Indian warfare wasn’t all about military conflicts or a test of men
January 4, 2012
In reading historical accounts of the Indian wars, it is easy to reach the conclusion that Indian conflicts in the 19th century primarily involved disagreements with white intruders, particularly the U.S. government and its Frontier Army. Although there certainly were instances when those factions faced off with weapons, intertribal warfare was even more common.
By the early 1800s, many tribes in the Northeastern and Southeastern parts of the country had already been forced from their homelands, resettling in regions farther west. And as the United States spread west, tribes here were impacted not only by fur trappers and traders, emigrants and even the army, but also by other Indian tribes who abandoned – either willingly or by coercion – ancestral lands. The movement led to inevitable conflicts as tribes established themselves in new regions.
While some tribes became allies – the Cheyennes and Lakotas for example; others were bitter enemies, the Lakotas and the Crows or Pawnees, for another example. These alliances or conflicts not only affected the tribal members, but later impacted the Frontier Army.
Luther North recruited Pawnees to serve as scouts for the army in engagements against other tribes such as at the Battle of Summit Springs in northeastern Colorado in July of 1869 where his scouts joined the army in attacking Cheyenne Dog Soldiers led by Tall Bull. A later attack on the camp of Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife and Arapaho Chief Little Wolf south of Fraker Mountain, west of present Kaycee, Wyo., and midway between Barnum and Mayoworth, also involved Indians scouting for the army. That attack on November 25, 1876, had not only Pawnee scouts, but also riding with Colonel Ranald Mackenzie and 4th Cavalry troops were Shoshone, Cheyenne and Lakota scouts.
In all 19th century Indian fighting, whether against encroaching whites or other tribes, several rules applied. The first was that there were no rules regarding Indian participation in a battle. An individual could break off an engagement at any point and return home, with no concern about disgrace. Anyone participating in a war or raiding party was there willingly; no one could be required to participate. But in many tribes a young man could not marry until he had proven himself as a hunter or warrior, so participation in war parties was an important and integral part of his development.
Indian-against-Indian fighting generally involved raids on camps to steal goods (primarily horses) and to take captives. Some were revenge raids, undertaken to avenge the death of a clan member or fellow tribesman.
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Contrary to Western myth (and the movies), raiding generally took place at night or in early morning. An example of this is the August 20, 1877, raid by Nez Perce Indians on a camp of soldiers under command of General Oliver O. Howard pursuing them during their legendary 1,500 mile flight from Idaho toward Canada. The Indians organized and rode toward the military encampment, attacking before dawn. They captured nearly 150 animals and raced from the area. “The stampeded horses gone, we do not stay to fight soldiers,” Nez Perce warrior Wottolen said. “We leave them firing like crazy people in the darkness.”
While men usually undertook the raids and provided the primary defense of a camp, again, contrary to what the movies might have you believe, women defended their homes using various weapons at their disposal (including guns), they participated in revenge raids, and they sometimes joined war parties.
In the recognition of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) some aficionados have suggested that the presence of the Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, with the Corps of Discovery was a signal to western tribes that the explorers were not a war party, but had come in peace. This is pure blarney.
Women did participate in war parties on the Northern Plains, and in other areas; one of the most notorious of all woman warriors was the Apache Lozen. Northern Plains women – and young boys – occasionally traveled with war parties, usually to handle camp chores, but sometimes the women also took up weapons against their enemies.
In the case of the Corps of Discovery, the fact that Sacajawea carried her baby Jean Baptiste Charbonneau in a cradleboard may have been a better signal for the tribes they encountered that Lewis and Clark had no harmful intentions. However, if Lewis believed having Sacajawea and Baptiste along would secure the safety of his men, he did not heed such a premise in early August of 1805 when he and three companions set out across Horse Prairie headed toward Lemhi Pass in search of Shoshones – Sacajawea’s people – and horses. He left her and the baby behind with Clark, encountered Shoshones, and had the difficult task of telling them what he wanted in a conversation where he had no interpreter.
Although Lewis adequately conveyed his message and convinced the Shoshones to travel along the back trail with him to meet with Clark, imagine how much easier his task would have been had Sacajawea been by his side. After all, when the parties finally joined and discussion started in earnest, she recognized the chief: her own brother, Camehwait.