Ace in the Hole

Occidental Hotel

Occidental Saloon

(October 2, 2017)  For my money, the best historical hotel in the United States is the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, Wyoming, so it was quite pleasing to see that Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gold and Guns is now being sold in the hotel bookstore.  That may be, in part, because the book discusses the Legend of the Lost Cabin Gold Mine and part of that legend occurred along Main Street in Buffalo just yards away from where the hotel stands today.

Everywhere you walk in this famous hotel, you will be walking where many famous people of the Old West walked – the young Teddy Roosevelt, Butch Cassidy and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody, Tom Horn, General “Little Phil” Sheridan, sheriffs Frank Canton and “Red” Angus, numerous figures from the Johnson County War, as well as more modern figures such as Ernest Hemingway and Owen Wister.

Occidental Hotel Lobby

In the rip-roaring days of early Wyoming, the Occidental Hotel saloon was famous far and wide as the lawful and lawless played faro and poker, talked up local ladies, consumed way too much hard liquor and beer and occasionally shot up the place, just like many of the gold-hunters on that 1874 Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition in the book.  One visitor in the early days, the establishment opened in 1880, called the Occidental Saloon “a regular gambling hell,” where high-stakes poker games could last for days, before being ended by a gunshot.  In 1908, the original rough barroom was replaced with one of the most elegant saloons in Wyoming, which is what you see today; but the raw underbelly is still present as are 23 bullet holes in the tin ceiling.

View from Hemingway Suite at Occidental Hotel

There is a trout stream right next to the hotel.  In fact, if you stay in the Ernest Hemingway Suite, you can walk out the back door to a small porch, and if you are a good fly-rod caster you can fish right from the porch.  There is a hotel museum, but really the entire hotel is a museum.

We stay there twice a year; you can get excellent food in the saloon or try and really gourmet meal at the hotel restaurant, known as The Virginian.  Elk filet, buffalo steaks and other fabulous entrees are served in a unique atmosphere.

It is certainly not an overstatement to say that the Hotel Occidental (and all its features) simply has to be on your personal bucket list.  Maybe you can even pick up the trail and find your own Lost Cabin Gold Mine.

Occidental Hotel book store


For more information, go to:




Occidental Hotel2018-07-11T12:30:35-06:00

Warriors fighting the 1874 Yellowstone Expedition

I am trying to determine names of warriors who may have fought there and later at  the LBH in 1876.  So far, I have the following names linked to the 1874  fighting…some are tenuous links, others can pretty accurately be demonstrated,  but I need anyone’s expertise here.  If you can confirm their presence in 1874 or if you know of other warriors that were there, please let me know their names and pertinent information:

Black Twin/Holy Eagle (Wakan) – Bad Face band/Oglala/Lakota

Braided Locks/Wrapped Braids – Northern Cheyenne

Crazy Horse (Tȟašúŋke Witkó) – Hunkpatila band/Oglala/Lakota

Eagle Elk (Wanbdi Herake)† – Oyuhpe band/Oglala/Lakota

Flying By/Struck/Struck Plenty (Keya Heyi) – Minneconjou/Lakota

Gall (Pizí) – Hunkpapa/Lakota

Good Weasel (Hitunkasan Waste)† – Bad Face band/Oglala/Lakota

Gray Earth Tracking/Sounds-the-Ground-When-He-Walks/Noisy Walking (Wahpekute) – Santee/ Lakota

High Bear (Sunka Mato) – Oglala/Lakota

Hump (Etokeah) – Minneconjou/Lakota

Inkpaduta/Red-End-of-Horn (He-inkpa-luta) – Santee/Lakota  

Iron Thunder (Wakiyan Maza) – Minneconjou/Lakota

Kicking Bear (Matȟó Wanáȟtake)† – Oyuhpe band/Oglala/Lakota

Little Killer (Ciqa Wicakte)† – Bad Face band/Oglala/Lakota

Little Wolf/Little Coyote (Ó’kôhómôxháahketa) # – Northern Cheyenne

Looking Horse† – Minneconjou/Lakota

Low Dog (Sunka Kyciyela)† – Oyuhpe band/Oglala/Lakota

Makes Room (Kiyukanpi) – Minneconjou/Lakota

Morning Star (Vóóhéhéve); Lakota name Dull Knife (Tamílapéšni)# – Northern Cheyenne

No Flesh – Oglala/Lakota

Red Hawk (Cetan Luta) – Minneconjou/Lakota

Shell Boy (Pankeska Hoksila)† – Oyuhpe band/Oglala/Lakota

Shell Necklace (Pankeska Napin) – Oglala/Lakota

Shoot the Bear (Mato Kutepi) – Hunkpapa/Lakota

Short Bull (Tȟatȟaŋka Ptecela)† – Bad Face band/Oglala/Lakota

Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka) – Hunkpapa/Lakota

Touch the Clouds (Maȟpíya Ičáȟtagya)# – Minneconjou/Lakota

White Earth Tracking (Oyemakasan) – Santee/Lakota

White Twin – Bad Face band/Oglala/Lakota


# inferred from Lakota oral tradition by Donovin A. Sprague Hump

+ inferred from membership in Hokší Hakákta, Last-Born Child Society

Red Hawk


Warriors fighting the 1874 Yellowstone Expedition2015-06-21T22:30:01-06:00

Big Horn Gun Ammunition

Brigadier General Lester S. Willson

In 1874, William D. Cameron, a Civil War veteran, assumed command of the Big Horn Gun for the expedition.  He determined that what was needed was shrapnel filled projectiles, although in the Montana Territory there were probably none to be found.  Using his imagination, he discovered several cases of canned oysters in the Tuller, Rich and Willson General Store, owned by Lester S. Willson.  However, Lester S. Willson was no ordinary shopkeeper, not by a long shot.

Born in Canton, New York, on June 16, 1839, Willson enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, rising through the ranks in the Sixtieth New York Volunteers to become a colonel by 1865.  During the war, he fought at Antietam, was severely wounded at Chancellorsville, and fought at Lookout Mountain, Atlanta and Savannah.  Colonel Wilson received the surrender Savannah from Mayor Arnold and was the first officer to enter that city at the head of his own regiment.  Two years after the war, he received a brevet promotion to Brigadier General “for gallant and meritorious services under General Sherman, resulting in the fall of Atlanta, Georgia.  After the war, he traveled to Montana, where he became a prominent businessman and politician.  When Cameron told him what he needed, Willson knew just what the doctor ordered.

Cameron and Willson donated the oysters to the general public and filled the empty cans with nails, cut-up horse shoes and scrap iron.  They cut the tops of the cans – which were about eight inches tall – to form metal tabs around the edge and after the original lids were put back into place, crimped the tabs in place.  The pair also found a ream of blue flannel which the cut and sewed into powder charge bags.  Ten inches long and filled with black powder, the charge bags formed a snug fit, when rammed down the muzzle of the cannon, and ensured that the shrapnel canisters would fly a long way.

Big Horn Gun Ammunition2013-08-04T13:24:33-06:00

Wagon Train Laager

Each afternoon that the wagon train was on the move, Frank Grounds would personally select a campsite on high ground, with no higher terrain in the vicinity from which warriors snipers could fire down into the camp.  Each site was large enough for the men to place all the wagons in an oval and chain them together.  At dusk, the frontiersmen would drive all the livestock into the center of this oval, as if these animals were killed or driven off, disaster would follow.  In many places, this center position for the livestock was in a slight possession, where the animals could be corralled.

When the wagon train was halted for the night, Joe Cook stated that the men would dig a trench about two feet wide and two feet deep on both sides of the corral for breastworks for the protection of the pickets.  They would then dig holes out from two to three hundred yards from the camp.  Each man cut a “head log” from eight to ten inches in diameter and about three feet long.  They would lay these on the embankments and dig small post holes under the logs, so that the Indians could not shoot them in the head, while the frontiersmen were shooting.  Whenever any of these pickets fired a shot, all the others would come into camp as soon as possible.


Wagon Train Laager2013-08-11T12:27:32-06:00

Model 1874 Sharps

Sharps Model 1874 .50 caliber

At the apex of buffalo hunting (1870-1884,) the Sharps rifle was a favorite among many buffalo hunters, because of its accuracy at long range.  Other rifles were available, such as the Ballard, the Springfield 1873 and the Remington Rolling Block, but the vast majority of frontiersmen who needed a large caliber rifle opted for the Sharps.  The company itself – the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut – called the rifle, “Old Reliable.”  Buffalo hunters called it, “poison slinger.”  Historians have come to call it, “The gun that shaped American destiny.”   The original Sharps Model 1874 was actually introduced in 1871, but the model number was changed in 1874, when new owners purchased the company.  Reorganized as the Sharps Rifle Company, the business moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1876.  The change may have been intended to show prospective purchasers of Sharps rifles that the company had something new to offer.

What set the Sharps apart from other large-caliber rifles was the ammunition for which it was chambered.  The Sharps action was inherently strong and could withstand chamber pressures that would seriously damage other rifles.  One of the largest of these was the .50-170-700.  The most widely-used caliber for the buffalo hunters probably was the .50-90, basically a lengthened .50-70.  Another extremely popular cartridge was the .44-90, in essence a necked down .50-90 firing a 520 grain bullet.  Some hunters believed that with properly adjusted telescopic sights they could hit anything they aimed at up to 1,000 yards.  At these ranges, some experts believed the .45-125-550 was the ideal load.  As most plains buffalo hunters reloaded their ammunition with varying amounts of black powder to save money, cartridges like the .50-90 were not always referred to as such.  For this reason, Sharps (and ammunition-makers) referred to the standard cartridges by caliber and case length with most Sharps rifles marked as such.  The .50-90, for example, was designated .50-2½.   Many cartridges for Sharps rifles were bottlenecked; ones which were not included the .45-70, the .50-70 and the .50-90.  Before the expedition, Sharps Model 1874 rifles were chambered for the following cartridges and thus it would have been possible for these caliber Sharps to have been present: the .40-90 Bottleneck (2 5/8”) using 265 to 370 grain bullets, .the 44-77 Bottleneck (2 1/4”) with 380 or 405 grain bullets, the .44-90 Sharps Bottleneck (2 5/8”) with 450 or 500 grain bullets, the .50-70 Government (1 3/4”) with 425 to 500 grain bullets and .50-90 Sharps (2 1/2”) firing 425 or 473 grain bullets.  Many .50-70 Government cartridges were found by Don Weibert during his lengthy research on the positions along the expedition’s route.  However, this does not mean the other caliber Sharps Model 1874s were not there, as almost all buffalo hunters reloaded their ammunition and would have saved all their expended cartridges.

Model 1874 Sharps2013-08-24T10:58:02-06:00

Wagon Train Tactics

Fortunately for the Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition, the tactics employed were close to perfect with respect to the nature of the enemy, the terrain, the weather and the capabilities and weapons of the frontiersmen.  They had to be with Hump and Inkpaduta lurking along the route with hundreds of Lakota, ready to pounce.  Joe Cook later recounted that when the wagon train was traveling there was a front and rear guard of twenty men in each squad, and a left and right flank guard of the same number that moved with the train, from a quarter to a half mile distance from the train all owing to the lay of the country through which they were traveling.

Addison M. Quivey later commented on the precautions taken by the frontiersmen:

“During the whole trip, every precaution was observed to guard our wagons. We drove in double line wherever practicable, with the pack animals well in hand; and when moving we always had a guard in front and rear, and on each flank.


Wagon Train Tactics2013-08-04T13:07:47-06:00


1874 Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospection Expedition Route

They called themselves “The Boys” and they numbered about one-hundred and fifty of the most adventurous – and cantankerous – hombres to ever ride a wagon train in the Old West.  Scouts, gold prospectors, a former Texas ranger, buffalo hunters and Civil War veterans of both sides – men who counted coup at Antietam, Stones River, Nashville, Missionary Ridge, Vicksburg, Kennesaw Mountain and Atlanta – they may have been the deadliest collection of shooters to ever hit the trail west of the Mississippi River.  Now, however, they were not trying to corral Confederate raider John H. Morgan or conquer “Reb” cavalry commander Jeb Stuart.  “The Boys” were now up on the Great Plains, along the mighty Yellowstone River and her tributaries – waterways with fabled names Powder, Tongue, Rosebud, Big Horn, Lodge Grass and Little Bighorn.  And their adversaries now were the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne – some of the greatest light cavalry to ever gallop over the North American continent.  This time, it was the warriors, not the frontiersmen, doing the hunting and they were led by the formidable chieftains Hump and Inkpaduta, with perhaps Sitting Bill waiting in the wings.  The experienced warriors, who learned how to ride almost before they could walk, knew the terrain and what waited around every corner.  What they did not know was that “The Boys” were armed with two cannons, for which they had devised ingenious explosive canister rounds – as well as dozens of Springfield “Big Fifty” rifles and powerful Sharps buffalo guns and could drop anything on two or four legs a long, long way away.  What both sides had in common was suffering through three months of a brutal Montana winter, where temperatures plummeted to thirty degrees below zero and where only the strongest survived.

Despite its obscure place in history, we are blessed with over one-hundred years of sources, if only we will search for them.  Unlike the demise of George Custer some two years later at the Little Bighorn – only a few miles from where “The Boys” had fought, there were plenty of survivors to tell the story.

“It was in ‘74, and I don’t think there was ever a march made into the heart of a hostile Indian country that ever equaled it.  The country was alive with Sioux Indians and yet we made that march, losing only one man out of 146.  We were in search of gold.  In one fight, we had the best warriors of the Sioux nation pitted against us…The prime object of the movement was to open up the Wolf Creek country, where, as the party then supposed, rich placers [alluvial deposits] could be found.”

These were the words of James Gourley, years after participating in the Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition; what he did not write was that in that last battle, there may have been upwards of 1,400 warriors riding in to attack – long odds for any defense.  The warriors understood this, and perhaps out of respect,  “The Boys’” opponents, certainly led by Hump and Inkpaduta – and possibly in the presence of the great Sitting Bull – called them Wan-tan-yeya-pelo (straight-shooters) and Maka-ti-oti (dug-out dwellers) because the frontiersmen dug rifle pits from which they poured out round after round of accurate fire.  And the warriors soon nicknamed these huge rifles the “shoot today, kill tomorrow” guns.

The written history of the events you are about to read is as such: In February 1874, the Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition was a quasi-military operation, departing from Bozeman in the Montana Territory, and proceeding along the Yellowstone River Valley for the purpose of determining the suitability of the Yellowstone River for navigation and scouting a wagon road. Equally as important – at least to the members of the expedition – it was a search for gold.  This expedition, headed by veteran Indian-fighter Frank Grounds, was supposed to travel down the Yellowstone River to the mouth of the Tongue River, but turned around at Rosebud Creek and was not able to reach its goal because bison had eaten all the grass in this area earlier in the year, but also because Grounds realized the Lakota and Cheyenne would not stop until the last man in the wagon train went down.  The expedition survived, and at least six key participants of the 1874 trek played prominent roles with the United States Army at the Little Bighorn campaign two years later.

Behind the scenes is another story.  The territorial governor of Montana played a significant role in the formation of the expedition, but his motivation – at least in part – may have been less than noble.  And what role did the United States Army play in equipping the expedition through a cavalry major at Fort Ellis who was a Civil war hero and West Point classmate of Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, the commander of the Division of the Missouri?

But, as Napoleon once said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”  That has never been truer than with the Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition, which entered the legend that became the Wild West, almost before it made it back to Bozeman, Montana.  This book seeks to cut through that legend, with a result that what really happened is actually much more incredible that what – until now – we like to believe happened.  Equipped with two mysterious artillery pieces, the men of the wagon train had in their midst some of the greatest buffalo hunters of the era.  One of them, Jack Bean, would fire a long-range shot at the expedition’s climactic “Battle of Lodge Grass Creek” that was the longest recorded hit against a single opponent in the history of frontier America.  And who would ever believe that a former slave – and later a sergeant in an elite all-black Union unit, the only combat element of the war to serve under exclusive leadership of black officers – went hand-to-hand, with knife versus tomahawk against a Lakota warrior, vanquishing a foe that some believe may have been a son of Sitting Bull?

One could make the argument that every man on the expedition, and their Lakota and Cheyenne opponents as well, were also heroes, who defied the odds in simply surviving.  Previously just listed as non-descript names in old books, with today’s resources, we can now determine exactly who many of them were, how they shaped history before and after the fight and what happened to them in their twilight years of telling old stories to their grandchildren around the hearth.

Just thirty years after the expedition, Jorge Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, better known as George Santayana, wrote that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but what about those participants in history, who remember it incorrectly or take the wrong lessons of the past and try to apply them to different circumstances in the future?  Perhaps an understanding of the 1874 Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition may also shed light on one of the West’s greatest mysteries that will never be solved – the defeat of George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.  The warrior chiefs fighting the 1874 expedition, and at least six frontiersmen on the wagon train, would later play prominent roles in the 1876 Great Sioux War.  How these men saw the conduct of the 1874 fighting and how they correctly or incorrectly interpreted this information to adapt to the fighting in 1876 would significantly affect the outcome of that latter conflict for better or worse.

In our collective history, the Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition of 1874 has remained an obscure sidelight that has never been remembered.  Even the great historian Dr. Walter S. Campbell (born Walter Stanley Vestal) wrote in 1956 that he was generally not informed about the expedition.  On the other hand, the “Battle of the Little Bighorn” of 1876 remains a watershed moment that will never be forgotten.  George Santayana would have understood completely.


Go to Top