As I was reading and writing last night–sketching various attempts at an end of the decade post, I came across a wonderful passage from “The Powder River Expedition Journals of Colonel Richard Irving Dodge.” This was a book I bought myself for Christmas because I maintain an abiding interest in that period of our history and also because I have a long-running fascination with immediate accounts written by the people who were on the ground when events unfolded. That’s true from Caesar to Tacitus, from Samuel Pepys to the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and beyond. I buy them and read them whenever I can.
I have found, over time, that there is no substitute for the intimacy these journals yield up, because it is one thing to read about General Crook’s expedition in the winter of 1876, and to place those events in context of the recent Custer disaster, and the larger crushing of the Lakota and Cheyenne nations, but it is something else entirely to read Dodge’s opinions — written in the field — of Crook’s command decisions, or to hear the tales told by witnesses of a Sharp’s rifle, in the possession of a Cheyenne warrior, echoing off the canyon walls during Mackenzie’s sacking of the Cheyenne village, or the trouble with dodgy teamsters on the trail, officers not caring for their horses, or a game of whist played by officers in a wind-whipped wall-tent in a high plains gail.
The point is, journals provide a window into the souls of those who write them in ways that dry and academic history will never approach. And so I read them whenever I can. And as I was riding along with Dodge in the bitter cold, wrapping my face in a scarf borrowed from his orderly, or sleeping under a buffalo robe covered with two inches of snow on the trail of the Cheyenne, and sitting next to him while he talked to the Pawnee scouts, I began to think of our leap into the next decade as a kind of expedition. I began to think of all of you, our friends and readers, as members of the same company, rising to reveille in the dark of a plains winter, building a fire against the dark and the cold, warming our hands on a cup of steaming and bitter coffee with a slab of cold bacon for breakfast. And marching. Always marching. In the mud and the snow. In the rain and the cold. Dodge was a commander of infantry, and he marched his men on this campaign relentlessly, also brilliantly, against brutal conditions and dicey rations, and always into the unknown of an endless frontier.
So here is my New Year’s wish, as we cross the line of departure and into the wild frontier of a new decade: I wish for all of us that we can set out well provisioned, with our maps and compasses tuned, our scouts sent out ahead and to the flanks, our supply lines well guarded, and with our minds right and ripe to keep learning the lessons we must learn, and with the humility to acknowledge our mistakes and so to avoid the fate of an “ordinary plains lunatic.”
Let us avoid the fates that Dodge covers in this entry, dated December 11, 1876, when he has marched his force to a camp at Belle Fourche and is awaiting orders from the secretive and oddly mercurial General Crook. It is one of Dodge’s longer entries, which is a clue to its importance, as he toiled through a brutal winter campaign with suspect leadership, and I quote it in its entirety because I think there are a number of fine lessons that still ring true, and that may serve us well if we pay attention. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did, and take something from it for sustenance along this New Year’s trail.
December 11, 1876, Belle Fourche
Was waked up about 2 am by the Officer of the Day, who informed me that a party of miners returning from the Black Hills to Montana, & which passed us yesterday about 1pm going towards Reno, had been attacked by Indians at our Camp of 9th — their stock and everything taken from them — had just come in asking assistance — I refused to believe the report but was answered by one of the men — (two had come in –) assuring me that he was telling the truth. He was in his stocking feet, and had no coat — & the other tho’ he had shoes had neither coat or pants, & both were shivering with cold & fright. They had come in this plight five miles. I bade the Off Day take them to Genl Crook — & still incredulous went to sleep again. The Genl sent out early this morning & found the story only too true. There were eleven men — they were traveling with two light wagons — one drawn by 4 horses, the other by 4 oxen. They camped 5 miles above us — turned out their stock, made a big fire, cooked their supper & all turned in, not a single man being left as guard or sentinel. About 1 a.m. 5 Indians (as appears from the trail) stole noiselessly into their camp, & opened fire on the sleeping forms. All sprung to their feet & made off into the darkness except one. By daylight all had got into this camp, except that one. The party sent out assist, found the body of that one stark & cold. He had had his leg broken by a shot, & the Indians had then seized an axe, & split his head open. He was still lying where he had gone to bed — not having been able to move after the shot. The Indians had taken the horses & cattle — all the amnion they could find & a few articles of little value. They knew evidently that we were near, for they wasted no time but started south at once. Our Indians after a careful examination of everything around, came in and reported. A party was sent out to bury the dead man & a party of Arrapahoes sent on the trail. They can never catch the rascals I doubt — There are several opinions as to what Indians did this, for so small a party, very daring deed. My opinion was that it is a party of Agency Indians who have been following these miners from the Black Hills. For this same party of miners was attacked thirty miles North East of here four days ago, & six ponies taken from them — As the hostiles were on foot & seemed to come from the south, the friendly Indians are of the opinion that the daring rascals are Cheyennes, of the very band we so injured on 25th let., & who are now following us in the hope of revenge on small parties, stragglers &c — This view is somewhat confirmed by the fact that one of the hostiles lost his moccasin in the confusion of the fight & not being able to find it in the dark left it. It was nothing but a piece of raw buffalo hide, which had been put over the foot, & tied around at the ancle. I have very little confidence in such signs as indicating Tribes, as all Indians after committing a depredation or outrage, leave, if they can, some distinctive article belonging to another tribe, so as to shift if possible the suspicion from themselves. But in this case it seems possible the Cheyennes are the rascals. Their being on foot, is one evidence that way, their coming from the south on our trail another — &* the mockasin another, since buffalo are very scarce out of the mountains at present, & their being none toward the Agencies.
The fate of this man, & the party, illustrates a peculiar phase of character of the large majority of the men who rise their lives on the frontier mining, trapping or prospecting. They are brave to imbecility or stupid beyond expression. A few men, possibly comparative strangers to each other, band together & agree to go to this place or that place. Without apparently the slightest concern, they plunge into unknown wildernesses, & through countries swarming with treacherous & deadly Indians. They travel without order & without care. If while hunting one should discover Indians, he rushes back to his party, which flies if it can, or fights with courage & tenacity if necessary. Arrived at a camping place they turn out their stock, get supper & go to bed as unconcerned as if no dangers were around them. If jumped they have no chance & lose all, & as in this case, were we not here by the merest chance for them, not one would likely escape alive –
I once when traveling with a train & troops, came, on the high wide prairie, suddenly on the form of a man, lying on his stomach & sleeping profoundly. He was at least 30 miles from any road & in a very dangerous country. I called to him loudly. He sat up & gazed stupidly for a moment or two, then smiled & seemed relieved. “Where do you belong?” I asked. “I come from Iowa” — he answered. “What are you doing here?” I demanded very peremptorily. “Oh I am looking for work” he said genially. I thought at first that he was a lunatic, but further questioning satisfied me that he was only an ordinary plains lunatic, that is, one who feared no danger, because he saw none. This man had no arms, no bedding, & not a thing to eat — yet was unconcernedly going to certain death had I not found him gave him to eat & told him where to go.
Another wonderful peculiarity of these adventurers, is that they plunge into any wilderness, undertake any journey, without map or compass & without the slightest knowledge of the Geography of the country over which they are to travel. It would seem that Providence has a special charge of these people as of children, idiots, & drunkards — but this is only partially so — Many parties get through all right as by a miracle. These we hear of & wonder at. We never hear of the great number of parties that don’t get through & which disappear & leave no sign. The great majority of these men are outcasts & vagabonds long bereft — self bereft — of all ties of blood or kindred. They disappear from one section. If they turn up in another all right. If not, there are no anxious friends to wonder why, or to institute inquiries — They disappear & that is the last of them. The how, the why & the wherefore are never known, because never inquired into — the poor victim of last night was buried where he lay, & I doubt if any one in this camp even knows his name.”