Return to index...
Of Irony, Memory, and Lt. Dorst
Sequoia National Park, California
I cannot work in Fresno without a return to the Big Trees. I travel a familiar road up into the majestic fantasyland and enjoy the stunning pullovers. The beauty is intoxicating, enabling me to stagger and slur through thoughtful hours, staring over vast, mountain-strewn vistas from beneath towering, aboriginal behemoths. The intoxication induces sentimental thoughts and memories, bequeathing serenity, inducing tranquility, until I think of Lt. Dorst.
On the frigid morning of November 25, 1876, five months to the day after George Armstrong Custer and his entire command were destroyed on the banks of the Little Big Horn River, Lt. Joseph H. Dorst participated in the surprise attack on Morning Star's Cheyenne village on the Red Fork of Wyoming's Powder River. Jerome A. Greene, in his book Morning Star Dawn, describes the U.S. army's strategy: "The act of sweeping down suddenly and striking warriors and their families together, threatening, capturing, or killing noncombatants in the process, while simultaneously driving off and destroying the pony herd and then burning the village and its contents, though seemingly immoral by modern standards, nonetheless offered means of success to a frontier army charged with protecting white citizens."
Eleven hundred soldiers, led by Colonel Ranald Mackenzie as part of a larger expedition under the direction of Brigadier General George Crook, poured into a canyon containing one hundred and seventy lodges and their estimated twelve hundred aboriginal souls. The assault force contained many 'Custer Avengers,' men who had joined the army in droves after the recent demise of their flamboyant but foolish hero on the banks of the Little Big Horn.
Surviving Indian accounts color a dawn crimson with terror, hysteria, and confusion. Warriors fought to the death trying to delay the onslaught so that their women and children could escape into the surrounding mountains. One woman described seeing her husband for the last time, lying dead in the snow. Soldier accounts include the shooting of elderly woman for her buffalo robe, and dismay that their strategy of surrounding the camp had failed, allowing many of the Indians to escape.
As horrific as the attack was, the aftermath proved as deadly. The Cheyenne's entire winter store of buffalo meat was destroyed as well as all their lodges, clothing, weapons, and life-long, house-hold possessions. Their ponies were captured, condemning the survivors to face a winter on foot without food, clothing, or shelter. Indeed, that night in the high passes of the Bighorn Mountains, the temperature dropped to thirty degrees below zero, prompting the Indians to shoot what horses they did possess and slit open their stomachs, so that bare hands, feet - and babies - could be inserted within in an attempt to warm, and survive. Thirteen Indian babies died that night of exposure, and three more the following night. During the next two weeks, as survivors staggered across a hostile, frozen wasteland, an untold number of women, children, and warriors also succumbed.
The attack was considered a great success, and given front-page play in the nation's newspapers. It was the final blow to the Northern Cheyenne tribe, which would within the year be driven like cattle to their new home in Indian Territory, today's Oklahoma. Not all, however, were enamored of the victory. George W. Manypenny, former commissioner of Indian affairs and intimately familiar with the treaties his government had signed with the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes, lamented that the strike had violated provisions of the treaties which had guaranteed that each Indian "be protected in his rights of property, person and life." He also wrote, "It was a grave offense, it was a crime, to attack this village, kill its inmates, and destroy their property. Such conduct should at all times be disavowed by the government, and such of its public servants as participate in it should be severely dealt with." There was one other order of aftermath business. In 1891, after receiving a petition from Joseph H. Dorst, the army bestowed on First Sergeant Thomas Forsyth for his actions on November 25th, 1876, a Congressional Medal of Honor. His citation states: "Though dangerously wounded, he maintained his ground with a small party against a largely superior force after his commanding officer had been shot down during a sudden attack and rescued that officer and a comrade from the enemy."
As I sit staggering and slurring through serenity and tranquility here under the Big Trees, I think of Lt. Dorst. In 1890 Congress passed legislation creating Yosemite, General Grant, and Sequoia National Parks, to secure forever the groves of the Big Trees. The physical protection of these parks fell to the U.S. army. The following May fifty-eight soldiers, led by Captain Joseph H. Dorst, arrived in the southern Sierra Nevada. Dorst became the first acting Superintendent of Sequoia National Park and faced a myriad of problems, though Native Americans were not one of them. He undoubtedly heard first-hand from Hale Tharp, the first white man to reside in the area, what Tharp would later write in his memoirs: "By the spring of 1862 quite a number of whites had settled in the Three Rivers section, and the Indians were gradually forced out about this time Chief Chappo and some of his men came to see me, and asked me to try and stop the whites from coming into their country. When I said that was impossible, they all sat down and cried. They told me that their people loved this country, did not want to leave it, and knew not where to go. A few days later Chappo came to me with tears in his eyes and told me that they had decided not to fight the whites but would leave "
And so I wonder what Mr. Dorst thought as he looked upon this grandeur; were his thoughts similar to mine, of tranquility and beauty, or did he think back to a bitterly cold November morning - ever - and question what he had done? But as I raise my head from this writing, and look upon the largest Sequoia of them all, I sense an answer. The largest Sequoia tree was, according to park literature, named by a Union veteran of the Civil War. It was not named after the martyred president who had freed the slaves, nor for the General who had led the Union army to victory over Robert E. Lee. It was named for the man reviled to this day in the south for his strategy of total destruction during the Civil War. It is named the General Sherman Tree.
America has changed. From a strategy of total destruction in 1864 and a policy of ethnic cleansing during the Indian Wars, we have seen the Nuremberg trials of 1946 proclaim that morality supersedes a superior's orders. In 1968, immersed in emotions similar to those of Custer's Avengers at Morning Star's village in 1876, Lt. William Calley led a murderous rampage through the Vietnamese village of Mai Lai. At his 1971 trial he pleaded that he was only following his superior's orders, but was convicted of pre-meditated murder. We have gone from Medal's of Honor to pre-meditated murder in barely one hundred years. But how much has really changed?
This year, a couple of months after the U.S. military killed an unknown but substantial number of innocent Iraqi civilians, a monument was unveiled on the Custer Battlefield. The Peace Through Unity memorial, "in honor and dedication of the Native Americans who died on this sacred ground on June 25 and 26th, 1876," lies cold and lonely on the plains of eastern Wyoming, testament to a ruined and wronged ten-thousand-year-old culture. Those I have spoken with about this memorial express disgust and dismay, suggesting it is simply another token disgrace in the politically correct atmosphere dominating today's culture. One friend, shaking his head, sums up the consensus: "The country's going to hell."
As I sit on August 5, 2003 in Sequoia National Park, staggering and slurring through visions of grandeur and beauty abrogated by Lt. Dorst's ghost, I suddenly grasp the irony of my friend's lament.
He just may be right.