The Tribes West of the Mississippi – Indian Wars

By treaties concluded by the agents of the United State government at different periods, nearly all of the Indian tribes have been induced to remove west of the Mississippi. Those who remain in the haunts of their fathers are chiefly converts to Christianity, and in a half civilized state. Many of the tribes have dwindled into insignificance, yet the few who remain are proud to maintain their distinctive appellation, and support the independence of their old clan.

The most powerful and numerous tribes in the northwest are the Sioux, or Dacotahs, the Blackfeet, Crows, and Pawnees. A few of the celebrated Delaware tribe still remain, and are a source of terror to their numerous enemies. The Blackfeet Indians occupy the whole of the country about the sources of the Missouri, from the mouth of the Yellow Stone to the Rocky Mountains. Their number is between forty and fifty thousand, and their general bearing is warlike and ferocious. Their enemies are numerous, yet they maintain their ascendancy. The Crows are a much smaller tribe than the Blackfeet, with whom they are always at war. They are fearless warriors, and seek their enemies wherever they are to be found. In number they are about six thousand. The following is an account of one of their battles with the Blackfeet Indians.

Fight Between the Crow and the Blackfeet Indians

In June, 1845, a party of about seven hundred Crow Indians were driven from their own country by the Sioux, to the vicinity of Fort F. A. C., near the Falls of the Missouri. On the 17th they encountered a small party of Blackfeet warriors, whom they immediately attacked. Notwithstanding the great disparity in numbers, the battle was fierce and bloody. Twenty-two of the Blackfeet were killed, and one hundred women and children carried away, together with three hundred horses. At this moment they beheld the main body of their party approaching; the battle was renewed with terrible fury, and the Crows, though superior in number, were in their turn driven back. They retreated to a strongly fortified spot, carrying with them the horses and goods. Most of the prisoners escaped. The Blackfeet made several desperate charges, but were finally obliged to retire. About a dozen of their number were killed and many more wounded.

At the time of this battle the Blackfeet tribe was west of the Rocky Mountains, near the head waters of the Columbia, whither it is their practice to retire every spring. Those attacked by the Crows were, consequently, only an advanced party which crossed the mountains earlier than usual. The Crows had themselves been driven into the neighborhood where the fight occurred by the Sioux who were out in great force against them. At other times when the Blackfeet are absent they usually visit that section of country. About a fortnight before the fight, a small party of the Blackfeet had attacked the guard at Fort F. A. C., (the trading post of the American Fur Company,) killed one man, and seriously wounded another, and stole thirty horses. The whole affair will serve to show the dangers to which the western settlers are exposed, as well as the condition of constant war and ferment in which the Indians of the Great West are still engaged.

The Sioux or Dacotahs, are equal in numbers to the Blackfeet. They can bring about ten thousand warriors into the field, well mounted and armed. This tribe take vast numbers of the wild horses on the plains towards the Rocky mountains, and many of them have been supplied with guns; but the greater part of them hunt with bows and arrows, and long lances, killing their game from their horses’ back while at full speed. The name Sioux was given to them by the French traders; their name in their own language is Dacotah. Their personal appearance is very fine and prepossessing, at least one half of their warriors being above six feet high. They occupy such a vast tract of country, that they are necessarily divided into forty bands, each having a chief, who all acknowledge one superior The Sioux are nearly always at war with the neighboring tribes, and their numbers enable them generally to triumph.

The Pawnees are a very powerful and warlike nation, living on the river Platte, about one hundred miles from its junction with the Missouri; laying claim to, and exercising sway over the whole country, from its mouth to the base of the Rocky Mountains. In 1832, this tribe numbered about twenty thousand persons. But the small pox and their many wars have reduced them one half. The small pox almost annihilated several other tribes who are now living under the sway of the Pawnees. The Pawnees are considerably fiercer and more distrustful than most of the other tribes. They are divided into four bands, distinguished by the names Grand Pawnees, Tappage Pawnees, Republican Pawnees and Wolf Pawnees. Human sacrifices used to be common among this people, but they have of late been abandoned, in consequence of the influence of the white traders.

The Flatheads are a very numerous people inhabiting the shores of the Columbia River, and the country lying southeast of it. They are mostly obliged to live on roots and fish, in consequence of the general sterility of their country, and the paucity of game. They are poor and miserably clad, and in no respect equal to the Indians east of the Rocky Mountains, where game is plentiful. The people generally denominated Flatheads are divided into a great many bands; and, although they have undoubtedly derived their name from the custom of flattening the head, yet there are but very few of those so denominated who actually practice that extraordinary custom. The process is seemingly a cruel one, though it is performed in earliest infancy while the bones are cartilaginous and easily pressed into any shape. The infant is put into a sort of a cradle, soon after its birth, and a board fastened upon the head in the required position, and it is kept in this situation for six or seven weeks. The custom, like many others in civilized society, is without reason, and it is impossible to obtain one from the Indians themselves. Catlin traces the same custom among the old Choctaws, and attempts to prove that these tribes, though separated so widely at present, were once neighbors. The Indians on the Columbia River are noted for their kindness and hospitality.

The Sacs and Foxes are generally united; but were originally distinct tribes. They inhabit the country directly west of the Mississippi, which is now included in the State of Wisconsin. The famous Black Hawk was a chief of the Sacs, who have ever been a daring, warlike tribe. They number about five thousand persons. War parties often proceed against the powerful Sioux, making up in activity and skill what they lack in strength.

Catlin gives an account of a singular custom prevalent in this tribe.

Smoking Horses is a peculiar and very curious custom of this tribe. When General Street and I arrived at Kee-o-kuk’s village, we were just in time to see this amusing scene, on the prairie, a little back of his village. The Foxes who were making up a war party to go against the Sioux, and had not suitable horses enough by twenty, had sent word to the Sacs, the day before (according to an ancient custom,) that they were coming on that day, at a certain hour, to “smoke” that number of horses, and they must not fail to have them ready. On that day, and at that hour, the twenty young men who were beggars for horses, were on the spot, and seated themselves on the ground in a circle, where they went to smoking. The villagers flocked around them in a dense crowd, and soon after appeared on the prairie, at half a mile distance, an equal number of young men of the Sac tribe, who had agreed, each to give a horse, and who were then galloping them about at full speed; and, gradually, as they went around in a circuit, coming in nearer to the centre, until they were at last close around the ring of young fellows seated on the ground. While dashing about this, each one with a heavy whip in his hand, as he came within reach of the group on the ground, selected the one to whom he decided to present his horse, and as he passed him, gave him the most tremendous cut with his lash, over his naked shoulders; and as he darted around again he plied the whip as before, and again, and again, with a violent “crack!” until the blood could be seen trickling down over his naked shoulders, upon which he instantly dismounted, and placed the bridle and whip in his hands, saying, “here, you are a beggar I present you a horse, but you will carry my mark on your back.” In this manner, they were all in a little time ”whipped up,” and each had a good horse to ride home, and into battle. His necessity was such, that he could afford to take the stripes and the scars as the price of the horse and the giver could afford to make the present for the satisfaction of putting his mark upon the other, and of boasting of his liberality, which he has always a right to do, when going into the dance, or on other important occasions.

The Begging Dance is a frequent amusement, and one that has been practiced with some considerable success at this time, while there have been so many distinguished and liberal visitors here. It is got up by a number of desperate and long-winded fellows who will dance and yell their visitors into liberality; or, if necessary, laugh them into it, by their strange antics, singing a song of importunity, and extending their hands for presents, which they allege are to gladden the hearts of the poor, and ensure a blessing to the giver.

The Sacs and Foxes, like all other Indians, are fond of living along the banks of rivers and streams; and like all others, are expert swimmers and skilful canoe men.

Their canoes, like those of the Sioux and many other tribes, are dug out from a log, and generally made extremely light; and they dart them through the coves and along the shores of the rivers, with astonishing quickness. I was often amused at their freaks in their canoes, while traveling; and I was induced to make a sketch of one which I frequently witnessed, that of sailing with the aid of their blankets, which the men carry; and when the wind is fair, stand in the bow of the canoe and hold by two corners, with the other two under the foot or tied to the leg; while the women sit in the other end of the canoe, and steer it with their paddles.

The large and powerful tribes the Choctaws, Cherokees and Creeks, who emigrated from the southern states to the western territory, have ceased to be warlike, and now, thanks to the labors of many Christians, cultivate the arts and enjoyments of peace. They increase in number, and bid fair to become very good citizens of the States, soon to be formed in that country.

Frost, John, LL. D. Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities, From the Earliest Record of American History to the Present Time; Nearly 200 Engravings from Original Designs, by Distinguished Artists. New York: Wells Publishing Company. Vol. 1. 1873.

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