A Man Even More Fascinating Than His Legend
George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Elizabeth, shared an appreciation of honored warrior traditions, white and red. One particular native warrior especially impressed them. After her husband’s death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Elizabeth Custer wrote of the Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Gall, who had fought against her husband : “Painful as it is for me to look upon the pictured face of an Indian, I never in my life dreamed there could be in all the tribes so fine a specimen of warrior as Gall.”
By some accounts, Gall was very tall and weighed a muscular 260 pounds, with a barrel chest and arms like tree limbs. He had legendary strength and even greater bravery. Yet, he was liked, had an astute mind and a quick sense of humor. But, make no mistake. He was a warrior, through and through. In fact, the Bismarck Tribune after the Battle of the Little Bighorn deemed him, “The Worst Indian Living.” Gall’s most prolific photographer, the famous D. F. Barry, wrote that the fierce chief exuded such power, the photographer feared his lens would burst trying to contain the image.
Gall lost his parents at an early age and was given his memorable name, “Pizi,” meaning “gall,” when, as a famished orphan, he hungrily ate the revolting-tasting gall of an animal raw. (Later, as a warrior, he would be called by other battle monikers––“Red Walker” and “He Who Goes in the Middle.”)
Early on, he showed remarkable bravery and athleticism and Sitting Bull, nine years his senior, adopted him as a younger brother and became his mentor. Both were members of the prestigious warrior fraternity, the Strong Heart Society, and together they became an indomitable force. As a young man, Gall was Sitting Bull’s military chief. They fought together and joined Minnesota Sioux in the summer of 1864 to fight a large Army contingent near the North Dakota Badlands. Two weeks later, the two attacked a wagon train of 150 emigrants traveling to the gold fields of Montana territory
In late 1865, Gall nearly lost one of his many lives when he was encamped near Fort Berthold in North Dakota territory, to trade with Arikara Indians. There he was spotted by an old foe, Bloody Knife, who would later become Custer’s favorite Indian scout. Bloody Knife’s Arikara mother lived in his father’s Hunkpapa camp where Gall,
Sitting Bull and Bloody Knife had grown up together. But the Arikara and the Sioux were traditional enemies and Bloody Knife was treated often as an outcast in the Hunkpapa village. Bloody Knife hated Gall and led a detachment of soldiers to Gall’s teepee and bayoneted him repeatedly, until they believed he was dead.
But Gall’s iron constitution proved hard to kill and he crawled several miles from his camp that night and survived. (The feud between Bloody Knife and Gall would continue until the day of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Bloody Knife was killed.)
Later, Gall led offensives on U.S. Army troops along the Yellowstone River in 1872 and 1873. In part because of Gall’s many battle successes, the Panic of 1873 spread among settlers in the west. General Sheridan decided in 1873 to send a large force — more than 1,500 soldiers, including most of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry — to the Yellowstone.
At the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Gall drove back Major Reno’s three companies of 140 men and reduced them to tatters. Bloody Knife, who was riding next to Reno, was shot in the head and killed instantly, his brain matter splattering all over Reno. Then Gall turned his warriors to join Crazy Horse on their attack on Custer. By some accounts, Gall was a killing machine that day. Just days before, his wife and children had been killed in an Army attack, and he told a newspaper later, “My heart was bad.”
Many claimed to be the killer of the great Custer, but Gall remained silent on the subject. even though he had retrieved the inscribed matchbook-compass that Custer had carried in his pocket the day of the battle. It is unlikely he was Custer’s “angel of death,” however. Custer died of two bullet wounds, one to the head and one to the chest. Gall’s weapon that day was the war hatchet.
After Little Bighorn, Gall fled with Sitting Bull into Canada. But life was not easy there, and the buffalo that native people had relied upon for food and sustenance for mhad become nearly extinct, even in the northern plains of Canada. Relations became fractious between the exiled tribes and the resident Canadian tribes, specifically, the Cree, Bloods and Blackfeet, who were all scratching for a subsistence. A rift finally caused Gall to break with Sitting Bull and he lead about 300 lodges of his Hunkpapa warriors and their families back across the border, where he surrendered on January 3, 1881. Sitting Bull was left with only about 200 remaining supporters. Gall was settled on Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory. Sitting Bull and his diehard supporters would follow several months later, but the rift did lasting damage. The boyhood friends and warriors in arms would never again reconcile.
Elizabeth Custer went to meet Chief Gall at Fort Buford, when he returned from Canada in 1881. When the diminutive woman and the bull of a man met, Libbie Custer described him as having the bearing of a gladiator. Even in her grief, she appreciated the fact that her husband had fought such a mighty foe, a tribute to both men.
Three years later, Buffalo Bill Cody solicited both Sitting Bull and Gall at Standing Rock to join his Wild West Show. Sitting Bull had seen Annie Oakley’s sharpshooting show and was impressed, calling her “Little Sure Shot.” Cody and Oakley persuaded Sitting Bull to join the show, but Gall refused, saying, “I am not an animal to be exhibited before the crowd.”
At Standing Rock, Gall became friends with the Indian Agent James McLaughlin. For all his ferocity, the “worst Indian living” had a softer side. Later in life, he became far less intransigent to white culture. He began to embrace some white ways and felt the best way for his people to thrive was assimilation.
He lent his prestige to the reservation farming program and became an active supporter of educating Indian children. He donated his land allotment to build an Indian school, so that native children wouldn’t have to leave their parents or the reservation for boarding schools. In 1889 he even became a judge on the reservation.
Even in love, Gall reached across the ethnic rift. He admitted to Jim McLaughlin that he had fallen in love with a white woman and had asked for his assistance in seeking her affections. The agent explained gently to the big man that the woman was already married to a white man, and by their laws, could not marry another. After much persuasion, Gall at last agreed not to pursue the woman further, but he told the agent:
“I have promised to go the white man’s way and I stand by my word. But I might not have promised if I thought my heart would sing again at the coming of a woman. My heart is heavy.”
Gall died in 1894 at Standing Rock, age 54. Today he is buried in cemetery a mile north of the school he had built for Lakota children. He lies in rest with other Native veterans of the Indian Wars, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and more recent wars.
In his last years, the great warrior had taken a liking to the white man’s Classical music and often requested Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” to be played on the piano by an officer at the fort. Perhaps it was the only torn remnant he could realize of his love for the white woman who had made his tired heart “sing.”
You may also enjoy these related posts:
-Who Killed Custer? It Might Surprise You.
-The Magnificent Legacy of Crazy Horse
"Gall, The Mightiest Warrior" originally posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on December 14, 2019
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