The mountaineers were pushing, adventurous and fearless men who thought nothing of laying down their lives in the service of a friend. They usually carried very little with them. A few ponies transported their meagre supplies, and, with only enough provisions to last them a few days, they often set out to journey through a vast wilderness.
Naturally they were very self-reliant. With only a gun or two they took desperate risks in a country filled with their red enemies. They overcame every difficulty with a dash and courage that is amazing. “Uncle Bill” Hamilton was a typical example of one of these men.
From the time that he was twenty years of age this famous old fellow spent his life on the plains. He became a sign-talker and was able to converse with all the Indian tribes which were met with. Sign-talking will soon be a lost art, but in the old days all of the red men used the same signs, although they spoke different languages. He was also a trapper, trader, and pathfinder. He blazed many a trail which was to lead the frontiersmen to rich agricultural regions. He set an example of courage and perseverance that will leave a bright memory in the hearts of all.
In the spring of 1842, when twenty years of age, young Bill was living in St. Louis, Missouri; but chills and fever were gradually undermining his constitution, so his doctor ordered a change of climate. Consequently his father made arrangements with a party of hunters and trappers, who were in St. Louis for a few days, to let his son accompany them on their next trip, which would last a year. The party consisted of eight “free” traders, with “Bill” Williams and a man named Perkins, as leaders. These two scouts had had fifteen years’ experience on the plains among Indians, and had a wide reputation for fearless courage and daring exploits.
The trappers soon reached Independence, Missouri,—where they sold their wagons and rigged up a complete pack outfit, as the expedition would go through a country in which wagons could not travel. Young Bill Hamilton still had on city clothes, and when the old fur traders saw this, they began to laugh and poke fun at him.
“What be you going to do with that city cuss in th’ mountains?” said one. “Why, he’ll lose himself in a hour’s time and walk down the throat of some grizzly bear.”
Young Bill did not like this remark at all, and hurrying to a frontier store he traded his “store clothes” for two suits of the finest buckskin. When he appeared in camp with these fine togs on one of the mountaineers said:
“Williams, that boy o’ yourn will make a fine old pioneer and mountaineer, if he catches on at this rate.”
The youthful plainsman heard it and smiled, for he had felt very badly before.
The party pushed onward and reached Salt Creek. Camp had just been made when a small herd of buffalo appeared in the distance and made directly for the little band. Williams gave orders to corral all the stock, for he feared that this was the game of some plains Indians, and he was not far from being correct. The stock had barely been secured when the buffalo thundered by, followed by thirty painted Kiowa warriors. They were wild and savage.
The trappers had placed their packs in a triangle, and crouched behind them. This made an excellent breastwork. Each man was armed with a rifle, two pistols, a tomahawk, and a large knife, called a “tooth-picker.” Two of the men had bows and arrows with which they were experts.
The redskins rode up insolently; examined the outfit, and demanded pay for passing through their country.
“You can neither touch our traps nor will we give you pay for riding through your country,” said Williams. “This is Pawnee country and you are Kiowas.”
The Indians seemed to be ill pleased and looked vindictively at the sturdy men of the plains. The leader was given some tobacco. He was not a chief, but a young brave with two feathers stuck in his scalp-lock. After receiving this gift the savages withdrew, saying: “Ugh! Ugh! We come again!”
The trapper kept close watch during the night, expecting that the Indians would attempt to steal some of the stock and attack the camp. But nothing occurred. Many outfits have come to grief by putting confidence in the red man, who always covets the belongings of the paleface. Old and experienced mountain men like these left nothing to chance.
Pretty soon the trappers reached the camp of some Cheyennes and there unpacked their goods in order to trade. Young Bill accompanied the chief’s son, Swift Runner, through the village, who introduced him to all the leading men.
“There will be a large hunting party starting out to-morrow after buffalo,” said he, “and if you wish to go along I will furnish you with a good hunting horse.”
“I shall be delighted to go,” cried young Bill, so next morning found him riding across the prairie with about fifty Indians and twenty squaws.
After travelling for nearly ten miles the scouts discovered a herd and reported its location to the hunting chief. This leader was thoroughly acquainted with the topography of the country and led the redskins upon a long détour, so as to get on the leeward side of the herd. As soon as a favorable position had been reached the Indians stripped to their breech-clouts and advanced, leading their running horses as they did so.
The chief now divided the hunters into two divisions, in order to get the buffalo into a small area. They rode to within a quarter of a mile of the herd and then the word was given to “Sail in!”
In an instant the wild array of naked Indians started for the herd, sending forth yell after yell, and riding like demons in their eagerness to bring down the first buffalo. For this is quite a feat and is commented upon by the whole village.
Swift Runner, himself, had the fastest horse in the party and brought down the first buffalo, much to the chagrin of many a young brave—who coveted the honor—for it would bring him smiles from his lady love. Young Bill’s pony loped along with willingness, and Swift Runner pointed out a fat cow for him to dispose of. In a few jumps he was alongside of the great lumbering brute, and fired into her side. As luck would have it, he broke her back and she dropped to the sod. Swift Runner yelled hilariously at this success, but it was a very careless shot, and, had he missed, the cow might have made things ugly for him.
There was a great yelling and shooting upon every hand and several riderless ponies were mixed in with the buffalo. Many prairie-dog holes were the cause of this, for when the ponies stepped into them their riders were, of course, thrown over their heads. Ponies are usually sure-footed beasts, but when in a chase like this, where over a thousand buffalo are tearing over the prairie and kicking up a big lot of dust, it makes it impossible for the animals to see the holes.
Young Bill brought down four of the huge brown bison and received great praise from the Indians for his skill. They used arrows in their killing and shot behind the shoulder, bringing the buffalo to his knees. Another arrow would be sent deep enough to penetrate the lungs of the beast and it would then be soon over with him.
For three-quarters of a mile the prairie was dotted with the dead buffalo. They were soon butchered; the ponies were packed with three hundred pounds of the choicest meat, and the caravan started for home. Several Indians who had been thrown limped quite badly, but no one was seriously injured. At sundown the village was reached, a feast was prepared, and all joined in the affair with the greatest good will and friendship. Young Bill was warmly congratulated upon his success, and this was well, for if a white man fails to acquit himself creditably with the redskins it casts a reflection upon all the whites.
The Indians made pemmican and “dupuyer” from the buffalo. The first is manufactured in the following manner: the choicest portions of the buffalo meat are selected, sliced, and cut into flakes. They are then dried. All of the marrow, from the centre of the bones, is put into one pile with the sweetest of the tallow. These ingredients are mixed together and stirred around in a pot which is hung over a slow fire. The combination is then cooled. Some red men put berries into the mixture, which harden and give a sweetish taste. The mountaineers and trappers—when sugar was scarce—always made their pemmican in this manner. The Indian squaws pulverized the meat by beating it upon a flat rock, and then placed it in skinbags for future use. It is estimated that one pound of pemmican is equal to about five pounds of beef.
A fat substance which lies along the buffalo’s backbone, next to the hide, is known as “dupuyer.” It is about as thick as the hand of a trapper and runs from the shoulder-blade to the last rib. In breadth it measures between seven to eleven inches. The Indians and mountaineers would strip away this substance—dip it in hot grease for thirty seconds—and then hang it to the inside poles of a lodge. A fire would be lighted beneath it and it would be allowed to dry and smoke for ten or twelve hours. “Dupuyer” was considered to be a great delicacy, for it was very nourishing. Besides this it was tender and sweet. The trappers loved this food and would pay a dollar a pound for it, while the Indians always took dried meat and “dupuyer” along with them upon their expeditions.
When Williams and his party moved on, Swift Runner presented young Bill with a pony which he had ridden in the hunt, and the squaws gave him a half a dozen pairs of beautifully embroidered moccasins.
A few days later the party reached the South Platte River and there found a Sioux village. Big Thunder was the chief, and he requested the trappers to camp there, as his people wanted to trade with them. The Sioux were then a friendly tribe and treated the white men in a cordial manner.
Just before dawn—upon the day following—a wild yelping awoke the entire village. The warriors ran out only to find that the Pawnees—the mortal enemies of the Sioux—had run off about one hundred head of ponies which had been turned out to graze only a short distance from camp. Among this number were two mules and three ponies belonging to the white men.
As soon as this news was received there was a great yelling and shouting, while fifty young warriors hastened to saddle their best ponies. Young Bill Hamilton was with them, and, under the leadership of Young Thunder, they started after the redskins. The trail of the fugitives was soon struck and followed at a brisk gallop, and, after going about eight miles, it was evident that the Pawnees were but a short distance in advance. Passing over a divide, a cloud of dust could be plainly seen about two miles in advance.
The Pawnees rode hard, but they were soon in view. There were twelve in the party. As Young Thunder gave a war-whoop, the ponies bounded forward and carried their owners towards the fugitives as if shot out of the mouth of a cannon. The Pawnees heard the chief’s yell, and, leaving the herd of stolen stock, made for a neighboring cottonwood grove. While Bill Hamilton rode onward, a bullet whistled by his ear. The savages fired several more shots but their lead all went wide of its mark.
“Don’t you intend to charge the grove and endeavor to capture the Pawnee warriors?” said Bill to the Sioux chief.
Young Thunder smiled and shook his head.
“No, no,” he answered. “’Nough to get back our ponies.”
The young scout thought that the Indians were not such terrible fighters as some writers would have them appear, and this impression never changed, although he occasionally met a few that knew no fear.
Two of the Pawnee braves had been killed in this little skirmish, and the warriors rode back to their village carrying the fresh scalps tied on the end of long sticks. The whole village turned out to greet them, yelling like furies. Pandemonium reigned all night, but when old trapper Williams heard that young Bill had ridden in so close to the timber, he said:
“I shall have to keep you at home next time, if I expect to return you to your parents. You are a young fool to approach close to timber where hostile Indians are concealed.”
“Three of our ponies were in the bunch of captured horses,” answered the young scout. “I did not wish to return without them. As for the Sioux, I consider them a lot of cowards.”
The Pawnees had not acted with good judgment in trying to drive off fully one hundred head of horses, so near daylight. For they should have known that the Sioux warriors would be after them, mounted upon their best war-ponies.
The trappers soon bade good-by to their kind hosts and continued on towards the Little Wind River, crossing a rugged and romantic country, where lofty, sky-piercing peaks ascended into the banks of drifting clouds. To the northwest were the Wind River Mountains; to the eastward was the Big Horn Range,—the home of the buffalo, elk, antelope, deer, and grizzly bear. It was a hunter’s paradise, where many different tribes of Indians met on their annual hunt, and often battled for the right to the soil. Hostile war-parties were even now quite numerous in the mountains. At Little Wind River, Evans and Russell picked up a moccasin, showing that the redskins were quite near.
Beaver and otter seemed to be plentiful, so the men set their traps. At night they slept with arms at their sides, ready for instant action, and a close guard was stationed beyond camp, as it was almost certain that the Indians would discover them and would run off with their stock. This was the most dangerous country on the plains and was constantly invaded by war-parties of Blackfeet, Bloods, Piegans, and Crows. All had to be constantly upon the alert to avoid losing their horses and their scalps.
About four o’clock one morning two rifle reports brought every man to his feet. Yell after yell sounded from the darkness, and shot after shot came whistling into the camp. In an instant the trappers were up and about—their rifles replying to this fusillade. Evans and Russell (two of the most experienced scouts) killed a couple of the Indians with their first shots, for dawn was just coming, and two black bodies were seen to leap into the air and then roll down a hill upon which they had been crouching. The savages were shooting arrows and old Hudson Bay flintlocks which made a big flash when discharged. As the scouts aimed at these flaming jets, they must have done considerable damage, for the Indians fell back. They continued to send shots into camp until day dawned.
“Let’s charge the critters!” shouted young Bill Hamilton.
“Not on your life, boy!” shouted trapper Williams. “It’s most dangerous to run into such a number of unknown redskins at night.”
So the young man desisted.
Just before daylight the Indians attempted to recover their slain comrades, by crawling up to them in the grass. The scouts, however, were up to such tactics and added one more to keep company with two of the red men already sent to the Happy Hunting Grounds. At this, the redskins gave a yell of deep despair. Then they filed slowly away, sending a few parting shots at the trappers, just to show that they were still in good fighting order.
Five of the trappers’ ponies had been badly wounded, and Williams was so enraged at the injury which had been done that he was determined to punish the Indians still further. Leaving two men in camp, he ordered the rest to follow him on the fresh trail of the early morning marauders, which led up a small stream. The scouts galloped eagerly forward, and, coming to a rise, were soon within plain view of the red men, who were hurrying along, trying to get two of their wounded comrades to the protection of a grove.
“Dash on to the right!” shouted Williams. “Head the redskins off from that bunch of trees!”
The red men saw in a moment that they would be cut off from the grove, and they made for a patch of willows and stunted box-elders just below them. There were eleven of them in all and the trappers certainly had them cornered.
It was about a hundred yards to the Indians, and a scout named Dockett tried a shot at them. The red men returned fire, wounding him in the thigh. There were a quantity of boulders near by, and Williams ordered his men to roll them up to the brow of the hill, in order to form breastworks. Four of the trappers were left behind this, while Williams told Noble and young Bill Hamilton to follow him to the grove without letting the Indians notice that they had decamped.
In the grove the trappers concealed themselves, and the wisdom of their move was quite clear. The Indians realized that they would all be shot down if they remained in their present position, for the men behind the brow of the hill now had their range. Six of them made a dash for the cluster of trees.
When the scurrying red men were within one hundred yards of the timber, Williams gave orders to shoot. The trappers took careful aim, and, at the flash of their rifles, three of the red men fell face down. The other three gave a yell of despair and ran up the hill. The trappers dashed after them, and the Indians became panic-stricken when they saw the mounted white men debouch from the thick woodland.
Williams raced onward, dashed right at the Indians, and, although shot at, managed to bring both of the redskins to the ground. Now all three had been slain, and the revenge which the trappers had wished for had been fully satisfied. The redskins were Blackfeet, the most thieving class of wild riders of the plains.
There were still five Indians in the willows. Many men would have let them go. But not so with Williams. He was considered the hardest man on the plains to down in a fight with the Indians, for he was never known to quit when once started. It was to be a battle to the bitter end.
“There are five Indians down there who shot at and insulted us,” said he. “They shall have what they would have given us had they been successful in their attack.” Here he turned to young Hamilton. “Boy,” said he, “never let an Indian escape who has once attacked you! I want you to go with me. We will walk to the gulch and approach from below.”
But the trappers held their leader in too high estimation to allow him to thus recklessly expose himself.
“Your orders are going to be disobeyed for once in your life,” said they. “We cannot afford to lose you.”
“Evans and I will undertake the job,” cried scout Russell. “You cover us with your fire.”
In a second—and before Williams could answer—they bounded into the gulch below. Both were quick of foot and had been in so many desperate battles that they understood the danger of approaching prostrate redskins; for a wounded Indian is an uncertain animal.
The rest of the scouts kept up a steady fire until Evans and Russell were seen to be close to the willows. Then they ceased, as the two scouts bounded forward, yelling like Indians. The other trappers also rushed down, and although one of the braves had his arrow in his bow—all ready to shoot—he never pulled it. In a very short time it was all over.
The Indians had now been annihilated, and among their effects were found two fine bridles, ammunition, knives, and other articles belonging to trappers. It was evident that some small body of white traders had been surprised by these Blackfeet and put out of the way forever. So ended this stiff little skirmish.
The trappers now kept on their way, set many beaver traps, caught a great many of these animals; and traded with several bands of friendly redskins. The men were all fine shots and often received praise from people for their expertness in fire-arms, but no more than they merited, for an American mountaineer had no equal on the globe. It was necessary that the trappers should be very expert, for they carried their lives in their hands, and were liable to come in contact with roving war-parties at any moment. To be taken prisoner meant torture and death, and it was therefore impossible for an Indian to capture either a scout or a trapper. They knew what would follow.
Young Hamilton thoroughly enjoyed the life and soon became one of the most proficient talkers in sign language on the plains. The trappers reached Fort Bridger, where were many Shoshones, who asked the youthful scout many questions by signs, all of which he answered correctly. This astonished even the older trappers, many of whom thought that he had been raised by some tribe.
Williams now left the men of the plains in order to go to Santa Fé on business, but promised to be back in the spring and organize a new party for a two-year expedition. Before he left he took young Hamilton aside and gave him advice in many matters. He looked upon him as a son, and few fathers ever gave their children better counsel. The trappers decided to trap near Salt Lake, and the Bear and Malade Rivers, during the fall.
When they had proceeded for some distance they were met by a party of Indians, who spoke the Shoshone tongue, and who informed them that they had to pay for going through their country. Perkins—who was now leader of the trappers—tried to make peace with them, but without success. He made the Indians keep away, but they continued to make signs, meaning “dogs,”—which the white men well understood. The trappers held their rifles ready for any emergency.
Perkins cautioned his men to have patience, and, filling his pipe, offered it to the chief, who refused it with contempt, saying: “Big chief never smokes with white dogs.”
The head trapper’s patience was now almost exhausted and he told the chief in plain language to “get out.” His men prepared for action, as he spoke, so the redskins mounted their ponies and departed towards the South. As they rode off, they cast all kinds of insults at the white men, both with signs and in spoken language. It was certain that they would soon follow the trappers and then there would be a big fight.
That night every precaution was taken to guard against a surprise. Two guards were put on duty, to be relieved at midnight, and a well fortified position was chosen for camp. Perkins said that it was customary for the Utahs to attack just before daylight, for this is the time that the redskins expect to find the whites fast asleep. This is what occurred in the present instance.
A little before daylight two or three wolf howls were heard by the guards, who immediately notified Perkins. Soon all the men were up, their packs being placed in a semi-circle as a breastwork. Twenty of the best horses were saddled and tied in a thicket, to protect them from Indian bullets and arrows. Defeat meant death, so the trappers looked stolidly before them, fully prepared for the worst, if it were to come.
The first wolf howls were soon followed by others, coming from nearer points and in a semi-circle. Indians are experts in imitating the cries of owls, wolves and coyotes. So adept are they in the art that it is difficult to distinguish them from the calls of real birds and beasts. Few trappers can successfully imitate these animals, although many endeavor to do so.
It was not long before the attack commenced. Just as day began to dawn the wolf howls ceased and the trappers knew that the crisis was at hand. The Indians had crept to within one hundred yards of camp before they gave the war-whoop. Then they came on—fully one hundred strong—yelping wildly. The trappers were all ready with their rifles and pistols. Three were armed with double-barrelled shot-guns, loaded with half-ounce balls and fine buck-shot.
The Indians raced to within fifty yards before a single trapper fired,—then all began to shoot. The redskins halted. At this the plainsmen began with their six-shooters, one in each hand, for—as a result of long continued practice—they could shoot equally well with either arm. These mountaineers had to be experts in the use of both rifle and pistol, for inability to fire with accuracy meant instant death upon many an occasion.
The red men were much surprised to receive so many shots from but twenty men. They became panic-stricken, for they had not supposed that the trappers possessed two pistols each—twelve shots apiece after their rifles had been discharged. They had expected to rush right over the breastworks, before the rifles could be reloaded. They retreated—assisting many of their wounded. An arrow went through young Bill Hamilton’s cap.
The redskins had received a repulse which they had not expected, and retreated to their villages, taking their dead and wounded with them. The chief, Old Bear, had been slain, as well as many of their bravest warriors. This tribe had frequently robbed small parties of trappers, killing them many times and always treating them with great cruelty. After this fight they usually gave well-organized bodies of trappers the “go by.”
The plainsmen finished their work without being further molested, and then moved on to Bear River. In the spring, trapper Williams returned from Santa Fé, and made a proposition to the men that he should form a company of forty-three and make a two-years’ trip. This was agreed upon, and the expedition soon started, on the 25th of March, 1843. The trappers were divided into four parties, which collected furs in common; that is, each man had an equal share in all furs caught by his own party. For mutual protection they always pitched their tents and lodges together.
They soon passed through the country inhabited by the Bannock Indians. These were troublesome and had many a brush with the stout men of the plains. But the trappers came through every escapade without much loss. The region in which they soon found themselves was rich with beaver and otter; large quantities of which were caught. It was a grandly beautiful country—a paradise for all kinds of game. Bear were particularly plentiful, and many a grizzly and cinnamon fell before the accurate aim of the men in buckskin.
“Young Bill” Hamilton could not be called “Young Bill” any more, because he was a seasoned trapper, and his many experiences with wild men and wild beasts had made it possible for him to hold his own with the most experienced men of the party. The trappers made a wide détour, first going far North, then travelling South to the Carson River in Nevada, where they lost one of their best and most skilled men,—a fellow named Crawford. They were in the Pah Ute country and could tell very readily that the Indians were most unfriendly. In spite of this they set their beaver traps, for they saw that these animals were thick.
As Crawford did not return to camp one evening it was decided to make a search for him. Dockett, who was an outside trapper (or one who had his traps furthest from camp), had seen the missing man setting his traps at a bend in the river, at some distance away. To this point the trappers hurried, and, scouting in some cottonwood groves, in order to make sure that there was no ambush, they went in and soon discovered where one of their number had been at work. Indian tracks were thick near by.
They saw where a horse had stood, and, going to a thick bunch of willows, found the ground saturated with blood. The Indians had lain hidden in this willow patch, knowing that the trapper would come in the morning to look after his traps. They had thrown Crawford into the river, which was four feet deep. He could be easily seen and was soon pulled to dry land. Crawford was a handsome Texan, six feet tall, brave, kind, generous, and well-educated. Five of his traps were found, and four dead beaver. The Indians had stolen what was left, including his rifle, two pistols, and a horse. The trappers were soon back in camp with the body of their comrade, and, when the men saw Crawford, it was plain that death would be the penalty to any of the redskins who had waylaid him. A grave was dug—the trapper was laid to rest in his blankets—and no monument was placed above to mark the spot, for fear that some wandering redskin would dig up the remains of this fearless man of the plains.
The Pah Utes were soon to be encountered, for at two in the afternoon the pickets signalled: “Indians coming on horseback.” The stock was corralled and the scouts stood ready for action. The pickets now rode in and reported sixty Indians, who made their appearance upon a ridge, about three hundred yards from camp.
“Come out and fight! Come out and fight!” yelled the redskins.
Crawford’s death had cut the scouts down to thirty-eight, but that did not worry these hardy souls. It was impossible to keep the men back, so eager were they to avenge the death of their comrade. Leaving three trappers to take care of camp, the others mounted and started away in the direction of the Indians.
When the redskins saw them coming they gave yell after yell, thinking, no doubt, that this would paralyze the white men with fear. Then they divided and charged from two sides. The trappers let them get to within one hundred yards, when they halted and brought their rifles into play. Dropping these upon the ground, they charged with pistols in hand. Fully twenty-five Indians fell before their accurate shots. This bewildered the savages, and, before they could recover, the scouts were in their midst.
One tall redskin was mounted on Crawford’s horse. He tried to get away, but delayed entirely too long. He was caught, knocked prostrate to the ground, and the horse, rifle, and pistols of the dead scout were recovered. Forty-three ponies were captured. Very few of the Pah Utes made their escape. Poor Crawford, you see, was thus revenged in full.
Two horses which the trappers rode were killed. A few of the scouts received arrow wounds, but none were serious. The secret of the frontiersmen’s success was in making every shot count in the first volley. This bewildered the Indians, and, before they could collect their thoughts, the plainsmen were among them. The scouts were an effective body, and were as well drilled in the use of both rifle and pistol as the soldiers of any nation. Their horses, too, were trained to stand fire and to be quick in evolutions. The war-whoops and yells of the Indians simply made them prick up their ears and look unconcerned.
After this affair the little party received little molestation from the red men. At a council it was decided to move, as it was not known how many warriors these Indians could muster, and it was not safe for one or two men to go any distance from camp after furs. The hardy adventurers travelled to the Laramie River, where twenty-five of them determined to go back to St. Louis and to take their furs with them. The original thirteen all returned to the Far West; Williams going to Santa Fé, accompanied by Perkins and six others. It was a sad parting for all, particularly for Bill Hamilton, who had grown to love his comrades like brothers.
Bill was now a seasoned trapper, and the rest of his career on the plains was marked by many hazardous adventures with the redskins. He went to California, during the gold excitement, was in the famous Modoc war of 1856, where he belonged to the “Buckskin Rangers,” and was employed as a scout in the uprising of the Sioux in 1876, which was so disastrous to General Custer and his command. He was among those who followed Crazy Horse to his end, and finally resigned from the service of the Government to resume the free and independent life of a trapper. At eighty-two years of age he was living a peaceful and contented life at Columbus, Montana, where—as he says in his biography—“I am thankful that I can still enjoy and appreciate the wonderful beauties of nature.”
A true plainsman, a great shot, a nervy fighter,—such was “Uncle Bill” Hamilton. At the present time there is no wild and adventurous West to create such characters as this, for bad Indians have passed away forever.