Autobiography of Red Cloud: War Leader of the Oglalas
R. Eli Pail, Editor
A friend of mine, knowing my interest in Native American life, loaned me this book. She is an ancestor of Charles Wesley Allen, one of two white men responsible for garnering from Red Cloud his involvement in intertribal warfare on the Great Plains and present-day
Montana and up to the mid 1860s. The editor’s lengthy introduction sets the
historical context of his experiences, explains how the autobiography came into
being, and relates the probable reasons why the Sioux Lakota chief chose not to
recount his confrontations with Whites: his battles with the U.S. Army and his negotiations
with the federal government. Wyoming
Although the introduction is informative, it is enough first to know where and when Red Cloud was born (1821, along Blue Creek, a tributary of the North Platte River in present day Garden County, Nebraska) and where and when he died (1909, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota).
Living on the Pine Ridge Reservation during his later years, Red Cloud walked each day to the Pine Ridge post office to receive his mail and spend considerable time talking with old friends and associates, two of whom were Sam Deon, a white trader who had done business with Red Cloud on the plains for many years, and Charles Allen, former newspaperman and at that time Pine Ridge postmaster. It was Allen who devised the plan to write an autobiography of the famous chief’s life. Allen explained his plan in 1917.
The two [Red Cloud and Deon] used to put in two or three hours a day visiting on the bench by the post office, so I made arrangements with Mr. Deon to begin at the beginning and with questions and queries induced Red Cloud to go over his life from the beginning. … Immediately at the close of the conversation Mr. Deon would report [translate] to me, and I would take down all the facts as notes. … This continued through the whole summer [of 1893] and up to late in the fall, practically six months in duration or until the finish.
Editor R. Eli Paul wrote: “No evidence exists that Red Cloud knew of Deon and Allen’s arrangement, nor is it know whether he would have cared. After six months, Deon’s methodical probing may have aroused Red Cloud’s suspicions, hence the suspension of the old chief’s storytelling when it reached a more sensitive time in his life” – his dealings with the U.S. Army and the federal government.
Red Cloud told Deon that he had participated in 80 battles. The autobiography relates 21 experiences. They are all interesting. Particularly interesting to me were these three stories.
During the 1840s, Red Cloud, who had so rapidly risen in the estimation of his people, as a brave young man, had become one of the head warriors of his tribe; he had introduced the system of small war parties composed of from eight to twelve men whom he was always accorded the command by unanimous consent. If fact, his bravery and sagacity had become so generally acknowledged that his name was synonymous with success. Strongly supported by a large body of admiring adherents, yet secretly opposed by the envy and jealousy of rivals, his fame continued to increase …
In the spring of 1849, Red Cloud, in the flush and vigor of youth, being twenty-eight years of age, decided to take a party of twelve warriors on a foray against the Shoshone Indians. After the party had traveled about one hundred miles, a discussion arose about whether they should continue their mission or return to their village. The cause of the disaffection, Red Cloud discovered, was Black Eagle, a man who had long been one of his trustiest warriors, but who, having grown jealous of his leader’s popularity, sought to embarrass this undertaking by creating mutiny. This he endeavored to do by telling his comrades that they were all lost among the mountains, that Red Cloud did not know where they were going, and that they were foolish to be dragged along day after day to a place where their enemies could so easily ambush them.
Having discovered Black Eagle’s intentions, Red Cloud had his party climb to the top of a mountain where visibility extended for many miles. Addressing Black Eagle and three warriors that had taken Black Eagle’s side, pointing to the east, Red cloud said, “Do you see that high blue ridge away yonder? At the foot of that mountain is our village; there is where the women are. Go! You cannot get lost. You can go back over the same trail you came. There is lots of game; get some of your party to kill it for you, and, when there is another party to go out, you had better stay at home and sent your women.”
Proceeding farther west, Red Cloud and his remaining followers eventually discovered a Shoshone village, killed and scalped two horse herders, and made off with a large section of horses. As they returned home, they came upon Red Cloud’s brother, who told them that Black Eagle had spread news that Red Cloud’s party was scattered and lost in the
and that they were probably all killed by the Shoshones. Red Cloud and his men thereupon entered their
village herding their captured horses, and Black Eagle was disgraced. Big Horn Mountains
In love with two women, Red Cloud had to choose whom to marry first. Pretty Owl and Pine Leaf were their names, and the only matter for him [the autobiography is written in third person] to decide was, which of the two should be number one, for, while he could properly marry each of them, he could not marry both of them at once. …
… there was one grim and silent witness who stood aloof with jealous, scornful looks. It was Pine Leaf. Red Cloud had caught sight of her several times during the day’s festive marriage ceremony. Realizing that she was not aware of either his feelings or his intentions [to marry her at a later time], he mentally resolved to seek her out at the first opportunity and acquaint her with his purpose, but the opportunity never came. The next morning he discovered that Pine Leaf had hung herself.
A raid conducted by Red Cloud went awry after Gros Ventres tribesmen had warned an Arikara (Ree) village of the Sioux party’s near presence. Dangerously exposed, Red Cloud escaped by boat.
… the Arikaras needed conveyances to cross the Missouri and resorted to the “bull hide boat” … It consisted of buffalo hides stretched tightly over a round framework of willow, not the most seaworthy of watercraft … in the editor’s words an unwieldy tub of fur.
The Sioux from their hiding place watched the Ree village …Red Cloud and his party began getting nearer and nearer to the village. The Rees had rounded up their horses in the early past of the evening, and they were standing quietly at the edge of the village, having become accustomed to being corralled nights.
The Sioux had decided to make a rush and stampede the herd and, if an opportunity presented itself, shoot a struggling Ree or two and escape with their booty. Told by the Gros Ventres of the near proximity of the Sioux, the Ree villagers had set up an ambush. Having charged, surrounded in front, at each side, and behind, the Sioux party received a volley of bullets and arrows. As soon as they could … Red Cloud and a companion, who had led the charge, dismounted and sought refuge among the loose horses. Soon the herd began to separate in small bunches.
… Dodging along among the horses he [Red Cloud] drew his blanket over his head and face. Wrapping it closely about him with his gun concealed beneath he stepped boldly out into the Ree village and began walking toward the river. It was quite dark, but the lights shone from the tops of the lower buildings. … He was passed once or twice but not accosted. …
Red Cloud’s only object had been to reach the river. Once there he felt he could plunge in and swim to safety, but, when he descended the bank, he saw several canoes. Cutting one of them loose he got into it. He knew very little about managing the thing, but after a few awkward strokes he succeeded in getting out into the channel when it began to ride away from the Ree village. … he drifted along down the swift current all that night. …
… He traveled nights without any interruption, but during the day he would stop to hunt and sleep and get views of the country to see if the coast was clear … Eventually he came upon a Missouri River Sioux village. There was great rejoicing when he entered his own village, for it was supposed that he had been killed.
I enjoyed as much the details of native life that Deon and Allen were able to include. For this reason alone, reading Red Cloud’s “autobiography” is worth any curious reader’s attention. This book helps feel the need of readers like myself to know something about the lives of human beings over hundreds of years about which there is no or very little written record. Paperback and kindle versions are available for purchase on amazon.com.