Yellow Bird

I made quite the find last night: the entire text, online and free, of the 500+ page Henry Schoolcraft treatise on American Indians, published in 1851.  Far from being dry, I have found books from this era, on this subject, to be quite readable, informative, and spellbinding.  When I found Fanny Kelly’s captivity narrative I quite literally could not stop reading, and read the entire volume over two days.  Mary Rowlandson’s narrative is equally fascinating, though readers should be forewarned that both volumes contain some graphic descriptions of horrific and heartbreaking violence.  I haven’t read enough of Schoolcraft’s book yet to give it a violence rating, but so far it is more adventure tale than harrowing survival story.

I’m sure you have all heard that during the pioneer days, the Native Americans would use every last bit of buffalo they killed while the whites would just take small pieces and wastefully leave the remaining carcass to rot.  As it turns out the Native Americans did this too; in Kelly’s book she describes slaughter-like attacks on buffalo by the Sioux, and instead of carefully curing and preserving every last inch of the animal (as we’ve always been told the American Indians did) they would instead just take whatever piece of meat suited them for the moment, then abandon the kill.

After watching “Into the Wild” about the true story of Christopher McCandless, I think I understand why both the whites and American Indians did this.  In one particularly poignant scene, McCandless, who by this point is bordering on starvation, manages to shoot and kill a moose.  He immediately sets to work trying to slaughter and preserve the whole animal, understanding he is in a race against time before the meat goes rancid from maggot infestation.  Well, he fails– the flies win– and he ultimately loses the entire animal and all its potential food.  It would have made more sense to simply slice off sizable but easy to butcher pieces of meat, and cook them immediately, abandoning the rest of the animal.  I would hate to think these legends of whites wasting hunted buffalo had any mental impact on him.  We will probably never know.

But I’m sure both the Sioux and the whites understood the nature and dangers of fresh meat, and without immediate access to curing or cooking the entire beast, they removed what could be safely consumed for that meal, and abandoned the rest.

Another striking facet that rises from both Kelly’s captivity narrative and Schoolcraft’s work are the number of interracial marriages between white men– usually soldiers or hunters– and Native American women.  Kelly describes the Sioux women becoming “fort wives” to the white soldiers, and the women would return, in secret, to the tribe, when and if the white wives ever joined their husband at his station.  The Sioux recognized these marriages as legitimate, but the biracial children often suffered bullying and ostracism if they ever did rejoin the tribe.  Kelly is even “given” one biracial girl named Yellow Bird, to replace her daughter who had been scalped and killed in the raid that led to her captivity. Kelly describes the biracial children as physically weak, and unable to keep up with their full blooded Sioux peers.  Perhaps this is because the fort wives did not practice the habit of infanticide of sickly infants, as Kelly describes the Sioux performing, as a sort of rudimentary eugenics.

Schoolcraft himself was married to a biracial woman, and only one chapter into his book he encounters a white hunter married to a Native American woman.  Given that these events all take place in the early to mid 1800s, it surprised me that white men would be so open to interracial marriages (and not just sex) with Native American women over other races.  I don’t know exact numbers but I believe the rate of interracial marriage between whites and blacks was near non-existent at this point in history, though sex, and rape, did take place between the two groups, resulting in biracial children who often suffered a similar ostracism.

Anyway, if you like reading about history or survivalism, I recommend all three of these online texts for your predilection.


Some members of the 1870 Sioux Delegation.