I’ve been researching the ordeal of George Cowan, who regained consciousness in Yellowstone Park on August 24, 1877, with bullet wounds in his head and thigh. Nez Perce Indians had left George for dead after chasing his companions into the forest and hauling off his wife and her 13-year-old sister.
It would be easy to reduce things to a few general statements that everybody agrees on, but that would be boring. I want to dig up enough specific details to bring the story to life.
George’s own account has to be the primary document, but it needs to be approached with some skepticism. We’re always the heroes of our own stories, so George may have presented himself as smarter and stronger than he really was. Also, his version is the recollection of a starving man who had a lead slug embedded in his skull.
Of course, George’s version must take precedence during those times when he was alone. One writer says George fell asleep by a campfire one night and awoke to find it had spread through mold on ground and burned him. It’s a dramatic and plausible incident, but I doubt that it happened. George doesn’t mention it and the people who rescued him don’t count burns among his injuries. Besides, it sounds exactly like what happened to Truman Everts, who was separated from the Washburn Expedition to Yellowstone in 1870 and spent 37 days alone in the wilderness. I think the writer conflated the two stories, so I’ll omit this incident from my book.
Things get trickier when versions offer conflicting interpretations of the facts. Contemporary newspaper accounts of George’s adventure portray him as a courageous victim of “the Red Devils,” but later writers who were sympathetic to the plight of the Nez Perce make him out to be an arrogant ass who provoked the attack on himself and his companions. I think there is truth to both versions.
I’ll take sides sometimes. Army officers said George was an ingrate who did nothing but complain about the care they provided him. But, George says army surgeons left him with open wounds and a lead slug in his head for five hours while they went “geyser gazing” with other officers. I’ll go with George’s version here. One of his travel companions corroborates George. Besides, it’s well documented that military men of the era were fascinated by Yellowstone’s wonders. In fact, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was the Army’s top officer in 1877, visited the geysers just days before Cowan and his friends arrived there.
It’s hard work to compare multiple versions of events that happened more than 130 years ago, but the effort is giving me a deeper appreciation of them. My book will be better because of that.
— Image from Progressive Men of Montana.