Across The Fence
Born in Racine, Wisconsin on February 14, 1849 to Irish immigrant parents, Valentine Trant M’Gillycuddy would become one of the wests most notable military surgeons, government agent of the Pine Ridge, Sioux Reservation and influential statesmen. At the young age of twenty years, he graduated from Detroit Medical School and a year later became an instructor at the college. Teaching apparently did not suit him and so he took a job with the geodetic survey crew that was mapping Lake Michigan. Tall, gangly and in poor health, Dr. McGillycuddy sought out an opportunity to restore his health and strengthen a weak heart. To that end, in 1875, he joined the Jenney-Newton Expedition to the Black Hills as mapmaker and the expeditions doctor. The fresh air, physical effort and invigorating western climate provided the cure that he sought. The expedition confirmed the claim of George Armstrong Custer’s earlier expedition that there was gold in the Black Hills. That confirmation and the resulting flood of white gold-seekers set the stage for what would become known as The Great Sioux Wars.
It was during this expedition that M’Gillycuddy became the first man to summit Harney Peak, a feat that was attempted but failed by Custer. Custer had attempted to scale the sheer cliff face by brute force but was unable to conquer the obstacle. M’Gillycuddy accomplished the feat by cutting down a nearby towering pine tree, that fell against the steep cliff, which he then used as a makeshift ladder and climbed to the top. M’Gillycuddy is also credited with the discovery of the warm mineral springs in the Black Hills region that is now known as Hot Springs, South Dakota.
While in the service of the Jenney-Newton Expedition, Dr. M’Gillycuddy met a host of memorable western personalities. Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane, whom M’Gillycuddy danced with in Cheyenne, were among those whose acquaintance he made. He was also introduced to the first Indian he had ever met, Oglala Lakota Chief, Sitting Bull.
On the return trip to Washington D.C., after the Black Hills Expedition, M’Gillycuddy detoured to Detroit where he married his betrothed sweetheart Fanny Hoyt. Fanny would be at his side, through all of his varied adventures, until her death in 1897. When the newlyweds arrived in Washington D.C., M’Gillycuddy was appointed to the position of surgeon for the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and served in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska.
July 1876 was the Centennial celebration of America’s Independence. While folks back east were celebrating, Custer was leading a military force against the Sioux and Cheyenne in the hills of Montana. The celebration would quickly become bitter as news of Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn spread across the continent. M’Gillycuddy was with General Crook and the 2nd Cavalry when a pursuit of the hostiles was ordered. It was the 10th of August 1876 when Gen. Crook, with 2,200 troopers began a military action in pursuit of the Sioux and Cheyenne forces that had defeated Custer.
The expedition began as one intended to bring a swift and severe punitive action. Speed and surprise was important so only 14 days of rations, consisting of hardtack, bacon and coffee, were prepared for the men along with grain for the horses and mules. Wagons, tents and cooking utensils were left behind. All of the supplies were carried on the backs of 240 pack mules. Soldiers were allowed to carry nothing more than a single blanket.
What was intended to be a brief and successful campaign became a 40-day march in adverse weather conditions of rain and hail in severe thunderstorms that occurred during 22 of the 40 days. Exposure and fatigue took a heavy toll and as supplies diminished the troopers were reduced to a diet of emaciated horses and mules. The expedition was mainly unsuccessful with only a small band of Sioux engaged and defeated at no small amount of casualties to Crooks command. However, that engagement, The Battle of Slim Buttes was heralded as a victory for Gen. Crook. The expedition became known as “The Horsemeat March” and Army Surgeon M’Gillycuddy suffered alongside the troopers in his care. It was during this campaign that M’Gillycuddy performed his first amputation.
Later, while stationed at Ft. Robinson, Nebraska, M’Gillycuddy was promoted to Major and served as the post surgeon for the remainder of 1876 and through 1877. At Ft. Rob he became acquainted with Crazy Horse when he treated Crazy Horse’s wife who suffered with tuberculosis. On September 5, 1877 Crazy Horse was bayoneted during an attempt to place him under arrest. M’Gillycuddy insisted that the wounded chief be cared for in the adjutant’s quarters rather than the guardhouse. He administered morphine to ease the pain of the dying chief and with Crazy Horse’s family, kept watch until his death. M’Gillycuddy became known among the Sioux as Tasunka Witko Kola, “Crazy Horse’s friend”. M’Gillycuddy wrote down his thoughts and his memory of Crazy Horse’s death;
“He was but thirty-six. In him everything was made secondary to patriotism and love of his people. Modest, fearless, a mystic, a believer in destiny, and much of a recluse, he was held in veneration and admiration by the youngest warriors, who would follow him anywhere. These qualities made him a danger to the government and he became persona non grata to evolution and to the progress of the white man’s civilization, Hence his early death was preordained. At about eleven p.m. that night in the gloomy old adjutant’s office, as his life was fast ebbing, the bugler on the parade ground wailed out the lonesome call for Taps, “Lights out, go to sleep!” It brought back to him the old battles; he struggled to arise, and there came from his lips his old rallying cry, “A good day to fight, a good day to die! Brave hearts....” and his voice ceased, the lights went out and the last sleep came. It was a scene never to be forgotten…”
In 1879 M’Gillycuddy was appointed Indian Agent of the Red Cloud Agency on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Opposed by Red Cloud from the beginning, the two strong-willed men engaged in a seven-year cold war. Red Cloud considered M’Gillycuddy to be a youthful upstart and made several trips to Washington to have him removed as agent. Dr. M’Gillycuddy was in fact dictatorial in his administration as Agent, but was always fair and consistent in his treatment of the Indians under his charge. Despite his rigidity he was sincere in his efforts to assist the Indians in achieving a peaceful and productive existence within the constraints of the white man’s imposed conditions.
Eventually, Red Cloud and M’Gillycuddy resolved their differences but despite protests from both whites and Indians, M’Gillycuddy was replaced in 1886 when he refused to dismiss one of his assistants. Dr. and Mrs. M’Gillycuddy then moved to Rapid City, SD where he became involved in the growing community. He became the president of the Lakota Bank, was appointed Surgeon General, elected to the states constitutional convention, was president of the School of Mines and served as mayor for two years.
In 1890, due to the escalating unrest over the troublesome Ghost Dance, Dr. M’Gillycuddy was asked to return to the Pine Ridge reservation to help in resolving the explosive unrest. When he arrived, Chief Red Cloud stood and pointing to M’Gillycuddy said:
“That is Wasicu Wakan. For seven winters he was our Father. He said to me, “Some day you will say that my way was best for the Indian.” I will tell him now that he spoke the truth. He was a young man with an old man’s head on his shoulders and he never sent for any soldiers.”
On December 29, 1890 Dr. M’Gillycuddy received word of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Leaving Fanny at their home in Rapid City, he rode horseback through the bitter cold night and arrived at Wounded Knee the following morning. As he approached the site and saw the frozen bodies of Sioux men, women and children being thrown into wagons and carted to the gouged out burial pit, I have no doubt that he wept. Then dismounting, he began to care for the wounded, both those in blue wool uniforms and those in leather and blankets.
After twenty-two years together, Fanny died in 1897. Dr. M’Gillycuddy moved to California where he practiced medicine. At nearly seventy years of age, in 1918, he traveled to Alaska and across the west treating victims of the tragic influenza epidemic. On June 6th, 1939 at the age of 90 years, Dr. Valentine T. M’Gillycuddy passed from this world to the next. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, flags were flown at half-mast.
He was a man of principle, a man of courage, a man of conviction, a man of vision for the future and a man of compassion for his fellow man regardless of their heritage or faith. Perhaps he was aptly named, Valentine, for I believe he was a man whose heart was filled with a sincere love for all of mankind.
In 1940, the cremated remains of Dr. Valentine Trant M’Gillycuddy were buried atop Harney Peak, overlooking the Black Hills and the sweeping prairies to the Pine Ridge. The stone marker is inscribed: “Valentine T. McGillycuddy 1849-1939 Wasicu Wakan.”--meaning “Holy White Man.”
M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, cowboy poet and entertainer. To contact Tim, e-mail; [email protected]