THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY

 

NOVEMBER 2015 BOOK REVIEW

This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Summer 2014, Volume 60, Number 3)

CHEYENNE WAR: Indian Raids on the Roads to Denver 1864-1869

By Jeff Broome. Sheridan, Colorado, Aberdeen Books, 2013. 528 pages, inc. illustrations, maps, notes, index and fold-out map. Hardcover. ISBN 978-09713852-4-5. $45.00. 

Subtitled ‘Indian Raids on the Roads to Denver 1864-1869’, this substantial and well-presented book is a history of Indian troubles centred around Denver and the approaches to that city during the last two-thirds of the eighteen sixties. Author Jeff Broome will be well known to Indian wars students for his previous books: Dog Soldier Justice and Custer into the West. EWS members will also have enjoyed his Brand Book article: Wild Bill Hickok’s Hays City Brawl With Soldiers of Custer’s 7th Cavalry. As with the first of those publications, he has again relied heavily upon Indian Depredations Claims records as a source for this work.

Indian Depredations Claims were claims for compensation brought against the U.S. government by civilians who claimed to have suffered financial loss at the hands of Indians. Compensation was not payable for physical injury or death. The claims were rigorously assessed and any compensation duly authorised was deducted from annuities or other payments payable to the tribe found to be culpable. No other author has studied the minutiae of depredation claims relating to the central Plains area – and, in particular, Colorado – nor made such use of this material, to the same extent as Jeff Broome. He has certainly mined an untapped mass of neglected historical evidence.

The book contains a wealth of never before published information about these Indian raids, and the author has very ably reconstructed the locations and events concerned. This is not an easy task, as the available literature is incomplete and sometimes rather hazy when dealing with the details of these troubled times. This task could probably not have been achieved without recourse to the depredations claims that Broome has spent years studying. Nevertheless, the reader is sometimes left with the impression that the accounts of events given by the military or settlers are relied upon too readily without adequate consideration of Indian sources. Indeed, when Indian sources are cited, there is an inescapable sense that they are readily dismissed as unreliable, if they do not match the Anglo-American accounts. 

The author clearly had the intention of presenting what he sees as a more balanced account of Indian/U.S. relations in Colorado in the 1860s. That balance is however heavily in favour of white Americans, at the expense of the Indians. In his Preface and Introduction, Broome states that “there’s always some element of ‘slant’ or ‘spin’” and that his spin is to “recover the lost civilian perspective.” This perspective is often couched in rather emotive terms, with descriptions of “screaming warriors” evoking numerous old Hollywood westerns.   

It helps to put these events in context. Although this book focuses on the period from 1864 to 1869, it might have been better to start looking at the experiences of settlers in Colorado from 1858, when white Americans, drawn by a gold rush in what is now the Denver area, started to move into the Cheyenne country. Before that year, whites in what is now Colorado probably numbered no more than a few hundred and it is unlikely that there were more than ten thousand Indians within the same area. Colorado Territory was originally the western third of Kansas Territory, but was divided off in 1861, becoming a territory in its own name, with the addition of extra parcels of land to the west, north and south gained, respectively from the territories of Utah, Nebraska and New Mexico. Colorado Territory, which has the same borders as the modern state, covered an area of approximately 270,000 square kilometres (the area of the UK is less than 244,000 square kilometres). By 1860, Colorado’s white population was just over 34,000. By 1870, it was just under 40,000. By that date, the Indian population had decreased considerably, with most of the Indians in western Colorado having been displaced to Indian Territory.

The catalyst for the fighting described in this book was essentially a clash of cultures. On one side, white Americans who believed that they had a right, indeed a duty, to make a proper use of land that they considered to be neglected by the indigenous occupants. In this, they had been encouraged by a government seeking to escape an economic recession by expansion and fresh resources from gold mining. Against this, the Indians strove to maintain their traditional lifestyle in the face of constant encroachment on their land and the reduction in game upon which they relied for food.

Over a ten year period from 1858, the majority of the Indians in eastern Colorado – predominantly Cheyennes and Arapahoes – were driven from their tribal lands. At first, this removal was achieved largely by persuasion. In fact, looking at the level of social upheaval involved, it is arguable that this process involved little actual fighting. There was inevitably some friction however as people will not readily relinquish their homeland. Indeed, the friction was aggravated by the failure of the US government to wholly stick to the terms of its agreement with the tribes. It was in this context that the fighting described in this book took place. By 1864, the Colorado settlers felt marginalised as the government concentrated on the Civil War, fought mainly in the east. They undoubtedly feared an Indian uprising of the kind that had occurred in Minnesota in 1862. Against this, the Indians had become frustrated and demoralised by being driven from their territory without proper compensation.

Whilst understanding that the author wanted to set out the settlers’ versions of these Indian troubles, as opposed to presenting a balanced account based upon a variety of sources, this approach risks producing a misleading picture of events. An example of this is the description of the attack by Cheyennes upon the Eubanks family in August 1864 which is dealt with in chapter 3. This was undoubtedly a traumatic experience for the settlers subjected to the attack, as eight or nine of them were killed. It would have been particularly harrowing for Lucinda Eubanks and her two young children who were taken captive, together with neighbours, Laura Roper and Ambrose Asher. Lucinda and Laura were seriously mistreated and subjected to sexual abuse, although all five captives were ultimately released. The horror of this experience for the five captives cannot be denied, but the author seems to see no irony in, nor to express any regret that one of the Indians who arranged for Lucinda Eubanks to be released – an Oglala Lakota named Two Face – was hanged by the military, even though his worst sin was to have possibly have allowed Mrs Eubanks to be beaten whilst she was in his custody. Reprehensible, but hardly justifying his execution.

Further, the book claims that Two Face was one of the leaders of the war parties, even though this is nowhere claimed in what the author describes as a “fuller account of this deadly raid,” Ronald Becher’s Massacre Along the Medicine Road. Instead, it seems that this claim is made on the basis of a statement by Valentine T. McGillycuddy, the Indian Agent at Pine Ridge Reservation. Bearing in mind that we are led to understand that the depredation claims were made upon the basis of contemporary statements, it is surprising to learn – 41 pages later in the book – that McGillycuddy’s statement relied upon enquiries made in 1884, 19 years after the event. This considerably undermines the claim that the statements are contemporaneous.

Nevertheless, this book often makes compelling reading, especially when we are presented with eye witness accounts of the events. The fact that the author has provided lengthy extracts from these accounts is particularly valuable. This reviewer had three nagging concerns when reading these recollections, however. Firstly, the author states in his Preface and Introduction that he has changed the accounts from the third to the first person and, where possible, has inserted the specific Lakota divisions in place of the generic ‘Sioux’. Bearing in mind that a book of this length and detail is not aimed at the general reader, I would have preferred the statements to be reproduced verbatim, so that we were reading exactly what the witness had actually sworn to.

My second concern arises from another comment made by Broome in the Preface and Introduction: “the closer the recorded event is to the time of the event the more likely the reported facts are true.” This statement seems to have escaped the copy editor’s eye, but seems to be saying that an account given soon after an event is more likely to be accurate than a recollection produced many years later. All things being equal, this must be true. Unfortunately, except in a very few instances, the book does not tell us when the statements were made and some internal evidence (such as the McGillycuddy reference mentioned above) suggests that they were made many years later.

The third matter that disrupted this reviewer’s reading of the book was the near constant assumption that the Indians were always in the wrong and the white Americans always justified in their actions. The continued couching of references to chiefs such as Black Kettle and White Antelope in terms intended to place blame upon them for the depredations, without any balanced analysis of the conflicting evidence, makes the reader constantly question the author’s statements (for example, White Antelope, aged 75 in 1864, is described in one report as leading a raid during that year). In fairness to the author, he does point out that White Antelope could not have led one raid, as alleged, in 1865, as he had been killed at Sand Creek, in November 1864.

Some of the settlers were undoubtedly treated brutally. But it needs to be borne in mind that the Indians were treated barbarically by some whites, particularly at Sand Creek, where women and children were killed, together with at least one young man – Jack Smith, mixed-blood son of an Indian trader – who was executed after he had surrendered. Further, there is evidence that both sides sexually abused female prisoners on the frontier.

It is also troubling that some statements from the depredations claims are put forward without apparent analysis. For example, on page 62, we are told that according to one claim, Kiowa Chief Kicking Bird – identified by his horse – was killed during an attack on 18 July 1864. On the following page, an attack two days later is attributed to Kicking Bird according to another claimant who purported to have recognised the chief. No other evidence is presented however to qualify these apparently conflicting accounts. It is in fact well-established that Kicking Bird died in 1875.

This is a very well produced book – although it would have benefited from some rigorous copy editing. It has numerous illustrations and maps, including a fold out colour map of the area of the fighting. This reviewer found the appendix: ‘Locating Stage Stations on the Denver Road’ particularly interesting. Whilst there is much valuable historical material in this book, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the author has missed an opportunity to make the best use of it. A chronological collection of each of the claims under consideration, with the supporting statements reproduced verbatim, coupled with balanced annotations would have appealed more to this reviewer. As it is, this is a work that is by turns both fascinating and frustrating. Those with a particular interest in this era will still want to read this work, but they would be well advised to do so with a very critical eye.

Gary Leonard

 

 

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