Custer’s Favorite Scout Fought Bravely

Bloody Knife Killed at Bighorn
Bismarck, D.T.
July 1876

Bloody Knife, the Arikara who was Custer’s favorite scout, has been killed in the battle of the Little Bighorn. He was one of several scouts to give his life in the line of duty.

Bloody Knife was one of the first Arikara to enlist under the terms of an 1866 law that permitted the recruitment and enlistment of Indians as scouts into the Regular Army. These scouts are paid the same as privates, $16 a month. They serve six-month enlistments. Bloody Knife served eleven enlistments.

When he first became a scout in 1868, he had already established himself as an able and trustworthy person. He carried the U.S. mail and guided hunting parties for some time. Colonel Philippe Régis de Trobriand, the commander at Fort Stevenson in the 1860s, had heard about the successes of Pawnee scouts on the southern Plains and believed that scouts could help him keep the peace on the northern Plains.

Bloody Knife.  National Archives.

Trobriand knew that enlistment in the army would allow the Arikara men a chance to continue as warriors and to hunt freely as they always had done. The commander thought that the Arikara dislike for their long-time enemies, the Lakota, would be an advantage for the military.
On May 1, 1868, ten Arikara enlisted as scouts at Fort Stevenson—Bloody Knife was one of them. In 1869 he moved to Fort Buford. There Colonel Henry Morrow requested that Bloody Knife be appointed as leader of the scouts because “he well merits any distinction that may be conferred upon him.”

Bloody Knife’s close association with Colonel George Armstrong Custer began in 1873 on an expedition to the Yellowstone, when the photograph shown here were taken. Now a lance corporal in charge of six scouts, Bloody Knife and Custer spent a great deal of time together, hunting and conferring. Bloody Knife knew the terrain of western Dakota and Montana very well. He was half Lakota and grew up in the region. Custer called Bloody Knife “my guide and scout”; Bloody Knife referred to Custer as “of all the white chiefs, the greatest chief.”

General David Stanley who commanded the Yellowstone expedition praised Bloody Knife for his bravery in two skirmishes with the Lakota. According to Stanley, Bloody Knife “has been very highly spoken of in General Custer’s dispatches.” The Arikara scout received a $60 bonus.

Custer requested that Bloody Knife serve as his chief scout in his 1874 expedition into the Black Hills, the heart of Lakota country. He was now a famous scout. The Bismarck Tribune referred to him as one of “great value” and announced his arrival at Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Bloody Knife was more than eager to confront the Lakota. Although he became angry with Custer when the Colonel pursued peaceful ways of dealing with the Lakota, he received high praise for his work on the Black Hills Expedition. According to Custer, “No one who accompanied but can certify to the invaluable assistance rendered by Bloody Knife as guide. He was unceasing in his daily efforts to find good and practical routes. He frequently encountered unusual dangers.” Again, he received a bonus for his services. When Bloody Knife was discharged on November 30, 1874, his document read, “excellent and reliable character.”

It surprised no one that Custer, eighteen months later, hired Bloody Knife as his personal civilian scout and guide. This time the expedition was to the Little Bighorn.  Before leaving for Montana on May 17, 1876, Custer presented Bloody Knife with a special gift, a black handkerchief covered with blue stars. Like Custer, Bloody Knife did not return from Montana country. He was killed in the battle.

He is survived by his wife, She Owl, and several children on the Fort Berthold Reservation.


By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change