Native American war chief became a master of military tactics in the Dakotas
"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Gall, born in the 1800s in what is now northwestern South Dakota and a man who historians credit for his role in defeating Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
A man who I believe was one of the most outstanding military leaders in American history never had any formal military training. What this commander had was the unique ability to immediately assess his foe’s weaknesses, intentions and strategy, and then quickly implement a plan to best counter the tactics of his opponent.
He developed this ability by carefully observing the U.S. soldiers actions every time he encountered them in battle. Gall was a Hunkpapa Lakota war chief who instilled confidence in his warriors and led them on the battlefield with extraordinary bravery and valor. Many historians give Gall much of the credit for defeating the forces under the command of Col. George A. Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
Pizi, better known as Gall, was born in about 1840 (some sources list 1832) along the Moreau River in the Badlands of what is now northwestern South Dakota. Some articles state that he was orphaned while still a child, and another historian wrote that he “lost his father at a young age, and his widowed mother brought him up” as best she could. Because of a shortage of food when Gall was very young, “he tried to eat the gall bladder of an animal and thus earned his name.”
Sitting Bull, who was nine years older than Gall, took a liking to the youngster and befriended him as a big brother. “For more than two decades, he watched young Gall grow into an increasingly powerful and fearless warrior,” and when Gall became an adult, Sitting Bull appeared to trust his decisions and judgment more than any other warrior.
“Gall, like Sitting Bull, became a war chief in his twenties,” and he and Sitting Bull, as young braves, frequently found themselves in battle with their traditional tribal enemies, chiefly the Crows and Assiniboine. Later, with the encroachment of white settlers into Native American hunting grounds, a new group of adversaries emerged when the U.S. government sent soldiers into the Indian-controlled region in order to protect the settlers.
To defend their tribe against this new formidable opponent, Sitting Bull, Gall and Crow King organized a “body of fearless Indian warriors to meet any emergency” and called it Chauter’inza, the “Strong Heart Society.” Members promised “to be brave in the defense of the tribe, to take care of the poor and needy, and to maintain a good moral character.” If any member failed to live up to his promise, he was publicly humiliated and stripped of his membership.
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On July 24, 1863, Gall’s first major action against white soldiers occurred in what is now Kidder County, N.D., in what has become known as the Battle of Big Mound. Gall and Sitting Bull belonged to a large group of Lakota that was led by Chief Standing Buffalo. They were gathered in the region to hunt bison, and were approached by U.S. soldiers under the command of Gen. Henry H. Sibley, who had been sent to the region to look for Native Americans responsible for the Minnesota Uprising the previous year.
The tribal Lakota who accompanied Standing Buffalo on the bison hunt had nothing to do with the Minnesota Uprising, but some who had participated in it had infiltrated the Lakota on the hunt. With peace talks beginning, Dr. Josiah Weiser, Sibley’s interpreter, was meeting with some of his Lakota friends on top of Big Mound when he was shot and killed by one of the infiltrators. Almost immediately, both sides started shooting at each other, and the fighting began.
This unanticipated battle likely caused Gall and Sitting Bull to become more combative and hostile toward the U.S. government. It also gave the two young war chiefs the opportunity to observe firsthand the strategy of U.S. Army officers and the combat techniques of their soldiers.
After Big Mound, Gall and Sitting Bull were “involved in a series of battles” in what is now western North Dakota in 1863 and 1864. The first ones were against forces led by Gen. Sibley and the latter ones were commanded by Gen. Alfred Sully. On July 28 and 29, the Army under Sully defeated the Lakota at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. The next day, "Sully detailed 700 men to destroy all that they [the Lakota] had left behind." This included “the entire winter meat supply,” as well as tepees, cooking utensils and all other possessions.
Gall, Sitting Bull and about 60 other Hunkpapa Lakota then headed southwest toward the Powder River area of the Black Hills where they hoped “to hunt and find enough winter food to replace what Sully had destroyed.” On the way, near present-day Rhame, N.D., on Sept. 2, they spotted a lagging wagon that was part of a wagon train under the direction of Capt. James Fiske. The Lakota attacked, and after killing nine soldiers and two civilians guarding the wagon, reinforcements arrived. Then, after an 18-day siege, soldiers from Fort Rice came to the rescue and the Lakota left, and continued on their way to the Powder River.
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Late in 1865, Gall traveled to Fort Berthold where he “hoped to trade with Arikara Indians.” While there, he was spotted by Bloody Knife, who had grown up with Gall at a Hunkpapa camp. Bloody Knife held a deep dislike for Gall ever since they were kids, and late at night he entered Gall’s tepee and stabbed him with a bayonet. Believing he had killed Gall, Bloody Knife left, but miraculously Gall survived. Bloody Knife later became “Custer’s favorite scout.”
From 1866 to 1868, Gall became involved in the activities of Red Cloud, a prominent Oglala Lakota who, in his attempt to keep white settlers out of the bison-rich Powder River area of northeastern Wyoming and southern Montana, was engaged in a war against U.S. troops. Allied with Red Cloud and his Oglala tribesmen were warriors from the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, and the combined forces were involved in a series of battles, culminating with the Fetterman Fight of Dec. 21, 1866, in which 81 white soldiers were killed. “It was the worst military defeat suffered by the U.S. on the Great Plains until the Battle of the Little Bighorn.”
As a result of the Red Cloud War, which consisted mainly of “small-scale Indian raids and attacks on the soldiers and civilians,” the U.S. government felt forced to negotiate with Red Cloud and the other Native American chiefs who supported his efforts. At Fort Laramie, Wyo., U.S. government officials met with tribal leaders in 1868 to negotiate a treaty that would bring peace to the region.
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The government created a Great Sioux Reservation that “encompassed all of western South Dakota, including the Black Hills, and provided annuities for those Indians who agreed to live there.” The government also closed all the forts located along the Bozeman Trail and prohibited all white people from settling in the Indian Territory. The southern Lakota tribesmen were willing to live on the reservation, but the northern Lakota, including Sitting Bull and Gall, were not.
The one thing that both of these Hunkpapa Lakota chiefs took away from all of this was, if they successfully persisted in their resistance to encroachment by white people, the government would be willing to negotiate. The next decade would determine if their theory was correct.
We will continue the story of Gall next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.