Title: Fighting and Trapping out West

Periodical: Manchester Times

Date: June 11, 1887

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I remember one occasion, however, when the Red men treated me quite generously. It was an experience I shall never forget. I was fourteen years old—still only a boy trapper, as one might say,—and started on an expedition with a man named Dave Harrington. [1] We went right away, 125 miles from any settlement, with a yoke of oxen and a light wagon to carry supplies and haul our furs back. We found a creek where there was lots of game, and there we made our winter camp. On the side of a hill we built a dug-out, and turned the oxen out to graze upon a small island, where we left them; then we began trapping, and did splendidly for a few weeks, everything going well. But one day, while we were out after elk, as we were going round a sharp bend of the creek, I fell so heavily upon a slippery hill slope, that I broke the shin bone of my leg.

Dave Harrington managed to carry me back to the dug-out; but, unluckily, not long before this one of our oxen had slipped upon the ice in trying to cross from the island, and received injuries which obliged us to kill it. We had thus only one left, and he was not strong enough to haul me back in the wagon to the settlement. So Dave had to leave me lying in the dug-out, and started off upon his journey of 125 miles to get help, promising to be back in twenty days. I had plenty of food and snow water, so there was no fear of my starving. On the eighteenth day, hearing a noise outside, I supposed it was Dave returned before his time, and sang out to let him know I was all right. For answer there sprang into the little dug-out a party of Indians; I was soon surrounded by as many as the hut would hold, and I saw at a glance that they were on the war path. They began threatening me with knives and tomahawks, and things did not look very bright; then the chief looked in, and I recognised him as "Rain in the Face," an old man whose camp I had once visited. I called out to him that I knew him, and that a year ago I had lived in the same place as he did, and had played with his children. He remembered me; and, jumping into the midst of his warriors, stopped them just as they were about to kill me. "This is only a papoose—a boy!" he exclaimed; "we do not fight with boys, but with men." So they spared my life; but everything that I had in the hut, except some meat, they took away. After this the days came and went, but no Dave Harrington appeared. I feared he must have perished in a storm, or been caught by the Indians, for the twentieth day was long past. But he came at last, on the twenty-ninth day, bringing a yoke of oxen. He had suffered terribly in the snow drifts; but he persevered through everything, and, putting me in the wagon, conveyed me back safely to the settlement, where I finally recovered. Dave was a brave fellow; he imperilled his life to rescue me, and showed what one man, whose nerve does not fail him, will sometimes dare for another in that wild country.

During the Rebellion the Indians took advantage of the defenceless state of the frontier, and became much bolder in their raids upon our territories. They made no distinction of parties; but saw their opportunity while the whites were fighting, and let themselves loose upon us, as there was no one to stop them. As soon, therefore, as the North had whipped the South, our troops were sent straight to the borders to quell the Indians. I knew that part of the country better than most men, and was employed on scouting duty. The difficulty was to find the enemy, who had no fixed quarters; and men well acquainted with their habits and customs were required to guide the troops to their haunts. Even when the whereabouts of a tribe was known, it was not easy to come up with them. To follow the trail over dry grass needed much care and patience. A single hoof mark sometimes gave the only indication; this must be followed until it led to others, where the main body had passed. No tricks such as turning back along the track ought to deceive a clever trailer; and he must be able to move along quickly, or he would never overtake the Indians. The troops often got near them in the evening too late for an attack; all night the men would lie in wait, holding their horses by the bridles, while the scout steals forward on foot to discover the best side to approach. Disguised as an Indian, he can often get close up to the encampment, unperceived, and thus enable the commanding officer to form his plans with certainty. Cunning as the Indians are, the white man can beat them at their own game. Indeed, whether it be in shooting, or riding, or trailing, or anything else, it is my experience that a white man who is up to his business can always outdo men of any other race in the world, even on their own ground.

Not that I mean to underrate the fighting powers of the Indians; our troops have often enough to retire, as everyone knows. Capture is the worst thing to be feared. For this reason the Indians made but few prisoners. Men knew that it was better to die fighting than to be taken, with the fate in store for captives of being tortured and burned at the stake. Yet it was not always possible to avoid capture, and there had been friends of my own who suffered that awful death. I have been caught myself more than once, but my good fortune has stood by me each time. On one occasion, while scouting in 1868, a tribe with whom we were at peace suddenly took to the war path. I had been in their company in the morning, and found them perfectly friendly, but happening to visit the camp again in the evening, I discovered that their attitude had changed during the day, and without anything to warn me, I rode straight into the midst of the enemy, as they had then become. Instantly the warriors closed in upon me, circling round and beating me with whips and clubs. The surprise was so unexpected that I had no time to use my rifle, or make any attempt at escape, so I had recourse to a stratagem. Putting a bold face on, I told them that I was bringing a number of cattle as a present from the commanding officer, who believed them to be still friendly. They knew that if I were killed, all chance of obtaining the cattle would be gone, and I was allowed to retire for the purpose of collecting the herd and driving it into the camp. Once out of sight, I made a bolt for it, and succeeded in reaching the fort seventeen miles off, leaving the Indians to wait for the cattle as long as they pleased.

Although their usual method of warfare is by means of ambuscades and surprises, the Indians are not afraid to meet their enemies in a stand up fight in the open. In the war of 1876, when I was chief scout under General Carr, we came one day face to face with the Cheyennes, and the two forces were drawn up opposite each other in regular line of battle, about half a mile apart. I had been employed in so many expeditions by this time, that I had acquired a high reputation among the Indians as a "warrior," and while our troops were halted preliminary to an attack, the Cheyenne Chief, Yellow Head, rode out in front of his line and challenged me to single combat. He shouted out that he was the greatest warrior in his own tribe, and honoured me by saying that I was reputed the greatest warrior among the whites. If I dared, he wanted me to come forward and fight it out with him, to see which of us proved the better man. I accepted his challenge, of course, and rode to meet him without delay. We both had rifles, and both our horses were soon shot under us. Then we continued the battle on foot, he with a tomahawk, I with a bowie knife. But I was too quick for him, and at last as he was raising his arm to strike, I seized hold of it, and held him until I could deal a decisive blow. I have his scalp now; had it ended the other way he would have had mine, for one of us must have been killed.

That affair was thought a great deal of by the Indians, for Yellow Hand was a famous chief, and after it I was looked upon as a mighty warrior indeed, although, as I have said, a white man does not really deserve any special credit for beating an Indian, when they meet on equal terms. Still it is a good thing for a man who has to deal much with Indians to gain their respect as a fighter. When peace is made they will always come in first to the man who has fought them hardest; they are great admirers of bravery and skill on the war path; and although they will devise every possible means for killing an enemy and taking his scalp, yet the oftener he defeats them in battle, the further he outwits them at trailing, and the more of their braves he slays, so much the more do they look up to him as a great warrior, and, when the war is over, pay him all honour if he visits their country.

I have frequently proved this to be the case during the hunting expeditions I have organised, when we have been right through the Indian country without any mishap. When the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia came over to the United States, I took him out into the buffalo country, and we had one of the largest hunts I can remember. Of course we were escorted by troops, although the Indians were pretty quiet at the time, so there was no danger on that occasion. But it was an instance of the confidence which the tribes place in a man they know and respect, that I was able to fetch a hundred and fifty warriors from a district two hundred miles away, who were willing to accompany me all that distance in order to give the Grand Duke a war dance in the plains.

Only a few years before I had been hunting buffalo under very different circumstances. It was when the Kansas Pacific Railroad was being graded that I had undertaken to supply the workmen with meat. Troops were stationed all along the line to protect the works which were being carried through a dangerous Indian country. It was not safe to go even a few miles from the soldiers; but meat had to be procured, and I used to take my chance, often traveling six, ten, or even fifteen miles after game without an escort. A wagon accompanied me, with one man to drive and another to cut up the meat; all the shooting I did myself. We were often "jumped" by the Indians, but I arranged with the officer commanding the troops, that when ever this happened I would, if possible, set the grass alight, and as soon as he saw smoke rising, he sent a company of soldiers to my rescue. Until they came we managed to keep the Indians off as best we could. Directly we found they were upon us, we used to throw the buffalo hams and hindquarters, the only parts we kept for meat, out of the wagon, and make a sort of breastwork of them, from behind which, lying underneath the wagon, we kept shooting away at the Indians as they rode round us. I also set the grass on fire, and we never failed to keep them at bay until help arrived, for they did not find it easy to come to close quarters over the open prairie with men who could shoot as well as we did.

The actual hunting was easy enough to a man who knew his business. There were hundreds of thousands of buffalo, and the only difficulty lay in the rough ground over which it was necessary to gallop at full speed in order to come up with them. Sometimes a wounded bull would turn upon you, but in all kinds of hunting, whether of grizzlies or buffalo or anything else, it is generally only the greenhorn who gets mauled through his ignorance.

Note 1: According to William F. Cody's 1879 autobiography, Dave Harrington accompanied the adolescent Cody on a trapping expedition on the Republican River (Kansas). [back]