26 September 2009

Errors of Fact

I'm not blogging much of late because I'm struggling to finish an overdue encyclopedia article that compresses all of Montana Indian history into sixty or so double-spaced typewritten pages. Along the way, I'm reading and rereading every book in my library that bears on the subject, probing the depths of the web, and working JSTOR for all it's worth.

The Error

This morning's coffee goes down with a few pages of light reading in The Lance and the Shield: the Life and Times of Sitting Bull (1993) by Robert M. Utley. It seems fair to say that no one knows more about the military history of the nineteenth century Western frontier than Utley. Indeed, the Western History Association's award for the best book each year concerned with the military history of the frontier is called the Robert M. Utley Book Award.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I read the following sentence:

In the summer of 1866 the army built three posts along the Bozeman Trail: Forts Reno, Phil Kearny, and C.F. Smith.
Utley, The Lance and the Shield, 71
In 1865, the U.S. Army sent General Patrick Edward Connor’s Powder River Expedition into northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana with hopes of pacifying the Indians who resented travel through their hunting lands. The expedition established Fort Connor in August 1865 (renamed Fort Reno in November 1865) on the upper Powder River in Wyoming, and then left the region.

Connor split his forces into an ambitious three-pronged assault to converge on the Powder River. His orders to his subordinates stated, “You will not receive overtures of peace or submission from Indians but will attack and kill every male Indian over twelve years of age.”* General John Pope, upon learning of these orders, insisted that steps to countermand them be put immediately into action. The Army did not need more bad press of the sort generated in the wake of the brutal Sand Creek Massacre in southeast Colorado. Nevertheless, the expedition continued with Connor’s orders intact.

No friendly Indians were encountered during the campaign, and there were few significant engagements with hostiles. One band of Arapahos was attacked on the Tongue River, losing their winter food stores, clothing, and most of their horses. Several bands of Lakota—Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, Miniconjou, and Sans Arc—harassed Connor’s two eastern columns marching together up the Powder River. The soldiers were well armed and two thousand strong, but were on the verge of starvation, and suffering from the drought. A summer storm brought sudden cold and wet conditions, killing most of the Army’s mules. Further upriver, Oglala led by Red Cloud and Cheyenne led by Little Wolf continued the attacks.

The Army’s efforts seemed to embolden, rather than pacify the Sioux (mostly Lakota), Cheyenne, and Arapaho that had been wresting the area from the Crow, and attacking immigrants. Fort Reno became the first of three forts along the Bozeman Trail that aggravated the Lakota and Cheyenne.

The following summer, troops under the command of Col. Henry B. Carrington built Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming and Fort C.F. Smith on the Bighorn River in Montana.

If Utley can make such an error, anyone can. Of course, some writers make more errors than others. This sentence stands out in Utley's work because it is rare.

*H. D. Hampton, “The Powder River Expedition 1865,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 14 (Autumn 1964): 8-9.

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