Chief Big Ox of the Crow, and the Tale of Accidental Frontier Violence that Killed His Son

This remarkable photo of Chief Big Ox of the Crow tribe carries with it a story of frontier tragedy.  This photo was taken around 1900 by an unknown photographer, and the aging man's face speaks of violence and loss.  

In 1880, in Junction City, formerly known as Terry's Landing and now a ghost town for over 100 years, the son of Chief Big Ox was killed when a small-caliber bullet struck his temple.  The shot was fired by a pioneer woman.  Hearing an Indian dog approaching her chickens, she grabbed a .22 rifle from its spot on the wall, walked outside, and fired in the general direction of the dog.  Her intention was to scare the dog away, not kill it, so she didn't aim the shot.  Then she noticed a human figure drop 100 yards away, and recognized the body as a Native-American man.  Thinking there's no way a .22 round fired from 100 yards away would kill a man, she hurried inside and put the rifle on the wall, intent on not telling anyone what she saw.  

She was, however, entertaining a Native-American woman visitor, who turned out to be the dead man's sister.  The sister had not seen her brother killed, and did not discover until the authorities arrived that anything was amiss.  

The pioneer woman would admit to firing the shot, and it was only 8 years later would she admit that she had seen the man fall. 

The Natives on the reservation entered into a lengthy period of mourning during which they cut joints off of their fingers and made small cuts on their heads and shoulders.  Several days later, the dead man's wife bore a child.  The grieving wife stood outside of the pioneer woman's house where she knew she would be noticed and held the child aloft.  

The pioneer woman records that "after hearing their moccasins squeak in the snow around the house all night I was ready to give up everything and move across the river next day. They buried the body on the highest hill there and in the evening a chief [presumably Big Ox] stood by the grave, after all the others left, and as the sun was setting he commenced to howl and chant the most unearthly noise, that could be heard for miles around, and did not quit until it was completely dark, and repeated that each month as long as I lived within hearing."

Finally, the woman moved away from the reservation, as "some men, Indian Traders, came and told us we must leave the Reservation as they could control the Indians no longer, so we took our babies, and a few articles of clothing and went across the ice to the town."

It's a powerful and tragic tale of frontier misunderstanding and just plain bad luck.  Looking at the photo of Chief Big Ox, it seems a sadness rests on his face, and it seems certain that it brought him pain to remember for the rest of his days.

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Suzan Abrahams (not verified) , Wed, 07/14/2021 - 13:01
What a very sad story. No doubt the woman could never forget what she had inadvertently done and no doubt the Native people could never forget either. How very tragic for all.
Kathryn Souders (not verified) , Wed, 09/01/2021 - 00:59
Big Ox is my great great grandfather, specifically, my grandmother's grandfather. While I have some historical information, there is much more to be known about him.
Taylor J. Honaker (not verified) , Mon, 07/24/2023 - 01:51
Retribution or Accident: A New Perspective on an Old Tragedy

As a direct descendant of Big Ox (Kathryn Souders is my aunt, and I am the grandson of Thomas J. Reed), I'm impelled to put forth a fresh perspective in response to Emily Spear DeWitt's great great grandmother’s account of an incident that culminated in the demise of my great-great-great grandfather's son. This is a personal conviction that has grown within my spirit.

DeWitt's version paints a picture of a tragic accident - an errant bullet from a .22 rifle, ostensibly intended for a pesky dog, striking down a young man. Yet, as I contemplate this narrative in the context of the fraught relations between the indigenous tribes and the settlers of that time, my soul insists on a different truth.

In the harsh winter of 1887, the relationships between the settlers and our ancestors were anything but amiable. This tension escalated when a Crow native was accused of slaughtering cattle. Could it be that the shooting of Big Ox's son was an act of retaliation, a cold-blooded murder guised as an unfortunate accident? I believe this to be so.

Contrary to DeWitt's account, I suspect there was no dog, but a calculated lie to veil an act of intentional retaliation.

Emily Spear DeWitt's portrayal positions her great great grandmother as a victim, a solitary woman amidst seven hundred Indians. But who were the true victims here? A grieving Big Ox, his tribe who lived in perpetual dread, their lives taken or disrupted, and their voices reduced to mere footnotes in history.

Eight years passed before DeWitt’s grandmother confessed her guilt, but did that confession bring peace to Big Ox and his grandchildren? No. Yet, she returned to the very community she had wounded, shielded by the laws of the "Great White Father in Washington." And not just that, her story became the subject of newspaper articles, turning their pain into her spectacle.

This retelling is not a cry for vengeance but an appeal for understanding and a counter-narrative. As Big Ox's descendant, I feel it's my duty to give voice to our ancestors, to shed light on our history, and to show that the life of my great-great-great grandfather's son was not extinguished by mere chance, but by an act steeped in disdain and prejudice.

Emily Spear DeWitt, the great-great-granddaughter of the woman who took that life, narrates one side of the story. But I, as a descendant of Big Ox, my intuition, and my heart push me to offer this counterpoint. He was not just a random victim, but a symbol of the cultural conflict that marred our shared past.

Him and the memory of his son deserves reverence and acknowledgement. Thus, this account is intended to honor them not as unfortunate victims of a stray bullet, but as a testament to the struggles their people faced, so that his life and the unjust death of his son resonate through the pages of history. Aho!
Tom (not verified) , Thu, 07/04/2024 - 16:50
Let’s be fair to both sides and acknowledge that we really don’t know what happened. Each side has a colored narrative shaded by their personal historical perspective, understanding and stories passed down through several generations. Think of the child’s game where you sit in a circle and whisper something to the person next to you. They do the same and around the churches it goes. By the time it arrives to the originator it is nothing like what was first said.
This response is not to diminish the horrible way native Americans were treated, but simply (by a person of Indian and white heritage) an attempt to try to bring some unbiased observation of the discussion.
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