Dustin Twiss presents family history at the Fall River County History Conference

PHOTO on LEFT: Dustin Twiss Presents Family History at the Fall River County History Conferenc

PHOTO on RIGHT: Major Thomas Twiss, U.S. Agent for the American Indian tribes of the Upper North Platte River, WY (Photo courtesy of WyoHistory.org)


By Katie Merdanian

OELRICHS - Dustin Twiss, local artist and family historian, presented the history of Major Thomas Twiss at the Fall River County History Conference in Hot Springs on Saturday, Jan. 20. Dustin weaved the life of his great-great-grandfather Thomas Twiss through the events that shaped the upper-midwest region into what it is today. Dustin noted Major Twiss’s influence on government policy relating to indigenous peoples, particularly the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty that protects their rights to this day. He said this history “reflects on us, and it still affects us.”

Thomas Twiss was born into a prominent family in 1802 in Troy, Vt., which is now in the state of New York. He graduated second in his class from the West Point military academy in 1826. Thomas was somewhat of a math genius, leading him to tutor a younger cadet, Jefferson Davis - yes, the president of the Confederacy. Davis would later have a huge impact on Thomas’ life.

Dustin pointed out that Thomas had many life experiences, “He had five to six full lives, all blended into one. “

Thomas continued his military career teaching mathematics at West Point in its newly-developed physics department and worked on the construction of Fort Adams in Newport, RI.

He resigned from the military in 1829; married Elizabeth Sherrill, an accomplished educator; and moved to Georgia where he and his wife administered and taught at various schools. They had three daughters, none of whom married or had children. His wife’s health began to deteriorate when the children were young, and she became an invalid. The cause of her frailty is unknown, but there is thought she may have had epilepsy.

The family moved to South Carolina, and Thomas taught and supervised construction on the campus of what became the University of South Carolina. Buildings he designed are still in use at the university. 

In 1846 he became superintendent of South Carolina iron producer Nesbitt Manufacturing Company. While in the south, the Twiss family owned slaves, and he managed slave labor at the manufacturing company. However, Thomas later emphasized to his daughter and others that he strongly opposed slavery. 

Due to his wife’s ill health, the family moved back to New York, where Thomas became the resident and consulting engineer for the Buffalo and New York City Rail Road Company. The company was attempting to take the railroad through Indian territory from New York to Chicago. Dustin said, “Once Thomas took over, the railroad was completed.” Thomas had a way of getting things done by finding a compromise.

It was during this time Jefferson Davis, then serving as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, nominated Twiss to serve as agent of the Upper Platte in the Office of Indian Affairs. The territory consisted of land north of the North Platte River, west of the Missouri, and east of the Rocky Mountains and included the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux, and other tribes of the region. Twiss accepted; and he was given the title of Major, which was commonly assigned to Indian agents, even though they were civilians. Dustin explained, “The military had no authority over agents, and agents had no authority over the military.” Twiss arrived at Fort Laramie on Aug. 10, 1955. He was 53 years old.

Soon after arriving in the Upper Platte River Valley, Major Twiss reported to the secretary of the Interior,  “There is not, as I can find, within this agency, a single hostile Indian. On the contrary, all are friendly.” 

There was friction between the Major and the military, particularly General William Harney and Fort Laramie commander William Hoffman. Major Twiss concluded traders at the fort were taking advantage of the natives, and he established strict rules for trade with the tribe. These disputes caused rumors and accusations of misconduct to be sent to Washington, DC. The Major travelled back east about once a year to report his progress to the commissioner of Indian affairs and to dispel negatives rumors. On these occassions, he also visited his wife and grown daughters in New York.

Major Twiss had many supporters who believed he was skilled at settling the disputes between the tribes and mediating conflicts between the army, the settlers, and the natives. He organized a small police force of Lakota warriors to keep order. He reported to the commissioner that the large influx of white settlers was a danger to the tribes. 

When he discovered a Mormon settlement being built at Deer Creek, Wyo., he asked for permission to evict them off of tribal lands. By late summer of 1857, Twiss had moved his quarters and the Upper Platte Agency about 100 miles west from Fort Laramie to Deer Creek near present-day Glenrock, Wyo.  His interpreter was Joseph Bissonette, who set up a trading store and became postmaster and stage station operator.  Another trader, John Richard, also moved to Deer Creek. Both have descendants in Fall River and Oglala Lakota counties.

Major Twiss married Mary (Wanikiyewin, meaning “Savior of her People”) Standing Elk, daughter of the Northern Cheyenne Chief Standing Elk. Together they had five sons and one daughter. Deer Creek thrived as an emigrant trail and a winter camp for Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapaho people camping nearby to receive annuity goods. 

President Abraham Lincoln removed Twiss as Indian agent in 1861. The agency was moved back to nearer Fort Laramie. Dustin’s dad, Louis, obtained a letter Thomas had written indicating he did not like the government taking away tribal land, killing their buffalo, and threatening their nomadic way of life.  He saw the situation as a life and death matter. He suggested giving over areas of land to the tribes; removing military presence; providing training on farming; and providing food, clothing, and medical care. Much of what was contained in the letter later became part of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.

After leaving service, Thomas lived with Mary and his growing family on a ranch near Deer Creek, where they raised stock. Lt. Ware saw Twiss at Fort Laramie in 1864 with finely dressed Lakota women and described him as  “an old gentleman whose hair, long, white, and curly, hung down over his shoulders, and down his back. He had a very venerable white beard and moustache. . . He was dressed thoroughly as an Indian. He wore nothing on his head and had a pair of beaded moccasins.” He sat outside the store discussing General Grant’s tactics at Vicksburg with soldiers, comparing them to Napoleon’s war tactics.

Beginning in 1862, the government pulled regular troops out to fight the Civil War in the east. Serious altercations amongst the emigrants, military, and tribes caused Twiss to leave Deer Creek in the fall of 1864.  From there, it is believed Thomas moved to the Powder River country with his wife’s family.

The youngest son, Frank, entered Carlisle Indian School in 1879 and attended intermittently until 1884. Some information indicates sons Charles and James Bridge served as scouts for General George Crook’s campaigns against the Sioux in 1876, and Charles again served as a scout at the time of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

The 1870 census shows the Twiss family was living in Rulo, NE, where Thomas intended to plant a fruit orchard. He died in Rulo on Jan. 18,1871.  His oldest daughter came to Nebraska to take him back to Wynantskill, NY, to be buried next to his first wife at the Oakwood Cemetery. She also took William with her to provide him an education, but he did not stay long.

After Thomas’ death, Mary returned with her children to the Power River country. They were part of the Crazy Horse camp, which consisted of about 700 lodges - 1/3 were Oglalas, 1/3 were Northern Cheyenne, and 1/3 were Arapaho. The winter of 1876-77 was brutally cold and snowy; horses were dying and food sources were depleted. Mary and her children were among the Crazy Horse band who surrendered at Fort Robinson, Dakota Territory, in 1877. Dustin’s wife, Angela, is a descendant of Chief Few Tails, who also surrendered with Crazy Horse.

The Twiss family became part of the Red Cloud Agency, now the Pine Ridge Reservation. Dustin said they were considered Oglala Lakota, because “in the 1800s, wherever you were was who you were.” 

William, Dustin’s great grandfather, settled on the south side of Cuny Table, near what is now Badlands National Park. William married Josephine Cuny, daughter of Adolph Cuny, the first ecorded inhabitant of Cuny Table. Dustin joked, “There were more Cunys there than Twisses - that’s why it’s not Twiss Table.”

At the age of 18, William took a position with the government as a livestock provider for the Red Cloud Agency.  He would trail 100 cattle at a time to Pine Ridge Village, and the Oglala families alotted a beef at that time would kill it, butcher it, and take it home. Dustin said he is proud of his great grandfather, because there is no record of complaints at the Red Cloud Agency of tainted beef.  He worked with Harry Oelrichs, who over the years provided William with about 34,000 head of cattle from his ranches. The town of Oelrichs is named after the legendary head of the Anglo-American Cattle Company.

Because William was a government employee and lived closest (15-20 miles as the crow flies) to the site, he was assigned the unimaginable task of burying the dead men, women, and children killed at Wounded Knee.  

Louis remembers William; when he was young, he would accompany his grandfather on walks.  He said he knew the coolest place to take a nap in the badlands. Dustin and his dad continue to live at the family ranch on Cuny Table.  Louis graduated from Buffalo Gap, and Dustin graduated from Oelrichs. 

The Twiss legacy includes a collection of 70 Lakota, Cheyenne, and other objects now at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.  Twiss collected them in the vacinity of Fort Laramie and Deer Creek from 1855-1865.

The family of Major Thomas Twiss is blessed to include those who have passed family history down through the years and will continue to record it for the next generations. Louis would like to see a book published about Thomas.  The interest shown by the audience would suggest it would be a popular book.

Fall River County Herald Star

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