Let’s Make a Deal

Trade relations with western tribes

During the several mid-19th century decades marked by the travel of tens of thousands of emigrants on their way west, considerable contact between whites and Indians was inevitable.

Although fiction writers (and some earlier historians) suggest the dominance of conflict between the two groups, in truth, much contact was quite peaceable – motivated not only by curiosity, but also by what is apparently a very human urge – the desire to exchange goods. Trade items ranged from food to clothing, from handcrafted items to those quite widely produced. On half a dozen occasions, however, the “subject” of proposed exchanges was considerably more unusual. Indeed, one might even say unique. It is these few out-of-the-ordinary instances which provide the basis for this brief excursion into the history of trail travel.

Betsey Bayley and her family migrated to Oregon in 1845. Four years later, in a letter to her sister in South Charleston, Ohio, Mrs. Bayley recounted the following incident. While her party was camped at Fort Hall on the Snake River in present-day Idaho, some Indians resident in the region approached for the purpose of trading. Instead of the usual negotiations, however, at least one young Indian indicated he wished to trade for a wife, and was prepared to bargain with horses (which were, of course, extremely valuable to nomadic tribesmen). Mr. Bayley apparently did not take the young man seriously. According to his wife, he “joked with them, and asked a young Indian how many horses he would give for Caroline,” the couple’s 18-year-old daughter, then stipulating that for “six horses. . .you can have her!” The father’s “joke” backfired, for “The next day he (the young Indian) came after her, and had the six horses, and seemed determined to have her.” In fact, the young man followed the wagon train for several days before giving up on the proposed “trade.” In what was undoubtedly an understatement to her sister, Mrs. Bayley noted, “we were glad to get rid of him without any trouble. The Indians never joke, and Mr. Bayley took good care ever after not to joke with them.”

Five years later, and hundreds of miles farther east near Scotts Bluff in western Nebraska, Sophia Lois Goodridge recounted a somewhat similar experience. In the middle of August, her party “saw some Indians for the first time since we started. . .They were Sioux. . .(and) looked very neat and clean for Indians.” “The men,” she reported, “came out on horses to look at us. The Squaws with their papooses stood along the road and tried to sell us some moccasins. One of the men wanted to trade a horse for a white woman.”

Our final example of this particular type of proposed exchange is provided by Julia Anna Archibald Holmes in a letter to her sister, dated January 25th, 1859, Fort Union, New Mexico. Mrs. Holmes was traveling the Santa Fe trail with her husband the preceding June 14th, when their party “passed. . .a large number of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians.” Because of information conveyed to them by “the carriers of the Santa Fe mail,” the men of the train “were afraid to allow the Indians to know that the company contained any women.”

Mrs. Holmes thus was “confined to the wagon, while we passed many places of interest which I wished much to visit.” The attempted deception proved to be unsuccessful, however, and Mrs. Holmes’ “presence became known. At one time, by opening the front of the wagon for ventilation, at another by leaping from it to see something curious which two or three Indians had brought, not knowing, as afterward proved true, that we were very near a village.” Though she herself “did not. . .feel there was any cause for alarm,” she was nonetheless “sorry I had been seen on account of the feeling existing in the train.” Regardless of such feelings, however, “It was of no use to hide now, for every Indian within a mile knew of my whereabouts. Though there was not a shadow of danger in such a company as ours. . .” (“Fifty men armed with Sharp’s rifles and revolvers”).

The conventional wisdom of the time held that “it is very true that the red men have an unaccountable fancy for white women.” Thus, Mrs. Holmes reported that her “husband received several very flattering offers for me. One Indian wanted to trade two squaws for me, who could probably perform four times the physical labor that I could.” Other warriors were much more direct, “approaching the wagon. . . (making) signs for me to jump up behind them on their ponies, but I declined the honor in the most respectful language I knew of their dialect – a decided shake of the head.”

A year earlier Anna Maria Morris described what might be termed something of a “turnabout” of the incidents noted above. Encountering Arapahos on the Arkansas River on June 17, 1850, “we were perfectly beset with Indians” while waiting “in the boiling sun several hours for the train to cross” the river. “One of the young squaws took a great fancy to my diamond ring & generously offered me a brass bracelet in exchange which I declined…” Three days later as her party “left Water hole at 7Ocl in the morning and marched 34 miles to Sand Creek . . .We passed an old encampment where a Mr. Brown passed last winter in his wagons, after all his animals had perished in the snow. . .”

This same Mr. Brown, according to Mrs. Morris, “was captured by the Indians some time since and taken out to be killed.” Brown “selected his prettiest mule (a little white one) and presented it to the Chief’s wife” who, as an apparent result, “became interested in him . . .and saved his life.” According to Mrs. Morris, “the Indians then gave him a pass, a mule & a few provisions and allowed him to go – the squaw who saved his life was the one who took a fancy to my ring; she was pretty & neat looking. She (still) had the white mule with her.”

The putative interest of Indian males in white women may, perhaps, be subject to dispute. What is undisputed, however, is the interest Indians had in children – an interest reflected in the following pair of incidents. The first is described in a letter written by Lucia Loraine Williams in Milwaukee, Oregon on September 16, 1851. Mrs. Williams three-year-old daughter Helen had a very difficult trip west “for she was continually sick. We think she had scarlet fever on the road. The night we passed Ft. Laramie she was very sick. She came out with a fine rash accompanied by a high fever. . . .Her throat was sore and she vomited blood several times.” Happily, after the little girl “had partially recovered she was tolerably healthy and enjoyed herself well.” And apparently she also learned to talk with Indians who visited their train.

“An old squaw and a young one with a papoose came and sat on one side of the fire, the papoose tied to a board. (There were snakes) and commenced talking to Helen. She would jabber back and laugh then they would talk and laugh, until they got into quite a spree. The mother of the papoose wanted to swap her papoose for mine but I told her ‘no swap.’ I believe she would have done it as she seemed quite eager to trade.”

The final example of out-of-the-ordinary proposed trades with which I close this article comes from a reminiscent account of trail travel in 1853, delivered by George Himes at the Thirty-Fifth Annual Session of the Oregon Pioneer Association. Recalling “the last camp on the Blue Mountains before reaching the Umatilla River,” Mr. Himes described an incident still most clear in his memory. “While preparations for the evening meal were under way,” he said, “a number of Indians rode up, all well mounted on a number of the most beautiful ponies that I ever saw up to that time.” “One of the Indians,” he continued, “whom we afterwards found out was . . .(a) noted Walla Walla chief. . .came near our camp, and seemed especially interested in my baby sister, then ten months old, who had beautiful golden hair.”

Since Mr. Himes was taking care of his sister at the time, he “noticed that the Indian eagerly watched every movement I made trying to amuse the child.” No particular attention was paid by the emigrants to the Indian visit, but the next morning “hundreds of Indian ponies were found grazing near the camp” for no reason immediately apparent to the members of the train. It was, however, soon “discovered that Indians were driving the ponies towards the camp under orders from. . . (their Chief) who proposed to trade them for the little red-haired girl.” The proposed trade/swap was “conveyed to my mother. . .and the offer of the great chief was respectfully declined, much to his apparent sorrow. . .” As the disappointed Indian leader and his entourage rode away from the emigrant camp, he was heard to say,”‘Ni-ka tum-tum wake skoo-kum!’ Meaning that his heart was very sick.”