Bad luck or bad judgment – both followed unpredictable Harney

Time Before Now – August 1800 – A second founding father, John Adams, was president and the first to live in the new Capitol City of Washington, D.C.  The nation’s second census was completed and counted 5,308,483 Americans, more than 800,00 were slaves.  The Library of Congress was established with 740 books and three maps.  The British burned most of them during the War of 1812 but Thomas Jefferson’s entire personal library consisting of 6,847 volumes was purchased in 1815 for $23,950, about $10 million today.  And an Italian physicist, Iilessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta invented the electric battery. (Left)  He’s also credited with discovering methane.

 August 22, 1800

On this day William S. Harney, the United States general the Lakota would name  “Woman Killer,”  was born into a military family in Haysboro, Tennessee.  

A man of sublime contrasts, he was a son of the Confederacy but remained loyal to the Union, trained for a career in the Navy but became a cavalry officer and started out as an Indian fighter and ended as a peacemaker.

His induction into the Navy came at the request of his brother, Dr. Benjamin Harney, a doctor with the Army.  Naval officers were so impressed with the 18-year-old Harney (right, 1830s) they immediately offered him a commission.  Like his brother, he chose the Army instead.

Serving with distinction in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Second Seminole War of 1835,  he was promoted to brevet brigadier general during the U.S.-Mexican War before being assigned to the West.

Harney, however, made a habit of landing on the wrong side of history his entire career. He became persona non grata in New Orleans as a second lieutenant after running pirate Jean Lafitte  out of Louisiana Territory. Lafitte (right) and the Barbarians were folk heroes after aiding the American in the War of 1812. 

Then came a charge of murder in the beating death of a slave named Hannah in 1834.  Details surrounding the woman’s death were murky, but newspaper accounts of an inquest at his home reported  “. . . said slave possibly came to her death by wounds inflicted by then Major William S. Harney.”

Following public outrage over the incident, Harney was persuaded to leave Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, going east to Wheeling, West Virginia.   He was legally acquitted in 1835.  

Two decades later, now a general, Harney was recalled from a Paris vacation to avenge the deaths of 30 Fort Laramie soldiers, killed in a dispute over a lame cow between a band of Lakota and a Mormon settler  near the Wyoming fort in August, 1854.   Known as the Grattan Battle, Lt. John Lawrence Grattan attempted to arrest the Lakota, High Forehead, for stealing the cow.  In the process the Brule Sioux, Chief Conquering Bear was shot and killed.  

Soldier’s depiction of Fort Laramie

Enter Harney.  Setting out an entire year later in August of 1855, the General encountered 250 members of the Brule Lakota Little Thunder Band camped at Ash Hollow, near present day Lewellen, Nebraska.  Little Thunder, reportedly approached Harney’s force with a white flag.     Harney, whether through malice or miscalculation, ordered a charge which killed 86 of the Little Thunder band.  

Ash Hollow, Nebraska

Nearly half the casualties were women and children who died when Harney ordered his men to fire on caves along the river bank where they had taken shelter.  Another 70 mostly women and children were taken prisoner.  Harney later said he mistook the women and children in the cave for Little Thunder’s warriors, none the less earning him the name “Woman Killer.”

After the disaster at Ash Hollow, Harney left Ft. Laramie on the cusp of the Dakota winter with 425 troops headed for Ft. Pierre, South Dakota.  Originally named Pierre Chouteau, the government had purchased the ramshackle fur trading post from its founder a year earlier.    Arriving in a blizzard on October 20, he found no provisions, no fodder for the horses and a handful of buildings fallen into disrepair. 

Fort Pierre about 1857

Unable to patch Ft. Pierre together after two years, in 1857 Harney gave up and abandoned the site.  Scouting down the Missouri River  he established Fort Randall, South Dakota, home of the present-day Fort Randall Reservoir. 

Artist’s depiction of Fort Randall, late 1850s

In the first glimmer of a good idea, before decamping, Harney negotiated a treaty with the Western Lakota, creating a Native police force to keep the peace at Ft. Pierre in the absence of the military.  The U.S. Senate, however soundly rejected his good idea.

 Harney went on to command the Department of Oregon, which included both the future states of Washington and Oregon.  It should have been a slam dunk but he got blamed for nearly starting a war with Great Britain in another livestock dispute, this time a pig.  An American farmer on Washington’s San Juan Island found the porker rooting up his garden and shot it.  The Irishman who owned the pig was not satisfied with the American’s offer of compensation. When tensions escalated, Harney dispatched troops to the island.  

The British stationed on San Juan Island

The British, already touchy over the its border with America, upped the ante, sending three war ships to protect their interests.  Both the Americans  and British eventually established military camps on the island while the incident got sorted out.  The good news, it reportedly led to an amicable social life between the two parties.  Harney, however, was recalled. 

When the Civil War broke out he was back in St. Louis, serving as commander of the Department of the West.  Once again, hard-luck Harney  proved to be a bit of an embarrassment to the Army.   Ordered back to Washington, en route he was taken captive by a Southern officer and offered a commission with the Confederacy.  After refusing, he was released but upon arriving in Washington, he learned he had been relieved of his command anyway.  It was apparently the last straw for Harney.  He retired in May, 1861.

The conflicted general continued to serve after his retirement, adding even more contradictions to his story.  In 1865 he was appointed to the Indian Peace Commission by Abraham Lincoln’s unpopular successor, President Andrew Johnson, and figured prominently in a half dozen important treaties with the Plains Indians.  While on the commission he belatedly became an advocate for better treatment of native people,  insisting that the government honor its treaty obligations.  

Peace Commission, Harney second from left.

Harney’s personal life was no less confusing.  Having wed Mary Mullanphy, the daughter of the first millionaire in St. Louis, in 1833, the couple reportedly saw each other only twice after 1850.  She relocated to France where she died in 1860.  

Harney was said to have fathered two children with Ke-Sho-Ko, a Winnebago woman in the 1830s while stationed at Fort Winnebago in Wisconsin.   He married a second time at the age of 84 to a woman named Mary St. Cyr.   There is little record of Mary but it is noted that St. Cyr is a Winnebago surname.

After a turbulent life, Harney died quietly in Orlando, Florida at the age of 88 or 89 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Harney Peak was renamed

For more than a century and a half, the highest point in South Dakota’s Black Hills was  known as Harney Peak, named in his honor by Army engineer, Gouverneur K. Warren, a witness to the events of Ash Hallow.

In 2016, however, it was renamed Black Elk Peak in honor of Oglala Lakota holy man, Nichols Black Elk. (Right) The Lakota people did finally honor Harney, however.  Upon his death in light of his advocacy on the Peace Commission, his Lakota name was changed from “Woman Killer” to “Man-who-always-kept-his-word.” 

Ash Hallow State Historical Park, near Lewellen, Nebraska, site of the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow, or Battle of Blue Water Creek. is administered by the Nebraska Fish and Game Department, A combination of arc ho logical, Native American and Old West history it was occupied  by the Dismal River People and was an important stop along the Oregon Trail.  Wagon ruts from the thousands of pioneers are still visible.  The park includes Ash Hallow Cave, a native rock schoolhouse built by early settlers and Windless Hill Overlook. 

The Visitor Center includes an exhibit on pioneer history and prehistoric fossils of giant mammoths and mastodons that roamed the area thousands of years ago.  The park features Ash Hallow Cave and Visitor Center.   The Visitors Center is open  9 to 5, Wednesday through Sunday from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day.  Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children 4 to 13 and children under 3, free.  Call for tours after November 1.  Park grounds are open 8 to sunset year round.  For more information go to, call (308) 778-5651 or write Ash Hollow State Historical Park, P.O. Box 70, Lewellen, NE 69147-0070.

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.