The Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Lodge Grass Creek, April 1874
The Project: The Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition was a quasi-military expedition departing from Bozeman, Montana Territory in February 1874 and proceeding along the Yellowstone River Valley for the purpose of determining the suitability of the Yellowstone River for navigation and scouting a wagon road.
The expedition of about 150 prospectors, former Civil War soldiers, ex-Texas rangers, buffalo hunters and famed scouts, motivated by reports of possible gold fields – including the famed Lost Cabin Mine – had planned to travel down the Yellowstone River to the mouth of the Tongue River and then home – some 600 miles through some of the most inhospitable territory in the west. It turned back at Rosebud Creek and on the return fought a final significant battle against some 1400 warriors under Sitting Bull at Lodge Grass Creek in April.
The expedition survived and returned to Bozeman the following month. The title comes from the presence of two Army cannon on the expedition that the frontiersmen thought would be their ace in the hole against any massed warrior attack.
Richly supplied by the territory governor, the expedition went through a creative process to secure the two cannon and developed ingenious sources of ammunition for them. The warriors, led by Hump, Inkpaduta and probably Sitting Bull, fought three pitched battles against the expedition; on one, John Anderson, a former slave in the south, fought an epic hand-to-hand knife fight against a warrior chief who was probably the son of Sitting Bull. At the end of the battle at Lodge Grass Creek, famed buffalo hunter Jack Bean took his custom-made Sharps .44-90 buffalo rifle and hit a lone warrior sniper on a high ridge roughly three-quarters to one mile away – with one shot – the longest rifle hit ever on a single target in the entire Wild West.
The expedition itself is one of the most obscure, but colorful episodes of the west. As important, many of the participants, on both sides, later fought at the cataclysmic fight in 1876 at the Little Bighorn. The book will discuss the possible lessons learned by Hump and Sitting Bull concerning the increase in accurate, concentrated firepower white frontiersmen brought to bear if they had an opportunity to dig even hasty rifle pits – the situation that developed on Reno Hill at the Little Bighorn after survivors of the Seventh Cavalry had a chance to dig in. Red Hawk saw what did not work fighting the frontiersmen near Rosebud Creek during the expedition, but he would hone his skills and later fight at the Little Bighorn at Reno’s charge in the valley, against Company L at Calhoun Hill and at Last Stand Hill. Famed scouts William T. “Uncle Billy” Hamilton, Muggins Taylor, Oliver Perry Hanna and George Herendeen helped guide the 1874 expedition. In 1876, Muggins Taylor would serve as a scout for the Montana Column, commanded by General John Gibbon, and took the news of Custer’s massacre from the battle area to Fort Ellis and Bozeman. Jack Bean would serve as the chief packer for the Montana Column. Hamilton and Hanna rode as scouts in 1876 for General George Crook and fought at the Battle of Rosebud Creek on June 17, 1876. Herendeen played a significant role as well, accompanying Major Reno’s detachment on their initial attack into the massive Lakota and Cheyenne village on June 25, 1876. The book will discuss the impressions these key men took from the 1874 expedition and how they may have contributed to Custer’s defeat.
In 1993, Don Weibert wrote The 1874 Invasion of Montana: A Prelude to the Custer Disaster, the best source on the entire expedition. He concentrated on a day-by-day account of the journey, and thus could devote only a few pages to the Lodge Grass fight. Ace in the Hole will focus on the five-hour fight at Lodge Grass Creek, and will also present greater detail on the biographies of the men involved, as well as the weapons. The book will likely be organized in a similar manner to Custer’s Best: The Story of Company M, 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn. As such, it will also discuss what happened to many of the participants in their later years and where many, such as Muggins Taylor and George Herendeen are buried.
Work on the book has already begun; hopefully the text will be completed by April 2014. That month I would like to return to Montana, photograph the battlefield and some of the other expedition sites and construct the epilogue to the book that will be a re-creation of the long range shot that buffalo hunter Jack Bean made near the conclusion of the battle with a newly-made Sharps black powder rifle of the same specifications and caliber. The plan is to video the recreation of the Jack Bean’s incredible shot at the exact place it was accomplished with and put that footage on You Tube, along with some footage of the craftsmen in Big Timber, Montana actually constructing this rifle.
There are several source documents that are located at the Historical Society of Montana in Helena. They include the Charles Avery Manuscript, the George Herendeen Manuscript and possibly selected issues from the Bozeman Avant Courier Newspaper of 1874. If I cannot get copies of those made remotely or hire a researcher in Helena, I will go and do the research there.
I also need to determine with as much certainty as possible, the exact caliber and type of weapon that Jack Bean fired. Research indicates he used a Sharps .44-90 that had a 30-inch Malcolm telescopic sight.
The book will have two schematic diagrams showing wagon train tactics as shown below. I have already completed 12 color maps of the various phases of the Lodge Grass battle superimposed on aerial photos. On a trip back to the battlefield this October, we will verify all locations one more time. Also completed are 25 topographic maps of expedition overnight laager sites along the expedition. The book should have over 100 photographs of period weapons, gravesites of participants of the expedition, ground views of the three battles, and as many of the participants on both sides that we can find in various museums and archives (25 are already in hand.)
I Need Your Help: In almost every project I have done, readers and interested parties have rode to the rescue to provide valuable information that made the books better than they would have been. Here are the items with which I could use your assistance.
- Detailed information on Jack Bean’s buffalo rifle. Research to date has uncovered that Bean did not use a Malcolm telescopic sight, as originally thought, but rather a Vernier peep sight. Additionally, the Sharps 1874 caliber .44-90 is now in doubt based on the late issue of this caliber by Sharps; it may now have been a .50-70, .50-90 or .44-77. Does anyone have any additional information ?
- Period Photographs of the Expedition or participants in it.
- Any unpublished list of the participants, especially Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors.
- Any information on any of the participants in their later lives including where and when they died and where they are buried.