cow described as so lame her “feet” had worn through. The cow, worth about $4, was either cut loose or had wandered off, but found herself amidst a camp of hundreds of starving Mniconjous who were waiting for their already late annuities. For weeks they waited, while grass for the horses wore thin and the game was already hunted down to nothing.

The cow was quickly descended upon by High Forehead, Mniconjou, who cut it up and distributed pieces to his friends. Conquering Bear, Brule, who had been selected as chief of all the tribes by the whites, left the lodge for Fort Laramie to offer a good horse as repayment; but the offer was refused, and instead the travelers demanded $40 for the lame cow.

The commanding officer was the young Lieutenant Hugh B. Fleming, who had originally brushed off the incident as trivial. He was goaded into action by Leiutenant John Grattan, a heavy drinking, brash recent graduate of West Point.

William Vaux, chaplain at Fort Laramie, described Grattan as one with “an unwarrantable contempt of Indian character, have I reproved him for acts which I conceived highly improper, such as thrusting his clenched fist in their faces, and threatening terrible things if ever duty or opportunity threw such a chance his way...”

Fleming told Grattan to take 20 men and not to incite anything he couldn’t handle, but Grattan enlisted 30 men for “perilous service,” loaded up two cannons, and headed for the camps of 600 Lakota lodges.

One of the men was translator Lucien Auguste, whose confusing interpretations increased the tensions. After drinking all the way to the camps, the translator rode his horse back and forth, waving his gun, calling out, “The Lakota warriors are all women!” and “I will eat their hearts before sundown!”

In a deposition, Big Partisan, Brule, said High Forehead refused to believe he would be killed for an old, left behind cow, and that the soldiers had killed three of their men the summer before, “and no one said anything about it.”

Conquering Bear twice told Grattan things would go very badly if he did not take his men and leave the camps immediately. Highly respected Man Afraid of His Horses, Oglala, was approached by the soldiers who asked him what he thought of the situation, and Man Afraid of His Horses was reported to have said, “You are the chief, what do you think of it?”

Man Afraid of His Horses (Wikimedia Commons)“The officer then asked me to go to the lodge,” Man Afraid of His Horses said. “I and one other Oglala went into the lodge of the Mniconjous. There were six of them, they were naked, and their hair was tied up, and they were loading their guns. As I went in, I said, Light the pipe, let us smoke... I asked if they had killed the cow and why they had done so; one said, ‘It is a fact. Last year, the soldiers killed three of us and again this year, as we sat by the side of the road, an emigrant shot at us and hit a child in the head with a small ball (bullet)...’”

The soldiers pressed Conquering Bear to bring the one who had killed the cow but he replied that it was a poor cow, “and today the soldiers make me ashamed,” that he had been made chief by the whites and “Today you come and plant your big guns.” 

Conquering Bear was angry, and said loudly if he gave up the one who killed the cow, the others would blame him for it. “For all I tell you, you will not hear me...I would strike you if I were not a chief, but as I am and have been made so by the whites, I will not do it. But you will meet something today that is very hard.”

In Little Thunder’s account, he said, “Grattan then put his hands to his mouth and said something. I did not understand, but I think he told the soldiers to fire, as they commenced firing immediately.”

One Mniconjou was shot, and the Mniconjous then prepared their weapons. Auguste asked Man Afraid of His Horses to stop them but he said, “You have killed one of us.”

The Mniconjous then began to shoot and the soldiers shot Conquering Bear and turned their cannon towards the lodge of the Mniconjous.

By the end, all the soldiers and Conquering Bear were dead. Accounts described Grattan’s face as mutilated and his body so badly pierced by arrows, he resembled a porcupine.

The army placed the blame on the Lakota, and assembled 600 of their own soldiers, launching their attack on the peaceful village along Blue Water Creek. Thus began the wars between the Plains tribes and U.S. Army, ending with Wounded Knee.

A map showing the location of both events. (

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