All Because of a Mormon Cow: Historical Accounts of the Grattan Massacre, 1854–1855, edited by John D. McDermott, R. Eli Paul and Sandra J. Lowry, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2018, $29.95
It was a standout example of famous last words for which the West is known: “With 30 men [I] could whip the combined force of all the Indians of the prairie.” If you guessed George Armstrong Custer spoke those words on June 25, 1876…well, reasonable assumption, but you’d be wrong. William J. Fetterman on Dec. 21, 1868? Strike two. Before either Custer’s Last Stand or the debacle known as the Fetterman Fight, Brevet 2nd Lt. John Lawrence Grattan made the above boastful appraisal—shortly before getting all 30 of his men killed. On Aug. 19, 1854, Grattan led his infantrymen to a Lakota encampment outside Fort Laramie (in what would become Wyoming) to arrest a Minneconjou named High Forehead on suspicion of stealing and killing a cow belonging to a party of Danish Mormons bound for Utah Territory. Brulé Lakota Chief Conquering Bear seemed eager to defuse the situation, but Grattan’s drunken interpreter, Auguste Lucien, proved far less diplomatic, and then a shot rang out—mortally wounding Conquering Bear. Within minutes Grattan and all the men of his command were dead or mortally wounded, and the First Sioux War was on.
While a goodly number of letters and firsthand testimony document the controversial Grattan massacre and its even bloodier aftermath, their widely varying perspectives only tend to muddy the waters. Editors John D. McDermott, R. Eli Paul and Sandra J. Lowry have assembled the available literature in All Because of a Mormon Cow, enabling readers to peruse them and draw their own conclusions. Among those either directly or peripherally involved who left accounts were trappers and traders, Indian agents, passing emigrants, U.S. Army personnel and Indians. With the Grattan-related source material gathered in one volume, the reader has a chance at sorting out the root causes for what amounted to a series of wars over the Midwestern prairies.