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Hanna and White

Oliver P. Hanna left home in Illinois as a sixteen year old in 1867 for a life of adventure in the west.  By 1872, he was part of the Hayden survey party in Yellowstone having spent the intervening years learning the life of a trapper and hunter from two older frontiersmen.  In 1876, he was one of the scouts for General George Crook on the expedition against the Sioux and Cheyennes, and participated in the huge Battle of the Rosebud on the creek of that name in SE Montana Territory.  These were the same Indians who wiped out George Custer and five troop of cavalry eight days later and about 30 miles away at the Little Big Horn.


After Crook withdrew from the battle south to Goose Creek near present day Sheridan, Wyoming, Hanna was a scout for Lt. E.W. Sibley along the northern base of the Big Horn Mountains - a trip that narrowly avoided disaster when this small group of 30 men literally ran into a large number of the same Indians who had defeated Custer.  They fought a running battle but had top abandon their horses and climb into the mountains in the dark where the hostiles couldn't follow on horseback.  It was a long difficult trip by foot through the mountains back to the safety of Gen. Crook's camp as they couldn't descend into the Tongue River valley where they could see the Indians camped.

Hanna and White by Ralph Heinz

When Gen. Crook's command learned of the "Custer Massacre" in early July, John Finnerty, a reporter for the Chicago Times, wanted to visit the battlefield and Crook sent a detachment of troops and scouts including Hanna, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Jack Crawford to the Little Big Horn.  Cody lost the way as he had no knowledge of the area and Hanna was called forward to set them on the right trail.  Hanna was glad to leave the battlefield as the odor of rotting bodies of men and horses was overpowering less than a month after the battle.

Building the first cabin on Goose Creek (in what is now Sheridan, Wyoming), Hanna became a meat hunter for the troops at Fort McKinney in 1878 (near present day Buffalo, Wyoming).  It was that fall at his cabin that he first met Jim White, a noted buffalo hide hunter from Texas.  Impressed by White's outfit of three sixteen pound Sharps rifles and seven hundred pounds of lead, etc. Hanna took him in as a partner providing meat for Fort McKinney.  The next winter of 1879 - 1880, the two men hunted buffalo on Sunday Creek, 55 miles north of Miles City, Montana Territory.   Camp consisted of a dugout in a hill covered with buffalo hides,  They hired six skinners and kept them busy.

When they got a "stand," Hanna and White took turns shooting while the other cooled the rifles with water.  They killed only as many as their men could skin in a day for any not skinned would freeze by the next morning and be impossible to skin.  While the skinners worked, Hanna and White returned to camp to reload ammunition.  When Sioux Indians stole eleven head of horses and mules grazing near their camp, Hanna had to walk the 55 miles to Miles City in sub zero temperatures in snow that was, at times, knee deep.  The trip took 22 hours.  With a small group of soldiers from Fort Keogh and other hunters, they took up the trail of the Indians and Hanna was glad to at least recover four mules.  At that, the Indian scare meant no one would skin for them so they had to give up the hunt for that year as simply too dangerous.

That summer, Hanna and White decided to cross to the west side of the Big horn Mountains to trap and hunt in the Big Horn Basin.  They built a cabin on Shell Creek at the base of the mountains.  This was a notorious place for a lot of rough men and outlaws.  When a group of three men camped below them, Hanna went down to their camp and talked with them but felt very uncomfortable about them.  He then started to worry about how things were going at his ranch on the east side and decided to travel over the mountains before winter set in with heavy snows.  It was October, 1880.  He was gone about a week and found everything OK at his home ranch but when he arrived back at the cabin on Shell Creek that he and White had built, White was nowhere to be found and all their equipment was gone.

A short distance from the now deserted cabin, Hanna discovered a fresh grave under some pine trees.  About two feet down, he found the body of his partner wrapped in a buffalo robe, and shot in the back of the head.  The three rough strangers had killed him for their outfit of four guns, hides, wagons, teams of mules, and everything else they could pack up and steal.  Jim White had hunted extensively during the early hide hunting days in Kansas and the Texas Panhandle, and Hanna estimated that White had killed sixteen thousand buffalo but he'd never seen the bullet that killed him fired from ambush from behind him.  The killers were never found.

About twenty-seven years later, Hanna was back in the Big Horn Basin having his horses shod at a blacksmith shop when he saw a Sharps buffalo rifle sitting in the corner of the shop.  It looked like his rifle and when he picked it up, it had the initial "H" on it.

After White's murder, Hanna was hired the next summer as a hunting guide for a party of wealthy Englishmen including the Frewen brothers who owned a stock ranch on Powder River.  During the hunt, Hanna saved one of the Englishmen from being killed by a large wounded grizzly that was about to overtake him but the bear then turned on Hanna.  With the wounded bear on top of him, Hanna was finally able to kill him with his pistol.  Hanna was seriously injured but an English doctor with the group tended his wounds in camp.  Invited to guide another English party of hunters the following year, Hanna declined deciding it was too risky a business to hunt bears with inexperienced men.

A much more detailed account of the life of Oliver P. Hanna appears in the excellent book, Getting a Stand, by Miles Gilbert complete with photos of Hanna in later life.  One shows him holding the Sharps rifle he recovered in the blacksmith shop in Hyattville, Wyoming.  The forearm had been shortened to about half its length.  Today, the rifle can be seen along with the Hanna - White cabin (moved to the site) at Bob Edgar's Old Trail Town in Cody, Wyoming.

Ralph Heinz
Newport, WA.