What really happened in the early days of our nation? How was it possible for white settlers to march across the entire continent, inexorably claiming Native American lands for themselves? Who made it happen, and why? This gripping book tells America’s story from a new perspective, chronicling the adventures of our forefathers and showing how a legacy of repeated betrayals became the bedrock on which the republic was built.
Paul VanDevelder takes as his focal point the epic federal treaty ratified in 1851 at Horse Creek, formally recognizing perpetual ownership by a dozen Native American tribes of 1.1 million square miles of the American West. The astonishing and shameful story of this broken treaty—one of 371 Indian treaties signed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—reveals a pattern of fraudulent government behavior that again and again displaced Native Americans from their lands. VanDevelder describes the path that led to the genocide of the American Indian; those who participated in it, from cowboys and common folk to aristocrats and presidents; and how the history of the immoral treatment of Indians through the twentieth century has profound social, economic, and political implications for America even today.
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About the Author
Paul VanDevelder is a journalist and author. His book Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.
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Savages And ScoundrelsThe Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory
By Paul VanDevelder
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2009 Paul VanDevelder
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRedeeming Eden
When morning broke bright and clear across the northern high plains, shot through with angular streamers of sunlight that ignited the greening crowns of cottonwoods along the big river and lit the wall beside her bed, nothing about the sound of the honkers feeding in the grain fields, or the yipping howls of the little wolves in the gooseberry creek bottom, keened for Louise Holding Eagle the last day of the world.
It was a frosty morning in late May 1951, just a few days after she and her husband, Matthew, and their two children, celebrated her twenty-first birthday with chocolate cake and homemade ice cream. She wore her birthday present, a new flannel robe, when she stepped into the chilly air to hunt for eggs in the chicken coop. Finding six, she gathered her skirt into a basket and collected the eggs carefully, one by one, then dashed back to the warmth of the kitchen to make coffee and breakfast. "I don't know what we would have eaten if it hadn't been for those eggs," she says half a century later, her eyes vivid with memory. "We always called the late spring the starving time. My birthday was a month away fromdiggin' prairie turnips, and a month from pickin' Juneberries. We were always hungry on my birthday."
Like many of their childhood friends who grew up in the semi-isolation of western ranch and farm country, Louise and her husband Matthew were born and raised just a few miles apart, but they didn't meet until high school. After a few awkward dates they started holding hands in public, eventually kissed at a school dance, and fell in love. Between football games and rodeos, school work, and the endless farm chores of branding calves and planting crops in the spring, harvesting in the fall, and hauling lignite by sled to keep the home fire burning through the frigid North Dakota winters, Matthew and Louise courted in stolen moments of semi-privacy in pickup trucks, at church, or down by the river when the weather turned nice. Then one evening, with high school diplomas in hand, they drove off into the prairie night beneath a cathedral of stars to find a justice of the peace, to get hitched. Their first child, a baby girl, came along a year later, and their second, another girl, a year after that.
By then, the foursome lived in a small white farmhouse on a quarter section (160 acres) of bottomland in the broad, meandering valley of the Upper Missouri River. Here, after being joined by the Yellowstone 150 miles upstream at the Montana border, the Missouri River valley broadened into a four-mile-wide belt of terraced woodlands, open pastures, and furrowed fields of dark fertile soil that produced bumper crops year after year. This was, by all accounts, the richest farmland in America, a lush anomaly of nature where mineralized alluvial silts were deposited by centuries of spring floods that carved a bountiful floodplain some eight hundred feet below the surrounding grasslands. For longer than anyone could remember, residents of the valley had called the treeless plains above them "on top," a deceptively simple shorthand for one of the harshest climates and the most marginal dry-land growing conditions in North America. Unless Louise and Matthew had to make a trip to the hospital in Bismarck, or visit the farm implement dealer in Minot, there was no reason to go "on top." Whatever was out there, beyond their hometown of Elbowoods, was an enormous blue void.
Surveyed by government engineers in the late nineteenth century, the incorporated town of Elbowoods was laid out on a grid of perpendicular lines in a swale of cottonwoods, oaks, chokecherry bushes, and willows, and set down on a piece of elevated ground at a ninety-degree bend in the Big Muddy, their nickname for the Missouri. A few miles downstream from Elbowoods was the river's confluence with the Knife, and a few miles upstream was the mouth of the Little Missouri. There was the town itself, with its eight hundred full-time residents and two churches, Catholic and Congregational, the school with the novelties of central heating and indoor plumbing, Simon's General Store, a country hospital with a doctor and a nurse, and the unassuming government buildings clustered beside the town square. Extending out from the town's tidy edges was a checkerboard of small family farms, a Norman Rockwell painting of the Jeffersonian dream at the heart of the continent. And like most of the folks who lived on that checkerboard, Louise and Matthew were self-sufficient from the first day of their marriage. Mostly, though, says Louise, they were too busy planting and harvesting and raising chickens and cows, goats, and pigs, to give it much thought. "If we didn't plant it, catch it, gather it, can it, or hunt it," says Louise, "we didn't eat. It was a hard life, and we didn't know how good we had it."
Even in a region accustomed to extremes, where the mercury could swing a hundred degrees in twenty-four hours, and forty below zero was an average day in February, the winter of '51 had been especially harsh. The Upper Missouri country of the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana had spent seven months in a deep freeze. Winter announced itself with a whiteout blizzard in late September and didn't release its grip until mid-April. A March storm dropped so much snow across the plains that the residents of Elbowoods were cut off from the world for almost three weeks.
Being snowbound in winter would not have posed a problem in most years, but this year was different. The Elbowoods Warriors, the boys' high school basketball team and the pride of the community, had a good shot at winning the state championship that year-but there was no way of getting out to play in the tournament. So, as the winds howled and the snow piled up faster than they could plow it, city fathers worked through the night of the storm and cleared four feet of the white stuff off Main Street. By morning they figured they had the storm licked. The sun rose on the new Elbowoods airport-a landing strip that ran through the middle of town-just wide enough and long enough for a single-engine Piper Cub to land and take off again. On skis. The airplane, a "tin can" without a heater, flew two boys at a time out for their playoff game, and the half-frozen team was reassembled at the convention center in Minot minutes before tip-off. The Warriors thawed out enough in the first quarter to pull even with the boys from Parshall, and then went on to win the regional title. It was a game heard in every farmhouse from Sioux Falls to the Canadian border, wrote a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune.
By late May that year, the shelves in Louise's pantry were so bare that she and Matthew decided to dip into their emergency money and make a run to town to replenish their staples. After she made breakfast, mucked out the barn, and fed the pigs and chickens, Louise kissed Matthew and the kids goodbye and pointed the wheels of their Chevrolet pickup truck toward the grocery store in Beulah, thirty miles away.
The washboards of the farm road that skirted their property ran on for two jarring miles, but it was a beautiful spring day, the warmest of the season, with red-tailed hawks circling lazily overhead, and Louise was in such good spirits that she sang songs as she drove along. Finally she hooked up with the smoother surface of State Road Number 8. Turning west, the truck settled in to a pleasant hum and crossed the Four Bears Bridge over the roily Missouri, swollen now with melted snow from the distant Rockies, and swung left on the far side past a familiar granite obelisk. Erected on a freestanding abutment set into the hill beside the bridge, this was an eighteen-foot-tall monument honoring the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara chiefs who, on horseback and foot, had made the eight-hundred-mile overland trek to the peace council at Fort Laramie in 1851, coincidentally, exactly a century earlier. It weighed more than five tons and was dedicated in 1934 by senators, governors, and men from Washington wearing suits and silk ties; some said that time and the river might one day sweep away the bridge, but the monument was a permanent fixture of the American landscape-as enduring as the treaty and the dust of the bones of the men who made it.
After filling up her truck with sugar, flour, beans, onions, penny candies for the girls, and four fifty-pound sacks of potatoes, Louise ran into some old high school friends at the gas station and agreed to join them for a dinner. After a delightful evening of catching up on gossip and chitchat about schoolmates, babies, and the price of spring wheat, she bade them farewell until next year and turned for home in the twilight. "Nobody had electricity back then, much less a phone, so I couldn't call my husband and let him know I'd be a little late," she remembers. "But Matthew was an easy-goin' kind of man, so I wasn't worried. I knew he wouldn't mind."
The road home was wide open for miles and miles. Out there in the Big Empty it was not unusual to drive for hours without seeing another car. Louise could find her way home with her eyes closed. She retraced her route in the fast-gathering twilight as scarlet fingers of light jumped from high spot to high spot, finally settling on the superstructure of the bridge as she recrossed the Missouri and dropped into the darkening bottoms. At the familiar intersection with the farm road she swung left and eased off the gas, not wanting to scatter her groceries across the countryside. When she reached the turn to her house a few minutes later, she realized she'd been daydreaming and made a mistake. Disoriented by the sudden darkness, she'd turned into the wrong driveway. She brought the truck to an abrupt stop at the edge of an empty field and just stared into the void beyond the beams of her headlights.
"I don't know how long I sat there before I realized I was home, all right. I was at the right place. This was our driveway. Everything was where it was supposed to be, the river, the fields. Except my house! Except the barn and chicken coop and my family. They were gone!"
While Louise was grocery shopping in Beulah, a crew of men hired by the Army Corps of Engineers had arrived at their farm equipped with crowbars, chains, hoists, hydraulic jacks, and flatbed trucks. Two hours later they drove off with her house, the two outbuildings, the farm animals, and her husband and two children. After calming her heart and collecting her wits, she jumped back into the truck and roared off down the farm road to State Road Number 8. She spent the next two frantic hours chasing her own headlights, and her house and her family, out of the bottomlands and across the prairie to the place "on top" where they were being relocated by the federal government.
"Most people didn't realize that when the big dams came to the Missouri River, what happened to me and my family happened to thousands, many thousands, of people," says Louise. "Until September 11th, people who didn't live through it really couldn't understand what happened to us. The trauma of losing everything. Everything! We know what that feels like."
In 1951, Louise's people were organized politically under the modern-day rubric of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations. At the end of World War II, they were the only self-sustaining Indian tribes in the United States. The Mandan and Hidatsa peoples had made themselves famous in America's history books as the tribe that sheltered Lewis and Clark and the men of the Corps of Discovery through the bitterly cold winter of 1804-1805. Unlike tribes that had been pushed out of the woodlands by European interlopers, as the Sioux and Cheyenne were in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Mandan people had migrated out of the crowded Mississippi River lowlands more than a thousand years before. Over the next several centuries they would meet and intermarry with members of the Hidatsa and Arikara nations, eventually blending their shared customs into a highly complex clan-based matrilineal society of farmers, warriors, and hunter-gatherers. Thanks to horticultural success resulting from favorable climate and the rich soil of the Upper Missouri River floodplains, these socially sophisticated peace-loving farmers and hunters would dominate native commerce on the northern plains for centuries to come.
So prominent was their reputation as masters of the deal that in 1682 the La Salle expedition, which had completed a survey of the Mississippi delta and thereby laid claim by right of discovery to the Louisiana territory for the French king, sent home word of a great trading bazaar at the villages of the "Mantannes Indians," far to the north near a big bend in the River of the West, the Missouri. Based on information contained in that report, the three tribes soon made their debut in western cartography. On maps drawn in 1718 by the leading French geographer of the day, Guillaume Insulanus Delisle, official cartographer to the court of Louis XV, the French crown laid claim to all the lands bordering those claimed for Spain a century earlier by Hernando de Soto, whose "discoveries" included the areas known today as Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The French claims were based on the discoveries of the intrepid La Salle, whose men later reached the Gulf Coast of Texas. Emboldened by the remarkable accomplishments of his proxies, the king at Versailles claimed ownership of all the land south of Illinois between the English colonies on the east and the Spanish territory to the west.
The purpose of this claim was to open new commercial enterprises in hopes of one day reaching the rumored "Mer de l'Ouest," the Pacific Ocean. Almost by accident, the explorations that sought to establish trading routes to Spanish forts in Mexico resulted in the founding of the village of New Orleans, in 1718. This was the same year that Delisle placed the Mandan Villages inside the boundaries of French land claims on the Upper Missouri. With the eastern forests under the control of the British, and the Southwest in the hands of Spain, a ruthless and bloody battle to control the Indian fur trade in the Lake of the Woods region of Canada began. The natives had learned from the Dutch to take scalps for bounties, and as a result thousands of trappers and traders would lose their locks to woodland Indians. The severed heads of Englishmen who violated French territory were impaled on spikes-their blue eyes pecked out by ravens-as fair warning to their countrymen. For more than a century, no amount of murderous intrigue could fix trade boundaries in the north woods.
As battles raged in the forests of a distant continent, Delisle was only too happy to indulge his king's fantasies by fudging the geographic limits of the crown's claims. Such was the peerless mapmaker's standing in the international court of opinion that he got away with it. The boundaries inscribed on his 1718 map were still intact eighty-six years later when a new emperor named Napoleon decided to snub his British adversaries by selling France's New World possessions to the upstart Americans.
In pre-Columbian times, the Mandan people were able to exploit their horticultural success along the well-worn network of trade routes that linked them to the Pueblo and Hopi of the Southwest, and to the Cree and the Iroquois of the Northeast. By the time Columbus set sail from Gran Canaria, the Mandan had developed their own varieties of corn from seed they acquired from the Aztecs and the Maya. In the following centuries, crops grown in Mandan gardens-corn, squash, beans, and potatoes-became staple foods for people throughout the Americas. And the world: most seventeenth-century trade routes across the North American continent converged at the palisaded Mandan Villages. It was here, near the confluence of the Missouri and the Heart rivers in modern-day North Dakota, that the horse culture of the Comanche met the gun culture of the Cree in the mid-1700s. When the first European to visit the Mandan, the French fur trader and explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, the Sieur de La Vérendrye, arrived in these villages on a mission of commerce and peace in November 1738, he was astonished to find the Mandan bartering trade goods manufactured in England, France, and Spain. "The Mantannes are much craftier in trade, as in everything else, than the Assiniboins, who are always being cheated by them," he wrote in his journal. "The Assiniboins, though numerous and strong and hardy men, are not brave; they greatly fear the Sioux, whom they consider brave. The Mantannes know their [the Sioux's] weakness and profit by it on occasion."
Excerpted from Savages And Scoundrels by Paul VanDevelder Copyright © 2009 by Paul VanDevelder. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ONE: REDEEMING EDEN....................1
TWO: SAVAGES AND SCOUNDRELS....................28
THREE: WHITE MEN IN PARADISE....................69
FOUR: PIONEERS OF THE WORLD....................113
FIVE: THE GREAT SMOKE....................158
SIX: MONSTERS OF GOD....................201
APPENDIX: TREATY OF FORT LARAMIE (HORSE CREEK), 1851....................245
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