Valentine T. McGillycuddy, weak and on the verge of becoming an alcoholic after a stint as a doctor at the Wayne County Insane Asylum in Detroit, started a new career as a topographical engineer and cartographer when he was in his early 20s. He worked on surveys of the Great Lakes and Chicago following its great fire in 1871, and first saw the Great Plains as a member of the Northern Boundary Survey in 1872.
McGillycuddy was with the United States Northern Boundary Survey team from 1872 through the summer of 1874 as the topographical engineers worked their way west 860 miles from Lake of the Woods in northern Wisconsin to the Rocky Mountains at what is now Glacier National Park in Montana.
In the fall of 1872 the boundary surveyors were told to return to a swampy area between Lake of the Woods and the Red River and complete that boundary survey section, since the ground that earlier had been too wet, would now be frozen. Like the other men on the winter survey party, McGillycuddy likely wore Sioux style moccasins that were several sizes too large. Before putting on the moccasins, the men encased their feet in “one or two pairs of woolen socks, then a pair of ‘neeps’ (slippers made of blanket), then a square piece of blanket wrapped several times around the foot from heel to toe.” Finally the men added their oversized moccasins, “more to keep the blanket and slipper in place than for any other purpose,” one man said.
They concluded their work, and then returned to Detroit where “From March 1 to June 1, 1874, some men worked on their field observations while McGillycuddy was engaged in “plotting and draughting.”
The following summer he led one of the topographical parties, returning to North Dakota and working west from there toward the Rocky Mountains running the survey lines for what would be the northern border of Montana. Sometimes finding the way blocked by massive herds of buffalo, McGillycuddy later recalled, “Buffalo dotted the plains as far as the eye could see. Often we had to suspend astronomical observations at our stations located at 20 mile intervals because the vibrations from the drumming hoofs of herds nearby shook the instruments.”
Following his work on the Northern Boundary Survey McGillycuddy returned to Washington, D.C., and there began drawing maps of the border country. But his tenure at the map table was short-lived. John Wesley Powell, directing the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region for the Department of Interior, called McGillycuddy into the field again
This time he traveled west by train to Cheyenne, in Wyoming Territory, and went overland to Fort Laramie, where he joined Lieutenant Colonel Richard Irving Dodge of the 23rd Infantry and the leaders of the scientific party: geologists Walter P. Jenney and Henry Newton, both from the Columbia School of Mines in New York, and astronomer Horace P. Tuttle, of the Cambridge Observatory in Massachusetts.
The Black Hills Expedition, commonly called the Newton-Jenney Expedition, spent the summer of 1875 roaming the Black Hills. McGillycuddy surveyed and gathered information for the maps he would eventually produce, among the first prepared for the region. While there he climbed Harney Peak, and named many of the other physical features in the Black Hills. The primary purpose of the expedition was to determine the extent of gold deposits in the region, which at the time was Lakota territory and officially off limits to mineral development. Although McGillycuddy again began drawing maps, he was soon called back to the field. In May of 1876, his ability as a doctor attracted General George Crook, who had met McGillycuddy on the 1875 Black Hills Expedition.
The doctor traveled to Fort Fetterman, spent a few weeks at the fort, treated men wounded during Crook’s battle at the Rosebud, and then joined Crook in the field.
He remained with Crook that summer and early fall. After troops engaged in the Battle of Slim Buttes, McGillycuddy took care of wounded soldiers as they engaged in the “Horsemeat” or “Starvation” march, that also became called the “Mud” march, after they ran out of food, were forced to kill their horses and mules for food, and to tramp through sloppy, muddy conditions caused by incessant rain. Eventually they passed through Deadwood and went on to Red Cloud Agency near Camp Robinson.
McGillycuddy would soon become assistant surgeon at Camp Robinson, where he
cared for Crazy Horse’s wife, Black Shawl Woman, who suffered from tuberculosis, and came to know the Oglala leader quite well from the time of his surrender in May. Dr. McGillycuddy also cared for Crazy Horse during the hours after he was stabbed on September 5, 1877, until his death shortly before midnight that evening.
The doctor continued serving both military and Indian patients for another two years, before he was appointed as agent to the Lakota at Pine Ridge Agency. ❖