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.

September 4, 1886 Chief of the Bedonkohe

The Spanish name for the 4th century Saint was often the last word to leave their lips: “Geronimo”.

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

Geronimo, youngerMuch has been written of the conflict between Natives and American settlers, but that story has little to compare with the level of distrust and mutual butchery which took place between Mexico and the 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.

Initial relations were friendly, but 17th century Spanish slave raids were met by Apache attacks on Spanish and Pueblo settlements, in New Mexico

By 1685, several bands of Apache were in open conflict with the polity which, in 1821, would become known as 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.

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

Goyahkla married Alope of the Nedni-Chiricahua band of Apache when he was 17.  Together they had three children. 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. 01f/17/arve/g2061/052

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

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

Ignoring a 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”.

In 1873, the Mexican government and the Apache came to peace terms at one point, near Casa Grande. Terms had already been agreed upon when Mexican soldiers plied the Apaches with Mezcal.  Soon, soldiers began murdering intoxicated Indians, killing 20 and capturing many more before the survivors fled into the mountains.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.

By the end of his military career, Geronimo was “the worst Indian who ever lived”, according to the white settlers. He and his band of 38 men, women and children evaded thousands of Mexican and US soldiers.  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_a_1905_Locomobile_Model_C

Geronimo 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.

Geronimo in old ageIn 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”.

Geronimo was thrown from a horse in February 1909, and contracted pneumonia after a long, cold night on the ground. He confessed on his deathbed that he regretted his decision to surrender. His last words were to his nephew, when he said “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive”.

June 2, 1763 – Pontiac’s Rebellion

Pontiac’s Rebellion ended in a draw in 1765, but the often genocidal actions on both sides seem to have led both sides to conclude that segregation and not interaction should characterize relations between Indians and whites.

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

The fourteen Native American tribes involved in Pontiac’s Rebellion lived in a loosely defined region of New France known as the pays d’en haut (“the upper country”), which was claimed by France until the Paris peace treaty of 1763.

Unlike the French, who had cultivated friendships with their Indian allies, the British under Lord Jeffrey Amherst tended to treat indigenous populations with contempt. The first grumblings among the tribes could be heard as early as 1760. The full scale uprising known as “Pontiac’s Rebellion” broke out in May of 1763.

Pontiac's_war

Indian nations of the time divided more along ethnic and linguistic rather than political lines, so there was no monolithic policy among the tribes. Not even within members of the same tribes. Some of the fighting of this time resulted in the murder of women and children.  There was torture. There was even an instance of ritual cannibalism. 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 was anything but one sided. The British “Gift” of smallpox infected blankets from Ft. Pitt was hardly the first instance of biological warfare in history, but it may be one of the nastier ones.

The siege of Fort Detroit which began on May 7 was ultimately unsuccessful, but the series of attacks on small forts beginning on May 16 would all result in Indian victories. The fifth and largest of these forts, Fort Michilimackinac in present Mackinaw City, Michigan, was the largest fort taken by surprise. 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 StickballNative 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 they liked. Lacerations and broken bones were commonplace, and 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, and they played the game on a field that could range from 500 yards to several miles.

Fort Michilimackinac

The soldiers at Fort Michilimackinac enjoyed the game, as they had on previous occasions. When the ball was hit through the open gate of the fort, both teams rushed in as Indian women handed them 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. The siege which followed was unsuccessful, but a mob of vigilantes from Paxton village – “The Paxton Boys” – slaughtered a number of innocent American Indians, many of them Christians who had nothing to do with the fighting. Many of these peaceful Indians fled east to Philadelphia for protection, when several hundred Paxton residents marched on Philadelphia in January of 1764. Paxton_massacre

The presence of British troops and Philadelphia militia prevented them from doing any more violence, when Benjamin Franklin, who had helped organize the local militia, met with their leaders and negotiated an end to the crisis. Mr. Franklin may have had the last word on the collectivist nonsense we suffer from today, 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, but the often genocidal actions on both sides seem to have led both sides to conclude that segregation and not interaction should characterize relations between Indians and whites.

October 7, 1763 proclamationThe 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 their proclamation to avoid more conflicts like Pontiac’s Rebellion, but the decree had the effect of alienating colonists against the Crown. For American colonists, many now found themselves on the road to Revolution. The Indian Nations, as they existed at that time, were on the road to ruin.