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Abraham Lincoln one afternoon sat listening to the members of a committee arguing. The next day he heard them arguing more without arriving anywhere. In a pause, he said, "I am reminded of old Zeke Williams out in my home town. Zeke was the finest rifle shot with his Brown Bess in those parts. One day he took his young son out hunting with him. They approached a tree. Said Zeke, 'Boy, shake that 'ar tree. They's a squirrel in it.' The lad shook the tree, the father blazed away, but nothing happened. Said Zeke, 'Shake that 'ar tree again.' The boy obeyed. The father blazed away and still nothing happened. The father brought his gun down from his shoulder and almost wept as he said, 'I must be gettin' old. I can't hit 'em no more.' The son was very sorry for his father. So he went and looked the tree all over. Seeing no sign of a squirrel, he came over to his father and gazed intently into the old man's face. 'Why pap,' exclaimed the boy, 'That 'ar ain't no squirrel in the tree. That 'ar a louse on your eyebrow.'."
If Lincoln were alive today, I fear he'd discover p93 many lice on our eyebrows — many fancies about our past that are contrary to reality. And nowhere would he find more than in our mistaken notions of the Indian struggles in our West. Soldiers fighting Indians! That's what the school histories lead us to see. We get the feeling that the soldier was a bloodthirsty fellow who loved to go out before breakfast and kill a few redmen for pastime. The truth of the matter is that he was the best and almost the only friend the Indian had. The reason for this relationship is natural and simple. The soldier had no personal gain to get from the West. He wanted nothing that belonged to the redman. If he were out for greed, as the settlers, traders, trappers and adventurers too often were, he wouldn't have been a soldier at his paltry wage. And as a hardy fellow, he appreciated the good points in other hardy fellows like the Indians. So let us look at real scenery and not at lice for a few minutes. Here is the tale of the Modocs.
The Modocs had always been a peaceable tribe, often assisting the whites in their undertakings, and even going so far as to help save a California town from fire. The government had made a treaty with them. As usual it violated it. All that these Indians asked was to be moved to a small strip of land, no good to anybody. General Canby, known as the p94 Indian's friend, tried to make the Indian Agents and Washington see the point of view of these redmen and begged and entreated that their simple request be granted. But the powers stubbornly refused. The Indians, denied and double-crossed, went on the warpath. The soldiers were ordered to fight them. In the ensuing engagements many of them were killed. But that was not all. General Canby, Dr. Thomas and other soldiers, in trying to carry out the government's unjust orders, were killed also. The very men who had tried to avert injustice and bloodshed, were butchered. Dr. Thomas' son has always claimed that the government murdered his father. But the tragic irony of this whole affair is that after all this debauch of human life and craze of injustice, General Canby's advice was finally heeded. Those that were left of the Modocs, were transported to where they wanted to go in the first place. But General Canby and many another good soldier and Indian were dead. This story does not stand alone by any means. That of the Nez Perce's is even worse. This tribe was more peaceful, high-minded and friendly than the Modocs. From the time that it had helped the Lewis and Clark expedition, way back after our Revolution, it had held uninterrupted good-will with the whites. But the government defrauded these Indians of a little strip of poor land p95 where they wanted to go. They asked to be taken there. Chief Joseph, handsome, intelligent, upright, patiently pleaded his cause. General Howard naturally interceded and begged the government to let them go. But he also like Canby was met with curt refusal, over and over again. After long drawn‑out insults by our government, the Nez Perce's rebelled, and Howard was ordered to fight them. An officer and thirty-three of our soldiers were killed in the first action. Then began a chase through three territories. In one instance, so few were the troops that a general had to use a rifle himself and was severely wounded. The tribe was finally captured after much loss of life to white and redman. The government, contrary to General Miles's recommendation, transported what remained of the tribe to an unhealthful region where they quickly perished. And that was our way of disposing of the Nez Perces. The Ute uprising of 1879 was in principle a repetition of these events. Major Thornburghº and a large part of his command were killed because of the stubbornness of an Indian Agent.
Let's look for a moment at another tribe. In 1870 the Apaches, the most subtle redmen we've ever dealt with, broke from their reservations and went upon the warpath. The cause as usual was our injustice. Colonel George Crook with a small force p96 was sent against them. He was the kind of man who believed in a square word rather than a round bullet. He was in every way (unlike his name) the kind of man you'd want your boy to be like. But he faced a racking problem. The Apache country in the rugged Sierras was one of the toughest spots anybody could search, and when you added to it a wily Indian, ready to snare you at every turn, you had something that looked hopeless. It meant that the soldier had to master the country, know the valleys, streams, canyons, water holes, and unexplored mountain ranges; and hang doggedly on the trail, hour by hour, day by day through exhausting privation and bitter disappointment. Crook trailed the Apaches, but not with menace or threats. With a small escort he sought out the chiefs, ever imperilling his life by exposing himself. After months of effort he succeeded in getting a few of the chiefs to come in for a talk. Little by little his strong personality and shining integrity led them to listen to him. More chieftains came in. At length they talked to him freely, and he in turn saw that they were well cared for. He offered them forgiveness for any past misdeeds and urged a life of peace. Slowly they began to believe in him. At the end of six years of utmost patience he had calmed them, brought them into the reservations and made them contented — without bloodshed.
p97 But then the Sioux uprising called him and his troops away to the north, because of the smallness of the army. Crook, a general now, tried to round up the Sioux with two thousand soldiers, whom he had drained the west to get. Conditions there wouldn't permit him to use his Apache methods. Even under his able leadership he was nearly trapped and reduced to starvation. All he could do was to make his escape and let the Indians roam on. The Sioux were too strong for his puny force. Meanwhile the Apaches were left to the control of Indian Agents, who mishandled, defrauded and abused them. So awful did the conditions become, that even in the east the President felt obliged to send General Crook back to the Apaches in 1882. There Crook, after six years' absence, found his previous work had been worse than undone. The Agents had ejected the Indians from their reservations because silver had been found there, had thrown them into prison to languish for months without trial, starved them, stolen their crops and in general treated them like cattle. Crook set himself to win them back by his old methods. But it was a monstrous task now, since the Indian had been infuriated afresh and had lost faith in all whites. In his old, bold way Crook set out through the trails to investigate complaints and find out the causes. Fortunately the Indians recognized p98 and remembered him. They told him stories that would have wrung pity from a hardened criminal. But the way they met him — a real friend and champion after all these years of cruelty — was pathetic in its child-like appeal. The faces of the old men brightened and the squaws wept when they saw him again. The chieftain, Old Pedro, with dimmed eyes spoke to him pitifully. His words were taken down at the time and here they are:
"When you, General Crook, were here, whenever you said a thing, we knew it was true, and we kept it in our minds. When Colonel Green was here, our women and children were happy and our young people grew up contented. And I remember Brown, Randall, and the other officers who treated us kindly and were our friends. I used to be happy. Now I am all time thinking and crying, and I say, 'Where is old Colonel John Green, and Randall, and those other good officers, and what has become of them? Where have they gone? Why don't they come back? And the young men all say the same thing'."
That was how the Indian in his simple faith, trusted and regarded the soldier, who was too often unjustly sent out to fight him. And how do you suppose the soldier felt when he had to? Certainly he could have no relish for such dismal, perilous work. Anyway Crook and his small command kept p99 up their exhausting efforts to avoid bloodshed. But all the while the Indian Agent Ring was sending out newspaper accounts of murder and depredations by the Indians, in order to involve Crook in a fight, which would drive the Indian away from the land on which the agents wished to profiteer. These stories Crook investigated and wherever he could, gave the lie to the rumor. Despite this knifing in the back, he again restored peace and contentment to the Apache — after two years.
And so I could recount for many evenings true incidents like this. In five years one regiment had sixty-seven battles and skirmishes and another marched •sixty-four hundred miles. In the first six years after the Civil War, the army experienced two hundred three actions with the redmen. And Indian troubles didn't dwindle out until over 30 years after the Civil War. But the uphill work with the redman was by no means all that the soldier had to encounter. Between 1886 and 1895, he was called upon to restore order in civil uprisings throughout every state and territory in our country to the number of three hundred twenty-eight. And he accomplished these tasks with almost no bloodshed. The show of trained force was enough, small as it was. But during all this time when the soldier was enduring the hardships of intense heat and cold, and running untold p100 risks for his nation, his work was little understood or appreciated. Once Congress tried to reduce the army to ten thousand, which would have brought on more slaughter, especially to the whites, and prolonged the Indian troubles indefinitely. Fortunately the reduction didn't succeed. But something else did. No appropriation for the pay of the army for the fiscal year 1877‑78 was made by Congress, and this right after the Custer fight. The soldier without his meager wage had to borrow money at interest, in order to live — to go on — go on enduring rude conditions and the hazards of life and death. There was a faction back east which believed the Indian should be exterminated. There was another which believed the Indian was right and should be left alone. There were very few who realized that there were good Indians and bad Indians just as there are good and bad white men. When the soldier lost battles, he was investigated. When he won some, he was branded as a butcher. Meanwhile the settlers were crowding in and had to be protected, and the Indian Agent Ring was forcing Crook, Canby, Howard, Miles and many others into fights they wished to avoid.
But the soldiers' position was unfortunate mostly because his force was not large enough to awe the Indian into peace without fighting. For no one p101 more than the Indian respected size. He was an expert scout and had a keen eye for numbers. One hundred thousand soldiers would doubtless have cut the losses in half. And had the government used the Indian with common decency, they would have been cut to nothing. We talk a lot about the violation of Belgium and we are justly enraged at the Germans. But the Germans at least didn't murder their soldiers in addition to their enemies. Are there lice on our eyebrows? Are there sins of our own? Greater sins?
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Page updated: 16 Sep 20