John F. Finerty: 'The Fighting Irish Pencil-Pusher'

Chicago Times correspondent John Finerty wiped his brow, drying the sweat from the hot July 7th afternoon, as he looked up to the top of the grassy knoll where scout Frank Grouard was scanning the horizon with his binoculars. They were near the valley of the Little Bighorn in what is now southern Montana. Looking around at the face of the young Lt. Sibley, just two years out of West Point, who commanded the 30-man scouting party, and the faces of the other soldiers around him, he could see the tension that he knew was also visible on his own.

Suddenly Grouard and the scout with him, Baptiste “Big Bat” Pourier, jumped on their ponies and galloped down the hill at break-neck speed. Reaching them, Grouard cried out, “Be quick, and follow me for your lives.” The panic on the face of the veteran scout convinced all of them to instantly mount and ride without any order from Sibley.

(Left: 'Dismounted: The 4th Troopers Moving' by Frederic Remington.)

They were not on the flat, open plain. This was rougher -- rolling hills and sandstone bluffs near the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains to the west, but they raced recklessly through it, with death on their heels. Finding a place near one of the bluffs where they could hide their horses, they halted. Grouard, Pourier, Sibley and Finerty, the four who had field glasses, clamored to the top to look back on whatever it was Grouard had seen.

What they saw was, as Grouard described it, “Sitting Bull’s war party.” First a few warriors, decked out in what Finerty called “their full war costume,” came over the hills about a mile to the east, then dozens, then so many they “covered the hilly country far and wide,” according to Finerty. What Finerty and his comrades did not yet know, was that this band of Sioux and Cheyenne were flush with the confidence of victory. They were the same warriors who had wiped out most of Custer’s 7th Cavalry just a few miles from there, less than two weeks earlier, in what is now known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” the greatest Native American victory of the Indian Wars.

(Below: Looking west toward the Bighorn Mountains in southern Montana.)

Panting from their scramble up the sandstone bluffs, the men watched intently, and fearfully. Now they held their breath. The war party was about to cross the tracks their horses left behind. If they missed it, all would be well. Suddenly a warrior with a red blanket wrapped around him leaned down, studying the ground. Then he began to ride in circles. This, Grouard knew, was a sign that “the enemy is near.”

Grouard, who been captured by, and lived with, the Sioux for several years, knew the country. They had one chance of survival, he said: “Ride west and make it into the Bighorn Mountains.” As the group remounted, Sibley gave what he surely thought might be his last instructions to them: “If we can make an honorable escape, all together, we'll do it. But if that proves impossible, let no man surrender. Die in your tracks, for these Indians will show no mercy."

Finerty had heard the stories of how the Sioux tortured captives. As they galloped off toward the mountains he resolved that if he fired 99 of the 100 rounds he had with him and capture seemed certain, he’d use the 100th round on himself. The chase was on, and Finerty and this small “band of brothers” were the prey. He may have thought of the doom-and-gloom comment his friend Lieutenant John Bourke had made to him as the scout party was leaving General Crook’s camp on Goose Creek. Finerty and the men of what would later be called “The Sibley Scout” looked longingly now at the hoped-for refuge of the green foothills of the Bighorn Mountains.

Finerty may have also been longing to be transported to the lovely green hills of County Galway, the place where he was born. John was born into a well-off nationalist family there Sept. 10, 1846. His father, Patrick, who died when John was just 2, had been the editor of the “Galway Vindicator.” The family moved to Tipperary when he was 11. He received a classical education, but by the mid-1860s he’d become a member of the Fenian Brotherhood.

While still in his teens he was helping to organize Fenian meetings, including one at Slievenamon in County Tipperary, where it was said that “fiery speeches were made” and, “they attracted the attention of the government.” Attracting the attention of the British government was usually the first step on the way out of the country for any Fenian. In 1864, things became too hot for Finerty in Ireland and, like many Irish rebels before and since, he was forced from the island. The lanky young man, who would often be called “Long John” in the years to come, headed for that most Fenian of cities in the United States -- New York.

(Left: Fenian HQ's in Union Square, New York City.)

In New York, Finerty was welcomed into the bosom of the American Fenian movement. He arrived as Fenian founder John O’Mahony was organizing a 100-day unit of the New York National Guard to serve the Federal government during the Civil War. Nearly all the members were Fenians, most former members of the Phoenix Brigade, sometimes called the Phoenix Zouaves, an Irish militia unit. Finerty enlisted in the unit as a private but would impressively rise to sergeant before unit was mustered out. The 99th was sent to do guard duty at Elmira POW camp, so Finerty saw no Civil War combat.

After the war, Finerty took part in the Fenians' invasion of Canada. After it failed, he moved to Chicago, where he began his career as a newspaper reporter. He was first a reporter for the Chicago Republican, rising to be the city editor, while still in his mid-20s, in 1871. In 1872 he moved to the Chicago Tribune, where he worked until 1875. He moved again, to the Chicago Times, where he was working when he covered the forces fighting the Indian Wars. He did not forget the cause of Irish freedom, however. He continued as a member of the Fenians and joined Clan na Gael in the late ’70s and continued his membership through his life.

(Below: Wilbur F. Storey)

In 1876, at the start of the “Great Sioux War,” the owner of the Chicago Times, Wilbur F. Storey, picked Finerty to join and report on the large-scale U.S. Army operation being organized against the Sioux and Cheyenne in the Northern plains. Given the danger of the assignment, Finerty was given the option to refuse, but the adventurous young man insisted he wanted to go. This promised to be and would be, the most famous campaign of the Indian Wars, and Finerty wanted to be a part of it.

The plan had just over 444 soldiers under General Gibbon moving into the Yellowstone-Bighorn River area from Fort Ellis, Montana, moving east, and two larger forces, 931 under General Terry, moving west from Fort Lincoln, North Dakota, and General Crook with the largest force of 950 troops moving north from Fort Fetterman, Wyoming.

Finerty had come to know George Armstrong Custer, who would be commanding the 7th Cavalry in Terry’s column, and expected to be attached to the 7th. Storey, however, impressed by Crook’s recent success again the Apaches in Arizona, believed his column would do the bulk of the fighting. Disappointed as Finerty was not to be with Custer, the decision may have saved his life.

In Chicago, Finerty met with Irish-American General Phil Sheridan, who was in command of the operation, to get a letter of introduction to Crook before departing. Sherman called Crook “the best Indian fighter in the U.S. Army.” The Apaches, whom he had fought before coming north, and would again later, nicknamed Crook “Nan-tan Lupan,” i.e., Chief Gray Wolf.  When Finerty met Crook, in Omaha, Crook told him: “We’ll have some tough times, I think.” If he was trying to dissuade Finerty, it didn’t work, but “some tough times” would hardly be strong enough.

(Left: General George Crook)

Finerty attached himself to Company E of the 3rd Cavalry. There were four other correspondents with Crook -- Thomas MacMillan from the Chicago Inter-Ocean; R.B. Davenport from the New York Herald; Robert Strahorn of the Rocky Mountain News; and Joe Wasson, reporting for papers in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Finerty, with his former military experience and genial Irish wit and storytelling ability became a favorite around the campfires of the 3rd. “He’s the gem of the lot [of reporters]” said one officer. Another said he was “always hungry, for liquids and news, and he can hold any quantity of either.” Holding one's liquor was another quality admired by the troopers.

On May 29th the Crook column departed from Fort Fetterman, moving northwest toward the Wyoming-Montana border. They were delayed from some time at a camp they had dubbed, Camp Cloud Peak, on Goose Creek (near present-day Sheridan, Wyoming), waiting for their Crow and Shoshone scouts. Both tribes were long-time enemies of the Sioux. They finally arrived June 14th and impressed the camp with a huge celebration that night. Lt. John Bourke, of Crook’s staff, recorded the following in his diary: “A long series of monstrous howls, shrieks, groans, and nasal yells, emphasized by a perfectly ear-piercing succession of thumps upon drums improvised from parfleche (buffalo skin) attracted nearly all our soldiers.” Bourke later wrote “On the Border with Crook,” considered one of the best first-person accounts of the Indian Wars.

(Right: Lt. John Bourke)

Crook moved out on the 16th, reinforced by about 250 of these Crow and Shoshone scouts. Crook had lingered for them to arrive because he had great success in Arizona utilizing Indian scouts. It was the largest force yet put in the field during the Indian Wars.

Crook was now spoiling for a fight, and he wouldn’t have long to wait. Neither Crook nor later Custer realized that the gathering of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe now collecting in the valley of the Little Bighorn River basin was probably the largest assemblage in the history of the West. They were riding into a far bigger hornet’s nest than any of them realized.

The advance started inauspiciously for Finerty, as he nearly blew his own foot off when his pistol accidental discharged while it was in the holster. He escaped unscathed but would be teased about it by the troopers for the rest of the campaign, a sign of affection among soldiers. Soon enough he would have other bullets headed his way.

On that first day headed north, they encountered a huge buffalo herd. The Crow and Shoshone scouts could not be restrained from riding into it and killing hundreds of them. This surely ended any chance they had to surprise the Sioux. Crook was afraid it would cause them to run. He would soon find they were not planning to run. As they lay down to sleep that night, Captain Sutorius, commander of Co. E, told Finerty, “We will have a fight tomorrow, mark my words — I feel it in the air.”

On the morning of the 17th, they had reached the valley of Rosebud Creek in Montana. The Sioux camp was about 30 miles away, and they knew the soldiers were approaching. A Sioux warrior named Little Hawk had been observing the column since July 9th. While the normal reaction of Native American tribes was to flee when they knew large numbers of soldiers were coming, this time would be different. As John Finerty awoke that morning, a large portion of the Sioux and Cheyenne nations, commanded by soon-to-be-famous Sioux chief, Crazy Horse, was rapidly headed directly for Crook’s column. Crook had been told of a rumor that Crazy Horse had said that if he crossed the Tongue River, which they had just crossed, Crazy Horse would attack him but he had dismissed it.

(Below: Lt. John Bourke saving bugler Elmer Snow in "Battle of the Rosebud" by Andy Thomas)

Finerty and Co. E were taking a short break near the banks of the Rosebud around 8:30 am when they heard a few stray shots from over the bluffs to the North. Suddenly a group of Crow scouts came galloping down over the top screaming, “HEAP SIOUX! … HEAP SIOUX!” Finerty and the troopers scrambled to saddle up and remount as more scouts came over the bluffs. He and the other correspondents ceased to be newsmen and become cavalry troopers at this point, fighting for their lives as much as any of those in uniform. As Co. E was mounting up, Capt. Alexander J. Sutorius asked Finerty how he felt about the coming fight. "It is the anniversary of Bunker Hill," Finnerty said, "The day is of good omen." The troopers enthusiastically waved their carbines in response. So it had the desired effect, but none of them seemed to recall that the Continental Army had lost that battle.

Crook’s aide-de-camp, Captain Azor H. Nickerson, recalled that, “every hill seemed to be swarming with the enemy.” There may have been as many as 1,000 or more mounted warriors with Crazy Horse that day. The Crow and Shoshone scouts fought furiously against the huge force of Sioux and Cheyenne, buying Crook’s men time to get organized.

Co. E, in a battalion with companies A and M, under Col. Mills, was ordered to charge the Sioux and clear them off the high ground to the north. This they did, driving them north until they reached a bluff now called “Crook’s Ridge.” Later, Crook sent them swinging to the east along with Noyes battalion, up  the ravine of the Rosebud, thinking they would find a Sioux encampment and attack it. But it was many miles away, and he eventually had to recall them to reinforce Col. Royall, who was being desperately pressed to the west of “Crook’s Ridge.” As they returned to the field on the right and rear of Crazy Horse, he withdrew.

(Left: The position of the opposing forces at the end of the Battle of the Rosebud from The Atlas of the Sioux Wars, 2nd Edition by Combat Studies Institute Press. Click on the map for a larger view.)

The battle had lasted 5-6 hours, one of the longest and largest of the Indian Wars. It had been a disjointed fight, with many units fighting isolated, desperate fights, on different parts of the field. Finerty was in the middle of it all day, fighting alongside the men of E Co.

For the first time, he experienced facing men intent on killing him. He had, as 19th-century American soldiers put it “seen the elephant.” Finerty recalled that first charge, with horses falling over the rugged ground and troopers firing their pistols, then cheering wildly as the Sioux retreated, as passing “like a flash of lightning or a dream.”

(Right: "The Silenced War Whoop"  by Charles Schreyvogel.)

When he wrote his book, “War-Path and Bivouac,” years later, Finerty noted some of the other reporters were mentioned in the reports of the officers that day. He was, as well, but modestly left that out of his book. In fact, Col. Henry, who was wounded that day, suggested to Finerty after observing his performance in the battle that he join the army, a suggestion he did not take up.

Crook claimed victory in the battle because he held the field and the Sioux retreated, but he then returned to Goose Creek. He felt he needed to resupply and to be reinforced to deal with the number of Sioux he’d encountered and also wanted to get his wounded back where they could be treated. His retreat was severely criticized for possibly contributing to the disaster Custer suffered 8 days later. For that reason, most historians consider Rosebud a defeat.

While Crook’s troops awaited the arrival of their reinforcements for several weeks, they enjoyed excellent hunting and fishing in the area. Finerty killed his first buffalo during one such hunting excursion, but he was not interested in relaxing or hunting and fishing. He was anxious to have real news to send back to Chicago. In fact, he found the waiting “physically and mentally nauseating.”

So when Finerty discovered that Crook was sending out a scouting party under Lt. Frederick Sibley to try to locate Sitting Bull’s encampment on July 6th, he went directly to Crook and asked to go. It was an extremely dangerous mission. They all knew there were a huge number of Sioux and Cheyenne out there. Crook tried his best to talk him out of it. "All right, sir.” Crook finally said, prophetically adding, “But I warn you that you're liable to get into more trouble than you bargain for."

Finerty had become popular enough among the officers of the column now that many sought him out for the sort of genial, black-humored needling that soldiers have done for centuries and still do today. “What kind of epitaph would you like me to write for you?” asked Lt. John Bourke. The humor hid the fact that they all thought they might really be saying their goodbyes to him.

(Right: Frank Grouard, on horseback.)

With legendary scouts Frank Grouard and “Big Bat” Pourier guiding them, the scout group was in good hands. Still, the second day of the mission they ended up chased into the Bighorn Mountains by an overwhelming enemy force as described earlier.

For a time, they thought they had escaped. They even stopped for a while to rest. But shortly after that, as they approached the pine forest of the foothills, Finerty heard a sudden cry from the rear of the column. “Indians!! … Indians!!” They had not lost them, and now they were approaching from behind, firing on them from their right-front. Grouad cried out for them to ride into the tree line to their left.

Spreading out in a skirmish formation in the tree line, they had good cover from the enemy fire, but their horses did not. Most of their horses were killed as the firefight went on and the firing was attracting more and more Sioux and Cheyenne. Soon the soldier's ammunition was running low. “We were truly looking death in the face, and so close that we could feel his cold breath upon our foreheads and his icy grip upon our hearts,” Finerty later wrote, adding that, “Life seemed particularly sweet throughout that eventful day.”

(Left: “The Custer Fight” by William Herbert Dunton.)

The Sioux recognized Grouard and called out to him using his Sioux name, Standing Bear. He was now considered a traitor among the Sioux, so killing or capturing him would have brought them great honor. Grouard was next to Finerty on the skirmish line and came up with a bit more black humor. As their ammo was running low and the odds of them ever leaving that spot alive seemed to be approaching zero, he told Finerty, “You will have lots to send home to your paper when you get back to camp.”

Perhaps Grouard said that because he was formulating an idea of how to avoid the certain death that was staring them in the face. There was no way mounted men could go up the mountain slopes behind them. If they could slip away without the Sioux realizing it long enough, they might not pursue them very far if the Sioux had to do it on foot. They might just escape. They fired a full volley, then the last men there fired a few stray shots as they pulled out, with Sibley leaving last.

(Right: Troopers of the 3rd Cavalry.)

The ruse worked long enough for them to put a good distance between themselves and their pursuers. They had gone about a mile before they heard a big volley and a yell, likely the Sioux overrunning their former position. The sharing of the “spoils of war” from all their saddlebags probably bought them several more minutes. A passing thunderstorm then helped cover their escape. They didn’t stop until they were far up the mountain at midnight. It appeared they were safe from the band that attacked them, but they were now 50 miles from Crook’s camp with no horses and no food and bands of hostile tribes roaming the area.

The following day, when they came down from the mountains, they spotted a party of Sioux below them. Grouard said Finerty wanted to fire on them. His Irish was up. Finerty and the group were tired of running and ready to go down fighting if they had to. "We're in hard luck again," Lt. Sibley whispered. "But we'll show those red scoundrels how white men can fight and die, if necessary. Men," he said, "we have a good place; let every shot count on an Indian." But the Sioux didn’t see them and kept moving, and it wasn’t necessary.

On the 9th, now dangerously exposed trudging through the open plains and weak from starvation, they spotted riders again. This time luck was with them. It was a hunting party from Crook’s camp. They were saved with a tale to tell for the rest of their lives. Amazingly, all of them had made it back to camp alive. Finerty had earned the respect of the Western soldiers. He would forever be known as the “Fighting Irish Pencil Pusher.” On the following day, they found out that some of the Sioux and Cheyenne that chased them had helped wipe out Custer.

Finerty would stay with Crook through the near-starvation of the infamous “Horse Meat March“ in pursuit of the Sioux through August and into September, culminating in the Battle of Slim Buttes. He became acquainted with William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was employed as a scout, and “Calamity Jane,” who was working as a teamster during that campaign.

(Below: Sitting Bull and "Buffalo Bill" Cody in a photo from Cody's "Wild West Show.")

In 1879 Major James Walsh of the Canadian Mounted Police led Finerty to meet Sioux chief Sitting Bull then in Canada. The wily chief refused to be interviewed by Finerty, however. Finerty continued to report on the Indians wars, attaching himself to his old friends in the 3rd Cavalry during the campaign against the Utes in 1879. From 1879 to 1881 he was Washington correspondent for the Times. He also covered a short Apache uprising in Arizona in 1881, before returning to Chicago.

Finerty suffered several tragedies in his personal life during these years. In 1877 he married Alice Radin, who was just 25. But she passed away a year later. In 1882 he married Sadie Isabelle Hennesey. They would have two children, but neither lived past age three. Mona, born in 1883, died in 1886 and Kenyon, born in 1893 died the following year.

In 1883 Finerty successfully ran for Congress as an Independent-Democrat. He served just one term, however, when his endorsement of the Republican presidential candidate, Blaine, in 1884 lost him much of his support. He never stopped his strong support for the cause of Ireland while in Congress. In fact, the New York Tribune called him, "the member from Illinois elected to represent Ireland in the Congress of the United States."

He was elected president of the United Irish Societies of Chicago seven times and president of the United Irish Societies of the United States in 1905. Beginning in 1882 through to the end of his life, he published and edited a weekly paper called the “Chicago Citizen,” that targeted the Irish community. It was strongly nationalist, often supporting the idea of physical force.

Finerty was well known throughout the Irish American communities all around the United States as a great orator in support of Irish freedom. He was invited out to his old stomping grounds in Montana in 1905 to give the oration at the dedication of a statue honoring Irish Brigade commander and governor of the territory Thomas Francis Meagher.

John F. Finerty died on June 10, 1908, in Chicago and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, Ill. He published two books in the latter part of his life, the two-volume "Ireland: A People's History of Ireland" in 1904 and "Warpath and Bivouac" in 1890, now considered one of the classic books of the Indian Wars.

(Left: John F. Finerty in the latter part of his life.)

In a speech to a group of Irish nationalists including Irish National Land League leader Michael Davitt, who opposed physical-force nationalism, in October 1886, Finerty said: “… if Ireland calls on me for service, I shall not be among the last to enroll beneath her flag.” The men of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry would have confirmed that when the bullets were flying, you could depend on the “Fighting Irish Pencil Pusher.” One 3rd Cavalry officer said of him: “When he writes about the troops being willing to storm the gates of hell, he means it. If they ever do so rash an act, Finerty will be there, and he won’t be in the rear with the command either.”


“War-Path And Bivouac Or The Conquest Of The Sioux” by John F. Finerty   

“Following the Indian Wars: The Story of the Newspaper Correspondents Among the Indian” by Oliver Knight

“The Life and Adventures of Frank Grouard: Chief of Scouts” by Joe de Barthe

(Right: "A Cheyenne Brave" by Frederic Remington)

"On the Border with Crook" by John Gregory Bourke

"The Medicine-Men of the Apache" by John Gregory Bourke

"An Apache Campaign in the Sierra Madre" by John Gregory Bourke

"MacKenzie's Last Fight with the Cheyennes" by John Gregory Bourke

Atlas of the Sioux Wars

The Sibley Scout

Frederick W. Sibley

General George Crook

Great Sioux War of 1876

John P. Finerty’s Remarkable Speech at Chicago (1886)

Find a Grave: John F. Finerty

Other WG Articles on the American West:

Meath Artist John Mulvany: Painting the "Last Stand"

Billy the Kid: The Wild Rapparee of Lincoln County

Valentine Trant McGillycuddy: Crazy Horse's Friend

John F. Finerty: 'The Fighting Irish Pencil-Pusher'

Legendary Mountain Man John Colter: Surviving 'Naked and Afraid'

'Peg-Leg' Shannon: 'Lost Boy' of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

Mountain Man Thomas Fitzpatrick: Legendary 'Broken Hand'

Searching Robert Campbell's Family Tree for Fortune (Campbell, born in Plumbridge, near Strabane in County Tyrone, trapped with Fitzpatrick in the 1820s and 30s)

Westward, Ho! John J. Healy, Montana Pioneer

There’s Gold in Nellie Cashman

John Gregory Bourke: Part 1 - Warrior Anthropologist

Buckey O'Neill: Sheriff, Mayor, Rough Rider, American Hero

'Born a Soldier': Myles Walter Keogh - Part 1 of 3: From Carlow to America's Civil War By Brian C. Pohanka

Custer's Last Irishmen: The Irish who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn 

Irish Custer Writer Discovers 7th Cavalry Ancestor!

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Tags: American West, Fenians, Immigration, Ireland's Freedom Struggle, Journalism, Plains Wars, War

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 1, 2019 at 11:41pm

Scout Frank Grouard is one of the most mysterious and fascinating figures of the Indian Wars. No one is certain of the truth of his early life. The birth story he told was that he was born on September 20, 1850, in the Society Islands in the south Pacific Ocean. He said his father was Benjamin Franklin Grouard, an American Mormon missionary, and his mother was a Polynesian woman. He said the family return to Utah when he was still an infant.   

Some of the other origins others have speculated were that he actually was an American Indian or half-Indian; or that he was French-Creole or half-Black. Some speculated that he was the son of the early Black American Fur Company mountain man, John Brazeau. But in the 1890’s the man claiming to be his father contacted Frank. Benjamin Franklin Grouard was, indeed, a Mormon who had been a missionary to the Society Islands.

It is fairly certain that Frank lived with the Sioux for a number of years before escaping or being allowed to leave. He said he was captured by the Crow in 1869 while riding as a mail carrier in Montana and left on foot. He said the Sioux then found him and forced him into the tribe. He said he was, in fact, adopted as a brother by Sitting Bull.

The Sioux who had the Sibley scout group pinned down near the Bighorn Mountains recognized him and called out to him by his Sioux name of “Standing Bear.” Grouard would so impress Crook with his value as a scout during the campaign against the Sioux that Crook said, "I would sooner lose a third of my command than Frank Grouard!" It’s likely neither Finerty nor any of the rest of the Sibley Scout would have survived but for him.

Grouard continued to serve as a scout though the end of the Indian wars. He was even there at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, considered to be the last action of the Indian Wars. Frank Grouard died at St. Louis, Missouri in 1905 and was buried with full military honors at Ashland Cemetery in Saint Joseph, Missouri.

Comment by Patrick Francis Deady on September 30, 2019 at 10:56pm

Thanks, Joe. Just can't beat learning....


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