The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: Massacre Canyon

 

On July 2, 1873, a hunting party of Pawnee left their reservation near Genoa, Neb., on the Loup River. It was customary for the Pawnee to mount an organized buffalo hunt in the early summer and late fall of each year.

Since their confinement to the reservation in east central Nebraska, these hunts were supervised by a sub-agent from the reservation that was chosen by the tribal council and approved by the agency. In the summer of 1873, John W. Williamson, a young and inexperienced sub-agent, was selected for the job.

Williamson was a young farmer who had been hired to instruct the Pawnee in farming practices intended to further assimilate the tribe into white culture. He was no doubt respected by the tribal leaders and trusted by the agency with instructions to escort the hunting party and insure their good behavior as they traveled south, then west along the southern banks of the Republican River.

The hunting party consisted of 700 Pawnee – of which 350 were hunter/warriors armed with bows and arrows, a few Spencer rifles, old muzzle loaders and some cap and ball Colt revolvers. The other 350 were women and children.

The hunting party would be out for over two months and so their traveling provisions included food, shelter and other supplies needed for the hunt. In addition, the party took an extra 800 horses that would be required to pack the meat and hides that were gathered during the hunt. The Pawnee hunting party consisted of four separate bands under the leadership of Sky Chief, Sun Chief, Fighting Bear and Ruling His Son.

After following the Platte River to Plum Creek the Pawnee hunters headed south to the Republican River Valley and crossed to the southern banks of the river, following it to the west. Here they found signs of buffalo and soon discovered a small herd numbering about 300 head.

The hunt was quickly organized and in short order the slaughtered herd was being skinned and dressed, with hides and meat packed on the horses and taken back to camp. The next several days were spent processing the hides and curing the meat before resuming the hunt for more buffalo.

Several more small herds were found as the hunting party continued westward along the Republican Valley in northwestern Kansas. In early August the Pawnee turned north, and on the 4th of August crossed to the northern side of the Republican River and set up camp in a small canyon just west of where the Frenchman River flowed into the Republican.

That evening, three white men came into the Pawnee camp and warned the party of a large band of Sioux camped to the northwest. The Pawnee leader, Sky Chief, did not trust the report of these white men, believing that it was a lie intended to scare the Pawnee off their hunting grounds so that white hunters could move in and slaughter the buffalo for the hides. Sky Chief's distrust of the warning given would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Sub-agent Williamson believed the report and attempted to convince Sky Chief of its possible truth but Sky Chief ridiculed the young man calling him a "squaw and a coward."

Unknown to the Pawnee, Sioux hunting parties under the leadership of Spotted Tail and Little Wound had left the reservation near Fort Laramie and had headed toward the Republican River Valley in an area that they considered to be their traditional hunting grounds. Spotted Tail and Little Wound were camped, about 20 miles northwest of the Pawnee, on the Frenchman River. These bands of Oglala Sioux hunters were accompanied by Antoine Nicholas Janis, who was the sub-agent for this hunting party.

Little Wound's scouts had discovered the Pawnee camp and asked sub-agent Janis if they would be permitted to attack the Pawnee. Janis' official instructions, similar to those of sub-agent Williamson, was to insure that his hunting party did not interfere with or harass the white settlers in the area, and that they would return to their reservation after the hunt. While Janis did not actually give the Sioux permission to attack the Pawnee hunting party, he did not attempt to dissuade them indicating that his instructions did not include anything prohibiting intertribal fighting. Also camped nearby was Chief Two Strike with another 700 Brule Sioux who were hunting under the supervision of sub-agent Stephen F. Estes. Sub-Agent Estes tried to circumvent the eminent attack but was unable to do so. Estes wrote in his official report:

"I would respectfully state ... that my failure to avert the attack and consequent massacre of the Pawnees so far as the Brules were concerned was due in great measure to the ignorance and bad advice given by Sub-Agent Janis to the Indians under his charge..."

Invited by the Oglala Sioux to join the attack, the Brule Sioux eagerly combined forces and on the morning of August 5th some 1,000 Sioux warriors rode toward the unsuspecting Pawnee.

Meanwhile the Pawnee had continued their hunt following along the west bank of the small canyon that led to the northwest. A small herd of buffalo was sighted and the men advanced in pursuit of them, leaving the women and children behind. Sky Chief was one of the first to kill a buffalo and as he prepared to skin the fallen animal the Sioux crested the rise of the divide. Caught by surprise, Sky Chief was the first to fall and as other Pawnee warriors attempted to hold off the onrush of Sioux, Sky Chief was scalped.

The Pawnee withdrew into the canyon, fighting the Sioux as they fell back in their attempt to protect the women and children. The entire Pawnee hunting party, men, women and children, fled to the southeast, back toward the Republican River but the overwhelming numbers of Sioux warriors followed in pursuit and flanked them from the canyon rims. Packs of meat, hides and supplies were cut from their ponies, dropped to the ground and the horses mounted to escape the deadly barrage of arrows and bullets.

The slaughter continued while the Pawnee withdrew in futile defense. Women and children fell behind and were overrun by the advancing Sioux. The battleground covered nearly three miles of the canyon floor and ended only after the Pawnee survivors had fled back across the Republican River.

The Sioux took a small portion of the meat and hides that had been left behind as well as any horses that they could round up and capture. Some of the women and children who had escaped unharmed in the attack were taken captive and those who were dead or wounded were tortured, scalped and mutilated.

On the southern bank of the Republican, the fleeing Pawnee encountered a small band of U.S. troops under the command of Captain Meinhold out of Fort McPherson. The Pawnee tried to convince the troops to join them in pursuit of the Sioux but after ascertaining the Sioux strength, in comparison to the small numbers of troopers, Meinhold decided against any such action.

The Army did scout the canyon for any survivors but found none. The final count was 20 men, 39 women and 10 children killed, and a number of children missing, likely captured. The Sioux suffered no more than six killed and a handful of warriors wounded. Most of the goods, cured meat, hides, weapons and other everyday articles left behind by the Pawnee were salvaged for use, or as souvenirs, by local settlers. Not until the 30th of August was a military detail assembled to bury the dead, which were already considerably decomposed. What remains were found were laid along the banks of the canyon and the dirt from the canyon walls pulled down over the remains. According to sub-agent Williamson's later written account, one of the men in that burial detail was Wild Bill Hickok.

The lopsided fight was named The Battle of Massacre Canyon and is considered to be the last major act of intertribal warfare among the plains Indians. The site of the massacre is an important historical site recognizing the Pawnee who were strong allies with the U.S. Army during the so-called Indian wars. Major Frank North commanded a troop of Pawnee scouts who became famous in their support of the U.S. Army against the Sioux and Cheyenne.

For The Sun-Telegraph

Luther H. North, E.E. Blackman, John W. Williamson and Addison E. Sheldon visit the Massacre Canyon battle site, October 14, 1921 Photo courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society.

In 1921, the four men in the accompanying photo visited the site of the massacre. From the left, the gentleman wearing the dark suit is North, commander of the Pawnee Scouts. The taller gentleman, in the light color sweater is John W. Williamson, sub-agent for the Pawnee, who participated in the battle of Massacre Canyon and on the far right, Nebraska newspaperman and historian, Addison E. Sheldon.

In 1923, the citizens of Trenton, Neb., held the first Massacre Canyon Pow-Wow with Sioux warriors who fought in the canyon battle. In 1925 the annual Pow-Wow was attended by both Sioux and Pawnee survivors of the battle, who took the occasion to pass among them the pipe of peace.

John W. Williamson remained a loyal friend to the Pawnee and lived with them in Oklahoma Indian Territory for many years. In later life he returned to Genoa, where he lived until his death in 1927.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email: acrossthefence2day@gmail.com

 

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