“Let no easy-going journalist suppose that an Indian campaign is a picnic. If he goes out on such business he must go prepared to ride his forty or fifty miles a day, go sometimes on half rations, sleep on the ground with small covering, roast, sweat, freeze, and make the acquaintance of such vermin or reptiles as may flourish in the vicinity of his couch; and, finally, be ready to fight Sitting Bull or Satan when the trouble begins, for God and the United States hate non-combatants.”
In the spring and summer of 1876, irrepressible, witty John Finerty, Chicago journalist, willingly suffered all of these.
He was assigned by his paper’s famous editor, Wilbur Fisk Storey, to accompany a column of the Yellowstone Expedition, commanded by General Alfred Terry. The aim was to make a three-pronged approach to round up the Sioux and Cheyenne, and return them to the reservations. War Department estimates based on Indian Agency intelligence indicated that a great many Sioux had left the reservation persuading them to return was expected to require violence.
Battle of the Rosebud
Although Finerty knew General George Custer already, he was told to accompany General George Crook’s regiment approaching from the area of northern Wyoming into Montana. Custer and the 7th Cavalry would move west from Fort Abraham Lincoln with Terry and meet Colonel John Gibbon’s Montana Column on the Yellowstone River at the mouth of Rosebud Creek.
On June 22nd, Custer was assigned to move up the Rosebud, following clear signs of Indians moving toward the mountains that separated Rosebud Creek from the headwaters of the Little Bighorn River. Unknown to Custer, Terry, and Gibbon, Crazy Horse had led an attack on Crook’s forces on Rosebud Creek on June 17th. Considered a draw, Crook nevertheless had soldiers killed and seriously injured, and he withdrew back to Wyoming to resupply.
The fully-bewiskered Crook was considered one of the most able commanders in the west. He would later negotiate the surrender of the Apache warrior, Geronimo, a story well-told by Crook’s soldier-scholar aide, Captain John Gregory Bourke in An Apache Campaign in the Sierra Madre.
Finerty relished his time in the field and it would not be his only expedition. He wrote dispatches to Chicago regularly during his time with Crook, which stretched from May until the end of summer, 1876. Known as the Irish pencil pusher, Finerty had a flamboyant personal history. He had fled Ireland at 16 to avoid arrest for his participation in the Irish independence movement. He served briefly in a non-combat role in the American Civil War. And he made a name for himself as a journalist, editor, and proponent of Irish freedom.
When Crazy Horse attacked Crook at his camp on Rosebud Creek, Finerty put down his pencil and picked up his gun. His account of the fight, in his marvelous book, On the Trail of Crazy Horse (originally published as Warpath and Bivouac), is superb and on of the best accounts of the battle that exists. (See With Crook at the Rosebud for a full examination of the fight by Vaughn.)
The Sibley Scout
From their camp back on Goose Creek in Wyoming Territory, a scout reported back one afternoon about a huge column of smoke off to the northwest. After news of the disaster at the Little Bighorn reached Crook, they understood this to have been prairie fires set by the retreating Sioux as they left the Little Bighorn Valley.
Finerty was in another close firefight during what became known as the Sibley Scout. On the fifth of July, ten days after Custer’s death and one day before the world would be notified of it, Crook sent Second Lieutenant Frederick William Sibley on a scout to try to find the nearest Sioux village. Finerty applied to Crook to go along.
“All right, sir. But I warn you that you’re liable to get into more trouble than you bargain for.”
Other officers asked him what kind of an obituary they should write for him. Captain E. R. Wells, of Troop E only remarked, without a smile: “Orderly, bring Mr. Finerty a hundred rounds of Troop E ammunition.”
With 25 picked men, reporter Finerty, and the famed scouts, Frank Gruard and Baptiste Pourier, they set out. Scouting the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, they ran across signs of small parties of Sioux. Once discovered, the two scouts told Sibley they must run for the mountains, and that they did. They rode hard until their horses were spent and then stopped.
Just when they thought all was clear, the Indians opened fire. The soldiers were under hot fire for some time until they could effect an escape without their horses. By leaving the spent animals behind, they could slip away without alerting the Indians to the fact that they’d gone. They made a fifty mile march on foot back to Crook’s base.
Finerty continued to endure all the privations and sufferings of the troops that summer and eventually made it to Sitting Bull’s camp in Canada.
Finerty was out in the field again in 1879 and 1881. The Irishman was highly respected by his peers and his writing will strike you as very modern. He married in 1882 and founded the Chicago Citizen, a paper targeted to Irish immigrants but still operating today as a journal of African-American issues. Very popular in and around Chicago, 62 year old Finerty died there on June 10, 1908.
To read more of Finerty’s thrilling work, see: