Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

Indians on the Mormon Trail: A Historian’s Dilemma

Posted by Andrew on December 18, 2007

Submitted by: Andrew

I’ve been reading some historical accounts written by several Mormon pioneers who were in the Rowley handcart company with some of my ancestors, and I’ve been shocked by how differently these pioneers described the same experiences. The great disparity in these historical accounts gives me a new appreciation of the difficult, if not impossible, task that faces historians: to determine what really happened hundreds of years ago.

One particularly interesting disparity in the Rowley handcart company journals is how they describe the Indians. Some of them characterize the Indians as heroes whose charitable acts saved their lives. Others characterize the Indians as “little witches” who tormented them and stole their goods. The following quotes were all taken from historical accounts written by members of the Rowley handcart company. Which descriptions of the Indians are accurate? You decide:

So far as the Indians were concerned they were our friends all the way. They gave us no trouble whatever; they frequently offered to help the sisters pull their handcarts for them, which was politely refused. . . . After an hour after [two mounted Indians] returned with strips of buffalo meat laid across their ponies which they very gallantly distributed to the fair sex. I mention these incidents to show the unusual influence that existed between Indians and “Mormons;” all the different tribes we met showed the same kindly feeling.
(By Thomas M’Inyre.)

Here was a large body of Sioux Indian warriors, said to be about six hundred in number. These were the first Indians we had seen. They demanded flour and bacon from our captain and we were all so frightened that they got all they asked for. . . . [S]oon after we stopped a band of Indians, men, women and children, joined us. . . . Although every eye watched, the Indians stole everything they could touch; it did seem as though they were witches in very deed. . . When the Indians saw us start out they got very angry and did all they could to hinder or stop us. Some rode their horses in front of us, some rode on each side and some behind. They did not shoot by they annoyed us in every conceivable way for a number of miles. (By William Atkin.)

No, we didn’t have any trouble with the Indians. They told us before we left England that we must be good to them and if we had any trinkets we could give them to bring them along. They did so like trinkets. At first we were a little annoyed at so many of them begging but we always treated them nice and they never hurt us. In fact they saved our lives at various times, such as when they gave us food. (By Sarah Hancock Beesley.)

We next came to a trading post, and there were quite a number of Indians present . . . and as our past experience with that class of people had been of that nature that made us dread the sight of them, we hastened from the place as speedily as possible,–only to be filled with fear before the day had closed. As we heard them singing, their unwelcome noise was more like the howling of wolves than the welcome voice of human beings to us. (By William Atkin.)

Met with a band of Indians who were well armed & plenty of Horses. they where called Sues & where expecting the Pawnees to Battle with them. they were quite friendly & Shook Hands with us & went & killed a Buffalo for us & Brought the meet Several miles on their Horses & distributed it among the people. . . . [H]ere we where met By a Large Band of Indians. . . . They Let us have a number of maugasons for old Handkerchiefs, flower & cetera. quite a number of them Both men & woomen Helped us Along Through the Sand. . . . they Showed us the Shallowest part to cross over the water & they did not forget to have a laugh at our woomen up to their knees in water. (By Henry Hobbs.)

[W]e passed an Indian camp perched on a hill to the left of the road. . . . The savages fired some shots to scare us but we went over the hill and down to Buffalo Creek where we made our camp. Some of our people who lingered behind the handcarts made big jumps when they heard the cracks of the Indian’s guns. Most of us were shaking a little with fear as these were the first Indians we had seen on our journey. (By Mattias Nielsen.)

What do these great disparities in the accounts written by members of the Rowley handcart company tell us about the accuracy and reliability of human perceptions and memories? If you were a historian writing a history of this handcart company, what would be your conclusion about this handcart company’s interactions with the Indians? How could a historian’s motives and biases affect his decision of which accounts to use in his history about this handcart company?

You can search and access journal accounts like these at: http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/library/pioneercompanysearch/1,15773,3966-1,00.html

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  2. Saundra said

    From the accounts written above, it sounds like the Indians were no different than the people of this generation–good and bad. Looking at the situation objectively, it would be very difficult to see people of a different culture invading land that was used to grow food for the animals that was used for survival. The “unknown” always brings fear. In looking back we see how they were forced to live on reseravations and learn a language unfamiliar to them. In today’s world they are becoming educated, taking care of their own and “working the system” like everyone else.

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