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.
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
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
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
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.
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."
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.