THE BATTLE OF MASSACRE CANYON by J. W. Williamson

A score or more times I have been requested to write my personal recollections and experiences with the Pawnees on their buffalo hunt, which ended in a battle with their old enemy, the Sioux

 

So many stories have been written, all claiming to be authentic, that I have hesitated to pen for publication a true account of the battle which ended so disastrously for the Pawnees, knowing that it will differ in many respects, from accounts which have been published, heretofore.

 

In the spring of 1873, the Pawnees at the Genoa agency numbered 2,400, of this number 600 were fighting men or warriors. I had come to the agency three years previous and was working for the government at the time the Pawnees left on their last buffalo hunt. At this time buffaloes were feeding in the valley of the Platte, Loup, Niobrara and Republican rivers and their tributaries. The nearest buffaloes to Genoa were as far west as Plum Creek Station (now Lexington), and a place consisting of a few houses where Arapahoe now stands.

 

It was the custom of the Pawnees to hunt buffaloes twice a year. The summer hunt was for meat, tent material and moccasin leather, and the winter hunt was for meat and robes. The Government, in order to avoid clashes between the Pawnees and the Sioux, had divided the hunting grounds. The Sioux were confined to that part of the country north of the Niobrara River, and Pawnees to the country south of the Niobrara to the Kansas line

 

Named Trail Agents

 

To keep the Indians confined to the territory assigned them and to prevent them and to prevent them from molesting the homesteaders, who were pouring into the state and filing on the land, trail agents were appointed to accompany the Indians.

 

In May 1873, the Pawnees held a council meeting and decided to leave the agency on the summer hunt in July. Major Burgess, a Quaker, was agent at Genoa, and thru him the Indians made their request for permission to hunt, and also for the appointment of a trail agent to accompany them. Texas Jack (John Omahander) had acted as trail agent the previous year and made application for reappointment. George Clothier, of Columbus, also applied for the position, I did not apply for the place and was surprised when one of the chiefs came to me and informed me that they had decided to request the government appoint me to accompany them.

 

The Pawnees were made up of four different bands: The Skeedes, the Kitkahas, the Chowees and the Petahowerats. Each band had its head and sub-chiefs, but Petah La Shauro was the supreme head of the Pawnee nation, and if I am not mistaken, was the last chief to have that distinction, the position ending with the death of this noted Indian, who had always been friendly with white people. It was the custom to allow each band send an equal number on the buffalo hunts.

 

A few days before starting, a young man by the name of Platt, who was visiting his uncle, an Indian trader near Genoa, came to me and asked to go along and of course I had no objection, as he would be company for me. He was about my age and a fine fellow although not accustomed to western life and rather what we called a tender foot.

 

Start of the Hunt

 

On the second day of July 1873, the Pawnees, to the number of 700 left Genoa for the hunting grounds. Of this number 350 were men, the balance women and children. Most of the men were armed with bows and arrows, old fashioned muzzle loading rifles; a few had seven shot Spencer carbines, and some carried Colt’s powder and ball revolvers. All were mounted, and in addition, took with them 800 extra ponies to pack home the meats and hides.

 

Two hours before we stated for the hunting grounds, Chief Petah La Shauro sent for me. As I entered the council hall the old man extended his hand and addressed me in his own language, which was interpreted for me, although I understood Pawnee to some extent and later could speak the language fluently. In substance, the chief said: “You are a young man. You have never hunted buffaloes. I have instructed my people to take good care of you, and to obey you. I want you to feel at home on this trip. You will be the guest of my son, Sun Chief”.

 

A Splendid Specimen

 

The chief was about 60 years old at the time, a magnificent specimen of physical manhood for his years. I consider him, intellectually, the greatest Indian I ever met. Had he been an educated white man he would have taken his place as a leader in state and national affairs. He was kind, considerate, sympathetic, but firm and just in his position as head of the tribe.

 

Their way of traveling was on horseback, with extra horses to pack what they needed while on the hunt and to carry back the meat and hides to the reservation. An average of 10 to 15 miles a day was all they could cover. They would get up at break of day and be on their way to the next camping place by the time it was daylight without taking time to get anything to eat.

 

When a good camping place was located, the squaws would do all the work, and the men would hunt and lie around the balance of the time. The men were the first to eat and the squaws and children got whatever was left, and often there would be very little left.

 

At that time the county of Nance was their reservation and Genoa was the seat of the Pawnee Agency.

 

We started on our journey by crossing the Loup River two and one half miles south of the agency and camped on Prairie Creek about five miles from Silver Creek, went to the Platte river and followed up on the south side to near where Lowell now stands. There we had our first excitement. I went to the town to get a square meal and some of the Indians went along. At the time, a bunch of cowboys were in town for what they called a good time, drinking and shooting. I was standing in front of the hotel watching the excitement when I say a cowboy ride out in the street and grab the rope from an Indian what was leading his pony. He jerked it away from the Indian and started across the prairie with the pony. I got on my horse and took after him and when I overtook him, I rode between me and the pony, cut the rope and took the pony back to the Indian and told him to go down to the camp and tell the chiefs to send some of their men up, for I could see that there was going to be a rough time as the cowboys were riding up and down the street and raising Ned in general. I remember of them scaring a four-horse immigrant team so that they got into such a mix-up that the wagon was upset and the women and children were spilled out. It was not long before about 150 of the Pawnee warriors came riding into town and the handful of cowboys must have seen them for in a sot time there was not a cowboy to be seen anywhere.

 

There might be someone yet living there who remembers how the cowboys used to shoot up and down the streets and raise cain in general.

 

The next day we moved on up the Platte to Plum Creek station, now Lexington, and from there we crossed to the Republican River.

 

The first buffalo that we saw and got was about 5 to 8 miles from Plum Creek station, It was on a Sunday afternoon and scouts located a lone buffalo bull that had evidently been driven out of a herd by younger bulls. He was in a small canyon and the Indians lined up on each side of the canyon and shot their arrows into him until he looked like a porcupine. He was finally put out of his misery and died from loss of blood. After cutting him open the men would take their knives and cut out a piece of liver and sop it in blood and eat it raw. That was considered to be a brave act. They dared me to do the same. I did not intend to be outdone by them and looked upon as a coward, so I did likewise. They were surely a happy people after having killed a buffalo.

 

The country was not settled between Plum Creek station and Arapahoe. The only habitation was a sod house on the divide. As soon as the Indians saw it, some of the young me made for it. The first thing I knew the young devils were riding around the sod house as fast as their ponies would carry them. I started for the place, and I found a young woman standing in the door almost scared to death. Some of the Indians were

grinding their knives on a sandstone and others were riding around the house. I made them stop and they went away. The woman was alone, her husband had gone somewhere. She told me they came and begged for something to eat, and on being refused grew angry and began to tantalize her in that way. She surely was glad when they went away. I assured her that they would not bother her any more. I often have wondered what would have happened had they been without anyone to keep them from molesting anyone.

 

We then went on to the Republican and crossed the same at a place called Burton’s Bend and headed for the Beaver Creek.

 

Before we reached the Beaver, signs indicated that buffaloes had been in the vicinity recently, and scouts were thrown out, a suitable location for a camp selected and preparations made for the anticipated slaughter. No sooner had a halt been made than the scouts came riding in the reported that a herd of three or four hundred buffaloes were feeding on the south slope of the divide between the Beaver and the Prairie Dog Creeks.

 

No confusion

 

Among white men the announcement that buffaloes had been sighted would have created excitement and confusion. If the Pawnees were excited, it was not apparent from any outward signs. There was no confusion, no haste. At the command of the chief presiding that day the hunters formed in the shape of the letter V. At the point rode one of the scouts with a spear decorated with colored feathers. There was no noise, no disorder, as the procession moved over the prairie. The eye of every hunter was on the bunch of feathers on the end of the spear carried by the scout. Suddenly the feathers disappear. It is the signal that the hunt is on. With military precision that V-shaped formation straightens out, and 350 Indians and one white man sweep down the valley into that herd of buffaloes. Each hunter selects a buffalo for his legitimate prey, and cuts it out, and riding up by the side of the fleeing animal, shoots it down. Jumping from his pony, the hunter plunges his knife into the heart of the buffalo. In a short time the animal is skinned, the meat cut from around the bones, rolled into strips and bound together with thongs cut from the hide and placed on the pony and brought into camp and turned over to the squaws who cure the meat and tan the hides. For drying the meat the squaws erect willow poles where the meat is placed in strips and a few days is cured, and when ready for transportation on the backs of ponies, resembles dried lute fish, used by Swedes and Norwegians as a Christmas delicacy

 

There must have been some white hunters watching the same herd for we could see three or four covered wagons going for dear life down the valley ahead of the buffaloes. Whoever they were must have been pretty badly frightened when they saw all of a sudden three or four hundred Indian warriors heave in sight. I do not suppose that they thought that there was an Indian anywhere in that section of the country. I can see those

Fellows yet putting the bud to their horses and making their getaway as fast as their horses could carry them.

 

In this hunt one of the chiefs took charge of me and showed me how to cut out and kill my first buffalo. So expert were the Pawnees in killing buffaloes, that not one animal escaped death out of several herds attacked.

 

That night there was a great feast in camp. What Christian people call a prayer meeting was held, and the Great Spirit thanked for this kindness in sending his red children a bountiful supply of meat.

 

While the feast was going on, a long pole was placed in the center of the camp, and on this was hanging a large piece of cooked meat as a burnt offering to God.

 

Made a Killing

 

After leaving the south slope of the Beaver, we moved up the valley of the Prairie Dog, then down that stream to the Kansas line where another herd of buffaloes was killed and the meat cured. Retracing our steps, we went up the valley of the Prairie Dog for fifty miles, killing several small herds of buffalo enroute.

 

While hunting on the divide between the Beaver and Prairie Dog, I saw some of the Indian men riding around in a peculiar manner and I rode up to where they were and found that they had a white hunter corralled at the head of a canyon. The poor fellow was almost frightened to death and was standing up in his spring wagon swinging his arms and yelling at the top of his voice. I talked to the Indians and succeeded in getting them to quit. I think that fellow got out of that part of the country as quick as he could. I don’t think the Indians would have hurt him as long as he didn’t show fight. They might have robbed him and probably would have taken his horses had they not been made to quit.

 

On the fourth day of August we reached the north bank of the Republican River and went into camp. At 9 o’clock that evening, three white men came into camp and reported to me that a large band of Sioux warriors were camped twenty-five miles northwest, waiting for an opportunity to attack the Pawnees for several days, anticipating that we that we would move up the river where buffaloes were feeding. Previous to this, white men visited us and warned us to be on our guard against Sioux attacks, and I was a trifle skeptical as to the truth of the story told by our white visitors. But one of the men, a young man about my age at the time, appeared to be so sincere in his efforts to impress upon me that the warning should be heeded, that I took him to Sky Chief who was in command that day, for a conference. Sky Chief said the men were liars; that they wanted to scare the Pawnees away from the hunting grounds so that white men could kill buffaloes for hides. He told me I was squaw and a coward. I took exception to his remarks, and retorted: “I will go as far as you dare go. Don’t forget that.”

 

Now I will refer to the young man, Platt, who accompanied us on this hunt When it was discovered that the Sioux were going to attack us, he rode up to me and asked me what I was going to do and I told him I was going to stay and see it through. He said that he was going to leave us, which he did, and I did not blame him. I think I would have done the same thing, had I been in his place, as he was only going along for the pleasure he could get out of it, but it was different with me, and I could not think of leaving them and be branded as a coward and also be taken to task for shirking my duty, by the Indian office. The man who had charge of the Sioux did not stay with his Indians and was discharged from the service

 

Chief Died Fighting

 

The following morning August 5, we broke camp and started north, up the divide between the Republican and the Frenchman Rivers. Soon after leaving camp, Sky Chief rode up to me and extending his hand said, “Shake, brother.” He recalled our little unpleasantness the night previous and said he did not believe there was cause for alarm, and was so impressed with the belief that he had not taken the precaution to throw out scouts in the direction the Sioux were reported to be. A few minutes later a buffalo scout signaled that buffaloes had been sighted in the distance, and Sky Chief rode off to engage in the hunt. I never saw him again. He had killed a buffalo and was skinning it when the advance guard of the Sioux shot and wounded him. The Chief attempted to reach his horse, but before he was able to mount, several of the enemy surrounded him. He died fighting. A Pawnee, who was skinning a buffalo a short distance away, but managed to escape, told me how Sky Chief died.

 

A young Indian who was riding near me when buffaloes were reported in sight, borrowed my gun and rode off to engage in the hunt. He too was killed and I never saw him or the gun again.

 

We had not proceeded more than a mile after the departure of Sky Chief, when I noticed a commotion at the head of the procession, which had suddenly stopped. I stared to ride up where three of the chiefs were talking, when a boy of sixteen rode up and stopped me. Dismounting, he tied a strip of red flannel on the bridle of my house and after remounting, told me that the Sioux were coming. What significance was attached to the red flannel on the bridle I was never able to learn.

 

Sioux Were Coming

 

We were only about a hundred yards from the head of canyon or draw that extended down the river when the Sioux were reported coming, and orders were shouted down the line for squaws, children and pack ponies to take refuge in the canyon. The warriors were preparing to ride forth to meet the enemy. Coming to Chief Terra Recekons who was surrounded by several leading men of the Skeed band, I suggested that we file back down the canyon about two miles where there was a small growth of timber, and make a stand. The chief was in favor of the suggestion, but Fighting Bear, of the Kitahos, rebelled. He had fought the Sioux before and said we could whip them in an open fight, and it was finally decided to adopt his suggestion and make a stand on the ground we were on.

 

It seemed but a short time after the squaws and pack horses ha disappeared over the edge of the canyon, when the first Sioux appeared in the distance. Down the canyon rose a chant. It was the war song of the Pawnee nation, sung by the squaws as they stood side by side and rocked back and forth. Louder and louder grew the song as the enemy approached. I had loaded my revolvers and made up my mind to do my share of the fighting. As the Sioux came over the hill, it became apparent that they outnumbered the fighting me of the Pawnees four to one.

 

I afterwards leaned there was between twelve and fifteen hundred in the band under the command of Chief Snow Flake, a Brule Sioux and that most of his warriors belonged to that band. The Sioux were about a mile and a half away when the Pawnees noted they were greatly outnumbered and suggested to me that I go out and parley with them with a view of warding off the threatened attack. I rode out about three hundred yards accompanied by Ralph Weeks, a half breed interpreter, who afterwards studied law and was admitted to the bar in Oklahoma. H died a few years ago. Waving a handkerchief as a token of peace, I attempted to stop the Sioux, but on they came—the whole bunch of them. Suddenly the war whoop of the Sioux sounded, and several puffs of smoke from as many guns, and the whistle of bullets warned me that it was time to beat a retreat. The battle cry of the Sioux was answered with a cry of defiance from the Pawnee warriors, which denoted that a warm reception awaited the enemy. All the Indians were mounted, and as I reached the canyon the 350 Pawnees hurled themselves at the enemy. At the edge of the canyon my horse, which had been struck by one or more bullets, stumbled and fell. It took less than a minute to strip off the saddle and bridle and place them on my buffalo pony, a squaw was holding for me. Mounting my horse, I rode up from the canyon. The Pawnees were putting up a splendid fight, but the odds were against them. I blazed away with my revolvers and had fired several shots at the Sioux, when the Pawnee chiefs noticed that the 3enemy was surrounding the head of the canyon and gave orders of retreat. I did not understand the command, but when I noticed the squaws cutting the thongs that bound the packs of meat on the ponies and mounting with the children, I concluded it was about time to make a dash myself.

 

Chiefs In A Deal

 

A moment before the retreat commenced, I saw Fighting Bear engaged in a duel with a Sioux chief. I presumed he was a chief from the war bonnet he wore. Both chiefs were fighting with tomahawks. Taking deliberate aim, at close range, I fired at the Sioux. The bullet struck the mark and evidently wounded the chief which gave Fighting Bear an opportunity to finish him. Jumping from his horse the Pawnee chief scalped his enemy, remounted and grabbing the dead Sioux’s horse by the bridle joined in the retreat down the canyon

 

One thing, I remember, passed thru my mind as we were fleeing down the canyon. An old lady friend of mine had often asked me why I wore my hair so long, and had told me that it would be a very attractive scalp if I ever got mixed up in an Indian battle. When I saw the Sioux coming I thought of what the old lady had said and I did not lose any time in twisting my hair up and tucking it under my hat so it would not be so noticeable.

 

I often have thought of a little Indian girl, who evidently had fallen from her mother’s back, in our retreat down the canyon. She was sitting on the ground with her little arms raised as if pleading for someone to pick her up. As I passed I tried to pick her up and only succeeded in touching her hands. I couldn’t return so she was left behind to suffer a horrible death by the blood thirsty Sioux. Just imagine, dear reader, six or seven hundred Indians, men, women and children and as many ponies, all huddled together and going down the canyon, with a thousand blood thirsty savages shooting down on then,. In some places the canyon , was quite narrow, and caused them to almost stop, then was when the most of the lives were lost.