Deadwood Magazine
January/February 1999
Frontier doctor a man of many achievements

by Robert E. Hayes

At the summit of the highest peak east of the Rockies a small brass plate on the stairway of the lookout tower is inscribed with the words:

Valentine T. McGillycuddy -- Wasicu Waken 1849 - 1939

That modest memorial marks the burial site of a courageous frontier doctor whose Indian name (Wasicu Waken) translates as Holy White Man, a tribute to his lasting friendship with the Ogalala Sioux.

Named for the February holiday on which he was born, Valentine Trant O'Connell McGillycuddy was the first white man to climb to the top of 7,242-foot Harney Peak and the first and only person ever buried there.

He came to the Black Hills as topographer and surgeon with the l875 Jenney Expedition, just a year after George Armstrong Custer led an exploratory expedition into the mysterious Paha Sapa.

Custer had attempted to scale Harney Peak in 1874, but was blocked from reaching the summit by a sheer precipice of solid granite. Confronted by the same perpendicular cliffs a year later, McGillycuddy and his companions solved the problem with engineering ingenuity. They felled a tall Ponderosa pine and leaned it against the cliff to create a makeshift ladder.

But Dr. McGillycuddy's other accomplishments in the early settlement of the west far overshadowed his mountain climbing feat. He distinguished himself in such diverse occupations as physician and army surgeon, topographer and surveyor, Indian agent, mayor of Rapid City, college president, member of the State Constitutional Convention.

Dr. McGillycuddy was on the scene at some of the most significant historical events of Dakota Territory in the late 1800s He tended the wounded, Indian and white, after the battles of the Rosebud and Slim Buttes; accompanied General Crook on his "horsemeat march" to Deadwood; danced with Calamity Jane; administered morphine to a dying Crazy Horse; removed Red Cloud from power and ministered to Wounded Knee survivors.

Born in 1849 in Racine, Wisconsin, McGillycuddy was a skinny young six-footer when he graduated from the Detroit Medical School at age 20. He practiced medicine for a year and taught at the medical college before his love for the outdoors led him to a job with a geodetic survey crew. He went on to become a topographer and surgeon for the International Expedition that surveyed the 49th parallel to establish the boundary between the U. S. and Canada. It was there he met his first Indian, Sitting Bull, who sought refuge in Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Survey completed, the crew came down the Missouri River by boat to Bismarck and boarded a train for the East. McGillycuddy undoubtedly spent some time talking to a fellow passenger on that Northern Pacific train. George Armstrong Custer was also enroute to Washington, D. C. to deliver his report on his Black Hills Expedition.

Eager for further adventure on the western frontier, McGillycuddy didn't hesitate when he was invited to join the Jenney-Newton Expedition the following year.

He spent the summer of 1875 mapping the topography and geology of the Black Hills then, before returning to Washington, stopped in Detroit to wed Fanny Hoyt, a pretty blue-eyed blonde. Perhaps aspiring to a more mature appearance, 26-year-old McGillycuddy grew the moustache and Van Dyke beard that distinguished him the rest of his life.

Bored with drawing maps, he was more than ready for new adventures when General George Crook offered him a position as field surgeon with the western army. Fanny returned to Detroit and her husband embarked for Cheyenne. Here he met Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, experienced frontiersmen who cautioned him about traveling alone in Indian country.

McGillycuddy was Crook's field surgeon at the Battle of the Rosebud when Crazy Horse and his warriors outmaneuvered the bluecoats. In charge of the wounded after the Battle of the Slim Buttes, he shared the suffering of starving soldiers who survived on horse meat during Crook's forced march to the Black Hills.

The compassionate physician became friends with Crazy Horse during his next assignment as assistant post surgeon at Fort Robinson. The Ogalala chief allowed the white doctor to treat his wife for tuberculosis and, with help from an interpreter, held long conversations with McGillicuddy.

In September of 1877 Crazy Horse was tricked into surrendering, then fatally wounded by a white guard. Although he couldn't prevent the fatal staffing, McGillycuddy administered morphine to the dying Indian hero and sat death watch with the family through the long, dark night. "Tasunka Witko Kola" (Crazy Horse's friend) was therafter the Sioux name for the post surgeon.

Dr. McGillycuddy traveled to Washington to protest inhumane treatment of the Indians at Fort Robinson and blow the whistle on manipulative Indian agents and military who were exploiting Indians on western reservations.

His sincerity and constructive ideas for dealing with the vanquished natives so impressed authorities he was offered the Indian Agent post at Pine Ridge, the nation's largest reservation, a challenging assignment for a 30-year-old. His job was not made any easier by antagonism from one of the Ogalala chiefs. Red Cloud scorned the suggestion that Indian men begin farming and ranching.

Father, the Great Spirit did not make us to work. He made us to hunt and fish. The white man can work if he wants to, but the great spirit did not make us to work. The white man owes us a living for the lands he has taken from us.

Despite Red Cloud's continuing opposition, Agent McGillycuddy managed to establish an Indian police force, set up a clean, modern boarding school for the education of Indian children and, in general, maintain a peaceful, progressive agency.

Backed by unscrupulous politicians who were swindling both the government and the Indians, Red Cloud made more than a dozen trips to Washington to complain about the Pine Ridge agent. McGillycuddy may have been dictatorial, but no one could prove he was anything but conscientiously honest in his attempts to improve reservation life.

McGillycuddy was eventually able to negate Red Cloud's authority, but his days as an Indian agent were numbered. Grover Cleveland's Democratic administration took over the White House and ordered the Pine Ridge agent to replace his efficient Republican clerk with a Democratic appointee. McGillyduddy refused to comply and was dismissed, despite protests from both races that attested to his "effective, intelligent and just administration."

Fed up with "government buncome and red tape," Doctor McGillycuddy wasn't really sorry to leave Pine Ridge. He and Fanny built a large Victorian home in Rapid City and embarked on a new life. McGillycuddy became president of the Lakota Bank, accepted a governor's appointment as Surgeon-General and was elected to the state constitutional convention that paved the way for statehood for North and South Dakota.

In 1890 Governor Mellette sent the cool-headed former agent back to Pine Ridge to check out troubled conditions. Panicked by ghost dancing Indians involved in the new Messiah Craze, the new agent, derisively called "Man Afraid of Indians" by his charges, had called for army troops

McGillycuddy met with the agitated Indians, explaining he had been replaced by a new "Father" and was no longer in charge, but would try to help them in every way possible. Red Cloud stood up, pointed at his old enemy and said:

That is Wasicu Wakan. For seven winters he was our Father. He said to me, "Some day you will say that my way was best for the Indian." I will tell him now that he spoke the truth. He was a young man with an old man's head on his shoulders and he never sent for any soldiers.

McGillycuddy advised his successor to let the Indians practice their new religion until their interest waned. He strongly suggested army troops leave the reservation and take their cannons with them, a recommendation that was unheeded.

Denied permission for another council with his former charges, the "old father" returned to Rapid City gravely concerned about what he perceived to be an explosive situation.

His fears were not unfounded. The explosion came after Sitting Bull was shot down while "resisting arrest" on the Standing Rock Reservation.

Sitting Bull's band, led by Big Foot, fled south to the Badlands enroute to Pine Ridge. Intercepted by soldiers at Wounded Knee, they surrendered and, under a flag of truce, set up camp on the snowy prairie. The next day, December 29, 1890, Seventh Cavalry troops arrived, placed artillery pieces on a hill overlooking the encampment and ordered the Indians to turn over their weapons.

Which side fired the shot that rang out during a search of the tepees is still a mystery today, but it provoked the bloody massacre that ensued. Shouting "Remember Custer and the Little Big Horn," Seventh Cavalry troops mowed down defenseless men, women and children. When the firing ceased the bodies of 150 Indians and 31 soldiers sprawled across the bloodstained snow of the frozen prairie

When word of the massacre reached Rapid City, a sick-at-heart Dr. McGillycuddy immediately set off for Pine Ridge to offer medical services to the survivors.

"..... had Dr. McGillycuddy been at the helm there would have been no bloodshed, no soldiers, and the Messiah War would have been wholly averted," State Historian Doane Robinson later wrote.

The next decade was a busy one for Dr. McGillycuddy. He served as president of the School of Mines from for five years and was elected mayor of Rapid City in 1897, the same year his beloved Fanny suffered a second stroke, leaving him a widower at the age of 47.

The big Victorian home was lonely without Fanny. After serving two years as Rapid City's mayor, Dr. McGillycuddy left the Black Hills and moved to California where he ultimately married a much younger woman. His second wife, Julia Blanchard, had grown up at Pine Ridge as the daughter of a licensed trader. In her 1941 biography of her physician husband, McGillycuddy--Agent, she confessed to a juvenile infatuation for the reservation agent. As a little girl living on the reservation she once asked Fanny if the doctor would marry her when Fanny died.

Even at the age of 68 Dr. McGillycuddy wasn't ready to retire as long as he thought his skills were needed. Although authorities thought him too old for active service, he enlisted in World War I, traveling to Alaska and throughout the west to treat victims of the dreaded influenza epidemic.

The flag at Pine Ridge flew at half mast on June 7, 1939, the day after 90-year-old Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy died in San Francisco. A small box containing his ashes were buried with appropriate ceremony atop the high peak he had scaled some 65 years earlier.

Editor's Note:

Tales of the Black Hills by Helen Rezatto and McGillycuddy--Agent by Julia McGillycuddy provide in depth details about the life of this heroic Black Hills pioneer.

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