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This Week in History: July 19

In this letter Robert wrote to his brother Hugh shortly after the Battle of Pierre’s Hole, he describes his role in brokering a peace between the Snakes and Crows as “Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary.”  Robert reveals a respect for “The Iron Wristband’s” political acumen and a growing fondness for Native Americans in general.

Note parenthetical () references are Robert’s; brackets [] are editorial.


Green River in the Rocky Mountains

Green River

July 20th 1833

Dear Hugh,

…Yesterday I met a part of the Shoshonee or Snake Indians, with their principal chief “The Iron Wristband.”  We had a smoke and talk, as is usual on such occasions; in the course of which I discovered that my new friend wished to employ me in the capacity of ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary, on a mission to the Crow Indians; through whose country I intend to pass.  Much as I have been accustomed to the tact and shrewdness of Indian chiefs, I have seldom seen stronger proofs of political cunning, than on this occasion.

The Iron Wristband had lately succeeded his father “Petticoat,” as chief of the nation.  It seems that a misunderstanding had arisen between the Snakes and Crows, not so serious as to lead to immediate open hostilities, yet sufficient to render it doubtful whether they could meet as friends.  To ascertain the views of the Crows; and if hostile, to deliver a suitable defiance, were to be the objects of my mission.

After some preliminary conversation, the chief made me a speech, in which were condensed his final instructions.  I took notes of it at the time, and herewith give you the substance.  The sententious brevity and emphatic point would have put some of your long-winded orators to the blush; and few of them could convey their meaning with more accuracy.

“Write a letter,” said he “to the Crows.  Let it be in two parts.  Tell them my people wish to know their intentions.  We are anxious to go to war with the Black Feet Indians (common enemies to the Crows and Snakes).  We do not wish to fight with our former friends and allies, the Crows; nor to divide our strength by keeping some war parties at home to protect our squaws.  No we wish to be friends with the Crows; we wish to join them, against the Black Feet; we wish to smoke, trade and intermarry with their people.  If they will agree to this, we will be happy; we will love them as neighbors, as friends and as allies.”

“Should the Crow Indians reject these offers of peace, then the Snakes hurl defiance at them.  Let them come.  There are many heroes among us, who have never known fear.  We will meet them with as much ferocity as enemies as we could have cordially greeted them as friends.  We are not afraid.  We will never call on our friends the Chiens, Arapahoes, Utaws and Navahos, before the snow comes, and this will grind them to death!”

“Let this be your letter.  Divide it into two parts.  If the offer of peace be accepted, then destroy the other.  If not, then give them our defiance, and tell them to come on.”

“Eight years ago, when we first saw ‘the Long Knife’ [General Ashley], there had been war between us and the Crows.  We had killed many of them.  They were as children in our hands.  Your friend, the Long Knife, offered to make peace.  He gave us large presents.  We consented; and since then, the tomahawk has been buried.  Our wish is still for peace.  Let their answer be frank and candid.  Peace or war, it is the same to us; only let them say which they prefer.”

I listened with much attention, and no small share of admiration to this brief harangue.  Were you familiar with the position of the parties, you would see in every sentence, evidence of deep policy, and consummate political skill.  The Snakes were deeply apprehensive of the effects of a war with the Crows; for they could not wage war with that nation and the Black Feet [at the same time] yet an Indian well knows the danger of admitting weakness; or asking as a boon what he knows can only be held by his rifle.

On parting, I promised the chief to write and deliver the letter “in two parts” according to his wishes; and hope to succeed in establishing peace between those nations.

Yours, etc.


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