The Pebble Creek Battle Revisited

About forty Sioux Indians were accosted by a band of twelve to sixteen frontiersmen. The results may be predictable but the repercussions of this skirmish had impact on central Nebraska.

Like any account of any event, the facts related vary with the teller of the tale. People view things differently, have better or poorer memories or perhaps have their own agenda to support. The reports of this locally important battle come to us from at least three or four sources, and the following is a composite of those accounts.

All agree that this two-day sequence took place on the coldest days in January of the year 1874. There were very few permanent settlers in the upper Loup River region at that early date. Fort Hartsuff had not been built and there were no federal soldiers within 150 miles. Several trappers and hunters were spending the winter in the vicinity, referred to by the early permanent residents as the ‘trapper boys’. Some of them were from Hamilton and Clay County in south central Nebraska, an area settled some year earlier. Their leader was a colorful and fairly experienced frontier scout call “Buckskin Charley” White.

The band of Sioux in question was returning from a successful raid on the Pawnee agency village two days down the Loup valley. They had captured a fair herd of ponies. Upon reaching the ‘upper settlement’ here in the vicinity of the forks of the North Loup and Calamus rivers, they helped themselves to some local property. This involuntary sharing is what precipitated the problems between the Sioux and the trappers and settlers.

As they came up the river, the Indians first entered the cabin of Mrs. Richard McClimans. Though she was hospitable, this did not satisfy the hungry travelers who helped themselves to what they pleased. They were soon observed removing goods from the trapper boys’ house and later took a cow belonging to another homesteader. The damaged parties determined that the Indians were camped near the mouth of Pebble Creek about two miles north of present-day Burwell. A meeting was held and it was determined to demand restitution early the next morning on Monday, January 19, 1874.

The Indian fighters were under the command of Buckskin Charley. He arrayed his men in a show of force. It seems that his initial parlaying with the Indian leader was successful. Charley knew some Lakotah and some sign language. Conflicting accounts describe the Indian leader either as Medicine Horse or Lone Elk. The chief, by whichever name, returned some of the goods taken from the cabins. He even offered horses in lieu of the already eaten cow. This rather generous offer seems pretty reasonable in retrospect when one considers the number of men on each side. Finally, the demands by Buckskin Charley became too great and peaceful negotiations ended. We quote George McAnulty, a combatant settler, later a soldier and one who lived to participate in the dedication of the present monument in 1937: “…the Chief…emerged from the teepee, took a cartridge from this belt, held it above his head, summoned his followers, and standing in their midst in the gray light of the morning uttered the Sioux war chief’s battle cry, always terrible in its character.” The spirited fight was on!

The settler group was well protected by the first terrace of the riverbank, although the Indians had the advantage of maneuvers through the higher hills and buffs which still characterize this scenic setting. As the battle raged on, one of the young trappers named Marion Littlefield raised from concealment to fire a shot with his .50-70 caliber rifle, and was immediately shot dead with a bullet through the head. This bullet fired from a repeating .44 rimfire Winchester rifle assured young Littlefield the immortality of fame. It also marked the end of the battle and the beginning of a story to be told and retold thousands of times since and into the future. The Pebble Creek skirmish has provided people of all ages with grist for the mill of imagination from then until now and as long as frontier tales capture the collective fancy of our people.

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Picture of Marion Littlefield’s Springfield

Picture of Yellowboy of Indian usage.

There was a larger and more practical result of the Battle of Pebble Creek. It served to galvanize the efforts of local residents and state politicians to petition the Federal Government for protection by regular army soldiers. It was government policy to quickly settle these vast regions of the plains. The Indian presence was considered an unfortunate impediment to this irreversible process. They were an obstacle that was to be removed as quickly as possible, and the army was the best method of securing an area of any size. Regular army soldiers were limited in number and widely scattered across the broad frontier. Competition for their presence in a region was lively. It took this battle to provide the essential impetus to get regular troops stationed here in a permanent post. Within two or three months, a temporary camp was established, soon to be superseded by the construction of a permanent military post. Thus Fort Hartsuff was built. This assured the settlers and other new and prospective residents of the Loup region that their safety was assured. The Federal government was here and the Indians would never again pose a serious threat to the settlement of central Nebraska.

Two postscripts may be in order. First, Marion Littlefield’s body was returned to his home and he was buried at the picturesque country cemetery by the name of “Farmer’s Valley Cemetery”. It is located in southern Hamilton County, a few miles north of the town of Sutton. His Springfield rifle was returned to the Loup valley and is now on permanent display at Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park.