Regrettable and complex, Roosevelt’s attitude toward Native Americans is reflective of his entire nation’s attitude toward Native Americans.
Here, Roosevelt goads his reluctant friend into relating one of the most desperate struggles of his friend’s life, because the event also happened to be one of the most famous gunfights of the American West.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“Trapped by a War Party”
from The Wilderness Hunter
Accidents are common. Men break their collar-bones, arms, or legs by falling when riding at speed over dangerous ground, when cutting cattle or trying to control a stampeded herd, or by being thrown or rolled on by bucking or rearing horses; or their horses, and on rare occasion even they themselves, are gored by fighting steers. Death by storm or in flood, death in striving to master a wild and vicious horse, or in handling maddened cattle, and too often death in brutal conflict with one of his own fellows–any one of these is the not unnatural end of the life of the dweller on the plains or in the mountains.
But a few years ago other risks had to be run from savage beasts, and from the Indians. Since I have been ranching on the Little Missouri, two men have been killed by bears in the neighborhood of my range; and in the early years of my residence there, several men living or travelling in the country were slain by small war-parties of young braves. All the old-time trappers and hunters could tell stirring tales of their encounters with Indians.
My friend, Tazewell Woody, was among the chief actors in one of the most
noteworthy adventures of this kind. He was a very quiet man, and it
was exceedingly difficult to get him to talk over any of his past
experiences; but one day, when he was in high good-humor with me for
having made three consecutive straight shots at elk, he became quite
communicative, and I was able to get him to tell me one story which
I had long wished to hear from his lips, having already heard of it
through one of the other survivors of the incident. When he found that I
already knew a good deal old Woody told me the rest.
It was in the spring of 1875, and Woody and two friends were trapping on
the Yellowstone. The Sioux were very bad at the time and had killed
many prospectors, hunters, cowboys, and settlers; the whites retaliated
whenever they got a chance, but, as always in Indian warfare, the
sly, lurking, bloodthirsty savages inflicted much more loss than they
The three men, having a dozen horses with them, were camped by the
river-side in a triangular patch of brush, shaped a good deal like a
common flat-iron. On reaching camp they started to put out their traps;
and when he came back in the evening Woody informed his companions that
he had seen a great deal of Indian sign, and that he believed there were
Sioux in the neighborhood. His companions both laughed at him, assuring
him that they were not Sioux at all but friendly Crows, and that
they would be in camp next morning; “and sure enough,” said Woody,
meditatively, “they _were_ in camp next morning.” By dawn one of the men
went down the river to look at some of the traps, while Woody started
out to where the horses were, the third man remaining in camp to get
breakfast. Suddenly two shots were heard down the river, and in another
moment a mounted Indian swept towards the horses. Woody fired, but
missed him, and he drove off five while Woody, running forward,
succeeded in herding the other seven into camp. Hardly had this been
accomplished before the man who had gone down the river appeared, out of
breath with his desperate run, having been surprised by several Indians,
and just succeeding in making his escape by dodging from bush to bush,
threatening his pursuers with his rifle.
These proved to be but the forerunners of a great war party, for when
the sun rose the hills around seemed black with Sioux. Had they chosen
to dash right in on the camp, running the risk of losing several of
their men in the charge, they could of course have eaten up the three
hunters in a minute; but such a charge is rarely practised by Indians,
who, although they are admirable in defensive warfare, and even in
certain kinds of offensive movements, and although from their skill in
hiding they usually inflict much more loss than they suffer when matched
against white troops, are yet very reluctant to make any movement where
the advantage gained must be offset by considerable loss of life.
The three men thought they were surely doomed, but being veteran
frontiersmen and long inured to every kind of hardship and danger,
they set to work with cool resolution to make as effective a defence
as possible, to beat off their antagonists if they might, and if this
proved impracticable, to sell their lives as dearly as they could.
Having tethered the horses in a slight hollow, the only one which
offered any protection, each man crept out to a point of the triangular
brush patch and lay down to await events.
In a very short while the Indians began closing in on them, taking every
advantage of cover, and then, both from their side of the river and from
the opposite bank, opened a perfect fusillade, wasting their cartridges
with a recklessness which Indians are apt to show when excited. The
hunters could hear the hoarse commands of the chiefs, the war-whoops and
the taunts in broken English which some of the warriors hurled at them.
Very soon all of their horses were killed, and the brush was fairly
riddled by the incessant volleys; but the three men themselves, lying
flat on the ground and well concealed, were not harmed. The more daring
young warriors then began to creep toward the hunters, going stealthily
from one piece of cover to the next; and now the whites in turn opened
fire. They did not shoot recklessly, as did their foes, but coolly and
quietly, endeavoring to make each shot tell. Said Woody: “I only fired
seven times all day; I reckoned on getting meat every time I pulled
trigger.” They had an immense advantage over their enemies, in that
whereas they lay still and entirely concealed, the Indians of course had
to move from cover to cover in order to approach, and so had at times
to expose themselves. When the whites fired at all they fired at a man,
whether moving, or motionless, whom they could clearly see, while the
Indians could only shoot at the smoke, which imperfectly marked the
position of their unseen foes. In consequence the assailants speedily
found that it was a task of hopeless danger to try in such a manner to
close in on three plains veterans, men of iron nerve and skilled in the
use of the rifle. Yet some of the more daring crept up very close to the
patch of brush, and one actually got inside it, and was killed among the
bedding that lay by the smouldering camp-fire. The wounded and such of
the dead as did not lie in too exposed positions were promptly taken
away by their comrades; but seven bodies fell into the hands of the
three hunters. I asked Woody how many he himself had killed. He said
he could only be sure of two that he got; one he shot in the head as
he peeped over a bush, and the other he shot through the smoke as
he attempted to rush in. “My, how that Indian did yell,” said Woody,
retrospectively, “_he_ was no great of a Stoic.” After two or three
hours of this deadly skirmishing, which resulted in nothing more serious
to the whites than in two of them being slightly wounded, the Sioux
became disheartened by the loss they were suffering and withdrew,
confining themselves thereafter to a long range and harmless fusillade.
When it was dark the three men crept out to the river bed, and taking
advantage of the pitchy night broke through the circle of their foes;
they managed to reach the settlements without further molestation,
having lost everything except their rifles.