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Indians and Emigrants: Encounters on the Overland Trails

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In the first book to focus on relations between Indians and emigrants on the overland trails, Michael L. Tate shows that such encounters were far more often characterized by cooperation than by conflict. Having combed hundreds of unpublished sources and Indian oral traditions, Tate finds Indians and Anglo-Americans continuously trading goods and news with each other, and Indians providing various forms of assistance to overlanders.

Tate admits that both sides normally followed their own best interests and ethical standards, which sometimes created distrust. But many acts of kindness by emigrants and by Indians can be attributed to simple human compassion.

Not until the mid-1850s did Plains tribes begin to see their independence and cultural traditions threatened by the flood of white travelers. As buffalo herds dwindled and more Indians died from diseases brought by emigrants, violent clashes between wagon trains and Indians became more frequent, and the first Anglo-Indian wars erupted on the plains. Yet, even in the 1860s, Tate finds, friendly encounters were still the rule.

Despite thousands of mutually beneficial exchanges between whites and Indians between 1840 and 1870, the image of Plains Indians as the overland pioneers’ worst enemies prevailed in American popular culture. In explaining the persistence of that stereotype, Tate seeks to dispel one of the West’s oldest cultural misunderstandings.

ISBN-13: 9780806146546

Media Type: Paperback(New Edition)

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 07-16-2014

Pages: 352

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Michael L. Tate is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and author of The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West and Indians and Emigrants: Encounters on the Overland Trail.

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Indians and Emigrants

Encounters on the Overland Trails, 1840â"1870

By Michael L. Tate


Copyright © 2006 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4734-5


Preparing the Way

A Cacophony of Confusion, Misinformation, and Alarm

Even before people set out from Europe and the areas east of the Mississippi River to make their way into the West in the midnineteenth century, most already possessed strong preconceptions about the problems they would encounter there. Some fretted about leaving friends and family members forever; others worried about reestablishing their lives in a distant and alien land. Many also voiced a fear that dangers along the trail were so overwhelming that they or their loved ones might not survive the perilous journey. A small proportion of these, including Benjamin Franklin Bonney, received not an encouraging farewell from their friends and neighbors but rather a crescendo of warnings that they would certainly perish in the suicidal venture. In keeping with that fatalistic spirit, the men of Sarah Sutton's 1854 wagon train prepared special boards and laid them across the floor of one wagon so that they could be used for constructing a coffin in the likely event that a member of the party should die while on the trail. Even more pessimistic was the mother of nine-year-old Barnet Simpson, who grew so distraught from the frightful Indian tales that, prior to undertaking an 1849 Oregon trip, she wove burial shrouds for each member of her family.

Death from disease, heat, starvation, poisonous plants, and accidents punctuated a long list of potential terrors raised about overland travel, but no danger loomed larger in the minds of emigrants than the fear of torture or death at the hands of murderous Indians. Hardly a journal, diary, or set of letters survives that does not offer some evidence of the writer's initial fear that this possibility would come true. Yet the great majority of people who voiced so much alarm about American Indians had never experienced any direct contact with them. Thus overlanders' preconceived notions clearly came not from firsthand knowledge but rather from a long tradition of literature, art, journalism, and family stories that stretched back to the early colonial days along the Atlantic coast.

Soon after the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, captivity narratives began to be published in Puritan New England as a way of metaphorically explaining God's role in testing the perseverance of the new chosen people. American Indians emerged from the narratives in a stereotypical fashion that highlighted their barbaric customs and fiendish tortures inflicted upon stalwart pioneer families. Especially threatened were the piety and purity of English women who fell into the clutches of evil "savages," a fate overcome only by an abiding faith in God's divine intervention. The highly embellished stories gradually moved beyond serving as religious tracts that demonstrated the power of faith, to providing dubious justifications for taking Indian lands. Puritan writers merged religious doctrines with temporal needs to justify the bloody military actions undertaken during the Pequot War of 1637 and King Philip's War of 1675–76, which liquidated most Indian land claims in New England by the end of the seventeenth century.

The impact of these books reached well beyond the time and place for which they were written. Many were republished in their entirety, or large sections were pirated and used by a new generation of authors who wanted to tap into an expanded marketplace. Literary historian Frank Luther Mott notes that four of these captivity narratives were among the best-sellers of the American literary tradition—books by Mary Rowlandson, John Williams, Jonathan Dickinson, and Mary Jemison. Published in 1682, Rowlandson's The Soveraignty of Goodness of God quickly became second only to the Bible in popularity and ultimately appeared in thirty editions. An equally appreciative audience for the book quickly developed in England, where this narrative of capture by Wampanoags was viewed as an exotic and even risqué tale. Also compelling was John Williams's The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion (1707), which sold approximately 1,000 copies in its first week of publication—a rare feat in the early eighteenth century. By the time of its last reprinting in 1918, it had sold over 100,000 copies.

This literary genre continued to command public attention well into the early nineteenth century. The Remarkable Adventures of Jackson Johonnet (1791) was published in fifteen languages during the following three decades and was widely printed and excerpted by newspapers and almanacs. Even as late as the Second Seminole War of 1835–41, a popular pamphlet entitled "Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Mason" drew upon the earlier themes of captivity narratives to create support for a punitive campaign against the "barbaric Indians" of Florida. Although the tale was apparently fictitious, it typified a two-hundred-year tradition of vilifying American Indians through literary treatments.

The captivity narratives created an early predisposition to view American Indians harshly, but they were not the only literary tradition that affected popular viewpoints. As the spirit of romanticism spread its influence into music, art, and fiction at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a more positive symbolism for American Indians found its way into literature. British poet Thomas Cooper published the long poem Gertrude of Wyoming in 1809, stressing the delicate sensibilities, lofty virtues, and courageous actions of the fictional Oneida chief Outalissi. More important, in 1801 the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand published Atala, a tale of unrequited love between a young man and woman of rival tribes. Set amid a picturesque landscape and a range of human emotions, this popular book helped present American Indians in a positive light that soon was widely imitated by other French, British, and German authors.

Out of this emerging age of romanticism sprang a new dichotomous view of American Indians—a contrast between the "savage" and "nature's nobleman." Despite his admitted lack of contact with and knowledge about Indian peoples, American novelist James Fenimore Cooper became the sublime articulator of this dualistic image. Drawing upon a tradition already hinted at by earlier authors, his novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826) contrasted the nobility of Mohican elder Chingachgook and his doomed son, Uncas, with the thoroughly malevolent spirit of Huron warrior Magua. Although people such as former secretary of war Lewis Cass criticized Cooper for overly romanticizing and stereotyping Indians and some novelists made the same observation, many of the latter utilized his dualistic characterizations in their own books.

In truth, Cooper wrestled with the same divided sentiments about Indians that most eastern-seaboard Americans felt during the first half of the nineteenth century. They tended to see Indians as inferior to whites in the attainment of civilized culture, but many also saw a kind of primitive nobility that emerged from close contact with nature. Clearly, American and European romantic infatuation with these "sons and daughters of the forest" emerged strongest in regions mostly devoid of Indians. Amid the western sections of the American nation, where Indian wars were a recent memory or Indian residency was still well established, frontiersmen were less likely to reflect on this nobility theme than were easterners. Furthermore, those who did subscribe to the more positive image generally agreed with the romantic poets, playwrights, and novelists that the "Noble Red Man" lived only in the past and was not part of the contemporary "Indian problem."

Gradually, James Fenimore Cooper's dualistic interpretation of Indian identity replaced the earlier Chateaubriand version of the "salon-Indian," who had been universally portrayed in an overly sentimental and one-dimensional way. European audiences were thrilled in multilanguage editions by the novels of Friedrich Gerstäcker, Friedrich Arman Strubberg, Baldwin Möllhausen, and Karl Postl, the last of whom, while writing under the pseudonym Charles Sealsfield, became known as the "German Cooper." In their works, as well as those of Cooper, "bad" Indians served to test the fortitude and skills of white heroes and to provide the sadistic tortures that readers expected from this type of publication. "Good" Indians, on the other hand, served as faithful companions to white heroes and as masterful brothers and sisters of nature's environment. "Bad" Indians were present in all these writings, but as the nineteenth century wore on, novels increasingly blamed villainous whites for causing Indians to become brutal avengers.

Early-nineteenth-century romantic art imitated literature in capturing the essence of the dualistic image. George Catlin was inspired directly by the writings of James Fenimore Cooper to create a massive traveling exhibit of his sketches and paintings that would convey the spirit of wild America and its Native inhabitants before both disappeared under the inevitable march of progress. Catlin and other artists such as Karl Bodmer, Charles Bird King, Seth Eastman, and Alfred Jacob Miller played upon the additional theme of the vanishing Indian to emphasize the fleeting nobility of Indians and their growing decadence in the face of war, disease, and alcohol.

In this vein, noted historian Ray Allen Billington later concluded that mid-nineteenth-century Americans thus encountered a third dimension of alleged Indian identity. Native people could no longer be viewed only through Cooper's dualistic prism of "good" Indian and "bad" Indian, but to this must also be added the "ignoble savage." This image referred to the notion of a "decayed race, steeped in vice and indolence, unable and unwilling to adjust to the modern world, and hence doomed to rapid and justifiable extinction." Emphasis was now placed upon Indians' filth, revolting dietary habits, physical repugnance, sexual promiscuity, and tendency toward drunkenness. Such stereotypes, unfortunately, could only worsen common preconceptions about American Indians and their predisposition to slovenly behavior.

Novelists and artists exercised considerable influence on public perceptions about American Indians during the romantic era, but travel narratives published during the first half of the nineteenth century also shaped popular attitudes. As with works of fiction, these books presented the conventional triad of images—good Indian, bad Indian, and ignoble savage—but they did so with greater authority than fictional tales because they were supposedly accurate representations written by eyewitnesses.

Most of these travel narratives discussed individual acts of Indian bravery, nobility, honesty, and sociability, but all contained highly descriptive examples of Indian tendencies toward violence and untrustworthiness. British adventurer George Frederick Ruxton detailed a bloody Ute scalp dance performed on Arapaho scalps. A similar scenario was related even more graphically by Santa Fe Trail sojourner Josiah Gregg, who concluded that Indians "employ every wile and strategem [sic], and faithless subterfuge, to deceive their enemies, and in battle are relentless and cruel in the extreme." Gregg further promoted the image of Indian "blood-thirsty propensities" by repeating unconfirmed tales about how, in earlier times, some had devoured the hearts of their victims in a cannibalistic rage. Scalping stories punctuated Washington Irving's 1835 book, A Tour on the Prairies, replete with images of "mouldering skulls and skeletons, bleaching in some dark ravine," and in his widely read The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, which was printed two years later. Scottish naturalist John Bradbury updated the savage image by swearing that he had seen Arikaras on the Missouri River who possessed the body marks of having drunk the blood of a slain enemy.

These types of stories that filled the publications of fur traders, military explorers, and early travelers in the West both titillated and frightened their American and European audiences, who took much of the information as gospel. Especially troubling were the direct warnings that Indian behavior was unfathomable and, in most cases, downright deceitful. Scottish fur trader Alexander Ross stressed the trickery of Pacific Northwest tribes whose main stratagem was to lure unsuspecting travelers into ambuscades from which escape was impossible. Even "civilized" Indians were not above reproach. Isaac Cooper recalled that while traveling in John C. Frémont's expedition of 1845, his party met members of the seemingly peaceful Kaw, or Kansas, tribe in northeastern Kansas. Despite their offers of friendship and aid, Cooper presumptuously concluded that they would have happily robbed individuals in his party had they been given the chance. Even more alarming was the advice given to readers by Francis Parkman following his 1846 excursion along the Platte River to Fort Laramie. He admonished future travelers to show only the strongest resolve toward all Indians, and under no circumstances should the white men demonstrate weakness, indecision, or compassion, for, as he warned, "you convert them from that moment into insidious and dangerous enemies."

No one today can achieve a precise accounting of how many Americans and Europeans read from the aforementioned books or viewed the sketches and paintings in exhibits and portfolios. Even less reliable are any statistical conclusions about how many persons who traversed the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails actually read these books beforehand or viewed these works of art. Yet it seems likely that these were the general conceptions that most overlanders shared about American Indians during the mid-nineteenth century, and the contrasting stereotypes of good, bad, and ignoble Indians certainly created confusion within the popular imagination. Precisely because of this ambiguity, wayfarers tended to be curious about American Indians, but they also prepared themselves for the worst kinds of deceit and mayhem. Out of this ill-defined meeting between Indian and white worlds emerged a level of mistrust and cultural misunderstanding that made each contact point a potential tragedy for both sides. In essence, white travelers hoped to encounter wise and friendly Indians who might aid them, but they felt that the more likely meetings would be with decadent or even hostile tribes.

Because most expectant sojourners had no direct experience with the lands west of the Missouri River, they came to rely upon the highly touted "trail guidebooks." These inexpensive publications supposedly contained the kind of practical information that could ameliorate the worst problems of a grueling wagon trip. They were especially valued for their advice on the supplies that should be packed, the types of livestock and wagon that could best serve the owner, the strategies necessary for crossing dangerous rivers, and the varieties of flora and fauna that should be avoided. Most important, they contained precise information about trail grades, distances between reliable sources of water and grass, and the natural landmarks that dotted the trail. Although these guidebooks led readers to believe that they had been carefully prepared by men who had been on the trails, had experienced the unique environmental problems, and had written knowledgeably about exact conditions, readers often found the information to be unreliable.

Two types of guidebooks became readily available for use on the trails—commercial guidebooks and personal narratives. Lansford W. Hastings's The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California (1845) well represented the first category and proved to be one of the most enduring of all self-help sources. Despite its controversial nature and connection to the ill-fated Donner Party, Hastings's guide was used by tens of thousands of emigrants and went through five reprintings. Unfortunately, no effort was ever made to correct the misleading and patently false descriptions that it contained. Especially troubling is the fact that Joseph E. Ware and other compilers of later guidebooks excerpted liberally from Hastings's original work without questioning some of its dubious assertions.

Two features that all the commercial guidebooks shared were their limited coverage of Indians and their shortsighted advice on how to relate to the Native inhabitants of the plains and mountains. Joseph Ware's admonition in his The Emigrants' Guide to California (1849) was for travelers to be alert to the universal Indian tendency toward theft. He especially directed this charge at the Pawnees of Nebraska and the Shoshonean groups of the Great Basin. Warning that their begging was often a prelude to thievery, he cautioned readers to "never allow an Indian to come within your lines under any pretext—they seldom have a good object in view." This closely mirrored Lansford Hastings's earlier sentiment that "a more villainous and treacherous race of thieves, can scarcely be found."


Excerpted from Indians and Emigrants by Michael L. Tate. Copyright © 2006 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Preparing the Way: A Cacophony of Confusion, Misinformation, and Alarm,
2. Across the Wide Missouri: First Impressions of Indian Country,
3. A Mutual Bargain: Trade on the Overland Trail,
4. Seeing the Elephant: Indian Assistance to Beleaguered Overlanders,
5. Humanizing the Experience: Getting to Know Strangers as Friends,
6. Accruing the Benefits: Friends as Advocates and Benefactors,
7. Responding to the Alarm: Bison, Epidemics, Burials, and Fires,
8. Massacred by Indians: An Exaggerated Tale,
9. Captivity Infinitely Worse Than Death: An Exaggerated Tale,
10. From Cooperation to Conflict: A More Dangerous World Begins,