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September 5: A Failed Exhibition

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The Powder River Battles were a series of skirmishes and battles fought between U.S. troops and the Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes. They lasted from September 1-15, 1865. There were three punitive expeditions in response to the tribes raiding mail routes, wagon trains, and military posts along the Oregon and Overland trails. There was an eastern, middle, and western division. The eastern expedition was called the Powder River Expedition, and was commanded by Colonel Nelson D. Cole. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Walker commanded the middle group, and Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor commanded the western group.

Colonel Cole began moving west from Omaha on July 1, 1865. Later in the summer, his force came into contact with Native Americans and were forced to move along the Powder River to Panther Mountain, where they hoped to meet General Connor’s troops for supplies. However, on September 1st, scouts came from Panther Mountain and reported no sign of Connor’s men. Around this same time, hundreds of Lakota people from various bands were returning to Powder River country. They attacked Cole’s herders and stole animals. The men recaptured the animals, but it cost the lives of six artillerymen. When their main force fell back, Cole estimated they had killed 25 Lakota and wounded many more, although he was known for exaggerating.

On September 3, the troops encountered quicksand that proved difficult for the horses to traverse. That same night brought a terrible storm. 225 horses and mules died, and the men had to destroy wagons and supplies because they couldn’t haul them. Cole and his men sought to recuperate, but 75 Native Americans attacked a cavalry detachment. The soldiers managed to chase off the attackers.

Early on this date, tribes banded together and attempted to block teamsters rounding up stray mules. As Cole advanced, he found his troops surrounded. After about three hours of fighting, the thousand or so Native Americans caught an isolated group of soldiers, killing two and wounding two others. Lakota heroes from that day are the Hunkpapa’s Bull Head, Stand-Looking-Back, and Bull Eagle.

The expedition was considered a failure for the military, and Cole and Walker deemed their soldiers unfit for service afterwards.

Dakota Datebook by Lucid Thomas


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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