Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association

Bill Tallbull
Bill Tallbull

We Are The Ancestors of Those Yet to be Born
Northern Cheyenne History of the Battle of 100-In-The-Hands (the Fetterman Battle)

by Wolf Feathers
(The late Bill Tallbull, FPK/BTA  Advisory Board Member)

Published 1988
Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association

(Note: Limited publication rights are owned by the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association, and do not allow this to be copied and sold by anyone else.)


   When Cheyennes made a decision about the future, they cared more how the future would effect their tribe as a whole, rather than how it would effect them personally. They cared about the survival of the culture and of Cheyenne as a people, sometimes more than they cared for their own lives. They held fast to their undying belief that the Northern plains was indeed their home.

   As a tribe, the Northern Cheyennes would be among several Indian tribes of the Northern Plains, who would play one of the key roles in making of Western history. The written history of the wars and the settling of the west was to dramatize the many cultural differences between the Cheyenne people and the white American.

Their cultural differences were to further dramatize their conflicting views over the land in the plains. It would be over the land that the two groups would confront each other most bitterly. The battles they fought would write some of the bloodiest chapters in western history.

Camp on the Tongue River on Full Alert, 1866

   Camping along the Tongue River in the Winter of 1866 was not like any other time in the Powder River country, as the tribes were on full alert. The Northern Cheyennes, under Chief Morning Star (Dull Knife), and Chief Little Wolf, were watching the Buffalo Creek Fort (Fort Phil Kearny). The fort was to protect people that were heading west using the road (Bozeman Trail) through Indian buffalo country. The Indians had decided to protect this country through the winter. The Sioux and the Arapahoe Tribes were camping with the Northern Cheyenne, and their camps stretched some distance up the Tongue River and adjoining streams.
   A camp this large would afford the Indian people protection and concentrate efforts to attack the Buffalo Creek Fort at every opportunity. The large camping grounds could not properly feed the great horse herds and they were constantly being moved to find feed. The nearby hills had bare slopes where the horses could find feed. At night the horse herds were driven into camp where they ate cottonwood bark. Many young men were constantly on herd duty. Horses were needed to carry warriors to the Buffalo Fort each day; into the field to watch for movements of soldiers; and movements of the buffalo herds.

   Food and horses were needed throughout the winter to carry out the battle with the soldiers. To support such a large camp, much buffalo meat was needed. Hunting parties were busy bringing buffalo meat by pack horses from various distances along the Tongue River. Sometimes the hunters were gone for several days at a time.

   The winter camp life of the warriors was to be in instant readiness to defend their camps. Their horses were always near the lodges at night. Horses were tied in the front of the lodge so that they could be mounted on a moments notice.


   The warrior horses and the buffalo horses were very valued animals and special care was devoted to them. The war horses received ceremonial painting and ornaments of feathers. They always seemed to trot with great pride. A warrior on a good horse was a combination hard to beat. He was breathtakingly fearless and so was his horse.

   The hunting horse was very swift and could run across uneven ground and dodge prairie dog holes without slowing down. He could single out a buffalo and stay with it during the chase. The horse was trained to stay on one side of a buffalo and dodge in and out of danger while on the run.

   The other family horses were mostly work horses. They packed the family belongings and pulled travois and tepee poles. An average family had about forty horses, and they were not branded but were known by sight.


   Warrior scouts were coming and going from the camps as they were watching the Army patrol movement along the Bozeman Trail. Scouts would be appointed by the warrior chiefs and assigned to certain directions and distances of travel. Sometimes the scouts would be away for several days. Usually three scouts would travel together, two sleeping while one stood watch.

   If a report was to be made, one scout would be sent back to the camp. If important news was to be delivered to camp the scout would "wolf howl" alerting the camp that he was bringing news. Scouts also went in all directions from camp looking for the buffalo herds and their movements. It was a great honor to be appointed a scout.


   As arrows were needed to carry out the winter battle with the soldiers, the arrow makers were busy making arrows, ten at a time. These arrows were fashioned with steel tips, often from frying pans and metal bands from wooden barrels. Choke cherry and currant wood were used as shafts, hawk feathers usually completed the arrow and were bound together with sinew. All arrows mere marked by colors indicating ownership. Upon completion of the bow and arrow making, the warriors would ride to the wood train (from the forts) to try the weapon and to see if the bowstrings were tight enough.

   My Grandfather, Blue Feather (born 1834-died 1938), was the arrow maker for the Elk Horn Scraper Warrior Society and he made many arrows for this battle. Little Wolf was the Warrior Chief of the Elk Horn Society and my Grandfather, Blue Feather, rode into this battle with him.  Blue Feather rode a roan warrior horse that came from the Nez Perce horse herd and the roan had the great stamina of the mountain horses.

During the arrow making around the winter fire it was learned that the medicine men had guaranteed victory over the soldiers and that one medicine man had given 100 soldiers to the warriors. This news went from one warrior society to the next. All of the warriors cried "Thank you", "Thank you". They knew that sometime that winter they would kill all the soldiers in the field and would destroy the fort.


   The tribe consists of four warrior societies and not all were assigned to attack at once. Protection of the camp was the most important duty, and one of the warrior societies would remain in camp to guard it against enemy attack. Hunting and caring for the horse herds was the second most important duty and was carried out by another of the warrior societies. The remaining warrior societies were assigned attack duty at the Buffalo Creek Fort.

   A warrior society of fifty men would be assigned to attack the wood trains and harass the Buffalo Creek Fort. The group would divide into small groups for the actual attack. Others would wait for an opportunity to make a mass attack.

   It was many miles of hard riding in the winter to attack the fort. Horses would become tired. Many small dome-like shelters were made in the bush bottoms to hold the warriors while the horses ate and rested to and from the camps. The shelters became covered with snow and were hard to locate. A dome shelter held five people and a small fire could be made to cook and warm themselves. They were made between the camp on the Tongue River and the Buffalo Creek Fort. Many were constructed that winter as the carrying of the dead and wounded would be a constant duty.

The dead were never left on the battlefield but were taken some distance for burial. Wounded were returned to camp where the doctoring took place by the medicine men. Snow blindness and frost bite were the most common winter health problems. These would be cured by the medicine men in camp. Many medicine men could cure snow blindness and frozen feet instantly.


 Twice the Indians attacked Buffalo Creek Fort (Fort Phil Kearny), but were unable to overwhelm the defending troops. Then on the morning of December 21, 1866, a lone Indian appeared outside the fort, curious, the officers let him enter. This was Two Moons, a Cheyenne warrior asking for ammunition so he could hunt. Two Moons noted the heavy fortifications and the number of soldiers. He returned to meet the Cheyenne and Sioux leaders. He stated that there was no way they could take the fort without heavy losses. Little Wolf, a Cheyenne leader, and Sioux leaders, Hump and Crazy Horse, together devised another plan.

   Decoys were selected by the chiefs, two from each warrior band. The decoys were selected to bring the soldiers over the ridge out of sight of the Buffalo Creek Fort, this method was one of the oldest Indian strategies. The soldiers fell for the decoy plan and followed the decoys between the waiting groups of warriors. The decoys would be just ahead of the pursuing troops firing at the soldiers and riding back and forth and leading them into the trap.

   The trap was set  beyond a ridge north of the Buffalo Creek Fort. The decoys had let the soldiers well into the trap where the main body of warriors waited for a signal to attack. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe were on one side of the trap and the Sioux were on the other. Everyone watched one noted warrior who was to give the signal to begin the attack. Upon the signal all horses and warriors began running to close the trap. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe were attacking from the west and the Sioux warriors were attacking from behind the hills to the east and the serious fighting began.

   The troops began to fire at the attackers and move back up the ridge. Not many guns were available to the Cheyennes. The bow and arrow along with war clubs were the main weapons for close fighting. During the firing of arrows, the numbed fingers were slapped together so as to hold the arrows properly.

   During the battle the cavalry horses were being hit by shell fire and arrows, and they would become hard to control and would break loose from the soldiers and the warriors would give chase. Soldiers began to fight on foot, fortifying themselves with dead horses on the ridge. Arrows were being concentrated on the infantry as they moved up the ridge and they were finally completely surrounded and cut off from further retreat.

As the attack was made on the ridge the horses used by the decoys were tiring and would not reach the top of the ridge where the main battle was taking place. Little Wolf's brother, Big Nose, an original decoy, was riding Little Wolf's black horse up the ridge when the horse became exhausted. He had come back to help in the main battle lead by Little Wolf. It was at this time that he was shot from his horse and badly wounded. A friend came to help him as he was still alive. He said, "I have trouble breathing. Move me up the hill". He was moved up the hill and left there as fighting was still quite heavy all along the ridge. Later they found him still alive and he was moved from the battlefield after all the soldiers were killed.


   On this ridge one soldier fought with whatever he could use as a weapon and he fought like a lion. MAny arrows began to appear on his body and he finally died fighting. This man had shown great courage and fought bravely in a hopeless battle and he won the admiration of the fighting Indian men. After the battle they found him covered with arrows and they respectfully covered his body with a buffalo robe. Great honor had been extended to this one brave soldier named Metzger.


   The return to the camp after the battle was an arduous one as most of the horses were tired from the battle. The horses were lead on foot by the men taking turns breaking trail. The wounded were moved slowly as they had been placed on travois, and some of the wounded died on the way back to their camp.

   Most of the warriors were singing songs of warriors and displaying captured horses and army weapons. Many arrows, ammunition and weapons were retrieved from the battlefield.

   Many days of celebration was carried out in camp following this battle because they had successfully wiped out an entire military command. Victorious warriors were honored for individual feats and deeds. The woman prepared feasts that would bring the old warriors and relatives together. Brave deeds were told over and over and would become part of the tribal history.

   Women attended the victory dances and displayed captured items of war. Many hides were tanned and made into decorated clothing for the warriors. Fine quilled moccasins were placed on his feet and fine robes were brought to him by relatives upon his safe return. A war bonnet was usually given by an older warrior at this time along with a name.


   In the midst of the wars, women, who occupy so few pages of western history were yet so involved, as Indian camps were so relentlessly attacked by the military.. The women displayed their unbreakable determination and their strong will to survive along with their willingness to meet death with their people. They were to remain even stronger within their family and tribal roles and responsibilities.

   The wars were unable to break the female habit of automatically making room in their hearts to adopt orphans of war. The orphans were never without a family or human shelter. No Indian person is ever completely left alone for the tribal structure had long guaranteed that a child or a person would never be without a family.

   The battle preparation made by the woman for the warrior was to make sure his pipe and food were packed and the fine quilled or beaded buckskins that he would wear into battle were placed in his war bag.

   The woman often went out into the horse herd and chose the warrior horse that would carry her husband or son into battle. She placed the saddle upon the horse and let it to her husband or son who was waiting at the lodge. She did this to honor them as she knew they might not return and she would be left without a husband to provide for her. At this point she would reassure him that everything would be fine until his return. She did her best to take care of the family while the warriors were away. Many prayers were said for their success in battle and their safe return.

   Only the grandmothers were allowed to show emotion and so they reminded the young warriors that they should not turn back once on the war trail. Women warrior songs were sung when the men rode away. The grandmothers would also sing the victory songs upon the return of the warriors.

   While the warriors were gone, the women would take this time to prepare their herbs and medicines for the return of the wounded. The wounded would become their responsibility along with the gathering of the wood for the fires which became more difficult the longer they stayed in one place.

   My grandmother would say many years later that no one ever had a good nights rest at this camp. The women were in constant readiness to flee with the children because of the possibility of attack on the camp. They usually fled on foot as the horses were stampeded when firing into the camp would begin. It was a difficult winter for all.


   Indian resistance to the presence of troops in the Powder River country continued into the summer of 1867. On August 1st, 500 warriors attacked a detachment of troops near Fort C.F. Smith during the Hayfield Fight. The following day Red Cloud led some 1500 warriors in an attack near Fort Phil Kearny, the Wagon Box Fight.

   A growing concern over the safety of the railroad into Platte River Valley led the government to seek again peace with the Cheyenne, Sioux and the Arapahoe. If peace could be made, a railroad branch line then could be built into what is now Southwestern Montana. This would bypass the Powder River country and allow the Bozeman Trail to be abandoned.

   Under the treaty of 1868, the Indians were to withdraw all opposition to the construction of the railroad. In return, a permanent reservation was to be set aside for them in South Dakota. The United States further stated that the country north of the North Platte River, from east of the summit of the Big Horn Mountains, eastward to the Missouri River, would be "unceded Indian territory" upon which no white person should be permitted to settle or to pass through without the consent of the Indians.

   Within ninety days after the conclusion of peace, the forts guarding the Bozeman Trail were to be abandoned and the road closed.

   Soon after, the Cheyenne Chief, Little Wolf, went into the abandoned Fort Phil Kearny and torched every building until there was little left of the fort.


   My biography really needs to start out from a long time ago. The Tall Bull legacy must start with Chief Tall Bull. He was a Chief of the Dog Soldiers and was killed during the Battle at Summit Springs in 1869. He was among 52 Dog Soldiers killed in that battle from which my grandmother escaped.

   Chief Tall Bull's son was Jacob Tall Bull (1856-1928) who mainly traveled with Dull Knife. He was not a part of the Northern Cheyenne "Trail of Tears" from Oklahoma to Fort Robinson and beyond because he had stayed with a small band in the northern region. The band hid out but would make occasional trips to Pine Ridge Reservation.

   He also was a Dog Soldier and was to play an important part in the victory at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Jacob Tall Bull found his brother-in-law, Chief Lame Whiteman, killed in the fighting on the hill (Custer Ridge) and reported this to his relatives in the camp. He saw soldiers using their last bullets on themselves. He saw three soldiers kill themselves in rapid succession.

   Jacob spent 5 or 6 years at Pine Ridge before going to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. In 1914 he was a part of a delegation that was sent to Washington, D. C., to check on the school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

   Jacob Tall Bull's son was Charles Tall Bull who was my father. He had learned the trades of carpenter and a baker. My father, Charles Tall Bull passed away in 1930 and I went to live with my grandparents.


   Arthur Brady-Blue Feather (1834-1938) belonged to the Elk Horn Scraper Society and was an arrow maker. Chief Little Wolf was the Chief of this warrior band of Cheyennes. My grandmother and grandfather had survived the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864. They were with Morning Star (Dull Knife) and Little Wolf when they were sent south to live in Oklahoma, with the Southern Cheyenne, in the summer of 1877.

   In the early hours of September 9, 1878, they left with Morning Star (Dull Knife) and Little Wolf and 297 other Northern Cheyennes, to march back north to their homeland. This became the Northern Cheyennes' own "Trail of Tears". My grandparents were to stay with Little Wolf's band when the tribe separated, Dull Knife taking one group and Little Wolf the other.

   They spent the winter on Lost Chokecherry Creek in Nebraska, starting north again the following spring. They would return north to their homeland even though 12,000

troops tried to stop them. My grandfather fought along side of Little Wolf in many battles and was there to watch Little Wolf finally burn down the Buffalo Creek Fort (Fort Phil Kearny).

   I learned many things from this great man. He was my early history teacher. Many old men and women would camp with my grandparents and I was an errand boy during this time. I listened to the war stories from these old warriors.a They always welcomed me to their fire.


   I was born on Muddy Creek on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. I attended a government boarding school at Busby, Montana. In September of 1942, I went into World War II and became a radio operator in the Army Air Force. I went overseas to England and was placed on detached service with the British Air Ministry, Royal Air Force. Later I was assigned to the American 9th Air Force, 357th Fighter Group, 366th Fighter Squadron. I served in the Army during the occupation after the war.

   After returning to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation after the war, I have had various duties with the Tribe. I have served as a juvenile officer, social worker and transferred to the Indian Health Service. I retired from civil service in 1972. I've served on various boards and commissions within the tribe.

   Since my retirement I have gone back to public service at Dull Knife College as a Tribal Historian, and I'm the Chairman of the Tribal Cultural Protection Board.

   I have served as an at-large member of the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association practically since its' beginnings.

(Note: Tall Bull later became a member of the President's Council on Historic Preservation)


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