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!