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The Crow Indians Dupe the Railroad
by Phil Gulick

     Point your car north on U. S. Interstate 90 from Sheridan, Wyoming, and you will travel through the Crow Indian Reservation nearly all the way to Hardin, Montana. The modern highway crosses the Rosebud Mountains and traverses close to two well-known Indian monuments -- the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and the Reno-Benteen Battlefield Memorial.

     The present-day Crow Indian Reservation stretches about 70 miles east to west and about 50 miles north to south, its southern extremity along the Montana-Wyoming border. The smaller Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation sits to the east and abuts the Crow lands.


Chief Crow Community in the valley of Two Medicine

     The Crows' tribal land claims against the U. S. Government in 1868 included a large portion of north central Wyoming, but their claims since have been reduced by later claims. From Moorcroft, Wyoming, I-90 generally follows the line of the present Burlington Northern Railroad into Billings. The railroad was built in 1894 to connect Omaha with the second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific, at Huntley, Montana, just east of Billings.

      In 1888, the Burlington, one of the last truly great surviving railroads in America, formed a company called the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad to construct the line from Crawford, Nebraska, to Billings. It also formed smaller subsidiary railroads to build other lines in the territory, including the Bighorn Southern RR. When the Burlington & Missouri River's survey parties, led by Edward Gillette, made their preliminary survey to Huntley, their rhumb line crossed the Crow Reservation.

     The Crows, under Chief Plenty Coups, were initially hostile to settlers and pioneers along the Oregon Trail, but became one of the earliest tribes to settle peacefully with the whites. The Crows were enemies of the Sioux and many Crows were scouts for the U. S. Army, including with General Custer and his Seventh Cavalry. When Burlington officials in Omaha determined their route would traverse the Crow lands, they formed another company, the Bighorn Southern RR, to build that part of the route through the reservation. Burlington sent Charles McCormick as their negotiator, with C. H. Barstow and T. Gogarty as witnesses. They would join Crow interpreter J. Wolf and U. S. Indian agent M. P. Wyman at the council. It was their job to obtain consent from the Crows to build the railroad across their lands and to settle on the cost of the enterprise.

     Led by Medicine Crow, 135 Crows met the officials on December 20, 1890, at Crow Agency on the reservation several miles south of Hardin. Plenty Coups was very old then and no longer chief of the Crows. Wyman addressed the Crows first, stressing the advantages they would have when the railroad crossed their land. "Now, you are plagued with large wagon trains from Wyoming to Custer Station, which destroy large amounts of fencing on your farms and ruin your hay ground. They steal your horses, plows, wagons and you don't know where these things go. It is for you to say what is in your best interest. "But, the railroad will not steal from you and will pay you for what they get. I want all of you to get up and talk. One Indian has as much right to talk as the other."

     Medicine Crow spoke to the tribe at length, then turned to McCormick. "Our people have no wood. When the railroad comes, we want you to haul coal for our people to burn. If you kill any of our cattle pay us in a month and the same with the horses. When we ship hay we want big prices for it. We want the Great Father to take care of us and treat us well when the railroad comes. "I want to give right of way for forty steps or twenty steps on each side of the road," Medicine Crow offered. McCormick explained that it would be twenty-five steps. Medicine Crow then said, "We want to be allowed to ride on the railroad, same as we would ride on our own private horses. We will do as the Great Father wants us to do." The "Great Father" then was President Benjamin Harrison.

     Old Dog wanted to know how much the railroad would pay when it crossed his allotted land and how much damage money he would get. McCormick assured him that he and the railroad agent would inspect their property, discuss the matter and pay according to the damages. "The agent and myself and Old Dog or any other Indian who is damaged will go to his farms and see where the road crosses his land. We then will talk the matter over and agree on a price that will satisfy you all," McCormick said. The General Allotment, or Dawes, Act of 1887 had broken up and allotted tribally held lands to individual Indians in small parcels. The rest, or unallotted lands, was open to whites to bargain with the Crows. Several years later, the Act was amended to allow for leasing by whites of the Indians' allotted lands. "The Great Father will see that none of you are cheated," McCormick declared. "We will pay one dollar and twenty five cents per acre for the unalloted land."


Crow Tribe1. Pretty Eagle, Principal Chief;2. Bull Nose; 3. Spotted Horse; 4. Enemy Hunter; 5. Plenty Coos; 6. Big Shoulder; and 7. Short Tail Bull

     Spotted Horse wanted to know how big an acre was and McCormick explained. Spotted Horse then asked three dollars an acre and a fence on each side of the railroad "so that you won't kill any of our horses or cattle. Whites talk good to Crows and we believe them," he continued, "but lots of things they say they don't do. "We have coal and load it on the cars and get money for it," Spotted Horse said. "We want to ship baled hay and get money for it. We want fifty cents for each (railroad) tie the Crows cut and deliver to you. If everything is not as represented, I want to go and see the Great Father and talk with him." Even today, the Crows and the Cheyennes claim coal rights on their lands.

     The Cheyennes on the Rosebud River never did sign a peace treaty with the U. S. Government. It was after several Crows had spoken that the council took on an air of greater poignancy. Bull Goes Hunting spoke. "Our children have given you the permission to build the road and it's all right. I was the first to build a house, the first farmer, the first who got wagons. You don't eat flour or baking powder unless it is mixed, or don't drink coffee without sugar, or bacon with something else with it. Pay us for our land before you build the road so our people can get something to eat." "We are all crowded in a bunch now and we've given away lots of land," Pretty Eagle said. "We have told you to put the railroad through our land, but give us a little more than it is worth." Old Nest had plenty to say. "You, Mr. McCormick, are the person who represents the railroad. Bring the money here and pay our children. I don't know how the other Crows feel, but if you run through my house, it is all right. I give you permit to knock down my house with the railroad, but I want you to give me back my child."

     Plenty Coups also was forceful. "The cars run over six horses belonging to Wolf and he has never been paid for them. I feel bad about selling our land and about the price. I did not get enough for it. It was big piece of land, lots of it. "When the railroad is through and a man and his wife go to ride and the conductor puts them off and we hold on to him and both of us fall off and get killed, don't get mad." The council now came to the hard dealing. How much were the Crows asking for their land and how much was the railroad willing to pay? "We want to agree on the price to be paid to you for the land not allotted to any of you at one dollar and twenty-five cents," McCormick began. Spotted Horse wanted three dollars. "That is too much," McCormick replied. "All the land from the Little Horn to the line (Wyoming border) is not worth much. I tell you that all the Indians can ride our road. "Now, I will pay you two dollars per acre for your tribal lands unalloted. Those Indians who are allotted, they will be dealt with separately. "All in favor of two dollars stand up in your place." Spotted Horse held up his hand. "I want three dollars for the land not yet allotted." McCormick reluctantly agreed. "All right, all who are in favor, stand up." Then, it was just a matter of Barstow and Gogarty witnessing as all 135 Crows put their marks on the contract. The Crow Indians had beaten the mighty Burlington Railroad at its own game.


This incident was excerpted from Phil Gulick's novel, "Rails on the Wind," published in April, 1995, by Northwest Publishing, Inc., Salt Lake City. "Rails on the Wind" is the fictional account of the building of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad in Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.

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