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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Indians of the Northwest
By Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919)
 
From ‘The Winning of the West’

THE WYANDOTS, and the Algonquins who surrounded them, dwelt in a region of sunless, tangled forests; and all the wars we waged for the possession of the country between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi were carried on in the never-ending stretches of gloomy woodland. It was not an open forest. The underbrush grew, dense and rank, between the boles of the tall trees, making a cover so thick that it was in many places impenetrable,—so thick that it nowhere gave a chance for human eye to see even as far as a bow could carry. No horse could penetrate it save by following the game trails or paths chopped with the axe; and a stranger venturing a hundred yards from a beaten road would be so helplessly lost that he could not, except by the merest chance, even find his way back to the spot he had just left. Here and there it was broken by a rare hillside glade, or by a meadow in a stream valley; but elsewhere a man might travel for weeks as if in a perpetual twilight, never once able to see the sun through the interlacing twigs that formed a dark canopy above his head.  1
  This dense forest was to the Indians a home in which they had lived from childhood, and where they were as much at ease as a farmer on his own acres. To their keen eyes, trained for generations to more than a wild beast’s watchfulness, the wilderness was an open book: nothing at rest or in motion escaped them. They had begun to track game as soon as they could walk; a scrape on a tree trunk, a bruised leaf, a faint indentation of the soil, which the eye of no white man could see,—all told them a tale as plainly as if it had been shouted in their ears. With moccasined feet they trod among brittle twigs, dried leaves, and dead branches, as silently as the cougar; and they equaled this great wood-cat in stealth, and far surpassed it in cunning and ferocity. They could no more get lost in the trackless wilderness than a civilized man could get lost on a highway. Moreover, no knight of the Middle Ages was so surely protected by his armor as they were by their skill in hiding: the whole forest was to the whites one vast ambush, and to them a sure and ever-present shield. Every tree trunk was a breastwork ready prepared for battle; every bush, every moss-covered bowlder, was a defense against assault, from behind which, themselves unseen, they watched with fierce derision the movements of their clumsy white enemy. Lurking, skulking, traveling with noiseless rapidity, they left a trail that only a master in woodcraft could follow; while on the other hand they could dog a white man’s footsteps as a hound runs a fox. Their silence, their cunning and stealth, their terrible prowess and merciless cruelty, makes it no figure of speech to call them the tigers of the human race.  2
  Unlike the southern Indians, the villages of the northwestern tribes were usually far from the frontier. Tireless, and careless of all hardship, they came silently out of unknown forests, robbed and murdered, and then disappeared again into the fathomless depths of the woods. Half the terror they caused was due to the extreme difficulty of following them, and the absolute impossibility of forecasting their attacks. Without warning, and unseen until the moment they dealt the death stroke, they emerged from their forest fastnesses, the horror they caused being heightened no less by the mystery that shrouded them than by the dreadful nature of their ravages. Wrapped in the mantle of the unknown, appalling by their craft, their ferocity, their fiendish cruelty, they seemed to the white settlers devils and not men; no one could say with certainty whence they came, nor of what tribe they were; and when they had finished their dreadful work, they retired into a wilderness that closed over their trail, as the waves of the ocean close in the wake of a ship.  3
  They were trained to the use of arms from their youth up; and war and hunting were their two chief occupations,—the business as well as the pleasure of their lives. They were not as skillful as the white hunters with the rifle,—though more so than the average regular soldier,—nor could they equal the frontiersman in feats of physical prowess, such as boxing and wrestling; but their superior endurance, and the ease with which they stood fatigue and exposure, made amends for this. A white might outrun them for eight or ten miles; but on a long journey they could tire out any man, and any beast except a wolf. Like most barbarians they were fickle and inconstant,—not to be relied on for pushing through a long campaign; and after a great victory apt to go off to their homes, because each man desired to secure his own plunder and tell his own tale of glory. They are often spoken of as undisciplined; but in reality their discipline in the battle itself was very high. They attacked, retreated, rallied or repelled a charge, at the signal of command; and they were able to fight in open order in thick covers without losing touch of each other—a feat that no European regiment was then able to perform.  4
  On their own ground they were far more formidable than the best European troops. The British grenadiers throughout the eighteenth century showed themselves superior, in the actual shock of battle, to any infantry of continental Europe; if they ever met an overmatch, it was when pitted against the Scotch highlanders. Yet both grenadier and highlander, the heroes of Minden, the heirs to the glory of Marlborough’s campaigns, as well as the sinewy soldiers who shared in the charges of Prestonpans and Culloden, proved helpless when led against the dark tribesmen of the forest. On the march they could not be trusted thirty yards from the column without getting lost in the woods,—the mountain training of the highlanders apparently standing them in no stead whatever,—and were only able to get around at all when convoyed by backwoodsmen. In fight they fared even worse. The British regulars at Braddock’s battle, and the highlanders at Grant’s defeat a few years later, suffered the same fate. Both battles were fair fights,—neither was a surprise; yet the stubborn valor of the red-coated grenadier and the headlong courage of the kilted Scot proved of less than no avail. Not only were they utterly routed and destroyed in each case by an inferior force of Indians (the French taking little part in the conflict), but they were able to make no effective resistance whatever; it is to this day doubtful whether these superb regulars were able, in the battles where they were destroyed, to so much as kill one Indian for every hundred of their own men who fell. The provincials who were with the regulars were the only troops who caused any loss to the foe; and this was true in but a less degree of Bouquet’s fight at Bushy Run. Here Bouquet, by a clever stratagem, gained the victory over an enemy inferior in numbers to himself; but only after a two-days’ struggle in which he suffered a fourfold greater loss than he inflicted.  5
  When hemmed in so that they had no hope of escape, the Indians fought to the death: but when a way of retreat was open, they would not stand cutting like British, French, or American regulars; and so, though with a nearly equal force, would retire if they were suffering heavily, even if they were causing their foes to suffer still more. This was not due to lack of courage, it was their system; for they were few in numbers, and they did not believe in losing their men. The Wyandots were exceptions to this rule, for with them it was a point of honor not to yield; and so they were of all the tribes the most dangerous in an actual pitched battle.  6
  But making the attack, as they usually did, with the expectation of success, all were equally dangerous. If their foes were clustered together in a huddle, they attacked them without hesitation,—no matter what the difference in numbers,—and shot them down as if they had been elk or buffalo; they themselves being almost absolutely safe from harm, as they flitted from cover to cover. It was this capacity for hiding, or taking advantage of cover, that gave them their great superiority, and it is because of this that the wood tribes were so much more formidable foes in actual battle than the horse Indians of the plains afterwards proved themselves. In dense woodland, a body of regular soldiers are almost as useless against Indians as they would be if at night they had to fight foes who could see in the dark: it needs special and long-continued training to fit them in any degree for wood-fighting against such foes. But on the plains, the white hunter’s skill with the rifle and his cool resolution give him an immense advantage: a few determined men can withstand a host of Indians in the open, although helpless if they meet them in thick cover; and our defeats by the Sioux and other plains tribes have generally taken the form of a small force being overwhelmed by a large one.  7
  Not only were the Indians very terrible in battle, but they were cruel beyond all belief in victory; and the gloomy annals of border warfare are stained with their darkest hues, because it was a war in which helpless women and children suffered the same hideous fate that so often befell their husbands and fathers. It was a war waged by savages against armed settlers, whose families followed them into the wilderness. Such a war is inevitably bloody and cruel; but the inhuman love of cruelty for cruelty’s sake, which marks the red Indian above all other savages, rendered these wars more terrible than any others. For the hideous, unnamable, unthinkable tortures practiced by the red men on their captured foes, and on their foes’ tender women and helpless children, were such as we read of in no other struggle; hardly even in the revolting pages that tell the deeds of the Holy Inquisition. It was inevitable—indeed it was in many instances proper—that such deeds should awake in the breasts of the whites the grimmest, wildest spirit of revenge and hatred.  8
  The history of the border wars, both in the ways they were begun and in the ways they were waged, makes a long tale of injuries inflicted, suffered, and mercilessly revenged. It could not be otherwise when brutal, reckless, lawless borderers, despising all men not of their own color, were thrown in contact with savages who esteemed cruelty and treachery as the highest of virtues, and rapine and murder as the worthiest of pursuits. Moreover, it was sadly inevitable that the law-abiding borderer as well as the white ruffian, the peaceful Indian as well as the painted marauder, should be plunged into the struggle to suffer the punishment that should only have fallen on their evil-minded fellows.  9
 
 
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