Sign Talker

Sign Talker


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A graduate of West Point, General Hugh Lenox Scott (1853–1934) belonged to the same regiment as George Armstrong Custer. As a member of the Seventh Cavalry, Scott actually began his career at the Little Big Horn when in 1877 he helped rebury Custer’s fallen soldiers. Yet Scott was no Custer. His lifelong aversion to violence in resolving disputes and abiding respect for American Indians earned him the reputation as one of the most adept peacemakers ever to serve in the U.S. Army. Sign Talker, an annotated edition of Scott’s memoirs, gives new insight into this soldier-diplomat’s experiences and accomplishments.

Scott’s original autobiography, first published in 1928, has remained out of print for decades. In that memoir, he recounted the many phases of his distinguished military career, beginning with his education at West Point and ending with World War I, when, as army chief of staff, he gathered the U.S. forces that saw ultimate victory in Europe. Sign Talker reproduces the first—and arguably most compelling—portion of the memoir, including Scott’s involvement with Plains Indians and his service at western forts. In his in-depth introduction to this volume, editor R. Eli Paul places Scott’s autobiography in a larger historical context. According to Paul, Scott stood apart from his fellow officers because of his enlightened views and forward-looking actions. Through Scott’s own words, we learn how he became an expert in Plains Indian Sign Language so that he could communicate directly with Indians and bypass intermediaries. Possessing deep empathy for the plight of Native peoples and concern for the wrongs they had suffered, he played an important role in helping them achieve small, yet significant victories in the aftermath of the brutal Indian wars.

As historians continue to debate the details of the Indian wars, and as we critically examine our nation’s current foreign policy, the unique legacy of General Scott provides a model of military leadership. Sign Talker restores an undervalued diplomat to well-deserved prominence in the story of U.S.-Indian relations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806153544
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 07/21/2016
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

R. Eli Paul heads the Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of Blue Water Creek and the First Sioux War, 1854–1856, coauthor of Eyewitness at Wounded Knee, and editor of the Autobiography of Red Cloud: War Leader of the Oglalas.

Read an Excerpt

Sign Talker

Hugh Lenox Scott Remembers Indian Country

By R. Eli Paul


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5354-4



Looking back now upon a happy childhood surrounded by many friends and relatives, my memories, with a few exceptions of people and places in the Middle West, cluster about my grand father's house in Prince ton, New Jersey, where my father died when I was eight years old and my mother brought up her brood of three sons until they left the home nest. Life there seemed a matter of course, and it was only after getting out into the world and seeing that of other people that I was able to make comparison and appreciate its beauty. This quiet spot was, above every thing, a home — a spacious, cultured home pervaded by a dignity and serenity, a hospitality and loving-kindness, that emanated from my grand father and grand mother, in winter a place of light and warmth, in summer of cool shade and the hum of bees among the lindens, where friends and relatives and their children loved to congregate, where all found a boundless love and welcome. Small wonder the children looked back to it from the far corners of the earth, homesick to return.

The house was at its best at the time of the Prince ton commencement when the great trees planted by my grand father in his youth cast a grateful shade and the flowers were in bloom. Its doors were wide open to the friends who had graduated at college and seminary and were now returning from far and wide to renew the ties of friendship — and who looked up to my grandfather, as did the whole town, with reverence and admiration.

My grand father was the Rev. Dr. Charles Hodge, for many years the head of the Theological Seminary at Prince ton, the foremost theologian of his day in America. He was born in Philadelphia in [December 27, 1797] 1798 and died at Prince ton in [June 19,] 1878. My grand mother, Sarah Bache, whose mother was the sister [Catharine Wistar] of Dr. Caspar Wistar of Philadelphia, I never knew since she died at Prince ton, December 25, 1849, before my birth. Her lovely character was attested by her children who all "rose up and called her blessed." I was born at Danville, Kentucky, September 22, 1853.

Some years after the death of my own grand mother, my grand father took a second wife, a widow, Mrs. Mary Hunter Stockton of Prince ton, who was every thing to me that any grand mother could be, and I always looked upon her as my own and upon her son Samuel, who married my aunt, as my own uncle. She presided over the large family with dignity and sweetness, admired and loved by all. Her father, Andrew Hunter, was the chaplain of the House of Representatives at Washington during the war with the British in 1812. She often told of the way he had hurried her and her two brothers out of Washington in a farm wagon to save them from the British when they burned our White House. She was always full of fun and humor, describing the men of note in the Washington of her day, and she often sang for me the Negro songs learned in Virginia in her youth. She told stories of the old times at Morven, the old Stockton place at Prince ton, built in 1702, and the land title for which was obtained from William Penn. Here much of her girlhood was spent, and I greatly fear that there was mischief afoot when she and her cousins, the sisters of Commodore Stockton, afterward Mrs. Mary Harrison and Mrs. Julia Rheinlander of New York, were abroad together. The death of Mrs. Rheinlander from a stroke of apoplexy during a visit to our house was a great shock to my youthful mind, and I was long afraid to enter the room in which she died or even pass the door after dark. Not long before this happened, Prince ton's first murder about 1861 or '62 had stirred the town to its foundations and is talked of even yet. If you do not know all about the Rowen murder, you are not a real Princetonian. The horror of this murder long caused me to cling closely to my mother's skirts as soon as dusk fell.

When grand mother had become a very old lady, I asked her once to tell me the pleasantest episode of her life, and she said it was the summer of 1821, which she spent at West Point, her brother's last camp. Grand mother had a very great influence upon my afterlife, since it was at her instigation that her brother, General David Hunter, a friend of Lincoln and of Grant, secured for me from the latter the appointment to West Point, which was to shape my whole career.

Uncle David was himself a graduate of 1822 and went, on graduation, to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, which it took him six months to reach. He was obliged to walk three hundred miles on the ice of the Mississippi from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He was in the Fifth Infantry at Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1828. Fort Dearborn was a small collection of log huts surrounded by a high palisade, then the only settlement save the house and trading post of John Kinzie, the trader, whose daughter Maria my uncle married and whose family had been saved at the Chicago Indian massacre in 1812.

One night Uncle David heard someone calling from across the Chicago River and, borrowing a Pottawatomie Indian canoe built for one man, paddled across and found it was Lieutenant Jefferson Davis coming from West Point. Making Davis lie down in the bottom of the canoe, he straddled and sat upon him in order to get the center of gravity low enough to carry two men safely in a one-man canoe and ferried him to the other side. The two were warm friends until the Civil War.

Uncle David pointed out to me once the place where he had slept on the floor of the White House guarding Lincoln with other friends of the president, who, fearing his assassination, had rallied about him at Springfield, Illinois, and come on with him as a self-appointed bodyguard to Washington for his inauguration.

My mother, Mary Elizabeth Hodge, was born in the old house in 1825 and died in Prince ton in 1899. She married my father, the Rev. William McKendry Scott, upon his graduation at the Prince ton Seminary and went to live with him at Danville, Kentucky, where he was a professor at Centre College and pastor of the Presbyterian Church. Here their first four children were born: Charles Hodge, John Bayard, Mary Blanchard, and myself, born September 22, 1853, and named after my grand father's brother, Dr. Hugh Lenox Hodge of Philadelphia. John Bayard and Mary Blanchard died in infancy at Danville. In 1856 my father was called to the pastorate of the Seventh Presbyterian Church at Cincinnati, where my brother William was born in 1857. In 1859 the Presbyterian General Assembly elected my father professor at the Northwestern Seminary at Chicago, later called McCormick Seminary. My father's father, William Scott, migrated from the north of Ireland in 1798 and settled on a farm at Mount Pleasant, Jefferson County, Ohio, where he raised a well-to-do family prominent in their section. He died in 1851 at the age of seventy-five.

My mother came from a family of students leading sedentary lives with indoor tastes and could never understand my passion for the outdoors and for hunting and fishing, inherited from my father, who during his youth in Ohio had been a very noted shot with the squirrel rifle. She looked upon me very much as a hen would look at a duckling she had hatched and upon my tastes as a tendency toward wildness, which ought to be suppressed until advised by a brother that I was following my strongest instincts in a perfectly innocent way and that by interfering she might divert me to something harmful. She was always afraid that I might shoot someone accidentally, and, although the gun was there, I was not allowed to use it until my fifteenth birthday when I was supposed to have arrived at some degree of discretion. So until that time I had to content myself with a bow and arrow made by myself, with which I became extremely skillful.

I took no interest in boys' games and never played ball with the others except when drafted to help fight for the possession of the ball grounds of the college during vacations and defend them from another set. Every Saturday found me hunting or fishing somewhere at daylight, sometimes with some of my friends, more often alone.

This was the very best school that could have been devised for a soldier, as I found later on the Plains. It taught me to find my way about and take care of myself in the woods day and night and in all kinds of weather. I could hunt only on Saturdays during the school term and had to take the weather as it came or lose my weekend. So, many days in the dead of winter, I would be found starting a fox at four o'clock in the morning four miles from home with a strong, cold wind blowing and a foot of snow on the ground. We often chased a fox on foot ten miles along the ridge of Rocky Hill, covered with timber and heavy rocks as large as a small house, where no horse could travel, and night would find us eight or ten miles from home, hungry, wet, cold, exhausted, with clothes torn to rags and home to find in the darkness.

This bred a disregard of obstacles. It bred also the initiative and the optimism essential to the success of any enterprise, as well as the unde-spairing [undaunted] courage and the resolution never to give up a project without which no soldier can be a success. It brought in addition a practice in the arts of the field — swimming, handling a boat, riding a horse, shooting a gun — and it built up an enormous lung power and muscular force that has lasted to this day. I have seen so many come West brought up entirely to the life of the city, unhappy and helpless out of sight of the post, actually unable to command in the field and forced to go about with somebody else to guide and take care of them, without initiative of their own, and daunted before every obstacle. Not one of these has ever risen to eminence as a field soldier.

Shortly after our mother was left a widow, another widow, Mrs. [Eliza Getty] Ricketts of Mary land, came with her three sons and a daughter to live in Prince ton, and the families soon became intimate. My own contemporary was the oldest son, who died early. While walking one day with the next oldest [Palmer C. Ricketts], who now for many years has been the honored president of the [Rensselaer] Polytechnic Institute of Engineering at Troy, New York, together with a boy who was larger than either of us, the latter began to tease the Ricketts lad, refusing to stop until I gave him a bloody nose.

I encountered the offender in 1889 at Wichita Falls, Texas, where he was then mayor [Otis T. Bacon], and I was able to serve him by obtaining permission for him to hunt wild turkeys on the Kiowa and Comanche Indian reservation. In 1908, Dr. Ricketts made a visit to me at West Point and asked me if I remembered the episode in our youth when the president of the Polytechnic at Troy was being annoyed by the mayor of Wichita Falls, Texas, who refused to stop until punched in the nose by the superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point.

My brothers and I attended the local schools at Prince ton, my brother Charles graduating from Prince ton College in 1868, leaving at once to take up a mercantile career in Pittsburgh. My brother William, after taking high honors at Prince ton, Cambridge, and Heidelberg, became professor of paleontology and geology at Prince ton. He now holds a high place among the scientists of the world and has taken every sort of honor belonging to his profession.

After the school at Edge Hill was discontinued, my mother took me to Lawrenceville, the school presided over by Dr. Samuel Hammill for so many years, which developed into the present John C. Green Foundation at Lawrenceville [New Jersey]. Dr. and Mrs. Hammill were respected and loved by every body, and, when in after years they traveled through the West, they found many of their old Lawrenceville boys in positions of trust who rose up everywhere to do them honor.

There was a younger son of one of our Prince ton neighbors whom I had saved from drowning in the old mill pond at Stony Brook and whose mother felt that I ought therefore to be his guardian, and, although too young for Lawrenceville, he was sent there to be under my care. Shortly after our arrival at the school, he came upstairs late one night crying and said that he had been knocked down by one of the older boys. This boy was considerably taller than myself, and I lay awake all night thinking of the drubbing he was going to give me in the morning when I called him to account as I intended doing. We met going downstairs, and I asked him if he had struck my little friend. He acknowledged that he had, adding that my protégé had been teasing him. I then struck him across the bridge of the nose with the back of my hand by way of challenge. Instead of attacking me fiercely, as I expected him to do, he burst out crying, saying he could not fight, whereupon I told him that he must let little boys alone or he would have to fight. This episode, in spite of its pacific culmination, gave every body to understand that we would fight if imposed upon, and we passed the rest of our course there unmolested. After becoming better acquainted at the school, we realized that our adversary had outgrown his strength and was really younger than he appeared.

I was quite homesick during the entire period of my stay at Lawrenceville and every now and then would climb out of my window after every body had gone to bed, walk the five miles to Prince ton, go around to see the horses and dogs, and look through the window at the people from the outside, afraid to go in for fear of a scolding for leaving school, then walk the five long miles back to Lawrenceville, stumbling along the road sound asleep for a hundred yards at a time, and climb back through my own window, at length, in safety. I often pass the old house in Lawrenceville now and look up at that window, in and out of which I crept more than fifty years ago.

In 1870, I passed all of my examinations for Prince ton College, but, before the session began, I was informed of my appointment to West Point. It was thought best that I should continue with a tutor, studying both courses so that I might enter the sophomore class at Prince ton without losing any time in the event of failure to enter West Point.

As I look back, I recognize that my mother would rather have had me choose some other profession. She thought the life on the Plains in a military post extremely narrow and dangerous and would have preferred that I follow her uncle, the celebrated Hugh Lenox Hodge, M.D., of Philadelphia, after whom she had named me. There seemed in those days to be no future in the army, and graduating into cavalry it seemed that my life was destined to be passed in the buffalo country far from civilization and culture. If I was fortunate, I might see a little of England and France on a four months' leave, but nothing more of the world.

On the contrary, however, I have been once completely around the world and twice more with the exception of the width of Germany. In addition, my duties have taken me into Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, as well as into every state in our Union, so that my life has been extremely interesting to me, and I consider myself most fortunate in that my profession and plea sure have gone hand in hand. I have had immense freedom in the Indian country given me by Generals Sheridan, Miles, Merritt, Ruger, and other commanders and have shaped my own service very largely by their help.

Many individuals of our race have been forced by circumstances to engage in professions distasteful to them, from which they find themselves powerless to escape. I shudder at times, reflecting upon what my life might have been had I allowed myself to be confined to a sedentary occupation along with the thousands craving freedom and adventure, condemned to go through life with their longing unsatisfied, square pegs in round holes, working today to get something to eat so that they may work tomorrow, seeing no deliverance, no future for themselves in this life.

The prospects for a lieutenant of cavalry, to be sure, were very poor for many years. I was nineteen years a lieutenant and five years at the head of the first lieutenants without gaining a single file [one step on the promotion list]. But this was never allowed by either my wife or myself to sour our dispositions, as some have permitted slow promotion to do, and we enjoyed our daily life on little money.


A West Point Cadet and Plebe Days

In May 1871, my Uncle David took me to West Point. He piloted me over the whole place, pointing out the changes since he had been a cadet in 1822, forty-nine years before. He had many stories to tell of the old days, describing the buildings which had disappeared, the foundations of which may still be discovered when the drought scorches the grass off the thin soil about them. He introduced me to the superintendent [Thomas H. Ruger] and the commandant of cadets [Emory Upton], as well as to his other acquaintances. He was a friend and contemporary of all the professors of that period — [Dennis Hart] Mahan, [Albert E.] Church, [Henry L. Kendrick] Kendricks, [Robert Walter] Weir, and many others — Professor Weir being a kinsman of my own through the Bayards.


Excerpted from Sign Talker by R. Eli Paul. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Editor's Introduction 3

1 Boyhood 23

2 A West Point Cadet and Plebe Days 31

3 Yearling Misfortune 36

4 Service on the Plains 41

5 With the Indians 48

6 Into the Field 52

7 Troubles at Home 58

8 The Annual Expedition 64

9 After the Nez Percés 71

10 Buffalo Running 85

11 On the March Again 90

12 A Winter's Program 99

13 A Packtrain for the Regiment 104

14 Trouble with Red Cloud 109

15 In Station at Fort Totten 114

16 A Mission of Pacification 123

17 Recruiting Service 133

18 Into the Southwest 135

19 Problems of Fort Sill 146

20 A Messiah on the Plains 151

21 Lo! The Poor Indian 161

22 Memories of Buffalo Bill and Other Famous Plainsmen 174

23 Chiricahua Apache Prisoners of War 182

24 President Cleveland and the Indians 198

25 End of the Plains 205

Epilogue 208

Appendix: Joseph at Grant's Tomb 229

Bibliography 235

Index 245

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