For nearly two years, from 1866 to 1868, the United States military staffed Fort C.F. Smith, the northernmost post on the Bozeman Trail. During this time, the fort was under constant attack by the Sioux Indians. Unlike the Sioux, the Crow Tribe was not outright opposed to the U.S. military presence.
They saw the fort as a potential resource to obtain trade goods. In much the same way, the U.S. military saw the Crow as a potential ally that could help them survive in this hostile environment. The Crow would prove to quite hospitable allies to the soldiers. The finest example of this is Crow Chief Iron Bull.
Little is known about Iron Bull’s early life or how he gained such a prominent place among his tribe. What is known is that Iron Bull came to be valued for his friendship and hospitality. The first sign of this appears in the historic record concerning the death of African-American fur trader Jim Beckwourth. Beckwourth had lived among the Crows for many years. He even had been proclaimed an honorary chief.
Beckwourth was reported to have been consumed by a fatal illness not long after a visit to the fort in October of 1866. At this point he could have returned to the fort to seek medical care. Instead he traveled to Iron Bull’s lodge. He was dutifully taken in and cared for during his last days.
Iron Bull even invited soldiers to feast with him following the harsh winter of 1866-67, which had strained the fort’s supplies to the breaking point. Heavy snows along with Sioux attacks had effectively made the delivery of food supplies to the fort next to impossible. By May the fort was out of flour, beef, coffee, and sugar. Private James D. Lockwood was invited to a repast at Iron Bull’s lodge. He was taken aback by his host’s plentiful supply of meat, a delicacy that Lockwood had not enjoyed in quite awhile.
Awarded Mail Contract
Iron Bull gained his greatest fame as a mail courier. For years the United Postal Service has been associated with the slogan “neither sleet, nor rain, nor hail shall keep the postmen from their appointed rounds.” Iron Bull was the living embodiment of that famous phrase. He was so reliable and resourceful that on September 27th, 1867 he was awarded a $100.00 per month contract to carry the mail twice a month between Fort C.F. Smith and Fort Phil Kearney, 100 miles to the south.
Iron Bull had a Crow assistant who assisted him in this arduous endeavor. The trail between the two forts was over rugged terrain. With his expert knowledge of the landscape and instincts honed by multiple traverses of the area, Iron Bull could deliver the mail in less than a week. One of his most impressive feats was a round trip mail run that took place from December 15th - 19th. In a little over four days, through heavy snow, he and his assistant completed the journey.
Iron Bull and his fellow tribesmen brought other valuable information as well. On numerous occasions he warned of impending attacks by the Sioux. For instance on July 11th and 27th, Iron Bull was among a number of Crow chiefs that warned Colonel Luther Bradley of impending Sioux attacks.
Though these attacks did not always occur, leading some of the fort’s commanding officers to disavow these warnings, they did so at their own peril. More often than not the military took extra precautions as a result of these warnings. One shudders to think what might have happened to most of the garrison without Iron Bull and his fellow tribesmen providing knowledge of the Sioux’s plan and wherabouts.
Resourceful, Loyal, And Trustworthy
As a result of his loyalty Iron Bull, his wife, and daughter, Pinahawney, were invited to live in a cabin within the fort’s adobe walls. Unfortunately, Iron Bull’s tenure as a mail courier was short lived after an inadvertent incident related in the diary of Captain George Templeton. “Some foolish, irresponsible party at Fort Philip Kearney having told the boys (Iron Bull and his assistant) to hurry through, they not knowing but those were the authorized instructions, did so, thereby killing one of the public horses they were riding. This caused General Bradley to discharge them.”
Despite this misfortune, Iron Bull was known for his resourceful, loyal and trustworthy persona. The soldiers at Fort C.F. Smith must have been eternally grateful to this Crow chief and for that matter to the Crow people, who provided a much needed ally during the fort’s short, troubled tenure.