‘The Merciless Indian Savages’

Steven Schwamenfeld, American Renaissance, March 1998

Scalp Dance: Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865-1879, Thomas Goodrich, Stackpole Books, 1997, $32.95, 340 pp.

The American Indian has always had champions among whites. Their voices have generally been loudest in areas furthest removed from Indians in their natural state — perhaps not surprisingly since traditional Indian life involved almost perpetual warfare. Thus, as America’s political frontiers moved West, Easterners came to see Indians not as, in George Washington’s words, “beasts of prey” with an insatiable appetite for bloodshed, but as victims of the white man’s greed and brutality. With the disappearance of the frontier all Americans could take this view, and in the last 30 years book after book has promoted guilt over the fate of the Indian and regretted our nation’s very existence.

Thomas Goodrich has boldly attempted to redress this imbalance with Scalp Dance, a historical narrative largely drawn from first-hand accounts by soldiers and settlers who faced the Indian menace on the Great Plains. For Americans reared on tales of Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, a better understanding of Indian warfare casts these famous massacres in an entirely different light.

Hereditary Enemies

Col. William Collins commanded men who faced the Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux. Of these tribes, he wrote: “War with somebody . . . is the natural state of an Indian people. Every tribe has some hereditary enemies with whom it is always at war . . . It is by war that they obtain wealth, position and influence with the tribe.”

What modern accounts of the “noble” Indian warrior commonly leave out is his manner of making war, and it is the eye-witness and contemporary records that both enrich Mr. Goodrich’s book and make it sometimes painful to read. Military historian John Keegan has written that “there is a cruelty in the warfare of some pre-Columbian peoples of North and Central America that has no parallel elsewhere in the world,” but it would seem that this barbarity continued well into the 19th century.

Col. Henry Carrington wrote: “The great real fact is, that these Indians take alive when possible, and slowly torture.” Enemy dead who could not be tortured were horribly mutilated. This is how Col. Carrington describes the battlefield where, on December 21, 1866, 80 American troops were annihilated by a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne under Chief Red Cloud:

Eyes torn out and laid on the rocks; noses cut off; ears cut off; chins hewn off; teeth chopped out; . . . brains taken out and placed on rocks with other members of the body; entrails taken out and exposed; hands cut off; feet cut off; arms taken out from sockets; private parts severed and indecently placed on the person; . . . skulls severed in every form, from chin to crown; muscles of calves, thighs, stomach, breast, back, arms and cheek taken out. Punctures upon every sensitive part of the body, even to the soles of the feet and palms of the hand. All this only approximates the whole truth.

A few of the soldiers had managed to kill themselves before being captured. Many — probably most — were taken alive and tortured to death. This was the potential fate of every soldier on the Plains, and it is hardly surprising that it was standard practice to “save the last bullet for yourself.”

The aftermath of the Little Bighorn massacre was entirely typical. Private Jacob Adams wrote:

The men . . . were . . . scalped and horribly mutilated. Some . . . were decapitated, while many bodies were lacking feet . . . As I walked over the field I saw many unfortunate dead who had been propped into a sitting position and used as targets by bowmen who had proceeded to stick them full of steel-headed arrows . . . Some bodies were set up on their knees and elbows and their hind parts had been shot full of arrows.

Most of the bodies were naked, and many had been elaborately savaged. Isaiah Dorman, an interpreter, and the only black in Custer’s party, was treated with particular contempt. A witness wrote:

Isaiah lay with his breast full of arrows and an iron picket pin thrust through his testicles into the ground, pinning him down . . . Dorman’s penis was cut off and stuffed in his mouth, which was regarded among the Indians as the deepest insult possible . . . His body had been ripped open, and a coffee pot and cup which he carried with him were filled with his blood. What devilish purpose the Indians had in catching his blood I do not know.

Major Marcus Reno, who had ridden with Custer, wrote of a scene he found in the Indian village near the battleground:

One ghastly find was near the center of the field where three teepee poles were standing upright in the ground in the form of a triangle. On top of each were inverted camp kettles, while below them on the grass were the heads of three men . . . The three heads were placed within the triangle, facing each other in a horrible sightless stare.

Whites who observed Indians at their grisly work described them as expert butchers of human meat. A drummer named James Lockwood wrote of the deaths of two soldiers outside Julesburg, Colorado: “In less time than it takes to read this, they were stripped of their clothing, mutilated in a manner which would emasculate them, if alive, and their scalps torn from their heads.”

Far more gratifying than mutilating the dead was torturing the living. This was the ultimate aim of Indian warfare and was considered a religious act. Col. Richard Dodge left this by no means exceptional account of the fate of one captive:

He was stripped of his clothing, laid on his back on the ground and his arms and legs, stretched to the utmost, were fastened by thongs to pins driven into the ground. In this state he was not only helpless, but almost motionless. All this time the Indians pleasantly talked to him. It was all a kind of joke. Then a small fire was built near one of his feet. When that was so cooked as to have little sensation, another fire was built near the other foot; then the legs and arms and body of the whole person was crisped. Finally a small fire was built on the naked breast and kept up until life was extinct.

It is worth noting that Indians did not single out whites for cruelty; they treated them just as they did other Indians. Mr. Goodrich quotes a Crow chief explaining to General George Crook his hatred for the Sioux:

They hunt upon our mountains. They fish in our streams. They have stolen our horses. They have murdered our squaws, our children . . . We want back our lands. We want their women for our slaves, to work for us as our women have had to work for them. We want their horses for our young men, and their mules for our squaws. The Sioux have trampled upon our hearts. We shall spit upon their scalps.

As this passage indicates, Indians did not restrict their slaughter to combatants; many white homesteaders were killed without regard to sex or age. Capt. Henry Palmer left this terrible account of the aftermath of a raid:

We found the bodies of three little children who had been taken by the heels by the Indians and swung around against the log cabin, beating their heads to a jelly. Found the hired girl some fifteen rods from the ranch staked out on the prairie, tied by her hands and feet, naked, body full of arrows and horribly mangled.

Mr. Goodrich devotes an entire chapter to women’s narratives of captivity. Its title is “A Fate Worse Than Death,” and he does not use this antique expression ironically. A captive in an Indian camp was fair game for any kind of degradation:

She was led from her tent and every remnant of clothing torn from her body. A child that she was holding to her breast was wrenched from her arms and she was knocked to the ground. In this nude condition the demons gathered round her and while some held her down by standing on her wrists and their claws clutched in her hair, others outraged her person. Not less than thirty repeated the horrible deed.

Of two white women rescued by the 7th Cavalry in 1869 it was recorded: “At first they had been sold back and forth among the bucks for fifteen ponies each, but their last owners had only paid two.” One victim “appeared to be 50 years old, although she was less than 25.” She had not only been repeatedly raped but had received constant beatings from jealous squaws.

Indians delighted in trophy-taking, and prized some trophies over others. Catherine German wrote of the death of her sister:

Some time passed while the Indians were parleying; they seemed to make a choice between Joanna and myself . . . The Indians removed our bonnets to see if we had long hair . . . My hair was short . . . Joanna was sitting on a box that had been taken from our wagon . . . We heard the report of a rifle and when we looked again, our beloved sister, Joanna, was dead. The Indians then scalped their long-haired victim . . . This all happened within a very short time, and before any of us could realize it, our once happy family life was forever ended.

Contemporary accounts show that the lot of an Indian woman was not much better than that of a white captive. Lieutenant James Steele wrote: “She is beaten, abused, reviled, driven like any other beast of burden . . . She is bought and sold; wife, mother, and pack animal, joined in one hideous and hopeless whole.”

War correspondent DeBenneville Keim reported: “The relations between the sexes is the same in nearly all cases — that is, they [the women] are the servants or slaves . . . All labor performed in an Indian village fall[s] to the lot of the women.”

Elizabeth Burt, an army officer’s wife, recorded her impressions of domestic life among Indians:

I saw one of them [a chief] walking in front of a squaw, whose back was bent under a heavy sack of something, probably flour, while he, with his tall body wrapped in a gayly colored blanket, carried nothing but a stick. We stopped to watch them. Did he offer to help her carry the load? Not he, indeed; but on the contrary would use the stick to poke her in the back, to urge her on when . . . he found her falling back with her heavy load. The brute!

Mrs. Burt believed she was allowed to walk about in Indian camps because “women are such inferior creatures in the estimation of an Indian that . . . I engrossed little of their attention.”

Cheyenne Autumn

Mr. Goodrich concludes his book with an account of the attempt by Chief Dull Knife’s Cheyenne to escape from their Kansas reservation and return to their traditional hunting grounds. Historians usually treat this as an epic of aboriginal bravery against all odds. It inspired the adulatory film Cheyenne Autumn. Mr. Goodrich gives all due credit to the Cheyenne as warriors, but he presents the breakout as what it was: a killing spree. Dull Knife’s braves launched a reign of terror over Kansas from which no white American — man, woman, soldier, or civilian — was safe.

Despite such frank accounts of Indian behavior, Mr. Goodrich’s book is by no means uncritical of whites, whose atrocities he also chronicles. Whites who lived in closest contact with Indians were those who hated them most, and some repaid barbarity in the same coin. A settler named George Porter, who had seen his entire family murdered (and all its female members raped beforehand), went on a one-man vendetta in which he is reported to have killed 108 Indians.

Men like Porter occasionally fought in uniform as volunteer soldiers. Mr. Goodrich actually begins his book with what is generally regarded as the worst case of white brutality in the Indian Wars: the attack on the camp at Sand Creek, Colorado. Here, in the winter of 1864, Col. John Chivington led the Union volunteers of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry against the Cheyenne and Arapaho of Chief Black Kettle. These Indians had been granted a voucher of safety by a regular army officer, and Chivington caught them completely unprepared. His men killed women and children as well as men.

Unlike other historians, Mr. Goodrich puts this massacre in context. Chivington’s volunteers knew that during the summer white civilians in the area — men, women, and children — had been slaughtered by Indians. Some of the volunteers were probably related to the victims, and their battle cry was “Remember the murdered women and children!” Regular troops who conducted the bulk of the Indian campaigns were generally far less brutal than Chivington’s men because they had a less personal stake in the fighting.

Morale Problems

This said, the army that fought the Indians was not America’s finest. During the Civil War over two million men served in the federal armies, and in May, 1865, one million men were wearing Union blue. But by the next year this force had shrunk to a peace-time strength of 55,000 men, 20,000 of whom were occupying the South. It was a meager force that guarded American lives and property as settlers and railroads moved west.

The post-Civil War army also suffered from severe morale problems. The officer corps had been purged of its Southern patrician bedrock, and recruits were often beggars and recent immigrants. Many soldiers tried to survive their “hitch” by avoiding battle. Desertion was an almost debilitating problem, and sometimes it was only the cruelty of the enemy that inspired great efforts from the men. One officer from Gen. Patrick Connor’s 1865 campaign recalled:

About ten days before, the Indians had captured one of our men, and had tortured him and mangled his body in a shocking manner. Our boys swore that if they ever got hold of an Indian they would cut him all to pieces, and they did.

Given the kind of enemy they proved to be, it is surprising there were not more massacres of Indians.

Mr. Goodrich’s book captures the insoluble essence of the problem. No matter how militarily impressive, the traditional Indian way of life was incompatible with civilization. It was a way of life that held plunder and killing as the highest virtues. Its passing should elicit few tears.

A poor Kansas farmer named John Fergusson expressed in his homely way the determination that finally drove the Indian from the prairies:

I have been looking for the redskined Deavels in on us every day for the last month. they have been in and killed settelars twenty miles north of me and carried off gerls prisoners. the people here is living in constant dread of being attacted by them every day. the settelars cant verry well leave. they have reasded good fare crops of wheat and corn . . . and the most of them thinks as I do that we may as well stay here with what we have got and run the risk of being skalped as leave it. as for me I have lost over a thousand Dolars runing from Indians over the last five years and I am going to stand by what I have got now to the last minut.

It is the perspective of the people who built the United States that has been withheld from us by the purveyors of popular culture. Scalp Dance reminds us of the nobility of America’s settlers and of our debt to their memory.

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