Charles St. George Stanley – Artist, Writer, ‘Indian Fighter’
For one hour the firing continued and some of us, especially those under fire for the first time, felt unusually blue. I must confess that the horrible whizzing of rifle balls was most demoralizing, and I for one, managed to keep well behind a large cottonwood tree, although for appearance sake, I blazed away with a vengeance until the atmosphere around that tree resembled a foretaste of the hereafter (the other place). Tom Cooper, a reckless sort of a fellow, and one of [Dick] Closter’s [pack]-train, passing by, remarked: "I thought you’d find a tree rather convenient," and away went all my grand ideas of bravery, and the humiliation of the situation burst upon me in all its vividness.
Such was Charles St. George Stanley’s introduction to Indian fighting on June 9, 1876, at Tongue River Heights, Wyoming (near the Montana border).
Charles St. George Stanley was born in England in 1822 and attended the Royal Academy of Art in London. Exactly when he arrived Stateside is unknown, but he was in Denver in 1867 and seems to have earned his keep as an itinerant artist. During part of the Sioux War of 1876 he was employed (or freelanced) as an art-correspondent for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and referred to himself as a "Bohemian of Frank Leslie’s Staff." Lieutenant John G. Bourke of the Third Cavalry thought St. George Stanley was a packer for General George Crook in 1876 (which may have been another form of employment at the time) when he wrote: "One of the packers, a man with decided artistic abilities, named Stanley, was busy at every spare moment sketching groups of teamsters, scouts, animals, and wagons, with delicacy of execution and excellent effect." In fact, Bourke’s rather inconsequential description is the only mention I have ever found of St. George Stanley in Sioux War literature (made all the harder to identify in a casual reading because he is not identified as St. George Stanley, just Stanley).
St. George Stanley’s entrance into the Sioux War of 1876 began in mid-May when he departed Camp Carlin, near Fort D. A. Russell, Wyoming Territory, with a handful of troops under Colonel William B. Royall, Third Cavalry. Their destination was Fort Fetterman, ninety miles northwest of Fort Laramie, where General Crook was organizing troops for his spring/summer offensive—better known as the Bighorn and Yellowstone Expedition—against the non-reservation Sioux and Cheyenne under such leaders as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Old Bear. Reminiscing two years later, Stanley wrote:
The largest portion of the men comprising the command in a civilian way were old campaigners… There were, however, a few of us who had yet to smell powder, while many of the soldiery were of the rawest material, and I, for one, as I lay in my tent that starless night [May 17], wondered of the events destiny would weave in the next six months into our lives.
The troops reached Fort Laramie on May 23 and pulled out the following morning. By June 7 they were camped at the confluence of Prairie Dog Creek and the Tongue River (in Northern Wyoming), also known as Tongue River Heights.
At about midnight [June 7] we were aroused with the sound of a most infernal yell, and jumping up hastily made our way down to the water’s edge. Upon the summit of the bluffs opposite camp and across the river stood a savage, plainly visible in the moonlight, and making the night hideous with his cry embodying the salutation "Hoo-hay-hay-kola," delivered in an intensely guttural tone. Upon being questioned, he stated that he was a friend (kola) and desired to know whether the Crows had arrived at our camp, as he himself was a Crow. His logic was remarkably transparent and he failed to answer the question, "If you are a Crow why do you speak Sioux?"
After several more questions the mysterious midnight visitor disappeared (it was learned several days later that this mysterious visitor was, in fact, a friendly Crow Indian). The next day, June 8, "passed quietly" and many of the soldiers and citizen volunteers spent the day fishing. However, when the sun went down and Frank Grouard, General Crook’s trusted guide, had still not returned from his mission, it was to the "uneasiness of the General." Grouard had departed Crook’s command the night of June 2, along with two other guides, Baptiste "Big Bat" Pourier and Louis Richard, for the purpose of bringing back a large contingent of Crow Indian scouts.
On the evening of June 9 Stanley’s "frugal meal" of beans and bacon was interrupted by the "sharp report" of a rifle, "followed by the vengeful hiss of a bullet." More shots came quickly on the heels of the first, then came a "regular volley."
"Indians!" was the cry and away we dashed to secure our weapons. It was some time before order was brought out of the confusion, and then along the whole line the rattle of musketry told that the enemy were being answered. The firing by this time had become so general across the river, and the passage of bullets so rapid, that the air seemed alive with bees as the leaden hail whizzed over and around us. Volley answered volley and the evening breeze drifted clouds of smoke redolent of powder through the trees.
Here it was, St. George Stanley’s first real Indian fight. The war cries were "something horrible" and their "wild, painted forms…darting here and there upon the bluffs opposite, firing at every plunge of their ponies, gave the scene a sinister appearance."
But there was one Indian in particular that attracted Stanley’s attention, and that of many others, because he was wearing a coffee pot decorated with feathers!
He was mounted upon a white war pony, smeared with great bands of vermillion, and his head adorned with a coffee pot, brightly burnished and decorated with eagle plumes. This individual rejoiced in the sobriquet of "The man with the Tin Hat," and it was his business to pass rapidly backwards and forwards upon the side of the ridge, in order to draw the fire of the troops, thus enabling his comrades to fire into us with impunity. His appearance was so striking that he naturally attracted the attention as well as the fire of the command, although without effect, as the confounded rascal seemed to bear a charmed existence. At this juncture some of the packers displayed an utter disregard for personal safety, and running to the river bank at a point where the vegetation ceased, turned handsprings and somersaults, yelling at the top of their voices, "head him off!" "hobble him!" "nosebag him!" and other kindred expressions peculiar to their profession, until the thing became really amusing.
The long distance firing went on for about an hour, at which time General Crook ordered four companies of cavalry across the river, forcing the Indians to disperse and putting an end to that evening’s engagement. Two soldiers were wounded in the exchange but Stanley was certain that if the fight had been upon an open field, "we would have suffered severely, as the enemy were almost all of them armed with Winchester repeating rifles."
St. George Stanley remained with General Crook until the morning of June 21, when he departed with the wagon train for Fort Fetterman, before heading back to Colorado. But first he witnessed an even bigger Indian fight, eight days later, on June 17, near the headwaters of the Rosebud River in Southern Montana. Of course, as things turned out, this latter fight turned out to be a warm-up for the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, who, eight days after the Rosebud battle, defeated the Seventh Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer on the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River.
About the author:
Marc H. Abrams has been reading about and researching the Indian Wars for more than 35 years. He is the author of Crying for Scalps: St. George Stanley’s Sioux War Narrative, from which the above article is based. His other work is a massive 15-volume set of books that totals over 4,500 pages titled, Newspaper Chronicle of the Indian Wars, Including A Comprehensive Account of the Sioux War of 1876. Volume 16, which will be the final volume, is currently in the works. Click here to visit Marc’s store page.