Dakota Datebook

Alfred Howe Terry

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Alfred Howe Terry was born into a prosperous Connecticut family on this date in 1827. After graduating from Yale with a law degree, Terry worked for a Connecticut Superior Court.

When the Civil War broke out, he raised a regiment of volunteers and led them at First Bull Run and other battles. Terry had a long-standing interest in military history, and his study of tactics brought him success on the battlefield. He rapidly rose to the level of brigadier general, sticking it out until the war’s end – a rare feat for a volunteer officer.

After the war, Terry became a military commander in Dakota Territory and was a member of the peace commission that saw the close of Red Cloud’s campaign against American troops. Using his legal training and judicial experience, he negotiated the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 – an accomplishment that subsequently led to similar commissions during his lifetime.

Terry then left the Dakotas for a post in Georgia, where he oversaw reconstruction efforts. He became a vigorous opponent of the emerging Ku Klux Klan, but by 1872, he was back in Dakota Territory providing military protection for the Hayden survey of the Yellowstone region.

The following year, he became commanding officer over Custer and the 7th Cavalry when it was posted to Ft. Lincoln. He soon found himself caught in the middle of a controversy triggered by Custer’s expedition into the Black Hills. When Custer let the world know he found gold there, the resulting rush onto reservation lands broke the Laramie Treaty, which Terry himself negotiated.

Trying to repair the damage, Terry joined the Allison Committee in an attempt to buy, outright, the Black Hills from the Lakota in 1875. When his efforts failed, he directed the 1876 campaign to force the Lakota and their allies onto reservations.

In PBS’s New Perspectives on THE WEST, it’s stated, “Despite his unhappiness over Custer’s adventure in the Black Hills, Terry interceded on Custer’s behalf when his complaints about Indian Bureau activities in the Dakotas provoked a political controversy that nearly cost him the command of the Seventh Cavalry. In retrospect, Terry may have regretted this magnanimous gesture, for it was Custer’s failure to obey Terry’s orders that caused the 1876 campaign to end in disaster.”

After the battle of the Little Bighorn, General Terry oversaw the court of inquiry that eventually cleared Major Reno – commander of the only surviving unit – of the charge of cowardice. But, Terry was dissatisfied and persisted in the investigation until Reno was dishonorably discharged.

Terry was still in command when Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé were defeated during their attempt to join Sitting Bull in Canada. Later in 1877, Terry himself traveled into Canada with a commission to negotiate a truce with Sitting Bull, who fled the country after the Little Bighorn. The attempt was unsuccessful. Four years later, it was to General Terry that Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Buford.

Terry was promoted to major general in 1886 and appointed commander of the Army’s Great Plains forces. However, he became disabled following a serious illness and had to retire in 1888. He died in Connecticut two years later – one day after Indian Police killed Sitting Bull while trying to arrest him at his home on Grand River, SD.

Source: Alfred Howe Terry. New perspectives on THE WEST. PBS: 2001. <http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/terry.htm>

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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