Remembering Warbonnet Creek

As I write this in the summer of 2020, the United States is having a conversation about our statues and monuments. Instead of piling on to the debate over statues for slaveholders, I’d like to tell you of an obscure pair of monuments in a remote corner of Nebraska. I accidentally spent some time with them in the spring of 2012, and they have an unusual story behind them.

The Site of Cody's Scalp

I spent much of spring break in 2012 helping scout a stretch of the Great Plains Trail. The trail stretches from Guadalupe Peak in Texas all the way to the Canadian border. It goes through the ultimate flyover country – if you need to fly between two points in flyover country, you fly over our trail. We never saw another soul when hiking on trails. When we had to walk on the ranch roads instead, we saw maybe one truck a day.

Major Junction Ahead!

I was driving the main shuttle car. We’d drop my car somewhere, drive back to our starting point in a second car, and then hike back to my car. Ken and Steve would keep going for a while, then I’d go pick them up, and we’d set up another shuttle. That left me with some time alone each day, and on this particular day I got to spend some time in Montrose, Nebraska.

Technically speaking, I got to spend some time where Montrose used to be. Wikipedia calls it a “former village.” There’s a junction with a whole lot of mailboxes for the local ranches. On a small rise next to the mailboxes stands Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. It’s a beautiful little church, well cared for, and clearly still in use. There is no sign of any former houses, much less a village.

Montrose Church

Montrose is a long way from Henderson, the county seat of Sioux County. The county is larger than Rhode Island, but it has only 1300 people – half of whom live more or less in and around Henderson. The town has a bar that serves food, and a gas station with a convenience store.

Opposite the Montrose church stands an impressive hill – well, impressive for Nebraska – across a small creek. There’s a grand monument atop the hill, so of course I visit it while Ken and Steve go on their way. To get there, I have to jump across Warbonnet Creek, near another monument behind a small fence.

Warbonnet Hill

The monuments go together. They tell the story of the Battle of Warbonnet Creek on July 17, 1876. This was the first engagement between the US Cavalry and the Indians after the Battle of Little Bighorn. The troopers were itching for revenge, as you might imagine.

Also itching for action was one William F. Cody, the famous “Buffalo Bill.” Buffalo Bill was a marketing genius who not only made himself into a legend but also helped build the myth of the Wild West. His Wild West Show had been a sensation since 1872, selling both self-made legends and live action with stagecoach ambushes, battles, and marksmanship. After George Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, Buffalo Bill understood immediately that he needed to be part of the action to help him develop his myth. Cody tagged along with the Fifth Cavalry as a scout.

Buffalo Bill as scout

Colonel Wesley Merritt, in command of the Fifth, was trying to keep the supply lines to Fort Laramie open along the Cheyenne & Black Hills Stage Road. He also wanted to keep the now-dispersed Indians from coming together into a large force again. If he could defeat them in battle, all the better.

Montrose lies at the junction of the Black Hills Road and the Powder River Trail, so it’s not surprising that the two forces might find each other in the neighborhood. Merritt faced Morning Star (Dull Knife), leading a band of about 800 Cheyenne from the Red Cloud Agency. They Cheyenne had left the agency and were moving to join other camps to the north. The two sides had roughly equal numbers of soldiers in the neighborhood on the day of their encounter.

Cheyenne scouts spotted a wagon trail on the road, and saw two couriers riding ahead to tell their commander it was on the way. The Cheyenne vanguard then prepared to ambush the wagon train.

View from Warbonnet Hill

The scouts did not see the Fifth Cavalry, but Buffalo Bill, in command of Merritt’s scouts, saw them. After telling Merritt of the Cheyenne presence, Cody received permission to lead a small group of his friends to try to ambush the Cheyenne vanguard.

At some point after that, Buffalo Bill changed out of his campaign dress. To prepare for battle, he put on a brightly-colored, ornamented stage costume with a shirt of red silk and trousers of black velvet. His double-wide brown leather belt featured a large silver-washed buckle and he wore a large, floppy-brimmed, brushed beaver-felt hat. His friend, First Lieutenant Charles King, called it “a Mexican vaquero costume.”

Though he is normally subdued about such things, historian Paul Hedren calls the costume “outlandish in the extreme.”

The Cheyenne were dressed for battle in the traditional way, though they doubtless also looked spectacular in their war paint and other accouterments. Yellow Hair rode in front, wearing a feathered bonnet, tin bracelets, a charm, a beaded belt with a scalp tucked in it, and a breechcloth made of a cotton American flag.

Yellow Hair and Buffalo Bill were in the lead of their respective groups. Each took a rifle shot at the other. While Yellow Hair’s missed, Buffalo Bill shot through one of Yellow Hair’s legs and killed his horse. Before his opponent could get off the ground, Cody shot and killed him. Buffalo Bill rode over and scalped his defeated opponent. He then raised Yellow Hair’s scalp and feather bonnet and shouted, “The first scalp for Custer!”

Buffalo Bill's Publicity Stunt

That symbolic revenge proved to be the only result of the battle. The Cheyenne disengaged and the US Cavalry held the field, making this skirmish an American victory. Holding the field meant that Merritt succeeded in keeping the Cheyenne from joining forces with the northern camps.

Buffalo Bill saved Yellow Hair’s scalp and then shipped it back East. He worked up the story of his encounter for the Wild West Show as a small drama, The Red Right Hand; or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer. He performed it for the first time in October.

The scalp appeared again as a prop, or as a historical artifact, in Cody’s 1914 movie, “The Indian Wars.” In the critical scene, Buffalo Bill stands over his foe, warbonnet and scalp in one hand, outreached knife in the other, partially silhouetted against the landscape in a dramatic pose for the cameras. No other cavalrymen, and no other Cheyenne, appear in this climactic moment in which he claims the “first scalp for Custer.”

Whatever military importance the minor skirmish may have had, Warbonnet Creek looms large in myth. Buffalo Bill thoroughly blended theater and reality, wearing a theatrical costume into battle and dramatizing an actual killing for the theater. He eventually brought an authentic scalp to the motion picture screen as part of dramatized history in which he removed all the other participants from the scene.

The small monument along Warbonnet Creek dates to the 1930s. It celebrates the legendary duel – “On this spot W.F. Cody Buffalo Bill Killed Yellow Hair (or Hand), the Cheyenne leader who, with a party of warriors, dashed down this ravine to waylay two soldier couriers coming from the west.” It’s near the creek, probably close to where the event would have occurred.

The Friends of the Warbonnet Battlefield rebuilt the monument on the hill in 1997. They do not give a date for the original, but the stones and construction method resemble the monument down the hill. It’s far more subdued than Cody would have written, saying that Merritt intercepted 800 Cheyennes here and drove them back to the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Agencies.

Friends of Warbonnet

In short, we have memorialized a single battle death with two stone monuments here, an impressive ratio of markers to casualties. The monuments were raised more than fifty years after the event, remembering a skirmish of little intrinsic significance but great legendary meaning. More than sixty years later, a local group reconstructed the battle marker.

They seem to have left alone the monument to the fatal publicity stunt.

Warbonnet Monument

Most of my details of the battle come from:
Hedren, Paul L. 2005. “The Contradictory Legacies of Buffalo Bill Cody’s First Scalp for Custer.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 55(1): 16-35 (Spring).

You can find directions to Warbonnet and related sites here:
Hedren, Paul L. 1996. Traveler’s Guide to the Great Sioux War. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press.

Other details come from bits of the large literature on the Wild West Show and Buffalo Bill.

You can learn more about the Great Plains Trail here.

This story has some connections to my book manuscript, “Telling America’s Stories.” Stay tuned for more!

Arkansas Post in the Civil War

Painting in the visitor center.

Arkansas Post in the Civil War

Even if you know a fair amount about the Civil War, you may not have heard of the Battle of Arkansas Post. It doesn’t make the indices of the one-volume histories on my shelf. Though a significant action in the Vicksburg Campaign, it was not part of Grant’s widely-studied maneuvers that led to Vicksburg’s fall.

The great egrets seem to like having the battlefield underwater.

The military historians don’t have much of a story to tell at Arkansas Post National Memorial, the site of a brief siege in 1863. First of all, most of the relevant battlefield is underwater, either washed away by the changing channels of the Arkansas River or flooded behind a dam project managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Only some rifle trenches from 1863 remain to interpret.

Second, military historians like to focus on battlefield tactics and, to a lesser extent, the operational decisions generals make at the campaign level. Those are not very interesting here since the story consists of overwhelming land forces accepting Fort Hindman’s surrender after Union naval guns pound the fort into submission. A park brochure (McCutchen 2003) tells that story, along with three signs along the park’s entrance road, near the rifle pits.

Lots of politics! The six flags of Arkansas Post’s history.

By seeing it in military terms, the park narrative misjudges events at Arkansas Post. The Civil War Battle of Arkansas Post (Fort Hindman) was a political victory by a political general, Major General John McClernand. As it turns out, the most interesting—and most important—aspect of the battle concerns McClernand and army politics.

McClernand was an ally of Stephen Douglas, presidential candidate of the Illinois Democratic Party, and a member of the national House of Representatives from Illinois from 1843 to 1851. He also filled a vacancy in the House briefly in 1860. Though he supported Douglas for president in 1860, McClernand was also a friend of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Appointing him as a brigadier general helped President Lincoln maintain relationships with the Democratic Party at home, at a time when many in southern Illinois had Confederate sympathies.

Though vainglorious and self-serving to an extent that annoyed his military colleagues, McClernand proved to be a more reasonable soldier than many other political generals. His success at Arkansas Post was balanced by weaknesses in performance at Fort Donelson and Champion Hill, though a tenacity on defense at Shiloh balanced his slow movements on the advance. Capturing Fort Hindman was not without military advantages, but interpretation exaggerates them. Remarkably, McClernand’s success at Arkansas Post led to his removal.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter brought some city-class gunboats.

As commander of the Army of Tennessee, Major General Ulysses S. Grant thought his subordinate’s operation a “wild-goose chase” that diverted a large force of soldiers, transports, and gunboats away from the planned assault on Vicksburg. Historian Brian McCutchen (2003: 2; see also Coleman 1987/2009: 116) provides a more sober summary that, “Although Union losses were high and the victory did not contribute to the capture of Vicksburg, it did eliminate one more impediment to Union shipping on the Mississippi.” That said, McClernand undertook the operation without telling his commander until it was already underway.

Commanding, Grant did not think that prize worth the effort. As he saw it, McClernand diverted forces away from Vicksburg and from Grant’s plans to link up with General Nathaniel Banks as the Army of the Gulf moved upriver from New Orleans. As a general principle, Grant believed it unwise to divide his forces to achieve any goal other than the main objective, and that goal was Vicksburg. This guided his reply to McClernand when he learned what was afoot:

“I do not approve of your move on the Post of Arkansas while the other [Vicksburg] is in abeyance. It will lead to the loss of men without a result . . . . It might answer for some of the purposes you suggest, but certainly not as a military movement looking to the accomplishment of the one great result, the capture of Vicksburg. Unless you are acting under authority not derived from me, keep your command where it can soonest be assembled for the renewal of the attack on Vicksburg.” (quoted in Foote 1963: 137)

Replica of a gun from the period of Spanish Louisiana. But you get the idea.

Grant also informed the General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck, of the action against Arkansas Post. Halleck backed him up, authorizing Grant to relieve General McClernand from command of the Vicksburg campaign, “giving it to the next in rank or taking it yourself” (quoted in Foote 1963: 137). Since McClernand was friends with Lincoln, Halleck presumably cleared this action with the president. Because McClernand enjoyed public acclaim after his success at Arkansas Post, Grant held back from dismissing him immediately “until the time was right to pounce” (Foote 1963: 138).

These internal Army maneuvers were clearly important for the war, but only in hindsight. With McClernand out of the way, Grant could begin planning the campaign against Vicksburg. After some false starts, he ended up producing a model campaign, swinging south and then east of the objective, ignoring his lines of supply and communication to points east of Vicksburg. From there he moved first to take the capital of Jackson before turning west to besiege and then conquer Vicksburg.

That campaign is a classic of American military history, and is rightly featured in interpretation at Vicksburg National Battlefield Park. It would not have happened if McClernand had remained in command of the Vicksburg operations.

None of this appears at Arkansas Post, however. Interpretation does not seem to mention that Grant had McClernand relieved for his actions at Arkansas Post. Instead, the park explains the battle in traditional military terms. A panel in the Visitor Center (“January 1863”) describes the Union attack as a “response to Confederate raids on shipping on the Mississippi.” However, any threat to Union shipping from Confederate gunboats was minor; Fort Hindman could be bypassed at this point in the war. Still, the fort had had some value earlier in the war, which is why Confederate engineers chose to build a fort here, to protect trade along the Arkansas River (Visitor Center, Panel, “Defending the Delta”).

The Daughters of the American Revolution helped pay for this replica Spanish cannon. They are stakeholders here too.

Interpretation reflects the bureaucratic interests of the National Park Service as well as the biases of military historians. As is true at most historic sites, the NPS has a stake in making the events here seem important—whether they are or not. The park’s resource study (Coleman 1987/2009) and administrative history (Carrera 1975/1987) emphasize the military events on site and what little physical evidence remains of them. Though the resource studies mention the political context briefly, park interpretation does not.

Of course, all authors bring their own biases to any narrative. Like most biographers, Ron Chernow (2017: 241) sees the story from Grant’s perspective, emphasizing his successes in internal Army politics while downplaying McClernand’s military successes. Shelby Foote (1963: 133-136) balances the political and the military, as does Robert Huffstot (1969). Both are more attuned to the political context of any war, and my perspective is closer to theirs than to other texts I’ve consulted.

Gunboats are not the only thing with armor at Arkansas Post today.

In fairness, the capture of Arkansas Post did have some military advantages that Grant may not have anticipated. First, the battle strengthened Union morale after the defeat at Chickasaw Bayou (December 26–29, 1862). Indeed, finding a reasonably-sized military success had been a goal of generals McClernand and Sherman when they met with Rear Admiral David Porter to decide their next moves (Huffstot 1969: 4-5).

A second important outcome of the battle was the Union capture of almost five thousand rebels, a considerable share of all Confederate forces in Arkansas. With the Union’s successful repulse of a Confederate advance at the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862, Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes’s Trans-Mississippi Department would remain on the defensive (Huffstot 1969).

The park’s focus on battlefield events in 1863 overlooks those military consequences, whether on the Army’s morale, national public opinion, or the weakening of the Confederate position in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi theater. The effect on Army politics, by allowing Grant to take over command of the Vicksburg campaign from McClernand, was even more important, paving the way for Lincoln to “put that key in his pocket.”

The NPS marks the town site by paving the historic streets, showing the layout.


Carrera, Gregorio S.A. 1975/1987. Arkansas Post National Memorial Administrative History. US Department of Interior: National Park Service.

Chernow, Ron. 2017. Grant. New York: Penguin.

Coleman, Roger E. 1987/2009. The Arkansas Post Story: Arkansas Post National Memorial. US Department of the Interior: National Park Service, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, Professional Papers No. 12. Eastern National.

Foote, Shelby. 1963. The Civil War: A Narrative. Volume II: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Random House.

Huffstot, Robert S. 1969. “The Battle of Arkansas Post.” Historical Times, Inc.: Civil War Times Illustrated.

McCutchen, Brian K. 2003. “The Battle of Arkansas Post ~ January 9-11, 1863: Overview and troop positions.” US Department of Interior: National Park Service, Arkansas Post National Memorial.

Herbert Hoover’s Heroic History

Stanford_University_Hoover_TowerI’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Herbert Hoover. I had the opportunity in college to do some research in the Hoover archives as part of a senior thesis. Though his presidency was not a success, there is much to admire in the rest of his life, both public and private.

When I moved to the Midwest, I was able to visit his birthplace in West Branch, Iowa. It’s a national historic site, managed by the National Park Service (NPS). The site preserves about a dozen historic buildings to give you a sense of what it was like for Hoover to grow up here. Next door you’ll find his presidential library, managed by the National Archives and Records Administration. Taken together, these two sites are an Iowa gem, well worth a visit – and convenient, just off Interstate 80, east of Iowa City.

Though I like the site, it tends to present President Hoover’s self-image more than his actual history. Following Hoover’s self-image, the National Park Service here interprets its subject as the ultimate American success story — orphaned at age ten, a boy from small-town Iowa succeeds through education, hard work, and faith. After becoming a millionaire by age 40, the story goes, he turns to public service and eventually reaches the presidency.


Herbert Hoover Birthplace

There’s a lot of truth in that story. Even so, a critical perspective requires that we look more fully at the political setting of this national historic site and the stories it tells. The site’s history begins just after Hoover was elected President in 1928. People began to visit West Branch, and Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry Hoover, wanted to provide something to celebrate her husband’s achievements. After exploring several options, the Hoover family bought his birth home in 1935 and began to restore it. They worked with a private group in which Herbert’s son Allan played an important role. That group operated the site as a memorial and public park, following the family’s wishes for the site, until Congress made it a national historic site in 1972.

Herbert Hoover was involved in planning this site over these years. That legacy shapes park planning today. For example, two of the five “fundamental resources and values” reflect Herbert Hoover’s own decisions, the gravesite location and its vista over the birthplace cottage. President Hoover chose that vista to show “that anyone can start from a simple life and achieve great things”

Hoover's Fences

Interpretation throughout the site emphasizes Hoover’s view of himself and his personal history. Hoover believed strongly that America provided great opportunities for the self-made man. A central theme found in several locations is Hoover’s statement that,
“My country owes me nothing. It gave me, as it gives every boy and girl, a chance . . . In no other land could a boy from a country village, without inheritance or influential friends, look forward with unbounded hope.”

The NPS continues that theme. It invites visitors to “discover how family, faith, education, and hard work opened a world of opportunity—even the presidency—to a man of simple beginnings.” It claims that “Hoover exemplified the ideal of individualism and the self-made man. His expertise as a mining engineer made him a millionaire by age 40. Having been raised in the Quaker traditions of being humane and generous to others, Hoover embarked on a course of public service for the rest of his life.”

Hoover certainly came a long way, but his was not exactly the rags-to-riches story of a man who accomplishes everything on his own. While he was not born to wealth like Theodore Roosevelt, neither was not born in a frontier cabin like Abraham Lincoln. For that matter, he also was not born to freedmen in the Reconstruction South. He was born to successful parents in a very small single-family home in a growing community of about 500 people.

The chains I forged in life

His father, Jesse Hoover, owned a blacksmith business. That business outperformed competing smithies in town, a a uccess that the NPS attributes to “Jesse’s friendliness, honesty, and strong work ethic.” As his income grew, Jesse Hoover sold his blacksmith shop and bought a more lucrative farm implements business. This earned enough money to move the family to a much larger house up the hill, the boyhood home that “Bertie” Hoover remembers.

Whetstone and gear

The family’s financial success was short-lived. Jesse Hoover died when Bertie was six, and his mother died four years later. Their three children were divided among relatives. However, Bertie was fortunate to live in a supportive community of Quakers in which his mother Hulda Hoover had been a religious leader. Several relatives, and even his schoolteacher, offered to take him. After a year with local relatives, Hoover’s family decided to send him to Oregon to live with a successful uncle, Dr. Henry John Minthorn.

Though he was an orphan, Bertie had financial resources. His mother had saved $850 from Jesse’s insurance policy for Bert to go to college. That was a sizeable sum in the 1890s, equivalent to perhaps $20,000 today. A recruiter for the brand-new Stanford University contacted Dr. Milton and successfully recruited his ward. First-year tuition at Stanford was free. With his mother’s nest egg as a base, Hoover worked to cover his other costs.

Hoover earned a geology degree and went to work immediately as a mining engineer in California’s gold mines. His work later took him to Australia, China, and Europe, where he worked as a consultant. While working at his consulting firm in London, Hoover helped Americans return to Europe when the Great War broke out in 1914. After this success, people invited him to organize relief for Belgium, a neutral country that had become a major battleground when the Germans invaded. Reflecting his Quaker beliefs in service to community, Hoover answered the call.

His relief work was a great success, expanding throughout Europe. He even provided food relief to both sides in the Russian Civil War. These successes catapulted Hoover into the public eye. Though some wanted him to run for president in 1920, he ended up serving both Harding and Coolidge as Secretary of Commerce. Success in that role made him a successful presidential candidate in 1928.

That story certainly provides the material for Hoover’s view of his own success. He did indeed rise from a small town to the presidency through hard work, education, and faith. Even so, that self-image downplays the helping hands he received. His father was a successful small businessman, as were others in his family. That family came to the rescue when his parents died. His inheritance helped him through college, as did the generosity of Jane and Leland Stanford in building their university.

Friends meeting house

The town of West Branch also provided Hoover with a lot of social capital. It had been settled mostly by the Society of Friends, as the Quakers are formally known. Hoover’s extended family was part of the early group who built West Branch, and civic leaders. The Quaker community instilled him with the values that served him well, “education, thrift, and individual enterprise.”

In addition to teaching visitors about the Quakers at Hoover NHS, the NPS idealizes Iowa small-town life. The interpretive plan says that “The park presents the opportunity for visitors to experience the serenity of the landscape and explore the simplicity of the small town rural character with all of their senses.” This simplicity helps illustrate Quaker values of simplicity as well.

P. T. Smith House

However, small-town life here was less bucolic than the NPS imagines. Those who explore the entire website will find stories about ten houses in the historic district (the Garvin, Hayhurst, Leech, Mackey, Miles, C. E. Smith, P. T. Smith, Staples, Varney, and Wright homes). Many coincided with Hoover’s days in West Branch, but several were built after he had moved to Oregon. The house histories on the website mention that three of these homes went through foreclosure, the Hayhurst (1878), Garvin (1885), and Leech (1886) homes. The park does not say this, but those years coincided with a national decline in per capita income in the 1880s, a decline associated with the Great Depression of 1873-96.

The financial traumas that must have been associated with these foreclosed mortgages provide a view of American capitalism that differs considerably from what the NPS presents at the site. This was not merely a community that valued education, hard work, and faith, but a community where some hard-working people lost their homes to the local bank or real estate developer. These frequent foreclosures — three of the ten historic homes in eight years — contrasts with Hoover’s memory that “In consequence of plain living and hard work, poverty has never been their lot.”

A more realistic sense of how West Branch connects to the national and global economies might make for some good story opportunities. The park brochure notes that Hoover’s ideals of individualism and charity pointed in different directions during the Great Depression. It might go further and explore how his town’s economic difficulties shaped both of those values. As we now know, those values were a poor guide to policy-making in Hoover’s presidency.

Hoover’s failure to address the Depression paved the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, with large-scale government intervention in the economy far beyond what Hoover was willing to do. That set the stage for the great debates of the twentieth century, with presidents such as Lyndon Johnson expanding the role of government while Ronald Reagan and others sought to decrease it. Interestingly, Hoover later found a role in the expansion of government. He led two “Hoover Commissions” on making the executive branch run more efficiently, one for Truman and one for Eisenhower. However, the park does not connect this fact to any larger issues in American history.

The park’s current Long-Range Interpretation Plan intends to make the Depression of 1929-39 a bit more visible than it currently is. Those recommendations were not yet visible on-site in 2012, though the adjacent Presidential Library does not shy away from the Depression years.

Because the Hoover family played a major role in establishing the national historic site, interpretation here stays close to his own self-image. That story belongs here, but it should also connect to larger and more complicated stories about the political economy of small-town America.

Adapted from “Telling America’s Stories,” a book manuscript by Robert Pahre. For questions and comments, email him at

Visit Herbert Hoover NHS