Battle at the Heart River: FIre Heart's Account
Fire Heart, a Lakota, led a large group of his people – about 100 lodges - on a hunting expedition along the upper Missouri in 1864. Near the Heart River, they made a camp. While in this area, they spotted a boat of gold miners returning down the Missouri from gold camps in Montana or Idaho. About twenty men from Fire Heart’s camp attacked the men on board when they attempted to make camp along the bank in spite of being warned to avoid going to shore along the river. The Lakota killed or drove off the men on board and looked for anything they valued among the goods on board.
A trader from nearby Fort Berthold heard of the incident and went to the boat. He found gold nuggets and gold dust worth about $100,000 hidden in the boat which he took and used to make purchases.
The Lakota had taken some gold dust from the miners’ pockets. Several months later they found that they could use the gold dust to purchase goods from the traders at Fort Rice. Fire Heart remembered the incident in later years, and was able to draw a map of the location, but said he did not participate in the attack. (Collections VII (1925): 1-58)
Historians have no record of the names of all those who participated in the Heart River Battle and the Battle of Whitestone Hill. However, we do know that the status of “hostile” Indians such as Big Head, and the status of “good Indians” such as Little Soldier, depended upon the assessment of the officers who knew them and whether or not they were defending their homes and families from the army. By 1865, Fire Heart wanted it to be known that he wanted to co-exist peacefully with the whites who were beginning to make their presence felt in Dakota Territory. He periodically asked for and received letters of good conduct that he could use as proof of his friendly relations with white people. Note that General Curtis’ letter also “declares” Fire Heart to be a chief of the Blackfeet Sioux. The process of naming individuals as chiefs had developed decades earlier as the U. S. government and the army attempted to hold one leader responsible for the actions of a band or tribe. Curtis attached a ribbon to his letter with sealing wax.
SHSND Mss 20143
Reposing special confidence in the friendship honesty and wisdom of Fire Heart Cha ta ha ta _ and also in consideration of his appointment by the people of this tribe, the President of the United States by his Commissioner authorized to make treaties and perform the duties connected with the Indians of the Upper Missouri country does constitute and declare the said Fire Heart Head Chief of the Blackfeet of the Dakota or Sioux Nation and all persons are directed & requested to respect and accredit him accordingly
Done at the council tent by the Commissioners at Fort Sully Oct 28th 1865.
S R Curtis
The bearer of this “Fire Heart” a chief of the Blackfeet Sioux was at one time at war with the whites but in 1864 he and his people made peace with me. Since that time he has kept the promises he made to me. He is brave and I think can be trusted as a good friend to the whites. I therefore request all to treat him well.
Bvt. Brig Gen’l
Presdt of Comm’n
Old Fort Sully D. T.
June 9th 1867
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