In the early days the Sioux Indians of the plains were firm friends of the white people. The first traders among them were welcomed as brothers. They left their goods piled in the open air in Sioux villages and found them safe on their return. The white men who made the first trails across Nebraska often found food and shelter with the Sioux. The early emigrant trail wound for four hundred miles through the heart of the Sioux country. Over it went white men, singly and in companies, with ox-wagons, on foot, and pushing wheelbarrows and no harm came to them from the Sioux.
All this was changed in a single day. The Sioux became the fierce and bloody foes of the white men. War with the Sioux nation lasted thirty years. It cost thousands of lives and millions of dollars. The cause of this bloody war was a lame Mormon cow.
On the 17th of August, 1854, a party of Mormon emigrants on their way to Great Salt Lake were toiling along the Oregon Trail in the valley of the North Platte. They were in what was then Nebraska Territory, but is now about forty miles beyond the Nebraska state line and eight miles east of Fort Laramie, Wyoming. A great camp of thousands of Indians stretched for miles along the overland trail. They were the Brule, Oglala and Minneconjou bands -- the whole Sioux nation on the plains -- and were gathered to receive the goods which the United States had promised to pay them for the road through their land.
Behind the train of Mormon wagons lagged a lame cow driven by a man. When near the Brule Sioux camp something scared the cow. She left the road and ran directly into the Sioux camp The man ran after her, but stopped after a few steps, fearing to follow her alone into a camp of so many Indians. He turned back to the overland trail and followed after the wagons, leaving the lame cow to visit the Sioux.
In the Brule camp was a young Sioux from the Minneconjou, or Shooters-in-the-Mist, band. These were wilder than the other Sioux. The young Minneconjou killed the lame cow and his friends helped to eat her.
The next day the Mormon emigrants stopped at Fort Laramie and complained to the commander there that they had lost their cow. On the morning of August 19th, Lieutenant Grattan and twenty-nine men with two cannon were sent from the fort to the Brule camp after the young Indian who had killed the cow. Lieutenant Grattan was a young man from Vermont, barely twenty-one years old, who had no experience with Indians.
The great chief among the Sioux at that time was named The Bear. He had a talk with the lieutenant and said he would try to get the young Minneconjou to give himself up. It was a great disgrace for a free Indian of the plains to be taken to prison and the friends of the cow-killer would not let him go. The Bear then tried to have Lieutenant Grattan go back to the fort and let him bring in the young Minneconjou later. The lieutenant ordered his soldiers to run the two cannon to the top of a little mound, to point them on the Brule camp and told The Bear that he would open fire if the cow-killer was not given up at once. Pointing to the thousands of Indians, men, women and children, who were spread over the valley as far as eye could see, The Bear said, "These are all my people. Young man you must be crazy," and walked toward his lodge, while his warriors began to get their guns and bows. A moment later the two cannon and a volley of muskets were fired at the Sioux camp. The Bear was killed. A storm of Sioux bullets and arrows cut down Lieutenant Grattan and his men before they had time to reload their guns.
The Sioux camp went wild. The death of The Bear, the taste of white man's blood, set them crazy. Warriors mounted their ponies and rode about the field. The squaws tore down the tepees and packed them for flight. Some one called out to the Indians to take their goods which were in a storehouse near a trader's post waiting for the United States officer who was coming to distribute them. The Sioux burst into the storehouse, tumbled the goods from the shelves, piled them on their ponies. There were two traders near by who were married to Indian women. Their friends hurried them out of sight to keep them from being killed by the furious warriors. Before sundown the Indians were riding over the northern ridges by thousands, carrying away their plunder. They buried The Bear wrapped in richest buffalo robes in a high pine tree near the Niobrara River. From this burial the bands scattered over Nebraska, Wyoming and Dakota, urging Indians everywhere to kill the white men and to drive them from the country. Thus the Sioux war began.