Lost in Translation – The Grattan Massacre of 1854

Conquering Bear was a Brule Sioux leader who in the summer of 1854 was living among bands of Minniconjou and Oglala Sioux eight miles east of the Fort Laramie military post, located in what would become Wyoming territory over a decade later.

Fort Laramie (formerly Fort John) was purchased by the U.S. Army for $4,000 only five years earlier. The first garrison was comprised of two companies of Mounted Riflemen and one company of the 6th Infantry.

Two years prior to the Fort’s purchase, Brigham Young had lead the first Mormon emigrants through Fort Laramie on his way to Zion — the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Mormons were making a steady stream through the area by early August of 1854 and one day a Mormon cow wandered into Conquering Bear’s camp and a Minniconjou warrior by the name of High Forehead killed the cow. Even though the cow was said to be lame, when the Mormon owner of the cow reached Fort Laramie, he complained.

The young Army Lieutenant stationed at Fort Laramie, John Grattan, sent for Conquering Bear and demanded satisfaction. Conquering Bear offered a good Indian pony in exchange for the lame Mormon cow. But, Lieutenant Grattan demanded that High Forehead be delivered to Fort Laramie. Through what was apparently an unskilled or possibly disgruntled translator named Wyuse, Conquering Bear tried to explain that he, a Brule, had no authority whatsoever over High Forehead, a Minniconjou. He was just living in the same camp.

Not only did this important subtlety get lost in translation, even worse, Conquering Bear came across as arrogant through misinterpretation of his motives as he simply left the fort and went back to his camp. In reality, by all Sioux accounts, Conquering Bear was very respectful to Grattan and did his best to explain that the Sioux didn’t have the same reporting structure the U.S. Army used to manage their people. He simply had no right to tell High Forehead what to do.

Eager for action and angry at Conquering Bear’s perceived slight toward him, Lieutenant Grattan organized a troop of 31 soldiers, hitched up some mules to a cannon, and headed for the Sioux camp. When the soldiers arrived, High Forehead refused to be arrested, Grattan fired off his cannon, wounding Conquering Bear, and High Forehead promptly shot and killed Grattan.

The massacre commenced and all thirty-one of Grattan’s men were killed on the spot. Apparently, the Sioux took their time killing Wyuse. This bad translator, whether through ommission or commission, caused a lot of trouble for everyone in the camp, as well as the eventual death of a popular leader — Conquering Bear.

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