On July 17, 1876, three weeks after the defeat of Custer at the Little Big Horn, the Fifth U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Col. Wesley Merritt, skirmished with Cheyenne Indians from Red Cloud Agency at Warbonnet Creek in northwest Nebraska. The warrior Yellow Hair was killed at the outset by regimental scout William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who claimed that he had taken “the first scalp for Custer.” This minor episode, soon after Custer’s defeat, signaled the army’s ultimate victory in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, and bolstered Cody’s fame.
The aim of the Fifth Cavalry in Indian country was to block an Indian supply trail from the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies in Nebraska to the Powder River country of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. The skirmish with the Cheyenne, from a village largely belonging to Morning Star (Dull Knife), occurred where the supply trail crossed the creek at a remote site in today’s Sioux County. Cody and a small group of soldiers from Company K attacked Cheyenne who were waiting to ambush the two outriders from an approaching train of supply wagons bound for the nearby Fifth’s camp. The rest of the Fifth had formed its ranks on the east bank of the stream, just behind a high rise concealing them from the rest of the oncoming Cheyenne.
Cody killed one of the Cheyenne, Yellow Hair, and stripped the scalp from his dead foe. The rest of the Indians then turned and fled in the opposite direction, back toward the Red Cloud Agency. The soldiers pursued only a short distance, never coming close enough to fire a single shot at their retreating enemy in what is remembered as the Battle of Warbonnet Creek.
Cody’s participation at Warbonnet, and especially his claim to be the slayer of Yellow Hair, has been disputed since the event. Many individuals later claimed that they, in fact, were the true killers of Yellow Hair. None of the assertions stands close scrutiny.
Paul L. Hedren’s First Scalp for Custer: The Skirmish at Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska, July 17, 1876, originally published in 1980, is now available in a revised edition published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 2005.