Fighters

Buffalo Calf Road Woman: Custer’s Killer

A sepia-toned photograph of a Native American woman. She wears a loose shirt and a thick string of bone pipe beads as a mantle. She has long hair, put into two braids and silver medallion earrings

Unverified Photo

Despite living relatively recently, not much is known about Buffalo Calf Road Woman – partly because her people kept some of her exploits secret for over a century. As such, this entry will play up the storytelling aspect of this blog as I use the history of her tribe, the Cheyenne, to tell her story. Though I’ve established a rough timeline of her life, nowhere does anyone describe what sort of person she was. So I’ll be reading between the lines a bit and drawing my own conclusions. This is going to be a long one!

Born in 1844 in Wyoming, she would have called herself Muts-i-mi-u-na of the Tsitsistas. The photo you see is said to be her, but has not been conclusively verified.

At the time of her birth, the Cheyenne lived according to the Treaty of 1825, in which the Cheyenne agreed to the ‘supremacy’ of the United States government and to obey certain trade restrictions (while still largely being left to their own devices).

As you can see from the map below, which includes territories ceded in various treaties, her people spread out over Wyoming, Montana, eastern Colorado, western Kansas and western Nebraska. The would often skirmish over resources with other Plains tribes, such as the Sioux, Lakota or Crow; though they were on friendly terms with the Arapaho.

 

Cheyenne Territory

Cheyenne Territory

Growing up, she witnessed the first murmurings of Manifest Destiny, as white settlers crossed through her people’s lands on their way to Oregon, California or Utah. Tensions began to build as the Cheyenne competed with these settlers for local resources. As a result of these pressures, the Cheyenne split into two separate bands, Southern and Northern. Buffalo Calf Road Woman lived among the Northern Cheyenne.

A black and white photograph of a small Native American girl. She has her long hair in two braids, and wears a decorated buckskin dress and large beaded necklace. A quilted object rests next to her.

A Cheyenne child

Tragedy struck in 1849, as travelers poured through her homeland on their way to the California gold fields. Unlike other settlers, the Forty-Niners were not particularly hygienic, and their untidy practices caused cholera to ravage the Cheyenne nation. Buffalo Calf Road Woman and her brother Comes in Sight survived, but lost between one third to one half of their people. This tragedy, and the social upheaval it caused, would shape the destiny of the Cheyenne for the decades to come. Buffalo Calf Road Woman grew up in a village full of ghosts, her earliest memories of plague and death. Though Cheyenne culture embraced gender roles, these were less restrictive than those of Euro-American society, and would have loosened even further due to plague-driven depopulation. Few, then, batted an eye when Buffalo Calf Road Woman learned to shoot and hunt.

In 1851, her people, along with several other Plains tribes, signed another treaty at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Wanting to make the overland crossing safer for white emigrants, the United States attempted to bring an end to intertribal conflict. Official boundaries were established for each tribe, and a general cease-fire called. The Cheyenne were given parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. In addition, the government secured permission to build roads and forts in Cheyenne territory, promising to pay an annuity in exchange for the land usage.

War on the Plains

War on the Plains

However, white settlers often refused to respect Cheyenne sovereignty. Open hostilities broke out in 1856, when Buffalo Calf Road Woman was 12. Perhaps aware of how the Cherokee had been treated, the Cheyenne began to resist white incursions by raiding wagon trains. In retaliation, the army attacked several Cheyenne settlements. Though few on either side were killed, the Cheyenne’s winter food stores were destroyed and their annuity that year went to the Arapaho in punishment. The hungry winter Buffalo Calf Road Woman spent that year certainly did not inspire any warm feelings towards white men.

A fragile peace held over the next few years; however, the discovery of gold in Colorado created more incursions and more anger on the part of the Cheyenne. In 1861, the US government negotiated another treaty, the Treaty of Fort Wise. The Cheyenne were offered a reservation in Colorado, one-thirteenth the size of their current holdings. Though Chief Black Kettle, a dedicated peacemaker, supported this treaty, most Cheyenne firmly rejected it – including Buffalo Calf Road Woman.

Here, she largely vanishes from the record until 1876, but we do know a few things about her.

She married during this time, a warrior named Black Coyote known for his passionate nature and short temper. She stayed with him until her death; and since divorce was remarkably easy among the Cheyenne, we can assume they made each other happy. They had two children together, though I could not find their names.

An example shield

An example shield

And, at some point, she joined the Elk Scraper Society. As a warrior culture, the Cheyenne had several exclusive martial fraternities. The most famous, of course, are the Dog Soldiers, but several others also existed (and some still exist today, or are in the process of being revived). Though most societies admitted only men, the Elk Scraper Society was expressly for the few Cheyenne women who chose to fight. Their standards were quite high, and a woman would have to prove her skill, bravery and determination before being initiated by a medicine woman (no men – men were expressly forbidden from witnessing or participating in Elk Scraper rituals).

As a sign of her membership in this elite society, Buffalo Calf Road Woman began carrying a specially-crafted shield along with her rifle. Likely, she went on raids with the other warriors, letting other mothers in the tribe care for her children while she did so. The Cheyenne increased the severity and frequency of their raids on white settlers, often kidnapping women and children in an attempt to replenish their numbers (remember, this is barely a decade after the cholera plague wiped out a significant number of Cheyenne).

Mo-chi

Mo-chi

Notable events for the Cheyenne were the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, and the Battle of Washita River in 1868. Both times, ostensibly peaceful Cheyenne settlements were attacked by the United States Army. Outnumbered and outgunned, several hundred Cheyenne died in these two battles – mostly civilians, elderly and children.

Some accounts of Sand Creek in particular tell the story of Mo-chi, a woman who fought off a rapist and helped bring survivors to safety among their northern relatives. Mo-chi, also called Mochi or Mochis, is sometimes confused with Buffalo Calf Road Woman, as her name translates out to a roughly similar meaning, and Mo-chi became a warrior after Sand Creek. However, they are two separate women.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman and her kin could see the writing on the wall: they were among the last free Native Americans. Even those Cheyenne who followed Black Kettle and tried to live on a reservation found that government corruption and indifference made the land unlivable (Chief Black Kettle himself died at Washita, and with his death went the last Cheyenne leader interested in trying to come to a peaceful accord). Settlers and prospectors continued to flaunt the treaties; and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which disrupted the migration patterns of the wild buffalo upon which all Plains tribes relied, loomed large as a serious threat to their traditional way of life.

These are the conditions which set the stage for the rise of Crazy Horse, a Lakota who brought his tribe, Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne together against the United States. Buffalo Calf Road Woman gathered her shield, her gun and her horse, and with her brother Comes in Sight and husband Black Coyote, joined Crazy Horse’s army.

Ledger drawing of the rescue

Ledger drawing of the rescue

Crazy Horse and his army first met the U.S. Army near Rosebud Creek, after which most American history textbooks name the battle. The Army was led by General Crook, leading approximately 1,000 cavalry and supported by Crow scouts eager to attack their tribal enemies (and Calamity Jane, then a teamster disguised as a man!).

At first, General Crook’s forces gained the upper hand, and Crazy Horse signaled a retreat. Comes in Sight stayed near the rear, providing covering fire to the retreating soldiers. A bullet hit him, and he fell from his horse.  Buffalo Calf Road Woman saw this, and when the other men did nothing, she spurred her horse onward and rode directly into the line of fire. She found her brother, dragged him onto her horse and rode them both to safety. Her bravery set an example for the other warriors, and, thus inspired, they turned retreat into victory. Among the Cheyenne, this battle is known as The Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.

I would like to mention the heroics of two more women on the battlefield that day, Osh Tisch and The Other Magpie, Crow women on Crook’s side, whom you can read about at Rejected Princesses.

Depiction of Little Bighorn, by Kicking Bear

Depiction of Little Bighorn, by Kicking Bear

Eight days later, Crazy Horse and his army met with Custer at Little Bighorn. Alternately called the Battle of the Greasy Grass or Custer’s Last Stand, this has become perhaps one of the most studied battles in American military history. On this fateful day, roughly 700 American soldiers met 1,500-2,000 Native American warriors. As we learned last week from Boudica, sometimes superior firepower can make up for being outnumbered, but not at Little Bighorn. Accounts of the battle are conflicting, and archaeological investigation has provided largely circumstantial evidence.

Another Native depiction of the battle

Another Native depiction of the battle

However, this much is clear: Custer made several significant tactical errors, and died on a hilltop after being overwhelmed by Native American forces. According to various Native accounts, Buffalo Calf Road Woman knocked Custer off his horse, a Sioux named Fast Eagle held him down while another Sioux, Moving Robe Woman, stabbed him (though this last detail conflicts with the post-mortem reports of Custer’s body – however, I do entertain the notion that stab wounds to the back might have been suppressed information by a government less than thrilled at having the press try and brand Custer a coward as well as an incompetent general). The Cheyenne storytellers and historians assert, however, that Buffalo Calf Road Woman did knock him off his horse, which led quickly to his death.

For her actions at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn, Buffalo Calf Road Woman earned a new name, Brave Woman.

Though Crazy Horse’s army won the battle, Little Bighorn has become the textbook definition of ‘winning the battle but losing the war.’ The US Army only increased their determination to force the Plains tribes onto reservations, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman resisted. She and a small band of her people stayed on the move, fleeing the advancing army. Slowly, other Cheyenne surrendered, allowing themselves to be taken to a reservation in Oklahoma. But Buffalo Calf Road Woman, despite being pregnant, giving birth and having an infant with her during this time, fought back hard. She helped defend a small band of approximately 30 Cheyenne from being captured.

Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Park

Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Park

However, she could not hold out forever. Eventually, she and the other holdouts relented, and were force-marched by the Army to the reservation in Oklahoma. However, conditions there were awful, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman felt homesick for her prairies. Likely, she also abhorred the idea of raising her children on the reservation. And so, with 300 similarly-minded Cheyenne, she snuck out of the reservation and fled to Nebraska.

The government didn’t let them go easily, and her band of Cheyenne had to continually run and hide from the soldiers hunting them. Unfortunately, her husband Black Coyote got into an argument with another warrior, Black Crane, and killed him. For his crime, Black Coyote was banished from the group, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman, their children and a few relatives went with him into exile. As one might expect, she and her family were quickly captured by Army officers. Black Coyote killed one American soldier while trying to defend his family, for which he was tried and sentenced to be executed at Fort Keogh (it’s a good thing her people swore to keep her story secret for ‘100 summers’, or else she might have been in more trouble than him!).

Sand Creek, Unknown Artist

Sand Creek, Unknown Artist

Heartbroken and alone, Buffalo Calf Road Woman fell ill with either malaria or diptheria. She died in Miles City in May, 1879. The Cheyenne were one of the last tribes to surrender to Manifest Destiny, and Buffalo Calf Road Woman was one of the last Cheyenne to surrender. She displayed a depth of bravery and devotion to defending her people and their way of life, giving her all to resist the forces of colonialism and a government which refused to acknowledge her personhood on several levels.

She did not live to see the establishment of the Lame Deer Reservation in 1884, in her ancestral homeland of Montana, and current home of the Northern Cheyenne Nation.  However, she surely would be pleased to know that her people, though they no longer live exactly as she or her ancestors did, have still managed to retain much of their culture and traditions.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman was not the only Native American woman who fought. At least two other women fought at the Battle of the Rosebud, and several women warriors were present at Little Bighorn. One woman, Minnie Hollow Wood, earned the right to wear a war bonnet because of her bravery at the battle. I also uncovered the story of the intriguingly-named Yellow Haired Woman, another member of the Elk Scraper Society. The stories of many Native warriors have been erased, the sad result of a culture with a strong oral tradition going to war against a wealthier, more advanced culture with a tradition of literacy.

greatseal

Cheyenne Nation

Some historians have argued that what happened to the Cheyenne and other Native Americans was inevitable. To a certain extent, they are right – cultures cannot come into contact with each other and remain unchanged. The Cheyenne, as a horse-centered tribe, had already changed as the result of Europeans – horses didn’t exist in North America until brought by 16th-century Spanish explorers. But that does not absolve the United States of the choices they made, to deliberately and systematically dispossess Native Americans of their resources, strip them of their culture and treat them as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a people to be respected. So I hope Buffalo Calf Road Woman stands as a representative of the other women and men, known and unknown, who fought like hell to protect their people.

Click for Store Link

Click for Store Link

Buffalo Calf Road Woman features as the heroine of an award-winning historical fiction inspired by her story. You can also purchase a figurine of her firing a gun from horseback. If you’d like to know more about the Cheyenne or the wars they fought in the late 19th century, Ken Burns’ documentary series The West covers these battles and more in greater detail. The TV show Longmire, though it fictionalizes quite a lot, does a good job capturing modern Cheyenne culture.


 

Resources

Amazing Women in History

Battle of Little Bighorn – Native Participants

Battle of the Rosebud

Cheyenne History

Cheyenne Language

Cheyenne Memories of the Custer Fight

Mad Mike’s America

Native American Encyclopedia

Northern Cheyenne Nation

Resurrecting History’s Forgotten Women

Sunshine Skyways

Washita Memories: Eyewitness Views of Custer’s Attack on Black Kettle’s Village

Wikipedia

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