Excerpted from the memoir of James Willard Schultz, chapters one and three -
originally published in 1907 by Doubleday, Page & Co.
The Indians of the plains back in those days of which I write
alone knew what was perfect content and happiness, and that, we are told, is the chief end and aim of men...
Wide brown plains, distant, slender, flat-topped buttes; still more distant giant mountains, blue-sided, sharp-peaked, snowcapped; odor of sage and smoke of camp fire; thunder of ten thousand buffalo hoofs over the hard, dry ground; long-drawn melancholy howl of wolves breaking the silence of night, how I loved you all!
I am in the sere and yellow leaf, dried and shriveled, about to fall and become one with my millions of predecessors. Here I sit, by the fireplace in winter, and out on the veranda when the days are warm, unable to do anything except live over in memory the stirring years I passed upon the frontier. My thoughts are always of those days; days before the accursed railroads and the hordes of settlers they brought swept us all, Indians and frontiersmen and buffalo, from the face of the earth, so to speak.
The love of wild life and adventure was born in me, yet I must have inherited it from some remote ancestor, for all my near ones were staid, devout people. How I hated the amenities and conventions of society; from my earliest youth I was happy only when out in the great forest which lay to the north of my home, far beyond the sound of church and school bell, and the whistling locomotives. My visits to those grand old woods were necessarily brief, only during summer and winter vacations. But a day came when I could go where and when I chose, and one warm April morning long ago I left St. Louis on a Missouri River steamboat, bound for the Far West.
The Far West! Land of my dreams and aspirations! I had read and re-read Lewis and Clark's Journal, Catlin's Eight Years,The Oregon Trail, Fremont's expeditions; at last I was to see some of the land and the tribes of which they told. The sturdy flat-bottom, shallow-draft, stern-wheel boat was tied to the shore every evening at dusk, resuming her way at daylight in the morning, so I saw every foot of the Missouri's shores, 2,600 miles, which lay between the Mississippi and our destination, Fort Benton, at the head of navigation. I saw the beautiful groves and rolling green slopes of the lower river, the weird "bad lands" above them, and the picturesque cliffs and walls of sandstone, carved into all sorts of fantastic shapes and form by wind and storm, which are the features of the upper portion of the navigable part of the river. Also I saw various tribes of Indians encamped upon the banks of the stream, and I saw more game than I had thought ever existed. Great herds of buffalo swimming the river often impeded the progress of the boat. Numberless elk and deer inhabited the groves and slopes of the valley. On the open bottoms grazed bands of antelope, and there were bighorn on nearly every butte and cliff of the upper river. We saw many grizzly bears, and wolves, arid coyotes; and in the evenings, when all was still aboard, the beavers played and splashed alongside the boat. What seemed to me most remarkable of all, was the vast number of buffalo we passed. All through Dakota, and through Montana clear to Fort Benton, they were daily in evidence on the hills, in the bottoms, swimming the river. Hundreds and hundreds of them, drowned, swollen, in all stages of decomposition, lay on the shallow bars where the current had cast them, or drifted by us down the stream. I believe that the treacherous river, its quicksands, and its unevenly frozen surface in winter, played as great havoc with the herds as did the Indian tribes living along its course. We passed many and many a luckless animal, sometimes a dozen or more in a place, standing under some steep bluff which they had vainly endeavored to climb, and there they were, slowly but surely sinking down, down into the tenacious black mud or sands, until finally the turbid water would flow smoothly on over their lifeless forms. One would naturally think that animals crossing a stream and finding themselves under a high cut bank would turn out again into the stream and swim down until they found a good landing place; but this is just what the buffalo, in many cases, did not do. Having once determined to go to a certain place, they made a beeline for it; and, as in the case of those we saw dead and dying under the cut banks, it seemed as if they chose to die rather than to make a detour in order to reach their destination.
After we entered the buffalo country there were many places which I passed with regret; I wanted to stop off and explore them. But the captain of the boat would say: "Don't get impatient; you must keep on to Fort Benton; that's the place for you, for there you'll meet traders and trappers from all over the Northwest, men you can rely upon and travel with, and be reasonably safe. Good God, boy, suppose I should set you ashore here? Why, in all likelihood you wouldn't keep your scalp two days. These here breaks and groves shelter many a prowlin' war party. Oh, of course, you don't see 'em, but they're here all the same."
Foolish, "tenderfoot," innocent "pilgrim" that I was, I could not bring myself to believe that I, I who thought so much of the Indians, would live with them, would learn their ways, would be a friend to them, could possibly receive any harm at their hands. But one day, somewhere between the Round Butte and the mouth of the Musselshell River, we came upon a ghastly sight. On a shelved, sandy slope of shore, by a still smoldering fire of which their half-burned skiff formed a part, lay the remains of three white men. I say remains advisedly, for they had been scalped and literally cut to pieces, their heads crushed and frightfully battered, hands and feet severed and thrown promiscuously about. We stopped and buried them, and it is needless to say that I did not again ask to be set ashore.
Ours was the first boat to arrive. at Fort Benton that spring. Long before we came in sight of the place, the inhabitants had seen the smoke of our craft and made preparations to receive us. When we turned the bend and neared the levee, cannon boomed, flags waved, and the entire population assembled on the shore to greet us. Foremost in the throng were the two traders who had sometime before bought out the American Fur Company, fort and all. They wore suits of blue broadcloth, their long-tailed, high-collared coats bright with brass buttons; they wore white shirts and stocks, and black cravats; their long hair, neatly combed, hung down to their shoulders. Beside them were their skilled employees - clerks, tailor, carpenter and they wore suits of black fustian, also brass-buttoned, and their hair was likewise long, and they wore parfleche-soled moccasins, gay with intricate and flowery designs of cut beads. Behind these prominent personages the group was most picturesque; here were the French employees, mostly creoles from St. Louis and the lower Mississippi, men who had passed their lives in the employ of the American Fur Company, and had cordelled many a boat up the vast distances of the winding Missouri. These men wore the black fustian capotes, or hooded coats, fustian or buckskin trousers held in place by a bright-hued sash. Then there were bull-whackers, and mule-skinners, and independent traders and trappers, most of them attired in suits of plain or fringed and beaded buckskin, and nearly all of them had knives and Colt's powder and ball six-shooters stuck in their belts; and their headgear, especially that of the traders and trappers, was homemade, being generally the skin of a kit fox roughly sewn in circular form, head in front and tail hanging down behind. Back of the whites were a number of Indians, men and youths from a nearby camp, and women married to the resident and visiting whites. I had already learned from what I had seen of the various tribes on our way up the river, that the everyday Indian of the plains is not the gorgeously attired, eagle-plume-bedecked creature various prints and written descriptions had led me to believe he was. Of course, all of them possessed such fancy attire, but it was worn only on state occasions. Those I now saw wore blanket or cow (buffalo) leather leggings, plain or beaded moccasins, calico shirts, and either blanket or cow leather toga. Most of them were bareheaded, their hair neatly braided, and their faces were painted with reddish-brown ochre or Chinese vermilion. Some carried a bow and quiver of arrows; some had flintlock fukes, a few the more modern cap-lock rifles. The women wore dresses of calico; a few "wives" of the traders and clerks and skilled laborers even wore silk, and gold chains and watches, and all had the inevitable gorgeously hued and fringed shawl thrown over their shoulders.
At one glance the eye could take in the whole town, as it was at that time. There was the great rectangular adobe fort, with bastions mounting cannon at each comer. A short distance above it were a few cabins, built of logs or adobe. Back of these, scattered out in the long, wide flat-bottom, was camp after camp of trader and trapper, string after string of canvas-covered freighters' wagons, and down at the lower end of the flat were several hundred lodges of Piegans. All this motley crowd had been assembling for days and weeks, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the steamboats. The supply of provisions and things brought up by the boats the previous year had fallen far short of the demand. There was no tobacco to be had at any price. Keno Bill, who ran a saloon and gambling house, was the only one who had any liquor, and that was alcohol diluted with water, four to one. He sold it for a dollar a drink. There was no flour, no sugar, no bacon in the town, but that did not matter, for there was plenty of buffalo and antelope meat. What all craved, Indians and whites, was the fragrant weed and the flowing bowl. And here it was, a whole steamboat load, together with a certain amount of groceries; no wonder cannon boomed and flags waved, and the population cheered when the boat hove in sight.
I went ashore and put up at the Overland Hotel, which was a fair-sized log cabin with a number of log-walled additions. For dinner we had boiled buffalo boss ribs, bacon and beams, "yeast powder" biscuit, coffee with sugar, molasses, and stewed dried apples. The regular guests scarcely touched the meat, but the quantities of bread, syrup, and dried apples they stowed away was surprising.
That was a day to me, a pilgrim fresh from the East, from the "States," as these frontiersmen called it, full of interest. After dinner I went back to the boat to see about my luggage. There was a gray-bearded, long-haired old trapper standing on the shore looking absently out over the water. His buckskin trousers were so bagged at the knees that he seemed to be in the attitude of one about to jump out into the stream. To him approached a fellow passenger, a harebrained, windy, conceited young fellow bound for the mining country, and said, looking intently at the aforesaid baggy knees, "Well, old man, if you're going to jump, why don't you jump, instead of meditating over it so long?"
He of the buckskins did not at first comprehend, but following the questioner's intent stare he quickly saw what was meant. "Why, you pilgrim," he replied, "jump yourself." And instantly grasping the youth by the legs below the knees he heaved him out into about three feet of water. What a shout of laughter and derision arose from the bystanders when the ducked one reappeared and came gasping, spluttering, dripping ashore. He looked neither to the right nor the left, but hurried on board to the seclusion of his cabin, and we saw him no more until he pulled out on the stage the next morning.
I had letters of introduction to the firm which had bought out the American Fur Company. They received me kindly and one of them took me around, introducing me to the various employees, residents of the town, and to several visiting traders and trappers. Of the latter I met one, a man only a few years older than myself, who I was told was the most successful and daring of all the traders of the plains. He spoke a number of Indian languages perfectly, and was at home in the camps of any of the surrounding tribes. We somehow took to each other at once, and I passed the balance of the afternoon in his company. Eventually we became great friends. He still lives; and as I may in the course of this story tell some of the things we did together, for which we are now both truly sorry, I will not give his right name. The Indians called him the Berry; and as Berry he shall be known in these chronicles of the old plains life. Tall, lean, long-armed and slightly stoop-shouldered, he was not a fine looking man, but what splendidly clear, fearless dark brown eyes he had; eyes that could beam with the kindly good nature of those of a child, or fairly flash fire when he was aroused to anger.
It was not half an hour after the arrival of the steamboat before whisky dropped to the normal price of "two bits" per drink, and tobacco to $2 per pound. The white men, with few exceptions, hied to the saloons to drink, and smoke, and gamble. Some hurried to load their wagons with sundry kegs and make for the Indian camp at the lower end of the bottom, and others after loading ran out on the Teton as fast as their horses could go. The Indians had hundreds and hundreds of prime buffalo robes, and they wanted whisky. They got it. By the time night closed in, the single street was full of them charging up and down on their pinto ponies, singing, yelling, recklessly firing their guns, and vociferously calling, so I was told, for more liquor. There was a brisk trade that night at the rear doors of the saloons. An Indian would pass in a good head and tail buffalo robe and receive for it two and even three bottles of liquor. He might just as well have walked boldly in at the front door and traded for it over the bar, I thought, but I learned that there was a United States marshal somewhere in the Territory, and that there was no telling when he would turn up.
In the brightly lighted saloons the tables were crowded by the resident and temporary population, playing stud and draw poker, and the more popular game of faro. I will say for the games as played in those wide open and lawless days that they were perfectly fair. Many and many a time I have seen the faro bank broken, cleaned out of its last dollar by lucky players. You never hear of that being done in the "Clubs," the exclusive gambling dens of today. The men who ran games on the frontier were satisfied with their legitimate percentage, and they did well. The professionals of today, be it in any town or city where gambling is prohibited, with marked cards, false-bottom faro boxes, and various other devices take the players' all.
I never gambled there; not that I was too good to do so, but somehow I never could see any fun in those games of chance. Fairly as they were conducted there was always more or less quarreling over them. Men a half or two-thirds full of liquor are prone to imagine things and do what they would recoil from when sober; and, if you take notice, you will find that, as a rule, those who gamble are generally pretty heavy drinkers. Somehow the two run together. The professional may drink also, but seldom when he is playing. That is why he wears broadcloth and diamonds and massive gold watch chains; he keeps cool and rakes in the drunken plunger's coin. In Keno Bill's place that evening I was looking on at a game of faro. One of those bucking it was a tall, rough, bewhiskered bull-whacker, full of whisky and quarrelsome, and he was steadily losing. He placed a blue chip, $2.50, on the nine spot, and coppered it; that is, he placed a small marker upon it to signify that it would lose; but when the card came it won, and the dealer flicked off the marker and took in the chip.
"Here, you," cried the bull-whacker. "What you doin'? Give me back that chip and another one with it. Don't you see that the nine won?"
"Of course it won," the dealer replied, "but you had your bet coppered."
"You're a liar!" shouted the bull-whacker, reaching for his revolver and starting to rise from his seat.
I saw the dealer raising his weapon, and at the same instant Berry, crying out, "Down! Down!" dragged me with him to the floor; everyone else in the room who could not immediately get out of the door also dropped prone to the floor, There were some shots, fired so quickly that one could not count them; then there was a short dense silence, broken by a gasping, gurgling groan. Men shuffled to their feet and hurried over to the smoke-enveloped comer. The bullwhacker, with three bullet holes in his bosom, lay back in the chair from which he had attempted to arise, quite dead; the faro dealer, white, but apparently calm, stood on the opposite side of the table stanching with his handkerchief the blood from the nasty furrow a bullet had plowed in his right cheek.
"Close call for you, Tom," said someone.
"He sure branded me," the dealer grimly replied.
"Who was he? What outfit was he with?" was asked.
"Don't know what his name was," said Keno Bill, "but I believe he rolled in with Missouri Jeff's bull-train. Let's pack him into the back room, boys, and I'll get word to his friends to come an' plant him."
This was done; the blood-stained chair was also removed, ashes were scattered on some dark spots staining the floor, and after all hands had taken a drink on the house the games were resumed. Berry and I strolled out of the place. I felt queer; rather shaky in the legs and sick at the stomach. I had never before seen a man killed; for that matter, I had never even seen two men in a fistfight. I could not forget that terrible death gurgle, nor the sight of the dead man's distorted face and staring eyes.
"Awful, wasn't it?" I remarked.
"Oh, I don't know," Berry replied, "the fish got what he was looking for; these bad men always do, sooner or later. He started first to pull his gun, but he was a little too slow."
"And what next?" I asked. "Will not the dealer be arrested? Will not we be subpoenaed as witnesses in the case?"
"Who will arrest him?" my friend queried in turn. "There are no police, nor officers of the law here of any description."
"Why - why, how, then, with so many desperate characters as you evidently have here, how do you manage to preserve any form of law and order?"
"Seven - eleven - seventy-seven," I mechanically repeated. "What is that?"
"That means the Vigilance Committee. You don't know exactly who they are, but you may be sure that they are representative men who stand for law and order; they are more feared by criminals than are the courts and prisons of the East, for they always hang a murderer or robber. Another thing; do not think that the men you saw sitting at the tables in Keno Bill's place are, as you termed them, desperate characters. True, they gamble some, and drink some, but on the whole they are honest, fearless, kind-hearted fellows, ready to stay with a friend to the end in a just cause, and to give their last dollar to one in need. But come, I see this little shooting affair has sort of unnerved you. I'll show you something a little more cheerful."
We went on up the street to a fair-sized adobe cabin. Through the open doors and windows came the strains of a violin and concertina, and the air was as lively a one as I ever had heard. Many and many a time I heard it in after years, that and its companion dance pieces, music that had crossed the seas in the ships of Louis XV and, taught by father to son for generations, by ear, had been played by the voyagers up the immense length of the Mississippi and & Missouri, to become at last the popular music of the American in the Far Northwest.
We arrived at the open doorway and looked in. "Hello, Berry; come in, old boy," and "Bon soir Monsieur Berri, bon soir; entrez! entrez!" some of the dancers shouted; we went in and took seats on a bench against the wall. All of the females in the place were Indians, and for that matter they were the only women at that time in all Montana, barring a few white hurdy-gurdy girls at the mines of Helena and Virginia City, and of the latter the less said the better.
These Indian women, as I had remarked in the morning when I saw some of them on the levee, were comely, of good figure and height, and neatly dressed, even if they were corsetless and wore moccasins; far different indeed from the squat, broad, dark natives of the Eastern forests I had seen. And they were of much pride and dignity; that one could see at a glance. And yet they were what might be termed jolly, chattering and laughing like so many white women. That surprised me. I had read that Indians were a taciturn, a gloomy, silent people, seldom smiling, to say nothing of laughing and joking with the freedom and abandon of so many children.
"This," Berry told me, "is a traders and trappers' dance. The owner of the house is not at home, or I would introduce you to him. As to the others" - with a sweep of his hand - "they're too busy just now for any introduction ceremony. I can't introduce you to the women, for they do not speak English. However, you must dance with some of them."
"But, if they do not speak our language, how am I to ask them to dance with me?"
"You will walk up to one of them, the one you choose, and say: 'Kitak-stai pes-ka' - will you dance?"
I never was what you may call bashful or diffident. A quadrille had just ended. I boldly walked up to the nearest woman, repeating the words over and over that I might not forget them, bowed politely, and said, "Ki-tak-stai pes-ka?"
The woman laughed, nodded her head, replied, "Ah," which I later learned was yes, and extended her hand; I took it and led her to a place for another quadrille just forming. While we were waiting she spoke to me several times, but I could only shake my head and say, "I do not understand," whereupon she would laugh merrily and say a lot more in her language to her neighbor, another comely young woman, who would also laugh and look at me with amusement in her eyes. I began to feel embarrassed; I'm not sure that I did not blush.
The music struck up and I found that my partner was a light and graceful dancer. I forgot my embarrassmemt and enjoyed the quadrille, my strange partner, the strange music, and strange surroundings immensely And how those long-haired, buckskin-clad, moccasined plainsmen did caper and cut pigeon wings, and double shuffle, and leap and swing in the air! I wondered if I could ever, since that seemed to be the style, learn to do likewise. I determined to try it anyhow, but privately at first.
The quadrille ended, I started to lead my partner to a seat, but instead she led me over to Berry, who had also been dancing, and spoke rapidly to him for a moment.
"This," said he to me, "is Mrs. Sorrel Horse. (Her husband's Indian name.) She invites us to accompany her and her husband home and have a little feast."
Of course we accepted and, after a few more dances, departed. I had been introduced to Sorrel Horse. He was a very tall, slender man, sorrel-haired, sorrel-whiskered, blue eyed; a man, as I afterward learned, of extremely happy temperament under the most adverse conditions, a sincere and self-sacrificing friend to those he liked, but a terror to those who attempted to wrong him.
Sorrel Horse's home was a fine large Indian lodge of eighteen skins, set up beside his two canvas-covered wagons near the river's bank. His wife built a little fire, made some tea, and presently set before us the steaming beverage with some Dutch oven baked biscuits, broiled buffalo tongue, and stewed bull berries. We heartily enjoyed the meal, and I was especially taken with the luxurious comfort of the lodge; the soft buffalo robe couch upon which we sat, the sloping "low back rests at each end of it, the cheerful little fire in the center, the oddly shaped, fringed and painted parfleches in which Madam Sorrel Horse kept her provisions and her various belongings. It was all very new and very delightful to me, and when after a smoke and a chat, Sorrel Horse said: "You had better camp here for the night, boys, - " my happiness was complete. We went to sleep on the soft couch, covered with soft blankets and listening to the soft murmur of the river's current. This, my first day on the plains, had been, I thought, truly eventful.
According to arrangement, I joined Berry at the end of August, and prepared to accompany him on his winter's trading expedition. He offered me a share in the venture, but I was not yet ready to accept it; I wanted to be absolutely free and independent for a few months more to go and come as I chose, to hunt, to roam about with the Indians and study their ways.
We left Fort Benton early in September with the bull train, creeping slowly up the hill out of the bottom, and scarcely any faster over the level of the now brown and dry plains. Bulls are slow travelers, and these had a heavy load to haul. The quantity and weight of merchandise that could be stowed away in those old-time "prairie schooners" were astonishing. Berry's train now consisted of four eight-yoke teams, drawing twelve wagons in all, loaded with fifty thousand pounds of provisions, alcohol, whisky, and trade goods. There were four bull-whackers, a night-herder who drove the "cavayard" - extra bulls and some saddle horses - a cook, three men who were to build the cabins and help with the trade, with Berry and his wife, and me. Not a very strong party to venture out on the plains in those times, but we were well armed, and, hitched to one of the trail wagons was a six pound cannon, the mere sight or sound of which was calculated to strike terror to any hostiles.
Our destination was a point on the Marias River, some forty-five miles north of Fort Benton. Between that stream and the Missouri, and north of the Marias to the Sweetgrass Hills and beyond, the country was simply dark with buffalo, and, moreover, the Marias was a favorite stream with the Blackfeet for their winter encampments, for its wide and by no means deep valley was well timbered. In the shelter of the cottonwood groves their lodges were protected from the occasional north blizzards and there was an ample supply of fuel and fine grass for the horses. There were also great numbers of deer, elk, and mountain sheep in the valley and its breaks, and the skins of these animals were in constant demand; buckskin was largely used for the summer clothing and the footwear of the people.
September on the plains! It was the most perfect month of all the year in that region. The nights were cool, often frosty; but the days were warm, and the clear air was so sweet and bracing that one seemed never to get enough of it. Nor could one tire of the grand, the wondrous, extent of plain and mountains, stretching out, looming up in every direction. To the west were the dark Rockies, their sharp peaks standing out sharply against the pate blue sky; northward were the three buttes of the Sweetgrass Hills; eastward dimly loomed the Bear Paws; south, away across the Missouri, the pine-clad Highwood Mountains were in plain sight; and between all these, around, beyond them, was the brown and silent plain, dotted with peculiar flat-topped buttes, deeply seamed with stream valleys and their numerous coulees. Some men love the forest; the deep woods where lone lakes sparkle and dark streams flow slow and silent; and it is true that they have a charm of their own. But not for me, not for me. My choice is the illimitable plain with its distant mountains, its lone buttes, its canyons fantastically rock-walled, its lovely valleys beckoning one to the shelter of shady groves by the side of limpid streams. In the forest one is ever confined to a view of a few yards or rods round about; but on the plains - often I used to climb to the top of a butte, or ridge, and sit by the hour gazing at the immense scope of country extending far, far to the level horizon in all directions except the west, where the Rockies rise so abruptly from the general level of the prairie, And how good one felt to see the buffalo, and the antelope, and the wolves, scattered everywhere about, feeding, resting, playing, roaming about, apparently in as great numbers as they had been centuries before. Little did any of us dream that they were all so soon to disappear.
We were nearly three days traveling the forty-five miles to our destination. We saw no Indians en route, nor any signs of them. On all sides the buffalo and antelope grazed quietly, and those in our path did not run far to one side before they stopped, and began to crop the short but nutritious grasses. We encamped the second night by a spying at the foot of the Goose Bill, a peculiarly shaped butte not far from the Marias. The wagons were drawn up in the form of a corral, as usual, and in the center of it our lodge was put up, a fine new one of sixteen skins. Berry and his wife, a couple of the men and I slept in it, the others making their beds in the wagons, on the merchandise.
We had a good supper, cooked over a fire of buffalo chips, and retired early. The night was very dark. Some time after midnight we were awakened by a heavy tramping in the corral; something crashed against a wagon on one side of us, and then against another one on the other side. The men in the wagons began to call out, asking one another what was up; Berry told us in the lodge to take our rifles and pile out. But before we could get out of bed something struck our lodge and over it went, the poles snapping and breaking, the lodge skin going on, careering about the corral as if it were endowed with life. In the intense darkness we could just see it, dancing round and round, a fiendish dance to a step of its own. At once all was excitement. Mrs. Berry shrieked; we men shouted to one another, and with one accord we all fled to the shelter of the wagons and hurriedly crept under them. Someone fired a shot at the gyrating lodge skin; Berry, who was beside me, followed suit, and then we all began to shoot, rifles cracking on all sides of the corral. For a minute, perhaps, the lodge skin whirled about, and dashed from one end of the corral to the other more madly than ever; and then it stopped and settled down upon the ground in a shapeless heap; from under it we heard several deep, rasping gasps, and then all was still. Berry and I crawled out, walked cautiously over to the dim, white heap and struck a match; and what did we see but the body of a huge buffalo bull, still almost completely enveloped in the now tattered and torn lodge covering. We could never understand how and why the old fellow wandered into the corral, nor why, when he charged the lodge, some of us were not trampled upon. Berry and his wife occupied the back side of the lodge, and he went right over them in his madness, apparently without even putting a hoof on their bed.
We arrived at the Marias about noon the next day, and went into camp on a finely timbered point. After dinner the men began to cut logs for the cabins, and Berry and I, mounting our horses, rode up the river in quest of meat. We had plenty of fat buffalo cow ribs on hand, but thought that a deer or elk would be good for a change. On our hunt that day we rode up to a point where the "Baker battle" afterward occurred. That is what it is called, "Baker's battle," and the place, "Baker's battlefield." But that was no battle; 'twas a dreadful massacre. The way of it was this: The Piegan Blackfeet had been waylaying miners on the trail between Fort Benton and the mines, and they had also killed a man named Malcolm Clark, an old employee of the American Fur Co., who was living with his Indian family near the Bird Tail Divide. This man Clark, by the way, was a man of fierce and ungovernable temper, and in a fit of anger bad severely beaten a young Piegan who was living with him and herding his horses. Now if you have anything against an Indian, never try to obtain satisfaction by beating him; either get your gun and kill him, or leave him alone, for if you strike him, blood alone will wipe out the disgrace, and sometime or other, when you are least expecting it, he will surely kill you. This is what happened to Clark. The young man got a passing war party to back him, and he murdered Clark. The War Department then concluded that it was time to put a stop to the Piegan depredations, and Colonel Baker, stationed at Fort Shaw, was ordered to seek Black Weasel's band and give them a lesson. It was January 23, 1870, at daylight, that the command arrived at the bluff overlooking a wooded bottom of the Marias, and there among the trees were pitched eighty lodges of the Piegans, not, however, Black Weasel's band; these were under Chief Bear's Head; but Colonel Baker did not know that Bear's Head's people were, in the main, friendly to the whites.
In a low tone Colonel Baker spoke a few words to his men, telling them to keep cool, aim to kill, to spare none of the enemy, and then he gave the command to fire. A terrible scene ensued. On the day previous many of the men of the camp had gone out toward the Sweetgrass Hills on a grand buffalo hunt, so, save for Chief Bear's Head and a few old men, none were there to return the soldiers' fire. Their first volley was aimed low down into the lodges, and many of the sleeping people were killed or wounded in their beds. The rest rushed out, men, children, women, many of the latter with babes in their arms, only to be shot down at the doorways of their lodges. Bear's Head, frantically waving a paper which bore testimony to his good character and friendliness to the white men, ran toward the command on the bluff, shouting to them to cease firing, entreating them to save the women and children; down he also went with several bullet holes in his body. Of the more than four hundred souls in camp at the time, very few escaped. And when it was all over, when the last wounded woman and child had been put out of misery, the soldiers piled the corpses on overturned lodges, firewood, and household property, and set fire to it all.
Several years afterward I was on the ground. Everywhere scattered about in the long grass and brush, just where the wolves and foxes had left them, gleamed the skulls and bones of those who had been so ruthlessly slaughtered. "How could they have done it?" I asked myself, time and time again. "What manner of men were those soldiers who deliberately shot down defenseless women and children?" They had not even the excuse of being drunk; nor was their commanding officer intoxicated; nor were they excited, or in any danger whatever. Deliberately, coolly, with steady and deadly aim, they shot them down, killed the wounded, and then tried to burn the bodies of their victims. But I will say no more about it; think it over yourself and try to find a fit name for men who did this.
On our way up the river we saw many doe and fawn deer, a bunch of cow and calf elk, but not a buck nor bull of either species. On our way homeward, however, along toward sunset, the male deer were coming in from the breaks and coulees to water, and we got a large, fat, buck mule deer. Madame Berry hung a whole forequarter of it over the lodge fire, and there it turned and slowly roasted for hours; about 11 o'clock she pronounced it done, and although we had eaten heartily at dusk, we could not resist cutting into it, and it was so good that in a short time nothing was left of the feast but the bones. I know of no way of roasting meat equal to this. You must have a lodge - to prevent drafts - a small fire; suspend the roast from a tripod above the blaze, and as it cooks give it an occasional twirl; hours are required to thoroughly roast it, but the result more than repays the labor involved.
The men soon cut and dragged out the required logs, put up the walls of our "fort," and laid on the roof of poles, which was covered with a thick layer of earth. When finished, it formed three sides of a square and contained eight rooms, each about sixteen feet square. There was a trade room, two living rooms, each of which had a rude but serviceable fireplace and chimney, built of mud-mortared stones. The other rooms were for storing merchandise and furs and robes. In the partitions of the trade room were numerous small holes, through which rifles could be thrust; at the back end of the square stood the six-pounder. With all these precautions for defense and offense, it was thought that even the most reckless party of braves would think twice before making an attack upon the traders. But, of course, liquor was to be the staple article of trade, and even the most experienced man could never foretell what a crowd of drink-crazed Indians would do.
The fort was barely completed when the Piegan Blackfeet arrived, and pitched their lodges in a long, wide bottom about a mile below us. I passed the greater part of my time down in their camp with a young married man named Weasel Tail and another who bore a singular name: Talks-with-the-buffalo. These two were inseparable companions, and somehow they took a great liking to me, and I to them. Each one had a fine new lodge, and a pretty young wife. I said to them once: "Since you think so much of each other, I do not understand why you do not live together in one lodge. It would save much packing, much wear of horses when traveling, much labor of gathering firewood, of setting up and breaking camp."
Talks-with-the-buffalo laughed heartily. "It is easy to see," he replied, "that you have never been married. Know this, my good friend: Two men will live together in quiet and lasting friendship, but two women never; they will be quarreling about nothing in less than three nights, and will even try to drag their husbands into the row. That is the reason we live separately, to be at peace with our wives. As it is, they love each other, even as my friend here and I love each other, and thus, for the good of us all, we have two lodges, two fires, two pack outfits, and enduring peace."
Thinking the matter over, I realized that they were right. I knew two sisters once, white women but that is another story. And after I married, and my wife and I took up our home with a friend and his wife for a time but that is still another story, Oh, yes, the Indian knew whereof he spoke; neither white nor Indian married women can manage a common household in peace and friendship!
I enjoyed myself hugely in that great camp of seven hundred lodges - some thirty-five hundred people. I learned to gamble with the wheel and arrows, and with the bit of bone concealed in one or the other of the player's hands, and I even mastered the gambling song, which is sung when the latter game is being played around the evening lodge fire. Also, I attended the dances, and even participated in the one that was called "As-sin-ah-pes-ka" - Assiniboin dance. Remember that I was less than twenty years of age, just a boy, but perhaps more foolish - more reckless than most youths.
In this Assiniboin dance, only young unmarried men and women participate. Their elders, their parents and relatives, beat the drums and sing the dance song, which is certainly a lively one, and of rather an abandoned nature. The women sit on one side of the lodge, the men on the other and the song begins, everyone joining in. The dancers arise, facing each other, rising on their tiptoes, and then sinking so as to bend the knees. Thus they advance and meet, then retreat, again advance and retreat a number of times, all singing, all smiling and looking coquettishly into each others' eyes. Thus the dance continues, perhaps for several hours, with frequent pauses for rest, or maybe to feast and smoke, But all the fun comes in toward the close of the festivities; the lines of men and women have advanced; suddenly a girl raises her robe or toga, casts it over her own and the head of the youth of her choice, and gives him a hearty kiss. The spectators shout with laughter, the drums are beaten louder than ever, the song increases in intensity. The lines retreat, the favored youth looking very much embarrassed, and all take their seats. For this kiss payment must be made on the morrow. If the young man thinks a great deal of the girl, he may present her with one or two horses; he must give her something, if only a copper bracelet or string of beads. I believe that I was an "easy mark" for those lively and, I fear, mercenary maidens, for I was captured with the toga, and kissed more often than anyone else. And the next morning there would be three or four of them at the trading post with their mothers; and one must have numerous yards of bright prints, another some red trade cloth and beads, still another a blanket. They broke me, but still I would join in when another dance was given.
But if I danced, and gambled, and raced horses, my life in the camp was by no means a continual round of foolishness. I spent hours and hours with the medicine men and old warriors, learning their beliefs and traditions, listening to their stories of the gods, their tales of war and the hunt. Also I attended the various religious ceremonies, listened to the pathetic appeals of the medicine men to the Sun as they prayed for health, long life, and happiness for the people. It was all exceedingly interesting.
Alas! Why could not this simple life have continued? Why must the railroads, and the swarms of settlers have invaded that wonderful land, and robbed its lords of all that made life worth living? They knew not care, nor hunger, nor want of any kind. From my window here I hear the roar of the great city, and see the crowds hurrying by. The day is bitterly cold, yet the majority of the passersby, women as well as men, are thinly clad, and their faces are thin, and their eyes express sad thoughts. Many of them have no warm shelter from the storm, know not where they can get a little food, although they would gladly work for it with all their strength. They are "bound to the wheel," and there is no escape from it except by death. And this is civilization! I, for one, maintain that there is no satisfaction, no happiness in it. The Indians of the plains back in those days of which I write alone knew what was perfect content and happiness, and that, we are told, is the chief end and aim of men - to be free from want, and worry, and care. Civilization will never furnish it, except to the very, very few.
I found that there is much to be learned from the author's descriptions and first-hand accounts of life in the vast lands known today as Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. I was amazed, and even slightly skeptical, that the book was in fact written over a century ago. The literary styling of Mr. Schultz is enjoyably timeless.
I will point out however - as somewhat of a cautionary note - that the author, while wholly sentimental and eloquent in this gracious sharing of past experiences, seemingly never completely grasps the connections between some his own past trading practices and the demise of that same way of life he so longingly yearns for. There were doubtless many complex factors involved in the senseless destruction of America's existing cultures and species prior to, during, and after the years described here (late 1800's). The author's ongoing trade of liquor and other consumer items for absurd amounts of animal hide, no matter how damaging they were in concept and practice, in retrospect should probably be categorized - in my opinion - as just one of the many, many aggravatingly destructive pieces within a very large, grotesque puzzle.
Nonetheless, I admit that for me as a reader, complete empathy for the tragedy of his tale was sometimes hindered by this seeming inability of the author to acknowledge personal culpablility. Then again, I suppose that most of us today - in some regard - are often guilty of this very same blindness. In a valuable and necessary way, this personal similarity likely added to the immense sorrow I felt at the completion of the reading.
In reality, such an introspective man as Mr. Schultz very likely, at some points in his long life, struggled with loads of inner guilt for past decisions. And regardless of all I've said above, this romantic story is obviously written by a sincerely compassionate, intelligent man who witnessed a lifestyle of which many today - myself included - often dream.
I highly recommend this book.
I hope it will be as valuable to your own personal development as it has been to mine.