The Lame Cow War

In the 1840s a massive migration of non-Indians began in which long wagon trains would cross the Great Plains bringing new settlers into Utah, Oregon, and California. The people in the wagon trains were generally oblivious to the fact that they were trespassing on Indian land and using Indian resources. As they crossed the Plains, their oxen, cattle, and horses grazed on the grass, depleting the resources needed for Indian horses and for the bison on which Plains Indian lives depended. Many of the non-Indians viewed Indians as a part of the wildlife, like coyotes and wolves, destined to be exterminated before the relentless push of Manifest Destiny. The Indians, on the other hand, viewed the intruders as thieves stealing grass and game.

In 1845, Joel Palmer, who was leading a wagon train to Oregon, met with a group of about 100 Oglala Sioux at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. One Sioux leader, whose name was not recorded, told Palmer:  “This country belongs to the red man, but his white brethren travels through, shooting the game and scaring it away. Thus the Indian loses all that he depends upon to support his wife and children. The children of the red man cry out for food, but there is no food.”

Ignoring the fact that the Indians had just pointed out that wagons trains like his were stealing from the Indians, Palmer informed them that they were compelled to pass through Indian territory on their way to the coast.

In 1850, the U.S. Army at Fort Laramie tallied the wagon trains that passed through. They counted: 7,472 mules, 30,616 oxen, 22,742 horses, 8,998 wagons, and 5,270 cows. All of these animals were, of course, eating Indian grass for which the tribes were never reimbursed. With regard to the buffalo, generally regarded as a primary food source for Plains Indians, the hunters from the wagon trains would shot buffalo regularly, taking only the choice cuts of meat and leaving the rest for the wolves, coyotes, and buzzards. Unlike the Indians, they had no interest in preserving any meat for future use.

In 1854, a Mormon wagon-train was crossing Wyoming on its way to Utah when it abandoned a lame cow. When a hunting party of Sioux came across the cow on what they felt was their land, they killed it for food. Chief Pretty Voice Eagle explained it this way:  “They had with them a cow which was lame, and they left it. The Indians thought they had thrown it away, and killed it. We killed this cow not for subsistence but because it was lame and we felt sorry for it.”

When the Mormons complained about the killing of the cow, the Indians offered them a horse worth double the cow as a trade, but the Mormons refused and later filed a formal complaint with the army. A young army officer and 20 troops, described by Father De Smet as “armed to the teeth and with a cannon loaded with grapeshot,” were sent out to bring back the Indian responsible for killing the cow. According to Lakota Sioux writer Charles Eastman, in his book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains: “It would seem that either the officer was under the influence of liquor, or else had a mind to bully the Indians, for he would accept neither explanation or payment, but demanded point-blank that the young men who had killed the cow be delivered up to summary punishment.”

The officer then fired his cannon into the Indians, killing chief Conquering Bear and a number of men. The Indians defended themselves and the army unit was annihilated. The non-Indian press declared that a state of war existed with the Sioux and called for reinforcements. The focus was not on justice, but on retaliation and punishment. Father DeSmet, the Belgian-born Jesuit who spent 32 years among the Indians and often aided the Americans in holding Indian councils, wrote that a lame cow was   “the origin of a fresh war of extermination upon the Indians which is to be carried out in the course of the present year.”

George W. Manypenny, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, felt that the whole incident could have been avoided if Indian funds had been used to pay for the cow. In his annual report, Manypenny noted:  “No officer of the military department was in my opinion authorized to arrest or try the Indian for the offense charged against him.”

Mannypenny, while the government official responsible for Indian Affairs, expressed no concern over the depletion of Indian resources nor did he suggest that Indians be compensated for these losses.