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Smoke Signals Monthly eMagazine

Ron Soodalter“First Scalp For Custer!”
The Buffalo Bill - Yellow Hand Fight
July 17, 1876

By Ron Soodalter

September, 2009 Smoke Signals

It happened like this:

Custer and most of his command have been dead three weeks. Some eight hundred Cheyenne have jumped the reservation at Fort Robinson, and several companies of the Fifth Cavalry under General Wesley Merritt - around 400 to 500 men in all - are on a mission to keep them from joining Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Along either Hat or Warbonnet Creek, in the broken hill country that defines the Wyoming/Nebraska border, the army’s scouts spy some thirty of the Cheyenne waiting in ambush for two unsuspecting army couriers. William F. Cody, one of the scouts, volunteers to take a half dozen or so troopers and warn the couriers, just as a handful of Indians breaks from their group and advances. From his hilltop vantage point, trooper Chris Madsen – acting as signalman and possessed of a powerful telescope – witnesses what follows:

“Cody was riding a little in advance of his party and one of the Indians was preceding his group.” This would be Yellow Hair, whose name, from this day forward, will be mistranslated as “Yellow Hand.” He is unprepossessing. Madsen describes him as “just a plain Indian riding a calico or paint pony.” Apparently the hilly terrain hides the parties from each other’s view: “From the manner in which both parties acted it was certain that both were surprised. Cody and the leading Indian appeared to be the only ones who did not become excited. The instant they were face to face their guns fired. There was no conversation, no preliminary agreement, as has been stated erroneously in some novels written by romantic scribes. They met by accident and fired the moment they faced each other.” Yellow Hair misses; Cody doesn’t. His first shot goes through his opponent’s leg and kills his horse, just as his own horse stumbles: “Cody jumped clear of his mount. Kneeling, he took deliberate aim and fired the second shot.” Yellow Hair fires another round as well, and again, he misses. Cody’s shot catches the Cheyenne in the head, killing him instantly. Then, to Madsen’s disgust, “Cody went to the fallen Indian and neatly removed his scalp while the other soldiers gave chase to the Indian’s companions. There is no doubt about it, Cody scalped this Indian, who, it turned out, was a Cheyenne sub-chief called Yellow Hair.”

The troopers give chase to the remaining Cheyenne, driving them back to the Red Cloud Agency. All told, it has been a skirmish hardly worth mentioning in the reports, except for the killing and scalping of one man….

Or, maybe it happened like this:

Two army couriers, unaware of the presence of the Fifth Cavalry, are the unwitting target of a band of hundreds of Cheyenne. Cody and fifteen scouts whom he has handpicked are ordered to save them from certain death. Ever mindful of his image, he is certainly dressed for the occasion, wearing a stage costume – a stylized vaquero outfit - of black velvet, trimmed in red, with silver embroidery, lace and buttons. He charges the Indians: “A running fight lasted several minutes,” Cody later wrote in his autobiography, “during which we drove the enemy some little distance and killed three of their number.” At some point, the Indians turn to face their pursuers, and another fight commences. One of the Cheyenne – “handsomely decorated with all the ornaments usually worn by a war chief” – challenges Cody to single combat:

“‘I know you, Pa-he-haska; if you want to fight, come ahead and fight me.’”

Then Cody describes a scene straight out of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table:
“The chief was riding his horse back and forth in front of his men, as if to banter me and I concluded to accept the challenge. I galloped towards him for fifty yards and he advanced towards me about the same distance, both of us riding at full speed, and then, when we were only about thirty yards apart, I raised my rifle and fired….” Cody describes killing the chief’s horse, but neglects to mention the leg wound, in order to make possible what follows: “[W]e were both now on foot, and not more than twenty paces apart. We both fired at each other simultaneously. My usual luck did not desert me…for his bullet missed me, while mine struck him in the breast. He reeled and fell, but before he had fairly touched the ground I was upon him, knife in hand, and had driven the keen-edged weapon to its hilt in his heart. Jerking his war-bonnet off, I scientifically scalped him in about five seconds.”

After witnessing the death of their chief, hundreds of Indians charge Cody in force. General Merritt, seeing the danger his favorite scout is in, sends Company K to the rescue, as Cody “swung the Indian’s top-knot and bonnet in the air, and shouted, ‘The first scalp for Custer.’” The soldiers cheer wildly, as they drive the Indians back to the reservation, “pushing them so hard that they were obliged to abandon their loose horses, their camp equipage and everything else.”

Or perhaps it never happened at all:

“J.H. McDonald of Buffalo, Wyoming, being first duly sworn and on oath according to law, deposes and says that he was a member of Company M, Fifth U.S. Cavalry…and was present…when the engagement reported as Merritt’s Fight on Hat Creek, Wyoming, took place.
Affiant further says that it was in this engagement that the Cheyenne Indian known as Yellow Hand was killed….Affiant further says that there was no hand to hand fighting in this engagement and the reported duel between Yellow Hand and Buffalo Bill (Wm. F. Cody) is not true.”
Subscribed and notarized, Buffalo, Wyoming, this March 14, A.D. 1930

“According to the general opinion and the talk of the Indians, Yellow Hair was killed by one of the bullets fired by the soldiers, and was not killed in single combat by Buffalo Bill.”
Josie Tangle-yellow Hair, sister of Yellow Hair


So insignificant was the encounter that General Merritt, a novice to Indian fighting, was reprimanded for wasting the cavalry’s time when he should have been hastening to cut off Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. The list of casualties consisted of no troopers, and from one to three Cheyenne, including Yellow Hair. But as in so many other instances, events just seemed more important when Buffalo Bill was there.

Cody wasn’t the only scout with the Fifth that day. Such experienced frontiersmen as Baptiste “Little Bat” Garnier served the army as well as, and generally better than, Cody, but – as Louis C. Warren points out in his excellent Buffalo Bill’s America – they lacked Cody’s flair for the dramatic. Also, they were of mixed blood, whereas Cody was white, and so, more appealing and acceptable to the troopers and their officers. Just as he required them as an audience, they supported and fed the image that Cody projected, that of the “White Indian,” and they basked in the light of his celebrity.

For the rest of his life, William F. Cody continued to blur the line between theater and reality. He, and others, had conjured an image – a heroic icon of the western plains – that he wore like a mantle, and burnished wherever he went with tales of his exploits among the savages. And a story he never tired of telling was that of his duel with “Yellow Hand.” He commissioned and starred in a play based on it, and daily staged the event – with all the trimmings – in his Wild West. Cody carried the scalp with him when on tour, keeping it locked in a safe, and brandishing it high during his re-enactments. He never satisfactorily explained how a challenge such as he described could have occurred, when neither man spoke the other’s language, or how the heretofore unknown Cheyenne warrior could possibly have recognized Cody, either by name or sight, since Cody had never before fought the Northern Cheyenne.

Did Buffalo Bill actually kill and scalp a Cheyenne sub-chief named Yellow Hair? He was certainly capable of it; indeed, one biographer goes so far as to say, “Immediately upon hearing of Custer’s demise…he set out to scalp an Indian.” The day after the engagement, Cody wrote a letter to his wife in Rochester, New York, telling her, “We have had a fight. I killed Yellow Hand, a Cheyenne chief, in a single-handed fight. You will no doubt hear of it through the papers.” Cody than advised her that he would be sending the chief’s accoutrements – and scalp – back east, to be displayed in the window of a local clothing store, and added, “I have only one scalp I can call my own[,] that fellow I fought single handed in sight of our command and the cheers that went up when he fell was deafening.”

The reporter for the Kansas Ellis County Star, “embedded” with the Fifth and a witness to the day’s events, reported that Cody had indeed killed and scalped the Cheyenne. Other soldiers on the field that day attributed the deed to Cody as well; and just as many refuted it, some claiming the honor for themselves.

While the absurdities of Cody’s own account – the formal challenge and response, the tournament-like choreography, the desperate struggle - defy credulity, it is entirely possible if not likely that Cody and Yellow Hair came upon each other unexpectedly, and opened fire as soon as they could work their rifles. And considering the mileage he would get out of that desiccated piece of hair and skin, Cody would have had no qualms about lifting his opponent’s “top-knot.” It was simply good theater.

Still, there is that comment made by Buffalo Bill himself late in life, when asked about the duel: “Bunk! Pure bunk! For all I know, Yellow Hand died of old age.”


Chris Madsen, who before coming to America from his native Denmark had fought in two major European wars and served with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, went on to become a deputy U.S. marshal for Judge Parker’s Court. He worked closely with fellow lawmen Bill Tilghman and Heck Thomas; they were widely respected on both sides of the law for their honesty, toughness and skill, and were referred to as the “Three Guardsmen.” During the course of their careers, they pursued the Doolin Gang, the Daltons, Al Jennings, and countless other lawbreakers in the Indian Nations. At the time he witnessed the Cody/Yellow Hand fight, Madsen was no stranger to either combat or violent death, nor was he the type to stretch a story.

©Ron Soodalter

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