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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail. 1896.


Red and White on the Border

UP to 1880 the country through which the Little Missouri flows remained as wild and almost as unknown as it was when the old explorers and fur traders crossed it in the early part of the century. It was the last great Indian hunting-ground, across which Grosventres and Mandans, Sioux and Cheyennes, and even Crows and Rees wandered in chase of game, and where they fought one another and plundered the small parties of white trappers and hunters that occasionally ventured into it. Once or twice generals like Sully and Custer had penetrated it in the course of the long, tedious, and bloody campaigns that finally broke the strength of the northern Horse Indians; indeed, the trail made by Custer’s baggage train is to this day one of the well-known landmarks, for the deep ruts worn by the wheels of the heavy wagons are in many places still as distinctly to be seen as ever.

In 1883, a regular long-range skirmish took place just south of us between some Cheyennes and some cowboys, with bloodshed on both sides, while about the same time a band of Sioux plundered a party of buffalo hunters of everything they owned, and some Crows who attempted the same feat with another party were driven off with the loss of two of their number. Since then there have been in our neighborhood no stand-up fights or regular raids; but the Indians have at different times proved more or less troublesome, burning the grass, and occasionally killing stock or carrying off horses that have wandered some distance away. They have also themselves suffered somewhat at the hands of white horse-thieves.

Bands of them, accompanied by their squaws and children, often come into the ranch country, either to trade or to hunt, and are then, of course, perfectly meek and peaceable. If they stay any time they build themselves quite comfortable tepees (wigwams, as they would be styled in the East), and an Indian camp is a rather interesting, though very dirty, place to visit. On our ranch we get along particularly well with them, as it is a rule that they shall be treated as fairly as if they were whites: we neither wrong them ourselves nor allow others to wrong them. We have always, for example, been as keen in putting down horse-stealing from Indians as from whites—which indicates rather an advanced stage of frontier morality, as theft from the “redskins” or the “Government” is usually held to be a very trivial matter compared with the heinous crime of theft from “citizens.”

There is always danger in meeting a band of young bucks in lonely, uninhabited country—those that have barely reached manhood being the most truculent, insolent, and reckless. A man meeting such a party runs great risk of losing his horse, his rifle, and all else he has. This has happened quite frequently during the past few years to hunters or cowboys who have wandered into the debatable territory where our country borders on the Indian lands; and in at least one such instance, that took place three years ago, the unfortunate individual lost his life as well as his belongings. But a frontiersman of any experience can generally “stand off” a small number of such assailants, unless he loses his nerve or is taken by surprise.

My only adventure with Indians was of a very mild kind. It was in the course of a solitary trip to the north and east of our range, to what was then practically unknown country, although now containing many herds of cattle. One morning I had been traveling along the edge of the prairie, and about noon I rode Manitou up a slight rise and came out on a plateau that was perhaps half a mile broad. When near the middle, four or five Indians suddenly came up over the edge, directly in front of me. The second they saw me they whipped their guns out of their slings, started their horses into a run, and came on at full tilt, whooping and brandishing their weapons. I instantly reined up and dismounted. The level plain where we were was of all places the one on which such an onslaught could best be met. In any broken country, or where there is much cover, a white man is at a great disadvantage if pitted against such adepts in the art of hiding as Indians; while, on the other hand, the latter will rarely rush in on a foe who, even if overpowered in the end, will probably inflict severe loss on his assailants. The fury of an Indian charge, and the whoops by which it is accompanied, often scare horses so as to stampede them; but in Manitou I had perfect trust, and the old fellow stood as steady as a rock, merely cocking his ears and looking round at the noise. I waited until the Indians were a hundred yards off, and then threw up my rifle and drew a bead on the foremost. The effect was like magic. The whole party scattered out as wild pigeons or teal ducks sometimes do when shot at, and doubled back on their tracks, the men bending over alongside their horses. When some distance off they halted and gathered together to consult, and after a minute one came forward alone, ostentatiously dropping his rifle and waving a blanket over his head. When he came to within fifty yards I stopped him, and he pulled out a piece of paper—all Indians, when absent from their reservations, are supposed to carry passes—and called out, “How! Me good Indian!” I answered, “How,” and assured him most sincerely I was very glad he was a good Indian, but I would not let him come closer; and when his companions began to draw near, I covered him with the rifle and made him move off, which he did with a sudden lapse into the most canonical Anglo-Saxon profanity. I then started to lead my horse out to the prairie; and after hovering round a short time they rode off, while I followed suit, but in the opposite direction. It had all passed too quickly for me to have time to get frightened; but during the rest of my ride I was exceedingly uneasy, and pushed tough, speedy old Manitou along at a rapid rate, keeping well out on the level. However, I never saw the Indians again. They may not have intended any mischief beyond giving me a fright; but I did not dare to let them come to close quarters, for they would have probably taken my horse and rifle, and not impossibly my scalp as well. Towards nightfall I fell in with two old trappers who lived near Killdeer Mountains, and they informed me that my assailants were some young Sioux bucks, at whose hands they themselves had just suffered the loss of two horses.

A few cool, resolute whites, well armed, can generally beat back a much larger number of Indians if attacked in the open. One of the first cattle outfits that came to the Powder River country, at the very end of the last war with the Sioux and Cheyennes, had an experience of this sort. There were six or eight whites, including the foreman, who was part owner, and they had about a thousand head of cattle. These they intended to hold just out of the dangerous district until the end of the war, which was evidently close at hand. They would thus get first choice of the new grazing grounds. But they ventured a little too far, and one day while on the trail were suddenly charged by fifty or sixty Indians. The cattle were scattered in every direction, and many of them slain in wantonness, though most were subsequently recovered. All the loose horses were driven off. But the men themselves instantly ran together and formed a ring, fighting from behind the pack and saddle ponies. One of their number was killed, as well as two or three of the animals composing their living breastwork; but being good riflemen, they drove off their foes. The latter did not charge them directly, but circled round, each rider concealed on the outside of his horse; and though their firing was very rapid, it was, naturally, very wild. The whites killed a good many ponies, and got one scalp, belonging to a young Sioux brave who dashed up too close, and whose body in consequence could not be carried off by his comrades, as happened to the two or three others who were seen to fall. Both the men who related the incident to me had been especially struck by the skill and daring shown by the Indians in thus carrying off their dead and wounded the instant they fell.

The relations between the white borderers and their red-skinned foes and neighbors are rarely pleasant. There are incessant quarrels, and each side has to complain of bitter wrongs. Many of the frontiersmen are brutal, reckless, and overbearing; most of the Indians are treacherous, revengeful, and fiendishly cruel. Crime and bloodshed are the only possible results when such men are brought in contact. Writers usually pay heed only to one side of the story; they recite the crimes committed by one party, whether whites or Indians, and omit all reference to the equally numerous sins of the other. In our dealings with the Indians we have erred quite as often through sentimentality as through willful wrong-doing. Out of my own short experience I could recite a dozen instances of white outrages which, if told alone, would seem to justify all the outcry raised on behalf of the Indian; and I could also tell of as many Indian atrocities which make one almost feel that not a single one of the race should be left alive.

The chief trouble arises from the feeling alluded to in this last sentence—the tendency on each side to hold the race, and not the individual, responsible for the deeds of the latter. The skirmish between the cowboys and the Cheyennes, spoken of above, offers a case in point. It was afterwards found out that two horse-thieves had stolen some ponies from the Cheyennes. The latter at once sallied out and attempted to take some from a cow camp, and a fight resulted. In exactly the same way I once knew a party of buffalo hunters, who had been robbed of their horses by the Sioux, to retaliate by stealing an equal number from some perfectly peaceful Grosventres. A white or an Indian who would not himself commit any outrage will yet make no effort to prevent his fellows from organizing expeditions against men of the rival race. This is natural enough where law is weak, and where, in consequence, every man has as much as he can do to protect himself without meddling in the quarrels of his neighbors. Thus a white community will often refrain from taking active steps against men who steal horses only from the Indians, although I have known a number of instances where the ranchmen have themselves stopped such outrages. The Indians behave in the same way. There is a peaceful tribe not very far from us which harbors two or three red horse-thieves, who steal from the whites at every chance. Recently, in our country, an expedition was raised to go against these horse-thieves, and it was only with the utmost difficulty that it was stopped: had it actually gone, accompanied as it would have been by scoundrels bent on plunder, as well as by wronged men who thought all redskins pretty much alike, the inevitable result would have been a bloody fight with all the Indians, both good and bad.

Not only do Indians differ individually, but they differ as tribes. An upper-class Cherokee is nowadays as good as a white. The Nez Percés differ from the Apaches as much as a Scotch laird does from a Calabrian bandit. A Cheyenne warrior is one of the most redoubtable foes in the whole world; a “digger” Snake one of the most despicable. The Pueblo is as thrifty, industrious, and peaceful as any European peasant, and no Arab of the Soudan is a lazier, wilder robber than is the Arapahoe.

The frontiersmen themselves differ almost as widely from one another. But in the event of an Indian outbreak all suffer alike, and so all are obliged to stand together: when the reprisals for a deed of guilt are sure to fall on the innocent, the latter have no resource save to ally themselves with the guilty. Moreover, even the best Indians are very apt to have a good deal of the wild beast in them; when they scent blood they wish their share of it, no matter from whose veins it flows. I once had a German in my employ, who, when a young child, had lost all his relations by a fate so terrible that it had weighed down his whole after-life. His family was living out on the extreme border at the time of the great Sioux outbreak towards the end of the civil war. There were many Indians around, seemingly on good terms with them; and to two of these Indians they had been able to be of much service, so that they became great friends. When the outbreak occurred, the members of this family were among the first captured. The two friendly Indians then endeavored to save their lives, doing all they could to dissuade their comrades from committing violence. Finally, after an angry discussion, the chief, who was present, suddenly ended it by braining the mother. The two former friends then, finding their efforts useless, forthwith turned round and joined with the others, first in violating the wretched daughters, and then in putting them to death with tortures that cannot even be hinted at. The boy alone was allowed to live. If he had been a native-born frontiersman, instead of a peaceful, quiet German, he probably would have turned into an inveterate Indian-slayer, resolute to kill any of the hated race wherever and whenever met—a type far from unknown on the border, of which I have myself seen at least one example.

With this incident it is only fair to contrast another that I heard related while spending the night in a small cow ranch on the Beaver, whither I had ridden on one of our many tedious hunts after lost horses. Being tired, I got into my bunk early, and while lying there listened to the conversation of two cowboys—both strangers to me—who had also ridden up to the ranch to spend the night. They were speaking of Indians, and mentioned, certainly without any marked disapprobation, a jury that had just acquitted a noted horse-thief of the charge of stealing stock from some Piegans, though he himself had openly admitted its truth. One, an unprepossessing, beetle-browed man, suddenly remarked that he had once met an Indian who was a pretty good fellow, and he proceeded to tell the story. A small party of Indians had passed the winter near the ranch at which he was employed. The chief had two particularly fine horses, which so excited his cupidity that one night he drove them off and “cached”—that is, hid—them in a safe place. The chief looked for them high and low, but without success. Soon afterwards one of the cowboy’s own horses strayed. When spring came the Indians went away; but three days afterwards the chief returned, bringing with him the strayed horse, which he had happened to run across. “I could n’t stand that,” said the narrator, “so I just told him I reckoned I knew where his own lost horses were, and I saddled up my bronch’ and piloted him to them.”

Here and there on the border there is a certain amount of mixture with the Indian blood; much more than is commonly supposed. One of the most hard-working and prosperous men in our neighborhood is a Chippewa half-breed; he is married to a white wife, and ranks in every respect as a white. Two of our richest cattle-men are married to Indian women; their children are being educated in convents. In several of the most thriving North-western cities men could be pointed out, standing high in the community, who have a strong dash of Indian blood in their veins. Often, however, especially in the lower classes, they seem to feel some shame about admitting the cross, so that in a couple of generations it is forgotten.

Indians are excellent fighters, though they do not shoot well—being in this respect much inferior not only to the old hunters, but also, nowadays, to the regular soldiers, who during the past three or four years have improved wonderfully in marksmanship. They have a very effective discipline of their own, and thus a body of them may readily be an over-match for an equal number of frontiersmen if the latter have no leader whom they respect. If the cowboys have rifles—for the revolver is useless in long-range individual fighting—they feel no fear of the Indians, so long as there are but half a dozen or so on a side; but, though infinitely quicker in their movements than regular cavalry, yet, owing to their heavy saddles, they are not able to make quite so wonderful marches as the Indians do, and their unruly spirit often renders them ineffective when gathered in any number without a competent captain. Under a man like Forrest they would become the most formidable fighting horsemen in the world.

In the summer of 1886, at the time of the war-scare over the “Cutting incident,” we began the organization of a troop of cavalry in our district, notifying the Secretary of War that we were at the service of the Government, and being promised every assistance by our excellent chief executive of the Territory, Governor Pierce. Of course the cowboys were all eager for war, they did not much care with whom; they were very patriotic, they were fond of adventure, and, to tell the truth, they were by no means averse to the prospect of plunder. News from the outside world came to us very irregularly, and often in distorted form, so that we began to think we might get involved in a conflict not only with Mexico, but with England also. One evening at my ranch the men began talking over the English soldiers, so I got down “Napier” and read them several extracts from his descriptions of the fighting in the Spanish peninsula, also recounting as well as I could the great deeds of the British cavalry from Waterloo to Balaklava, and finishing up by describing from memory the fine appearance, the magnificent equipment, and the superb horses of the Household cavalry and of a regiment of hussars I had once seen.

All of this produced much the same effect on my listeners that the sight of Marmion’s cavalcade produced in the minds of the Scotch moss-troopers on the eve of Flodden; and at the end, one of them, who had been looking into the fire and rubbing his hands together, said with regretful emphasis, “Oh, how I would like to kill one of them!”