The totally unpredictable Gen. William S. Harney

August 22. 1800

On this day General William S. Harney, named “Woman Killer” by the Lakota not in a good way, was born in Haysboro, Tennessee  

A man of sublime contrasts, he was a son of the Confederacy who 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, Army doctor Benjamin Harney,  Naval officers were so impressed with the 18-year-old Harney they immediately offered him a commission.  But he chose the Army instead.

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

Harney was often on the wrong side of history throughout his career.  As a second lieutenant in 1818, he had the dubious distinction of having run the pirate Jean Lafitte (right) out of the Louisiana Territory,  making him extremely unpopular in New Orleans.   Lafitte and his Baratarians were being hailed as heroes for coming to the aid of the Americans in the War of 1812.

 Then came a charge of murder in the beating death of a slave named Hannah in 1834, driving Harney to decamp from his post at Jefferson Barracks,  St. Louis, to Wheeling, West Virginia.  He was legally acquitted a year later, but did not return to Missouri until 1961 as commander of the Army’s Department of the West.  

Fort Laramie, Civil War era

In 1855, while at Ft. Laramie, Wyoming, Harney was called on to avenge the deaths of 30 of the post’s soldiers, killed in a dispute between a band of Lakota and a Mormon settler over a lame cow.   It became known as the Grattan Battle when Lt. John Lawrence Grattan attempted to arrest the Lakota, High Forehead, and in the process the Brule Sioux chief, Conquering Bear (right) was fatally wounded.

Enter Harney. He’d already made a serious miscalculation himself in an encounter with a band of Brulé Lakota at Ash Hollow, Nebraska, near present day Lewellen.  Little Thunder, leader of the Brule. reportedly approached Harney’s force with a white flag.  Harney, however, ordered a charge which killed 80 of the Little Thunder band including women and childre, earning the general his Lakota name, “Woman Killer.”

Ash Hallow depiction by artist L.C. Reavis

Realizing too late he had opened up a can of worms Harney left Ft. Laramie with 425 troops headed for the fur trading post at Ft. Pierre, South Dakota.  It was another near disastrous example of poor judgment.  Arriving in a snowstorm on October 20, he found no provisions, no fodder for the horses and a handful of buildings fallen into disrepair. 

Failing to patch Ft. Pierre together, in 1857 Harney abandoned the outpost.  Scouting down the Missouri River, he established Fort Randall, South Dakota, the site of the present-day Fort Randall Reservoir. In the first glimmer of a good idea from Harney, before leaving Fort Pierre he negotiated a treaty with the Western Lakota to establish a Native police force to keep the peace.  This time it was the the U.S. Senate that blundered, soundly rejecting the treaty.

Harney went on to command the Department of Oregon, which included the future states of Washington and Oregon.  There he was 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 a pig 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.  

Already touchy over its border with America, the British upped the ante, sending three war ships to protect their interests and the Irish owner of the pig.  Both the Americans and the British maintained military camps on the island for several years while the incident got sorted out.  It reportedly led to an amicable social life between the two parties.  Harney, however, was recalled. 

British troops on San Juan Island

He was serving as commander of the Department of the West, headquartered in St. Louis when the Civil War broke out.  Once again Harney proved to be a bit of an embarrassment to the Army.   The general had been ordered to Washington when en route he was taken captive by a Southern officer and offered a commission with the Confederacy.  When he refused, he was released but upon arriving in Washington, he learned he had been relieved of his command anyway. It must have been the last straw for Harney.  He retired in May, 1861.

The 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 President Andrew Johnson and figured prominently in a half dozen important treaties with the Plains Indians.  While on the commission he belateldy became an advocate for better treatment of native people and insisted that the government honor its treaty obligations.  

 Harney’s personal conduct was no less confusing.    He and his first wife, Mary Mullanphy Harney, reportedly saw each other only twice after 1850.  The daughter of the first millionaire in St. Louis, Mary died in France  in 1860.  In 1884, Harney married another Mary, Mary St. Cyr.   In addition, he was said to have fathered two children with a Winnebago common law wife , Ke-Sho-Ko, abandoning her and the children when he was reassigned.  

Harney died in Orlando, Florida in 1889 at age 88 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Black Elk Peak

The highest point in South Dakota’s Black Hills was for years known as Harney Peak.  In 2016 it was renamed Black Elk Peak in honor of Oglala Lakota holy man Nichols Black Elk. The Lakota people did finally honor Harney, however.  Upon his death his Lakota name was changed from “Woman Killer” to “Man-who-always-kept-his-word.” 

Ash Hallow State Historical Park, near Lewellen, Nebraska, is the site of the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow or the Battle of Blue Water Creek.  Now a state historic park administered by the Nebraska Fish and Game Department, the area is a combination of archeological, Native American and Old West history.  Occupied in the last 100 years by the Dismal River People, it 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, historic grave sites and Windless Hill Overlook. 

Ash Hallow Park’s historic cemetery

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.  Ash Hallow Cave and Visitor Center are open Saturday and Sunday, 9 to 4 from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day..  Admission is adults, $2, children 4 to 13, $1, children under 3, free.   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 – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.