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Edwin L. Sabin

The Blackfeet Defy the Crows (1834)

"Come and Take Us"

Southwest from the Mandans there lived the Crow nation. They roved through the Yellowstone River country of southern Montana to the Rocky Mountains; and southward through the mountains into the Wind River and Big Horn country of western Wyoming.

West from the Mandans there lived the Blackfeet nation. They roved through the Missouri country of northern Montana, and north into Canada.

The land of the Crows and of the Blackfeet overlapped. The two peoples were at war, on the plains and in the mountains.

By reason of their wars, the Crow nation had shrunk until they were down to seven thousand people, with many more women than men. But their warriors were tall and stately, their women industrious, their garb elegant. Their buffalo-hide lodges and their buffalo-robe clothing were the whitest, finest in the West. They had countless horses. And the long hair of their men set them high in dignity.

Oiled every morning with bear's grease, the hair of a proud Crow warrior swept the ground behind him. The hair of Chief Long-hair measured ten feet, seven inches, and rolled into a bunch it weighed several pounds. When it had turned white, he worshipped it as his medicine.

The Crows' name for themselves was Ab-sa-ro-ke—Sparrow Hawk People. They were of the Siouan family and cousins of the Minnetarees, the Bird-woman's captors. They had no villages, except where they camped. They were dark, as high and mighty in their bearing as the Mohawks or Senecas, were wonderful riders and looked upon the white men not as worthy enemies but as persons who should be plundered of horses and goods.

In the white men's camps they were polite—and took away with them whatever they could. However, many white traders spoke well of the Crows.

The name of the Blackfeet was Sik-sik-a, which means the same. It referred to their black moccasins. They were Algonkins, and in power ranked with the Iroquois of the East. The Blackfeet, the Bloods, and the Piegans formed the league of the Siksika nation. They warred right and left, with the Crees, the Assiniboins, the Sioux, the Crows, the Pierced Noses, and with practically all tribes; they were hostile to the white Americans who hunted in their country; but their wars had not cut them down, for they numbered close to forty thousand people.

Like the Crows their enemy-neighbors they were rovers, never staying long in one spot. They were unlike the Crows in appearance, being shorter, broad-shouldered and deep-chested. No warriors were more feared.

In November of 1834, amidst the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming five hundred Crows were ahorse, at early morning, to chase the buffalo. And a gallant sight they made as they rode gaily out; in their white robes, their long plaited hair flying, their best horses prancing under them and decorated with red streamers.

Chief Grizzly Bear led. Chief Long-hair, now almost eighty years of age, was with another band.

In this Chief Grizzly Bear band there rode a party of white beaver-hunters who were to spend the winter with the Crows. They now were to be shown how the Crows killed buffalo.

Pretty soon, while the Crows cantered on, they sighted a group of moving figures at the base of the hills two or three miles distant across the valley. Everybody stopped short to peer. Buffalo? No! Indians, on foot and in a hurry—Blackfeet!

How, from so far away, the Crows could tell that these were Blackfeet, the white men did not know. But with a yell of joy and rage, every Crow lashed his horse and forward they all dashed, racing to catch the hated Blackfeet.

The white hunters followed hard. It was to be an Indian battle, instead of an Indian buffalo-chase.

The Blackfeet numbered less than one hundred. They were a war party. Were they hunting buffalo, they would have been on horseback; but even among the horse Indians the war parties were likely to travel on foot, so as to be able to hide more easily. They counted upon stealing horses, for the homeward trail.

These Blackfeet had been very rash, but that was Blackfoot nature. They had sighted the Crows as soon as the Crows had sighted them, and were hustling at best speed to get back into the hills.

The Crows, whooping gladly and expecting to make short work of their enemies, first made short work of the distance. Their robes were dropped, their guns loaded, their bows were strung, they spread out wider—the Blackfeet were cut off and desperately scrambling up a rocky slope—could never make it—never, never—they had halted—what were they doing?

Aha! From the hill slope there arose answering whoops; a few guns cracked; and at the base and half-way up, the Crows stopped and gazed and yelled.

The plucky Blackfeet had "forted." They were in a natural fort of rock wall. On either side of them a rock out-crop in a ridge four feet high extended up hill, to meet, near the top, a cross-ridge ten feet high.

While half the warriors defended with guns and bows, the other half were busily piling up brush and boulders, to close the down-hill opening.

Now whoop answered whoop and threat answered threat, while the Crows rode around and around, at safe distance, seeking a weak place. Chief Grizzly Bear held council with the sub-chiefs. Away sped an express, to get reinforcements from the camp.

At the first charge upon the fort, three Crows had been killed, and only one Blackfoot. That would never do: three scalps in trade for one was a poor count, to the Crows.

They were five hundred, the Blackfeet were only ninety; but the Crows held off, waiting their reinforcements, while from their fort the Blackfeet yelled taunt after taunt.

"Bring up pony squaws! Let them lead you. But our scalps will never dry in a Crow lodge!"

Here, at last, came the people from the camp: the old men, women, boys—everybody who could mount a horse and who could find a weapon; all shrieking madly until the whole valley rang with savage cries.

Matters looked bad for the Blackfeet. At least two thousand Crows were surrounding them, hooting at them, shaking guns and bows and spears at them. And the Blackfeet, secure in their fort, jeered back. They were brave warriors.

Chief Grizzly Bear called another council. In spite of all the gesturing and whooping and firing of guns, the Blackfeet were unharmed. The Crows had little heart for charging in, upon the muzzles of those deadly pieces with the fierce Blackfeet behind.

The white beaver-hunters, not wishing to anger the Blackfeet, and curious to see what was about to happen, withdrew to a clump of cedar flees, about two hundred yards from the fort. The white men had decided to be spectators, in a grand-stand.

Presently Chief Grizzly Bear and his chiefs seemed to have agreed upon a plan of battle. Had they been white men, themselves, they would have stormed the fort at once, and carried the fight to close quarters; but that was not Indian way.

To lose a warrior was a serious matter. Warriors were not made in a day. And without warriors, a tribe would soon perish. "He who fights and runs away, may live to fight another day," was the Indians' motto. They preferred to play safe.

Now the Crows formed in line, two or three hundred abreast, and charged as if they were intending to run right over the fort. It was a great sight. But it did not frighten the Blackfeet.

Up the hill slope galloped the Crow warriors and boys, shooting and yelling. The stout Blackfeet, crouched behind their barricade, volleyed back; and long before the Crows drove their charge home, it broke.

Soon several more Crow warriors were lying on the field. The wails of the squaws sounded loudly. No Blackfeet had been hurt.

The Crows changed their tactics. They avoided the fort, until they had gained the top of the hill. Then in a long single file, they tore past that end of the fort, letting fly with bullet and arrow as they sped by.

Each warrior threw himself to the opposite side of his horse, and hanging there with only one arm and one leg exposed to the fort, shot under his horse's neck.

It was an endless chain of riders, shuttling past the fort, and shooting but that did not work.

The Blackfeet arrows and bullets caught the horses, and once in a while a rider; and soon there were ten Crows down.

The Crows quit, to rest their horses, and to talk. Their women were wailing still more loudly. War was hard on the women, too. For every relative killed, they had to cut off a finger joint, besides gashing their faces and hands with knives.

In their little fort, the Blackfeet were as boldly defiant as ever.

"Come and take us!" they gibed. "Where are the Crow men? We thought we saw Crow men among you. Come and take us, but you will never take us alive!"

"What will be done now?" the white men queried of a black man who had joined them, in the clump of cedars.

He was not all black. He was half white, one quarter negro and one quarter Cherokee. He had lived over twenty years in the Indian country of the upper Missouri River; mainly with the Crows. Edward Rose had been his name, when young; but now he was a wrinkled, stout old man, called Cut-nose, and looked like a crinkly-headed Indian.

"The Crows are losing too many warriors. They have no stomach for that kind of work," answered the old squaw-man.

The Crow chiefs and braves were seated in a circle, near the cedars, and listening to the speakers who stood up, one after another.

"Our marrow-bones are broken," some asserted. "The enemy is in a fort; we are outside. We will lose more men than he. Let us draw off; and when he is in the open, we can then attack as we please."

"He is few; we are many. Our slain warriors and their women cry for vengeance," asserted others. "We will be called cowards if we retreat. If we charge all together we may lose a few braves, but there will be no Blackfeet left to laugh at us."

These seemed to be the voices that carried. The pipe was passed around the circle, every man puffed at it, and the council broke up in a tremendous yelling.

Now the end of the Blackfeet loomed large. Ahorse and afoot the Crows massed, to charge from below and on either flank. Their chiefs hastened hither and thither, urging them. The women and children shrieked encouragement.

In their little fort the Blackfeet also listened to their chiefs. They showed not the slightest sign of fear. Their fierce faces glared over the ramparts. Their weapons were held firmly.

The Crows had aroused themselves to such a pitch that they acted half insane. Forward they charged in howling masses—but the bullets and arrows pelted them thickly, more warriors fell—they scattered aid ran away. The Blackfeet hooted them.

This made old Cut-nose mad. He hastened out to where the Crows were collected in doubt what next to do, and climbed upon a rock, that they all might see him.

"Listen!" he shouted. "You act as if you expected to kill the enemy with your noise. Your voices are big and your hearts are small. These white men see that the Crows cannot protect their hunting grounds; they will not trade with a nation of cowards and women; they will trade with the Blackfeet, who own the country. The Blackfeet will go home and tell the people that three thousand Crows could not take ninety warriors. After this no nation will have anything to do with the Crows. I am ashamed to be found among the Crows. I told the white men that you could fight. Now I will show you how black men and white men can fight."

And he leaped from his rock, and without glancing behind him he ran for the fort. The Crows did not delay an instant. Pellmell they rushed after him, caught up with him, swarmed against the brush and rock walls—the Blackfeet met them stanchly, and gave way not an inch—and the fighting was terrible.

But over the barricade poured the Crows. In a moment the whole interior was a dense mass of Indians, engaged hand to hand, and every one yelling until, as said the white men, "The noise fairly lifted the caps from our heads."

Guns and hatchets and clubs and knives rose and fell. The Crow women were pressing to the outskirts, to kill the wounded enemy. Gradually the weight of the Crows forced the Blackfeet back. The Blackfeet began to emerge over the upper end of the fort—their faces still to the foe.

Presently all who might escape, were outside—but their enemies surrounded them at once. The Blackfeet remaining were not many. They never faltered nor signed surrender. They only sang their death chants; and forming in close order they moved along the ridge like one man, cutting a way with their knives.

By the half dozen they dropped; even those who dropped, fought until they were dead. Soon the platoon was merely a squad; the squad melted to a spot; there was a swirl, covering the spot; and the spot had been washed out.

Not a Blackfoot was left, able to stand. The wounded who had lost their weapons hurled taunts, as they lay helpless, until the Crows finished them also. Truly had the Blackfeet yelled: "Come and take us! But you will never take us alive!"

This night there was much mourning in the Crow camp. Thirty chiefs and braves had been killed, twice that number wounded, and many horses disabled. No prisoner had been brought in, to pay by torture. The Blackfeet nation would look upon the fight as their victory.

So the Crow dead were buried; and into each grave of chief or brave were placed his weapons and the shaved off mane and tail of his best horse—for every hair would become a horse for him, in the spirit world.