Spanish-American War

During the Spanish-American War (1898), Native Americans served in the First Territorial Volunteer Infantry and, most famously, the First Volunteer Cavalry, also known as the Rough Riders. Mustered by future president Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders were a motley 1,000-man unit that included, among others, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Pawnees from Indian Territory. The Native Rough Riders served bravely in Cuba—a fact Roosevelt celebrated in his later writings.

Rough Rider Bankston Johnson pointing a rifle while on horseback with a line of military men in the background

Stereograph by Strohmeyer & Wyman, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Bankston Johnson, 1898.

Bankston Johnson (Choctaw, 1862?–?) was a trooper in Theodore Roosevelt’s First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, popularly known as the Rough Riders.

Less clear is why Native men volunteered for service. One Cherokee soldier, known only by his surname, Holderman, explained that “his people had always fought when there was a war, and he could not feel happy to stay at home when the flag was going into battle.” William Pollock, a Pawnee Rough Rider, struck a similar note: “[I]n the memory of our brave fathers I will try and be like one of them, who used to stand single-handed against the foes.”

Rough Rider William Pollock in uniform

Courtesy of Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries, Wenner 110

William Pollock (Pawnee, 1870–1899), one of Roosevelt’s most respected Rough Riders, ca. 1898.

One of eight Pawnee men to enlist in the Rough Riders, Pollock fought gallantly during the famous charge up San Juan Hill. Returning home to Oklahoma, Pollock was honored as a warrior by his people, who gifted him with horses at a community gathering. Barely six months later, at age twenty-eight, Pollock succumbed to pneumonia, complicated by malaria contracted in Cuba. Theodore Roosevelt expressed his condolences to the family, noting that Pollock “conferred honor by his conduct not only upon the Pawnee tribe, but upon the American army and nation.”

Father Francis M. Craft standing next to four Lakota nuns

Marquette University Archives, Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions Records, ID 09-160-07

Father Craft and four members of the Congregation of American Sisters at Pinar del Rio, Cuba, about 1899. Left to right: Annie Pleets (Sister Mary Bridget), Ellen Clark (Sister Mary Gertrude), Father Francis M. Craft, Josephine Two Bears (Sister Mary Joseph), and Susie Bordeaux (Mother Mary Anthony).

Four Lakota nuns who served during the Spanish–American War are the first known Native American army nurses. The women belonged to the Congregation of American Sisters on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, founded by Father Francis M. Craft. It was Craft who offered the services of the four nuns to the war effort in 1898. The nuns were much beloved by the soldiers and praised by the Surgeon General as “the only Sisters who came with the Army to Cuba, and remained.”