Battle of Sioux Creek, 1873

Let us propose some questions. Did the bands of young Sioux warriors hate the settlers? Did they want the Loup Valley settlers to leave? Probably the answer is NO to both questions. These ‘war parties’ would indeed have been disappointed to find the ‘wasichus’ gone.

The settlers provided rich motivation for Indian excursions from the reservations 200 miles to the northwest. For two centuries the Lakota had relied on raids to the Pawnee villages to replenish their hunting horse herds. Poverty and disease had decreased Pawnee wealth and population by the early 1870’s. The white settlers’ relative wealth helped increase the odds favoring a successful trip. Besides, the settlers were not nearly as skilled in warfare as the brave and dangerous Pawnee.

The following battle account proves two things: The raiding Indians had no primary goal of killing people, only wishing to acquire horses; and, the Sioux were more skilled in tactics than the settlers. The story is excerpted from The Trail of the Loup and was based on a participant’s account. Geographical notes and explanatory comments appear in parenthesis.

“The Loup Valley settlements were repeatedly harried and for a while it looked as though these incursions would put an entire stop to the influx of the settlers…”. The first real trouble occurred in the month of March 1873, when a band of Pine Ridge Sioux fell upon the Post settlement north of Turtle Creek, near Elyria, and ran off much available stock. This affair culminated in the burlesque of an Indian hunt usually known as The Battle of Sioux Creek. Right here might the history of many of our valiant fathers have ended, had the Indians been as eager for scalps as they were for good saddle horses…the settlers organized a party to hunt the thieves down and to recover if possible, the stolen property…the foolhardy pursuers could readily have been led into an ambush and all massacred had the Indians been so disposed.

“One morning in the latter days of March, 1873, a fine mare and her yearling colt were missing from the corral. The footmarks of Indian ponies were noticed around the stables and their trail with those of the stolen horse and colt were plain, leading southward toward the hills and up the Turtle Creek valley. All the settlers were notified and requested to respond at once for the purpose of overtaking the red rascals, to recover the stolen horses and to teach them such a lesson as would forever prevent them from again stealing any horses from the white settlers. To this call responded Happy Jack, a trapper, Indian scout and regular frontiersman, who, the previous fall, had moved his camp from near the chalk hills in Greeley county to the canyon bearing his name near Mr. Goodenow’s farm.

“The settlers were all on horseback with the exception of Mr. Case and A.G. (Ash) Post, who rode in a spring wagon containing the provisions, camping utensils and blankets. It was estimated from the trail that the Indians were about twelve in number. There were eleven of us when we started out, with “Happy Jack” as our leader, who it was reported had single-handed defeated as large a band as the one we were about to annihilate…The younger Post boys’ blood was just more than boiling with enthusiasm, enough in each to fight the band single-handed. We were armed ‘to the teeth’. Frey brought his old musket, loaded to the muzzle with large buckshot, enough to kill several of the red bucks if they had been conveniently arranged. He had forgotten to bring any extra ammunition. Moller brought his double-barreled shotgun, also heavily loaded. The writer (Peter Mortensen) brought a borrowed Springfield needle-gun and 27 rounds of cartridges, but on account of some defect in his eyesight and inexperience in handling such a dangerous weapon, might as well have brought a willow club. Even “Happy Jack” did not carry a breech-loader, but a double-barreled gun, one barrel of which was used for shot and the other for ball, two others carried Spencer carbines. The rest were armed with muzzle-loading guns and muskets of more or less improved patterns. With such arms, no wonder we were certain of victory against a foe, as we found out later, were armed with nothing but Winchester repeating rifles!

The narrator then describes leaving the women and an old man to guard the remaining ten horses in the Post settlement. The Indian tracks went up Turtle Creek to the west. The majority of Indian track diverged from the trail, but the company of settlers followed the tracks of the smaller party. Turtle Creek leads to the headwaters of Sioux Creek in northeastern Custer County near the present Don Rejda ranch. The settlers followed the few remaining Indians down Sioux Creek to its mouth where it joins the North Loup River, about six miles west of Burwell on Highway 91. The settlers spent an uncomfortable night in that scenic spot, in spite of the fact that it offered camping with good water and plenty of firewood.

“Before sunrise we had our breakfast, broken camp and were again in the saddle following the trail up the Loup Valley. We had not traveled more than a hour…when we heard fierce yelling behind us. We were startled to say the least. Our enthusiasm went down into our knees and made them shake. There they were, within 80 or 100 rods of us, eight, ten or twelve, more or less…

“Soon one of the warriors was seen to leap from his horse and deliberately take aim at us with his Winchester over his pony’s back and the ball went Whiz-z over our head…Soon he was followed by others. Our horses became excited. They had caught our enthusiasm and began to run, not towards the Indians but in an opposite direction towards the river…The Indians soon got tired of being targets for us to shoot at and took up the trail after their companions…and no doubt had a good laugh over the panic they had caused and the trick they had played on us.”

“We reached home before night where Uncle Billie and the ladies with tears in their eyes told us of the trick the red rascals had played on us. That portion of the Indians whose trail we had left on Turtle Creek, had hid themselves in the hills and after we had passed they very coolly and deliberately returned and drove off the rest of the horses, nine or ten in number.”

“In every way considered, this experience with the Indians was a disastrous one and satisfied even the most daring among the settlers that they were no match for the well-armed, hard-riding Sioux.”

In spite of the estimated $1500 loss of horses, this amusing little battle does prove that scalps were not the primary goal of the Sioux raiders. They wanted horses and the settlers were a good source for them. Perhaps the Indians regarded these newcomers as a blessing. They could get the horses they needed without the additional hundred-mile trip to the Pawnee reserve and without the risk of very effective Pawnee defense and retaliation. The settlers may have been viewed by the Lakota as having been placed in the Loup Valley by a higher power to supply good horses needed to sustain their hunting way of life. Only the presence of the soldiers of the Army of the United States would effectively interrupt this pattern.