Discovery of 19th century tomahawk lends perspective to Casper’s namesake

A heavy pipe tomahawk that belonged to a Brule Lakota warrior and chief shows a scene depicting the death of Cavalry Lt. Caspar Collins at the battle of Platte Bridge Station in 1865. The tomahawk was found in the private collection of an Arizona man and has been on display at the Hulett Museum (Photo by Cayla Nimmo, Casper Star-Tribune)

By Morgan Hughes

Casper Star-Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — They knew when they saw it that it was real. 

You never know with these things. Fakes and cheap reproductions run rampant, and novice collectors may not realize the inauthenticity of their wares. But this one was different. 

It was a worn and heavy pipe tomahawk, presumably from the 1800s. The haft had been worn down and blanketed with a heavy patina. The blade was made from blacksmith-forged steel. On either side were rocker-engraved etchings, standard of the time period and incredibly difficult to reproduce today. 

The tomahawk belonged to Strange Horse, or Stranger Horse, a Brule Lakota warrior and chief who lived during the mid-19th century. 

Strange Horse carved his name into the tomahawk’s ashwood haft, both in English and Lakota. On the blade, he engraved a scene. The scene shows a U.S. Army officer whose throat has been cut and body dismembered. 

It’s the scene of Lt. Caspar Collins’ death. 

Strange Horse and Collins were the same age, 21, when they met on the Platte Bridge Station battlefield. Though he died in the battle, Collins would have a major Western city, a fort and a mountain named after him (though all were initially spelled incorrectly). Strange Horse would become a powerful chief, travel to Washington, D.C., as a guest of presidents and die an accomplished man. 

However these legacies are considered today, to have them married, and so precisely, on this artifact gives the discovery an added layer of poignancy for its finders. “

You have a clash of two cultures coming together,” explained one of them, Bob Coranato. “It’s not a massacre. It’s two people, two cultures defending their own way of life for the same territory. And that’s a different way of looking at it than just a battle.” 

When Coranato and Larry Robinson first found the tomahawk, they had no idea about the story the engravings told. 

Neither had expected to go treasure hunting that early spring day. The pair were eating lunch, shooting the breeze. Then Robinson’s phone rang. 

The year before, Robinson, who lives in Arizona, had been with a friend when they stumbled upon a sort of estate sale near Phoenix. A man’s wife had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and he was selling her lifetime collection of American Indian art. Robinson bought a few items and went on with his day. 

When his phone rang during his lunch with Coranato, it was the same friend who had discovered the estate sale. 

“When you’re looking for old things, you usually have friends that look for stuff. And then you have friends that know you’re looking for things. And it’s kind of a chain,” Coronato explained, who lives in Hulett and spends his winters in Arizona. 

Robinson’s friend told him the man who held the sale the year before was now selling his house. While cleaning out the home, he found an old native tomahawk in a drawer and was holding a silent auction to sell it. 

Coranato and Robinson left their lunches and drove the few hours to the house. When they saw it, they knew instantly they’d spend a small fortune to have it. 

Coranato called up Mike Cowdrey, a historian friend of his. Cowdrey has had a storied career as a historian, museum curator and consultant for auction houses selling historic items. But in Cowdrey’s half-century of professional work, he had never seen an item quite like this. 

“No one other than a few of the Indian combatants has ever known who was involved in killing Caspar Collins,” Cowdrey wrote during an email interview with the Star-Tribune. (He doesn’t own a phone and hasn’t for 40 years.) “This tomahawk, signed with the name of the young Lakota who depicted the Lieutenant’s death on the blade of his weapon, is as close to a ‘confession’ as we might ever expect.” 

It’s these etchings that set the tomahawk apart as a historical rarity. 

“Normally you have an artifact that’s in a museum and it might have a story with it, but it doesn’t identify itself,” Coranato said. “This is one of the few that we know exactly who had it and where it was. It’s written in two languages. And it describes what the warrior had done in battle.”

Cowdrey agreed, saying there really aren’t any comparable artifacts. Moreover, the pictograph on the tomahawk’s blade offers a never-before-seen understanding of the historic battle: the Native perspective. 

The circumstances of Collins’ death are somewhat mysterious. He was leading a 25-man outfit on a mission to protect a supply wagon train from being raided by nearby tribes when the party was ambushed by Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho warriors.

Collins’ horse, which is said to have been aggressive and difficult to control, apparently reared up and ran straight into the heart of the battle, leading Collins to his death. When Collins’ body was recovered later, 24 arrows protruded from the corpse. His throat had been slit. His hands had been removed from his body, his trigger finger removed from his hand. 

About six months before that battle, nearly 700 Colorado militiamen rode through a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe in Sand Creek, Colorado, and slaughtered 148 natives, at least half of which were women and children. The militia men beheaded the bodies of the dead and displayed the heads in prominent locations around Denver. 

The mutilation of Caspar Collins was retribution for that, not an out-of-the-blue ambush, historian Donovan Sprague said. 

“It never was like that until after Sand Creek,” Sprague said. 

Sprague is currently a visiting professor in Indian American Studies at Sheridan College, has written 10 books on the subject and was one of Coranato’s first visits after discovering the history behind the tomahawk. 

Sprague is also an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and is a descendant of the Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse. He said one of the things that make the tomahawk so important is that it lends a new, tribal perspective to a well-known historical event. 

“I think it’s important to get both views,” Sprague said, adding that tribal accounts of historical events have often been left out of official retellings. But those tides are turning. The internet is making it easier to connect the dots into a larger historical narrative, he said, and tribal accounts are coming out more frequently now than ever before. 

Coranato owns and operates a small art gallery and museum in Hulett, where he displays his own artwork as well as historical pieces he’s collected over the years. And while it may be a humble operation, Coranato’s artwork is anything but. 

His paintings are of sweeping plains landscapes, portraits of important and imposing figures, and remembrances of the “Old West.” One of Coranato’s paintings, a portrait of the Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means, has a permanent home in the National Portrait Gallery, and The New York Post called Coranato “the unofficial Leonardo da Vinci of ranching life.” 

Suffice it to say, Coranato is well-acquainted with the politics and procedure of historical reverence. Given that background, he also knows that getting the tomahawk to the right place might be tricky. 

Coranato has been displaying the item in the Hulett Museum, but it’s a rickety old building, not the Smithsonian. Coranato wants the tomahawk to go somewhere where he knows it will be taken care of and protected. But more than that, he wants it to stay in Wyoming. 

“It deserves to either be in the Wyoming archives or you know, Town Hall and Casper somewhere,” he said. “Our goal is to see if that’s possible.” 

But the logistics make the situation slightly more complicated. For one, Coranato and Robinson bought the piece together. For how much, neither would say, only that it wasn’t cheap. So, for this piece to end up in a Wyoming museum, somebody would need to purchase it from Coranato and Robinson and then loan or donate it, Coranato said. 

Museums don’t have the budgets to purchase outright the items they display. More typically, museums have items donated or loaned. 

Coranato has been meeting with Wyoming collectors and curators about the piece for the past few months, hoping to help find it a new, public home. For now, the item remains in flux. 

Still, both Coranato and Robinson are adamant that the tomahawk should end up in Wyoming.

“It’s just the right thing,” Robinson said.