Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent - Caught Between the Worlds of the Indian and the White Manby David F. Halaas, Andrew E. Masich
This is the story of the amazing and uncommon life of George Bent-a "halfbreed" born to a prominent white trader and his Indian wife-whose lifetime spanned one of the most exciting epochs in our nation's history. Raised as a Cheyenne but educated in white schools, George Bent fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, became a Cheyenne warrior and survived the
This is the story of the amazing and uncommon life of George Bent-a "halfbreed" born to a prominent white trader and his Indian wife-whose lifetime spanned one of the most exciting epochs in our nation's history. Raised as a Cheyenne but educated in white schools, George Bent fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, became a Cheyenne warrior and survived the horrific 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, rode and killed for revenge with the ferocious Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, and later became a prominent interpreter and negotiator for whites and adviser to tribal leaders. He hobnobbed with frontier legends Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, and George Custer, and fought side-by-side with great Indian leaders. After a lifetime of adventures and misfortunes, accomplishments and failures, George Bent made a lasting contribution to the memory of his people by sharing with historians the story of the fighting Cheyennes.
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HalfbreedThe Remarkable True Story of George Bent--Caught Between the Worlds of the Indian and the White Man
By David Fridtjof Halaas
Da Capo PressCopyright © 2005 David Fridtjof Halaas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWORLDS APART
William Bent was one of eleven children of Silas Bent, a prominent and well-connected judge, and Martha Kerr, a highborn Virginian. The Bent farm sprawled on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River; a post-and-rail fence defined the property and prevented stray animals and roaming children from a precipitous descent into the roiling Mississippi waters. Towering oaks and sycamores shaded the rambling two-story frame house, and a barn and adjoining shed gave further evidence of the family's affluence. Here, at the gateway to the West, the Bent children heard the stories of great explorers such as Lewis and Clark, the first Americans to trek overland to the Pacific, and Zebulon Pike, who had recently ascended the Mississippi River itself. The children absorbed, too, the tales of the explorers' guides-Indians such as the legendary Shoshone woman Sacagawea, who took Lewis and Clark over the passes and into the great unknown.
Later, the boys read the advertisement in the St. Louis Missouri Republican calling for one hundred "enterprising young men" to fill William Henry Ashley's 1822 fur expedition to the distant reaches of the Missouri, a mysterious land said to be jealously guarded by Blackfeet Indians. Charles, the oldest of the Bent brothers and first to answer the call, trapped beaver in Sioux country as early as 1823 as a hired hand for the Missouri Fur Company. When the company reorganized two years later, twenty-five-year-old Charles earned full partnership, joining such veteran fur men as Lucien Fontennelle, William Vanderburgh, Andrew Drips, and Joshua Pilcher. In a few years, seventeen-year-old William joined him, while the younger brothers, George and Robert, tugged hard at the bonds that tied them to the family farm, eager to go west and share a trapper's life with their wandering brothers.
During the 1827-28 season, Charles and William experienced the exuberance and despair characteristic of the fur trade. The Missouri Fur Company trapping expedition, headed by Joshua Pilcher, started badly. In September the party of forty-five men had set out with high hopes from Council Bluffs, working up the Platte River. Disaster struck when the trappers reached the Wind River Mountains near the confluence of the Platte and the Sweetwater. As the men made their night camp, Crow warriors charged the horse herd, blankets waving, and captured all but a few of the one hundred riding horses and pack animals.
Pilcher ordered the men to cache the company's trade merchandise. These goods would be needed at the summer rendezvous on Bear Lake, 150 miles west over South Pass. The only hope now was to continue on toward the Green River, establish a winter camp, and persuade friendly Indians to sell them horses. With pack animals they could retrieve the cached merchandise and return in time to be competitive at the summer rendezvous.
But the winter was hard. The men worked the Green and its tributaries, finding precious few beaver. Most of their energies were expended in staying alive, building rude log and brush shelters, and hunting what game they could find. Charles and William saw firsthand that a mountain man's life was not all romantic adventure.
One of the partners acquired horses from the Shoshones and with a few of the company's men returned to the Sweetwater cache. Here they discovered that the merchandise, so carefully buried the previous fall, was wet and damaged. They salvaged what they could, carrying the rotted and mildewed goods over South Pass to link up with the rest of the company at the annual rendezvous.
Back on the Green, the Bents and their associates departed the dismal winter camp and made their way to Bear Lake, where they joined the great trade fair with its promise of fun and profit.
This was the second consecutive year that the mountain men had chosen Bear Lake as the rendezvous site. It furnished the requisite needs: grass and water, food and fuel. More than that, it was beautiful, even by mountain man standards. The rendezvous point hugged the south shore of the spectacularly blue waters, and as more of the mountaineers arrived, the gathering resembled a small village. At the lake's bank stood shelters fashioned of bulrushes; sweet pine smoke rose above the tipis, and even from a distance the scene pulsed with activity and excitement: foot and pony races, target shooting, gambling, unpacking of plews and trade goods, constant arrivals of newcomers-sometimes joyously punctuated by booming cannon fire-and the sounds of shouts and songs of hard men freely imbibing from jugs of hard liquor. The excitement continued into the night, different perhaps, but with the same recklessness.
But it was not an all-male gathering. Women were everywhere present, scraping hides, cooking, mending, and some next to their men fully participating in the camp's abandon. Children, too, ran about, unrestrained in their joy, for the rendezvous was the stuff of dreams. These youngsters were the sons and daughters of the fur trade, the progeny of European men and native women. They were the embodiment of the merging of races and cultures, and here they were in their glory, accepted for who they were, in a haven far from questioning worlds, both Indian and white.
Into this swirl of sights and sounds the Bents arrived with Pilcher's main band. The great names of the fur trade were already there. Jim Bridger, tall, sinewy, and tough, and already a legend, held court spinning gaudy yarns. Jim Beckwourth, the son of a Virginia planter and an African slave, his intimidating presence contrasting with his lively wit, regaled his own wide-eyed followers.
Some were not there, however-the indefatigable Jedediah Smith, up in Hudson's Bay country fighting hostile Umpquas; Tom Smith, recently peg-legged by Indians on the North Platte River; and Sylvestre Pratte, felled by disease in the great North Park of the Central Rocky Mountains. Even for the best of men, death in these mountains could come cruelly and without warning. Few were remembered, their graves unmarked and lost forever.
Thus the rendezvous, a reunion of survivors.
Right now the camp buzzed with the recent exploits of these indomitables. Just days before, Blackfeet warriors had attacked Bridger and Robert Campbell's thirty-one-man company six miles from the lake. Beckwourth and a companion named Calhoun chanced to be with the party. The fight turned ugly as more and more warriors appeared. Beckwourth wheeled his horse and turned back to assist a straggler, an old man who had shouted out, "Oh, God, I am wounded!" Beckwourth found an arrow "trembling" in the man's back. "I jerked it out, and gave his horse several blows to quicken his pace; but the poor old man reeled and fell from his steed, and the Indians were upon him in a moment to tear off his scalp." The besieged men were now dangerously low on powder and ball. Campbell called out for volunteers to ride for help. Though suffering from a head wound and his horse shot down, Beckwourth responded. Taking Calhoun with him, the mountain man rode through the Blackfeet warriors, quickly outdistancing his pursuers. He soon returned with sixteen well-armed men, others streaming behind-all with their blood up and spoiling for a fight. Hawken rifles cracked, driving the warriors from their cover, and soon the battle became a rout. Beckwourth claimed the mountaineers took seventeen scalps, while Campbell lost only four men killed and seven wounded.
That evening the rendezvous erupted in wild celebration. The camp's "halfbreeds and women" danced over the scalps, many of the mountain men joining in. The women and their mixed-blood children, said Beckwourth, treated the victors as heroes, "knowing that we had preserved them from a captivity to which death were preferable."
Meanwhile, Pilcher and the Bents anxiously awaited word of the Sweetwater party and the cached goods. At last an advance rider came in announcing the pack train's approach. The Bents joined the mad rush out of camp to see what goods remained, for news of the damaged cache had already swept the company. Reaching the party, the partners tore open the packs. What they saw assaulted their senses: rusted axes and trade muskets; molded tobacco, coffee, and spices; soaked gunpowder caked in damaged canisters; mildewed and blackened Hudson's Bay blankets, trade cloth, and yard goods. Nothing to trade now, the expedition-and the company-faced total ruin.
Back in camp, the partners confronted an uncertain future. The beleaguered company could claim only eighteen packs of beaver, a profound disappointment for nearly a year of hard work in icy streams and snowbound camps. Every day, the rendezvous' lively trade of goods and plews contrasted with their own poverty. There was nothing more to do except retreat back over South Pass and head down the familiar Sweetwater-Platte river route to Council Bluffs and St. Louis.
Bad luck dogged the brothers and their companions. Joined by the renowned William Sublette and his strong party of seventy-five veteran trappers, they should have expected better. Near Independence Rock in present-day Wyoming, a Crow war party shadowed the slow-moving pack train. As the fur men crossed the broad waters of the Platte, the warriors attacked, killing two trappers and wounding several others. The Crows also captured a large quantity of horses and furs.
Shortly thereafter, one of the company, Hiram Scott, fell ill and could ride no farther. While the rest of the party proceeded overland, two men were ordered to take Scott downriver in a bull-hide boat. They would join up where great bluffs rose above the river. But during the dangerous river descent, the boat overturned, and with weapons and food lost, the two guardians abandoned their charge and pushed on night and day until they overtook the company. The trappers, however, reasoned that their own dire straits-starving and exhausted men, jaded horses and pack animals, depleted lead and powder-made Scott's rescue impossible. Meanwhile, the forlorn man, feverish and alone, crawled sixty torturous miles to the rendezvous point, waiting for his comrades to return. The next year, Scott's bleached bones were discovered beneath the bluffs that would forever bear his name.
For the Bents it was a fitting end to a disastrous expedition.
When the buckskinned brothers limped into Council Bluffs with pockets and packs empty, more bad news awaited them. Their father, Silas, had died the winter before. Finally home in St. Louis, twenty-nine-year-old Charles considered the family's new circumstances. His two sisters were married, and brother John, a lawyer and state legislator, needed no help. Young Silas, age nine, would remain with his mother. But the other brothers, William, Robert, and George, struck by the Bent wanderlust, naturally turned to Charles for guidance.
The Bents had learned well the lessons of their recent mountain ordeal. Trapping the high country dominated by the great British and American fur companies was at best chancy and certainly dangerous. They would never forget the ruthless and ruinous competition, hostile Indians, hard winters, and punishing treks across vast distances.
Most of all they questioned the inner workings and process of the fur trade itself. Trappers labored at the end of a long economic chain that stretched from the icy beaver ponds of the Rocky Mountains to the bustling fur-trading centers of Santa Fe and St. Louis, from the sweaty hat factories of Cincinnati and Philadelphia to the capricious markets of New York and Boston, London and Paris, where fickle fashion governed demand. They had to buy traps and supplies at exorbitant prices and sell pelts and furs for paltry sums. To be sure, they traveled far and saw wondrous things-but their freedom was an illusion. The brothers now knew this life. There had to be a better way, one with less risk and greater profit. And so in the spring of 1829, forty miles from Westport, Missouri, at a place called Round Grove, Charles and William joined independent traders bound for Santa Fe. This season the traders were nervous. Hostile Indians, dry water holes, bandits, inept guides-all had brought financial loss the year before. Perhaps there was safety in numbers. Not seasoned trail bosses themselves, the merchants looked elsewhere for leadership. The name Bent came forward. David Waldo, a Santa Fe trader, thought Charles the right man and urged him to accept the train's captaincy. Bent's experience and solid character impressed the others, who elected him without a dissenting vote.
In June, the thirty-eight-wagon outfit rolled out of Round Grove, the great 775-mile journey before them. The merchants packed the wagons with an abundance of manufactured goods: domestic cottons, silks, calicoes, velvets, drillings, shirtings, black bottles, Galena lead, powder, patent medicines, cookware, everything an isolated frontier community needed. The traders expected to bring home a treasure in gold and silver, furs, mules, and raw wool.
Twenty-year-old William stood at his brother's side as the older Bent took command of this loose alliance of independent-minded traders, teamsters, and frontiersmen. A captain's responsibilities would challenge any man. Besides selecting campsites, settling disputes, and assigning daily duties, the captain must anticipate danger of any kind-and there was danger enough on the Santa Fe Trail.
A detachment of U.S. infantry under command of Major Bennett Riley, authorized by President Andrew Jackson himself, escorted the caravan. However, the soldiers pulled back when the train reached Chouteau's Island on the Arkansas River some four hundred miles out; they had strict orders not to cross the Mexican border. The island also marked the site where the merchants, besieged by Comanches the year before, had cached rawhide bags filled with Spanish silver.
Before taking leave of the troops, Captain Bent negotiated for the use of a few of the army's oxen, for he had noticed on the trip that these draft animals seemed to endure the trail's rigors and scarcity of water better than the mules. Oxen better than mules? It was an idea worth testing.
With their escort left behind, the merchants again expressed their fear. They saw phantom Indians lurking behind every sand hill and tumbleweed, and it was only through Bent's steady hand that the wagons moved at all. Suddenly, the traders' worst nightmare became frightening reality. Out of hidden ravines charged hundreds of Kiowa and Comanche warriors. They seemed to be everywhere. The traders panicked, reaching for their untested guns and fumbling with their priming horns, scarcely able to take aim. One of the merchants recalled the scene: "I saw Charles Bent charge alone and check fifty Indians that had killed one man and were in close pursuit of another. It was in this surprise that this heroic act occurred.
Excerpted from Halfbreed by David Fridtjof Halaas Copyright © 2005 by David Fridtjof Halaas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
David F. Halaas is the Director of Library & Archives of Pittsburgh’s Smithsonian-affiliated Senator John Heinz History Center and Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. Andrew E. Masich is the President of Library & Archives of Pittsburgh’s Smithsonian-affiliated Senator John Heinz History Center and Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
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