White Swan, Crow Indian Scout
White Swan, photo by Frank Rinehart
|Native name||Crow language: Mee-nah-tsee-us|
|Nickname(s)||"Strikes Enemy", "White Goose"|
|Known for||One of six Crow Scouts for George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry; fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; artist in later life|
|Resting place||Little Bighorn National Cemetery|
|Spouse(s)||A wife, who died when White Swan was 23|
|Relatives||An aunt, "Strikes By The Side Of The Water"; a cousin, Curly (sometimes said to be his brother)|
White Swan (ca. 1850 - 1904), or Mee-nah-tsee-us in the Crow language, was one of six Crow Scouts for George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry during the 1876 campaign against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, White Swan went with Major Reno's detachment, and fought alongside the soldiers at the south end of the village. Of the six Crow scouts at the Battle of the Little Bighorn White Swan stands out because he aggressively sought combat with multiple Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, and he was the only Crow Scout to be wounded in action, suffering severe wounds to his hand, leg/foot and head. After being disabled by his wounds, he was taken to Reno's hill entrenchments by Half Yellow Face, the chief of the Crow scouts, which probably saved his life.
On the 27th, after the battle, Half Yellow Face made a special travois for White Swan and moved him to the Far West steamship so he could get medical care. White Swan was treated in a temporary Army hospital at the mouth of the Bighorn. At the Crow encampments on Pryor Creek, other returning scouts reported that White Swan had died, but he survived his wounds.
Following the Battle of the Little Bighorn, White Swan continued for five years to serve as a scout with the U.S. Army, though he was significantly disabled. He had a severely deformed right wrist and hand, he limped from the wound in his foot/leg, and he had a scar on his forehead where he been struck with a war club rendering him both deaf and dumb. Eventually he was awarded a small army pension.
In White Swan's later life he lived at the Crow Agency, after it had been moved in 1884 to its present site in the Little Bighorn valley in Montana, close to the site of the battlefield. When he could no longer be an Army scout White Swan began to produce drawings that represented key events in his life, including events of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. These drawings were bought by visitors to the Crow Agency and the nearby Custer Battlefield, providing White Swan with a welcome source of income. These drawings have now been discovered by collectors and their artistic value has been recognized. They have recently become the subject of collectors, exhibitions, books and university theses, and prints of his drawings are now commercially produced.
While living at Crow Agency, White Swan was painted by the artist J.H. Sharp, who knew him and described him as "Jolly, good natured and a general favorite." White Swan's wife had died when he was only 23 before he became an army scout, and he did not remarry. He lived for a time with an aunt, "Strikes By The Side Of The Water" who was also the mother of Curly, another Crow scout, and he and Curly were known in the Crow Agency community as brothers, though their personalities were said to be the opposite of each other.
He died in 1904, leaving no direct descendants. He is buried in the National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Although his early death, and his inability to hear and speak left him out of the limelight that later fell on the other surviving Crow scouts, his outstanding bravery during the battle and his artistic ability established an enduring legacy.
- 1 Biography
- 1.1 Early life, Names
- 1.2 Army Service as a Crow Scout in the Great Sioux War of 1876
- 1.3 Later Life, After the Battle of the Little Bighorn
- 1.4 Artistic Ability -- Drawings and Weapons
- 1.5 Death and Burial
- 2 Places or Things Named after White Swan
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 External links
Early life, Names
White Swan was born in approximately 1851 though some sources state his birth date was in 1850 or 1852. He had been raised in the traditional manner of his tribe, and would have acquired warrior status in his early teens through deeds of bravery.
White Swan married, but his wife died in 1873, before his enlistment as an army scout. He never remarried.
In historical references White Swan is also referred as "Strikes Enemy" and "White Goose" or Mee-nah-te-hash in the Crow language.
Army Service as a Crow Scout in the Great Sioux War of 1876
Enlistment with the 7th Infantry, early skirmishes
On April 9, 1876, Col. John Gibbon went with Lt. James Bradley to the Crow Indian Agency, which was then located on the Rosebud River in Montana, to recruit Indian scouts. In an embarrassing two hour council the chiefs of the Mountain Crows expressed their reluctance to help the expedition. They pointed out that Indian warriors traveled light and fast and struck quickly, but the soldiers marched slowly with wagons and thus never found the enemy.
Fortunately for Gibbon the young Crow braves sought adventure and on April 10, 1876 some twenty five Crows were enlisted for six months in the 7th Infantry by Lt. James Bradley, chief of scouts, including White Swan and Half Yellow Face. On April 13, 1876, the Crow Scouts went with Gibbon's 7th Infantry force of 477 persons, as they marched down the Yellowstone to the mouth of the Bighorn River, arriving on April 20. Gibbon then moved downstream along the Yellowstone from the Bighorn to Rosebud Creek The Crow Scouts skirmished with Sioux scouts as the Sioux village passed from Tongue River to the Rosebud valley in May 1876. Gibbon's column rendezvoused on June 21, 1876 with General Terry's column at the mouth of Rosebud Creek.
Scouting activities with Custer's 7th Cavalry leading up to the Battle of the Little Bighorn
On June 21, White Swan was detached from the 7th Infantry to go with the 7th Cavalry, along with five other Crow Scouts who were Half Yellow Face (leader of the Crow Scouts), White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead, Hairy Moccasin, and Curley. The 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, were ordered by General Terry to follow the trail of a large encampment of "off-reservation" Sioux who lived nomadic lives off the reservation. This group was making an annual westward spring migration from their camp on the Powder River valley to the Tongue and then to the Rosebud Valley, and on to the Little Bighorn. Custer was ordered to locate the encampment of these "off reservation" Sioux on the Rosebud Creek, or in the adjacent Little Bighorn Valley.
The six Crow Scouts shared duties with 26 Arikara (Ree) Scouts, under a Chief of Scouts Lt Charles Varnum,. However, the Crow scouts knew the Rosebud country much better than the Arikara because they shared this hunting ground with the Sioux and the Crows often traveled across this country to raid Sioux camps for horses. Because of their better knowledge of the country, the Crow scouts were relied on to undertake important scouting assignments for Custer in the days leading up to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
When Custer struck the trail of the "off reservation" Sioux the scouts' count of 400 lodges in the encampment confirmed army sources indicting an "off reservation" nomadic group of about 800 warriors. This compared favorably to Custer's force of about 600 troopers. However this initial assessment on June 21 was made on encampments dating back to May 21, when the Sioux/Cheyenne crossed from the Tongue River to the Rosebud Valley. As the scouts followed this trail up the Rosebud, past Lame Deer Creek and then on to the divide with the Little Horn Valley, they found the older trail increasingly joined and overlaid by many newer trails. These newer trails were left by many other bands of Sioux/Cheyenne coming from the reservations to join the original "off-reservation" Sioux for their yearly summer gathering. Although not appreciated at the time, these late arriving bands of Sioux/Cheyenne swelled the encampment from 400 to about 960 lodges, able to field close to 2000 warriors.
Custer's prior experience in pursuing other Indian bands indicated that an Indian group would scatter if they knew they were being pursued. Custer used the Crows to check these trails to rule out a dispersal of the encampment he was following. Custer tended to disregard the Crow scouts' intelligence that more and more Indians were gathering together.
On the early morning of June 25, 1876, White Swan and other Crow Scouts ascended a high point on the divide between the Little Bighorn River and Rosebud Creek. From this lookout point (which later became known as the "Crow's Nest") the scouts saw very large horse herds on the western margins of the Little Bighorn Valley, some 15 air miles away. These large horse herds indicated an unexpectedly large Sioux/Cheyenne encampment. The encampment itself was out of sight on the valley floor.
The Crow scouts questioned the wisdom of attacking such a large encampment. However, Custer was focused on his concern that his force had been detected that morning by Sioux scouts, and he feared that if he did not attack at once, the large encampment would break up into many smaller bands which would scatter in all directions, thus escaping and avoiding the decisive engagement the army hoped for. Custer therefore made plans for an immediate attack, and as he proceeded down Reno Creek toward the Little Bighorn Valley, he created four separate detachments, intended to prevent the encampment from scattering, and to strike the village from different directions. Reno with three troops would attack the south end of the village. Custer with five troops would attack the north end of the village, and Benteen with 3 troops would scout briefly to the south, and then join the battle to assist the other detachments; Lt. McDougall's remaining troop would act as rear guard protecting the pack train.
Wounded in action at the Battle of the Little Bighorn
As the Battle of the Little Bighorn unfolded White Swan and the chief Crow Scout Half Yellow Face, along with Arikara scouts accompanied the detachment under Major Reno. The Indian scouts were told to stampede the horse herd on the western margins of the camp. Reno's detachment charged the south end of the village as ordered, but as warriors poured out to defend the village Reno ordered the troops to dismount and form a skirmish line. This outpouring of Sioux warriors frustrated the plan of the scouts to stampede the horse herd, and the scouts, including White Swan and Half Yellow Face began to fight alongside the cavalrymen. They were soon engaged in furious combat with Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. At one time, White Swan was faced by six warriors.
As more warriors came out of the village, Reno's detachment pulled back into a patch of nearby timber along the river. After taking more losses in the timber, Reno ordered a retreat out of the timber and across the river and up onto the bluffs on the east side of the valley. By the time Reno had ordered the retreat across the river White Swan had suffered severe bullet wounds in the right hand/wrist and in his foot, knee or leg (reports differ), and he also couldn't hear, either from being hit on the head with a war club or because a rifle was fired to close to his ear (reports differ).
The soldier's retreat from the timber disintegrated into a rout, and the Sioux closed in on the now disorganized mass of retreating troopers killing the stragglers and the disabled. Back in the timber, Half Yellow Face got the wounded White Swan on a horse and led the horse across the river and up the bluffs to the location where the Reno detachment was digging in, and where they were later reinforced by the other detachments under Captain Benteen and Lieutenant McDougall. This action by Half Yellow Face probably saved White Swan's life. Troopers with Reno later recounted how White Swan, though wounded wanted to continue fighting, and crippled as he was tried to crawl back to the firing lines.
After Reno's men fled across the river the now thoroughly aroused and mobilized Sioux/Cheyenne drew back, and then launched a fresh attack to the north on Custer's separate detachment of five companies (about 210 men) who were now firing into north end of the village. At this point the Sioux outnumbered Custer's men by about 8 to 1. Custer's detachment was first driven back to a low ridge east of the valley, and then overwhelmed and wiped out to the last man. This intense engagement lasted about an hour during the afternoon of June 25, 1876, after which the warriors returned to press the attack on Reno's entrenched position on the bluffs. The next day, June 26, Sioux scouts reported the approach from the north of the large army column under Generals Terry and Gibbon. The Sioux and Cheyenne ended their siege of Reno and Benteen and hastily broke camp and withdrew south, up the Little Bighorn Valley.
Medical Care Following the Battle, Disability
The next day, June 27, 1876, Half Yellow Face made a horse travois designed to carry the wounded White Swan in a sitting position, and used this to carry him about 12 miles from the battle site to the steamer Far West on the Bighorn River so White Swan could get more medical care. White Swan was carried on the Far West down the Bighorn to the Yellowstone, where he was left in a temporary hospital facility with some of the less seriously wounded soldiers.
Almost immediately after the battle, the three scouts White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead and Hairy Moccasin left for the main Crow encampment which was "two sleeps" away on the mouth of Pryor Creek, and Gibbon's other Crow scouts went with them. At the village they reported that both White Swan and Half Yellow Face had been killed.
Curly and Half Yellow Face had not gone with the other scouts to the Crow Village, and they had returned with Gibbon to the mouth of the Big Horn where White Swan was in the temporary army hospital. On July 4, Col. Gibbon gave Curly and Half Yellow Face leave, but kept White Swan in the hospital so he could continue to get medical treatment and recover.
White Swan was so severely wounded that his recovery was delayed. When he finally returned to the Crow village they said it was like having the dead return. White Swan continued a long and difficult recovery from his wounds and he suffered disabilities from them for rest of his life.
Later Life, After the Battle of the Little Bighorn
Although disabled White Swan managed to remain an Army scout for much of the remaining five years following the Battle of the Little Bighorn. When the Crow Reservation was further limited in size, the Agency was moved in 1884 to its present location in the Little Bighorn Valley, very close to the site of the battle. White Swan also moved to the new agency site.
White Swan continued to be limited by his battle wounds. White Swan had lost the lower half of his right hand, and he had a right wrist that was permanently deformed to bend sharply inward. (See photo above taken from the right side, showing injured wrist). He also limped from the bullet wound in his leg and/or foot. He was deaf and dumb, reportedly from the stroke to his forehead by a warclub.
J.H. Sharp, the noted western painter, came to know White Swan, while he was living at Crow Agency, Montana and painting the Crow people. Sharp painted White Swan. He made this note to accompany the painting.
"Reno's scout in Custer battle, wounded many times, picked up in battlefield two days later -- deaf and dumb from stroke of war club in forehead. A good artist in Indian picture-writing. Jolly, good natured and a general favorite. A full brother, and direct opposite in character of 'Curley," Custer's scout."
Although White Swan was limited in speech, White Swan could still communicate by using the sign language of the Plains Indians.
Statements from White Swan's army pension file indicate that his wife had died in 1873, before he enlisted as an Army scout, and he never remarried. The 1885 Census recorded him as living with a widowed aunt named "Strikes By The Side Of The Water". This aunt was the mother of Curley, another Crow Scout, which would make White Swan and Curley cousins, though the artist, J.H. Sharp knew White Swan as the brother of Curley.
In 1894 White Swan was very limited being crippled and unable to hear or speak. In 1897 White applied for and received a pension of $17.00 a month for his military services. The 1900 census lists White Swan as "widowed" and the only member of his household. White Swan's only other relative was Sage Woman, a half sister on his father's side, which meant she was from another Crow tribal clan than White Swan, since clan relations are passed down through mothers. These facts indicate that White Swan lived in a more isolated fashion than he would have otherwise done, had he a larger base of Crow relatives. White Swan died leaving no direct descendants and there were no indication of adoptive children, further indicating a limited group of close Crow relatives, unusual in the Crow culture.
Artistic Ability -- Drawings and Weapons
White Swan was known for his artistic abilities. While living at the Crow Agency in the Little Bighorn valley, White Swan made drawings to illustrate key events in his life, including but not limited to his role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. At least fifteen drawings have been attributed to White Swan, and others remain to be discovered. Though not signed his drawings can be identified by the many scenes they share, and by similarities in style with the few that for which is name is definitely known.
In addition to his separate drawings, sources indicate that White Swan, though significantly disabled, created drawings and paintings on pages from accounting ledgers to depict his role in the famous battle. White Swan also drew and painted on larger sheets of muslin canvas, showing multiple deeds from his life.
Over the years since White Swan died, as his artistic abilities have been recognized and collected. White Swan emerges as a professional artist who created works of art for sale. White Swan would have wanted income after he had ceased to be an army scout. The Crow Agency where he lived was just a few miles from the site of the famous battle. The Agency, as well as the battle field drew visitors. White Swan found a ready market among military men, government employees and other visitors, who wanted to return home with something that genuinely represented their encounter with Indians of the West. White Swan's art showing his war deeds ideally captured the essence of the Indian warrior tradition based on heroic acts.
In addition to his drawings White Swan's craftsmanship is shown in his personal items, and particularly his tomahawk, pictured (a) in the photo above (which may be enlarged) and (b) further shown and described at this footnoted web source. A tomahawk in the Northern Plains warrior culture could evolve from being a weapon to an item carried primarily to count coup, which transformed the item into one possessing spiritual significance. Adornments to White Swan's tomahawk (see item pictured in footnoted source, or in the photo above), probably indicated brave war deeds, and/or instructions of critical spiritual import, received through visions or through the intervention of a spiritual leader/mentor (a "medicine man").
When living at Crow Agency on the Little Bighorn river, White Swan had a tepee which had drawings around the lower portion that depicted the Custer battle. A picture of the tepee is at the footnoted citation.
White Swan's tomahawk and his drawings remain today as a legacy of his time. White Swan's art is now drawing increasing attention from collectors, and they have been the subject of exhibits, and the subject of University thesis. and collections. Some of White Swan's works were collected as part of the Paul Dyck collection of Plains Indians art and artifacts, and are now part of the collection at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.
Death and Burial
White Swan died on August 12, 1904 at the age of only 53 or 54. As noted above, having never remarried after the death of his wife when he was 23, White Swan left no direct descendants to carry on his name or his legacy.
White Swan is buried in section A of National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in grave number 460. To visit his grave, go to the flagpole at the National Cemetery, and face the south. Ahead is the corner of section A. Continue into Section A, diagonally crossing about 9 rows, going to the south, and look for a gray non-traditional gravestone. Finding the location by grave number 460 is not easy, but it can be done. Grave numbers are not on every gravestone, but there are sufficient numbers on scattered gravestones, so you can find the 400's and then count down or up, to 460.
Places or Things Named after White Swan
The White Swan Memorial Library at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument also houses the office of the park historian, and is located in the historic stone house (the original superintendent's headquarters). According to the National Park Service, this facility contains the finest collection of research materials available on the battle of the Little Bighorn, as well as other related historical events. Visits to the library and to the park historian are by appointment.
- Half Yellow Face
- White Man Runs Him
- Hairy Moccasin
- Goes Ahead
- George Armstrong Custer
- Marcus A. Reno
- Battle of Little Bighorn
- Great Sioux War of 1876
- Crow Nation
- Riebeth, Carolyn Reynolds. J. H. Sharp Among the Crow Indians, 1902 - 1910. El Segundo, CA: Upton and Sons. pp. 125, 117. ISBN 0-912783-01-X.
- "White Swan". American-Tribes. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
- "Tomahawk associated with Mee-nah-tsee-us (White Swan, Apsaalooke (Crow ca. 1851-1904)". National Museum of the American Indian. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
- Gray, John S. (1988). Centennial Campaign, the Sioux War of 1876. Oklahoma Press. pp. 320–340. ISBN 9780806121529.
- "White Swan -- Crow". American-Tribes.com. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
- "The Little Bighorn, Custer's Scouts and non-military personnel". Summary of Custer's Last Campaign, Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed by John S. Gray.
- Thackery, Lorna (June 9, 2013). "Depicting History". Billings Gazette.
- "Half Yellow Face, Crow". American-Tribes.com. Retrieved 24 May 2013.
- Gray, John Shapley (1991). Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Horn Reconstructed. Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press. p. 380. ISBN 0-8032-7040-2.
- Linderman, Francis B (1974). Pretty-Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows. Lincoln, Neb.: U of Nebraska Press. p. 140. ISBN 0-8032-8025-4.
- "The Lindersmith Collection". University of Notre Dame. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
- "Bighorn County, Trails to the Past". History of Crow Agency. Rootsweb, Ancestry.com. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
- Bradley,, Douglas E. (1991). White Swan, Crow Indian warrior and painter: October 13-December 13, 1991. Notre Dame, Ind.: Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, 1991.
- Nelson, Rebecca (1984). White Swan: a Crow Indian painter of the nineteenth century.
- "Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, "Oh Ranger", Overview". National Park Service. Retrieved 25 February 2014.
- Description of White Swan's Tomahawk, containing facts about White Swan. Collection of the National Museum of the American Indian
- Crow Scouts at the Little Big Horn
- White Swan -- Crow Has photos of White Swan in 1899, and also paintings of White Swan by Joseph Henry Sharp, and Elbridge Ayer Burbank.
- Father Lindesmith's Collection Includes photos of drawings by White Swan on Muslin, and comments on White Swan's life.