SAINTS OR SAVAGES: WHITE IMAGES OF INDIANS
[The National Tombstone Epitaph, March, 1983]
During the middle years of the 19th century, Americans moving West took many possessions with them. The difficult way of passage caused material goods to be jettisoned with some frequency, as indicated by this passage from the diary of Richard Owen Hickman (1852).
(There were) old clothes of every description, and. . . towels, gowns and hairpins strewed all along the road from the time we struck till we left the river (Platte), and books of every sort and size from Fanny Hill to the Bible.
Ideas and values, however, were made of sterner stuff and were, therefore, retained more tenaciously. As varied as were the individually held ideas and values, on at least one subject a remarkable similarity can be found. Not only did practically all emigrants expect to encounter Indians, virtually all also shared an image of Indians that was essentially simplistic and certainly superficial.
To say this is only the most modest of criticism of emigrants, since it is equally obvious that very few sources of information on the subject were available. Certainly, many Mountain Men were more knowledgeable, but most of them were illiterate. Furthermore, these descendants of the "Long Rifles of Kentucky" had gone to the mountains because they preferred the relative isolation of that lifestyle. Thus, most trappers did not exactly go out of their way to communicate with large numbers of pilgrims.
Many things have changed in the century and a half since that great migration, but to an incredible degree, the stereotypical view of Indians has survived. Primarily because of portrayals in fiction and film, today's readers, like their wagon train ancestors, view Indians within a framework of highly predictable expected reactions. While this is unfortunate for a variety of reasons, for a story-teller such as this writer, it is tragic that so many people miss so much of the variety and flavor of Western history.
Indians were, and are, capable of a range of behavior fully as broad, as contradictory and as intriguing as the rest of the continent's population. While that may be damning Indians with faint praise indeed, let me share with you a few stories of the past that may illustrate the point.
That Indians posed a threat to life and property was a notion accepted with few reservations by wagon train pioneers. And there is no question at all that such a threat did in fact exist. Not infrequently emigrants encountered incontrovertible evidence of the type reported by G.W. Thissel and John Zeiber. In 1850, Mr. Thissel and his party "camped on (the) Platte River (about five days below Fort Laramie)".
The day was cold and gray, and a gloomy one for all of us. We found a man dead in the river, lodged against a drift. We dug a grave by the water's edge, and with long poles we rolled him in.
About a year later, near the great falls of the Snake River, John Zeiber saw "a very large new grave with an inscription on the head board, informing that Elizabeth and Hodson Clark, mother and son, aged 67 and 23 years, lay buried there, and that they had been killed by the Indians on the 8th of August 1851. They were of Scott Co. Ills." A young woman who was shot and left for dead by the Indians after they threw her off a precipice, "was still alive and in a fair way to recover when she passed Fort Boisee," in spite of severe wounds and a broken knee cap.
Eye-witness accounts of Indian-induced fatalities were by no means rare either. In some cases, the motive for death-dealing was utterly inexplicable. Lydia Milner Waters (1855) provides a case in point.
Four days before we reached the crossing a band of cattle were being driven over by their owner and some other men. An Indian galloped up, asked for the "captain", and after they had shaken hands and as soon as the "captain's" back was turned, he shot him through the heart. Then he galloped to the hills again and escaped. The "captain" was buried at the crossing.
James Force, on the other hand, was one of the relatively few emigrants killed during an Indian attempt at horse stealing. Force's companion, Thomas Flint, recounts the sad story.
As the moon was coming up at about half past 12 o'clock in the morning we were suddenly called by the guard crying in alarm. "Ho ho, come here quickly." Almost at the same instant I heard the click of a flint lock and heavy report of a gun. My pistol, whether awake or asleep was always at my right hand. The unusual movement of the stock had awakened me for at no time while on the journey did I sleep soundly. Pistol in hand I hurried to where my saddle mare was staked and found James Force dead, two heavy bullets about an ounce each had been shot through from right to left side of the chest which were found one in the blanket-the other just under the skin at point of exit. My mare had been cut loose from her stake-pin but she could not be held as she would drag the strongest man, white or Indians, in the direction of our tent. That was what most likely wakened Force for it was after the time he should have called his relief on duty.
A final example of the reality of the Indian threat involved Fanny Kelly, Sarah Larimer, Mrs. Kelly's five-year old adopted daughter, and Mrs. Larimer's eight-year old son, all of whom were captured near "Little Box Elder creek some 80 miles beyond Fort Laramie" by Oglala Lakota during an attack on their wagon train. During the first night of their captivity, Mrs. Kelly attempted to escape after, earlier, having managed to slip her daughter off the horse-leaving her along the trail in the hope she would be found and rescued. Her efforts failed. The Oglala quickly re-captured Mrs. Kelly; then, they searched the back trail for the missing daughter. Upon finding the little girl, they killed and scalped her. The second night Mrs. Larimer and her son did escape, finding refuge at the Deer Creek telegraph station after wandering aimlessly for several days. Mrs. Kelly was sold by the Oglala to Blackfoot Sioux who took her to Fort Sully, possibly to be used to cover an attack on the fort. In any event, at Fort Sully she was freed by the army. The agony of the entire affair subsequently was extended and exacerbated by a law suit between Mrs. Kelly and Mrs. Larimer involving the authorship of memoirs each had published.
Stories such as those recounted above re-told with a regularity that led most listeners to believe they constituted an accurate and complete description of all any white person needed to know about Indians. And yet, during the years of emigrant travel on the road west, the incidence of peaceful contact between Indians and whites was considerably greater than that marked by hostility. In fact, perhaps half of all wagon trains never encountered any Indians at all except at trading posts and military installations.
Edwin Bryant and his party hardly feared the two Shawnee Indians who "parted from us on their homeward journey at the same hour that we commenced our march" since "They carried with them a large budget of letters, which had been written during the night by those composing our party, addressed to their friends at home." The Shawnees, who were supplied "with bacon, flour, coffee, and sugar, sufficient for the remainder of their journey," did most definitely impress Mr. Bryant, however. "They supped and breakfasted with our mess, and I never saw men swallow food with such apparent enjoyment and in such prodigious quantities. Each of them consumed as much at one meal as a man with ordinary appetite and powers of digestion would eat at six. Our cook, in order that there should be no deficiency, prepared five or six times the usual quantity of bread, and fried bacon, and coffee, but it all disappeared, besides nearly a quart of lard in which the bacon was swimming.
The giving and receiving of food was, it seems, quite a normal incident of trail travel. Celinda E. Himes (1853) and Sara Sutton (1854) provide two cases in point.
Celinda E. Himes
Sun.-June-19-...Saw some Indians chasing buffaloes. It was said there were 50 in the herd. They succeeded in killing a number of them. The chase was very interesting to us. The Indians had nothing but halters on their horses. One was killed a little ways across the creek from us. We went to see it...We examined some bows and arrows with which they killed them. The Sioux gave Charles a quarter and offered him another, but he took but one...Many Sioux came to camp that day for food.
June 2. ...the hungry Indians have been near us all day. I gave them a quart of gravy that was left and some scraps of bread and they scraped into a sack-a leather one, I should suppose. We threw some dirty crumbs to the dogs and the Indians drove them away and picked them up and they went all around the camp and picked up the bacon rinds we threw away.
It was clear, then, that the presence of Indians by no means always spelled trouble--as Mrs. Inez Parker (1848) so vividly illustrates with the story of her mother's experience in the Cascade Mountains. While the men were getting the wagons down the steep slope of one of the mountains, the mother left her oldest daughter (Mrs. Parker) at the top while she took her nine-month old sister to the bottom. Leaving the baby in an open spot far enough from the road to be safe, the mother returned to the top to get the older girl. As she neared the top, she looked back and saw about a dozen mounted Indians headed for the spot where she had left her baby.
Grabbing her oldest by the hand, the mother started down the hill as fast as she could. "Nearing the bottom, she saw the Indians gathered on the very spot where she had left the child, apparently trampling it." With the combination of courage and ferocity which marks the female of any species when their young are threatened, the youthful mother ran to challenge the mounted warriors.
As she drew near, however, she found that the Indians had formed a circle around the baby "protecting it till her return!" Speechless for lack of breath, and near fainting from relief, she could only motion her thanks. The Indians responded with smiles, nodded their acceptance of her thanks, and rode away.
There are several other facets of Indian-White contact which are rather rarely treated in most accounts. The first can be quickly noted. Since most emigrants expected to encounter Indians and anticipated their hostility, it is hardly surprising that, more frequently than might be imagined, a stint on guard duty resulted in mistaking any number of objects for "hostiles." James Frear (1852) provides the only example necessary.
Tuesday May 4. ...one of the party who watched tonight thought he saw an Indian trying to steal our mules and as he was some cowardly he gave the alarm. I went with him to see the Indian and found it to be a large stone.
A second under-examined type of behavior involves the sounding of a false alarm in re a potential Indian attack. In the case of Joel Palmer (1845) and his party, the motive seemed quite clear. An election was being held to determine who would serve as the wagon train's pilot when "a motion was...made to postpone the election to the next day."
While we were considering the motion, Meek came running into the camp, and informed us that the Indians were driving away our cattle. This intelligence caused the utmost confusion; motions and propositions, candidates and their special friends, were alike disregarded; rifles were grasped, and horses hastily mounted, and away we all galloped in pursuit. . .After the excitement had in some degree subsided, and the affair was calmly considered, it was believed by most of us that the false alarm in regard to the Indians had been raised with the design of breaking up or postponing the election. If such was the design, it succeeded admirably.
Another example of a false alarm, and one much more serious because of its potential for inducing disaster, was reported by Wm. G. Johnston (1849). Two members of his party, looking for a mule which had strayed, found it with a wagon train some distance behind their own. In addition to recovering the animal, the two searchers returned to their own party with the news that "a notice...had been posted on the road, giving an account of an attack which had been made upon our (Johnston's) company by the Crows, in which two of our number had been killed and nine mules stolen." This "worse than senseless rumor," attributed by Johnston to "some one belonging to our train, meets the scorn and contempt it deserves." He went on to note that the author of this utterly false report "if detected, might encounter something worse. If intended to alarm emigrants, or whatever its design, it betrays a spirit of recklessness highly reprehensible."
One final type of white misbehavior must be reported. Three days out of Independence, a company camped closed to that of Robert Chalmers (1850) "lost 5 horses and 14 oxen, which were stolen by Indians or Whites for they are worse than Indians... (because) they steal here and take them back and sell again to emigrants." On how many occasions were Indians blamed for white misdeeds? No one, of course, knows, but three years after the incident noted above, at least one white man paid a pretty stiff price for such activity. On May 19, 1853, at the Elkhorn River, Henry Allyn's party found "the body of the man spoken of yesterday a week, that was shot at the ferry. . .It was a white man with an Indian blanket around him, endeavoring to steal on Indian credit. Judgment overtook him suddenly."
Stories such as those related above led most emigrants, and the second and third generations to whom they were subsequently passed on, to accept the general proposition that Indians, whether beggars or butchers, were, with only modest exceptions, implacably hostile to practically all whites. In truth, the horse-stealing that so bolstered negative emigrant attitudes was an activity of Indian culture differing from "sharp" bargains struck by Yankee traders only in that the former activity was an openly avowed theft.
This is not to say that a form of high plains hostility truly implacable in nature did not exist. It did. From the Three Forks country of Montana to the Stakes Plains of Texas virulent hostility marked a number of inter-tribal relationships. Such decades-old enmity was far more important as a defining element of Indian warfare in the 19th century than were the episodic encounters with whites. Prized battle honors came most readily from combat with a recognized tribal enemy, and whites, for the most part, were simply not considered by most Indians to be all that important. Opposing unwanted white authority and programs by intricate political maneuvers was accepted early on by Spotted Tail, Chief of the Brulé Lakota, as being both appropriate and effective. Till the day he himself was killed by Crow Dog, however, Spotted Tail could never regard raiding and razing Pawnee villages on the Republican River as anything but a most desirable activity completely sanctioned by the natural order of things.
The depth of the mutual antipathy of Sioux and Pawnee is further reflected in the "fierce and bloody battle between the Pawnees and Sioux, in the winter of 1835" near Ash Hollow. Rufus Sage (1841), who passed the site six years afterwards, gives an account of the combat and its outcome.
The affray commenced early in the morning, and continued till near night. A trader, who was present with the Sioux, on the occasion, describes it as having been remarkably close. Every inch of ground was disputed-now the Pawnees advancing upon the retreating Sioux; and now the Sioux, while the Pawnees gave way; but, returning to the charge with redoubled fury, the former once more recoiled. The arrows flew in full showers-the bullets whistled the death-song of many a warrior-the yells of combatting savages filled the air, and drowned the lesser din of arms. At length arrows and balls were exhausted upon both sides-but still the battle raged fiercer than before.
The ingrained hostility of inter-tribal enemies which led Charles Russell to entitle one of his renditions of hand-to-hand warfare "When Sioux and Blackfeet Meet," was, quite simply, not a factor in much Indian-White contact. Although significant peaceful contact was had by whites with most of the tribes of the high plains and mountains (with the possible exception of the Blackfeet), the Crows managed to inject a rough sort of humor into some of their dealings. William G. Johnston (1849) and Charles Ferguson (1850) provide two excellent examples.
William G. Johnston
The Crows, I imagine, notwithstanding the taciturnity of the Indian character, of which they probably have their due share, relish a joke, and they are fond, too, of a horse trade, when the advantages area wholly on their side; and however much they like to steal horses, they at times exhibit some degree of humanity, even to their natural foe the white man, rather than leave him wholly desolate, without some means of locomotion. I have a case in point. Recently a band of Crows captured an emigrant whom I happened to know, as he was one of a party who for a time traveled with us. Wandering too far from camp resulted in this misfortune. He rode a fine animal from which they made him dismount. They then relieved him of various incumbrances, including the clothes he wore, watch, pocketbook, gun, etc., and setting him upon an old worn out, limping nag, with a wild whoop which he mistook for his death knell, they sent him back to his friends who received him with shouts of laughter scarce more relished than the cry of the savages which still rang in his ears.
While we were at Laramie, we learned that a few days before our arrival a soldier had stolen the colonel's horse and struck out for California. It was a valuable one, worth about one hundred and seventy-five dollars. We thought strange the colonel did not have him pursued, but he said, "Let him go, it won't be long before he will be back." When we had camped, on the evening of the second day out from Laramie, we saw at some distance a solitary horseman, coming on a little diminutive brute of a horse. We watched him for some time, totally befogged as to who ar what he was. He didn't look like an Indian, although he had a buffalo robe around him. The mystery was solved when he rode up and got off-it was a white man. Except for the buffalo robe, he was naked as he was born. He proved to be the soldier that had stolen the colonel's horse. He had rode him, he said, about a hundred miles the first twenty-four hours, and tied up for a few hours to give him a rest, and again started and rode him until the next night, when a band of Crows came down on him and took his provisions, every stitch of his clothing, and his horse, saddle and bridle, gave him the buffalo rug, some jerked buffalo meat and the poorest pony they had and told him to go back. This with the Crows is not deemed robbing or stealing, but a pure business transaction not unlike, though in a jumbler degree, a modern Wall street operation though in the latter instance, the winning party rarely contributes even a blanket to cover the nakedness of the party fleeced. The Crows call it swapping. They say the Sioux are mean and will steal-but Crows, "they good Indian, they swap." When they swap, they are pretty sure to get the best of the bargain, especially when they have an opportunity to corner the market, as they did when they dealt with the Laramie soldier.
Some five years later, William Chandless (1855) confirmed the behavioral pattern just described. He also expressed an opinion not normally held by whites concerning Indians:
Crows never kill a white man, and if they find him in want will give him food, but they will strip him of all superfluities if then can; in summer leave him no clothes of blanket, and in winter one and his shirt perhaps, but they would not attack in a body.
That such behavior was normal for Crows is further supported by the report of William Marshall Anderson (1843). When Thomas Fitzpatrick and William Drummond Stewart were robbed in September of 1833, according to Anderson "The Crows took all his animals but returned inferior ones in their stead and returned 2 sacks of coffee and some chocolate--About half their traps and all the Guns but one."
The topic of "humorous hostility" cannot be dropped without a reference to the events that led a young man named Dawson to acquire the nickname "Cheyenne." In 1841, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party--guided by Thomas Fitzpatrick--became the first bonafide emigrant train to cross the South Pass. On June 4, 1841, long before they reached the Continental Divide, John Bidwell recorded the following incident in his diary.
Half past six this morning saw us on the march, the valley of the river (Platte) was here about 4 miles wide, antelope were seen in abundance-a young man (Dawson) was out hunting, when suddenly a band of Chienne (sic) Indians about 40 in number came upon him; they were pleased to strip him of his mule, gun and pistol, and let him go. He had no sooner reached the camp and related the news than the whole band came in sight. We hastened to form a Carral (Yard) with our wagons, but is was done in great haste. To show you how it effected the green ones, I will give the answer I received from a stout young man, and he perhaps was but one of 30 in the same situation, when I asked him, how many Indians there were? He answered with a trembling voice, half scared out of his wits, there were lots, gaubs, field and swarms of them!!! I do really believe he thought there were some thousand, lo! there were by (sic) 40, perfectly friendly, delivered up every article taken, but the Pistol.
It is, of course, much easier to be good-natured and humorous when one comes out "on top" as it were. But the Indian sense of humour remained even when they or one of their own became the "fall guy." According to Charles Ferguson (1850), Sioux "had not been misrepresented touching their pilfering qualities-in fact, they would rob. They would rush and snatch the food we were cooking, and if one would allow them, they were what is called awful bouncers, if they thought one was the least afraid of them."
On one occasion Mr. Ferguson was frying some pancakes when several Sioux warriors visited our camp:
One of them...came up to me, saying in a bouncing and swaggering way, "Give me." I shook my head, and said "No." "Yes," said he and grabbed at those on the tin plate-they fell to the ground. As he stooped to pick them up, I struck him over the head with the hot frying-pan and knocked him sprawling, the grease in the pan flying all over his head and face. He got up and went off, shaking his head in burning pain and muttering terrible anathemas on me, I suppose-certainly they were not prayers of blessings, as I judged from the expression of his countenance. It was all the same to me, however. Whether curses of prayers, I never felt damage or benefit from them. The boys were afraid that my rash act would call down the vengeance of the whole tribe, but instead of that the others seemed to enjoy the joke, for they laughed at him, and he appeared to be ashamed. He did not, however, attempt to help himself to any more pancakes.
It must, of course, be stressed that the horse Indians of the high plains were always capable of explosive attack, when, from their perspective, such action seemed desirable and/or necessary. Three times during the half-century of episodic warfare between the tribes and the American military, immediate field commands were utterly destroyed. Warriors of the Lakota and the Cheyenne, though ultimately defeated, imposed a cost on the military unique in the history of American arms. The annihilation of the soldiers in the commands of Lieutenant John Grattan east of Fort Laramie, Captain (Brevet Colonel) William Fetterman near Fort Phil Kearny, and Lt. Colonel (Brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn were uniformly described as "massacres" in all subsequent 19th century white descriptions.
Apart from the possible inaccurate use of the term "massacre," one other historical fact ought also to be kept in mind-the wholesale infliction of casualties was far from being a monopoly on either side. General Harney's attack on the Brulé village of Little Thunder on Blue Water Creek and the decimation of Black Kettle's Cheyenne camp on Sand Creek are well-known examples. That they are not the only ones is demonstrated by the following account from an 1847 letter written by Thomas Fitzpatrick to Thomas Harvey, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Saint Louis. Writing from Bent's Fort on the Arkansas, Fitzpatrick described with distinct distaste the behavior of three companies of troops, "the principal part of which are Dutch, or Germans," who were stationed at Fort Mann.
A few days of succeeding the occupation of Fort Mann by those Dutch troops a party of 60 Pawnie Indians arrived at the Fort, and apparently with friendly intentions, inasmuch that the troops invited them into the Fort, and entertained them very hospitably for some time the length of which I have not learned. At length the Dutch became suspicious, from some cause which I could not learn, and no doubt will always remain a mystery, attacked the Pawnies very suddenly within the small cabins of the Fort, and while intermixed indiscriminately with the men, killed four of them and wounded many more some of which made their escape, with a knife, or bayonet yet sticking in them, two prisoners were also taken, one of which had his leg broken, the other wounded in several places both of which even yet in custody....The particulars of the cause of the rupture I could not learn. Such wanton and uncalled for attacks on Indians are highly reprehensible; and cannot result otherwise than in the utmost contempt, and still more hostility towards us. Those and like acts are what I have been always in dread of arising from sending such troops into this country without the least knowledge of Indians, and still less of their duty.
Prevailing mythology about battlefield behavior in the 19th century commonly held that Indians rarely, and American soldiers never, left the scene of combat without retrieving their dead and wounded. While such behavior may indeed have been the practice most of the time, Thomas Fitzpatrick, again, describes for us a tragic exception growing out of a campaign "against a small band of Apache Indians united with a few Mexican and Pueblo refuges (sic) from Taos and its neighborhood...(who had) been guilty of many misdemenors (sic) in plunderings and driving off great numbers of government stock." With a command of eighty men, Major Edmondson searched for the Indians in the vicinity of the "Cañon of Red River or Canadian Ford of Arkansas." Indians and soldiers "were in very close and unexpected proximity before either were aware of the fact; and no sooner that the discovery were made, both parties panic stricken fled in opposite directions, the Volunteers not halting for a distance of eight miles; from which they continued their journey back to their more safe quarters."
In the haste of their departure, however, the Volunteers abandoned not only "several horses with their accoutrements...in the Cañon...(but also) one of their comrades, who was sick and was left there to struggle through as best he could." "Eight days afterward this place was again visited by another party of volunteers, under command of Col. Willock, who found several horses that had been left by both parties, some of which were yet saddled and ready to mount, the remains of the poor sick man were also found together with many articles belonging to the Indians which they abandoned in their haste, thus ends (the) campaign."
Two entries from the diary of E.W. Conyers (1852) tell a story of Indian-white relations that fits into none of the usual categories. As such it perhaps constitutes an appropriate conclusion so this short collection of accounts.
June 11-Friday-(two days from Ash Hollow)... These (Sioux) are the first Indians that we have met with since passing through the Pawnee country. They seem to be traveling and on the look out for something or some person. One squaw in particular, who was dressed gaudily in her tribal costume, scrutinized every countenance. Finally she came across a man in a company back of our train that she apparently was well acquainted with. This man, whose name was Morgan, could talk with her native language and was seemingly very glad to see her. With this man's family she remained whilst the balance of the band soon disappeared.
June 28-Monday-A small band of Sioux Indians were seen today. These Indians all seem to be very friendly. This evening we have learned a little more in regard to the squaw spoken of in my journal of the 11th inst. We are told that the squaw remained with Morgan's family until Mrs. Morgan was delivered of a girl child, which the mother named Platte, that name designating the place where the child was born. The squaw acted as midwife. About one week after this child was born, this man Morgan and the squaw dropped out of sight and were not seen nor heard of any more. Some say that the squaw killed him, while others maintain that Morgan deserted his wife and family and willingly accompanied the squaw.
If there is anything of value to be derived from the tales and accounts related above, perhaps it is this-the poet was, after all, right when he suggested how much better off we all would be if only we could occasionally see ourselves as others see us.
Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved