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.

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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.

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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

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.

October 26, 1918  Choctaw Code Talkers

The history of the Navajo code talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  Less well known is the history of code talking in WWI, based on the language of the Choctaw.
The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Navajo Code Talkers were part of all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater of WWII.  Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima:  Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted from 1942 to ‘45.

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 history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the history of code talking in WWI, based on the language of the Choctaw.

The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Choctaw code talkersLate in 1917, Colonel A. W. 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 many of their German adversaries spoke excellent English.  They had already intercepted and broken several English based codes.  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.

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.

The 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”.

The 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, 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 16 on the day he enlisted.

Joseph Oklahombi
Joseph Oklahombi

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name means “man killer” in the Choctaw language.    Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed.  Oklahombi’s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded by French Marshall Philippe Pétain, 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 before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender.  Some guys are not to be trifled with.

choctawwarmemorial

September 23, 1806 Lewis and Clark

More than once Lewis and Clark found themselves negotiating for their lives with hostile Indians, as Discovery Corps member Francois Labiche translated English to French, fur trapper Toussant Charbonneau French to Hidatsa, and his wife Sacagawea speaking to the other side in Shoshone.

Minister to France and future President Thomas Jefferson began to express interest in an expedition to the Pacific Northwest, as early as the 1780s.

As President, Jefferson asked Congress to fund an expedition to the Pacific, two years into his first term. He understood that the fledgling United States would have a better claim to the Pacific Northwest if the team gathered data on plants and animals, but Jefferson’s primary interest in the mission, was trade.

Today we take coast-to-coast travel for granted, it seems odd to think how strange and unknown were the more remote parts of our own country.   Though extraordinarily well read and one of the brightest men of his generation, (Jefferson once cut out 901 bible verses from which he assembled his own “Jefferson Bible”, translating the volume into Greek, Latin, French and back to English, “just for fun”), President Jefferson legitimately believed that herds of Wooly Mammoth roamed the western reaches of the nation. Carte_Lewis-Clark_Expedition-en

Jefferson wanted to find an all-water route to the Pacific for the conduct of business. The President commissioned the Corps of Discovery expedition in 1803, naming Army Captain Meriwether Lewis expedition leader.

The two men had known one another since Lewis was a boy, having long since developed a relationship of mentor and protégé.  At this time Lewis was working as personal secretary to the President.  Tough, intellectually gifted and resourceful, Lewis received a crash course in the natural sciences from the President himself, before being sent off to Philadelphia to brush up on medicine, botany and celestial navigation.

Lewis selected William Clark as his second in command, due to the man’s exceptional skills as a frontiersman. It would prove to be an excellent choice.

Lewis_and_clark, SeamanMost of 1803 was spent in planning and preparation, Lewis and Clark joining forces near Louisville that October. After wintering in the Indiana territory base camp in modern day Illinois, the 33-man expedition departed on May 14, 1804, accompanied by “Seaman”, a “Dogg of the Newfoundland breed”.

Lewis and Clark set out to explore the Louisiana Territory, as it became an official part of the United States. Borders were still hazy at the time, and Spanish authorities suspected that the expedition would encroach on their territory in the southwest. They had good reason to think so, Thomas Jefferson believed the same.

Corps of Discovery members couldn’t know that General James Wilkinson, one of the most duplicitous, avaricious, and corrupt individuals of the age, was reporting their every move to his paymaster, the Spanish King Charles IV.

Over the course of the expedition, the tiny group was hunted by no fewer than four Spanish expeditions with as many as 600 soldiers, mercenaries and Comanche guides, each intending to make the Corps of Discovery vanish without a trace.

Lewis_and_clark-expeditionDiscovery established friendly relations with at least 24 indigenous tribes, without whose help they may have become lost or starved in the wilderness.  Most were more than impressed with Lewis’ state-of-the-art pneumatic rifle, which could silently fire up to 20 rounds after being pumped full of compressed air.

Not all Indian tribes were friendly, there were several run-ins with a group the Americans called “Teton-wan Sioux”. The Sioux were no joke. On one occasion, a group of four who had separated from the main expedition fled 100 miles in a single day from these people, before they felt it was safe to stop.

Lewis and Clark’s memoirs describe similar encounters with a large and especially ferocious species of bear, the Grizzly, an animal which more than once had expedition members climbing trees with a notable sense of urgency.

It was at the winter camp of 1804-5 that they met a French fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau and his young wife (or slave – she might have been a little of both), Sacagawea. They seemed to have thought Charbonneau a shady character, but they liked the young Indian girl, and her linguistic skills would prove useful. Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa while Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French. More than once Lewis and Clark found themselves negotiating for their lives with hostile Indians, as Discovery Corps member Francois Labiche translated English to French, Charbonneau French to Hidatsa, and Sacagawea speaking to the other side in Shoshone.

It was at this camp that Sacagawea gave birth to a son, whom she and Charbonneau named Jean Baptiste. The family stayed with the expedition, proving to be incredibly valuable to the group. They met many Indian bands along the way, whom Sacagawea’s presence quickly put at ease. War bands never traveled with women, especially not with one carrying an infant. One such band was a group of Shoshone led by Chief Cameahwait, who turned out to be none other than Sacagawea’s own brother. It must have been quite a reunion, they hadn’t seen one another since her kidnap by the Hidatsa, back in 1800.

Lewis_and_clark, first glimpseThe Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805, and set out their second winter camp in modern-day Oregon.

They returned through a cut in the Rocky Mountains which Sacagawea remembered from her childhood, the modern day Bozeman Pass, arriving at the Hidatsa-Mandan villages on August 14, 1806.   For Sacagawea, Charbonneau and Jean Baptiste, this was the end of the trip.

Lewis and Clark arrived in St. Louis on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery having met their objectives. They had reached the western coast and returned, though they did not find a continuous water route to the Pacific. The expedition created maps along the way, establishing legal claim to the land, while describing 178 previously unknown plants and 122 unknown animals, and establishing diplomatic and trade relations with at least two dozen indigenous nations.

Despite being heavily armed, most members were required to defend themselves only once, that in a running gun battle with a band of Blackfeet, on the way home.

The expedition suffered only one fatality when Sergeant Charles Floyd succumbed to what appears to have been appendicitis.  Though not seriously wounded, a humiliated Lewis had to spend several weeks face-down in a canoe, when one of the enlisted guys mistook his rump for that of an elk, and shot it.

Meriwether Lewis died from gunshot wounds to the chest and head on October 11, 1809.  Historians differ as to whether it was murder or suicide, though most believe his death to have been the latter.  It would not have been his first such attempt.

York_Statue
York

Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter named Lizette on December 22, 1812, and died a few months later at the age of 25. Eight months later, William Clark legally adopted her two children. Clark is recorded as having brought the boy up and educating him in St. Louis, before sending him to Europe with a German prince at the age of 18. I was unable to determine with any certainty, whether Lizette survived infancy.

Among the two-dozen plus officers and enlisted men on Discovery was William Clark’s African slave “York”, who accompanied the expedition from beginning to end.  Though not an official member of the Corps of Discovery, York’s hunting skills made him a valuable member of the expedition.  Indigenous tribes were fascinated by the first black man any of them had ever seen.  The Arikara people of North Dakota believed him to hold spiritual powers, calling the tall man “Big Medicine”.

Though a slave, York seems to have earned a degree of respect from expedition members.  At least two geographic features were named after the man.   Both York and Sacagawea had a vote on the placement of the 1805-’06 winter camp, prompting historian Stephen E. Ambrose to speculate that this may have been the first time in American history, that a black man and a woman were given the vote.

Accounts differ as to what became of him.  Some say Clark freed the man, others say that York was unwilling to return to a life of slavery, following 2½ years of liberty.  A black man who claimed to have been he was discovered ten or twelve years later, a tribal elder living with his four wives among the Crow, in north-central Wyoming.

Thomas Berger, author of the fictional Dances with Wolves, writes about a particularly dark skinned strain among the Indians, which many believe to have descended from York.

What became of Seaman the dog is unknown. Having accompanied the Lewis & Clark expedition from the very beginning, the last journal reference to him was written in July, two months before the journey’s end.

September 6, 1673 (est), Des Moines

It is altogether possible: that the ‘ol Chief put one over on Father Marquette on this day 344 years ago, and the Capital City of Iowa bears the name of a centuries-old jest. 

Marquette_JolietOn May 17, 1673, Father Jacques Marquette set out with the 27-year old fur trader Louis Joliet to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. Their voyage established the possibility of water travel from Lake Huron to the Gulf of Mexico, helping to initiate the first white settlements in the North American interior and bestowing French names on cities from La Crosse to New Orleans.

Relations with natives were mostly peaceful at this time, as several tribes jockeyed for advantage in the lucrative French fur trade.

On or about this day in 1673, Father Marquette asked the Chief of the Peoria about another tribe living down the river. Not wanting to effect his privileged position, the chief indicated that they didn’t amount to much, and weren’t worth bothering with. He called them “Moingoana”, a name which was later transliterated into French as “Des Moines”.Marquette Joliet Route

Marquette was expert in several native dialects by this time, but the chief may have been indulging in locker room humor, and the joke went over his head. The Miami-Illinois language is extinct today, but there is linguistic evidence suggesting that Moingoana derives from “mooyiinkweena”, translating politely, as, “those excrement-faces.”

There are alternate explanations of where the name comes from, but it is altogether possible:  the ‘ol Chief put one over on Father Marquette on this day 344 years ago, and the Capital City of Iowa bears the name of a centuries-old gag.