Indians in Trail Narratives

“The Indians couldn’t win. They were the “best light cavalry in the world” as one army officer praised them, but they had to resort to stealth and the cover of night for their depredations. Pilfering and begging was their way of life, if we are to believe the pioneers. Skillful enough in plains warfare to overcome the horse-and-mule train guard in silence, they were clumsy enough to be spotted at night by Luella Dickenson’s greenhorn husband on guard duty, who crept up on two of them without their knowledge. The Indians in the narratives do seem more like creations of the whites’ expectations and fears than real people; very few of the reported incidents of Indian thieving, violence, and cruelty were actually witnessed by the writer. Always the atrocities occur in the other wagon train, the train “in advance of us,” or in a settlement before the writer’s company arrived. Perception of the Indian seems to have been formed east of the Mississippi, and little that happened west of that river changed the minds of many whites, nor was any experience going to be allowed to interfere with formulations already made. Doctor Wayman is one of the few observers who looked at Indians rather than at The Indian: “this afternoon I visited an Indian village,” he wrote in his diary entry of 21 July 1852, “and bought a good pair of Moccasins. They had 7 skin tents and as many families, in the whole, presenting all specimens from the most dirty ragged and filthy creatures up to some very fine looking men and squaws. These are the most noble looking that we have yet seen[.] They are sharp traders.”