Category Archives: migration

Wild Young Geronimo

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 7351-7381:

MANY YEARS after the Apache Wars were over, Chatto, who was a rising Chokonen leader in the early 1880s, would declare, “I have known Geronimo all my life up to his death and have never known anything good about him.” The daughter of the Chokonen chief Naiche agreed. “Geronimo was not a great man at all. I never heard any good of him. People never say he [did] good.” A reliable interpreter and licensed trader who lived on good terms with the Chiricahuas for two decades said they distrusted and feared Geronimo, especially when he was inebriated. Once while hopelessly drunk, he berated a nephew, “for no reason at all,” so severely that the young man committed suicide. After sobering up, a shamed Geronimo packed up his family and bolted from the reservation for several months.

Army officers otherwise sympathetic to the Apaches detested Geronimo. Lieutenant Bourke found him “a depraved rascal whose neck I should like to stretch.” He was a “thoroughly vicious, intractable, and treacherous man,” agreed Lieutenant Britton Davis, who would come to know him all too well. “His only redeeming traits were courage and determination.”

And “power,” Davis might have added, had he understood the concept. What the whites dismissed as superstition was quite real to the Chiricahuas. That Geronimo possessed mystic attributes uniquely valuable in raids and war, few Apaches doubted. Rifles were said to jam or misfire when aimed at him. Some warriors thought the mere act of riding with Geronimo would render them impervious to bullets, a belief this consummate troublemaker heartily encouraged. Many Chiricahuas also attributed to him the gift of divination. Others thought him able to make it rain or to prevent the sun from rising. Geronimo also enjoyed a reputation as a master herbalist and surgeon. Despite his supposed powers, he was too strongly disliked to ever become a chief. His baleful countenance, locked in a perpetual scowl, probably didn’t help. All told, Geronimo’s personal following never exceeded thirty warriors.

The minatory shaman of the Bedonkohe band was born Goyahkla, meaning “He Who Yawns,” in 1829. Because he was saddled with such a singularly uninspiring name, it is little wonder he assumed the name Geronimo, which the Mexicans had bestowed on him. The Spanish equivalent of Jerome, it lacked the verve of Victorio but certainly was a better name than Goyahkla. Unlike Victorio, Geronimo felt no compelling ties to the place of his birth. He fought not to defend a homeland but to avenge the murder of his mother, first wife, and children by Mexican soldiers and because he enjoyed taking lives. “I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many. Some of them were not worth counting,” he said shortly before his death. If he were young again, Geronimo added, “and followed the warpath, it would lead into Old Mexico.”

Geronimo’s forays into Mexico often led him to the Sierra Madre, home to the Nednhi Chiricahua band of Chief Juh, one of his few real friends. Although a better war leader than Geronimo, Juh lacked the shaman’s gift for oratory. When excited, particularly in battle, Juh stuttered so badly that he had to use hand signals to communicate or rely on Geronimo to make his intentions known. Both men were wary of Americans. Juh had had little contact with them; he was naturally suspicious of everyone. Geronimo’s distrust derived from personal experience—first the murderous betrayal of Mangas Coloradas in 1863, and then his own humiliating arrest at Ojo Caliente and lockup at San Carlos by Agent John Clum in 1877.

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Tame Old Geronimo

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 8022-8037:

Geronimo lived for twenty-three years after his surrender. In 1893, the government resettled Geronimo and the Chiricahuas—still prisoners of war—at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, home to the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation. They received plots of land to farm, and the men were taught the techniques of the range cattle industry. Geronimo went through something of a metamorphosis, becoming a model farmer and impressing his growing circle of white friends as a “kind old man.” He said he had learned much of the whites during his long years of captivity, finding them to be “a very kind and peaceful people.” In his later years, Geronimo also enjoyed celebrity. He appeared regularly at fairs and festivals, including the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, where at age seventy-five he joined in calf-roping contests and sold signed photographs of himself. In 1905, Geronimo rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade and dictated his autobiography, which, over the army’s objection, was published with Roosevelt’s permission.

Although he never lost faith in his personal power, Geronimo embraced Christianity, more to supplement than to supplant traditional Apache beliefs. “Since my life as a prisoner has begun I have heard the teachings of the white man’s religion, and in many respects believe it to be better than the religion of my fathers. However, I have always prayed, and I believe that the Almighty has always protected me.”

Geronimo’s divine protection ran out on a cold day in February 1909, when he rode into Lawton, Oklahoma, alone to sell some bows and arrows. With the proceeds, the old shaman bought whiskey, for which he had never lost his fondness, and began the return ride after dark deeply intoxicated. He was almost home when he fell off his horse beside a creek. A neighbor found him the next morning, lying partially submerged in the freezing water. Four days later, at age seventy-nine, the man whom no bullet could ever kill died in bed of pneumonia.

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U.S. Army Decline, 1870s

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1154-1167:

Even as the Indian Wars intensified, Congress—intent on paying down the massive national debt incurred during the Civil War—repeatedly reduced the rolls of the regular army. From an authorized strength of fifty-four thousand men in 1869, the army would plummet to just twenty-five thousand by 1874. Reconstruction duties siphoned off a third of the army and sucked the institution into partisan politics. As Southern states were readmitted to the Union, their representatives made common cause with the budget balancers in order to emasculate their blue-coated former oppressors, and the frontier army became a skeleton force.

Declining numbers were not the army’s only problem. Gone were the sober and purposeful volunteers who had restored the Union. In their place was a decidedly inferior brand of soldier. Not all were “bummers and loafers,” as the New York Sun alleged. There were also a disproportionately large number of urban poor, criminals, drunkards, and perverts. Few soldiers were well educated, and many were illiterate. Unskilled laborers in search of a steady job flocked to recruiting depots, usually to desert when better-paying work became available. One-third of the frontier army consisted of recent immigrants, mostly German and Irish, some of whom had seen service in European armies and proved an asset, and sprinkled among the American undesirables were good men who had fallen on hard times. Nevertheless, as one general observed, while the army had a greatly improved rifle, “I rather think we have a much less intelligent soldier to use it.”

Incentives to enlist were few. By the 1870s, regulars earned just ten dollars a month, three dollars less than had Civil War volunteers a decade earlier.

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U.S. Pawnee Battalion vs. Cheyenne Dog Soldiers

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1565-1570, 2266-2281:

The only force that had proven able to best the Oglalas and the Cheyennes was Major Frank North’s Pawnee Battalion. North’s command was an experiment in recruiting friendly Indians as soldiers that paid handsome dividends. Uniformed in regulation blue and well armed, the two hundred warriors of the Pawnee Battalion protected Union Pacific work crews far more effectively than the army. They marched and drilled as cavalry but fought in the loose formations of Plains warriors. In early August, a Pawnee company attacked a large Cheyenne war party that was plundering a derailed freight train, killing by North’s estimate seventeen warriors. Cheyenne sources disputed the numbers, but the blow kept their war parties away from the railroad.

The Pawnees did most of the killing at Summit Springs, and they killed without mercy. The Cheyennes expected as much. “I do not belittle the Pawnees for their killing of women or children because as far back as any of us could remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child they could run across of the Pawnee tribe,” said a Dog Soldier survivor. “Each tribe hated the other with a deadly passion and savage hearts [that] know only total war.” Sherman and Sheridan’s notion of total war paled beside that of the Plains Indians.

Carr achieved complete victory at Summit Springs. He reported fifty-two Cheyennes killed (sexes and ages unspecified), an unknown number wounded, and seventeen women and children captured. No soldiers died, and only one was wounded, barely scratched by an arrow. Carr burned eighty-six lodges and captured 450 ponies. Remnants of Tall Bull’s village reached the Lakota camps in the Black Hills, but the Dog Soldiers as a band had ceased to exist. In those twenty terrifying minutes at Summit Springs, their world ended. For all their truculence, the Dog Soldiers had not sought war with the whites. Tall Bull had spoken truthfully when he told General Hancock in 1867 that the Dog Soldiers wanted only to live unmolested in their Republican River home. When the Union Pacific Railroad began its inexorable way toward their country, bringing thousands of settlers and driving off the buffalo, the Dog Soldiers had fought to save their country and their way of life the only way they knew how—with horrific raids calculated to terrorize the whites into keeping away. Few whites understood the Dog Soldiers’ behavior, and fewer still could excuse the atrocities. The Dog Soldiers were likewise unable to comprehend the social and economic forces that impelled the whites to take their country. Nevertheless, it was a brutal fate that decreed the Dog Soldiers’ annihilation after they had given up the struggle.

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U.S. Betrayal of Pawnee Allies

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 3858-3875:

After Sitting Bull’s investiture as head of the non-treaty Lakotas, his uncle Four Horns advised him to “be a little against fighting but when anyone shoots be ready to fight him.”

Four Horns’s counsel, however, applied only to whites; Crows continued to be fair game. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led the push to dispossess the Crows of their remaining hunting grounds in the early 1870s, but many from the treaty bands fought with them, as did the Northern Cheyennes and, to a lesser degree, their Northern Arapaho allies. The architects of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 had included Crow land within the Unceded Indian Territory, which made Lakota aggression perfectly legal. But it threatened the citizens of southwestern Montana, who had counted on the Crows as a buffer between themselves and Lakotas, and the governor appealed for federal intervention. Generals Sherman and Sheridan made it a matter of unofficial policy to supply the Crows with arms. Each side benefited: settlers felt safer, and the army winked at Crow retaliatory raids against the Lakotas.

The Crows had it hard, but none suffered more for their fidelity to the Great Father than did the Pawnees. Agency Oglala and Brulé warriors raided Pawnee villages in central Nebraska with the implicit support of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, who saw nothing amiss in young warriors sating their hunger for war honors at the expense of tribal enemies. Certainly it was preferable to unwinnable wars with the whites. In August 1873, at least eight hundred Lakota warriors, perhaps led by Spotted Tail himself, fell upon a Pawnee hunting party in southwestern Nebraska, killing a hundred, of whom nearly half were women and children. Only the timely appearance of a cavalry detachment prevented a greater slaughter.

The massacre broke the spirit of the Pawnees. Nebraskans who recalled the protection that the Pawnees had afforded Union Pacific work crews in their state were outraged and demanded the government give the Pawnees the best available arms in order to meet the Lakotas on an equal footing. Instead, the Indian Bureau banished the Pawnees to Indian Territory. In their single-minded ambition to remake the hostile tribes into white men, the eastern humanitarians did not lift a finger to forestall this unpardonable act of bad faith.

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Tribe vs. Tribe in the Northern Plains

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 475-495:

The most powerful newcomers before the whites spilled onto the plains were the Sioux, formerly a woodlands people of the present-day upper Midwest. As it shifted west, the Sioux nation separated into three divisions: the Dakotas, a semisedentary people who clung to the Minnesota River; the Nakotas, who settled east of the Missouri River; and the Lakotas, who wrestled their way onto the northern plains. The Lakotas were the true horse-and-buffalo Sioux of popular imagination, and they constituted nearly half the Sioux nation. The Lakotas in turn divided into seven tribes: the Oglalas, Brulés, Miniconjous, Two Kettles, Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, and Sans Arcs, of which the Oglalas and the Brulés were the largest. In fact, these two tribes alone outnumbered all the non-Lakota Indians on the northern plains.

In their westward march across present-day Nebraska and the Dakotas during the early nineteenth century, the Lakotas gradually allied themselves with the Cheyennes and the Arapahos, who had been pushed onto the northern plains in advance of the Lakotas and had already forged an enduring bond, albeit an odd coupling. Their languages were mutually unintelligible, an impediment they overcame with a sophisticated sign language, and their characters could not have been more dissimilar. The Arapahos tended to be a kindly and accommodating people, whereas the Cheyennes evolved into fearsome warriors. The first contact between the Lakotas and the Cheyenne-Arapaho combination was hostile, because they competed for the game-rich Black Hills country. “Peace would be made,” a Cheyenne chief recounted. “They would hold out the pipe to us and say, ‘Let us be good friends,’ but time and again treacherously broke their promises.” Not until the 1840s did the Lakotas keep their word. By then, many of the Cheyennes and Arapahos, fed up with the duplicity of the Lakotas and lured by white traders, had migrated south, forming the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho tribes and leaving the Lakotas the undisputed suzerains of the northern plains.

The Lakotas and the Cheyennes and Arapahos who remained on the northern plains had the same tribal enemies—the badly outnumbered but hard-fighting Crows of present-day central Montana and northern Wyoming and the semi-agricultural Pawnees who dwelled along the Platte River in Nebraska. The basis of the rivalry was both a relentless drive by the Lakota–Northern Cheyenne–Northern Arapaho alliance to expand their hunting lands and the warrior culture common to all Plains tribes. Geographically separated from each other, the Crows and the Pawnees never formed an alliance, but being badly in need of friends—or enemies of their enemies conceived of as friends—both tribes instead eventually cast their fate with the whites.

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Retelling the Indian Wars in the American West

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 322-354:

A newspaperman once asked George Crook, one of the preeminent generals in the West, how he felt about his job. It was a hard thing, he replied, to be forced to do battle with Indians who more often than not were in the right. “I do not wonder, and you will not either, that when Indians see their wives and children starving and their last source of supplies cut off, they go to war. And then we are sent out there to kill them. It is an outrage. All tribes tell the same story. They are surrounded on all sides, the game is destroyed or driven away, they are left to starve, and there remains but one thing for them to do—fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.”

That a general would offer such a candid and forceful public defense of the Indians seems implausible because it contradicts an enduring myth: that the regular army was the implacable foe of the Indian.

No epoch in American history, in fact, is more deeply steeped in myth than the era of the Indian Wars of the American West. For 125 years, much of both popular and academic history, film, and fiction has depicted the period as an absolute struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains as necessary to accommodate a changing national conscience.

In the first eighty years following the tragedy at Wounded Knee, which marked the end of Indian resistance, the nation romanticized Indian fighters and white settlers and vilified or trivialized the Indians who resisted them. The army appeared as the shining knights of an enlightened government dedicated to conquering the wilderness and to “civilizing” the West and its Native American inhabitants.

In 1970, the story reversed itself, and the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. Americans were developing an acute sense of the countless wrongs done the Indians. Dee Brown’s elegantly written and passionately wrought Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and, later that same year, the film Little Big Man shaped a new saga that articulated the nation’s feelings of guilt. In the public mind, the government and the army of the latter decades of the nineteenth century became seen as willful exterminators of the Native peoples of the West. (In fact, the government’s response to what was commonly called the “Indian problem” was inconsistent, and although massacres occurred and treaties were broken, the federal government never contemplated genocide. That the Indian way of life must be eradicated if the Indian were to survive, however, was taken for granted.)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee still deeply influences the way Americans perceive the Indian Wars and has remained the standard popular work on the era. It is at once ironic and unique that so crucial a period of our history remains largely defined by a work that made no attempt at historical balance. Dee Brown gave as the stated purpose of his book the presentation of “the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it,” hence the book’s subtitle, An Indian History of the American West. Brown’s definition of victims was severely circumscribed. Several tribes, most notably the Shoshones, Crows, and Pawnees, cast their fate with the whites. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee dismissed these tribes as “mercenaries” with no attempt to understand them or explain their motives. These Indians, like the army and the government, became cardboard cutouts, mere foils for the “victims” in the story.

Such a one-sided approach to the study of history ultimately serves no good purpose; it is impossible to judge honestly the true injustice done the Indians, or the army’s real role in those tragic times, without a thorough and nuanced understanding of the white perspective as well as that of the Indians. What I have sought to do in this book, then, is bring historical balance to the story of the Indian Wars. I hesitate to use the word “restore” when speaking of balance, because it is the pendulum swings that have defined society’s understanding of the subject since the closing of the military frontier in 1891.

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