It was on this lonely hillside 137 years ago that the most famous showman of the Wild West was said to have outgunned a Cheyenne warrior and taken his scalp as revenge for the killing of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer three weeks earlier at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
What really happened here on July 17, 1876, has drifted away into the folklore of the grasslands and Pine Ridge, but Buffalo Bill Cody’s heroic version of the Battle of Warbonnet Creek would quickly take center stage in his shows across the world. In this so-called battle, three shots were fired. Yellow Hand missed his try, but Cody’s aim was deadly true. Then Cody scalped the fallen warrior with his bowie knife, and as his little bay horse reared back, the legendary Army scout held out his trophy to the cheering troops and shouted out in triumph: “The first scalp for Custer!”
It’s not easy to find Warbonnet Creek. The trek to the battlefield requires a detailed local map to navigate driving for miles on one-lane dirt roads while dodging the Angus cattle that roam this range. A picture of the monument can be taken from the road, but a richer view will be found if you walk across the grassland and climb that steep hill to where Buffalo Bill fired his deadly shots.
William Cody lived a life that was as big as the west, including more than three decades at his ranch in North Platte. Ned Buntline and others wrote more than 500 dime novels based, rather loosely, on Buffalo Bill’s life, and soon the curtain would rise on that fame. By all accounts, Cody was much better living the life of Buffalo Bill than playing him on stage, but performance after performance sold out.
While his fame grew, Cody resided quietly in western New York with his family, but tragedy struck during a performance on the road. In April 1876, a telegram was delivered to him backstage. His beloved son Kit Carson Cody was gravely ill with scarlet fever. He rushed home, and Kit died in his father’s arms.
After burying his son, Cody also tried to bury his grief by returning to the stage, but then Gen. George Crook called out to Cody from his Fort Omaha headquarters.
“We closed our theatrical season earlier than usual in the spring of 1876 because I was anxious to take part in the Sioux war which was then breaking out,” Cody later explained.
Cody was returning to the same 5th U.S. Cavalry Regiment he scouted for in the 1869 fighting against Chief Tall Bull’s Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. While many said Pawnee scout Frank North killed Tall Bull, when Buffalo Bill claimed credit for killing Tall Bull in the battle at Summit Springs, Colo., Cody’s reputation as a great Indian fighter spread across the land.
He rejoined the 5th Cavalry on June 10, 1876, and when Cody wrote about the troops’ pandemonium at his return, he appeared to be a 19th-century rock star. “As we rode up, one of the boys shouted, ‘Here’s Buffalo Bill!’ Soon after there came three hearty cheers from the regiment. Officers and men were all glad to see me, and I was equally delighted to meet them once more.”
In the early morning light of July 17, a small band of Cheyenne were spotted closing in on a supply train led by two messengers on horseback. Col. Wesley Merritt had to stop the ambush, but he didn’t want his cavalry spread out chasing after the Indians’ faster ponies. Instead, he agreed to let Cody head a small patrol to pursue the seven Cheyenne scouts.
Cody charged into this action with his new theatrical flair. He had shunned his trademark buckskins for a flamboyant stage costume that resembled a Mexican vaquero outfit with a bright red shirt and black velvet pants trimmed in scarlet, festooned with silver bells and embroidery.
Suddenly, one of the Indians pulled his pony to a stop and whirled around. Cody was told the Indian was a Cheyenne chief called Yellow Hand, but his name was actually Yellow Hair, and he was described as a formidable foe. Yellow Hair rode a pony decorated with spiritual symbols painted on its hide, and he wore a spectacular eagle-feather headdress that flowed almost to the ground. He gave a whoop as he raised his pistol in the air, Cody claimed, and then shouted his challenge to Cody: “I know you, Pa-he-haska! Come and fight me if you want to fight!”
The Buffalo Bill version of history has him galloping across the uneven ground, firing a round from his Winchester rifle, which killed Yellow Hair’s pony. The bullet also passed through the Cheyenne scout’s leg and knocked him to the ground. But as Cody took aim for another shot, he too tumbled when his own horse stumbled in a prairie dog hole.
Cody’s tale has the young warrior quickly regaining his feet and firing from his Colt .45. But the shot missed. Cody got to one knee and ended the battle of Warbonnet Creek when his second shot struck Yellow Hair in the face, killing him instantly. It was then that Cody supposedly added his final dramatic scalping and shouted out his revenge for Custer.
To be fair, no one else present mentioned this bit of drama, but it surely would have fit the bill for the legend of Buffalo Bill. And with that, the Battle of Warbonnet Creek came to an end – until it was played out again and again in Wild West shows across the world.
Warbonnet Creek was a case of life imitating art, down to Cody’s theatrical costume. This was his last hurrah with the U.S. Army, but the cheers would just begin. Yellow Hair was the only death in this battle, but Cody was never one to let reality get in his way. The incident was trumpeted in newspapers across the country and the public latched onto it as a fitting revenge for the massacre of Custer and the men of the 7th Cavalry.
There were those who were initially skeptical of the veracity of this seemingly theatrical incident, but Signalman Chris Madsen was in a position to observe the scene, and he verified Cody’s version. Sgt. John Hamilton also witnessed the face-off between Cody and Yellow Hair and confirmed both Cody’s and Madsen’s accounts. The “battle” was over quickly, but Cody’s public relations triumph was just beginning.
On July 18, Cody wrote this letter to his wife: My Darling Lulu - We have come in here for rations. We have had a fight. I killed Yellow Hand [Hair] a Cheyenne Chief in a single-handed fight. You will no doubt hear of it through the paper. I am going as soon as I reach Fort Laramie the place we are heading for now send the war bonnet, shield, bridle, whip, arms and his scalp to Kerngood to put up in his window……Good-bye my Lulu, a thousand kisses to all from your hubby, Willie.
Kerngood was Moses Kerngood, a merchant in Buffalo, N.Y., who Cody was sure would agree to display the trophies. Yellow Hair’s father offered Cody four mules for the return of his son’s possessions, but Cody turned him down. He knew the goods had a commercial value far greater than four mules. Already widely regarded as a true American hero, Buffalo Bill exploded onto the front pages of newspapers across the country after the minor skirmish at Warbonnet Creek.
Cody returned to the theater in a production that purported to re-enact the historical occurrence. In The Red Right Hand; or, Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer, the event was portrayed as a manly hand-to-hand knife duel – far more dramatic than killing at a distance with a rifle.
Typical of his wildly triumphant European tour, the 1906 Wild West program for Milan included a depiction of Cody standing over Yellow Hair’s lifeless body, holding up the warbonnet as a trophy.
On the gently rolling prairie of Sioux County, Nebraska, any signs of a battle that took place more than 100 years ago have long been erased by time. Near the point where Jim Creek and Warbonnet Creek join together to form Hat Creek, two stone monuments jut up from the surrounding grassland.
Originally erected in 1934, they were reconstructed in the 1990s. The monument on the hilltop was rebuilt in 1999 and recognizes the action of the Fifth Cavalry. Below it, surrounded by a fence, the other monument may mark the spot where Cody killed Yellow Hair.
Over the years, the skirmish at Warbonnet Creek has faded into the wind rolling through the grasslands, but those two monuments still stand, guarding both the legend and history of Buffalo Bill at Warbonnet Creek.