The Ordeal of Henson Wiseman
Randy Lee Eickhoff
Cold chills ran along Henson Wiseman's frame as he listened to an outrider tell a group of soldiers about the massacre of a family on the chalk-rock bluffs above the Missouri River two hundred miles to the south. Silently, he continued making his circuit around the horse herd, waiting impatiently for daybreak. When false dawn streaked the sky, he mounted his horse and rode to the camp of Company I, 2nd Nebraska Cavalry and told Captain John Taft, his commanding officer, about his suspicions. Then he turned his horse and rode away, heading towards Fort Randall.
The Dakota Territory was in turmoil that hot July of 1863. Yankton and Santee Sioux led by Little Crow, a chief of the Mdewkantons, had risen up in anger on their reservation, the Upper Agency on Yellow Medicine River. The previous year had been a poor one and their crops had failed, but to make matters worse, Thomas Galbraith, the Indian agent, and the traders at the Lower Agency led by Andrew Myrick, refused to give them food and monies that were due to them. When made aware that the Indians were starving, Myrick had laughed and said, "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung."
After that outburst, the Santees left the council and the reservation and began to raid the surrounding countryside. The army responsed by sending 1,400 soldiers from the Sixth Minnesota Regiment stationed in St. Paul in the field after them. The soldiers were led by Col. Henry H. Sibley who had claimed $145,000 out of the $475,000 promised to the Santees in their first treaty as monies owed his American Fur Company for overpayment to the Indians. To make matters worse, the state assembly also authorized payment of twenty-five dollars bounty for Sioux scalps.
Little Crow was killed near Hutchinson and the Santees rounded up to be sent down the Mississippi River. A few renegades, however, managed to escape the net spread out for them.
As the Santees made their way West, hoping to reach their cousins the Lakotas, the 2nd Nebraska Calvary was assigned to patrol the plains north of the Missouri River in an attempt to cut the Santees off from their western exodus. The plans called for the calvalry to link up with a Dakota regiment.
When the call went out for volunteers to help as scouts, Wiseman rode to Dakota City fifty miles from his home to enlist. His wife clung to his sleeve and pleaded for him not to go, saying, "The Indians will kill us if we stay here and you leave us."
But Wiseman, who had only recently given up his work as a carpenter and "squatted" on a quarter section, had been assured by the government that the bluffs would be regularly patrolled by cavalry during his absence. Gently, he removed her hand from his sleeve, kissed her good-bye and mounted his sorrel and rode away, skirting the dark, vine-curtained ravine that dropped away from his cabin.
"I believed the government needed all possible help, and to get protection to life and property, I should give a helping hand," Wiseman later wrote in a deposition. "But not a soldier ever came till the savages went at their usual deeds of destruction. If I had known the government or counsel, of savage warfare so ignorant, I would have sent my family away when I left."
But he had not and now as he rode through the dark night towards Fort Randall, he recalled the tears of his wife and children when he had bade them farewell. He fought down the urge to send his horse in a mad gallop across the plains, knowing that to lose his horse would leave him at the mercy of the Indians.
When he rode into Fort Randall, the commanding officer tried to detain him as a deserter, but Wiseman pointed his pistol at him and threatened to shoot the officer if he tried to arrest him. Fortunately for all, Company A of Wiseman's own regiment had recently arrived at the fort and when told about Wiseman's predicament, gave Wiseman the supplies he needed for his journey south. Within two hours, Wiseman rode out of Fort Randall.
Late that night, Wiseman rode into the Yankton reserve and learned from an Indian interpreter that it had been his family that had been massacred, but the interpreter did not know the full details. His wife had been waiting for him, but had left for Sioux City where doctors worried about her sanity. Slowly, Wiseman pieced together the entire story.
On July 21st, Wiseman's wife, Phoebe Ann, pregnant with the couple's eighth child, gave instructions to her children. Arthur, the oldest, was to confine his hunting to Bow Creek and stay near the house. Her daughter Hannar was to do the churning while Andrew helped around the house and watched the two youngest: William and Loren. She then walked to St. James and took the stage from there to Elm Grove where she took the ferry across to Yankton to buy supplies. She was forced to stay over another day when the ferry broke down but on the twenty-third, she caught the afternoon coach back to St. James.
Despite a thunderstorm, Phoebe walked three miles to her home. When she arrived at her cabin high in the bluffs above the Missouri River early in the evening, she saw the door standing open. She called out, but received no answer. Frowning, she entered the cabin and immediately discovered an Indian lying dead on the floor. She backed away in horror and ran outside, looking frantically for her five children. She found one boy lying dead on his back behind the house.
She crouched at the corner of the house for a long minute, stuffing the hem of her dress in her mouth to keep from screaming. She peered vainly into the darkness, trying to determine if the raiders were still around.
Slowly, she crept away from the house, then straightened and ran through the ravine behind the house and made her way through the woods back to Old St. James, staying off the roads and going through the high weeds and thick brush. Rain began to fall through the trees and heavy vines while Phoebe Ann struggled with her heavy, rain-soaked skirts as she forced her way through the mud and made her way to the town where she collapsed after blurting out her story. She begged for a search party to be formed and sent out after her children, but by now, night had fallen and the searchers decided to wait for daylight.
The next day, they began a nine mile circuit around the area and found two other children dead and two others barely alive. Loren, the youngest at five, had been stabbed under the left arm and lived three days before dying. Hannar, the fifteen-year-old daughter, had been raped repeatedly by the Indians who had tortured her after by shoving two arrows through her vagina until the barbed heads emerged at the top of each hip, forming a cross inside her. They placed a cartridge in her mouth and set it off, blowing out her teeth and tongue. She lived for five days before dying.
The three dead children included William, eight-years-old, who had been found murdered with a ball in his head and buckshot in his back. Andrew, nine, had been stabbed twice in his left side while Arthur, sixteen-years-old, had his head and arms broken and mashed, his empty gun clutched in his hands. Wiseman's oldest son, John, was fighting in the Civil War at the time and escaped the massacre.
Trembling with fatigue and anger, Wiseman ignored the pleas of his friends and rode out to his cabin. He found the cabin door standing open, dark and ominous, and dropped to the blood-stained floor, numbly feeling the ghosts of his family around him. He spent the night there before riding to Sioux City to check on his wife. He found her on August 28 at the ford of Aoway Creek, making her way back to him, having walked away from the hospital against the advice of her doctors. She fell into his arms and wailed and cried, trying to explain what had happened, but could not. Over a year would pass before she would be able to talk about that day. During the night, she would toss and turn and moan in anguish from her nightmares. At times, she would call out to the children, begging them to answer.
Wiseman took her back to St. James and tried to make a home there, but he had little to work with; the Indians had taken everything from the cabin during their raid. A week later, an Indian male would be discovered wearing Phoebe Ann's shoes at the Crow Agency.
Finally, after Phoebe gave birth to a baby boy on March 8, Wiseman took her East to see specialists. After a year, he returned, broke, only to discover that he had to pay taxes on his property and on the property that the Indians had stolen. He never was paid for his tour of duty despite receiving an honorable discharge from the army and filing many depositions demanding payment from the government for monies owed him, but he never received any money.
For the next two years, Wiseman went no where without a Colt's revolver, even sleeping with it under his pillow as rumors reached him that the Santees were planning to kill him. He lived constantly under the threat of another Indian attack, making careful checks around his cabin at night and in the early morning, ranging further and further afield, varying his routes so that he could not be predicted. He grew sullen and morose and argued constantly with all.
At last, he wearied of constantly being on his guard and decided that it was far better to be the hunter than the hunted. He hired a young man at twenty-five dollars a month to scout for him and disappeared into the woods on the bluffs above the river. Every once in a while, a dead Indian would be found in the woods or floating down the Missouri in his canoe and people would sagely nod and whisper that Wiseman had collected another on the debt owed him.
His reputation grew and Indians began to whisper stories about The Hunter who seemed to appear in the mist from the river, leaving death and destruction in his wake. Children were made to obey by threatening them with his name. For the rest of his life, Wiseman would alternately work then go off on "hunting expeditions."
Peace came, but not with Wiseman. He continued his hunting and the Indians began to see him in the shadows of the trees and the dark night. When Wiseman entered the town, all Indians who had come to trade would discreetly leave at the other end and stay away until he left. Once, an Indian was a little slow in leaving St. James and Wiseman shot him, wounding him with his revolver. The Indian got away by running down an alley and hiding in a melon patch.
Although he spent the rest of his life hunting Indians, some doubt began to be raised that the Indians had been solely responsible for the Wiseman Massacre. In the March 9, 1876 issue of the Niobrara Pioneer, an article appeared suggesting that Wiseman had killed a Doctor Bentz on April 14, 1864 after determining that Bentz had been the one who had planned the massacre and been responsible for the rape of his daughter. Bentz was known to be friendly with Yankton and Santee Sioux.
An anonymous postcard to the paper read: "To the editor of Niobrara Pioneer: SIR: I see by your paper you are trying to get a donation from the U.S. for the Wiseman family. You had better get a rope and hang Wiseman. He killed old man Bentz a short distance from St. Helena. Everybody knows that, and I know when he did it. I saw him."
Apparently Bentz and Wiseman had been feuding for a long time. The reason for the feud is unknown, but the general belief is that the feud came from Bentz's refusal to pay Wiseman for a load of wood that Wiseman had delivered to Bentz's cabin when he was supplementing his farm by "woodhawking," cutting wood and selling it to passing river steamers on the Missouri.
On April 14, 1864, Bentz was murdered in the cabin where he lived on a hill between St. Helena and Green Island. Bentz had apparently been writing a letter to his son who was stationed with the Nebraska Calvary at the time of his death. When his body was discovered, he had fallen from his chair after being shot with a pistol in the back of the head.
Wiseman had been asked to deliver some grain sacks to Bentz's house the day of the murder. The sacks were later found outside of Bentz's cabin. When questioned, Wiseman said he had knocked at the door but having received no answer, he left the sacks there and continued on his way.
The author of the postcard to the Niobrara Pioneer was never found although Wiseman kept trying to discover his identity. Little credence, however, was given to its authenticity for before dying from his wounds, Loren Wiseman had said that "Indians scared me."
His reputation continued to grow. In 1901, at the age of 84, Wiseman reportedly dropped a running Indian with a single shot from his Sharps buffalo gun at 964 yards, but the hunting expeditions were becoming less frequent for the former scout. The years spent sleeping on the cold ground were beginning to take their toll. Arthritis and rheumatism began to bother him and it was becoming harder and harder to find people that he could trust who would willing to scout for him.
Although he was never brought to trial for shooting any Indians, people were becoming upset at his misanthropic ways as Cedar County moved into the twentieth century and became civilized. In 1856 when Wiseman moved to Cedar County, fewer than 275 people lived within its boundaries. But the days of a frontier settlement were rapidly disappearing.
He died on February 19, 1912. He was 94-years-old at the time.