By Dennis Adler
Guns of the Gunfighters
We tend to think of American Indians as having been the enemy of white settlers in the early years of our nation, in truth it was more often a situation of coexistence and mutual cooperation than conflict.
And this was not limited to the trespass of the white man upon land controlled by Native Americans for centuries, but among individual tribes occasionally at war among themselves. It often proved to be in the best interest of both Indians and whites to find a middle ground despite language and cultural differences as a means to an end. A practice, however tenuous, that had been sustained for over 150 years by the end of the Civil War.
Colonists had been relying on Native American scouts since the French and Indian War (1754 to 1763), throughout the Revolutionary War, and more so as a young nation during the War of 1812, America’s second war of independence. Indians also fought on both sides throughout the Civil War, most notably Cherokee Chief and Confederate Brigadier General Stand Watie, who commanded Georgia’s 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles. Watie was the last Confederate General to surrender.
After the Civil War it was clear that Indian scouts were essential to effective troop deployments and battle strategies on the frontier, particularly in conflicts between the U.S. Cavalry and Plains Indian tribes fought throughout the 1870s. In point of fact, not only cavalrymen died at the battle of Little Big Horn in June of 1876, but U.S. Cavalry Indian scouts as well, including Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s favorite, Bloody Knife, a Hunkpapa Sioux who had been scouting for the 7th Cavalry since 1868.
He had accompanied Custer on numerous hunting trips and was at his side throughout the famous Yellowstone expedition of 1873.
It is worthy of note, that while the relationships between Native American tribes and the U.S. Government was incessantly problematic, the experiences on both sides were not always bad, particularly among Indian Scouts who had volunteered to serve with the cavalry and in their relationships with such legendary frontiersmen as Wm. F. Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, Frank North, Al Sieber, and Tom Horn, all of whom created lasting bonds with numerous Indian tribes.
Nearly every Native American tribe, at one time or another (from the 1700s to the late 1800s), served the needs of the U.S. Cavalry as scouts, trackers, and auxiliaries (Indian soldiers), often against other tribes, and as in the case of Bloody Knife, against the Sioux, his own people.
Some of the strongest allegiances were among Texas Rangers and Lipan Apaches in conflicts with the Comanches. The importance of Indian scouts to the cavalry was underscored by none other than Brigadier General George Crook, the most devoted champion of the scouts. Crook, who had been in pursuit of Geronimo and his small band of Chiricahua since 1882, finally had to rely on his Indian scouts to track the Apache leader to his hideout in 1886, which led to his “second” surrender to Crook in as many years.
Geronimo and his band escaped again from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona and headed back into Mexico, where they were tracked down by cavalry Indian scouts led by Tom Horn (then U.S. Army Chief of Scouts) and Lt. Charles B. Gatewood. The two were invited into Geronimo’s camp in September of 1886 where they convinced their old friend to surrender for the final time to General Nelson Miles
The use of Native Americans as cavalry scouts had become so vital by the 1880s that the Army began using the noun “scout” or the phrase “going on a scout,” for any kind of patrol, reconnaissance, or search-and-destroy mission. Scouting also included the tracking, trailing, and evaluation of an enemy’s strength.
This demanded tactics of stealth and good judgment learned from childhood, not what was taught at the Army’s war school or in boot camp. Crook noted that a Sioux boy was in training as a cavalryman from the time he could first sit on a horse. Scouts could see “signs” where most whites saw nothing at all.
As such, hostile tribes on the western frontier held little regard for the blue soldiers, and in so doing failed to comprehend how far the employment of Native American scouts, “wolves” as they were known among the hostiles, had extended the capabilities of the U.S. Army.
As noted by author and historian Thomas W. Dunlay, in his book Wolves for the Blue Soldiers, by the early 1870s “…the regularization of Indian scouts was symbolic of the society’s intention to bring all Indians under the regulation and control of the United States government. To many people the supposed lawlessness of the Indians seemed an anomaly in nineteenth-century America; the Indian scouts would be the instruments of white law, and they would also be among the first Indians whose activities were regulated.” While a lofty, if not self-serving, goal, the implementation of these principles proved almost impossible, and the consequences of countless misunderstandings have since filled volumes with tragic events. Suffice it to say, the U.S. Cavalry Indian scouts were the tip of a new sword that became more and more blunted as time passed.
While a great number of Indian scouts wore some form of U.S. Cavalry uniform, even rank, most preferred their traditional clothing, and festooned themselves with braided hair, head bands, jewelry, breastplates, and customary weapons, in addition to an issued Colt Single Action revolver and Springfield Trapdoor rifle. Others preferred to carry old Civil War era Henry and surplus Spencer repeating rifles, 1866 Winchesters, and when attainable, the latest 1873 models. One interesting historical fact is that Plains Indians developed the art of reloading metallic cartridges before it became common practice among white men!
Beginning in 1873 the revolvers issued to Indian scouts were the same Colt .45 Peacemakers allocated to regular troops, only scouts were supplied with nickel plated guns, as most ignored the routine maintenance requirements.
Nickel was more forgiving of missed cleanings and care. Over time the rifles and revolvers carried by Indian scouts were also decorated in tribal styles, leather bindings and hammered tacks on the stocks, wrist, and pistol grips adorned in a variety of traditional patterns.
Although cavalry issue holsters were made available (and can be seen in numerous photographs of Indian scouts taken in the 1870s), many chose handmade leather, tooled or stamped with tribal symbols as represented in the belt and double loop holster featured in this article, copied by Chisholm’s Trail Leather from an original.
The nickel-plated 7.5 inch Colt single action revolver shown is a new Pietta “Indian Scout” model for 2012 bearing the U.S. frame stamping seen on 1873 model revolvers issued to soldiers and Indian scouts.
. The walnut grips have been affixed with hammered brass tacks added by the author from original, documented patterns which often times included a cross on one side.
The Pietta “Indian Scout” exhibited the same quality of fit and finish and ease of use as all current Pietta single action Colt-style revolvers.
The guns are based on the later Colt smokeless powder frame design with transverse cylinder pin latch c. 1892 and feature the addition of a second stop on the pin, which when set (pushed and locked rearward) protrudes through the back of the recoil shield and blocks the hammer from striking a chambered round. An interesting and effective safety method but not a surefire guarantee; the hammer should always rest on an empty chamber, just like in the Old West.
Trigger pull on our test gun averaged a modest 2 lbs. 4.0 oz., indicative of the tuned actions presently offered as standard on all Pietta SA models. The tuned actions also render a hammer draw that is a slick 3 lbs. 14.0 oz. average, considerably lighter than most SA models with out-of-the-box actions.
Firing at a standard 50 ft. slow fire pistol target using a two-handed hold and Ten-X 200 gr. RNFP .45 Colt cartridges, average velocity measured 715 fps (feet per second) with a best group of five rounds measuring 1.25 inches center to center. This is a very accurate and easily handled six-shooter that would have handsomely filled the holster of any Indian scout or cavalry trooper on the western frontier.
The effectiveness of cavalry Indian Scouts
during the 1870s and 1880s might have been summed up best by Apache chief Cha-ut-lipun who surrendered to Gen. Crook and his troops in 1873, saying that, thanks to Crook’s Apache scouts his people could no longer sleep at night or light fires for fear of bringing the troops down on them; “We are not afraid of the Americans alone, but we cannot fight you and our own people together.”
Indian scouts proved essential to settling the West and to a greater extent than most realize, playing a sizeable role in providing an honorable alternative to endless and often futile battles; a belief that it was possible for both Indians and whites to cooperate and achieve the end that both desired. That it has not always turned out so, does not make their contributions any less important.