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THE FAILED EXPERIMENT: Native Americans in the U.S. Military with Fort Snelling as the backdrop

by Stephen Chicoine ©2005

The assimilation of various races of people into the American mainstream has been and remains a slow and sometimes painful process. This evolution was particularly difficult for Native Americans, who thrived in their land before the flood of white settlers, and experienced their world disappearing around them. The young American republic expanded westward into the open expanses of the Great Plains in the nineteenth century. The overwhelming numbers of settlers were such that military resistance was futile. Various tribes won minor victories in battle, but each campaign ended with the United States Army in firm control. The Native Americans’ way of life was forever altered by the 1890’s.

The two white marble markers stand next to one another in section A-2 of the Twin Cities’ Fort Snelling National Cemetery. The marker at site 212 reads:

Calf Buffalo
Pvt 3 Inf
June 30, 1894

The adjacent marker at site 213 reads:

Takes Gun Himself
Pvt 3 Inf
May 12, 1893

The graves represent a forgotten moment of American history and reveal yet one more aspect of the role played by Fort Snelling in the settling of the West.

Calf Buffalo and Takes Gun Himself were young men of the Blackfoot, proud people of the Northern Plains. The Blackfoot were a confederation of three sub-tribes, which spoke the same language: the Blackfoot proper, the Blood and the Piegan. The military records of these two young men state that they were born around 1870 on the Blackfoot Agency in Montana Territory. By the time of their birth, the Napikowann or white man had forever altered the way of life of the people of the Great Plains.

A treaty signed in 1855 with the United States Government had acknowledged the rights of the Blackfoot to vast expanses of Montana territory upon which they had roamed for many years. These rights were repeatedly re-defined over the years as whites entered Blackfoot country and settled. In the earliest days, white traders brought rotgut whiskey in exchange for buffalo hides. They also transmitted diseases, such as smallpox. The discovery of gold caused a rush into the region. But it was significant copper mining at Butte in the late 1870’s that led to significant growth in Montana Territory. The completion of the railroads across Montana in the 1880’s accelerated the influx of white settlers encroaching upon the Blackfoot. Increasing numbers of white hunters slaughtered huge numbers of bison for sport.

The Federal Government moved the Plains people onto the reservation. The fierce Blackfoot, one of the great powers on the Northern Plains, went peacefully. They were forced to deal with unscrupulous Indian agents for the very essentials of life. Food delivered on the reservations was too often in short supply and sometimes spoiled. Reservation schools emphasized the need for the Blackfoot children to abandon their native culture and embrace the white man’s ways. There was some resistance by the Blackfoot to the new ways. The St. Paul & Minneapolis Pioneer Press of November 23, 1882 reported:

“The Piegan Indians are again raiding through Montana with reckless abandon. News has been received at headquarters Dept. of Dakota that they raided the camp of Crow scouts under the shadow of Fort Custer and ran off with a number of ponies.”

The Pioneer Press added on the following day: “The Piegans are to receive the attention of the war department.” It was perhaps one of the last and futile attempts of the young Blackfoot warriors. Takes Gun Himself and Buffalo Calf were twelve years old at the time and would have been caught up in the excitement of the last of the pony raids that had once been such a part of the Blackfoot way of life.

The “romantic” age of the Western frontier disappeared quickly. Buffalo Bill Cody introduced his Wild West Show in 1883 in an attempt to preserve the past and sell it to the American public. That winter, the last remnants of the once vast herds of bison vanished. The Blackfoot for many years had depended on the buffalo for their very existence. The Blackfoot remember this as “The Starvation Winter”, as the Indian Agency failed to provide for the Blackfoot and over six hundred died. Meanwhile, Montana’s Butte Hill became known as “The Richest Hill on Earth” for the great wealth it generated from copper. No one thought to share the profits with the former owners of the land. There was little thought given to the Native Peoples. They were not citizens and had no vote in the democratic process. There was no respect without political power.

Crowfoot was among the most prominent leaders of the Blackfoot people through this painful period1. It was through his efforts that the Blackfoot, highly regarded as brave warriors, never went to war against the United States. Takes Gun Himself and Buffalo Calf were fifteen years old at the time of the ill-fated North West Rebellion in Canada in 1885. This was an age for a young Blackfoot to prove himself as a man in previous generations. Minnesota and Dakota newspapers closely followed the uprising of desperate Native Americans and half-breeds across the border, as did the U. S. Army’s Department of Dakota, headquartered in St. Paul. Crowfoot kept the young Blackfoot men from taking the warpath. He died in 1890 and there was no one to capably fill his role as leader2. The future of the Blackfoot looked even bleaker.

The white population of Montana Territory rose from thirty-nine thousand to over one hundred and forty thousand in the decade of the 1880’s. The larger settlements even had telephone service and electric lights. Montana became the forty-first state of the United States of America in November 1889. The Indian Agency began sending Blackfoot children east to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in that same year. The irony was that Carlisle prepared young Native Americans for the white man’s world, but then returned them to the reservation, where there was no opportunity for employment3.

The last futile attempt of the desperate people of the Plains people gained momentum in this period. The Lakota, in particular, adopted the Ghost Dance, the practice of which was to hasten the second coming of Christ and a new era of revitalization for the Native peoples4. The impoverished and hungry saw few alternatives. The Indian Bureau was unable to stem the state of affairs on the reservation. The War Department moved in troops to arrest the leaders and maintain order. In the process, police killed Sitting Bull and eight others on December 15, 1890. Ghost Dance followers fled the reservation. Large numbers gathered in the Badlands, hoping to remain off of the hated reservation. On December 29, 1890, troops surrounded and massacred two hundred starving, tired and cold Lakota families at Wounded Knee.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the United States Government adopted a new policy. Secretary of War Redfield Proctor and General John Schofield, commanding officer of the U. S. Army, were in accord that the recruitment of Native Americans as regular soldiers was appropriate6. Schofield had just succeeded to the command of the Army upon the death of long-time Commanding General Philip Sheridan. Unlike Sheridan, Schofield believed in the reliability of Native Americans as soldiers 7. Military men of the time recognized the Native Americans of the Great Plains as the finest light cavalry in the world. Officers in the United States Army had debated for more than a decade the recruiting of Native Americans as soldiers with several year terms of enlistment. Native Americans previously had served only as scouts for short periods. Well-respected officers published their arguments in respected journals, as did civilians such as Frederic Remington8. The death of Sheridan and the shock of the Ghost Dance movement made the time ripe for change.

While military men recognized the advantages that Native American soldiers offered to the Army as fighting men, some of them also felt the move would help the Native Americans. It was clear that that the Native Americans faced extermination if they did not assimilate and military men, who had personal experience in the West, saw the military life as a more likely way for the Native American to adapt than as farmers on barren reservations. Schofield wrote in his memoirs in 1897 that discontent among the native peoples on the reservations stemmed from two causes. One was starvation, the result of “ … too limited appropriations or bad management, or both …”9. The other was the lack of combat, by which a young man traditionally gained a name and a position of honor for himself among his people. The Army and the Indian Bureau rarely saw eye-to- eye and Schofield acknowledged there was little he could do about the first cause. But, as to the second, he agreed that recruiting soldiers from among Native Americans would provide: “ … a legitimate method by which their irrepressible love of military life and exploits might be largely gratified, and, at the same time, those ambitious young men transferred from the ranks of more or less probable savage enemies to the ranks of friends and practically civilized allies.”10

General Schofield issued General Order 28 on March 9, 1891, authorizing the organization of a company of fifty-five Native Americans in each of the twenty- seven infantry and cavalry regiments in the West (with the exception of the four Black regiments). Secretary Redfield addressed this new and innovative program in his Department of War Annual Report, indicating that the primary objective was “to give employment, in useful and legitimate channels” and expressing hope that the experience “will help them …. when discharged.”11 Unfortunately, Redfield ran successfully for the United States Senate and departed from the Secretary of War office in November 1891, even as the program was just beginning.

Recruiting Native Americans into the United States Army was not easy. The army’s primary charge since the end of the American Civil War in 1865 had been forcing the Native peoples onto the reservations. While there were officers who showed kindness to those Natives they encountered, there were others who felt little but contempt. The corruptness and ineptness of the Indian Bureau further alienated Native Americans from Whites, however inclined particular military officers might have been to want to alleviate the grim situation. Certain Indian agents, in particular, opposed the recruitment of Native Americans, recognizing that this would serve to empower the young men returning on leave or upon discharge. They also recognized that the move would allow the Army to gain the control they had sought for so long over Indian Affairs.

Recruiting officers who went among the Lakota in the immediate aftermath of Wounded Knee were unsuccessful in attracting enlistees for the U. S. Army12. The Adjutant General’s Office expanded the recruiting effort among all of the western tribes. There was still resistance, the response varying from hostile to wary and suspicious. Many did not want to leave their families. Natives of the plains with their love of horses had less interest in becoming infantrymen. One officer who commanded an Indian company noted that many Native Americans were reluctant to enlist “ … by the fear of being made to cut their hair.”13 He assured the recruits this was not the case, only to find himself in “a very awkward position” some months later when an order came from the War Department that all were to have their hair cut. Eventually, his soldiers complied.

The Army successfully recruited seven hundred and fifty-nine Native Americans in 189114. The United States Army’s Native recruitment program peaked in the summer of 1892 with a total of seven hundred and eighty.

The fierce winter of 1890-1891, which will forever be defined by the massacre at Wounded Knee, caused much suffering among the Blackfoot, as it did among the Sioux and all of the other Plains peoples. Nearly a quarter of the remaining Blackfoot starved to death. General George Crook argued on behalf of the Native Americans, “No people or race can live in our country deprived of full political powers without becoming more and more degraded.”15 Young men, such as Takes Gun Himself, would have had little reason for optimism about their future on the Blackfoot reservation. The military must have seemed an escape, whether or not it was fair that he was not a citizen. He enlisted in the United States Army on November 11, 1891. He was twenty-one years of age. The company interpreter helped Takes Gun Himself with the forms and showed him where to place his mark. At this time, Company I of the Third U. S. Infantry Division was organized as an Indian company and stationed at Fort Sully, South Dakota.

Buffalo Calf enlisted in March 11, 1892, just months after Takes Gun Himself had done so. Buffalo Calf, like Takes Gun Himself, made his mark and also was assigned to Company I of the Third Infantry Regiment. His enlistment papers indicate that he was six foot tall, a formidable size in those days.

To some extent, the program suffered from the inactivity of the army during this period of quiet. Life on a military post in the 1890’s was less than exciting. Certainly some Native Americans became homesick for their people. Some recruits resisted not only having their hair cut, but also bathing regularly, being inoculated or even eating army-issue food16. They were some problems with drinking but that was a problem with white soldiers as well. In fact, an army study indicated that there was less alcoholism among Native American soldier than among white soldiers 17.

The Third Infantry, to which Takes Gun Himself and Buffalo Calf were assigned, had distinguished itself in the American Civil War and led the grand review that took place in the nation’s capitol at the end of the war. The Third was reorganized at the end of 1865 with new recruits and sent to Indian Territory, where the regiment served for the next eight years. In 1877, the regiment transferred to Montana, were it served for the next eleven years. The Military Department of Dakota stretched from the western edge of Montana to the eastern edge of Minnesota with headquarters in St. Paul. The regimental headquarters of the Third Infantry and Companies A, D, E, H and K transferred to Fort Snelling in 1888. The remaining companies likewise transferred to Fort Snelling in June of the following year. When necessary, various companies were sent west, such as during the Ghost Dance movement. But, for the most part, the Third Regiment remained at Fort Snelling with, as the Pioneer Press wrote, “All of the somber features of post life …”18.

While the rest of the regiment was stationed at Fort Snelling, the Indian Company remained in the Dakotas. It was not until 1893 that the Third’s Indian Company was relocated to Fort Snelling. The military post had earlier in the eighteen eighties been the farthest east that elements of a Black regiment served. White and Indian companies were posted together at Fort Snelling for the better part of two years. Fort Snelling’s role was diminished by 1893 in peacetime America and the people of Minneapolis-St. Paul seemed to have taken little note of the presence of Native Americans in the regular army. The St. Paul Daily Pioneer Press did report an excursion to Fort Snelling in May 1894 by one thousand members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, during which the guests watched the Third Regiment pass through inspection and dress parade on the grounds. The reporter made specific mention that the second battalion included “I, the Indian company”19.

This is not to suggest that all was well for a Native American in St. Paul or Minneapolis near the end of the 19th century. The Pioneer Press referred to “these denizens of the Great North Woods” in regard to the White Earth reservation20. When reporting on trouble between whites and Crows in Montana, the Pioneer Press wrote, “ … the Crow buck … was filled full of lead but unfortunately did not kill him … it may be that a few more of them will have to be killed.”21 The problem, according to the paper, was that the Crows were invested with the rights to land. A week later, the Pioneer Press headlined an article about a “Drunken Indian”22.

While there was no combat for the American soldier of the early 1890’s, there was danger nonetheless. Disease remained a threat to any soldier in the crowded barracks. Private Takes Gun Himself contracted tetanus and died on May 12, 1893. The vaccine for this fatal disease, caused by bacterium that enters through a wound, would not be introduced until 1927. Wrenching muscle spasms and rigidity of certain muscle groups precedes dying.

Tuberculosis was another disease for which a vaccine was not introduced until many years later. Physicians were at a loss as to what to do as far as the prevention of the disease. The state medical association appointed a committee at its annual meeting at St. Paul in June 1894. However, their attention was directed toward legislation that might prevent the spread of tuberculosis23. As the coughing and sneezing of infected persons transmitted the chronic bacterial disease, tuberculosis was particularly devastating in crowded quarters. While inner city tenements were breeding grounds for tuberculosis, army barracks were just as dangerous. The Enlisted men at Fort Snelling slept on bunk beds in confined quarters with poor ventilation that …were breeding grounds for diseases. body, the most common impact being upon the respiratory system. hygiene in Army barracks and the easy spread of disease is apparent from the number of other soldiers of the Third Regiment from this period, who are buried in the national cemetery24. The Blackfoot were quite familiar with this disease, which they called Isttsikssaa-isskinaan. This particular disease had wreaked havoc among more than one generation of the once-powerful Blackfoot people.

Calf Buffalo became ill with tuberculosis and died on June 30, 1894. Both he and Takes Gun Himself were buried in the Fort Snelling post cemetery. They were not citizens - Native Americans would not be given citizenship until 1924.

The Army’s program with Native Americans lasted only a short time. In October 1894, the post commander at Fort Snelling discharged the remaining Native Americans in Third Infantry’s Company I. General Schofield retired in 1895 at the age of sixty- four. In the next two years, all of the Indian companies were mustered out. Only one company served out the full term of their enlistment25. The debate as to the merits of the Native Americans value as a soldier was not resolved. It was clear that there was lack of commitment by many officers, as well as outright opposition to the experiment.

The Federal Government set aside a portion of the Fort Snelling Military Reservation in the 1930’s as a national cemetery. The remains of Calf Buffalo and Takes Gun Himself were re-interred to the new national cemetery in May 1940. Calf Buffalo and Takes Gun Himself were proud young man, who accepted their country and chose to serve. They hoped for a better life. The United States did not allow Native Americans citizenship until 1924. But the comradeship, which Calf Buffalo and Takes Gun Himself shared with their fellow soldiers of the Third U. S. Infantry, earned them their rightful place in the national cemetery amidst others deceased of that regiment.

The experiment of the 1890’s led to Theodore Roosevelt’s acceptance of Native Americans into his Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War in 1898. In May 1917, the U. S. Senate reviewed an amendment to an army bill that proposed recruiting ten regiments of the North American Indian Cavalry for service in Europe. In return for this service, the veterans would earn citizenship. The amendment was not successful. Nonetheless, Native Americans rushed to enlist when the United States entered the First World War and served proudly in numerous divisions overseas. The 142nd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division included a company of Native Americans who spoke twenty-six different languages or dialects. They became the first codetalkers, transmitting messages by wire in October 1918 that the Germans were unable to decipher.

Native Americans finally received American citizenship in 1924. Even then, some states prevented Native Americans from voting until Federal pressure ended that in 1948. The United States Government awarded the Medal of Honor to several Native Americans for their gallantry in World War II and Korea. Among these was Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud, a Winnebago from Wisconsin, who held his position against an onslaught of Chinese troops in 1950 and prevented them from overrunning his company’s position.


1 Dempsey, Hugh A., Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfeet (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), 207.2 Dempsey, 215.3 Coffman, Edward M., The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 258.4 Mooney, James, The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).5 Brown, Dee, Bury My Hear At Wounded Knee (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).6 Coffman, 259. Feaver, Eric, “Indian Soldiers, 1891-95: An Experiment on the Closing Frontier”, Prologue: the journal of the National Archives (Washington: National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration), vol. 7, no. 2, summer 1975, page 109.7 Dunlay, Thomas W., Wolves for the Blue Soldiers: Indian Scouts and Auxilaries with the United States Army, 1860-90 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 196.8 Dunlay, 191.9 Schofield, John M., Forty –six Years in the Army (New York: The Century Co., 1897), 487.10 Schofield, 488.11 Feaver, 109.12 Feaver, 110.13 Scott, Hugh L., Some Memories of a Soldier (New York: The Century Co., 1928), 170.14 Feaver, 112.15 Coffman, 257.16 Feaver, 113.17 Coffman, 260.18 “Engineers Go to Snelling”, Daily Pioneer Press (St. Paul), May 24, 1894, page 3.19 “Engineers Go to Snelling”, Daily Pioneer Press (St. Paul), May 24, 1894, page 3.20 Pioneer Press (St. Paul), February 27, 1893, page 5.21 “The Bad Redskins, They Make Trouble in Montana”, Pioneer Press (St. Paul), March 6, 1893, page 1.22 “A Cowardly Assault, A Drunken Indian Makes Trouble at White Earth”, Pioneer Press (St. Paul), March 12, 1893, page 6.23 “Chiefs of Medics … Action Against Tuberculosis”, Dispatch (St. Paul), June 22, 1894.24 Corporal James Buckley, died September 26, 1889; Corporal George Clark, died November 2, 1889; Mus Thomas Hines, died November 11, 1891; 1st Sgt. Vernon Westerbrook, died December 31, 1891; Private Peter Frayne, died February 14, 1892; Private George Hager, died September 7, 1892; Private John E. Potter, died September 15, 1892; Clerk 2nd Cl Thomas Smith, died June 28, 1893; Private Martin L. Jacobs, died June 24, 1894; Private George Shakespeare, died November 29, 1895. From field work by the author on the grounds of Fort Snelling National Cemetery. 25 Coffman,359.