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May 2013 - William S. Harney

May 2013 - William S. Harney

Gen. William S. Harney and his men swept through the heart of Lakota country in the fall of 1855.

Harney was one of the best-known military figures in the United States between the War of 1812 and the War Between the States.

He chased the last remaining pirates of Jean Lafitte in Louisiana, fought in the Black Hawk War, led the cavalry in the Mexican War, almost caused a war with Great Britain in the Pacific Northwest and was both a fighter and peacemaker with American Indians. He was at Fort Laramie in southeast Wyoming when he was called upon to assert the might of the United States government against American Indians.

In 1854, a group of Mormons that was headed west left a lame cow untethered at Fort Laramie. American Indians killed the cow for food. Lt. J.L. Grattan led 29 men from Fort Laramie to the Indian camp to find the guilty party. Negotiations grew heated, and a shot was fired. The result was the death of all the soldiers and the beginning of some 30 years of intermittent warfare on the northern plains.

Harney was sent to avenge the killing of the soldiers. He and his men arrived at Ash Hollow along the North Platte River in present-day Garden County, Neb., on Sept. 2, 1855, where Little Thunder’s Brulé band was camped. Although Little Thunder and other American Indian leaders came forward with a white flag, Harney refused to talk peace with them, nor did he shake Little Thunder’s outstretched hand. As the American Indian leaders disappeared from sight, Harney ordered the infantry to charge. In the end, four soldiers and 86 American Indians, including women and children, were killed. Seventy more American Indians, mostly women and children, were taken prisoner.

Harney returned to Fort Laramie, but realized he had intimidated only a portion of the Lakota with this show of force. He and about 425 troops left on Sept. 29, 1855, for Fort Pierre. The federal government had recently purchased the former fur trading post north of the present-day town of Fort Pierre. Harney and his men arrived at Fort Pierre in a sleet and snowstorm on Oct. 20, only to find dilapidated buildings and no nearby hay and wood.

Harney abandoned Fort Pierre in 1857. Before doing so, he had called a peace council that included all the western bands of Lakota. A treaty was negotiated which for the first time provided an Indian police force to preserve the peace. The treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate.

While still at Fort Pierre, Harney also found a suitable site for a fort along the Missouri River. He established Fort Randall about 110 miles by river above Yankton. Fort Randall was a strategic site in western frontier defense.

In order to end fighting throughout the Great Plains, Congress established the Indian Peace Commission of 1867. Harney served on this commission. American Indians he had fought now saw him come to make peace. During the councils, Harney became the defender of American Indians. He stressed their need for food and clothing. He was later placed in charge of the administrative district known as the Great Sioux Reservation. This included all the land west of the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota.

Overseeing the Great Sioux Reservation was Harney’s last government job. He died in Orlando, Fla., on May 9, 1889. His name lives on in South Dakota. The peak he might have observed in the distance as he and his troops skirted the Black Hills in 1855 was named Harney Peak in his honor by Lt. G.K. Warren while on a survey expedition in 1957.

This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Find us on the web at Contact us at to submit a story idea.