October 26, 1918 Talking in Code

In 1917, Colonel Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying. If he didn’t understand their conversation, the Germans wouldn’t have a clue.

During the twentieth century, the United States and others specially recruited bilingual speakers of obscure languages, then applying those skills in secret communications based on those languages.  Among these, the story of the Navajo “Code Talkers” are probably best known.   Theirs was a language with no alphabet or symbols, a language with such complex syntax and tonal qualities as to be unintelligible to the non-speaker. The military code based on such a language proved unbreakable in WWII. Japanese code breakers never got close.

The United States Marine Corps recruited some 4-500 Navajo speakers, who served in all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater.  Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima:  Navajo code talkers took part in every assault conducted by the United States Marine Corps, from 1942 to ‘45.

160907143620-navajo-code-talkers-3-exlarge-169.jpgThe history of the Navajo code talkers of WWII is relatively well known, but by no means, unique.  Indigenous Americans of other nations served as code talkers in WW2, including Assiniboine, Lakota and Meskwaki soldiers, who did service in the Pacific, North African, and European theaters of the war.

Fourteen Comanche soldiers took part in the Normandy landings.  As with the Navajo, these substituted phrases when their own language lacked a proper term.  Thus, “tank” became “turtle”.  “Bombers” became “pregnant airplanes”.  Adolf Hitler was “Crazy White Man”.

The information is contradictory, but Basque may also have been put to use, in areas where no native speakers were believed to be present.  Native Cree speakers served with Canadian Armed Services, though oaths of secrecy have all but blotted their contributions, from the pages of history.

The first documented use of military codes based on native American languages took place during the Second Battle of the Somme in September of 1918, employing on the language skills of a number of Cherokee troops.

The government of Choctaw nation will tell you otherwise, contending that Theirs was the first native language, used in this way.  Late in 1917, Colonel Alfred Wainwright Bloor was serving in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment. They were a Texas outfit, constituted in May of that year and including a number of Oklahoma Choctaws.

The Allies had already learned the hard way that their German adversaries spoke excellent English, and had already intercepted and broken several English-based codes. Colonel Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying. If he didn’t understand their conversation, the Germans wouldn’t have a clue.

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Choctaw soldiers in training in World War I for coded radio and telephone transmissions

The first test under combat conditions took place on October 26, 1918, as two companies of the 2nd Battalion performed a “delicate” withdrawal from Chufilly to Chardeny, in the Champagne sector. A captured German officer later confirmed the Choctaw code to have been a complete success. We were “completely confused by the Indian language”, he said, “and gained no benefit whatsoever” from wiretaps.

Choctaw soldiers were placed in multiple companies of infantry. Messages were transmitted via telephone, radio and by runner, many of whom were themselves native Americans.

As in the next war, Choctaw would improvise when their language lacked the proper word or phrase. When describing artillery, they used the words for “big gun”. Machine guns were “little gun shoot fast”.

Choctaw code talkersThe Choctaw themselves didn’t use the term “Code Talker”, that wouldn’t come along until WWII. At least one member of the group, Tobias W. Frazier, simply described what they did as, “talking on the radio”.  Of the 19 who served in WWI, 18 were native Choctaw from southeast Oklahoma. The last was a native Chickasaw. The youngest was Benjamin Franklin Colbert, Jr., the son of Benjamin Colbert Sr., one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” of the Spanish American War. Born September 15, 1900 in the Durant Indian Territory, he was all of sixteen, the day he enlisted.

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name means “man killer” in the Choctaw language. Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 Germans in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed. Oklahombi‘s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded him by Marshall Petain, tells the story:

“Under a violent barrage, [Pvt. Oklahombi] dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man’s land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades”.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts report that 250 Germans occupied the position, and that Oklahombi killed 79 of them before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender. Some guys are not to be trifled with.

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September 4, 1886 Geronimo

Much has been written of the conflicts between Natives and American settlers.  That story has little to compare with the level of distrust and mutual butchery, which took place between the Spanish colonists to the North American continent, and the migratory bands of native Americans, known as Apache.

Much has been written of the conflicts between Natives and American settlers.  That story has little to compare with the level of distrust and mutual butchery, which took place between the Spanish colonists to the North American continent, and the migratory bands of native Americans, known as Apache.

First contact between the Crown of Castile and the roving bands of Apache they called Querechos, took place in the Texas panhandle, in 1541.

Relations were friendly for a time, but 17th century Spanish slave raids were met by Apache attacks on Spanish and Pueblo settlements in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México in the viceroyalty of New Spain.

Geronimo, younger

By 1685, several bands of Apache were in open conflict with the polity which, in 1821, would become known as Los Estados Unidos de Mexico.  The United States of Mexico. Attacks and counter attacks were commonplace, as Presidios – Spanish fortresses – dotted the landscape of Sonora, Chihuahua and Fronteras. 5,000 Mexicans died in Apache raids between 1820 and 1835 alone.

On June 16, 1829, a child was born to the Chiricahua Apache, in the Mexican-occupied territory of Bedonkoheland, in modern-day New Mexico. One of eight brothers and sisters, the boy was called by the singularly forgettable name of “Goyahkla”, translating as “one who yawns”.

Over 100 Mexican settlements were destroyed in that time. The Mexican government placed a bounty on Apache scalps in 1835, the year in which Goyahkla turned 6.

In his seventeenth year, Goyahkla married Alope of the Nedni-Chiricahua band of Apache. Together the couple had three children.

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On March 6, 1858, a company of 400 Mexican soldiers led by Colonel Jose Maria Carrasco attacked the native camp as the men were in town, trading. Goyahkla came back to find his wife, children, and his mother, murdered.

He swore that he would hate the Mexicans for the rest of his life.

Chief Mangas Coloradas sent Goyahkla to Cochise’ band to help exact retribution on the Mexicans. It was here that the young man earned a name that was anything but forgettable.

Ignoring the hail of bullets, he repeatedly attacked the soldiers with a knife, killing so many that they began to call out to Saint Jerome for protection. The Spanish name for the 4th century Saint was often the last word to leave their lips: “Geronimo”.

Geronimo Portrait

Geronimo would marry eight more times, but most of his life was spent at war with Mexico, and later with the United States. According to National Geographic, he and his band of 16 warriors slaughtered 500 to 600 Mexicans in their last five months alone.

Geronimo_in_a_1905_Locomobile_Model_CGeronimo and his band of 38 men, women and children evaded thousands of Mexican and US soldiers. By the end of his military career, he was “the worst Indian who ever lived”, according to the white settlers.  Geronimo was captured on this day in 1886, by Civil War veteran and Westminster, Massachusetts native, General Nelson Miles. With the capture of Geronimo, the last of the major US-Indian wars had come to an end.

Geronimo in old ageGeronimo became a celebrity in his old age, marching in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905. He converted to Christianity and appeared in county fairs and Wild West shows around the country.

In his 1909 memoirs, Geronimo wrote of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair: “I am glad I went to the Fair. I saw many interesting things and learned much of the white people. They are a very kind and peaceful people. During all the time I was at the Fair no one tried to harm me in any way. Had this been among the Mexicans I am sure I should have been compelled to defend myself often”.

In February 1909, Geronimo was thrown from a horse and contracted pneumonia following a long, cold night lying injured, on the ground. On his deathbed, he confessed that he regretted his decision to surrender. Geronimo’s last known words were spoken to his nephew, when he said “I should have never surrendered.  I should have fought until I was the last man alive”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

August 18, 1587 The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Within the next twenty or so years, English colonists would put down roots in a place called Jamestown, and again in Plymouth.  These roots would take hold and grow yet, what happened to that first such outpost, remains a mystery.

The 16th century was drawing to a close when Queen Elizabeth set out to establish a permanent English settlement in the New World. The charter went to Walter Raleigh, who sent explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to scout out locations for a settlement.

The pair landed on Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584, establishing friendly relations with local natives, the Secotans and Croatans. They returned a year later with glowing reports of what is now the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Two Native Croatans, Manteo and Wanchese, accompanied the pair back to England. All of London was abuzz with the wonders of the New World.

Queen Elizabeth was so pleased that she knighted Raleigh. The new land was called “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen.

Raleigh sent a party of 100 soldiers, miners and scientists to Roanoke Island, under the leadership of Captain Ralph Lane. The attempt was doomed from the start. They arrived too late in the season for planting, and Lane alienated a neighboring indigenous tribe when a misunderstanding led to the murder of Chief Wingina. That’ll do it.

By 1586 they had had enough, and left the island on a ship captained by Sir Francis Drake. Ironically, their supply ship arrived about a week later. Finding the island deserted, that ship left 15 men behind to “hold the fort” before they too, departed.

The now knighted “Sir” Walter Raleigh was not deterred. Raleigh recruited 90 men, 17 women and 9 children for a more permanent “Cittie of Raleigh”, appointing expedition artist John White, governor. Among this first colonial expedition were White’s pregnant daughter, Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare, and the Croatans Wanchese and Manteo.

0813Raleigh believed that the Chesapeake afforded better opportunities for his new settlement, but Portuguese pilot Simon Fernandes, had other ideas. The caravan stopped at Roanoke Island in July, 1587, to check on the 15 men left behind a year earlier. Fernandes was a Privateer, impatient to resume his hunt for Spanish shipping.  He ordered the colonists ashore on Roanoke Island.

It could not have lifted the spirits of the small group to learn that the 15 left earlier, had disappeared.

Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter on August 18, 1587, and named her Virginia. Fernandez departed for England ten days later, taking along an anxious John White, who wanted to return to England for supplies. It was the last time that Governor White would see his family.

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White found himself trapped in England by the invasion of the Spanish Armada, and the Anglo-Spanish war. Three years would come and go before White was able to return, and the Hopewell anchored off Roanoke. John White and a party of sailors waded ashore on August 18, 1590, three years to the day from the birth of his granddaughter, Virginia.  There they found – nothing – save for footprints, and the letters “CRO”, carved into a nearby tree.

It was a prearranged signal.  In case the colonists had to leave the island, they were to carve their destination into a tree or fence post.  A cross would have been the sign that they left in an emergency, yet there was no cross.

Reaching the abandoned settlement, the party found the word CROATOAN, carved into a post.  Again there was no cross, but the post was part of a defensive palisade, a defense against hostile attack which hadn’t been there when White left for England.

The word CROATOAN signified both the home of Chief Manteo’s people, the barrier island to the south, (modern-day Hatteras Island), and the indigenous people themselves.

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White had hopes of finding his family but a hurricane came up, before he was able to explore much further.  Ships and supplies were damaged requiring return to England.  By this time, Raleigh was busy with a new venture in Ireland, and unwilling to support White’s return to the New World.  Without deep pockets of his own, John White was never able to raise the resources to return.

Within the next twenty or so years, English colonists would put down roots in a place called Jamestown, and again in Plymouth.  These roots would take hold and grow yet, what happened to that first such outpost, remains a mystery.  Those 115 children, women and men, pioneers all, may have died of disease or starvation.  They may have been killed by hostile natives. Perhaps they went to live with Chief Manteo’s people, after all.

One of the wilder legends has Virginia Dare, now a beautiful young maiden and example to European and Indian peoples alike, transformed into a snow white doe by a spurned and would-be suitor, the evil medicine man Chico.

The fate of the first English child born on American soil may never be known.

“An Indian girl shows off an English doll in one of many scenes painted by John White, the Lost Colony’s artist governor. White’s realistic portraits of Native American life—including ritual dances (shown here)—became one of the earliest lenses through which Europeans saw the New World”. H/T National Geographic

A personal anecdote involves a conversation I had with a woman in High Point, NC, a few years back. She described herself as having Croatoan ancestry, her family going back many generations on the outer banks of North Carolina. She described her Great Grandmother, a full blooded Croatoan. The woman looked like it, too, except for her crystal blue eyes. She used to smile at the idea of the lost colony of Roanoke. “They’re not lost“, she would say. “They are us“.

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Afterward

Four hundred and twenty-eight years ago, the English colony at Roanoke Island vanished, along with the 115 men, women and children who lived there. Since that time, efforts to solve the mystery have concentrated on the island itself, with precious little to show for it.

Approximately fifty “Dare Stones” have been discovered containing carved inscriptions, purporting to describe what happened to the lost colonists.  Almost all have been debunked as hoaxes, yet research continues on at least one.lost-colony-dare-stone.adapt.1900.1

Photo credit to Mark Theissen with permission of Brenau University

In 1993, a hurricane exposed large quantities of pottery and other remnants of a native American village, mixed with seemingly European artifacts. In the 1580s, Hatteras Island would have been an ideal spot, blessed with fertile soil for growing corn, beans and squash, and a bountiful coastline filled with scallops, oysters and fish.

Since then, two independent teams have found archaeological evidence, suggesting that the lost colonists may have split up and made their homes with native Americans. There are a number of European artifacts unlikely to be objects of trade, including a sword hilt, broken English bowls and the fragment of a writing slate, with one letter still visible. In 1998, Archaeologists discovered a 10-carat gold signet ring, a well worn Elizabethan-era object, almost certainly owned by an English nobleman.

Fifty miles to the northwest, the second team believes that they have unearthed pottery used by the lost colonists on the Albemarle Sound, near Edenton, North Carolina.

NC-VA.adapt.1900.1Research concluded at “Site X” in 2017, the cloak & dagger moniker given to deter thieves and looters.  The mystery of the lost Colony of Roanoke, remains unsolved.  “We don’t know exactly what we’ve got here,” admitted one archaeologist. “It remains a bit of an enigma.”

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Hat Tip to NationalGeographic.com, for this image
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

June 25, 1876 Little Big Horn

No whites were to be permitted onto these territories but for Federal Government officials, but the rich resources of the Black Hills, first in timber and then in gold, made the provision near-impossible to enforce.

During the late summer of 1854, 4,000 natives of the Brulé and Oglala Sioux were camped in the future Wyoming territory, near the modern city of Torrington, WY.   On August 17, visiting Miniconjou High Forehead killed a wandering cow, belonging to a Mormon traveling the nearby Oregon trail.  The native camp accorded with the terms of the treaty of 1851 and the cow episode could have been amicably handled, but events quickly spun out of control.

GrattanPhilKonstantinChief Conquering Bear attempted to negotiate recompense, offering a horse or cow from the tribe’s herd.  The owner refused, demanding $25.  That same treaty of 1851 specified that such matters would be handled by the local Indian agent, in this case John Whitfield, scheduled to arrive within days with tribal annuities more than sufficient to settle the matter to everyone’s satisfaction.

Ignorant of this provision or deliberately choosing to ignore it, senior officer Lieutenant Hugh Fleming from nearby Ft. Laramie requested that the Sioux Chief arrest High Forehead, and hand him over to the fort.  Conquering Bear refused, not wanting to violate rules of hospitality.  Besides, the Oglala Chief had no authority over a Miniconjou.

6th Infantry Regiment Second Lieutenant John Grattan arrived with a force of twenty-nine and a bad attitude, intent on arresting the cow’s killer.  One Ft. Laramie commander later remarked, “There is no doubt that Lt. Grattan left this post with a desire to have a fight with the Indians, and that he had determined to take the man at all hazards.”  French-Native interpreter Lucienne Auguste was contemptuous, taunting Sioux warriors as “women” and threatening that the soldiers had come not to talk, but to kill.

What followed was all but inevitable.  Angry warriors took up flanking positions around the soldiers, one of whom panicked and fired, mortally wounding Conquering Bear.  When it was over, all thirty soldiers were dead, their bodies ritually mutilated.

The Federal government was quick to respond to the “Gratton Massacre”, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis characterizing the incident as “the result of a deliberately formed plan.”

The first Sioux War of 1854 – ’56 became the first of seven major wars and countless skirmishes between the United States and various sub-groups of the Sioux people, culminating in the Ghost Dance War of 1890.

Diametrically opposite cultures steeped in mutual distrust engaged in savage cruelty each upon the other, often at the expense of innocents. There was even one major massacre of natives by other natives, when a war band of some 1,500 Oglala/Brulé Sioux attacked a much smaller group of Pawnee, during their summer buffalo hunt. Seventy-one Pawnee warriors were killed along with 102 of their women and children, their bodies horribly mutilated and scalped, some even set on fire.

Today, a 35-foot obelisk stands in mute witness, to the horrors of “Massacre Canyon”.

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Massacre Canyon Monument

In the early eighteenth century, peoples of the Suhtai and Tsitsista tribes migrated across the northern Mississippi River, pushing the Kiowa to the southern plains and in turn being pushed westward, by the more numerous Lakota, or “Teton” Sioux. These were the first to adopt the horse culture of the northern plains, the two tribes merging in the early 19th century to become the northern Cheyenne.

The ten bands comprising the northern Cheyenne spread from the black hills of South Dakota, to the Platte Rivers of Colorado, at times antagonistic to and at others allied with all or part of the seven nations of the Sioux.

In 1866, the Lakota people went to war behind Chief Red Cloud, over Army encroachment onto the Powder River basin area, in northeastern Wyoming. The war ended two years later with the Treaty of Fort Laramie, granting a Great Sioux Reservation to include the western half of South Dakota including the Black Hills, as well as large, “unceded territory” in Wyoming and Montana and the Powder River Country, as Cheyenne and Lakota hunting grounds.

No whites were to be permitted onto these territories but for Federal Government officials, but the rich resources of the Black Hills, first in timber and then in gold, made the provision near-impossible to enforce.

The Army attempted for a time to keep settlers out of Indian territories, while political pressure mounted on the Grant administration to take back the Black Hills from the Lakota.   Delegations of Sioux Chieftains traveled to Washington, D.C. in an effort to persuade the President to honor existing treaties, and to stem the flow of miners into their territories. Congress offered $25,000 for the land, and for the tribes to relocate south to Indian Territory, in modern-day Oklahoma.  Chief Spotted Tail spoke for the whole delegation: “You speak of another country, but it is not my country; it does not concern me, and I want nothing to do with it. I was not born there … If it is such a good country, you ought to send the white men now in our country there and let us alone.”

The government now determined to force the issue, and imposed a deadline of January 31.  That many of the tribes even knew of such a time limit seems unlikely.  The government’s response was unworthy of a Great Nation.  On February 8, 1876, Major General Philip Sheridan ordered the commencement of military operations against those deemed “hostiles”.

The Great Sioux War of 1876-’77 began with a ham-fisted assault on the frigid morning of March 17, when Colonel Joseph Reynolds and six companies of cavalry attacked a village believed to that of the renegade Crazy Horse, but turned out to be a village of Northern Cheyenne.

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Cheyenne Artist’s Depiction of the Battle of Little bighorn

A second, far larger campaign was launched that Spring, when three columns were sent to converge on the Lakota hunting grounds. Brigadier General George Crook’s column was the first to make contact, resulting in the Battle of Rosebud Creek on June 17. While Crook claimed victory afterward, the native camp was vastly larger than expected, and Crook withdrew to camp and wait for reinforcements.  He had just taken his force out of what was to come.

General Alfred Terry dispatched the 7th Cavalry, 31 officers and 566 enlisted men led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, to begin a reconnaissance in force along the Rosebud.  Custer was given the option of departing from his orders and going on the offence, should there be “sufficient reason”.   For a man possessed of physical bravery bordering on recklessness – Custer had proven that thirteen years earlier at Gettysburg – there was bound to be sufficient reason.

Custer divided his force into three detachments, more concerned about preventing the escape of the “hostiles”, than with fighting them. It was a big mistake.

Battle-of-Little-BighornThe tale of those other two columns is worth a “Today in History” essay of their own if not an entire book, but this is a story about Little Big Horn. Suffice it to say that Major Marcus Reno‘s experience of this day was as grizzly and as shocking, as that moment when the brains and face of his Arikara scout Bloody Knife spattered across his own. Reno’s detachment had entered a buzz saw and would have been annihilated altogether, had it not met up with that of captain Frederick Benteen.

To describe what followed as “Custer’s last stand“ is to conjure images of soldiers fighting back to back, or crouched behind dead and dying horses amidst a swirling tide of warriors. Later archaeological evidence reveals not piles of spent casings marking the site of each man’s last desperate stand, but rather a scattering of brass across the hillside. Like a handful of rice, tossed across a hardwood floor.

2,500 warriors swept down on 268.  There were no survivors.

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Capture The Flag, at Little Bighorn

The Battle of Little Big Horn, the Natives called it the “Battle of the Greasy Grass”, may be more properly regarded as the Indian’s last stand.  Custer’s detachment was destroyed, to a man.  Within hours, an enormous encampment of 10,000 natives or more were returning to their reservations, leaving no more than 600 in their place.

Crook and Terry awaited reinforcements for nearly two months after the battle.  Neither cared to venture out again, until there were at least 2,000 men.

June 2, 1763 Pontiac’s War

Benjamin Franklin may have had the last word on the collectivist nonsense which afflicts to this day, when he asked “If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians?”

The Seven Years War, experienced in the American Colonies as the French and Indian War, ended in 1763 with France ceding vast swaths of territory to the British.

Unlike their English counterparts, the French had cultivated friendships with their Indian allies.  Many had married native women and been adopted into tribes.  There were annual gifts of blankets, firearms and other European manufactured goods.  The British under North American Governor-General Lord Jeffrey Amherst ceased such gifts, treating indigenous populations with contempt as English fortifications were built and settlers moved into traditional native lands.

The first grumblings among the tribes coalesced around a native visionary known only as the “Delaware Prophet”, who preached for a return to traditional ways and a rejection of the British.  The cause was taken up by the Ottawa chieftain Pontiac (c.1720-1769).  A powerful speaker, Pontiac’s message resonated with the Delaware, Seneca, Chippewa, Miami, Potawotomi and Huron, among others.  The full-scale uprising known as “Pontiac’s Rebellion” broke out in May, 1763.

Pontiac's_warIndigenous nations of the time divided more along ethnic and linguistic rather than political lines, so there was no monolithic policy among the tribes.  At least one British fort was taken with profuse apologies by the Indians, who explained that it was the other nations making them do it.

The brutality of the period was anything but one-sided.  The British “gift” of smallpox-infected blankets wasn’t the first instance of biological warfare in history, but this may be one of the nastier ones.

The siege of Fort Detroit beginning on May 7 was ultimately unsuccessful, but a series of attacks on smaller fortifications beginning two weeks later would all result in Indian victories. The fifth and largest of these fortifications, Fort Michilimackinac in present-day Mackinaw City, Michigan, was the largest such fort, and it was taken by surprise.

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Siege of Fort Detroit

Local Ojibwas staged a game of baaga’adowe on June 2, (an early form of lacrosse), with the visiting Sauks in front of the fort.

Native American stickball had many variations, but the object was to hit a stake or other object with a “ball”. The ball was a stone wrapped in leather, handled with one or sometimes two sticks. There could be up to several hundred contestants to a team, and the defenders could employ any means they could think of to get at the ball, including hacking, slashing or any form of physical assault. Lacerations and broken bones were commonplace.  It wasn’t unheard of that stickball players died on the field. The defending team could likewise employ any method they liked to keep the opposing team off of the ball carrier.  The game took place on a field that could range from 500 yards to several miles.

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Soldiers at Fort Michilimackinac enjoyed the game, as they had on earlier occasions. When the ball was hit through the open gate, both teams rushed in as native women handed out weapons previously smuggled into the fort. Fifteen of the 35-man garrison were killed in the ensuing struggle.  Five others were tortured to death.

Three more forts were taken in a second wave of attacks, when survivors took to the shelter of Fort Pitt, in Western Pennsylvania.

fort

Here’s when the chapter is written, about the smallpox blankets.  The episode has taken on aspects of legend and remains the subject for debate, to this day.

Smallpox had broken out at this time, among the besieged garrison at Fort Pitt.  At a June 24 parlay, Captain Simeon Ecuyer, a 22-year veteran Swiss mercenary in the British service, gave besieging Lenape warriors several items taken from smallpox patients.  Ecuyer wrote that “We gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital”. Captain William Trent of the garrison militia later wrote in his journal: “I hope it will have the desired effect.”

This appears to be the only documented case of such a tactic, but the stratagem was by no means disapproved. The use of smallpox infected items was discussed in positive terms between Amherst and another Swiss mercenary, Colonel Henry Bouquet, but the siege at Fort Pitt was ended by more conventional means.

Hudson-bay-blankets-vintageSome sixty to eighty Ohio valley Indians died of the disease following the Fort Pitt episode, but the outbreak appears isolated.  Meanwhile, Indian warriors had looted clothing from some 2,000 outlying settlers they had killed or abducted.

Six years earlier, native Americans ignored terms of surrender negotiated between their French allies and English at Fort McHenry in upstate New York, and broke into the garrison hospital, killing and scalping a number of patients.  At least some of these were suffering from smallpox.  The episode reportedly touched off an outbreak among native populations.

The siege of Fort Pitt culminated in a bloody fight on August 5, when an incoming relief force of some 500 troops met the Indian besieging force at the bloody Battle of Bushy Run.

Battle of Bushy Run
Battle of Bushy Run, August 5, 1763

All the while, Delaware and Shawnee war bands raided deep into Pennsylvania territory. Panicked settlers fled eastward, as unknown numbers of men, women and children were killed or taken captive.   The “Paxton Boys”, a group of Scots-Irish frontiersman from the modern-day Harrisburg area,  murdered some twenty Conestoga, a mostly Christian band of subsistence hunters and farmers who had nothing whatever to do with the fighting.

Many of these peaceful Indians fled east to Philadelphia for protection.  Several hundred Paxton residents marched on the city in January, 1764.

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1841 lithograph depicts the massacre of Conestoga Indians by the “Paxton Boys”, in December 1763

The presence of British troops and Philadelphia militia prevented further violence, as Benjamin Franklin met with leaders of the two sides to negotiate an end to the crisis. Mr. Franklin may have had the last word on the collectivist nonsense which afflicts to this day, when he asked “If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians?”

Pontiac’s Rebellion ended in a draw, in 1765.  The savagery inflicted on both sides meant that segregation and not interaction, would characterize relations between Indians and whites.

1_2929243The British Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763, drew a line between the British colonies and Indian lands, creating a vast Indian Reserve stretching from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and from Florida to Newfoundland. For the Indian Nations, this was the first time that a multi-tribal effort had been launched against British expansion, the first time such an effort had not ended in defeat.

The British government had hoped through such a proclamation to avoid conflicts like Pontiac’s Rebellion, but the decree had the effect of alienating colonists against the Crown.

For native Americans, the terrible smallpox epidemic of 1837 – ’38 all but wiped out the Mandan and decimated the Arikara and Hidatsa, Missouri River bands who farmed corn, beans & squash and hunted buffalo only as a sideline.  Estimates of the number killed in the epidemic range from 17,200 to an implausible high of 150,000, merging with the blanket episode of seventy-five years earlier and spawning a narrative of deliberate white genocide against indigenous Americans.

Smaller bands of isolated plains Indians were less hard hit, tipping the balance and forever altering the world’s ideas of what American Indians, looked like.  Works Progress Administration murals from the 1930s depict Pilgrims interacting with coastal tribesmen, wearing Sioux war bonnets and war shirts decorated with glass beads. No Lenape, Wampanoag, Pokanoket or Nauset of the time would have so much as recognized such an outfit, let alone dress that way.

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April 5, 1614 Little Wanton

Pocahontas was treated as a guest rather than a prisoner and encouraged to learn English customs. She converted to Christianity and baptized Lady Rebecca. Powhatan eventually agreed to terms for her release, but by then she had fallen in love with John Rolfe. The two were married on April 5, 1614, with the blessing of Chief Powhatan and the governor of Virginia.

In 1607, approximately 100 English colonists settled along the James River in Tidewater-area Virginia.  They called it “Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. One of the colonists, John Smith, was exploring the Chickahominy River in December, when he and two others were captured by Powhatan warriors. The Powhatan Confederacy of the Tsenacommacah comprised roughly 30 Algonquin speaking tribes, led by Paramount Chief Wahunsonacock.

Pocahontas-saves-Smith-NE-Chromo-1870.jpegHis two companions were killed.  Smith himself was transported to the principle village of Werowocomoco, and brought before the Chief of the Powhatan.  His head was forced onto a large stone as a warrior raised a club to smash out his brains. Pocahontas, favorite daughter of Wahunsonacock, rushed in and placed her head on top of his, stopping the execution. Whether it actually happened this way has been debated for centuries. One theory describes the event as an elaborate adoption ceremony, though Smith himself wouldn’t have known that at the time. Afterward, Powhatan told Smith he would “forever esteem him as his son Nantaquoud”.

The year of Pocahontas’ birth is uncertain.  In the Spring of 1608, Smith described her as “a child of tenne years old”. At the time, Powhatans were commonly given multiple names, some secret and known only a select few. Names would change for important occasions, different names carrying different meanings depending on context.

download (49)Pocahontas was a pet name, variously translated as “playful one” “my favorite daughter” or “little wanton”. Early in life, she bore the secret name “Matoaka”, meaning “Bright Stream Between the Hills”. Later she was known as “Amonute” which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been translated.

The “Starving Time”, the winter of 1609-1610, killed all but 60 of the 204 settlers then in Jamestown. Survivors were about to abandon the place when the Baron De La Warr, also known as Delaware, arrived in June with new supplies and new settlers. The settlement was rebuilt.  One of the new arrivals, John Rolfe, became the first tobacco planter in the area.

Pocahontas was a frequent visitor at this time.  English Captain Samuel Argall took her hostage in the spring of 1613, hoping it would help him negotiate a permanent peace with her father.

Pocahontas was treated as a guest rather than a prisoner and encouraged to learn English customs. She converted to Christianity and baptized Lady Rebecca. Powhatan eventually agreed to terms for her release, but by then she had fallen in love with John Rolfe. The two were married on April 5, 1614, with the blessing of Chief Powhatan and the governor of Virginia.

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Lady Rebecca, 1616, oil on canvas. Artist unknown.

The marriage ensured peace between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Confederacy for several years. Pocahontas gave birth to Thomas, the couple’s first child in 1615. The couple sailed to England the following year, where she proved popular with English gentry. The couple was preparing to sail back to Virginia in March 1617, when Pocahontas sickened and died, of unknown causes.  She was twenty-one.

Some historians believe she suffered from an upper respiratory condition, such as pneumonia.  Others believe she died from dysentery.  She is buried at the parish church of St. George in Gravesend, in England.

John Rolfe returned to Virginia and died in an Indian attack, in 1622. Following his education in England, Thomas Rolfe returned to Virginia to become a prominent citizen.  Some of the socially prominent and wealthy destined to become America’s own gentry, the “First Families of Virginia”, trace their lineage through Thomas Rolfe to Pocahontas.

PocahontasGlouc-Stat2Later descendants of the “Indian Princess” include Glenn Strange, the actor who played Frankenstein in three Universal films during the 1940s, and the character Sam Noonan, the popular bartender in the CBS series, “Gunsmoke”.  Astronomer Percival Lowell is a direct descendant of Pocahontas, as is Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton, and former First Lady Edith Wilson, whom some describe as the first female President of the United States. But that must be a story for another day.

At a recent event honoring Native American code talkers, President Donald Trump revived his nickname for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has claimed Native American ancestry but has thus far declined to provide proof. Predictably, Washington Post editorialists, were incensed: “Trump’s repeated reference to “Pocahontas” is racist first of all because it’s intended as a pejorative. Trump does not like Warren. It’s also racist because it seizes on a stereotypical Native American name to refer to an entire race — like calling an Asian man “Jackie Chan” or a black man “Frederick Douglass” (one of the president’s favorites). Worse yet, Trump is mushing together his tribes: At an event to honor Navajo heroes, he used the name of a Powhatan woman to disparage a senator who claimed Cherokee ancestry“.

Matoaka, also known as Amonute, daughter of the Paramount Chieftain Powhatan of the Attanoughkomouck who called her “Pocahontas”, would be surprised, I imagine, to learn that the Washington Post regards her name as a racial slur.

 

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March 17, 1621 First Encounter

Squanto would mediate between the settlers and the native tribes, teaching the Pilgrims to plant corn: several kernels in a mound, buried with a fish head to enrich the soil.  When planted together in a circle, the “three sisters” would support and thrive together, the corn stalks providing poles for the beans, and the squash leaves providing ground cover & holding in moisture, while keeping weeds at bay.

images (29)In 1620, the 60-ton Pinnace Speedwell departed Delfshaven, meeting with Mayflower at Southampton, Hampshire. The two vessels set out on August 15, but soon had to turn back as Speedwell was taking on water. Speedwell was abandoned after a second failed attempt, Mayflower setting out alone on September 16, 1620, with an estimated 142 passengers and crew.

66 days at sea brought the “Old Comers” up on the outer reaches of Cape Cod on November 11, near the present-day site of Provincetown Harbor.   There, the group stayed long enough to draw up the first written framework of government established in the New World, a “civil body politic” called the Mayflower Compact.

pilgrims_bwAs anyone familiar with the area will understand, a month in that place and time convinced them of its unsuitability.  By mid-December the Mayflower had crossed Cape Cod Bay and fetched up at Plimoth Harbor.

Words fail to describe the terrible conditions of that first winter.  Over half of these “Pilgrims” died during those first few months, eighty-two in all, of malnutrition, disease, exposure and starvation.  It was nearly as awful as the “starving time” of the Jamestown colony of ten years earlier, in which all but 60 of 214 colonists perished.

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Massasoit,

The morning of March 16, 1621 dawned fair and clear, warm for the season.  The settlers had long heard tales of their new neighbors, and even spotted a few back in November, at the modern-day “First Encounter Beach”, in Eastham.  There were wild stories of “cannibals” and “savages”, but none had yet been observed, at anything but a distance.  This morning, the newcomers realized that it was they who were being observed.

They were hurriedly arranging defenses when one of the “savages” approached the group, naked as the day he was born but for a leather fringe about his waist, holding a bow and two arrows.  Tall and straight with flowing black hair, the man walked straight up and introduced himself, to the astonishment of the group, in English.  He said his name was Samoset.

The following account appears in Mourt’s Relation (1622) written primarily by Edward Winslow and William Bradford:

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Samoset, “1st Friend” of the Pilgrims

Friday the 16th was a fair warm day….We were finishing our work, when a strange looking man, a man which caused us to be surprised becaused he seemed unafraid …. walked into the village. We stopped him. … He spoke to us in English, and was friendly. He said he had learned some English among the Englishmen that came to fish at Monhegan Island, and he gave us their names. He was a man who spoke freely and openly. We questioned him about many things. He was the first Indian we met. He said he was from Morattiggon (modern day Maine) and been 8 months in these parts…He asked for a drink and we gave him strong water and biscuit, and butter, and cheese, and pudding, and a piece of mallard (duck), all which he liked well. He said he had also eaten this food before with the English that had come before where he was from.

He told us the place where we now live was known as Patuxet by the Indians. Four years ago all the Indians who lived there died of a sickness and none were left, so they cannot hurt us, or to say the land where we now live belongs to them. All the afternoon we spent talking with him; we thought he would leave that night, but he did not leave. Then we thought to carry him on shipboard, and he intended to leave, but the wind was high and the water not deep enough so he could not return back that day. We lodged him that night at Stephen Hopkins house, and watched him.

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Southern New England tribal range, circa 1600

Samoset was a Sagamore (minor Chief) of the Abenaki tribe of modern-day Maine, visiting at that time with Ousamequin, the Pokanoket Sachem (leader) of the Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) and Massassoit (Great Sachem) of the Wampanoag Confederacy of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

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This plaque is all that remains of the Pilgrim’s 1620 raid on the Nauset’s corn stash, in modern-day Truro, MA

Samoset warned the newcomers to beware the Nauset, later called “Cape Cod Indians”, a tribal unit of some one-hundred individuals sharing the Massachusett (Natick) language and occupying modern-day Cape Cod and surrounding islands. Small wonder.  Long before the large-scale colonization of the New World, European seafarers had kidnapped some twenty Nausets, and sold them into slavery, leaving in their wake diseases with which the native immune system was ill-equipped to deal.  It was a Nauset corn cache the Pilgrims themselves had plundered back in November, a stash laid up to take their people through the long, barren winter.

Samoset departed the following day, March 17, but returned on the 22nd with Tisquantum, (Squanto), one of the few surviving Pawtuxet.  A man who spoke better English than Samoset himself, Squanto would mediate between the settlers and the native tribes, including Massasoit.  Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant corn: several kernels in a mound, buried with a fish head to enrich the soil.  When planted together in a circle, the “three sisters” would support one another and thrive together, the corn stalks acting as poles for the beans, and squash leaves providing ground cover & holding in moisture, while keeping weeds at bay.

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The Pawtuxet Squanto taught the Pilgrims what and where to plant, where to fish and how to hunt beaver

The newcomers reciprocated, teaching the natives about their own crops, with the aid of European farming tools.

“Days of Thanksgiving” took place in the New World as early September 8, 1565, when a group of Spaniards lead by explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the Timucua tribe to a day of Thanksgiving in Saint Augustine, Florida.  Yet, the harvest feast of 1621, shared between the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets, is generally considered to be the basis for our own Thanksgiving holiday.

In the following months, the debt of corn was repaid to the Nauset people, who returned the favor by restoring a small boy to the colony, who’d been found lost and wandering in the woods.  The Nauset would become Christianized in the following years, turning out to be the European’s greatest allies.

Fairfield-WPA-Mural-Tomilson-High-School-FMHC_2014_Pano_Pequot_-800x272-1Years later, colonists would go to war against the Wampanoag people and ‘King Philip’, the English name for Metacomet, the son of Massasoit.  The Nauset would act as warriors and scouts against the Wampanoag people in King Philip’s War, a conflict which killed some 5,000 New England inhabitants, three quarters of whom were indigenous people.

In terms of the percentage killed of the overall population, King Philip’s War was over twice as costly as the American Civil War, and seven times that of the American Revolution.  But that must be a story for another day.

Feature image, top of page:  First Encounter Beach, Eastham Massachusetts

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