As a young boy I once visited an old family cemetery with my father. While there, I asked Dad a typical childish question, “Do I have any relatives who were famous, from back in the old days?” Dad’s response was uncertain. “Well, your Grampa Rowland was supposed to have done something with the army during the Indin wars. He was a scout, or something.” That was it. There was no more he could tell me. The story was one of those old ones that, over time, had started to slip away. It happens.
A few years back, as an adult, I enjoyed the opportunity to explore the rich history of an organization I had become involved with. In the process of learning that history, I happened across the names of several friends and relatives who had also been involved with that organization, years before I came along. This inspired me to begin exploring more of my family’s history and heritage which, I have come to find, is exceptional.
It seems I can go back along any branch of my family tree and find remarkable individuals who have contributed great things to their family and their communities. One of the most remarkable was indeed, as my father had indicated, my great-great grandfather, William Young Rowland, a.k.a. To’ėsemotšėške Long Knife.
My initial intent was to discover what role Bill Rowland played in the overall history of our tribe, the Northern Cheyenne. I found bits and pieces of his story scattered around in different publications, which told me that he was one of those integral, behind the scenes, players, who likely never sought, nor was given, the spotlight in any event or developing situation. He had moments though, where it was clear, he was the one people turned to for information or help. I had to learn more.
I am so grateful that I live in a time when access to sometimes very archaic information can be had at the touch of a computer mouse, or via a short email. So much of what I have learned has come in such a fashion. That’s not saying it all came that way however. I have traveled thousands of miles visiting battlefields, forts, and state historical societies, spent days sifting through various repository records including the National Archives, researched hundreds of books, talked with countless historians and relatives, and spent seemingly endless hours scanning, writing, and researching Cheyenne history and Grampa Bill. Most importantly though, I went home and talked with family.
A clearer picture of Bill Rowland emerged in front of me with each click of the mouse, each mile on the road, each step in his footprints. I’ve often wondered, with each turn in my investigation of his life, if he had any suspicion that his involvement in the grave and life-changing events of his time, would someday be of such pressing interest to any of his descendants – even a hundred and forty years later. After learning what I have in this process of discovery, I would venture to say that many of his descendants will be fascinated to learn the role he played in one of the most tumultuous periods in our nations history.
I am also grateful to, Rick Ewig, editor for Wyoming’s history journal, Annals of Wyoming, for publishing the article I wrote on my great-great grandfather, in which I relate the fascinating story of his life. My current project is, The Cheyenne Story, a three volume novel which tells the story of the Northern Cheyenne people, from shortly after the fight at Little Bighorn to the establishment of our reservation. It draws heavily on the research I’ve done for this article, as well as so much more I’ve dug up along the way.
Grampa Bill is a co-protagonist in the story, which provides me the opportunity to explore in greater detail, who he was and what role he played in the amazing story of the Cheyenne and their heroic fight to stay in their homeland. That story has always been a great source of pride for myself and many others. To know that I am a product and beneficiary of that struggle, that heroism, leaves me with gratitude beyond words. By my ancestors brave example I have learned that even though something seems impossible it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.