Read CHAPTER VI of The Prairie Traveler A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions , free online book, by Randolph Marcy, on

Guides and Hunters. Delawares and Shawnees. Khebirs. Black Beaver. Anecdotes. Domestic Troubles. Lodges. Similarity of Prairie Tribes to the Arabs. Method of making War. Tracking and pursuing Indians. Method of attacking them. Telegraphing by Smokes.


It is highly important that parties making expeditions through an unexplored country should secure the services of the best guides and hunters, and I know of none who are superior to the Delawares and Shawnee Indians. They have been with me upon several different occasions, and I have invariably found them intelligent, brave, reliable, and in every respect well qualified to fill their positions. They are endowed with those keen and wonderful powers in woodcraft which can only be acquired by instinct, practice, and necessity, and which are possessed by no other people that I have heard of, unless it be the khebirs or guides who escort the caravans across the great desert of Sahara.

General E. Dumas, in his treatise upon the “Great Desert,” published in Paris, 1856, in speaking of these guides, says:

“The khebir is always a man of intelligence, of tried probity, bravery, and skill. He knows how to determine his position from the appearance of the stars; by the experience of other journeys he has learned all about the roads, wells, and pastures; the dangers of certain passes, and the means of avoiding them; all the chiefs whose territories it is necessary to pass through; the salubrity of the different localities; the remedies against diseases; the treatment of fractures, and the antidotes to the venom of snakes and scorpions.

“In these vast solitudes, where nothing seems to indicate the route, where the wind covers up all traces of the track with sand, the khebir has a thousand ways of directing himself in the right course. In the night, when there are no stars in sight, by the simple inspection of a handful of grass, which he examines with his fingers, which he smells and tastes, he informs himself of his locale without ever being lost or wandering.

“I saw with astonishment that our conductor, although he had but one eye, and that defective, recognized perfectly the route; and Leon, the African, states that the conductor of his caravan became blind upon the journey from ophthalmia, yet by feeling the grass and sand he could tell when we were approaching an inhabited place.

“Our guide had all the qualities which make a good khebir. He was young, large, and strong; he was a master of arms; his eye commanded respect, and his speech won the heart. But if in the tent he was affable and winning, once en route he spoke only when it was necessary, and never smiled.”

The Delawares are but a minute remnant of the great Algonquin family, whose early traditions declare them to be the parent stock from which the other numerous branches of the Algonquin tribes originated. And they are the same people whom the first white settlers found so numerous upon the banks of the Delaware.

When William Penn held his council with the Delawares upon the ground where the city of Philadelphia now stands, they were as peaceful and unwarlike in their habits as the Quakers themselves. They had been subjugated by the Five Nations, forced to take the appellation of squaws, and forego the use of arms; but after they moved west, beyond the influence of their former masters, their naturally independent spirit revived, they soon regained their lofty position as braves and warriors, and the male squaws of the Iroquois soon became formidable men and heroes, and so have continued to the present day. Their war-path has reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean on the west, Hudson’s Bay on the north, and into the very heart of Mexico on the south.

They are not clannish in their dispositions like most other Indians, nor by their habits confined to any given locality, but are found as traders, trappers, or hunters among most of the Indian tribes inhabiting our continent. I even saw them living with the Mormons in Utah. They are among the Indians as the Jews among the whites, essentially wanderers.

The Shawnees have been associated with the Delawares 185 years. They intermarry and live as one people. Their present places of abode are upon the Missouri River, near Fort Leavenworth, and in the Choctaw Territory, upon the Canadian River, near Fort Arbuckle. They are familiar with many of the habits and customs of their pale-faced neighbors, and some of them speak the English language, yet many of their native characteristics tenaciously cling to them.

Upon one occasion I endeavored to teach a Delaware the use of the compass. He seemed much interested in its mechanism, and very attentively observed the oscillations of the needle. He would move away a short distance, then return, keeping his eyes continually fixed upon the needle and the uniform position into which it settled. He did not, however, seem to comprehend it in the least, but regarded the entire proceeding as a species of necromantic performance got up for his especial benefit, and I was about putting away the instrument when he motioned me to stop, and came walking toward it with a very serious but incredulous countenance, remarking, as he pointed his finger toward it, “Maybe so he tell lie sometime.”

The ignorance evinced by this Indian regarding the uses of the compass is less remarkable than that of some white men who are occasionally met upon the frontier.

While surveying Indian lands in the wilds of Western Texas during the summer of 1854, I encountered a deputy surveyor traveling on foot, with his compass and chain upon his back. I saluted him very politely, remarking that I presumed he was a surveyor, to which he replied, “I reckon, stranger, I ar that thar individoal.”

I had taken the magnetic variation several times, always with nearly the same results (about 10 deg. 20’); but, in order to verify my observations, I was curious to learn how they accorded with his own working, and accordingly inquired of him what he made the variation of the compass in that particular locality. He seemed struck with astonishment, took his compass from his back and laid it upon a log near by, then facing me, and pointing with his hand toward it, said,

“Straanger, do yer see that thar instru-ment?” to which I replied in the affirmative. He continued,

“I’ve owned her well-nigh goin on twenty year. I’ve put her through the perarries and through the timber, and now look yeer, straanger, you can just bet your life on’t she never var-ried arry time, and if you’ll just follow her sign you’ll knock the centre outer the north star. She never lies, she don’t.”

He seemed to consider my interrogatory as a direct insinuation that his compass was an imperfect one, and hence his indignation. Thinking that I should not get any very important intelligence concerning the variation of the needle from this surveyor, I begged his pardon for questioning the accuracy of his instru-ment, bid him good-morning, and continued on my journey.


In 1849 I met with a very interesting specimen of the Delaware tribe whose name was Black Beaver. He had for ten years been in the employ of the American Fur Company, and during this time had visited nearly every point of interest within the limits of our unsettled territory. He had set his traps and spread his blanket upon the head waters of the Missouri and Columbia; and his wanderings had led him south to the Colorado and Gila, and thence to the shores of the Pacific in Southern California. His life had been that of a veritable cosmopolite, filled with scenes of intense and startling interest, bold and reckless adventure. He was with me two seasons in the capacity of guide, and I always found him perfectly reliable, brave, and competent. His reputation as a resolute, determined, and fearless warrior did not admit of question, yet I have never seen a man who wore his laurels with less vanity.

When I first made his acquaintance I was puzzled to know what to think of him. He would often, in speaking of the Prairie Indians, say to me,

“Captain, if you have a fight, you mustn’t count much on me, for I’ze a big coward. When the fight begins I ’spect you’ll see me run under the cannon; Injun mighty ’fraid of big gun.”

I expressed my surprise that he should, if what he told me was true, have gained such a reputation as a warrior; whereupon he informed me that many years previous, when he was a young man, and before he had ever been in battle, he, with about twenty white men and four Delawares, were at one of the Fur Company’s trading-posts upon the Upper Missouri, engaged in trapping beaver. While there, the stockade fort was attacked by a numerous band of Blackfeet Indians, who fought bravely, and seemed determined to annihilate the little band that defended it.

After the investment had been completed, and there appeared no probability of the attacking party’s abandoning their purpose, “One d d fool Delaware” (as Black Beaver expressed it) proposed to his countrymen to make a sortie, and thereby endeavor to effect an impression upon the Blackfeet. This, Beaver said, was the last thing he would ever have thought of suggesting, and it startled him prodigiously, causing him to tremble so much that it was with difficulty he could stand.

He had, however, started from home with the fixed purpose of becoming a distinguished brave, and made a great effort to stifle his emotion. He assumed an air of determination, saying that was the very idea he was just about to propose; and, slapping his comrades upon the back, started toward the gate, telling them to follow. As soon as the gate was passed, he says, he took particular care to keep in the rear of the others, so that, in the event of a retreat, he would be able to reach the stockade first.

They had not proceeded far before a perfect shower of arrows came falling around them on all sides, but, fortunately, without doing them harm. Not fancying this hot reception, those in front proposed an immediate retreat, to which he most gladly acceded, and at once set off at his utmost speed, expecting to reach the fort first. But he soon discovered that his comrades were more fleet, and were rapidly passing and leaving him behind. Suddenly he stopped and called out to them, “Come back here, you cowards, you squaws; what for you run away and leave brave man to fight alone?” This taunting appeal to their courage turned them back, and, with their united efforts, they succeeded in beating off the enemy immediately around them, securing their entrance into the fort.

Beaver says when the gate was closed the captain in charge of the establishment grasped him warmly by the hand, saying, “Black Beaver, you are a brave man; you have done this day what no other man in the fort would have the courage to do, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

In relating the circumstance to me he laughed most heartily, thinking it a very good joke, and said after that he was regarded as a brave warrior.

The truth is, my friend Beaver was one of those few heroes who never sounded his own trumpet; yet no one that knows him ever presumed to question his courage.

At another time, while Black Beaver remained upon the head waters of the Missouri, he was left in charge of a “cache” consisting of a quantity of goods buried to prevent their being stolen by the Indians. During the time he was engaged upon this duty he amused himself by hunting in the vicinity, only visiting his charge once a day. As he was making one of these periodical visits, and had arrived upon the summit of a hill overlooking the locality, he suddenly discovered a large number of hostile Blackfeet occupying it, and he supposed they had appropriated all the goods. As soon as they espied him, they beckoned for him to come down and have a friendly chat with them.

Knowing that their purpose was to beguile him into their power, he replied that he did not feel in a talking humor just at that time, and started off in another direction, whereupon they hallooed after him, making use of the most insulting language and gestures, and asking him if he considered himself a man thus to run away from his friends, and intimating that, in their opinion, he was an old woman, who had better go home and take care of the children.

Beaver says this roused his indignation to such a pitch that he stopped, turned around, and replied, “Maybe so; s’pose three or four of you Injuns come up here alone, I’ll show you if I’ze old womans.” They did not, however, accept the challenge, and Beaver rode off.

Although the Delawares generally seem quite happy in their social relations, yet they are not altogether exempt from some of those minor discords which occasionally creep in and mar the domestic harmony of their more civilized pale-faced brethren.

I remember, upon one occasion, I had bivouacked for the night with Black Beaver, and he had been endeavoring to while away the long hours of the evening by relating to me some of the most thrilling incidents of his highly-adventurous and erratic life, when at length a hiatus in the conversation gave me an opportunity of asking him if he was a married man. He hesitated for some time; then looking up and giving his forefinger a twirl, to imitate the throwing of a lasso, replied, “One time me catch ’um wife. I pay that woman, his modder, one hoss one saddle one bridle two plug tobacco, and plenty goods. I take him home to my house got plenty meat plenty corn plenty every thing. One time me go take walk, maybe so three, maybe so two hours. When I come home, that woman he say, ‘Black Beaver, what for you go way long time?’ I say, ‘I not go nowhere; I just take one littel walk.’ Then that woman he get heap mad, and say, ’No, Black Beaver, you not take no littel walk. I know what for you go way; you go see nodder one woman.’ I say, ‘Maybe not.’ Then that woman she cry long time, and all e’time now she mad. You never seen ’Merican woman that a-way?”

I sympathized most deeply with my friend in his distress, and told him for his consolation that, in my opinion, the women of his nation were not peculiar in this respect; that they were pretty much alike all over the world, and I was under the impression that there were well-authenticated instances even among white women where they had subjected themselves to the same causes of complaint so feelingly depicted by him. Whereupon he very earnestly asked, “What you do for cure him? Whip him?” I replied, “No; that, so far as my observation extended, I was under the impression that this was generally regarded by those who had suffered from its effects as one of those chronic and vexatious complaints which would not be benefited by the treatment he suggested, even when administered in homoeopathic doses, and I believed it was now admitted by all sensible men that it was better in all such cases to let nature take its course, trusting to a merciful Providence.”

At this reply his countenance assumed a dejected expression, but at length he brightened up again and triumphantly remarked, “I tell you, my friend, what I do; I ketch ’um nodder one wife when I go home.”

Black Beaver had visited St. Louis and the small towns upon the Missouri frontier, and he prided himself not a little upon his acquaintance with the customs of the whites, and never seemed more happy than when an opportunity offered to display this knowledge in presence of his Indian companions. It so happened, upon one occasion, that I had a Comanche guide who bivouacked at the same fire with Beaver. On visiting them one evening according to my usual practice, I found them engaged in a very earnest and apparently not very amicable conversation. On inquiring the cause of this, Beaver answered,

“I’ve been telling this Comanche what I seen ’mong the white folks.”

I said, “Well, Beaver, what did you tell him?”

“I tell him ‘bout the steam-boats, and the railroads, and the heap o’ houses I seen in St. Louis.”

“Well, sir, what does he think of that?”

“He say I’ze d d fool.”

“What else did you tell him about?”

“I tell him the world is round, but he keep all e’time say, Hush, you fool! do you spose I’ze child? Haven’t I got eyes? Can’t I see the prairie? You call him round? He say, too, maybe so I tell you something you not know before. One time my grandfather he make long journey that way (pointing to the west). When he get on big mountain, he seen heap water on t’other side, jest so flat he can be, and he seen the sun go right straight down on t’other side. I then tell him all these rivers he seen, all e’time the water he run; s’pose the world flat the water he stand still. Maybe so he not b’lieve me?”

I told him it certainly looked very much like it. I then asked him to explain to the Comanche the magnetic telegraph. He looked at me earnestly, and said,

“What you call that magnetic telegraph?”

I said, “you have heard of New York and New Orleans?”

“Oh yes,” he replied.

“Very well; we have a wire connecting these two cities, which are about a thousand miles apart, and it would take a man thirty days to ride it upon a good horse. Now a man stands at one end of this wire in New York, and by touching it a few times he inquires of his friend in New Orleans what he had for breakfast. His friend in New Orleans touches the other end of the wire, and in ten minutes the answer comes back ham and eggs. Tell him that, Beaver.”

His countenance assumed a most comical expression, but he made no remark until I again requested him to repeat what I had said to the Comanche, when he observed,

“No, captain, I not tell him that, for I don’t b’lieve that myself.”

Upon my assuring him that such was the fact, and that I had seen it myself, he said,

“Injun not very smart; sometimes he’s big fool, but he holler pretty loud; you hear him maybe half a mile; you say ’Merican man he talk thousand miles. I ’spect you try to fool me now, captain; maybe so you lie.”

The Indians living between the outer white settlements and the nomadic tribes of the Plains form intermediate social links in the chain of civilization.

The first of these occupy permanent habitations, but the others, although they cultivate the soil, are only resident while their crops are growing, going out into the prairies after harvest to spend the winter in hunting. Among the former may be mentioned the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, and of the latter are the Delawares, Shawnees, Kickapoos, etc., who are perfectly familiar with the use of the rifle, and, in my judgment, would make as formidable partisan warriors as can be found in the universe.


These are very different in their habits from the natives that formerly occupied the country bordering upon the Atlantic coast. The latter lived permanently in villages, where they cultivated the soil, and never wandered very far from them. They did not use horses, but always made their war expeditions on foot, and never came into action unless they could screen themselves behind the cover of trees. They inflicted the most inhuman tortures upon their prisoners, but did not, that I am aware, violate the chastity of women.

The prairie tribes have no permanent abiding places; they never plant a seed, but roam for hundreds of miles in every direction over the Plains. They are perfect horsemen, and seldom go to war on foot. Their attacks are made in the open prairies, and when unhorsed they are powerless. They do not, like the eastern Indians, inflict upon their prisoners prolonged tortures, but invariably subject all females that have the misfortune to fall into their merciless clutches to an ordeal worse than death.

It is highly important to every man passing through a country frequented by Indians to know some of their habits, customs, and propensities, as this will facilitate his intercourse with friendly tribes, and enable him, when he wishes to avoid a conflict, to take precautions against coming in collision with those who are hostile.

Almost every tribe has its own way of constructing its lodges, encamping, making fires, its own style of dress, by some of which peculiarities the experienced frontiersman can generally distinguish them.

The Osages, for example, make their lodges in the shape of a wagon-top, of bent rods or willows covered with skins, blankets, or the bark of trees.

The Kickapoo lodges are made in an oval form, something like a rounded hay-stack, of poles set in the ground, bent over, and united at top; this is covered with cloths or bark.

The Witchetaws, Wacos, Towackanies, and Tonkowas erect their hunting lodges of sticks put up in the form of the frustum of a cone and covered with brush.

All these tribes leave the frame-work of their lodges standing when they move from camp to camp, and this, of course, indicates the particular tribe that erected them.

The Delawares and Shawnees plant two upright forked poles, place a stick across them, and stretch a canvas covering over it, in the same manner as with the “tente d’abri.”

The Sioux, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Utes, Snakes, Blackfeet, and Kioways make use of the Comanche lodge, covered with dressed buffalo hides.

All the Prairie Indians I have met with are the most inveterate beggars. They will flock around strangers, and, in the most importunate manner, ask for every thing they see, especially tobacco and sugar; and, if allowed, they will handle, examine, and occasionally pilfer such things as happen to take their fancy. The proper way to treat them is to give them at once such articles as are to be disposed of, and then, in a firm and decided manner, let them understand that they are to receive nothing else.

A party of Keechis once visited my camp with their principal chief, who said he had some important business to discuss, and demanded a council with the capitan. After consent had been given, he assembled his principal men, and, going through the usual preliminary of taking a big smoke, he arose, and with a great deal of ceremony commenced his pompous and flowery speech, which, like all others of a similar character, amounted to nothing, until he touched upon the real object of his visit. He said he had traveled a long distance over the prairies to see and have a talk with his white brothers; that his people were very hungry and naked. He then approached me with six small sticks, and, after shaking hands, laid one of the sticks in my hand, which he said represented sugar, another signified tobacco, and the other four, pork, flour, whisky, and blankets, all of which he assured me his people were in great need of, and must have. His talk was then concluded, and he sat down, apparently much gratified with the graceful and impressive manner with which he had executed his part of the performance.

It then devolved upon me to respond to the brilliant effort of the prairie orator, which I did in something like the following manner. After imitating his style for a short time, I closed my remarks by telling him that we were poor infantry soldiers, who were always obliged to go on foot; that we had become very tired of walking, and would like very much to ride. Furthermore, I had observed that they had among them many fine horses and mules. I then took two small sticks, and imitating as nearly as possible the manner of the chief, placed one in his hand, which I told him was nothing more or less than a first-rate horse, and then the other, which signified a good large mule. I closed by saying that I was ready to exchange presents whenever it suited his convenience.

They looked at each other for some time without speaking, but finally got up and walked away, and I was not troubled with them again.


The military system, as taught and practiced in our army up to the time of the Mexican war, was, without doubt, efficient and well adapted to the art of war among civilized nations. This system was designed for the operations of armies acting in populated districts, furnishing ample resources, and against an enemy who was tangible, and made use of a similar system.

The vast expanse of desert territory that has been annexed to our domain within the last few years is peopled by numerous tribes of marauding and erratic savages, who are mounted upon fleet and hardy horses, making war the business and pastime of their lives, and acknowledging none of the ameliorating conventionalities of civilized warfare. Their tactics are such as to render the old system almost wholly impotent.

To act against an enemy who is here to-day and there to-morrow; who at one time stampedes a herd of mules upon the head waters of the Arkansas, and when next heard from is in the very heart of the populated districts of Mexico, laying waste haciendas, and carrying devastation, rapine, and murder in his steps; who is every where without being any where; who assembles at the moment of combat, and vanishes whenever fortune turns against him; who leaves his women and children far distant from the theatre of hostilities, and has neither towns or magazines to defend, nor lines of retreat to cover; who derives his commissariat from the country he operates in, and is not encumbered with baggage-wagons or pack-trains; who comes into action only when it suits his purposes, and never without the advantage of numbers or position with such an enemy the strategic science of civilized nations loses much of its importance, and finds but rarely, and only in peculiar localities, an opportunity to be put in practice.

Our little army, scattered as it has been over the vast area of our possessions, in small garrisons of one or two companies each, has seldom been in a situation to act successfully on the offensive against large numbers of these marauders, and has often been condemned to hold itself almost exclusively upon the defensive. The morale of the troops must thereby necessarily be seriously impaired, and the confidence of the savages correspondingly augmented. The system of small garrisons has a tendency to disorganize the troops in proportion as they are scattered, and renders them correspondingly inefficient. The same results have been observed by the French army in Algeria, where, in 1845, their troops were, like ours, disseminated over a vast space, and broken up into small detachments stationed in numerous intrenched posts. Upon the sudden appearance of Abd el Kader in the plain of Mitidja, they were defeated with serious losses, and were from day to day obliged to abandon these useless stations, with all the supplies they contained. A French writer, in discussing this subject, says:

“We have now abandoned the fatal idea of defending Algeria by small intrenched posts. In studying the character of the war, the nature of the men who are to oppose us, and of the country in which we are to operate, we must be convinced of the danger of admitting any other system of fortification than that which is to receive our grand depots, our magazines, and to serve as places to recruit and rest our troops when exhausted by long expeditionary movements.

“These fortifications should be established in the midst of the centres of action, so as to command the principal routes, and serve as pivots to expeditionary columns.

“We owe our success to a system of war which has its proofs in twice changing our relations with the Arabs. This system consists altogether in the great mobility we have given to our troops. Instead of disseminating our soldiers with the vain hope of protecting our frontiers with a line of small posts, we have concentrated them, to have them at all times ready for emergencies, and since then the fortune of the Arabs has waned, and we have marched from victory to victory.

“This system, which has thus far succeeded, ought to succeed always, and to conduct us, God willing, to the peaceful possession of the country.”

In reading a treatise upon war as it is practiced by the French in Algeria, by Colonel A. Laure, of the 2d Algerine Tirailleurs, published in Paris in 1858, I was struck with the remarkable similarity between the habits of the Arabs and those of the wandering tribes that inhabit our Western prairies. Their manner of making war is almost precisely the same, and a successful system of strategic operations for one will, in my opinion, apply to the other.

As the Turks have been more successful than the French in their military operations against the Arab tribes, it may not be altogether uninteresting to inquire by what means these inferior soldiers have accomplished the best results.

The author above mentioned, in speaking upon this subject, says:

“In these latter days the world is occupied with the organization of mounted infantry, according to the example of the Turks, where, in the most successful experiments that have been made, the mule carries the foot-soldier.

“The Turkish soldier mounts his mule, puts his provisions upon one side and his accoutrements upon the other, and, thus equipped, sets out upon long marches, traveling day and night, and only reposing occasionally in bivouac. Arrived near the place of operations (as near the break of day as possible), the Turks dismount in the most profound silence, and pass in succession the bridle of one mule through that of another in such a manner that a single man is sufficient to hold forty or fifty of them by retaining the last bridle, which secures all the others; they then examine their arms, and are ready to commence their work. The chief gives his last orders, posts his guides, and they make the attack, surprise the enemy, generally asleep, and carry the position without resistance. The operation terminated, they hasten to beat a retreat, to prevent the neighboring tribes from assembling, and thus avoid a combat.

“The Turks had only three thousand mounted men and ten thousand infantry in Algeria, yet these thirteen thousand men sufficed to conquer the same obstacles which have arrested us for twenty-six years, notwithstanding the advantage we had of an army which was successively re-enforced until it amounted to a hundred thousand.

“Why not imitate the Turks, then, mount our infantry upon mules, and reduce the strength of our army?

“The response is very simple:

“The Turks are Turks that is to say, Mussulmans and indigenous to the country; the Turks speak the Arabic language; the Deys of Algiers had less country to guard than we, and they care very little about retaining possession of it. They are satisfied to receive a part of its revenues. They were not permanent; their dominion was held by a thread. The Arab dwells in tents; his magazines are in caves. When he starts upon a war expedition, he folds his tent, drives far away his beasts of burden, which transport his effects, and only carries with him his horse and arms. Thus equipped, he goes every where; nothing arrests him; and often, when we believe him twenty leagues distant, he is in ambush at precisely rifle range from the flanks of his enemy.

“It may be thought the union of contingents might retard their movements, but this is not so. The Arabs, whether they number ten or a hundred thousand, move with equal facility. They go where they wish and as they wish upon a campaign; the place of rendezvous merely is indicated, and they arrive there.

“What calculations can be made against such an organization as this?

“Strategy evidently loses its advantages against such enemies; a general can only make conjectures; he marches to find the Arabs, and finds them not; then, again, when he least expects it, he suddenly encounters them.

“When the Arab despairs of success in battle, he places his sole reliance upon the speed of his horse to escape destruction; and as he is always in a country where he can make his camp beside a little water, he travels until he has placed a safe distance between himself and his enemy.”

No people probably on the face of the earth are more ambitious of martial fame, or entertain a higher appreciation for the deeds of a daring and successful warrior, than the North American savages. The attainment of such reputation is the paramount and absorbing object of their lives; all their aspirations for distinction invariably take this channel of expression. A young man is never considered worthy to occupy a seat in council until he has encountered an enemy in battle; and he who can count the greatest number of scalps is the most highly honored by his tribe. This idea is inculcated from their earliest infancy. It is not surprising, therefore, that, with such weighty inducements before him, the young man who, as yet, has gained no renown as a brave or warrior, should be less discriminate in his attacks than older men who have already acquired a name. The young braves should, therefore, be closely watched when encountered on the Plains.

The prairie tribes are seldom at peace with all their neighbors, and some of the young braves of a tribe are almost always absent upon a war excursion. These forays sometimes extend into the heart of the northern states of Mexico, where the Indians have carried on successful invasions for many years. They have devastated and depopulated a great portion of Sonora and Chihuahua. The objects of these forays are to steal horses and mules, and to take prisoners; and if it so happens that a war-party has been unsuccessful in the accomplishment of these ends, or has had the misfortune to lose some of its number in battle, they become reckless, and will often attack a small party with whom they are not at war, provided they hope to escape detection. The disgrace attendant upon a return to their friends without some trophies as an offset to the loss of their comrades is a powerful incentive to action, and they extend but little mercy to defenseless travelers who have the misfortune to encounter them at such a conjuncture.

While en route from New Mexico to Arkansas in 1849 I was encamped near the head of the Colorado River, and wishing to know the character of the country for a few miles in advance of our position, I desired an officer to go out and make the reconnoissance. I was lying sick in my bed at the time, or I should have performed the duty myself. I expected the officer would have taken an escort with him, but he omitted to do so, and started off alone. After proceeding a short distance he discovered four mounted Indians coming at full speed directly toward him, when, instead of turning his own horse toward camp, and endeavoring to make his escape (he was well mounted), or of halting and assuming a defensive attitude, he deliberately rode up to them; after which the tracks indicated that they proceeded about three miles together, when the Indians most brutally killed and scalped my most unfortunate but too credulous friend, who might probably have saved his life had he not, in the kindness of his excellent heart, imagined that the savages would reciprocate his friendly advances. He was most woefully mistaken, and his life paid the forfeit of his generous and noble disposition.

I have never been able to get any positive information as to the persons who committed this murder, yet circumstances render it highly probable that they were a party of young Indians who were returning from an unsuccessful foray, and they were unable to resist the temptation of taking the scalp and horse of the lieutenant.

A small number of white men, in traveling upon the Plains, should not allow a party of strange Indians to approach them unless able to resist an attack under the most unfavorable circumstances.

It is a safe rule, when a man finds himself alone in the prairies, and sees a party of Indians approaching, not to allow them to come near him, and if they persist in so doing, to signal them to keep away. If they do not obey, and he be mounted upon a fleet horse, he should make for the nearest timber. If the Indians follow and press him too closely, he should halt, turn around, and point his gun at the foremost, which will often have the effect of turning them back, but he should never draw trigger unless he finds that his life depends upon the shot; for, as soon as his shot is delivered, his sole dependence, unless he have time to reload, must be upon the speed of his horse.

The Indians of the Plains, notwithstanding the encomiums that have been heaped upon their brethren who formerly occupied the Eastern States for their gratitude, have not, so far as I have observed, the most distant conception of that sentiment. You may confer numberless benefits upon them for years, and the more that is done for them the more they will expect. They do not seem to comprehend the motive which dictates an act of benevolence or charity, and they invariably attribute it to fear or the expectation of reward. When they make a present, it is with a view of getting more than its equivalent in return.

I have never yet been able to discover that the Western wild tribes possessed any of those attributes which among civilized nations are regarded as virtues adorning the human character. They have yet to be taught the first rudiments of civilization, and they are at this time as far from any knowledge of Christianity, and as worthy subjects for missionary enterprise, as the most untutored natives of the South Sea Islands.

The only way to make these merciless freebooters fear or respect the authority of our government is, when they misbehave, first of all to chastise them well by striking such a blow as will be felt for a long time, and thus show them that we are superior to them in war. They will then respect us much more than when their good-will is purchased with presents.

The opinion of a friend of mine, who has passed the last twenty-five years of his life among the Indians of the Rocky Mountains, corroborates the opinions I have advanced upon this head, and although I do not endorse all of his sentiments, yet many of them are deduced from long and matured experience and critical observation. He says:

“They are the most onsartainest varmints in all creation, and I reckon tha’r not mor’n half human; for you never seed a human, arter you’d fed and treated him to the best fixins in your lodge, jist turn round and steal all your horses, or ary other thing he could lay his hands on. No, not adzackly. He would feel kinder grateful, and ask you to spread a blanket in his lodge ef you ever passed that a-way. But the Injun he don’t care shucks for you, and is ready to do you a heap of mischief as soon as he quits your feed. No, Cap.,” he continued, “it’s not the right way to give um presents to buy peace; but ef I war governor of these yeer United States, I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d invite um all to a big feast, and make b’lieve I wanted to have a big talk; and as soon as I got um all together, I’d pitch in and sculp about half of um, and then t’other half would be mighty glad to make a peace that would stick. That’s the way I’d make a treaty with the dog’ond, red-bellied varmints; and as sure as you’re born, Cap., that’s the only way.”

I suggested to him the idea that there would be a lack of good faith and honor in such a proceeding, and that it would be much more in accordance with my notions of fair dealing to meet them openly in the field, and there endeavor to punish them if they deserve it. To this he replied,

“Tain’t no use to talk about honor with them, Cap.; they hain’t got no such thing in um; and they won’t show fair fight, any way you can fix it. Don’t they kill and sculp a white man when-ar they get the better on him? The mean varmints, they’ll never behave themselves until you give um a clean out and out licking. They can’t onderstand white folks’ ways, and they won’t learn um; and ef you treat um decently, they think you ar afeard. You may depend on’t, Cap., the only way to treat Injuns is to thrash them well at first, then the balance will sorter take to you and behave themselves.”

The wealth of the Prairie Indians consists almost exclusively in their horses, of which they possess large numbers; and they are in the saddle from infancy to old age. Horsemanship is with them, as with the Arab of the Sahara, a necessary part of their education. The country they occupy is unsuited to cultivation, and their only avocations are war, rapine, and the chase. They have no fixed habitations, but move from place to place with the seasons and the game. All their worldly effects are transported in their migrations, and wherever their lodges are pitched there is their home. They are strangers to all cares, creating for themselves no artificial wants, and are perfectly happy and contented so long as the buffalo is found within the limits of their wanderings. Every man is a soldier, and they generally exhibit great confidence in their own military prowess.


On approaching strangers these people put their horses at full speed, and persons not familiar with their peculiarities and habits might interpret this as an act of hostility; but it is their custom with friends as well as enemies, and should not occasion groundless alarm.

When a party is discovered approaching thus, and are near enough to distinguish signals, all that is necessary in order to ascertain their disposition is to raise the right hand with the palm in front, and gradually push it forward and back several times. They all understand this to be a command to halt, and if they are not hostile it will at once be obeyed.

After they have stopped the right hand is raised again as before, and slowly moved to the right and left, which signifies “I do not know you. Who are you?” As all the wild tribes have their peculiar pantomimic signals by which they are known, they will then answer the inquiry by giving their signal. If this should not be understood, they may be asked if they are friends by raising both hands grasped in the manner of shaking hands, or by locking the two fore-fingers firmly while the hands are held up. If friendly, they will respond with the same signal; but if enemies, they will probably disregard the command to halt, or give the signal of anger by closing the hand, placing it against the forehead, and turning it back and forth while in that position.

The pantomimic vocabulary is understood by all the Prairie Indians, and when oral communication is impracticable it constitutes the court or general council language of the Plains. The signs are exceedingly graceful and significant; and, what was a fact of much astonishment to me, I discovered they were very nearly the same as those practiced by the mutes in our deaf and dumb schools, and were comprehended by them with perfect facility.

The Comanche is represented by making with the hand a waving motion in imitation of the crawling of a snake.

The Cheyenne, or “Cut-arm,” by drawing the hand across the arm, to imitate cutting it with a knife.

The Arapahoes, or “Smellers,” by seizing the nose with the thumb and fore-finger.

The Sioux, or “Cut-throats,” by drawing the hand across the throat.

The Pawnees, or “Wolves,” by placing a hand on each side of the forehead, with two fingers pointing to the front, to represent the narrow, sharp ears of the wolf.

The Crows, by imitating the flapping of the bird’s wings with the palms of the hands.

When Indians meet a party of strangers, and are disposed to be friendly, the chiefs, after the usual salutations have been exchanged, generally ride out and accompany the commander of the party some distance, holding a friendly talk, and, at the same time, indulging their curiosity by learning the news, etc. Phlegmatic and indifferent as they appear to be, they are very inquisitive and observing, and, at the same time, exceedingly circumspect and cautious about disclosing their own purposes.

They are always desirous of procuring, from whomsoever they meet, testimonials of their good behavior, which they preserve with great care, and exhibit upon all occasions to strangers as a guarantee of future good conduct.

On meeting with a chief of the Southern Comanches in 1849, after going through the usual ceremony of embracing, and assuring me that he was the best friend the Americans ever had among the Indians, he exhibited numerous certificates from the different white men he had met with, testifying to his friendly disposition. Among these was one that he desired me to read with special attention, as he said he was of the opinion that perhaps it might not be so complimentary in its character as some of the others. It was in these words:

“The bearer of this says he is a Comanche chief, named Senaco; that he is the biggest Indian and best friend the whites ever had; in fact, that he is a first-rate fellow; but I believe he is a d d rascal, so look out for him.”

I smiled on reading the paper, and, looking up, found the chief’s eyes intently fixed upon mine with an expression of the most earnest inquiry. I told him the paper was not as good as it might be, whereupon he destroyed it.

Five years after this interview I met Senaco again near the same place. He recognized me at once, and, much to my surprise, pronounced my name quite distinctly.

A circumstance which happened in my interview with this Indian shows their character for diplomatic policy.

I was about locating and surveying a reservation of land upon which the government designed to establish the Comanches, and was desirous of ascertaining whether they were disposed voluntarily to come into the measure. In this connection, I stated to him that their Great Father, the President, being anxious to improve their condition, was willing to give them a permanent location, where they could cultivate the soil, and, if they wished it, he would send white men to teach them the rudiments of agriculture, supply them with farming utensils, and all other requisites for living comfortably in their new homes. I then desired him to consult with his people, and let me know what their views were upon the subject.

After talking a considerable time with his head men, he rose to reply, and said, “He was very happy to learn that the President remembered his poor red children in the Plains, and he was glad to see me again, and hear from me that their Great Father was their friend; that he was also very much gratified to meet his agent who was present, and that he should remember with much satisfaction the agreeable interview we had had upon that occasion.” After delivering himself of numerous other non-committal expressions of similar import, he closed his speech and took his seat without making the slightest allusion to the subject in question.

On reminding him of this omission, and again demanding from him a distinct and categorical answer, he, after a brief consultation with his people, replied that his talk was made and concluded, and he did not comprehend why it was that I wanted to open the subject anew. But, as I continued to press him for an answer, he at length said, “You come into our country and select a small patch of ground, around which you run a line, and tell us the President will make us a present of this to live upon, when every body knows that the whole of this entire country, from the Red River to the Colorado, is now, and always has been, ours from time immemorial. I suppose, however, if the President tells us to confine ourselves to these narrow limits, we shall be forced to do so, whether we desire it or not.”

He was evidently averse to the proposed change in their mode of life, and has been at war ever since the establishment of the settlement.

The mode of life of the nomadic tribes, owing to their unsettled and warlike habits, is such as to render their condition one of constant danger and apprehension. The security of their numerous animals from the encroachments of their enemies and habitual liability to attacks compels them to be at all times upon the alert. Even during profound peace they guard their herds both night and day, while scouts are often patrolling upon the surrounding heights to give notice of the approach of strangers, and enable them to secure their animals and take a defensive attitude.

When one of these people conceives himself injured his thirst for revenge is insatiable. Grave and dignified in his outward bearing, and priding himself upon never exhibiting curiosity, joy, or anger, yet when once roused he evinces the implacable dispositions of his race; the affront is laid up and cherished in his breast, and nothing can efface it from his mind until ample reparation is made. The insult must be atoned for by presents, or be washed out with blood.


When a chief desires to organize a war-party, he provides himself with a long pole, attaches a red flag to the end of it, and trims the top with eagle feathers. He then mounts his horse in his war-costume, and rides around through the camp singing the war-song. Those who are disposed to join the expedition mount their horses and fall into the procession; after parading about for a time, all dismount, and the war-dance is performed. This ceremony is continued from day to day until a sufficient number of volunteers are found to accomplish the objects desired, when they set out for the theatre of their intended exploits.

As they proceed upon their expedition, it sometimes happens that the chief with whom it originated, and who invariably assumes the command, becomes discouraged at not finding an opportunity of displaying his warlike abilities, and abandons the enterprise; in which event, if others of the party desire to proceed farther, they select another leader and push on, and thus so long as any one of the party holds out.

A war-party is sometimes absent for a great length of time, and for days, weeks, and months their friends at home anxiously await their return, until, suddenly, from afar, the shrill war-cry of an avant courier is heard proclaiming the approach of the victorious warriors. The camp is in an instant alive with excitement and commotion. Men, women, and children swarm out to meet the advancing party. Their white horses are painted and decked out in the most fantastic style, and led in advance of the triumphal procession; and, as they pass around through the village, the old women set up a most unearthly howl of exultation, after which the scalp-dance is performed with all the pomp and display their limited resources admit of, the warriors having their faces painted black.

When, on the other hand, the expedition terminates disastrously by the loss of some of the party in battle, the relatives of the deceased cut off their own hair, and the tails and manes of their horses, as symbols of mourning, and howl and cry for a long time.

In 1854 I saw the widow of a former chief of the Southern Comanches, whose husband had been dead about three years, yet she continued her mourning tribute to his memory by crying daily for him and refusing all offers to marry again.

The prairie warrior is occasionally seen with the rifle in his hand, but his favorite arm is the bow, the use of which is taught him at an early age. By constant practice he acquires a skill in archery that renders him no less formidable in war than successful in the chase. Their bows are usually made of the tough and elastic wood of the “bois d’are,” strengthened and re-enforced with sinews of the deer wrapped firmly around, and strung with a cord of the same material. They are from three to four feet long. The arrows, which are carried in a quiver upon the back, are about twenty inches long, of flexible wood, with a triangular iron point at one end, and at the other two feathers intersecting at right angles.

At short distances (about fifty yards), the bow, in the hands of the Indian, is effective, and in close proximity with the buffalo throws the arrow entirely through his huge carcass. In using this weapon the warrior protects himself from the missiles of his enemy with a shield made of two thicknesses of undressed buffalo hide filled in with hair.

The Comanches, Sioux, and other prairie tribes make their attacks upon the open prairies. Trusting to their wonderful skill in equitation and horsemanship, they ride around their enemies with their bodies thrown upon the opposite side of the horse, and discharge their arrows in rapid succession while at full speed; they will not, however, often venture near an enemy who occupies a defensive position. If, therefore, a small party be in danger of an attack from a large force of Indians, they should seek the cover of timber or a park of wagons, or, in the absence of these, rocks or holes in the prairie which afford good cover.

Attempts to stampede animals are often made when parties first arrive in camp, and when every one’s attention is preoccupied in the arrangements therewith connected. In a country infested by hostile Indians, the ground in the vicinity of which it is proposed to encamp should be cautiously examined for tracks and other Indian signs by making a circuit around the locality previous to unharnessing the animals.

After Indians have succeeded in stampeding a herd of horses or mules, and desire to drive them away, they are in the habit of pushing them forward as rapidly as possible for the first few days, in order to place a wide interval between themselves and any party that may be in pursuit.

In running off stolen animals, the Indians are generally divided into two parties, one for driving and the other to act as a rear guard. Before they reach a place where they propose making a halt, they leave a vidette upon some prominent point to watch for pursuers and give the main party timely warning, enabling them to rally their animals and push forward again.


When an Indian sentinel intends to watch for an enemy approaching from the rear, he selects the highest position available, and places himself near the summit in such an attitude that his entire body shall be concealed from the observation of any one in the rear, his head only being exposed above the top of the eminence. Here he awaits with great patience so long as he thinks there is any possibility of danger, and it will be difficult for an enemy to surprise him or to elude his keen and scrutinizing vigilance. Meanwhile his horse is secured under the screen of the hill, all ready when required. Hence it will be evident that, in following Indian depredators, the utmost vigilance and caution must be exercised to conceal from them the movements of their pursuers. They are the best scouts in the world, proficient in all the artifices and stratagems available in border warfare, and when hotly pursued by a superior force, after exhausting all other means of evasion, they scatter in different directions; and if, in a broken or mountainous country, they can do no better, abandon their horses and baggage, and take refuge in the rocks, gorges, or other hiding-places. This plan has several times been resorted to by Indians in Texas when surprised, and, notwithstanding their pursuers were directly upon them, the majority made their escape, leaving behind all their animals and other property.

For overtaking a marauding party of Indians who have advanced eight or ten hours before the pursuing party are in readiness to take the trail, it is not best to push forward rapidly at first, as this will weary and break down horses. The Indians must be supposed to have at least fifty or sixty miles the start; it will, therefore, be useless to think of overtaking them without providing for a long chase. Scouts should continually be kept out in front upon the trail to reconnoitre and give preconcerted signals to the main party when the Indians are espied.

In approaching all éminences or undulations in the prairies, the commander should be careful not to allow any considerable number of his men to pass upon the summits until the country around has been carefully reconnoitred by the scouts, who will cautiously raise their eyes above the crests of the most elevated points, making a scrutinizing examination in all directions; and, while doing this, should an Indian be encountered who has been left behind as a sentinel, he must, if possible, be secured or shot, to prevent his giving the alarm to his comrades. These precautions can not be too rigidly enforced when the trail becomes “warm;” and if there be a moon, it will be better to lie by in the daytime and follow the trail at night, as the great object is to come upon the Indians when they are not anticipating an attack. Such surprises, if discreetly conducted; generally prove successful.

As soon as the Indians are discovered in their bivouac, the pursuing party should dismount, leave their horses under charge of a guard in some sequestered place, and, before advancing to the attack, the men should be instructed in signals for their different movements, such as all will easily comprehend and remember. As, for example, a pull upon the right arm may signify to face to the right, and a pull upon the left arm to face to the left; a pull upon the skirt of the coat, to halt; a gentle push on the back, to advance in ordinary time; a slap on the back, to advance in double quick time, etc., etc.

These signals, having been previously well understood and practiced, may be given by the commander to the man next to him, and from him communicated in rapid succession throughout the command.

I will suppose the party formed in one rank, with the commander on the right. He gives the signal, and the men move off cautiously in the direction indicated. The importance of not losing sight of his comrades on his right and left, and of not allowing them to get out of his reach, so as to break the chain of communication, will be apparent to all, and great care should be taken that the men do not mistake their brothers in arms for the enemy. This may be prevented by having two pass-words, and when there be any doubt as to the identity of two men who meet during the night operations, one of these words may be repeated by each. Above all, the men must be fully impressed with the importance of not firing a shot until the order is given by the commanding officer, and also that a rigorous personal accountability will be enforced in all cases of a violation of this rule.

If the commander gives the signal for commencing the attack by firing a pistol or gun, there will probably be no mistake, unless it happens through carelessness by the accidental discharge of firearms.

I can conceive of nothing more appalling, or that tends more to throw men off their guard and produce confusion, than a sudden and unexpected night-attack. Even the Indians, who pride themselves upon their coolness and self-possession, are far from being exempt from its effects; and it is not surprising that men who go to sleep with a sense of perfect security around them, and are suddenly aroused from a sound slumber by the terrific sounds of an onslaught from an enemy, should lose their presence of mind.


The transparency of the atmosphere upon the Plains is such that objects can be seen at great distances; a mountain, for example, presents a distinct and bold outline at fifty or sixty miles, and may occasionally be seen as far as a hundred miles.

The Indians, availing themselves of this fact, have been in the habit of practicing a system of telegraphing by means of smokes during the day and fires by night, and, I dare say, there are but few travelers who have crossed the mountains to California that have not seen these signals made and responded to from peak to peak in rapid succession.

The Indians thus make known to their friends many items of information highly important to them. If enemies or strangers make their appearance in the country, the fact is telegraphed at once, giving them time to secure their animals and to prepare for attack, defense, or flight.

War or hunting parties, after having been absent a long time from their erratic friends at home, and not knowing where to find them, make use of the same preconcerted signals to indicate their presence.

Very dense smokes may be raised by kindling a large fire with dry wood, and piling upon it the green boughs of pine, balsam, or hemlock. This throws off a heavy cloud of black smoke which can be seen very far.

This simple method of telegraphing, so useful to the savages both in war and in peace, may, in my judgment, be used to advantage in the movements of troops co-operating in separate columns in the Indian country.

I shall not attempt at this time to present a matured system of signals, but will merely give a few suggestions tending to illustrate the advantages to be derived from the use of them.

For example, when two columns are marching through a country at such distances apart that smokes may be seen from one to the other, their respective positions may be made known to each other at any time by two smokes raised simultaneously or at certain preconcerted intervals.

Should the commander of one column desire to communicate with the other, he raises three smokes simultaneously, which, if seen by the other party, should be responded to in the same manner. They would then hold themselves in readiness for any other communications.

If an enemy is discovered in small numbers, a smoke raised twice at fifteen minutes’ interval would indicate it; and if in large force, three times with the same intervals might be the signal.

Should the commander of one party desire the other to join him, this might be telegraphed by four smokes at ten minutes’ interval.

Should it become necessary to change the direction of the line of march, the commander may transmit the order by means of two simultaneous smokes raised a certain number of times to indicate the particular direction; for instance, twice for north, three times for south, four times for east, and five times for west; three smokes raised twice for northeast, three times for northwest, etc., etc.

By multiplying the combinations of signals a great variety of messages might be transmitted in this manner; but, to avoid mistakes, the signals should be written down and copies furnished the commander of each separate party, and they need not necessarily be made known to other persons.

During the day an intelligent man should be detailed to keep a vigilant look-out in all directions for smokes, and he should be furnished with a watch, pencil, and paper, to make a record of the signals, with their number, and the time of the intervals between them.