Indians & Emigrants

Peaceful contact and cooperation

The history of Indian-white contact too frequently emphasizes the conflict which more than occasionally marred relations between the two groups.

That conflict and combat did occur is, of course, beyond question; but peaceful contact and cooperation were also present as behavioral patterns. The entry of Celinda Himes, recorded in her diary for June 19, 1853, illustrates a very common form of such contact.

Saw some Indians chasing buffalo…The chase was very interesting to us. The Indians had nothing but halters on their horses. One (buffalo) was killed a little way across the creek from me. We went to see it. . . . We examined some bows and arrows with which they killed them. The Sioux gave Charles a quarter and offered him another, but he took but one.

Another factor frequently overlooked is the number of emigrants who had no significant contact with Indians at all during their western trek. Perhaps as many as one-third of the wagon train pioneers fit into this category.

In addition to little contact, peaceful contact and conflict, one other possibility should also be mentioned. There are instances when a member of one race openly shielded or offered protection to their counterpart in the other race. In the midst of the murderous raid on Fort Mims, Alabama, by Creek warriors – which resulted in the deaths of some 500 white men, women and children – one tribesman, for reasons best known to himself, led a white mother and her child to safety. And when the Cherokees were forcibly removed from Georgia to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, a number of white families mysteriously acquired “cousins”; a transparent device it no doubt was, but it permitted at least some Cherokees to escape having to travel the “Trail of Tears.”

A final example is provided by Mrs. Inez Parker who remembered an incident on the way west involving herself and her mother. While traversing the Cascade Mountains, “while the men were getting the wagons down, mother took sister Helen, then about nine months old, to the bottom. . . and set her in an open spot, far enough from the road, she thought, to be perfectly safe, and hastened back for me.” On her way to the top of the hill, Mrs. Parker’s mother looked back and saw a group of mounted Indians “gathered on the very spot where she had left the child, apparently trampling it.”

With that combination of self-sacrificing courage and fanatic ferocity which marks the female of most species when their young are threatened, the youthful mother ran at top speed down the hill to throw herself between her baby and danger, only to find that the Indians were, in fact, “gathered in a circle, around the baby, protecting it till her return!” Speechless, and well-nigh fainting, she motioned her thanks, and they nodded, smiled, and rode away.”

It may be that the incidents just described were exceptions to the norm. Even so, one may ask whether history (and historians) err in conferring upon such humane exceptions a distinction insufficient for remembrance.