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.