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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 21, 2004 - Issue 107


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Running The Gantlet
A Thrilling Incident of Early Days at Fort Snelling - Part One

from Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. Volume 1
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

[The above very interesting and graphic article, originally appeared in an eastern periodical a number of years ago, and was copied by others quite extensively. It was anonymous, but in its style bears conclusive evidence that its author was Wm. J. Snelling, (son of Col. Josiah Snelling). Those who are familiar with his writings need no other proof. Moreover, it must have been written by some one who was an eyewitness of the incidents, which Mr. S. was -- and one of the very few spectators capable of so graphically describing it. Joseph, (or as, for some reason, he usually wrote himself) Wm. J. Snelling, was a son of Col. Josiah Snelling by his first wife. He was born in Boston, Dec. 26, 1804; spent some time at West Point, and when his father took command of Fort St. Anthony he repaired to that post, where he lived seven years. He mixed constantly with the Dakotas, "living in their lodges" as he says, "sharing their food and blankets," thus acquiring a very perfect knowledge of their habits, language, religion and legends, as his subsequent writings show, He acted as a guide and interpreter for Maj. Long's expedition in 1823, when he was only 19 years old. After leaving the frontier he went to Boston, and led a literary life, contributing to periodicals and newspapers. In 1830 he published an interesting work entitled "Tales of the North West; or Sketches of Indian Life and Character." This valuable contribution to our knowledge of the Dakotas was also anonymous, and is how rare. Mr. Snelling died in 1848, his latter years impaired by his addiction to an unfortunate vine which alone prevented him from attaining the fame as an author that his real genius warranted. --In vol. 3, Minn. Historical Collections, p. 16, Mrs. Van Cleve, an eye-witness of the tragic events described in this article, has also given a very interesting account of the same, in some portions with more circumstantiality’s than Mr. Snelling.--W.]]

Perhaps some of our readers may have seen Carver or Schoolcraft's Travels. If they have, it may be that they know, albeit neither of the books is worth a brass pin as authority, that the Chippewa and Dakota tribes have waged war against each other so long that the origin of their hostility is beyond the ken of man. General Pike persuaded them to make peace in 1805, but it lasted only till his back was turned. The agents for the government have brought about several treaties between the tribes, in which forgiveness and friendship for the future, were solemnly promised. Indian hereditary hate is stronger than Indian faith, and these bargains were always violated as soon as opportunity occurred. Nevertheless, our Executive gave orders, in 1825, that a general congress of all the belligerent tribes on the frontier should be held at Prairie du Chien. They flocked to the treaty ground from all quarters, to see the sovereignty or majesty (we know not which is the better word) of the United States, ably represented by Governors Cass and Clark, who acted as Commissioners.

The policy of the United States on this occasion was founded on an error. It supposed that the quarrels of the Indians were occasioned by a dispute concerning the boundaries of their respective territories. Never was a treaty followed by more unhappy results, at least as far as it concerned the Dakotas.

They concurred in the arrangement of their boundaries proposed by the Commissioners, as they do in every measure proposed by an American officer, thinking that compulsion would otherwise be used. But they were not satisfied, nor had they reason to be, for their ancient limits were grievously abridged. All the Indians present had, or imagined they had, another cause of complaint. They had been supplied with food, while the congress lasted, by the United States, as was the reasonable practice, for they cannot hunt and make treaties at one and the same time. Dysentery supervened on the change of diet. Some died on the ground, and a great many perished on the way from Prairie du Chien to their hunting grounds. Always suspicious of the whites, they supposed that their food had been poisoned; the arguments of their traders could not convince them of the contrary, and hundreds will die in that belief.

Moreover, they did not receive such presents as the British agents had been wont to bestow on them, and they complained that such stinginess was beneath the dignity of a great people, and that it also showed a manifest disregard of their necessities. They were especially indignant at being stinted in whiskey. It behooved the Commissioners, indeed, to avoid the appearance of effecting any measure by bribery, but the barbarians did not view the matter in that light. To show them that the liquor was not withheld on account of its value, two barrels were brought upon the ground. Each dusky countenance was instantly illuminated with joy at the agreeable prospect, but they were to learn that there is sometimes a "slip between the cup and the lip." Each lower jaw dropped at least six inches when one of the Commissioners staved in the heads of the casks with an ax. "It was a great pity," said old Wakhpakootay, speaking of the occurrence, "it was a great pity! There was enough to have kept me drunk all the days of my life." Wakhpakootay's only feelings were grief and astonishment, but most of his fellows thought that this making a promise to the eye in order to break it to the sense was a grievous insult, and so they continue to regard it to this day.

The next year, a small party of Chippewas came to St. Peters, (about which there are four Dakota villages,) on pretence of business with "their father," the agent, (Maj. Taliaferro,) but in reality to beg ammunition, clothing, and, above all, strong drink. The Dakotas soon gathered about the place with frowns on their faces and guns in their hands. Nevertheless, three of the Chippewas ventured to visit the Columbian Fur Company's trading house, two miles from the Fort. While there, they became aware of their danger, and desired two of the white men attached to the establishment to accompany them back, thinking that their presence might, be some protection. They were in error. As they passed a little copse, three Dakotas sprung from behind a tog with the speed of light, fired their pieces into the face of the foremost, and then fled. The guns must have been double loaded, for the man's head was literally blown from his shoulders, and his white companions were spattered with his brains and blood. The survivors gained the Fort without farther molestation. Their comrade was buried on the spot where he fell. A staff was set up on his grave, which became a landmark, and received the name of "The Murder Pole." The murderers boasted of their achievement and with impunity. They and their tribe thought they had struck a fair blow on their ancient enemies, in a becoming manner. It was only said that Toopunkah Zeze of the village of the Batture aux Fievres, and two others, had each acquired a right to wear skunk skins on their heels and war-eagles' feathers on their heads.

A winter passed, and the murdered man was not revenged. * * * In the following autumn, another party of Chippewas came to St. Peter's and as they remembered what had happened the year before, they took care to arrive just at, day-break, and proceeded directly to the fort. There were twenty-four persons in the band, eight of whom were warriors; the rest were women and children. The chief was Kweeweezaizhish, or the Flat Mouth, the great man of the Sandy Lake Chippewas. He led his little troop straight to the fort, where he unfurled and planted an American, flag, and then demanded an interview with the agent and commanding officer.

The Dakotas soon learned what was passing, and by the time the gates were opened, a considerable number of them had assembled to gaze upon the enemy. Presently the officers came forth, and desired the visitors to enter. "Be not angry, father," replied the Flat Mouth, "but I would rather say something here, before I enter your wigwam or eat your bread. I desire that these Nahtooessies (enemies) should hear it."

The Colonel (Snelling) sent for the Chippewa interpreter, and when he had come desired the chief to say on.

"Father," said the chief, "you know that more than a year since, we made peace with your Nahtooessie children, because you desired us. We have kept the peace and listened to your advice, as we always do, for our American fathers are wise men, and advise us for our good. These men know whether they have done so or not. I speak with a sick heart. We are but few here, and these men will not keep the peace with us. We ask you to protect us, as we would protect you, if you should come into our country."

The Colonel replied that he could have no concern with the quarrels of the Dakotas and Chippewas. If they fought anywhere else, he could not help it; but while they remained under his flag they should not be molested, provided they did not molest others. He bade them pitch their lodges on a spot within musket shot of the walls, and there, he said and thought, they would be safe. He would make their cause his own if any harm should come to them there. This speech being expounded to the Dakotas, they all exclaimed "Hachee! Hachee! Hachetoo!" --that is it! That is right!

The Flat Mouth then entered the Fort and partook of American hospitality. He then explained the object of his visit. It was the old story, repeated the thousandth time. They were very poor; they had left their friends at home with heavy hearts, and hoped that their father would give them something to make them glad. In short, the endless catalogue of Indian wants was summed by a humble petition for a little of their father's milk (whiskey) "to make them cry" for certain friends they had lost. This shameless beggary should not be taken as proof of want of spirit. The main point in their political code is equality of property; he that has two shirts thinks it a duty to give one to him who has none. He who has none thinks it no shame to ask one of him who has two. The effect of this system is, that they are always in want of everything, and the application of their own principle of action to their white neighbors makes their company excessively troublesome. It is true that they are willing to reciprocate, as far as lies in their power, but then they never have anything to give.

On the occasion in question, our Chippewa friends got, if not all they asked, yet more than they had expected. Then, after having entered the garrison with the Buffalo dance, they left the Fort, and set up their lodges as they had been directed.

In the afternoon Toopunkah Zeze arrived from the Batture aux Fievres, with seven of his own band and one other. They went directly to the Chippewa camp and entered the largest lodge, where it happened that there were just nine persons. The young Dakota above named held in his hand a pipe, the stem of which was gaily ornamented with porcupine's quills and hair stained red. The Chippewas spread skins for his party, shook hands with them, invited them courteously to be seated. They also directed the women instantly to prepare a feast of venison, corn and maple sugar, all of which articles were mixed together and placed before the Dakotas in brimming bowls When the entertainment was over, Toopunkah Zeze filled the peace-pipe he had brought and passed it round. None rejected it, and all might, therefore, consider themselves pledged to peace, if not to love. The conversation then became general and amicable. The Chippewa women coquetted with the Dakota youths, who seemed in no wise to consider them as enemies.

No Dakota is suffered to wear a war eagle's feather in his hair till he has killed his man. Toopunkah Zeze wore one for the Chippewa he had so treacherously slain the year before, as we have already related. One of the fair Chippewas noticed it. "You are young to wear that," said she.

"I shall wear another before I am much older," he replied.

Certainly after so reach friendly intercourse and so many demonstrations of good will; no one could have suspected any sinister purpose. The Chippewas, too, might have relied on their proximity to the Fort. But "the heart of man is desperately wicked." The Dakotas had shook hands and smoked the pipe of peace with their former foes, had eaten of their fat and drank of their strong. At last, at sunset, they took their guns and rose to depart. The eight foremost halted outside the door, while the last held it aside with his foot, and all discharged their guns into the lodge, excepting one, whose piece missed fire. The assassins gave the Indian cri de joi, and fled like deer.

The guns were heard in the Fort, and the news soon reached the commanding officer, who immediately ordered an officer [Note Mrs. Van Cleve says that her father, Capt. Nathan Clark, was the officer entrusted with this duty. Neill so slates, also, in his history, page 392. W.] to proceed to the nearest village with an hundred men, and apprehend as many Dakotas as possibly he could. No time was to be lost, for the night was fast coming up the horizon. The Chippewas, who were not hurt, joined the party. Circumstances proved favorable to the enterprise; just as the party left the gate, upwards of a hundred armed Dakotas appeared on a low ridge near the Fort. The captain divided his force, and dispatched one party round a small wood to take the enemy in the rear, while he advanced upon them in front. The Dakotas kept their ground firmly. Some covered themselves with the scattered scrub oak trees; others laid down in the long grass. Guns were already cocked when the detached party appeared in their rear. Then the Indians gave way. Most escaped, but thirty were taken and speedily conveyed to the Fort, where accommodations were provided for them in the guardhouse and the black hole. The Chippewas, too, removed their lodges into the Fort, and the wounded were carried to the hospital.

Eight balls had been fired into the Chippewa lodge, and every one took effect. The wounds were the most ghastly that we ever saw made by bullets. The party had been lying or reclining, on their mats; for there is no standing in a Chippewa lodge. Consequently the balls passed through their limbs diagonally tearing and cutting more than it is usual for pieces of lead to do, though as ragged as chewing can make them. One woman was killed outright, one man was mortally, and another severely wounded, the latter being shot through both ankle joints and crippled forever. All the rest were women and children, and more or less severely wounded. [Note In Mrs. Van Cleve's account, before referred to, it is stated that a little girl was mortally wounded. W.]]

There was weeping and wailing in the Chippewa lodges that night. The noisy lamentations of the women broke the rest of the whole garrison; but no one desired them to be silent, for the rudest soldier there respected the sincerity of their sorrow. Never were Indian knives driven deeper into squaw's flesh in token of grief than on that occasion. The practice of mortifying the body, on the death of friends, seems to be, and to have been common to all rude people. The Jews clothed themselves in sack cloth and threw ashes on their heads; Achilles refused to wash his face till the funeral rites had been performed over the body of Patroclus. Now, the male Chippewas blackened their faces, indeed, but they did not gash their arms. A soldier who spoke their language asked of the why they did not conform to the ancient usage of their nation. "Perhaps we shall have use for our guns to-morrow," replied the Little Soldier. "We must lose no blood, though our hearts bleed, for we must be able to see straight over our gun barrels."

The Little Soldier was right in his surmise and precaution. At early day dawn the commanding officer visited the wounded Chippewas, and asked them if they could recognize any of their aggressors, in ease they should appear before them. They replied eagerly in the affirmative. He then asked them why they had not been more on their guard. "We respected your flag," replied the mortally wounded man, "and thought that our enemies would do the same." The Colonel then asked whether they had given the Dakotas no provocation. "None," said the Chippewa, "but we endured much." He presented the peace pipe, which the Dakotas had brought with them, and said that the hair with which it was ornamented had belonged to a Chippewa head. We know not how he made the discovery, but it is well known to all who have lived on the frontier, that an Indian, on seeing a scalp, can tell, with unerring certainty, to what tribe it belongs.

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