By Robert Cohen Executive Director Text Only


This is the true story of a cow who started a war.
In the days of the Oregon Trail, one homesteader's cow
became separated from her wagon train and wandered
into a Sioux camp. Losing a cow was a catastrophic
event for a family of 19th century settlers.

Today, you can buy a herd of 20 cows for the same
cost as a brand new family van. In those days, your
prairie schooner (covered wagon) cost exactly the same
as the family cow, about $70. Rice, beans, and dried
fruit could be had for just 6 cents per pound. Flour
cost only 2 cents per pound. A rifle was $15.

At that time during America's history, there were few
lawyers or activists in the Old West, so the Sioux
didn't sue, nor declare war. They might have even
returned this funny looking animal, if only the
settlers had asked. Instead, the pioneers went to
Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where they reported their lost
cow as a theft. They blamed the Native Americans. One
very eager West Point graduate, Lt. John Grattan,
assembled 29 soldiers and then set out to punish the
Indians who by that time had barbecued the unfortunate
animal. The chief offered the soldiers a horse in trade
for the cow, but Grattan's response was to open fire.
He killed the chief, and the Sioux fired back killing
21 soldiers. Shortly thereafter, 650 soldiers returned
to massacre 85 Sioux men, women, and children. The year
was 1855. The result was years of hostilities by both
sides. All because of one wandering cow.

One hundred and forty-seven years ago when America was
young, and when settlers sought a better way of life on
the west coast of the United States, that dairy cow
would have yielded just one quart of milk each day.
That hardly produced enough mozzarella cheese to melt
atop even one slice of pizza for a hungry cowboy or

There were many wagon train expeditions that never
made it through the Rocky Mountains, due to a number
of hardships, more often than not a combination of
severe weather and too little food.

Shortly after the Sioux massacre, another group of
settlers became lost and their stores of food ran low.
They had been traveling through rough country, and they
had seen no evidence of human life for nearly a week.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, they came upon an old
Jewish man sitting beneath a tree.

The leader galloped his horse over to the man and asked,
"We're lost and running out of food. Is there someplace
around here where we can get something to eat?"

"Vell," the old Jew said, "I vouldn't go up dat
hill und down other side. You'll run into a big
bacon tree."

"A bacon tree?" asked the incredulous wagon train leader.

"Yah, ah bacon tree. I vudn't lie."

The expedition guide rode off on his horse and related
his conversation to the other settlers. He told them
that they might be able to find food on the other side
of the next ridge. One settler wasn't so sure.

"Then why did he warn you not to go there?"
the pioneer asked.

"Oh, you know those Jews - they don't eat pigs."

Despite reservations, starvation gave way to precaution
and the wagon train did go up the hill and down the
other side. Suddenly, Indians attacked and massacred
everybody except the leader, who managed to escape
back to the old Jew.

The near-dead cowboy, arrows protruding from his body,
crawled up to the Jew and grabbed him by the leg. With
great difficulty, he spoke. "You fool! You sent us to
our deaths! We followed your instructions, but there
was no bacon tree. Just hundreds of Indians, who
massacred everyone."

The Jew held up his hand to his face and cried "Oy vey,
vait a zecond." He then got out an English-Yiddish
dictionary, and began thumbing through it. "Oh, no, vat
have I done? It vuz not a bacon tree, it vuz...a ham bush!

Robert Cohen author of:   MILK A-Z
Executive Director (
Dairy Education Board

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