What would it feel like to wake up in a wilderness with a lead slug embedded in your skull and remember watching your wife being dragged away by hostile Indians? That happened to George Cowan when the Nez Perce fled through Yellowstone Park a hundred and thirty-three years ago.
I’m writing about George’s ordeal for my next book, Encounters in Yellowstone 1877, so I need to know how he felt. Actually, it’s not hard to empathize with George. We all know that his head hurt from the bullet lodged there. And of course, George felt anger — maybe even rage — at his attackers, and fear — maybe even terror — at what they might do to his wife.
George’s story is compelling because it’s easy to identify with him, but can we assume he reacted in the same way we would? Wouldn’t events like the Battle of the Little Big Horn that happen just a year before George’s ordeal have colored his reactions?
Last week, I did some research to answer questions like those. I started by searching the index of Montana the Magazine of Western History. I scanned subject headings until I saw “Indians, attitudes toward.” Under that heading I found an article published in 1957 by Robert W. Mardock entitled “Strange Concepts of the American Indian Since the Civil War.” Mardock says in the 1870s Americans called Indians everything from “noble savages” to “red devils.”
New England writers like Cooper and Longfellow promoted the “noble savage” view, but Mardock says things were different on the frontier. He quoted a Virginia City, Montana, newspaper: “It is high time that sickly sentimentalism about humane treatment and conciliatory measures should be consigned to novel writers, and if the Indians continue their barbarity, wipe them out.’”
According to Mardock, “The apprehensions and viewpoints of our frontier areas were strongly reflected in the Eastern newspapers. Exaggerated dispatches from the West, incredibly wild and inaccurate when reporting Indian ‘massacres’ and depredations, were commonly printed without ever questioning their accuracy. The frontier ‘red devil’ concept dominated the national press with few exceptions.”
George Cowan was an attorney so he probably read both territorial and national newspapers. Visions of “red devils” must have danced through his mind when he came to that morning.
And what was George’s wife, Emma, thinking when the Indians hauled her away? I found a 1984 article by Glenda Riley entitled “Frontierswomen’s Changing View of Indians in the Trans-Mississippi West,” that provides some insight.
Riley says, “Journalists and novelists fed the anti-Indian prejudices of their reading publics with fictionalized accounts of brutal and primitive savages who preyed especially on women. When women’s accounts were published they were usually ‘penny dreadfuls’ or narratives of captivity that further inflamed hatred of Indians.”
In their accounts, George and Emma Cowan don’t dwell on their feelings toward Indians, but they were creatures of their times so the insights Mardock and Riley provide must apply to them. I’ll use those insights as I scrutinize the Cowans’ accounts and write about their adventures. Encounters in Yellowstone will be a better book because I took the time to dig into these things. Of course, I will do more research.