Young Man's Butte

Aug 28, 2018

Driving to Medora a few days ago, we paused just east of Richardton to examine, from various vantages, a significant but little-known historical landmark--Young Man’s Butte. Viewed with a foreground of ripening wheat, and with a striking golden tone due to the filtering of light by smoke in the air, the sight was memorable.

To me the landmark connotes events of the Dakota War, as in 1864, Lakota fighters here observed and then confronted advance elements of the Northwest Expedition of Major General Alfred Sully. For my friend Dakota Goodhouse, the site connotes deeper history, the story of how the butte got its name.

Dakota recounts how, “long time ago,” the Húŋkpapȟa encountered a hunting party of Crow and, regarding them as trespassers, attacked. The last remaining Crow, a young man, ascended the butte in flight, and there took his own life in order to avoid capture by the Húŋkpapȟa. Ever since, in his remembrance, Lakȟóta people have called this place Pahá Kȟoškálaka, Young Man’s Butte.

So this was a familiar and named site when Lakȟóta sentries occupied it in 1864 as the logical place from which to watch for Sully’s army winding its way north from the Heart River. Reliant on military reports, we have known little of what took place there in 1864.

Sully had sent his company of Nebraska scouts ahead of the army. When the Lakȟóta set upon them, Captain Christian Stufft, reportedly under the influence of strong drink, panicked and fled. The core members of his company, however, stood and fought.

These were the Hochunk scouts, also known as Winnebagos, whom Sully had recruited to fight as auxiliaries. We now know more about the exploits of the Hochunk fighters due to the rediscovery of the Hochunk Pictogram.

This remarkable piece of graphic evidence, long misidentified in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, I was fortunate to find by accident while looking for something else in the Smithsonian online catalog. Then I traveled to the National Anthropological Library in Maryland to examine it.

The maker of the pictograph, drawn from personal memory, was a notable Hochunk warrior, Standing Buffalo. Young Man’s Butte is clearly recognizable in his drawings.

We also learn key details about the skirmish. Two of the Hochunks were riding ahead of the others when the Lakȟóta set upon them. The two Hochunks--we see them quirting their horses--make a run back toward their compatriots, who come up and return fire. The Lakȟóta, some thirty of them, are armed with bows, but the Hochunks carry muskets. They also are attired in federal uniforms, complete with feathers in their campaign hats.

A Crow prisoner with the Lakȟóta takes advantage of the melee to escape; we see him dashing into the Hochunk skirmish line.

The Hochunk pictograph, depicting actions at Heart River, Young Man’s Butte, and Killdeer Mountain, is the most startling new piece of evidence about the Dakota War to emerge in recent years. And it was hiding in plain sight all along.

~Tom Isern