Jerome A. Greene. Morning Star Dawn: The Powder River Expedition and the Northern Cheyennes, 1876. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003. xvi + 288 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-3548-9.
Reviewed by Lance Blyth (Department of History, Northern Arizona University)
Published on H-War (June, 2004)
A Near-Run Thing
There is a tendency among historians to view the outcome of conflicts between indigenous peoples and European settlers in North America as inevitable. Nowhere is this more so than the cursory glance most textbooks and U.S. history survey courses give the conflict on the Great Plains in the later half of the nineteenth century. After all, how could a few thousand men, with only a handful of modern weapons, motivated by defense of a lifeway that seemed ancient but was only a few generations old, relying on a natural resource that appeared inexhaustible, hope to have stood up to and defeat a U.S. Army backed by an industrializing nation? Such a view is ahistorical, ignoring the chaos, contingency, and tragedy that are at the heart of historical experience. It is in this context that Jerome Greene's new book is revealing.
In November 1876, following the U.S. Army's defeat on the Little Big Horn that summer, a column of U.S. soldiers and Shoshone, Pawnee, Sioux, and Cheyenne Indian scouts left its staging area on the upper reaches of the Powder River in northeastern Wyoming. Under the command of Brigadier General George Crook, this column was to seek out the victorious Sioux and Northern Cheyennes in their winter camps, where the Indians were most vulnerable. The Northern Cheyennes, under Morning Star, had collected into a village of some 173 lodges in a canyon on the Red Fork of the Powder River and were aware of Crook's column, having dispatched four young men to follow it. Two of these, Crow Necklace and Young Two Moons, infiltrated the soldiers' and scouts' bivouac, taking some horses.
The column moved away from Morning Star's camp, however, to the north and was camped along Crazy Woman Creek when Indian scouts spotted evidence of the Cheyennes' camp. A force of cavalry and scouts under Colonel Ranald Mackenzie conducted an all-night movement and attacked the Northern Cheyennes at dawn on November 25, 1876. The Cheyennes knew the soldiers and their Indian allies were near. But when Crow Split Nose, chief of the Elk Scraper society, which was responsible for the safety of the village, attempted to have the Cheyennes tear down their lodges to move them and their supplies to more defensible positions, Last Bull, chief of the rival Kit Fox Soldiers, prevented anyone from leaving the camp and instead ordered a war dance to celebrate a recent victory over some Shoshones.
Thus on the morning of the twenty-fifth, while the Cheyenne warriors were able to hold off Mackenzie's men, allowing their families to flee to safety, the Cheyennes were unable to take any food or winter clothing. The superior range of the Northern Cheyennes' weapons resulted in a day-long firefight, during which time, however, the soldiers burned the Indians' lodges and supplies, while the scouts ran off most of the Cheyennes' horses. As night fell both sides faced a long struggle through the Wyoming winter to reach aid and shelter. The Northern Cheyennes suffered from the loss of their village and all its provisions, while the soldiers faced undependable civilian contractors and the haphazard logistical planning of their commander, General Crook.
While the fight for Morning Star's camp was not a large battle by anyone's standards, it did have wide-ranging political effects. It ultimately encouraged the Northern Cheyenne to surrender in the spring of 1877, a move that soon convinced their Sioux allies under Crazy Horse to do the same. The Powder River Expedition of 1876 was thus crucial to the ending of the Great Sioux War.
Greene's book is a tightly structured and paced narrative, but with space for a number of useful digressions, providing necessary background and illustrative details without too much minutiae. Greene must also be commended for providing both Indian and Anglo points of view and experiences. (The illustrations in the book of the fight from Northern Cheyenne ledger drawings suggest he has only scratched the surface of Indian documentation.) Indeed, Greene is able to demonstrate both agency and responsibility by both Cheyennes and soldiers, an impressive and refreshing achievement.
The one critique, by no means a criticism, which I can offer is that, while Greene does show both sides making decisions, one is left wondering why they made the decisions they did. Why were the Elk Scrapers and Kit Foxes rivals? Why did Crook's logistical planning break down? Greene shows an ability to intertwine much discussion throughout his narrative and I, for one, would have appreciated some explanatory digressions into both Cheyenne and U.S. military cultures.
Yet this is minor, for the overwhelming value of Greene's work is that it shows the contingency of it all. What if the U.S. Army had not been able to recruit Indian scouts? What if the Northern Cheyennes had fortified their camp and been waiting for Mackenzie? What if the weather had not held for Mackenzie's movement or had been less harsh during the Cheyennes' trek to their Sioux allies after the battle? Greene thus demonstrates that, for both sides, the Indian Wars were a near run thing. For this reason, Morning Star Dawn deserves a wide audience.
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Lance Blyth. Review of Greene, Jerome A., Morning Star Dawn: The Powder River Expedition and the Northern Cheyennes, 1876.
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