Bloody Knife, Custer's Favorite Scout
History is full of ironies, but few are as strange as the tale of Bloody Knife. He was Custer’s favorite scout and a central figure in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Bloody Knife was born and raised in the tribe of the Hunkpapa chiefs, Sitting Bull and Gall. But 36 years later, they would be on opposite sides at the Little Bighorn.
Bloody Knife’s story is one of strife and struggle in his youth, but he went on to win fame as the most famous Native American scout to serve the U.S. Army and the favorite scout of George Armstrong Custer, until both were killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Around 1840, Bloody Knife was born to a Hunkpapa Sioux father and an Arikara (also known as Ree) mother. But there the trouble started, for the Arikara and the Hunkpapa had long been mortal enemies. It is not known how this unlikely union happened. Perhaps Bloody Knife’s mother was originally taken as a slave, for she and her children with the Hunkpapa man were treated as outcasts and abused horribly. Bloody Knife and his two brothers and a sister were raised in the Hunkpapa father’s village for the first 15 years of his life. As fate would have it, this was the same village of Sitting Bull and his adopted brother, the future chief, Gall. Gall in particular was cruel to Bloody Knife, but Sitting Bull treated him poorly as well.
By the time Bloody Knife reached 15 years old, his mother resolved to return to her own Arikara tribe. She was allowed to go visit her people and take her sons and she did not return to the Hunkpapa tribe. But, even then, Bloody Knife’s troubles did not end. Bloody Knife tried to visit his father four years later and was attacked by Gall and other Hunkpapa who beat him violently, stripped him, spat on him, and struck him with coup sticks and musket ramrods. Then, in the fall of 1862, Gall attacked Bloody Knife’s Arikara village and killed his two younger brothers, mutilating them, scalping them and leaving their bodies to scavengers.
Bloody Knife was an outcast, the product of two tribes that hated each other, a young man stuck in no man’s land with no tribe, no people. It’s no wonder that he turned to whites to find his livelihood. He found work as a scout with the American Fur company at Fort Clark, a trading post on the Upper Missouri River. His work was dangerous delivering mail and supplies to other forts in Missouri and North Dakota, especially since he had to dodge enemy tribes. In 1865, he began scouting for Brigadier General Alfred Sully in a reconnaissance expedition against the Sioux.
In late 1865, Bloody Knife joined Captain Adams Bassett of Company C to pursue Gall, who had killed white men near Fort Berthold in western North Dakota. Bloody Knife led the Army to the Hunkpapa village, where the Army attempted to arrest Gall. When he resisted, he was bayoneted several times. And here the story takes a strange twist. Bloody Knife raised his gun to shoot Gall in the head but an officer deflected Bloody Knife’s shot. He said Gall was already dead. Bloody Knife argued with the officer, then left in disgust.
Indeed, Gall was not dead and, left where he fell, crawled several miles to help that night. He lived to become a famous Sioux war chief and, eleven years later, a victor at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The next year, in 1866, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Scout Enlistment Act and Bloody Knife entered service as a corporal at Fort Stevenson in central North Dakota territory. In 1873, he became a lance corporal on the Yellowstone Expedition.
In 1873, Bloody Knife met George Armstrong Custer at Fort Rice and Custer took an instant liking to the scout and admired his scouting abilities. Bloody Knife began scouting for Custer. Both men were volatile and colorful. Bloody Knife was insolent, brutally honest and often made fun of Custer’s marksmanship and other qualities, which amused Custer. (His favorite insult was saying Custer couldn’t hit a tent from the inside.) But the volatility went both ways. In 1874, during an expedition, in a fit of rage, Custer shot at Bloody Knife for target practice and the scout had to quickly hide behind a tree.
Bloody Knife angrily told Custer, "It is not a good thing you have done to me; if I had been possessed of madness too, you would not see another day." Custer replied, "My brother, it was the madness of the moment that made me do this, but it is now gone. Let us shake hands and be friends again." Bloody Knife smirked, but then shook Custer's hand.
His occasional “fits of madness” notwithstanding, Custer was enamored of the Akikara scout and often got him gifts, trying to make the surly scout smile. Custer ordered a silver medal from Washington inscribed with the scout’s name. Whereas most Indian scouts earned $13 per month, Custer paid Bloody Knife $75 monthly. Custer often wrote to his wife, Libbie, of Bloody Knife and told her the scout was doing “splendidly.”
Libbie Custer, too, later wrote of her husband’s fascinating relationship with Bloody Knife in her memoir, “Boots and Saddles:”
“He [Bloody Knife] had proved himself such an invaluable scout to the general that they often had long interviews. Seated on the grass, the dogs lying about them, they talked over portions of the country that the general had never seen, the scout drawing excellent maps in the sand with a pointed stick. He was sometimes petulant, often moody, and it required the utmost patience on my husband’s part to submit to his humors; but his fidelity and cleverness made it worthwhile to yield to his tempers.”
On the trail to the Little Bighorn, Bloody Knife repeatedly warned Custer that there were too many Indians in the opposing force and a battle with them would be foolhardy. But Custer scoffed. Custer had told the Indian scouts they could leave before the battle, but Bloody Knife, even knowing that staying was likely suicide, remained to do battle. Perhaps, because Custer was miffed at Bloody Knife’s advice that he could not win against the huge numbers of Natives, Custer assigned him to go with Major Reno. According to some accounts, Bloody Knife turned to the sun and raised his hands and said, “I shall not see you go down behind the hills tonight.”
Bloody Knife was standing next to Reno when he was shot in the head. His blood splattered all over the major, unnerving him. Reno panicked and ordered a retreat into a nearby woodland.
Bloody Knife’s legacy did not end at the Little Bighorn. He was a prolific and passionate artist and produced many ledgers depicting battle scenes, mostly of the Arikara vanquishing their traditional enemies, the Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and some Lakota tribes, like the Hunkpapa. (His ledgers would become part of the permanent archives collection at the Smithsonian Institute.) In his artist’s eye, he perhaps could never have imagined that his heroic ledgers of victory over his enemies would hold such a deep irony for he would, in fact, be vanquished by his enemies, the Lakota and Cheyenne at the Little Bighorn.
But, perhaps, his fate was not such a surprise to him. Before the Little Bighorn, he had witnessed omens that had troubled him greatly. He had seen a comet in the sky near to the Big Dipper and that had upset Bloody Knife and the other guides. They believed it showed divine displeasure. But Custer scoffed at their superstitions. Then Bloody Knife saw a falcon chasing a passenger pigeon. Such pigeons were believed to have been wiped out to extinction, so it surprised the Indians. The pigeon landed underneath the belly of a grazing horse and rested before flying off, free of the falcon. Bloody Knife regarded the unlikely drama as bad medicine, that a dying species would be victorious over its ruthless predator. But the greatest omen was yet to come.
Custer was proud of his hunting ability and had many trophy kills, but he had never bagged a grizzly. His opportunity finally came when Bloody Knife spotted a big old male watering near the river. The bear was a nutmeg brown, very old, with brittle worn claws, stubs for teeth, and his coat, ragged with scars. Custer aimed and shot the beast. It roared but did not fall and lumbered away toward the nearby timber. Bloody Knife, afraid the general would not get his prize, fired into the animal multiple times, finally downing him. Custer was jubilant. But Bloody Knife knew that the bear was not a grizzly at all, but an old cinnamon bear––a brown-colored black bear.
Custer ordered the men to heave the animal onto its belly from its dying repose sprawled on its side for a more dramatic picture. When they did this, the blood from its multiple wounds sprayed upward, splattering Custer’s fringed rawhide tunic. Another speck hit Bloody Knife square in the forehead and spray hit a perfect line across his neck. Bloody Knife knew this was very bad medicine and he ran to the creek to wash the blood, but he could not seem to erase its stain from his mind.
As fate would have it, at the Little Bighorn, standing next to Major Reno, Bloody Knife was shot square in the forehead. Later, when the Lakota and Cheyenne were scouring the battlefield, they found Bloody Knife’s body and slashed his neck, cutting off his head. Gall mounted his head on a lance and, in the Hunkpapa village, they danced around it. Just as Bloody Knife had feared, the old dead bear’s blood--sprayed on his forehead and across his neck--had been an omen of things to come.
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