Smoke Signals

Mar/Apr 2012



Staff Writer



March 6, 1782: All nations have within their history events that give a person pause to wonder about the human race.  This is one of America ’s sad incidents, and it is known as The Gnadenhutten Massacre.  Each year during this time period, the Pittsburgh militia would venture out into the Ohio country to avenge Indian attacks that had struck their farms and citizens.  Many of the whites of that period believed in a popular biblical idea that Indians were Canaanites -- a people in the Old Testament who were so corrupt that God ordered the Israelites to destroy them.  These whites, therefore, thought it a Christian’s duty to wipe them from the face of the earth.  Living along the Muskingum River was a group of Christian Indians called the “Moravians.”  These peaceful people devoutly attended church, dressed like whites, wore white hairstyles, practiced agriculture, lived “moral” lives, and even intermarried with local whites.  To many in the militia this made the Moravians just that much more suspicious.  Residents of two Moravian villages were rounded up by the militia.  They were allowed to sing hymns, kneel and pray, and then they were divided into two groups and summarily executed.  For many, the manner of execution was through bludgeoning with a cooper’s mallet.  The dead and dying were scalped and mutilated.  Of some 42 men, 20 women, and 34 children thus captured by the militia, only 4 survived.  

March 11, 2003: In Kuwait near the border with Iraq, there is a tremendous build-up of troops – primarily American and British – in preparation for an impending attack on Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime.  Unlike the first Gulf War, media reporters will be imbedded with and traveling alongside the attacking troops.  On this date, in order to bring foreign correspondents up to speed on the weapons, equipment, and organization of the US Marines Corps, a “show and tell” presentation has been organized.  Many of these reporters represent organizations and/or nations that do not support military action against Iraq .  The Marines making the presentation are young corporals and sergeants, and it is immediately evident that the reporters are less interested in the weapons and workings of the Marine Corps than they are in what these young warriors might think and believe.  Like a feeding frenzy, they pepper the soldiers with all manner of questions seeking their opinions on subjects ranging from the Iraqi weather, to US war protesters, to their Commander-in-Chief.  The Marines field the questions with patience, grace, and honesty.  Afterwards, one sergeant comments that, “They (the reporters) are more hostile than the Iraqis.”  One female reporter “with a French accent,” comments to her Marine chaperone that she has “never seen so much bravado, machismo, or arrogance” in her life.  The driver mulls that over in his mind for a moment and responds, “Yes, ma’am, that’s why they call themselves United States Marines.”                   

March 19, 1927: The lore of the American West is filled with the names and deeds of famous people.  Yet, besides the Jim Bridgers, Buffalo Bills, Wyatt Earps, George Custers, and Billy the Kids, there are many whose deeds and names are all but lost to history.  One of these is Henry Avis, who died on this date at age eighty-six.  Born in 1840, Avis spent his teenage years catching and breaking wild horses.  At eighteen he was employed as a teamster in and around Fort Laramie by fur trader/explorer, Major Andrew Drips.  He then moved on to J.M. Hockaday and Co. as a mail wagon and stagecoach driver.  At twenty-one he signed on with the Pony Express.  Because he knew the country, Avis was assigned a route through Sioux country west of Fort Laramie .  On one occasion, as Avis finished an 85-mile run at Horseshoe Station, he was informed that an Indian war party had been spotted near Dear Creek, the next station to the west.  The new rider refused to take a chance, so Avis transferred the mochila to that rider's horse, mounted, and set off.  He found Deer Creek station raided and the horses gone.  When the eastern rider arrived, he also refused to go on.  So taking that rider's mochila, Avis headed back to Horseshoe Station.  He made it without mishap, having covered over 250 miles in the saddle without rest. 

March 26, 1832: On this date explorer, adventurer, and budding self-taught artist, George Catlin, boards the steamboat Yellow Stone for the first steamboat trip up the Missouri River to Fort Union in today’s North Dakota.  It is primarily to Catlin, and the soon to follow Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, that we owe our understanding of the appearance of early plains Indians.  Catlin went West with an idealized notion of Indians.  His experiences, however, provided a serious look at real Indian people and he recorded, both visually and verbally, every detail he could.  He knew he was recording a vanishing race.  At Fort Union he painted Blackfeet.  At Fort Pierre , which was surrounded by nearly 600 buffalo-hide tipis, he painted Teton Sioux.  At Fort Clark he painted Mandans and Hidatsa.  Each Native American he painted he treated with dignity - none were portrayed as generic Indians, for traits of personality were obvious in nearly every portrait.  His portraits of women, some posing with their children, showed the Indians as a people, rather than as the typical curiosities of his time.  He began each canvas by quickly lining out the features, and then spent a great deal of time on the face, emphasizing each Indian as an individual. He made careful notations as to dress, hair style, and objects carried by each Indian, and saved fine details of each canvas for a future date when he would return to his eastern studio. He employed only a dozen colors, and kept his canvasses rolled in a large cylinder for ease of transport.  In October 1832, having painted or sketched over 130 canvasses in 86 days, George Catlin returned to St. Louis .  He returned west to paint five times, and dreamed of having his “Indian Gallery” purchased by the government for the posterity of America .  Sadly, it never happened, and 1872 he died in poverty to be buried in an unmarked grave.  Today many of his treasured works do grace the Smithsonian Institution.  But this gift to America of Gatlin’s Indian Gallery was through a private donor, not our government.


April 8, 1899: On this date there appeared in The Paper, a newspaper published in Kerrville, Texas, an article describing the following incident.  During the summer of 1872, the paddlewheel steamer Peninah, of the Kountz Line steamship company, left Yankton, Dakota Territory, laden with freight for Fort Benton, Montana.  Just up river from the Standing Rock Agency, which today lies partially in both North and South Dakota, the Peninah was forced to lay up for some minor repairs.  Tying up to the shore at the base of a bluff, her passengers lounged about the deck enjoying the sunshine when they began to hear a sound resembling distant thunder.  As the noise seemed to grow closer, the passengers began to take shelter thinking it might be the pounding hoofs of an impending Indian attack.  As the noise “resolved itself into a wild roar,” hundreds of buffalo began pouring over the cliff.  Because the Peninah was tied up so close to shore, many of the buffalo plunged clear over the steamboat into the Missouri River.  Some, however, fell on the deck of the Peninah, while others crashed to earth on the narrow shore between the steamer and the bluff.  Many of the falling buffalo were “maimed and bleeding from broken legs or internal injuries.”  They continued to pour over the bluff for nearly an hour, filling the river with both injured and swimming animals.  “The sandbars were covered with the big shaggy animals, who began to climb up the opposite bank, where they stood exhausted.”  From the carcasses on the deck, men set about cutting fresh meat and skinning off the hides for eventual sale, and the next day when the Peninah pulled back onto the river, the surrounding hills were covered with buffalo.  

April 15, 1912: This is the one-hundredth anniversary of one of the most storied disasters in modern times.  Man learned the hard lesson that his best wisdom is not infallible and that size and opulence provides no guarantee of safety.  Just before midnight on the night of April 14, about four hundred miles east of Newfoundland, the speeding luxury liner, HMS Titanic, fails to divert her course from an iceberg and ruptures five of her sixteen allegedly watertight compartments along the starboard side.  Touted as the pinnacle of maritime technology and unsinkable, Titanic slides beneath the surface of the North Atlantic in less than three hours; at about 2:20 A.M. on the morning of April 15.  Was it just by chance that such a great vessel should damage herself so in striking an iceberg?  Answering that question, an early evaluation of the accident said, “at a speed of 21 knots, she represents an energy of over 1,000,000 foot-tons…” and when hitting an iceberg, her “delicate outside skin will be torn like a sheet of paper.”  Pinnacle of maritime technology or not, her required number of lifeboats are set by ship tonnage rather than number of passengers.  Because of this shortage of lifeboats and the lack of satisfactory emergency procedures on a maiden voyage, over fifteen hundred people go down with the ship or freeze to death in the cruel sea.  Of the seven hundred or so survivors, most are women and children.  The remains of many victims are never recovered, but the sad identification photographs taken of those bodies that were recovered still haunt us today.  Outrage over the circumstances of the disaster stretched to both sides of the Atlantic to eventually bring positive improvements in ship safety regulations and regular patrols plotting the location and movement of icebergs.

April 17, 1790: On this date, at age 84, one of America’s Founding Fathers and one of the truly great men of his time (or of any time),  Benjamin Franklin, passes into history.  At age 22, Franklin had composed the following epitaph:  

The Body of B. Franklin Printer;
Like the Cover of an old Book,
ts Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
ILies here,
Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost: 
For it will, as he believ’d, 
appear once more,
IIn a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and Amended By the Author.

After such a long and fruitful life, Franklin thought better of this epitaph and a few days before his death directed his tombstone to read:



Today thousands of Philadelphia ’s tourists view his and Deborah’s grave through an iron fence in the old graveyard at 5th and Arch Street .  Remembering his famous saying from Poor Richard’s Almanack, “A penny saved, is a penny earned,” they toss pennies on his stone for good luck.  Possibly, it is to Franklin more than any other single man, save maybe George Washington, that America owes its freedom.

April 26, 1798: Today is the birthday (maybe) of James Beckworth, one of the most intriguing of America’s mountain men.  Not only was Beckworth one of the few African Americans to roam the mountains, he was also one of the few mountain men to write about his exploits.  The problem is, much of what he wrote was exaggerated, which throws all of it (even his birth date) into relative question.  Yet, there are many facts about his colorful life that are provable by either supporting records or the confirmation of fellow mountain men.  Starting life likely as a slave, Beckworth was a freeman when he joined William Ashley’s third fur trapping expedition into the Rocky Mountains in 1824.  He enjoyed the rough life of a free trapper and in the late 1820’s joined the Crow tribe marrying at least two Crow women and fathering several children.  Typically of a mountain man, Beckworth found his way all over the West.  He spent time in California at least twice: once during the California Revolt in 1845 and again at the start of the California Gold Rush.  One incident he happened upon needed little of his usual exaggeration.  As a dispatch courier he discovered the murders of the Reed family at the Mission San Miguel, one of early California’s most infamous crimes.  Commonly stopping there for a meal, Beckworth stumbled over a body in the kitchen.  Realizing the murderer might still be there, which was the case, Beckworth left to return with help.  They found eleven bodies, including women and children, in a grizzly bloody pile.  The killers had intended to cover evidence with fire, but the flames had died out.  Eventually, with the help of one killer who turned “states evidence,” the murderers were caught.  They were tried, and as Beckworth bluntly described it, "we shot them, including the state's evidence."  Tradition has it that Beckworth finally returned to the Crow people, and upon his death in 1866, was laid to rest Crow fashion in a tree platform.

Paul “Cougar Heart” Jacobson

NAF #015

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