Updated: Feb 22, 2021
Just off a quiet stretch of US Highway 34, just 3 miles east of Trenton, Nebraska, stands a 35 foot tall shaft of Minnesota pink granite. Near the top of the 91-ton monument is a carving of a Sioux warrior named John Grass facing west, and a Pawnee brave named Ruling His Son stares east. The quiet prairie that surrounds the monument gives little hint at the events of August 5, 1873—the last battle between Great Plains Indians in North America that gave this location its name—Massacre Canyon.
Texas Jack had been hired by the federal government as a "trail agent" in the summer of 1872 to accompany the Pawnee on their annual buffalo hunt. A successful buffalo hunt ensured that the Pawnee had enough meat to feed man, woman, and child through the long winter. One of the keys to a successful hunt was having the right man as trail agent.
The trail agent's job was to ensure that white settlers didn't keep the Pawnee from having a successful hunt. White hunters and homesteaders would often shoot at herds to scare them off so that there would be no animals left in the area for Pawnee hunting parties. Texas Jack did this job well, as evidenced by a letter sent by the Quaker Indian Agent in charge of the Pawnee, thanking Jack for returning to the Pawnee warriors some horses that were stolen by white thieves during the hunt. But as important as this job was, it was secondary to the trail agent's priority, which was ensuring that the Pawnee and the Sioux, who had long been foes and bitter enemies, didn't start a "picnic"—scout slang for skirmishes between the rival tribes.
During the 1872 hunt, Texas Jack successfully prevented any "picnics," to the point that his hunt was at various points joined by Royal Buck and George Bird Grinnell. The hunt was so successful, in fact, that the following year the Pawnee's Indian Agent believed that they did not require a trail agent to keep them from battling with their Sioux rivals. Pitaresaru (Chief of Men) was the chief over all of the bands of Pawnee, and had been on the hunt with Texas Jack the previous year. He petitioned the Indian Agent to hire Omohundro again, and to have Texas Jack seek out the Whistler, the Oglala Lakota chief, and to formalize the peace of the previous summer. Texas Jack went so far as to volunteer for the assignment, willing to forgo his fee from the previous summer to join his friends the Pawnee and their chief Pitaresaru on the hunt. The Indian Agent initially refused, and then delayed, and by the time he finally sent a formal request, Texas Jack had travelled to Chicago with Buffalo Bill for their theatrical debut.
For the Pawnee, the Indian Agent's actions proved fatal. Without Texas Jack, they were joined by an inexperienced and ineffectual trail agent. As the Pawnee trekked towards the Republican River, a group of white hunters warned them about a large band of Sioux to the east. The Pawnee thought that this was another example of white men trying to keep them from hunting, and their trail agent was unable to convince them otherwise. But the hunters had spoken the truth, and the group of Oglala and Brulé under the command of Spotted Tail, Two Strike, and Pawnee Killer was the largest that would ever again cross the plains of Nebraska. One of the Pawnee accused their new trail agent of cowardice. Historian Paul Riley writes that " At that point [the young man] failed as trail agent. In a conflict between boyish egotism and his empowered duty, egotism won." The young trail agent failed to stop the Pawnee from advancing forward to hunt, and failed to prevent their slaughter at the hands of the larger group of Sioux.
Tirawahutresaru (Sky Chief)—convinced that the white hunters were lying to keep the Pawnee away from the herds of buffalo—refused to send out scouts. When buffalo were sighted, Sky Chief and the Pawnee men scattered to hunt, one of them borrowing the trail agent's rifle and leaving him unarmed. As the trail agent followed the Pawnee hunters along with the women and children, he noticed that the hunters had halted, stopping the hunt, and that a group of three chiefs were conferring. A boy of about sixteen rode back to the trail agent, tied a piece of red flannel to the bridle of his horse, and told him that the Sioux were coming. They had already killed several of the hunters as well as Sky Chief, who had dismounted to skin a buffalo he had taken down.
The Pawnee women, children, and pack horses rushed to the safety of a nearby canyon as the young trail agent urged the braves to retreat to a more defensible position. Fighting Bear demanded that the Pawnee make their stand where they were, and the trail agent was unable to convince him to move to safety. As the Sioux pressed in, it became clear that the Pawnee were massively outnumbered, and the trail agent rode toward the Sioux waving a white flag in an attempt to avoid a massacre. Ignoring his flag, the Sioux began firing, and the trail agent's horse was shot out from under him as he turned back towards the safety of the canyon. The Sioux divided into two groups and took command of both sides of the low canyon entrance, firing indiscriminately down into the surrounded Pawnee.
As the Pawnee ran towards safety at the opposite end of the canyon, the Sioux decided not to pursue, mercifully avoiding more casualties. They instead gathered and burned the possessions left by the Pawnee as they fled, raping the wounded Pawnee women and killing the wounded Pawnee children. The bodies of the dead Pawnee warriors were tossed into the flames. All told, as many as 156 Pawnee were killed, while the Sioux lost only between ten and thirteen warriors.
According to one newspaper account from just days after the massacre, “Texas Jack says his sympathies are with the Pawnees in their fight with the Sioux, and he hopes the government will interfere on behalf of the Pawnees, as they are the best ‘Injuns’ and inferior in number to the Sioux.” Pressure to leave their ancestral Nebraska land and move to a reservation in Oklahoma had been resisted by Pitaresaru and the Pawnee, but the loss of life at Massacre Canyon broke the collective spirits of the people. Soon the Pawnee collected their belongings and left their Nebraska homes on foot to set off for Oklahoma. Today, the tall stone monument on the quiet Nebraska prairie stands as a sentinel above the spot where the Pawnee way of life changed forever.