Military history


Captivity Among the Indians

The nomadic Indians of North America must be counted among the most warlike peoples the world has known. Others — the Mongols, the Pathans, the Turks, the Zulus — terrified their enemies by their contempt for human life, including the preservation of their own in the heat of battle. Native Americans brought to warriordom, however, an element of fearlessness found in scarcely any other culture, a sense of obligation to participate in the most horrific cruelty that could be inflicted on an individual if he fell into enemy hands. The European code of military honour demands that the soldier risk his all in combat; the distinction he thereby wins is held to entitle him to a dignified immunity from further danger should he become a captive. Native Americans thought otherwise. The warrior’s ordeal had only truly begun when he became a defenceless prisoner. It was then, under torture and promise of unavoidable death, that he began to show his quality. The ritual torment of captives was as central to native American warfare as the preliminary war dance. Both were religious in essence.

The intensification of inter-tribal warfare owed much, nevertheless, to European influence. Before the coming of the Spanish from the south and the English from the north, the tribes of the Great Plains were too immobile and poorly armed for their disputes to lead to bloodletting of any bitterness. The acquisition of the horse from the Spanish in the sixteenth century and of firearms from the English in the eighteenth dramatically enhanced their ability to travel rapidly as raiders and to do damage when they met their enemies. When the separate processes of diffusion of the horse and of gunpowder weapons overlapped, as they did west of the Mississippi at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a new and vicious style of Indian warmaking was born. Mounted Indians with guns were to present the white American immigrants moving westward across the Mississippi — Missouri Line after 1849 with the most important impediment to settlement. Already, however, the horse and the gun had transformed the character of warfare between Plains Indians themselves. John Hunter, a white American taken captive by Plains Indians, who spared his life as was occasionally their custom, and who lived a tribal life for several years, describes the horse-and-gun culture of his captors.


The mode of life peculiar to the Indians exposes them to the optional encroachment of all their hostile neighbours. For their security they are therefore indebted to personal bravery, and skill in attack and defence; because, in their active warlike operations, they obey only general instructions; each warrior accommodating his manoeuvres according to his own judgment on the exigency of the occasion. Hence, the cultivation of martial habits and taste becomes essential, and constitutes the chief employment of every individual in their respective communities, first, of the squaws and old men, in relation to precept, and then of the warriors, in respect to example.

Under such guidance, the love of war becomes almost a natural propensity. Besides, they are taught to believe that their happiness here and hereafter is made to depend on their warlike achievements; and daily example confirms it as a fact, so far as the indulgence of their affections is concerned; for the females, both young and old, affect to despise the Indian who openly becomes the lover, without the authority of having acquired distinction either in the chase, or in fighting against the enemies of his country.

It is not, therefore, extraordinary that they should love war, since so many and important results are believed to depend on their success in it: their happiness, their standing in society, and their sexual relations, make it necessary that they should excel, or at least strive to, in whatever is connected with their mode of existence. Hence, they court opportunities for self-distinction, and, in fact, when wanting, often make them, in opposition to justice, and the welfare of their nation; and the indulgence of this disposition is one of the principal causes of the frequency of war among the Indian nations.

They regard their hunting grounds as their birthright; defend them with the most determined bravery; and never yield them till forced by superior numbers, and the adverse fate of war. They are exceedingly tenacious of their rights, and chastise the slightest infringement. Hence, they are almost constantly engaged in warfare with some of their neighbours.

Their instruments of war were formerly the scalping-knife and tomahawk, formed from flinty rocks, the bow and arrow, the war-club, and javelin or spear; and, among some tribes, shields made of several folds of buffalo skin. Latterly those have been pretty generally superseded by the rifle, and steel tomahawk and scalping-knife, procured from the traders.

When a sufficient cause for war is thought to exist, it becomes the subject of private conversation, till the opinions of the warriors are pretty well understood; a council is then convened, and it undergoes a thorough discussion. If determined on conditionally, the offending tribe is made acquainted with all the circumstances; otherwise, they generally keep the affair secret, at least so far as respects the subject of their hostility. On some occasions, when the chiefs from prudential motives think it advisable not to go to war, and omit to convene a council to try the question, the discontent of the warriors reminds them of their duty. They discover it by planting painted posts, blazing trees, ornamenting their persons with black feathers, and omitting to paint, or painting their faces after the manner practised in war. These symptoms are discoverable among the young and uninfluential warriors; but they nevertheless produce the intended effect and lead to a formal expression of the public feelings.

On adjournment of the council, the warriors repair to their respective homes, and, having painted their necks red, and their faces in red and black stripes, they reassemble at some place previously fixed on, and discover their hostile intentions in the dances and songs that follow. They next prepare their arms, and provide the munitions for war; and then follow the ceremonials of fasts, ablutions, anointings, and prayers to the Great Spirit, to crown their undertaking with success. They take drastic cathartics, bathe repeatedly, and finally anoint themselves with bears’ grease, in which yellow root has been steeped. They abstain from sexual intercourse, eat sparingly from their military provisions, and take freely of the Kutche-nau, a plant which operates on the human system something like opium, without producing the same comatose effects. They then perform the war dance, which is not less appropriate to this occasion than are all their festive ones to the events for which they have been adapted. Whole days are sometimes spent in making preparations for it. Robes, stumps, posts, &c. are painted red or black; every movement and appearance bespeaks the interest and solemnity that are diffused through the tribe.

The warriors, arrayed in their military habiliments, at a proper signal, assemble and commence the dance. It consists in imitating all the feats of real warfare, accompanied with the alternate shouts of victory, and yells of defeat. In short, they perform every thing which is calculated to inspire confidence in themselves, and to infuse terror into their enemies. They are celebrated only at the dawn of a campaign. After this dance, they commence their march to the cadence of the shouts, songs, and prayers of the old men, women, and children, who usually attend them a short distance on their way.

Their equipments and stores amount merely to indispensables, which consist of their arms, buffalo suet, bears’ oil, parched corn, anise and wild liquorice roots - and pipes and tobacco.

Their progress differs according to the make of the country, the prevalence of woods, or hiding-places, &c., through which they have to pass. It sometimes amounts to fifty or sixty miles in a day; but usually to about thirty or forty. This difference arises in general from the circumstance whether they are the pursuers or pursued. They use great precaution in travelling so as not to leave traces for their enemies to follow them. They march by families, or small parties separated from each other, within hearing distance, in single file; and step high and light.

They make various kinds of whoops, by which they communicate intelligence one to another, to any distance within hearing; such as those of war, which are to encourage their own adherents, and intimidate their foes; those of alarm, which advise secrecy or flight, as the exigency may require; those of the chase, &c. They imitate the barking of the fox, the cry of the hawk, or the howl of the wolf; at short intervals of time, so as to maintain their regular distances, and give each other notice in case of danger. These imitations are varied, and accommodated to circumstances previously agreed on, and are as well understood as the telegraphic signals practised among civilized nations.

When arrived within the neighbourhood of their enemies, a whispering council is held, which is constituted of the principal and subordinate chiefs, and their deliberations are guarded by sentinels, secreted at convenient distances, to prevent a surprise. They then separate and remain hidden, till intelligence from their spies authorizes an attack.

Their modes of fighting vary according to circumstances.

They generally aim at surprising their enemies, and, with such views, secrete themselves and wait patiently, for many days together, for an opportunity. During such times they neither visit nor converse with each other, but lie the whole time, without varying their position more than they can possibly help.

They are implacable in their enmities, and will undergo privations that threaten their own existence, and even rush on certain death, to obtain revenge; but they are grateful for benefits received, and ardent and unchangeable in their friendship. When battle rages, and death is in every aim, the Indian, at the risk of his own life, will save his friend, though arrayed against him in the combat.

Shin-ga-was-sa, while young, visited the Kansas during a hunting excursion. The wife of a distinguished warrior paid him some attentions without the approbation of her husband, which resulted in her repudiation, and threatened the existence of her gallant. Pa-ton-seeh, a young Kansas, secretly interfered, and Shin-ga-was-sa made his escape, without coming in collision with his justly irritated foe. Many years afterwards, the Grand Osages and Kansas were involved in war: a battle followed, in which an Osage had shot down Pa-ton-seeh, and was in the very act of taking his scalp, when Shin-ga-was-sa arrested his hand, and preserved his friend.

In another instance, a Pawnee, who had rendered himself an object of public resentment to the Kansas, and was about to expiate his offences by suffering torture, was, to the astonishment of the whole tribe, preserved by the daring intrepidity of his friend. The circumstance was as follows: The Pawnee had on some former occasion laid his preserver under particular obligations, by an act of which I am now ignorant. In return for it, Sha-won-ga-seeh, the moment he knew of the captivity of his friend, intrigued with the young warriors, who, with some of his friends, interrupted the ceremonials that had been authorized by a national council; cut the bonds of the prisoner: mounted him on a fleet horse, and commanded him to fly for his life.

This daring Kansas had previously so disposed of their horses, that pursuit was out of the question; and the boldness of the measure so completely paralyzed the volition of the Indians, that a single effort was not made to arrest its success. The excitement produced by this affair at first threatened tragic consequences: but Sha-won-ga-seeh’s friends rallied to his defence; an explanation ensued, and he finally was much commended for an act that might have cost him his life, without the propitiation demanded for murder on all other occasions.

I could relate many circumstances of a similar nature, which would place this trait in their character beyond all doubt; but the limits prescribed to my work will not authorize it.

In taking a scalp, they seize the tuft of hair left for the purpose on the crown of the head in the left hand, and, raising the head a little from the ground, with one cut of the scalping-knife, which is held in their right hand, they separate the skin from the skull.

During an engagement quarters are very seldom asked or given; but should a combatant throw down his arms, his life is spared, and he is placed in charge of those who are entrusted with the wounded. When it is over, the prisoners are all assembled, and marched to the villages of the captors, either slow or fast, according as they apprehend danger from pursuit: should this, however, be pressing, they destroy all, sparing neither the aged, women, nor children.

When arrived within hearing distance of their homes, the warriors set up the shout of victory, and after a short pause utter as many distinct whoops as they have taken prisoners and scalps. At this signal all the inhabitants tumultuously proceed to meet them, and, after the first greetings and salutations are over, commence an attack, with clubs, switches, and missiles, on the captive warriors. The women are exceedingly barbarous on such occasions, particularly if they have lost their husbands, or any near relatives, in the preceding fight.

Every village has a post planted near the council lodge, which is uniformly painted red, on the breaking out of a war. It is the prisoner’s place of refuge. On arriving within a short distance of it, the women and children, armed as above, and sometimes even with firebrands, place themselves in two ranks, between which the warriors, one by one, are forced to pass: it is in general a flight for life; though some, who are sensible of the fate that awaits them, should they survive, move slowly, and perish by the way. Those who reach it are afterwards treated kindly, and permitted to enjoy uninterrupted repose, under the charge of relief guards, until a general council finally determines their fate. The women and children are at once adopted into the respective families of the captors, or some of their friends.

Such warriors as are exempted from their vengeance, generally marry among them, and constitute members of their community. They, however, have it in their power to return to their relatives and nation whenever a peace has been concluded; but, as such conduct would be esteemed ungrateful, instances of the kind very seldom occur. Those who are condemned to death, suffer with great magnanimity the most cruel tortures which revenge can invent. They are generally bound hand and foot, sometimes together, and at others to separate posts or trees, and burned with small pieces of touchwood; pierced with goads, and whipped with briars or spinous shrubs, at different intervals, so as to protract the periods of their tortures.

These victims to a mistaken policy, during their sufferings, recount, in an audible and manly voice, and generally with vehement eloquence, all their valorous deeds of former times, and particularly those which they have performed against their persecutors. They contrast the bravery of their own people with the squaw-like conduct of their enemies: they say that they have done their duty; that the fortune of war happened to be against them; and that they are only hastened into more delightful hunting grounds than those they possess here, by squaws who are incapable of appreciating the merits of brave warriors.

They speak of their own deaths as a matter of no consequence; their nation will not miss them; they have many fearless warriors, who will not fail to revenge their wrongs.

As they grow feeble from suffering, they sing their death songs, and finally expire, without discovering the slightest indication of the pains they endure. Indeed nothing can exceed the indifference with which the Indians apparently suffer the tortures and protracted deaths, inflicted on them by their relentless and unfeeling foes.

In these executions the prisoners often make use of the most provoking language, with a view, no doubt, to shorten the period of their tortures; and they generally succeed; for the outraged party, unable to resist the desire of revenge, despatch them at once with the tomahawk, or some other deadly weapon.

I have known an instance, and others have occurred, in which a female had the temerity to risk the public resentment, by interfering in behalf of the captive. It was at the Kansas village. The subject was a young Maha, who had rendered himself particularly odious, from having taken the scalp of one of their distinguished warriors. He had been bound, and his tormentors had just commenced their dances, and fiend-like yells as the prelude to his destruction, when Shu-ja-he-min-keh, a beautiful girl of eighteen, and daughter of one of their chiefs, abandoned her countrywomen, and, as it were, her country, clasped the destined victim in her arms, implored his life, and would not be separated till her prayers were granted.

Attempts of this kind are not, however, always successful, the Indians being governed somewhat by the number of those condemned, and by the respective standings, and character of the supplicants.

The sufferers, in these instances, believe that to die courageously will entitle them to the particular favour and protection of the Great Spirit, and introduce them into the councils and society of the brave and good, in the delightful regions of perpetual spring and plenty, where, under a cloudless sky, they are destined to enjoy with heightened zest the consciousness of this life unalloyed by its anxieties, pains, and afflictions.

With the Indians, the passion of revenge ceases with its object; and these tragic scenes close with the burial of their victims, which are universally respectful, and attended with very nearly the same exterior ceremonials that are observed in the interment of their own dead; especially if their conduct at the closing scene had been brave and consistent.

In their campaigns, the Indians are always accompanied by some who officiate, when necessary, in the character of surgeons and physicians, but who ordinarily perform the warrior’s duty. They do not, however, attend to the wounded till the battle is over, unless they should be in imminent danger, or it should prove of long duration, and the number of sufferers or prisoners becomes considerable. In such cases they become non-combatants, and perform the two-fold duty of surgeons and guards. I shall omit the description of their surgical operations for another occasion. The wounded are borne off on litters to some place of safety: in cases of retreat they are sometimes abandoned; but, in general, they are kept in the advance, and defended with the most obstinate bravery and resolution. They observe the same pertinacious courage in regard to their dead; though, when obliged to abandon them, they do not, if they can possibly avoid it, permit their scalps to fall into the possession of their enemies, and always return and collect their bones, as soon as they can do it with safety. When at a great distance from home, they inter their dead temporarily, but always return, when the proper period has arrived, for their skeletons, and pay them the same honours as though they were enveloped in their muscular integuments.

Nothing can exceed the joyous exultations of the old men, women and children, who have not lost relations, on the return of the warriors from successful warfare; while with those who have, the expression of grief is equally extravagant.

The afflicted associate themselves on the occasion, apart from the festive circles, and the duration of their grief is generally in the inverse ratio of this violence: it does not last long, and they soon join in the rejoicings, which are continued for several days. They are consummated by the scalp dance, in which the squaws bear the trophies, such as scalps, arms and apparel, won by their husbands from the enemy, by songs, the torture of their enemies, and finally by feasts. In the performance of the scalp dance, the squaw usually attaches all the scalps that are in her family to a pole; which she bears on the occasion. As they dance round the council lodge or fire, they alternately sing and recount the exploits that were achieved on their acquisition. The one who sings is for the time the principal, and all the others obsequiously follow her. The men and children join in the whoops and rejoicings. During these festivities, marks of favour are lavished, particularly by the squaws, on all such as have distinguished themselves. The most worthy are seated by the old men and chiefs; the women dance round them, decorate their persons with dresses ornamented with feathers, and porcupine quills stained of various colours; and crown them with wreaths of oak leaves, fantastically interwoven with flowers, beads, and shells.

The reception of the warriors from an unsuccessful expedition is different in the extreme, from the reverse of the circumstance. The mournings are general, and last for several days. The men are morose and gloomy, and only break silence in their prayers to the Great Spirit for support in the revenge they may dilate, or in imprecations denounced against their enemies. After the mournings are at an end, the women appear apprehensive and reserved, and do not generally renew their caresses for some time, unless invited to by the occurrence of more fortuitous events.

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