Frontier doctor Valentine McGillycuddly, born – guess when

February 14, 1849

On this day, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, “Holy White Man,” friend to Crazy Horse, was born in Racine, Wisconsin,  and named for the saint of noble love. 

It was the prophetic choice.  The ubiquitous McGillicuddy (left) seemed to be everywhere during his more than quarter century on the American frontier.   He met, treated or befriended the West’s most iconic figures, including controversial Little Big Horn officers, George Armstrong Custer, Gen. George Crook, and Major Mark Reno, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane Canary,  legendary Sioux chiefs Sitting Bull and American Horse, Grand Canyon  explorer, John Wesley Powell and his one-time nemesis, Red Cloud. 

Not unlike the patron saint of animals, as a young boy McGillycuddy began trying to help ailing dogs and cats in his neighborhood.   He graduated from medical school in 1869 and ran into trouble right away.

His first job treating patients in a mental hospital literally drove the young doctor crazy.  Beginning to drink to excess, he was saved by his far-sighted supervisor, physician and fellow Irishman, T.A. McGraw.  The former Civil War surgeon, prescribed a year in the great outdoors.  It changed Valentine’s life forever.

His first adventure on the frontier was provided by Gen. Cyrus Comstock.   An Army engineer, Comstock (right) had been tasked with surveying and mapping the Great Lakes.  Comstock also provided his second, an assignment to survey the devastated city of Chicago after the historic fire and his third, explorer John Powell’s forey into the Black Hills.  McGillicuddy was the first Anglo American to scale Harney Peak, now Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.  

A master of being in the right place at the right time, McGillycuddy was on hand following the 1876 Battle of Slim Buttes in time to treat the mortally wounded chief, American Horse. (Right)  His valiant efforts, though unsuccessful, won him the respect of the Lakota that would last a lifetime.

As administrator at the Red Cloud Agency, he was there in 1877 when Crazy Horse surrendered.  It was perhaps prompted by his wife, Black Shawl Woman, suffering from tuberculosis.  The bond between the brilliant young warrior and the diligent young doctor was formed at the bedside of the ill woman.  (Below, thought to be Crazy Horse, unverified)

Alas, the good doctor was there six months later, as well, when Crazy Horse died, perhaps at the hands of  Army Private William Gentles.  A number of witnesses to the event testified that Gentles, “with lightning speed” stabbed Crazy Horse with his bayonet.  Less than 30 feet away, McGillycuddy was still too late to save his friend.  He died moments before midnight, September 9, 1878.  Calling the death “inexcusable,” McGillycuddy called Crazy Horse a brave and good man.

In 1879, McGillycuddy was named the agent on the massive 4,000 acres of the Pine Ridge, home to more than 8,000 Lakota.  It led to a contentious relationship with Chief Red Cloud.  Long a foe of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud (left) resented McGillycuddy’s authority.  Although resigned to reservation life, Red Cloud, none the less, resisted attempts to anglicize the Lakota.

Eventually, the powerful Oglala leader managed to have the “friend of Crazy Horse” removed from Pine Ridge, claiming McGillycuddy had misspent or stolen government funds.  

After fighting off a flurry of investigations, McGillycuddy and his wife of 18 years, the former Fanny Hoyt, moved to Rapid City, South Dakota.  He first served as vice president of a bank, established a hydroelectric company and later was elected mayor of Rapid City.  

His days on the frontier were not yet behind him, however.  The government’s growing concern with Sitting Bull (right) and the Ghost Dance movement spurred the territorial governor to send McGillycuddy back to the Pine Ridge. 

He organized a council of chiefs which included Red Cloud.   But Red Cloud’s  views of his old opponent had changed dramatically.  “That is Wasicu Wakan (Holy White Man),” he told the council.  “For seven winters he was our Father.  He said to me, ‘Some day you will say that my way was best for the Indian.’ I will tell him now that he spoke the truth. He was a young man with an old man’s head on his shoulders, and he never sent for any soldiers.” 

McGillycuddy’s beloved Fanny (right) suffered a severe stroke and died in 1896.  Grief-striken, two years later McGillycuddy decamped for California,.  A widower for several year, he married Julia Blanchard, (below) who had known the doctor during his years on the Pine Ridge.  Together the couple survived the San Francisco earthquake and in 1918, the 70-year-old McGillycuddy volunteered to travel to Alaska to treat native people during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. 

At the age of 90, “friend of Crazy Horse,” Valentine McGillicuddy, died in California.  When word of his passing reached the Pine Ridge, flags were lowered to half-staff.  His cremated remains were returned to South Dakota and buried on Harney Peak.  A simple stone monument reads “Valentine T. McGillycuddy, Wasicu Wakan, 1849-1939.”Valentine McGillycuddy’s grave site, Custer State Park, South Dakota,  is accessible by a number of popular trails.  Most often used, Trail No. 9, from the Sylvan Lake Day Use Area.  The three-mile hike through ponderosa pine leads to the former fire tower atop what is now Black Elk Peak.  In addition to the McGillycuddy monument, it offers spectacular views of the surrounding area.  Custer State Park contains 71,000 acres of forest, grasslands and innumerable wildlife.  The park’s annual buffalo roundup attracts visitors from around the country.  Accommodations range from the stately Game Lodge, the 1927 summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge to numerous camping options.  In addition to  hiking, bike and horse trails, activities include hunting, fishing, horseback riding during summer months.  For more information President Calvin Coolidge.  For more information go to State Park, e-mail call 605.255.4515 or write Custer State Park, 13329 US Highway 16A, Custer, SD 57730.

© Text Only – 2019 – 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.