Chief Big Ox of the Crow, and the Tale of Accidental Frontier Violence that Killed His Son
December 16, 2020
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.