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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



The Indian question is apparently inexhaustible.

This evening I have been listening to the reminiscences of several real old Californian pioneers, who gathered round the blazing log-fire in the Big Tree sitting-room, and began to exchange notes of their early days, in this new land—days when life was one ceaseless danger, every man being armed to the teeth, and constant enmity existing between redskins and white men.

One would imagine that some sense of fair-play might have induced a certain amount of sympathy with the wild tribes who saw their hunting-grounds so ruthlessly cleared, and they themselves driven out from every desirable resting-place; but this is an idea which apparently never found room in the mind of the encroaching whites. They wanted the land, and its natural inhabitants were looked upon as cumberers of the soil, for whom there was but one alternative—either they must “git up and git” (which is Californian for clearing out), or else they might be shot as wantonly as the wild buffaloes of the prairies.

Small wonder if desperate men strove to better such instruction, and from time to time rallied their forces for some fierce onslaught on the intruders. But efforts which in classic story are vaunted as noble and patriotic, are apt to be considered in a very different light when seen too near; so the struggles of the wild Indian tribes are invariably spoken of as the unmitigated treacheries of devils.

Of course, in the kind of guerilla warfare which was ceaselessly waged, there were countless incidents of cold-blooded cruelty on the one side, and of reprisals on the other; and after hearing a score or more of such anecdotes, told by men who perhaps themselves bore a part in the fray, it is hard to tell which side most deserves one’s sympathy, or rouses one’s horror. It is all such a pitiful history, and it does seem so hard that the earnest solemn red men, so picturesque in their barbaric feathers and warpaint, could have been taught no conciliatory lesson by their white brothers—nothing but the oft-enacted deeds of never-ending aggression, by which they have again and again been compelled to retreat farther and farther into the wilds, before the ever-advancing wave of settlers, to whom all pleasant pastures and desirable streams and springs were sites to be coveted, and therefore appropriated.

Some of the most thrilling stories told this evening were of attacks by the Indians on travellers crossing the great prairies, and of wild headlong gallops for life. The Indians had a special aversion to white men disturbing these hunting-grounds, and resented it accordingly.

Some of their best-planned attacks were on the overland stage-coaches, which were run right across the continent before the days of the Great Pacific Railroad, and which might be expected to yield a booty worth capturing. Of course the driver, guard, and passengers were all heavily armed, and the teams were kept in such first-rate condition as rather to enjoy a gallop with the wild Indian ponies tearing after them in hot pursuit.

It was found necessary to station troops all along the main road, and a military escort occasionally accompanied the coach from one station to another in districts where danger was apprehended. The stations themselves were frequently attacked, as the supplies of all sorts which were there stored, and the relays of excellent horses, offered irresistible temptation to the wild men.

The military established forts at intervals across the country; and the Indians, never lacking in bravery, attacked them in these strongholds. Some of the fiercest skirmishing took place in the neighbourhood of Fort Laramie, Fort Morgan, and Fort Sedgwick, near to where Julesburg Station now stands. On one occasion the Sioux and Cheyennes mustered a body of upwards of a thousand men, and prepared to attack Fort Laramie, where, as it happened, only about fifty men were then stationed.

The officer in command told off a dozen men to defend the fort and work the two guns, while he rode out at the head of the others to meet the assailants. It was not till they reached a projecting bluff, distant about a mile from the fort, that they realised the number of their opponents. The Indians charged furiously, and the cavalry were compelled to retreat, leaving fourteen of their number dead on the field. They succeeded in reaching the fort, which was quickly surrounded by the foe; but Indian arrows, or dubious guns and pistols, could avail little against artillery, and when morning dawned not one red man was in sight. Neither were any of their dead or wounded left on the field. All had been carried off, true to their ancient custom,—no easy matter, as it was subsequently ascertained that they had lost upwards of sixty men on this occasion.

Unhappily the savage nature betrayed itself in the terrible maltreatment of their dead foes, who, without exception, were left stripped and mutilated, affording a terrible incentive to vengeance in the hearts of the sad, stern men who on the morrow rode forth to bury their comrades.

The barbarous element was unfortunately continually presenting itself to stir up and quicken the abhorrence with which the white men ever regarded the wild tribes; and raids for horse and cattle stealing, plunder and burning, such as find many a parallel in our own Border warfare, were invariably salted with the one horrible crowning indignity of scalping the victims, regardless of age or sex.

About ten years ago these raids became so frequent and so alarming that it became necessary to take serious measures to put a stop to them. The chief difficulty lay in contriving to bring the slippery foe to an encounter, their policy being to appear and disappear again as if by magic. At sunset a settlement might seem prosperous and secure—no sign of danger near—and perhaps ere dawn only a heap of blackened ruins, and the scalped corpses of the victims, remained to prove that the Indians had visited the spot; but of themselves no trace remained.

The only possibility of tracking these marauders was by securing the aid of the friendly Pawnee Indians, who were familiar with every trail within some hundred miles. About two hundred of these men were enlisted as scouts, and formed into three organised corps. These wary allies undertook to guide a strong force of regular cavalry, and started in search of their natural foes, the Sioux and the Cheyennes.

Following dubious trails, winding by turns in every direction—north, south, east, and west—passing through valleys and creeks, till they had travelled several hundred miles, they at length tracked them to a ridge of high land, where about five hundred men, women, and children were encamped at a place known as Summit Springs, the only good water to be found within many miles.

The difficulty of the matter was for troops to approach without being discovered, so as to prevent the Indians from vanishing as effectually as was their wont. But the Pawnees were as wary as the Sioux, and knew every pass and ravine far and wide; so they were able to guide the white troops by circuitous paths, marching upwards of fifty miles in order to steal upon the enemy from the only direction which had been deemed so secure as not to require outposts.

So warily did they advance, that no alarm was raised till they were within about a mile of the camp, when the Sioux caught sight of the cavalry. Then, with a wild cry of warning to the women, they ran to catch their horses, which were feeding at some distance; but it was too late. The Pawnee scouts made the very heavens echo with their savage war-whoops as they led the charge, followed by the cavalry, and a short but furious hand-to-hand fight resulted in the total defeat of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians.

Of their two hundred warriors, about a hundred and sixty were slain. Some concealed themselves in a deep ravine with precipitous sides, where they could defend themselves in a close engagement; but their assailants knew better than to approach, and kept up a steady fire till they had reason to believe that none survived. Then approaching warily, they found one woman and sixteen men lying side by side all dead. Among them was the Sioux chief, known as Tall Bull.

The camp yielded large booty on this occasion, as, besides the usual strange Indian head-dresses, moccasins, and buffalo-robes, there was much spoil in the way of plunder obtained in the recent forays. About six hundred horses and mules were captured, and a considerable number of women and children. These were kept prisoners for a few weeks, and were then sent to other Indian settlements in more civilised districts.

In the camp were found two white women who had been taken prisoners in some of the raids. On the approach of the rescue-party the Sioux chief, Tall Bull, shot them both, and left them for dead. One was fatally wounded; but the other recovered, and eventually married one of the soldiers who had rescued her. Much property which had been stolen from her father was found in camp, and was restored to her; but the recollection of the insults endured by herself and her sister-victim, and of the cruelties practised on them by jealous Indian squaws, evermore abides on her mind as a haunting memory of horror.

This is a topic on which it is scarcely possible to touch, yet herein lies the secret of the unconquerable abhorrence with which white men regard the Indians. Such is their indescribable cruelty, that men who know no other fear, yet stand in such dread of the possibility of capture, that they are careful never to expend their last shot, reserving it in order to take their own lives rather than fall into the hands of men to whom the barbarous torture of a prisoner is a delight—the very women showing their ingenuity by devising fresh refinements of cruelty, and gloating over the prolonged agonies of their victim. Deeper depths of atrocious brutality await the female captive, be she Indian or foreign; but the fate of the white woman is invariably intensified in horror.

As a matter of course, such incidents, oft-repeated, have stirred up the natural antipathies of race to the highest pitch, and have too often led the pale-faces to deal with all Indians as though they were all alike—incarnate devils. Witness the resolutions for their total extermination which, some years ago, were actually passed by the Legislature of Idaho.

Resolved —That three men be appointed to select twenty-five men to go Indian-hunting; and all those who can fit themselves out shall receive a nominal sum for all scalps that they may bring in; and all who cannot fit themselves out, shall be fitted out by the committee, and when they bring in scalps, it shall be deducted.

“For every Buck scalp be paid one hundred dollars, and for every Squaw fifty dollars, and twenty-five dollars for everything in the shape of an Indian under ten years of age.

“Each scalp shall have the curl of the head, and each man shall make oath that the said scalp was taken by the company.”

So the Indians were first exasperated beyond all endurance, and were then shot and scalped, with as little pity as though they had in truth been dangerous wild beasts.

Small wonder that of the two million Indians who, two centuries ago, held undisturbed possession of those vast hunting-grounds, only 300,000 now survive; still smaller wonder that, of these, one-third are classed in official statistics as “barbarous,” and another third as “semi-civilised.” The greatest marvel is, that one-third should be classed as “civilised.” Nevertheless, Bishop Whipple of Minnesota, in addressing the President of the United States on the Indian question, has distinctly asserted that there does not exist one tribe to whom the Government has given Christian civilisation.

He points out, in the plainest terms, that the oft-repeated horrible massacres, followed by very expensive retributive Indian wars, have invariably been the direct consequence of aggression on the part of the white men, non-fulfilment by Government of the conditions of treaties (conditions made by the whites, but infringed so soon as they were found in any way inconvenient), and, most fertile cause of all, frauds by the Indian agents intrusted with the administration of Government compensation money.

As for treaties, they are apparently only made to be broken; not one is ever faithfully carried out, and those best cognisant with Indian affairs, affirm that there is not a tribe in all the great wide continent which has not just cause for well-founded complaints of the way in which treaty obligations have been evaded, and the manner in which they have again and again been deceived by Government promises, till all possibility of faith is quenched. No wonder that oft-repeated lessons of aggression and violence should have roused and intensified the very worst features of the Indian character, and excited the savages to deeds worthy of the devils with whom they are classed.

But I think that if the same policy had been pursued with any other savage race (the Fijians, for instance), the result would have been identical; whereas, in their case, the devotion of a handful of Christian teachers has transformed a whole race of most barbarously cruel cannibals1 into a nation of singularly consistent Christians. There can be little doubt that, had the tribes been first reached by such influences, and then honourably dealt with, the Indians in the United States would now be as peaceable and orderly as their brethren in Canada, where they are recognised as the Indian subjects of our Queen, and are schooled, Christianised, civilised, and protected by the laws in full enjoyment of their personal rights and property.

[1Only one tribe of North American Indians have the reputation of being cannibals—namely, the Tonkaways, who declare that their ancestors instituted the horrid practice, not to satisfy hunger, but to gratify revenge. They are found in the south-east of Texas. By a refinement of cruelty far in excess of that of the average cannibals of the South Seas, they cut slices from their living victim, who lies writhing on the ground in indescribable agony, while they sit by the fire roasting and devouring his flesh.]

How fully the “savages” recognise the difference of the white men who keep faith with them and those who do not, is plainly proved by the fact that whereas the United States have expended 500,000,000 dollars on wars with the Indians to avenge massacres without number, the Canadian Government has never had one massacre to avenge, and the white men and the red there dwell together in peace and amity.

One of the old Californians gave us some thrilling sketches this evening of the attempts to prevent the progress of the great railroad across the continent. This man was actually engaged in several skirmishes, when the Indians attacked the engineers and navvies, and sometimes succeeded in driving them away from their work, when, of course, the savages proceeded to destroy everything in their power. Even after the line was completed, and trains running, the Indians repeatedly contrived to tear up the lines, on purpose to cause frightful accidents; then in the confusion that ensued, they swooped down like evil birds of prey, to pillage the wrecked train, and scalp the wounded and the dead, and straightway made off with their booty and horrible trophies.

One man who was thus scalped had only been partially stunned, and the sharp cut of the Indian’s knife brought him to his senses so far, that he instinctively threw out his arms, caught the savage, snatched the scalp from his hand, and succeeded in making good his escape in the darkness. That man survived, and is now employed as an official on the railway.

A favourite point of attack was at Plum Creek—so called after a stream which flows between great rocky bluffs, and finally joins the Platte river. In old days it was one of the principal stations of the stage-coaches, and was therefore especially obnoxious to the Indians, who lost no opportunity of giving trouble. In one of their attacks, a dozen white men were killed and many wounded. When, however, notwithstanding all their opposition, the railway was completed, they selected this place as the scene of a villanous piece of work.

Having determined to wreck the train, they deliberately lifted the rails just where a bridge crossed a deep ravine; of course the whole concern went over, and engine, carriages, and waggons landed at the bottom in one terrible heap of ruin. The wretched fireman and engine-driver were appallingly injured; but their agonies, if intensified, were at least shortened by the fire, which quickly spread from the engine to the broken waggons and carriages, affording a magnificent illumination for the miscreants, who, having concealed themselves in the ravine to watch the success of their little game, now rushed out with frantic yells of delight, and proceeded to sack the train, tearing open bales of merchandise, and especially rejoicing over gay calico and bright flannels. Having secured as much as they could carry, they made off in the grey dawn; and when, a few hours later, a relief-party arrived, they found only the burning train, but no trace of the route taken by the Indians.

As usual, it was necessary to call in the help of the friendly Pawnee scouts, who were posted in detachments all along the railway track, for the express purpose of guarding it against the Arrapahoes, Sioux, Cheyennes, and other hostile tribes. With the aid of the telegraph to summon and the railway to bring these men and their horses, about fifty scouts and four white officers reached the scene of the disaster by midnight.

A party of ten men were at once told off to discover in what direction the enemy had started, and though to the eyes of white men not a track was visible, the keen-sighted scouts soon struck the trail. They followed it all day, noted where the foe had crossed the stream, and from various indications which they alone could recognise, decided that the cruel deed had been done by a party of Cheyennes from the south. They thought it probable that these would shortly return to try and do further mischief, and so decided not to pursue them, but rather to lie in ambush, making their own camp in a ravine near the scene of the disaster.

They had not long to wait. About a week later the marauders were discovered in the distance. The avengers waited till they had taken up their quarters for the night on the opposite side of the river Platte. When the horses had been turned loose, and their riders had settled down to make themselves comfortable for the night, then the Pawnee scouts, led by their white officers, proceeded to cross the river, and stealthily making their way through the scrub, succeeded in approaching very near the Cheyenne camp ere their presence was detected.

At last the alarm was raised, and in wild excitement the Indians dashed off in pursuit of their horses. They had just time to secure these, and form in regular ranks, when the Pawnees charged through an intervening stream, and with wild war-whoops rushed to the attack.

The Cheyennes numbered 150 warriors, and the Pawnees were but 50; but the suddenness of the attack had unnerved the former, and at the first charge they gave way, and fled pell-mell, hotly pursued by the scouts, till the darkness of night enabled them to make good their escape, leaving fifteen of their number dead, whereas not one of the attacking party was even wounded.

The Pawnees, of course, carried off the scalps of their fallen foes, to ensure their never reaching the happy hunting-grounds, and returned to camp to exhibit these precious trophies, and spend the night in wild war-dances of triumph. They succeeded in capturing a boy chief and a squaw, who were subsequently exchanged for six white girls and boys who had been carried off by the enemy in a previous raid.

The Cheyennes seem to have profited by this wholesome lesson, for they do not appear to have taken part in any further attacks on the railway; but the Sioux continued troublesome for some time—constantly attacking working-parties, firing at trains, and sometimes endeavouring to wreck them. On one occasion they succeeded thoroughly, and exactly repeated the horrors so ably planned by the Cheyennes at Plum Creek.

This time the scene of the disaster was a creek near Ogalalla. The rails were turned up, the engine fell headlong, dragging all the cars on the top of it. The unhappy fireman was jammed against the boiler in such a position that the flames could just reach him. For six long hours he endured the torture of a slow death of agony, praying the helpless bystanders in mercy to end his anguish by shooting him. At last they succeeded in extricating him, but he only survived a few moments.

On this occasion the railway officials and passengers were well armed, and made such good use of their weapons, that the Indians dared not approach to plunder, and eventually made off. They were tracked and pursued by the invaluable scouts, supported by two companies of white cavalry; but the latter unfortunately neglected to extinguish their camp-fires with due precaution, and the result was a terrible conflagration—one of those appalling prairie-fires which from time to time desolate vast tracts of the sun-dried grass plains, licking up farm-buildings and crops, extending to the forests, and sweeping onward in vast tornadoes of flame.

These bush-fires are of annual occurrence in some part of the great continent; and terrible beyond description must be the waves of fire, sometimes extending over many miles of country, and rushing onward as if driven by a hurricane, when the whole heavens are black with stifling smoke. And men and cattle flee for their lives, only to be overtaken and swallowed up by the devouring flames.

I wish you could hear some of these men tell their own stories of their hairbreadth escapes, and of the terrible scenes they have witnessed—scenes to haunt a man to the last hour of his life, so magnificent in their awful grandeur and horror. Sometimes the draught created by the flames themselves is so great that it carries with it large pieces of glowing charcoal, which flash like meteors through the dense clouds of smoke, and falling to the ground perhaps miles ahead of the main body, ignite the parched scrub, and form fresh centres of destruction. Conceive the anguish of finding one’s self hemmed in between such walls of living flame. Even if the farther fire has swept onward ere the first overtakes it, the scorching smoke is of itself enough to choke all living creatures, and the chances of escape by flight are small indeed.

Under such circumstances as these, you can imagine that the Indians of whom we were speaking were allowed on that occasion to escape scot-free. However, they seem to have then begun to realise that their attacks on railway trains were likely to call forth condign punishment, so they have abandoned that pastime to the more enlightened white brigands, who to this day occasionally amuse themselves pleasantly by heaping stones and logs on the track sufficient to wreck the train if it refuse to stop in obedience to their signals. The engine-driver, seeing the signal-lantern waved, stops as a matter of course, supposing it to be carried by the authorised signalman.

Then the whole band of masked robbers appears, armed to the teeth. If the officials offer resistance, they are overpowered by numbers, or yield to the persuasive influences of revolvers. The passengers are likewise held passive, and compelled to hold up their hands while their pockets are rifled; ladies are relieved of their jewellery, luggage is broken open and valuables abstracted, and if the safe of the express-car cannot be wrenched open by main force, the simple method adopted is to fill the keyhole with explosives and blow it open. In most cases this playful exploit is rewarded with a rich booty in money and valuables.

Should any rash officials venture to try and defend their charge, they are quieted by having the muzzles of revolvers applied to either temple; and though their lives are, if possible, spared, they are probably stunned by a judicious blow, which keeps them quiet for a while.

Having secured all they want, these considerate highwaymen then assist the railway officials to clear away the stones and logs, and to start the train again; while they themselves collect their booty and gallop off into the depths of the forest. You see, this is a great country, and whatever is done at all, is done on a large scale, and with characteristic coolness and forethought!

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