A few days ago, I posted Andrew Weikert’s story about his first encounter with the Nez Perce in Yellowstone Park. It drew a lot of attention and this comment from Danny O’Keefe:
Methinks Mr. Weikert may have been a bit prone to exaggeration judging by the litheness expressed about being able to bound into the saddle. I also doubt the Nez Perce were such poor shots. Other, more sober and historical, reports indicate they were highly accurate. Imagine the state of mind of a people on the run and fearing oblivion. The decency they exhibited in most instances stands in contrast to the treatment they received.
I began to respond to Danny, but soon discovered I had so much to say that I flooded the reply box. I decided to gather my thoughts and use them for a blog post.
The most important thing to say is that I agree with Danny’s statement about the Nez Perce: “The decency they exhibited in most cases stands in contrast to the treatment they received.” That’s the consensus now and everything I see in the historical record supports it. But the phrase “in most cases” is important.
Overall, the Nez Perce behaved in an honorable fashion, but the historic record is mixed. Emma Cowan, who was taken captive by the Nez Perce, said this: “they were kind to us, a handful of the hated oppressors. Think of it, you who assume to be civilized people! Less than ten days had elapsed since the Big Hole fight in Montana, in which women and children, as well as warriors, were killed by the score. A number, badly wounded, were in camp while we were there. Yet were we treated kindly, given food and horses, and sent to our homes.”
On the other hand, a party of Nez Perce scouts did indeed attack the camp where Weikert and Wilkie’s friends were hiding, and later Indians shot an unarmed music teacher dead when he stepped into view at a cabin door.
We’re all heroes in the stories we tell about ourselves, so I don’t doubt that Weikert embellished his recollections. But it’s certain that the Nez Perce attacked him and his friends. He had the dead bodies to prove it.
I don’t know where Danny gets the ideas about Weikert’s “litheness expressed about being able to bound into the saddle.” Weikert clearly said, “I was riding ahead when I saw them [the Indians].” He was already mounted and quickly hunched over to make a smaller target. Doubtless, the Nez Perce were fine shots, but it’s very difficult to shoot a man on a moving horse. The best evidence that Nez Perce weren’t the sharpshooters Danny says they were is that Weikert and Wilkie both lived.
I’m still working my way through the mountains of material that have been written about the flight of the Nez Perce and I could already write thousands of words about such things as the failure of whites to understand their culture, writer’s motivations to portray them either as “Red Devils” or “Noble Savages,” and why the events of the summer of 1877 led to alternating periods of peace and violence. But I’ll save those explanations for my book.
The items I put on my blog are stories, not historical documents. I collect, edit and post them in hopes that readers will find them interesting and fun.
I am a storyteller, not a historian. I choose well told accounts that describe interesting experiences. I don’t fret over their literal truth. No doubt, many stories contain exaggerations and embellishments. When I think stories contain outright fabrications, I provide caveats. But I trust my readers to take things with the proverbial “grain of salt.”
My sincere thanks to Danny for his comment. It forced me to think through a lot of important issues—far more than I could discuss here. That will make this blog—and all my work—better.