Big Ribs

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Big Ribs

Immediate Family:

Husband of Her Red Horses
Father of Anna Big Ribs

Managed by: Justin Swanstrom
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Big Ribs

Big Ribs was born circa 1834. He married Her Red Horses circa 1889.

Child of Big Ribs and Her Red Horses

  • Anna Catches The Enemy + b. circa 1890

"The first documentary notice I've found of American Horse is in a list of chiefs and headmen that the Loafer band peace envoy Big Ribs was to contact in fall 1865. It has been transcribed in John McDermott's fine book on the war of 1865 Circle of Fire, p. 147. The list was the product of intense talks with Indians and traders around Fort Laramie. Separate lists were prepared for the Brules, Oglalas, Bad Faces, O Yoki ha pas (Oyuhpes), Miniconjous, and Cheyennes. Among the listed Bad Face band headmen is "Steals the White Man's Horse". That this is our American Horse is confirmed by the next name, that of his father Sitting Bear.

Big Ribs was a leader of the Loafer Band at Fort Laramie. He was driven out by Red Cloud as Chief of the Oglala. "Earlier, in January 1866, Moon of Frost, Swift Bear and his Sioux Brules signed a treaty giving the white men entitlement to a road through the Powder River country, along with the establishment of forts for protection. Crazy Horse was told that these chiefs told the soldier chief (Sheridan?) that the Sioux Oglala were coming too, and that Red Cloud had driven out Big Ribs so he could be Chief." (Bridger Travel Files)



STILL following the fortunes of the Evening Star, I once more embarked, and next day, toward evening, the low, uncouth buildings of Whetstone Creek reservation appeared. Whites and Indians could be seen making their way leisurely toward the landing, moved by the curiosity which seems to pervade all dwellers on the Missouri River, to see a steamboat of any size or description, and more especially one coming from below.

This spot was utterly devoid of the wild picturesqueness supposed to be incident to its location and inhabitants. The "first bench," or level ground extending immediately back from the river, was some eighty rods wide, and covered in most places with a thick growth of willows interlaced with wild vines. A sharp rise of six or eight feet led to the "second, bench," another level stretch of ground which extended back to the bluffs, covered near the river with an undergrowth of oak, but soon running into prairie. This rich bottom* land followed the course of the river for some four miles, but was cut off above and below by the bluffs, which at these points circled into the very bank. Whetstone Creek, fringed with a very small growth of timber, broke through the range of bluffs from the west and joined the Missouri, while farther south Scalp Creek did the same. These creeks contained running water only after severe rains, soon subsiding, and having nothing in their dry beds save u water holes " at long distances. An island in the river, a short distance from the agency, furnished cottonwood logs for fuel and for building. The pocket of land thus enclosed by the river and the bluffs, contained about two thousand acres of rich alluvial soil, and, in addition to this, Whetstone Creek bottom lands, suitable for cultivation, extended some distance farther back.

Near the edge of the second bench a row of rough log buildings was ranged, the carpenter’s shop, blacksmith’s shop, two medium-sized storehouses, an office and council room in one, a dispensary, the barn and stables, and, to the left and towards the river, the saw mill ; these comprising all the agency buildings.

Immediately back some irregularly located log huts occupied the ground, exciting a faint suspicion that there was some intention of a street. The rest of the ground back to the bluffs was occupied by Indian Tepees. The trader s store, holding a central position, was by far the most pretentious building of all.

This spot of ground with its buildings was known in Dakota as the Whetstone Agency, and was regarded by most persons as the reservation of the Indians located there. Even in the Interior Department it seemed to be understood that the Indians here were confined within narrow and well-defined bounds. My instructions stated that I was to be agent for Indians in the Sioux District, located upon a reservation, etc. With the Poncas or the Santee Sioux, whose reservations contained only a few thousand acres each, agency and reservation were almost synonymous terms. With the Indians at Whetstone it was entirely different. My first information after coming in contact with them, was that in place of being pent up within narrow bounds, they claimed, and rightfully, all the land from the northern boundary of Nebraska to the forty-sixth parallel of latitude, and from the right bank of the Missouri to the one hundredth and fourth degree of longitude west ; a vast area of land, containing at a low estimate forty-six thousand square miles, or nearly thirty millions of acres, over which they were free to roam at will.

Under the treaty of 1868 they held this reservation in common with those other bands of the Sioux nation who had had their homes west of the Missouri. The estimated number of the nations was at this time twenty-eight thousand, which would be about one person to every thousand acres, or each man, woman and child could occupy an area of nearly two square miles. A division by families would give much more elbow room. A large estimate would make only five thousand six hundred homes required, and thus give an allowance of over five thousand acres to each family. Of what use would such vast area be in teaching Nomads the first principles of civilization, and helping them to form permanent homes? As a hunting park it was equally a failure. The buffalo ranged south, west and north of this tract of country ; and the Indians could not subsist upon the small game, such as antelope, deer and mountain sheep, which were found in moderation. This was apparently under stood by the framers of the treaty, as it was expressly provided therein, that whenever the buffalo could be found on any lands north of the North Platte and on the Republican Fork of the Smokey Hill River, the Indians should be allowed to hunt them.

The possession of this princely domain was the cause of much misunderstanding and discontent. It was given to these uncivilized Indians in solemn treaty, stipulating that no person except officers and agents of the Government should ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon or reside in the territory described. But already in one short year was proved the utter impossibility of keeping in good faith, and protecting from encroachment, the terms of this immense contract. Another difficulty was the inability to make the Indians understand anything of imaginary geographical lines. They knew nothing of such nice distinctions, but had a general idea that their possessions extended west as the crow flies, to the Wind River mountains of Wyoming, and northwest through the eastern part of Montana to the British possessions.

The Brule and Ogallala Sioux at the agency numbered at this time about fifteen hundred souls. Most of them, having separated themselves from their former chiefs, were known as the "loafer band," and were living in huts and adjacent tepees under the chieftainship of Bigmouth, the most loquacious and persistent beggar that ever walked. A short distance above the agency was a small collection of tepees ruled by Swift Bear ; below were Standing Elk, a Brule, and his band, while a mile or so back from the agency, on Whetstone Creek, Fire Thunder, an Ogallala, swayed by his eloquence and valor the inhabitants of fifteen or twenty tepees. A few Cheyennes were intermarried with these different bands, and affiliated with them. Mingled with all the bands were a number of white men who had married with the Indians, and were recognized by them as entitled to share in any grants or donations of the Government. These white men had been associated with the Sioux for a number of years, coming among them at first as hunters and trappers for fur companies, afterward as guides to military and other expeditions, and then as traders and interpreters.

Spotted Tail, a Brule Sioux, who had always held himself aloof from the "loafers" at the agency, kept his camp of from three hundred and fifty to four hundred lodges at a point as remote as the necessity of procuring supplies would permit, usually from thirty to fifty miles distant. I soon became acquainted with the principal members of these different communities.

Big Mouth, an Ogallala chief and a relative of the renowned Red Cloud, being the nominal chief of the "loafer" Indians at the agency, was always eloquent upon the subject. He was round and plump as any city alderman, yet his favorite theme was to enlarge upon the fact that lie was starving, and gradually fading away from lack of food.

At last Maynadier decided to employ as messengers five Sioux who spent much of their time around the fort—Big Mouth, Big Ribs, Eagle Foot, Whirlwind, and Little Crow. (Brown 2012)

Referred to contemptuously as “Laramie Loafers,” these trader Indians were actually shrewd entrepreneurs. If a white man wanted a first-rate buffalo robe at a bargain, or if an Indian up on Tongue River wanted supplies for the fort commissary, the Laramie Loafers arranged exchanges. They would play an important role as munitions suppliers to the Indians during Red Cloud’s war. (Brown 2012)

Big Mouth and his party were out for two months, spreading the news that find presents awaited all warrior chiefs if they would come in to Fort Laramie and sign new treaties. On January 16, 1866, the messengers returned in company with two destitute bands of Brulés led by Standing Elk and Swift Bear. (2012)

On August 23, 1865, General Pope, sensing the new mood, wrote Major Frank Wheaton, the new commander of the District of Nebraska, that the frontier army sould “return to a purely defensive arangment for the security of the overland routes.” This renewed commitment to defend the Platte Road also included a commitment to defend the new transcontinental railroad being built went from Omaha….

But cooperation with the Sioux was essential if any road were to be built through Powder River country …

… Nevertheless, to win Indian concessions through peaceful rather than warlike methods required new negotiations with the Lakotas and their allies. With this objective in mind, General Pope informed Secretary of Interior James Harlan that he had ordered a council to convene in the spring of 1866 at which the Powder River tribes could conclude a peace treaty with special commissioners appointed by the president.

The prospect for Pope’s lofty plan, however, were not very promising. In fact, a proposal to persuade the Sioux to participate was considered so dangerous that no white man would undertake it. Finally, Colonel Maynadier, then commander at Fort Laramie, convinced Big Ribs, a member of the Fort’s Loafer band, and four other friendly Lakotas, including the influential Big Mouth, to take on the difficult assignment. Three months elapsed before any news about this mission reached the fort. But when it finally came in March, the government was elated.

To deal with these nontreaty Sioux, General Dodge used Indian emissaries to carry that word that the government wanted to meet with them. Principal among them was Big Ribs, who arrived at Fort Laramie on October 17. [Note 10: Big Ribs had been arrested in April, sent to Fort Laramie under guard in May, and returned to his band later in the summer, where he camped near Denver, living on government rations, until summoned by the military in October.] His mission was to tell the Lakota that the Great White Father took pity on them and did not wish to fight them. Rather, he wished to make peace and give them presents as he did before the war. They were to know that the Great Father had whipped his enemies, the bad white men in the states, and if the Sioux and Cheyennes did not make peace, he would send thousands of soldiers during the winter and next spring to destroy them….

After receiving his instructions, Big Ribs left the post on October 19 and headed for the Lakota camps. According to one observer, he was gorgeously arrayed in fine clothes and brass buttons… (146-147, 238. Citations omitted)

  • John Dishon McDermott, Circle of Fire: The Indian War of 1865 (2003).

General Wheaton ordered Col. Henry Maynadier, commanding officer at Fort Laramie and the West Subdistrict of Nebraska, to send running to the war villages “to information that other tribes were making and an opportunity would be offered them to do the same.” White emissaries considered the mission so dangerous that no one would volunteer, but Maynadier (or Many Deer, as the Lakotas called him) persuaded members of the Loafer band—Big Ribs, Big Mouth, Eagle Foot, Whirlwind, and Little Crow, an elderly man of seventy-five—to transmit the message [citation omitted]

Despite fear that the Lakota war faction would murder the party led by Big Ribs, the Loafers returned three months later, starving and frost-bitten, with good tidings …

  • Catherine Price, The Oglala People, 1841-1879: A Political History (1998), 58.

In October 1865 Big Ribs and a few other friendly Sioux from near Denver were the only Indians who could be prevailed upon to carry a peace message from Fort Laramie to the northern camps, which began to drift in during March and April 1866, for the Fort Laramie peace talks to Col. H. E. Maynadier, preparatory to the meeting with the commissioners headed by E. B. Taylor of Washington in June. On June 27, seven chiefs of the Brulés and six of the Oglalas signed the treaty.

Col. Maynadier recommended the men for a medal or other acknowledgment of their service: “Here I would respectfully call your attention, sir, to the great value of the services rendered by these messengers. Of the five, four, named as follows: Big Ribs, Big Mouth, Eagle Foot, and Whirlwind, came from the vicinity of Denver, and the remaining one, Little Crow, a man of seventy-five years of age, resides near this fort. Big Ribs was the head man and leader of the party. He is an Indian of tried fidelity and has been employed in various capacities on account of his well known honesty and truthfulness. They ventured forth in the face of perils that the oldest mountaineer in the country would have shrunk from, and after enduring cold, hunger, and hardship, found the Swift Bear and delivered their message of peace. Without this, I do not know how the Sioux could have been communicated with, or the present very favorable aspect of affairs could have been brought about. Some expression of approbation, such as a medal. or a parchment with a seal and ribbon, from the bureau, which they could be told came from the Great Father. Would be very acceptable to them. May I take the liberty to ber your consideration of this, sir, as I think these brave, faithful men richly deserve such marks of honor.” (Maynadier, 1866)

Early in 1866 Red Cloud deposed Big Ribs, his head chief, on account of age and extended his own domain over the Ogallala Sioux, and represented practically all divisions of the Sioux tribe in the treaty meeting held at Fort Laramie.

• Newspapers accounts, including Chariton Leader, Chariton, Iowa, Thursday, December 30, 1909, Page 7. See also


Northern Superintendency, (1866), 204-244.

Further Research

From the card catalog of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection:

RMN Index

Big Ribs (Sioux Chief)

Squaw dies lately in Denver. R.M. News. June 9, 1866 p. 4 c. 2

Dines at Bachelor’s Club, Denver. R.M. News. Feb. 16, 1866 p.4 c.2


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Big Ribs's Timeline

Age 16
NE, United States