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Crazy Horse and Custer
The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors
By Stephen E. Ambrose
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Stephen E. Ambrose
All rights reserved.
The Setting and the People: The Great Plains
"As far as the eye could reach the country seemed blackened by innumerable herds [of buffalo]." Captain Benjamin Bonneville, 1832
"Indians are so excessively indolent and lazy, they would rather starve a week than work a day." James Mackay, 1835
The Great Plains of North America, on a cloudless day, stretch out forever under an infinity of bright blue sky. During the violence of a tornado or a snowstorm, however, the vision is limited to the length of an arm. The Plains can be hot, dusty, brown, flat, and unfit for life; they can be delightfully cool, abundantly watered, a dozen shades of green, marvelously varied in appearance, ranging from near mountains to level valleys, and hospitable to all forms of life.
The Plains can be a source of endless delight, or of misery, as well they might be, considering their extent. They stretch from the Mexican border north to and beyond the Canadian frontier, from the 100° meridian west to the Rocky Mountains. The Plains are relatively flat, semiarid, and essentially treeless. In the midnineteenth century they were unfenced, covered by an endless sea of prairie grass, grass that sent its roots down twenty-four inches or more to withstand the droughts and which offered some of the most nutritious plant food in the world. Innumerable small streams cut through the Plains; many of them were dry beds in summer and only a few would be dignified by names or used as reference points in a humid area, but every one carried a name and a legend on the Plains. Trees, mostly cottonwoods, grew along the stream beds, and there men and animals tended to congregate. Among the cottonwoods they found shade, a little water, and perhaps an escape from the sense of limitless space, with its constant reminder of the insignificance of mankind.
Men and animals also congregated in the tree groves to escape the weather. The weather. On the Plains it cannot be ignored. There is, first of all, the nearly constant need for rain. The average yearly rainfall is less than twenty inches, so every storm is welcome. Or rather nearly every storm, because at times the sky can open, dump five inches of rain in a matter of hours, fill the stream beds to overflowing, and flood the surrounding countryside. Spring and summer storms often touch off tornadoes, too, which level everything in their path, or they become hail storms, beating plants to the ground and destroying them. No one can do anything about the storms—those who live on the Plains must accept them.
They must also accept the wind, which blows harder, and more consistently, on the Plains than anywhere else on the continent, save at the seashore. And the average wind velocity on the Plains is equal to that on the seashore.
"Does the wind blow this way here all the time?" asked the eastern visitor.
"No, mister," answered the cowboy. "It'll maybe blow this way for a week or ten days, and then it'll take a change and blow like hell for a while."
There are all kinds of winds on the Plains, winds from every direction, sometimes it seems from every direction at once. A chinook can roar over the mountains in the early spring and change the weather in minutes. There is a recorded case in South Dakota that only a Plainsman could believe: within three minutes of the arrival of the chinook the temperature rose from ten degrees below zero to forty-two degrees above zero. In the winter, blizzards reverse the process—the Plains are replete with stories of men working in their barns on a bright, fairly warm midwinter day who did not see the blizzard coming and who then got lost and froze to death trying to find their way from the barn to the farmhouse. In the summer the wind is hot, dry, and mostly from the south. Sometimes it kicks up a dust storm, with winds reaching eighty miles per hour. It always blows.
Despite the excesses of the Plains weather, however, it is an invigorating climate for man and beast. Spring and fall are temperate and even in the summer the nights are usually delightfully cool. Most winter days are bracing, the sun bright on the snow and warm on the body, the cold clean air filling lungs and heart with the joy of life.
Across the immense oceanlike prairie, in the middle of the nineteenth century, animals abounded, healthy animals, possessing great vitality, nurtured as they were on the luxuriant Plains grass. The Plains squirrels, called prairie dogs, for example, were there in such numbers that, like much else on the Plains, they had to be seen to be believed. One observer estimated that in 1901 Texas alone had eight hundred million prairie dogs. Jack rabbits were nearly as numerous. Antelope and deer numbered in the millions, as did the wolves and coyotes, and there were thousands of elk, bear, and other game.
But most of all, there were buffalo. Enormous beasts—a full-grown bull weighed nearly a ton and a half—they looked a little like oversized cattle, except for the humps on their backs and their shaggy hair. They moved back and forth, up and down the Great Plains like nothing ever seen on this earth. Stupid, shortsighted, hard of hearing, slow of gait, clumsy in movement, the buffalo had only his sense of smell to warn him of danger—and that sense was of no use when a hunter approached from down wind.
The buffalo provided an apparently inexhaustible meat supply, unrivaled by anything else known to man before or since. The beasts bunched together in huge numbers, migrating over the Plains in search of fresh grass and water. In 1832, on a high bluff near the North Fork of the Platte River, Captain Benjamin Bonneville reported that "as far as the eye could reach the country seemed blackened by innumerable herds." In the spring of the next year an observer in the Platte Valley in Nebraska stopped on the rise of a hill, caught his breath, and saw "one enormous mass of buffaloes. Our vision, at the least computation, would certainly extend ten miles; and in the whole of this vast space, including about eight miles in width from the bluffs to the river bank, there apparently was no vista in the incalculable multitude." In northwestern Texas a pioneer saw a herd which he said covered fifty square miles. The Republican River herd in Kansas alone was estimated to contain more than twelve million buffalo. The total Great Plains herd may have contained more than seventy-five million head.
Here was meat for the taking, and not just meat either, for when proper use was made of the buffalo it provided nearly all the necessities of human life. Shelter and clothing could be made from the skin, while weapons, utensils, toys, and much else could be fashioned from the bones. Add the wild vegetables and fruits of the Plains, a few trees to provide lodge poles, and material for the bow and arrow, and the basic problems of sustaining human life were solved. The buffalo even provided fuel for the treeless prairie—dried buffalo droppings, called chips, fed the campfires of all those living on the Plains.
The buffalo was a magnet drawing men onto the Plains even before they had solved the problem of transportation across the vast spaces. Indeed, the first men in what is now the United States may have lived on the Plains; some ten thousand years ago men using Folsom points killed prehistoric buffalo in Colorado and Texas. Most Indians, however, passed over or around the Plains, for without the horse, men could not survive in great numbers on the prairie.
Over the centuries Indians did build civilizations on the Plains, but the small tribes stayed in the river bottoms, where they established permanent villages, raised vegetables, and only occasionally took advantage of the plentiful wild game on the upland. Tribes like the Mandan, Arikara, Omaha, and Osage sallied forth once or twice a year in pursuit of the buffalo, the entire village participating in an arduous collective hunt. They would try to surround a herd or drive it over a cliff or into a prepared impoundment. The stampeding buffalo created much danger for people, of course, but the chief difficulty seems to have been getting the heavy carcasses back to the village. For this job the Indians developed an ingenious device, the travois, pulled by a dog, their only domesticated animal. It was a simple affair, two sticks tied together behind the dog and to his shoulders at the front, providing a platform on which to load the meat and skins. But the dog's carrying capacity was limited, and for the most part these sedentary Indians relied on beans, squash, and corn for their food.
Then came the horse, introduced by the Spanish to the Americas and soon spread among the Indians. By 1690 the horse was in use among the tribes of the southern Plains; within less than a century it was in wide use as far north as the Canadian Plains.
These horses, or more properly ponies, were mainly pintos—called "piebalds" in England—the basic coloration being white on brown or bay, or brown or bay on white. How this color characteristic came to predominate among the ponies of the Plains is a mystery; there is a fascinating literature on the subject, a literature long on impassioned arguments and short on proven conclusions. There was at least one pinto among the first sixteen horses to set foot on the continent, brought by Hernando Cortes to Mexico in 1519. However it happened, the pinto gave the Indians great pleasure, so much so that when they acquired a gray or brown horse the first thing they did was to paint the skin. For all their admirable features, the Plains are drab, especially in late summer; the pintos added a splash of color that was highly welcome.
Pintos had more practical advantages over their larger cousins. Descended from wild herds, they could care for themselves, which was absolutely necessary, since the Plains Indians were notoriously neglectful of their herds. Small of stature—they stood about fourteen hands in height and the average weight was not much more than seven hundred pounds—large of head, with thin legs, the pintos had impressive endurance. Early white visitors on the Plains swore that Indians could gallop their ponies all day, turn them out at night, and then gallop them through the following day. The source of their endurance is as much a mystery as is the source of their color; the Canadian historian Frank Roe suggests that it came from the nutritive content of the prairie grass, which was higher in protein than tame grasses, possibly as a result of centuries of buffalo manuring of the prairie. Whatever the cause, it is certain that the Indian pony could run farther (although not faster), turn quicker, and take better care of himself than the white man's larger horse.
Indians had no great problems in learning how to train and ride ponies or in acquiring them. By the eighteenth century the wild herds were enormous, running into the millions, for the horse took to the Plains as readily as did the game animals. Left unchecked by fences or horse catchers, the wild horses might have equaled the buffalo in number, competing with the buffalo for grass. Aside from capturing feral stock, Indians got ponies via trade with other tribes or through theft.
As the horse came onto the Plains another white man's innovation, the gun, was forcing the hunting and gathering tribes of the Mississippi Valley westward. French and English fur traders, starting with the East Coast Indians, exchanged weapons for furs. The gun gave the eastern tribes great advantages over their western neighbors—its noise had a psychological effect; the bullet had more hitting power than the arrow; the range was greater. With the gun the eastern tribes drove their enemies westward. As the white fur traders penetrated farther into the interior of the continent the process was repeated. Most of the famous Plains tribes were pushed out onto the prairie by military defeats, the Crow, Arapaho, Black-foot, and Cheyenne among them. The last major tribe to arrive on the Plains was the Sioux; trekking out of the woods of Minnesota, their ancient enemy the Chippewa at their heels, the Sioux did not cross the Missouri River or acquire the horse in any great numbers until 1776, the year of American Independence.
With the horse and the gun, the Plains Indians set up the most effective barrier the Europeans met in their drive to settle the continent. As Walter Webb reminds us, "for two and a half centuries [the Plains Indians] maintained themselves with great fortitude against the Spanish, English, French, Mexican, Texas, and American invaders, withstanding missionaries, whiskey, disease, gunpowder, and lead." None resisted more fiercely than the Sioux, the only Indian nation to defeat the United States in war and force it to sign a peace treaty favorable to the red man.
The Sioux, a large tribe with many divisions, came onto the Plains at an ideal time. First of all, the horse was there in abundant numbers. Second, the vast region of the high Plains, teeming with buffalo, was up for grabs. The Mandans and the Arikaras, who with their fortified villages along the river valleys had held back the flow of eastern Indians onto the Plains, had been decimated by three or more great epidemics of smallpox. Third, the Teton Dakota branch of the Sioux, consisting of the Blackfeet, Brulé, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Sans Arcs (also called No Bows), Two-Kettle, and Oglala tribes, came in far greater numbers than the possessors of the prime buffalo range. Finally, the Sioux tribes acted more or less in concert, while the Crow, Cheyenne, Pawnee, and other tribes could not or would not combine their forces for defensive purposes. By 1800 the Sioux had acquired more than enough horses to take control of a vast region stretching from the Missouri River on the east and north to the Black Hills on the west, to the Platte River on the south.
The horse gave the Sioux a previously undreamed of mobility. With their pintos they were vastly superior hunters and warriors than they had been on foot. They could now strike quickly and get away fast. They stole ponies constantly from their neighbors, as their neighbors did from them. Indeed, most war parties went out for the sole purpose of stealing horses.
The horse gave the Sioux personal property and became the medium of exchange and the measure of wealth. In the nature of things, nomads have few material possessions. Property was for use, not for accumulation. Without the horse, there were almost no distinctions between individuals within a village; with the horse there was an easily recognizable distinction. Still, the Sioux did not succumb to the development of hereditary classes, nor did they divide themselves into the rich and powerful on one side, the poor and weak on the other. Rather, they brought an egalitarian philosophy onto the Plains with them. Societal pressure and economic necessity forced the temporarily rich man to give away his possessions—i.e., his extra ponies—in order to block the growth of a privileged class and to make certain that every able-bodied man had a horse for the communal hunt or for war. The sanctity of private property could go only so far in a society that required every man to have a horse for the buffalo hunt or to defend the village. Successful horse thieves, then, did not become rich in horses, though they did grow rich in prestige.
The Sioux had no individuals who were wealthy, but as a tribe they were, in effect, rolling in money. With one successful buffalo hunt in the spring and another in the fall they could supply nearly all their needs. Their diet was superb. Buffalo muscle was an excellent source of protein (and it tasted better than beef, according to whites on the frontier who ate both), while the beast's vital parts supplied vitamins and minerals in abundance. Cut into thin strips and dried in the hot Plains sun, its meat was relatively easy to store. Indian women would gather cherries and other wild fruit to pound into the dried meat, thus making pemmican which was almost a complete diet in itself. There were no cases of scurvy among Plains Indians at a time when it was a common complaint among European sailors, even though the Indians lived in an area that was devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables from October until May.
The fur traders and trappers, French and English, followed the Indians out onto the prairie. Working for such giant outfits as the American Fur Company, they lived among the tribes, often married Indian women, learned the language, and did all they could to get the Indians to trap or shoot fur-bearing animals, especially the beaver that filled the streams. To these men the main problem with the Plains Indians was that they were too rich. Because of their affluence, they would not work. The Indians exhibited an independence—like "the air they breathed or the wind that blew," according to one trader—that was the despair of the white man, who tried to create in them wants that could be satisfied only through the fur trade. Without much luck, however, because the Indians were terribly lazy, or so it appeared to the white men on the make. One trader, James Adair, referred to the red men as "great enemies to profuse sweating" and insisted that an Indian hurried "only when the devil is at his arse." James Mackay, a Scottish explorer, thought the Plains Indians "so excessively indolent and lazy" that they "would rather starve a week than work a day."
Excerpted from Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen E. Ambrose. Copyright © 2014 Stephen E. Ambrose. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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