Forgotten Frontiersman

In The Western Odyssey of John Simpson Smith, author Stan Hoig recalls a little remembered early pioneer of the American West.

Smith was a Kentucky boy. By 1830 he was in St. Louis and apprenticed to a tailor. He likely ran away that year and went west with a group of trappers and traders. He spent the winter in a Blackfeet Indian camp and learned to speak their language. The author says Smith likely participated in the 1835 rendevous of trappers and traders that met on the Green River. Among the men he met there were Jim Bridger and Kit Carson.

By 1840 Smith was living in a Cheyenne camp with his Cheyenne wife and her son. About 1842 the couple had a son called Jack. John Smith became a principal trader at Bent’s Fort. He accompanied several Indian delegations to Washington, serving as interpreter for treaty talks. Smith became an advisor to Indian Agents and official government interpreter for the four major treaties with the Cheyenne and Arapaho.

For an interesting and detailed account of life in the early West and in Indian camps, look for a copy of this book published in 1974 by The Arthur H. Clark Company, Glendale, California.

Visiting A Pony Smoke

On December 15, 1901, The New York Times ran a first person account of an Osage pony smoke. It was written by W.R. Draper, a white man. He attended with Cherokee friends under the guise of being a half blood relative. Following are excerpts from Draper’s account.

Osage camp          The event took place in the fall on the banks of Beaver Creek during the time of a full moon. The location was “not far south of Pawhuska, the Osage council town.”
          “The Osage invite their friends to attend the smoke on a certain date. The invitations are sent out by special messengers and written in such signs as to be out of reach of the ordinary Indian…But it is a communication which the medicine men understand, and they tell their tribesmen when and where the smoke is to occur.”
          “…as we spied the camp of 300 tepees pitched in the open valley, a hum of the medicine man came across the still night air. It rose louder and louder as the ponies carried us nearer. By the time we had reached camp it was a wild, weird chanting.”
Osage          “The Poncas came clad in gay trappings. Their faces were painted and their bare limbs polished until they shown like burnished copper.”
          “Before daybreak the camp was astir. The subchiefs of the Osages, their war bonnets dancing from their heads, held high and dignified, rode over and had a talk with the Ponca leaders. The visitors were informed that a dance of welcome would occur at 10 [a.m.]. The Poncas hastened to devour their morning meal…[T]hen all tepee flaps were tightly closed, while gorgeous colors were daubed here and there on faces and bodies of the visitors. The Osage in their camp a hundred yards upstream were doing likewise.”
          “A little before the appointed hour a couple of Osages entered the dancing circle – a strip of ground cleared and sprinkled with white powder. [They] commenced to pound the tom tom…A circle of Osages was soon formed…The Poncas arranged a second circle around [the Osage]…the medicine men let out a piercing scream, and the dance was well on in a few seconds.”
          “Hours sped by, but there was no sign of quitting. Occasionally, a squaw would throw up her hands and fall over in a faint. Her place would be filled by others…After six hours of steady dancing some of the young men fell, too. At midnight the dance stopped, and all jumped into the cold waters of Beaver creek for a bath.”
          “After a feast of dog meat, certain bucking ponies were brought forward. They were handsome little beasts, strong and wiry. These were given to the visitors…Certain young bucks, who had been selected by their own people to accept the first offerings of presents, came forward…they examined the flesh and bone of the little animals thoroughly…[They] determined that a certain yellow and white spotted animal was the best of the lot. All of course wanted her. She was untamed and unridden. The first man to ride her one hundred yards [would win her].”
          “Little Elk was the first victim. Although a hunter and trailer of many years experience, he had no sooner touched the back [of the horse] than he found himself tossed high and clear of the crowd. [The next man] suffered the same fate.”
          “Then came Tall Bull. He won the animal, but just by a scratch. [He] passed the line by ten feet when his feet slipped from their moorings under the pony and he went spinning upwards. Tall Bull was the hero of the pony smoke.”
          “[The event] lasted a week…every night much [like] the first night’s proceeding. Three hundred ponies were given to the Poncas. In exchange, the Osages took thirty Ponca women for brides…These Ponca squaws were wooed and won under the regular forms of Indian courtship.”

Published in: on December 1, 2014 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Thanksgiving Pony Smoke

Indian poniesOn November 24, 1901 The New York Times ran a front page article about Thanksgiving Day celebrations on Indian Reservations. Following is an excerpt.

The Apaches and Cheyennes are in the habit of holding a pony smoke: often the Osages indulge in this expensive festival.
          A pony smoke is a friendly meeting of two tribes and is especially appropriate for the occasion. The tribe giving the smoke is supposed to bear all of the expenses. They provide the best game and vegetables in the market for their guests.
          At the end of the first day’s meeting they present a good pony to the head of each family visiting them. As a tribe consists of from 300-500 families, the expenses soon mount high.
          The Osages, being the richest reservation Indians there are to-day, can better afford to hold pony smokes…Combined with their feast day, they generally invite several hundred guests from the Poncas, Tonkawas, and surrounding tribes. Those accepting the ponies are supposed to return the gift with equally expensive ones later on, but few of them can do so.

Published in: on November 24, 2014 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Moons and Seasons

MoonA year, for Plains Indians and many other Native American peoples, began with the first snow in the autumn. They measured time by moons and the seasons when certain events of nature took place. Here are some examples:

Jan      Time of flying ants
Apr     Moon of the big leaves
May    Season when the leaves are green
Jul       Moon of the horse/time of ripeness
Oct      Time when the corn is taken in

 Cheyenne (Great Plains)
Jan       Moon of the strong cold
Apr      When the geese lay eggs
May     When the horses get fat
Sep       Drying Grass Moon
Oct       Freeze begins on stream’s edge
Nov      Deer rutting moon
Dec      When the wolves run together


Jan       When snow blows like spirits in the wind
Feb      Frost sparking in the sun
Mar      Buffalo dropping their calves
Apr      Ice breaking in the river
May     When the ponies shed their shaggy hair
Jun      When the buffalo bellows
Jul        The hot weather begins
Aug      Geese shedding their feathers
Sep       Dying grass
Oct       Falling leaves
Nov     When the rivers start to freeze
Dec      Popping trees

Lakota (northern plains)

Jan        Hard moon
Feb       When the trees crack because of the cold
Mar      Moon of the sore eyes
Apr      When the wife had to crack bones for marrow
May      Moon of the green leaves
Jun       When the berries are good
Jul        When the chokecherries are black
Aug      Moon of the ripening
Set        Moon of the brown leaves
Oct       When the wind shakes off leaves
Nov     When winter begins
Dec      When the deer shed their antlers

Photo Courtesy NASA

Published in: on September 29, 2014 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Plains Indian Signs for Other Indians

In his book Our Wild Indians, Richard Irving Dodge described hand signs used by Plains Indians to identify other Indians.
          The signs described other Indians according to the Plains’ word or words for those Indians. For example, with the “right hand extended to left and front of body, index finger extended, others [fingers] closed, draw the hand backward with a wriggling motion across the body. The motion symbolized the Plains Indian name for Comanche: “snakes.”      
          Ute – Left hand held horizonally in front of body, fingers extended, thumb closed on palm, edge of hand down. With extended fingers of right hand, rub gently toward the wrist, along the extended index finger of left hand. An alternative was to make the sign for black and the generic sign for Indians to indicate the dark skinned Utes.

          Apache – same as left hand position for Ute. With extended fingers of right hand flip back and forth on the index finger of left hand as a barber strops a razor. (meaning unknown to Richard Dodge).

          Arapahoe – index finger of right hand extended, rub right side of nose. Origin and meaning unknown.

          Kiowa – open palm as though holding a small bowl beside the right side of face, make circular motion. This symbolized the Kiowa style of cutting the hair off the right side of the head.

          The Plains Indians had descriptive names for many groups:

          Sioux – “cut throat”

          Cheyenne – “cut finger”

          Pawnee – “wolf”

          White man – “hat wearer”

          Mexican man – “beard wearer”

          Negro man – “black white man”

From: Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three Years of Personal Experience Among the Red Men of the Great West by Richard Irving Dodge, A.D. Worthington and Company, Hartford, CT, 1882, page 390-391.

Indian commissioners; Colorado connections Part 2

William W. Bent and Christopher (Kit) Carson 
 were among the men who represented the United States as commissioners in peace talks with the Plains Indians.

On October 14, 1865, at a meeting place along the Little Arkansas River in Kansas, chiefs of the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Apache nations signed a treaty with the U.S. government. The Apaches left their alliance with the Kiowa and Commanche to join with the Arapaho and Cheyenne.

Too Many Indians

Honoring the 150th Anniversary of Colorado Territory (officially formed February 28, 1861), this series of posts offers a brief glimpse into Indian affairs during the terms of the seven territorial governors.

John Evans took over as Governor of Colorado Territory on May 17, 1862. He identified the parts of the territory claimed by various Indians in his October 30, 1862 letter to the Commisioner of Indian Affairs.
          By the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramiethe Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians claimed land that included “portions of the State of Kansas and Nebraska Territory [plus] all that part of the present Territory of Colorado north of the Arkansas river and east of the snowy range of the Rocky mountains.”
         The Kiowa and Comanche Indians occupied the territory “south of the Arkansas [River]and east of the snowy range.” Evans estimated there were about five thousand Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa and Comanche reporting to Agent S. G. Colley, who was based at Fort Lyon.
          Evans reported that “all that part of the Territory lying west of the great snowy range or Cordilleras is occupied by the various bands of the Utah [Ute] Indians. These Indians are reported to be about ten thousand strong, and are active, independent, and warlike. They have never been at war with the whites, and have little idea of the military prowess of the government, making the danger of hostilities by them more imminent.”
          “There are two bands of these Indians [Utahs or Utes] that go down into New Mexico to report to…agencies there…[B]ut by far the larger part of them obtain the goods which the government distributes for the purpose of securing their friendship from Lafayette Head…of the Conejos agencies.”
          Evans noted that Congress had approved an additional agency for the Green River and Uintah bands of Utes but no agent had been appointed and the agency was not in operation.
          In addition to urging the necessity of treaties with the Indians belonging to Colorado territory, Evans reported a new problem. “We have been troubled by the presence in Colorado, for a good part of the summer, of different bands of the Ogillullah and Brule Sioux Indians, belonging to the neighboring agency at Fort Laramie. They settle along the Platte river for the purpose of begging from, if not committing depredations upon, the great stream of travel to and from the settlements of Colorado.”

Note: Governor Evans misspelled the name of the Oglala Indians. 

Photo of John Evans courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection
Quoted text from the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1862.