Belden, the White Chief; Or, Twelve Years Among the Wild Indians of the Plains

by George Pfauts Belden


   Every tribe of Indians build their lodges differently. Thus, the Winnebagoes live in huts made of the bark of trees, closely resembling an inverted teacup on the outside.


   Every tribe of Indians make their arrows differently. The Snakes put but two feathers on their shafts; the Sioux, when they make their own arrow points, or buy them, always prefer long, slim points; the Cheyennes, blunt points, sharp on the edges; the Pawnees, medium points; and the Crows, Blackfeet, Utes, Omahas, Ottoes, and Winnebagoes, long points.


  The Indians make much of their wild tobacco, made from the bark of trees. The Sioux, Omahas, Winnebagoes, Cheyennes, Arrapahoes, and Ottoes, use willow bark. The squaws gather a bundle of the largest-sized shoots, and carry them to the teepee, where the wind does not blow, and there scrape off the bark with a knife. First the outside coating is taken off, which is thrown away; the soft inner bark is then scraped into a piece of rawhide, and left to dry. It is of a greenish color, and emits a pleasant smell. The fall of the year is the season for gathering the willow bark, as the sap is then going down, and the bark is mild and more pleasant to smell than if peeled in summer. When dry, the squaws grease their hands with buffalo fat, and then crush the bark until it is pulverized fine enough for the pipes. The grease adhering to the particles of bark makes it burn freely. Each squaw puts up several pounds of this bark, for the use of her warrior, and I have known Indians to travel a hundred miles for the purpose of gathering cham-pa-sha.


  The Winnebagoes blow two puffs toward the sky, two to the east, two west, two south, and one down, following each with he stem of the pipe pointing in that direction. At the same time they mutter “O God, propitiate the winds of the east, the west, and south, and bless the earth.”


 The Indians do not all scalp people alike; nor do they wear their own hair alike. ...

 The Winnebagoes wear six or seven braids, and it is necessary to cut the skin around three or four inches on the crown, in order to get a full scalp.


  The Winnebagoes are the only Indians who can, at the present day, be distinguished by means of their scalp locks. They still persist in wearing the six or seven long plaits around their heads.


   Each tribe of Indians make their shoes a different shape, “A” is the moccasin worn by the Sioux. “B” the Cheyennes, “C” the Arrapahoes, “D” the Crows, and “E” the Pawnees.

   It will be observed that they are all different in shape, and will make a different track. An expert frontiersman can readily



tell to what tribe Indians belong by seeing their tracks in the sand. Unlike their arrows, they seldom or never change their moccasins. The following will serve to show the imitative faculty and ingenuity of the Indians: One day, while in camp, I saw a Winnebago squaw weaving cloth in a kind of loom. She had many threads strung to little sticks fastened in a frame, and through these threads she passed a string of beads, pressing the whole together compactly, after the manner of a weaver. The different colors of the beads were ingeniously arranged to give a brilliant effect. I examined a purse this girl had made for the trader in the Santee village, and it was really beautiful. Soon afterward I saw another purse in the trader's store made by her, and it had on the side “James Buchanan” neatly worked in many-colored beads. I asked if she could read, and she said no, but showed me a medal which had been given by President Buchanan to one of the tribe during his visit to Washington, and from the letters on the medal she had copied the name.

   The Winnebagoes are the only Indians I have ever met with who have any knowledge of the manufacture of cloth, and they can only weave such things as garters, armlets, purses, leggings, and long, beautiful, white bead-bands, which the women wear around their hair.


  A Winnebago

   The Winnebagoes are very light in complexion, and many of their women might be called beautiful, if they would keep themselves clean. These women are tall, well-formed, have bright black eyes, and long, shining black hair. They take great pride in plaiting up their hair, winding it in coils, and ornamenting it with bead-bands. These bands are often five or six feet long, and fringed with many-colored beads. They wind them about their heads in an ingenious way, and the effect among their jet-black hair is very charming.


[Three Sioux warriors were led by Mr. Springer into a ranch building where they were to be ambushed by a large group of Winnebago and Omaha warriors who were accompanying Belden on his mission.]

  When the dance was ended Springer said, “Come, let us bring out the scalps," and turning to the two Indians, inquired, “Will you look at the bodies?” About half the Indians had already gone into the ranche, under pretense of getting the scalps, and


the two Sioux walked in with Springer, apparently without suspicion that any thing was wrong.

  As soon as they had crossed the threshold the door was closed behind them, and two burly Omahas placed their backs against it. I was entirely dark in the ranche, and Springer proceeded to strike a light. When the blaze of the dry grass flared up it revealed every thing in the room, and there stood the two Sioux, surrounded by Omahas, and a dozen revolvers leveled at their heads.

  Never shall I forget the yell of rage and terror they set up, when they found they were entrapped. The Sioux warrior outside, who was holding the ponies, heard it, and plunging his heels into the sides of his pony, made off as fast as he could. Notwithstanding my men fired a dozen shots at him, he got off safely, and carried away with him all three of the ponies.

  The two Sioux in the ranche were bound hand and foot, and laid in one corner of the room; then my Indians returned to the telegraph pole to finish their dance. Feeling tired, I lay down and feel asleep. Near morning I was awakened by most unearthly yells, and looking out saw my Indians leaping, dancing, and yelling around the telegraph pole, where they now had a large fire burning. Presently Springer came in and said the Indians wanted the prisoners. I told him they could not have them, and that in the morning I would send them to Col. Brown, at McPherson, as was my duty. Springer, who was a noncommissioned officer, communicated this message to the Indians, when the yelling and howling redoubled. In a short time Springer came in again, and said he could do nothing with the


Indians, and that they were determined to have the prisoners, at the same time advising me to give them up. I again refused, when the Indians rushed into the ranche, and seizing the prisoners, dragged them out. Seeing they were frenzied I made no resistance, but followed them closely, keeping concealed, however.

  They took the Sioux to an island on the Platte, below the ranche, and there tying them to a tree, gathered a pile of wood and set it on fire. Then they thrust faggots against the naked bodies of the prisoners, stuck their knives into their legs, arms, and finally into their bowels. They next cut off their ears and noses, and then their hands, after which they scalped and disemboweled them. The Sioux uttered not a complaint, but endured all their sufferings with that stoicism for which the Indian is so justly celebrated, and which belongs to no other race in the world.

  Sick at heart, I crept back to the ranche and went to bed, leaving the Indians engaged in a furious scalp dance, and whirling the bloody scalps of the Sioux over their heads, with long poles to which they had them fastened.

  Next morning, when I awoke, I found the Indians wrapped in their blankets, and lying asleep all around me. The excitement of the night had passed off, and brought its corresponding depression. They were very docile and stupid, and it was with some difficulty I could arouse them for the duties of the day. I asked several of them what had become of the Sioux prisoners, but could get no other answer than, “Guess him must have got away.”

  I was sorely tempted to report the affair to the commanding officer at Fort McPherson, and have the Indians punished, but


believing it would do more good in the end to be silent, I said nothing about it. After all, the Omahas and Winnebagoes had treated the Sioux just as the Sioux would have treated them, had they been captured, and so, it being a matter altogether among savages, I let it rest where it belonged.

Commentary. "bark" — actually, bark lodges were not especially common. The usual covering for a lodge was animal skins.

"long points" — the Hocągara claimed never to have made stone arrow points, but used only those that they found. A typical arrow could be nothing more than a shaft with a sharply whittled point. When arrowheads were used, they were made of straightened snapping turtle claws. They could be thought of as long, but clearly Belden is talking about stone points here.

"wild tobacco" — this is kinnikinnick.

"willow bark" — kinnikinnick is called ruǧíšucgé in Hocąk. Considering that ruǧíšucgé also denotes the flowering dogwood, we would have to conclude that its bark was sometimes also used to make kinnikinnick. On the other hand, ruǧí-šuc-gé means, "red willow," so no fundamental distinction may have been made between these two trees.

"cham-pa-sha" — this is for ċaŋśáśa, of which Riggs says,

the bark which the Dakotas mix with their tobacco for smoking. This they take from two or three bushes, one a species of dogwood and the others species of willow.1

This tends to confirm the speculation made under "willow bark."

"direction" — notice that the direction of north is omitted. It is frequently said in the Medicine Rite, that it is to the north that all evil things are swept. The north was known to be the land of darkness on account of the seasonal dip of the sun below the horizon during the Arctic winter.

"light in complexion" — this was undoubtably due to a large admixture of French blood.

"Col. Brown" — this was Capt. William H. Brown, commander of Company F, 5th Cav., and post commander at Ft. McPherson, 1870-1871.2 Prior to April 9, 1873, on which date he became a brevet Full Colonel, he had held the rank of Lt. Colonel.3 He was later raised to brevet Brigadier General by U.S. Grant, "for gallant and distinguished conduct in action [against the Apaches]."4 He was made Inspector General of Arizona Territory in 1872 under Gen. Crook. He committed suicide in New York City, June 4, 1875.5

"McPherson" — Ft. McPherson was located on the banks of the North Platte River in Nebraska at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon, a place where many plains tribes congregated due to the springs in the area. The fort was completed in October of 1863 as a reaction to the Dakota uprising of 1862.6 The fort was decommissioned in 1880.

Notes to the Commentary

1 Stephen R. Riggs, A Dakota-English Dictionary (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992 [1890]) 92a s.v.
2 Thomas R. Buecker, "The Post of North Platte Station, 1867-1878," The Nebraska Indian Wars Reader, 1865-1877, ed. R. Eli Paul (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998) 20, 28 nt. 20.
3 The United States Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces, Volume 13, #20 (Dec. 25, 1875): 315b.
4 Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States, Vol, 20 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901) 131, nominations for brevet ranks by Ulysses S. Grant, entry for December 20, 1875.
5 The Sharlot Hall Library & Archives, Prescott, Arizona. William H. Brown Collection, 1865-1875 (bulk), "Biographical."  
6 Eugene Ware, The Indian War of 1864: Being a Fragment of the Early History of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming", (Topeka: Crane & Company, 1911) Chapter 5.


George Pfauts Belden, Belden, the White Chief; Or, Twelve Years Among the Wild Indians of the Plains (Cincinnati and New York: C.F. Vent, 1872) 153-155.