A Tale: One Side of the Great Indian Question — S. Weir Mitchell, 1880

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1899 chromolithograph WikipediaFollowing the U.S. Civil War, “the great Indian question” became central issue of public debate in the United States. Opinions of what to do about America’s indigenous peoples ranged from calling for their extermination to allowing them self-government in secure homelands.

As the incident below illustrates, relations between Native Americans and whites then often were appalling. The incident was reported in 1880 by the world famous physician and author, S. Weir Mitchel, who was on his way to Yellowstone National Park. Mitchell was camped with a tour group by the bank of the Yellowstone River. Here’s what Mitchell wrote.

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 Through the inky dark horses were heard, and a broad, guttural German voice called out, “Woa, Daisy! You woa now,” while the owner rode into view on a stout pony, driving a packhorse loaded with camp-traps and guiltless of bridle or halter.

“Is dis der New York outfit?” said the owner of Daisy.

The judge was instantly called on to respond and to own that he was the New York outfit.

“You might know my prudder?” said the German—”geeps a budter wholesale shtore in Read street.”

Then the major took a hand: “Heard of any Indians?”

“Yaas: I heerd of one a little vile ago. He was shtealin’ hosses: shtole mine, der whole outfit. I went and found him.”

“How was that?” said the major.

“Well, I shneaked up and found him a-sittin’ at his feed: I shot him in der pack. Den I hitched him to close hosses and shnaked him into der prush. Guesh he’s dere yet. I goes for ‘em overy dime.”

This was told tranquilly, without emotion, or with less than that with which a hunter tells you of good luck with the elk. It was a fair illustration of Western life, and one side of the great Indian question.

The major remarked, “There were two men killed by Indians last week down the river.”

The owner of Daisy threw a leg over the pommel, struck a match to light a pipe, and said, “Vel, maybe dat’s my prudder-in-law.”

At last the great whiskey question came up, and after a consoling draught Daisy was summoned to “Get on,” and the German disappeared over a bad trail into utter darkness, leaving the “New York outfit” to settle the difficult question of who stole those horses.

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—Excerpt from S. Weir Mitchell, M.D., “Through Yellowstone Park to Fort Custer,” Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, 25:688-704 (June 1880).

— 1889 chromolithograph from Wikipedia Commons, artist unknown.