George Cowan was a 35-year-old attorney from Radersburg, Montana, when he toured Yellowstone Park in August 1877 with his family and friends. That year the Nez Perce passed through the park after fleeing their homeland to make a new life in the buffalo country.
The Radersburg party was getting ready to go home when a band of Nez Perce captured them. After the Nez Perce shot George Cowan and left him for dead, he regained consciousness only to find himself alone in the wilderness. Despite George’s grievous wounds, his first thought was for the safety of his wife. Here’s his tale of crawling a dozen miles to find help.
In about two hours, I began to come back to life, and as I did so my head felt benumbed. The feeling as near as I can express it was a buzzing, dizziness, and the sensation increased as it grew lighter and lighter. I began to feel soon and then my reason came back to me. My head felt very large, seemingly as large as a mountain, and I mechanically raised my hand and began feeling my face and head. I found my face covered with blood and my hair clotted with blood that had cooled there. I then realized the incidents of the day and remembered the shooting.
I could not at first discover where I was wounded, but after getting the blood out of my eyes and pulling my hat off with hair and skin sticking to the clotted blood, I discovered that I was shot in the face and head. Running my had over my head, I found great gashes in the scalp, and I then thought the ball had passed entirely through my head some way. Feeling my leg, I found it completely benumbed, but there were no bones broken.
I again felt the intolerable pangs of thirst, raised myself on my elbow, and looked about me. I then found that I was some ten or twelve feet from the place of shooting. This, I thought, accounted for the wounds in the back of my head. As far as I could see, the Indians were all gone and I could hear nothing but the moaning of the wind in the trees.
Standing near me was a little pine tree the boughs of which I could just reach, and grasping one, I pulled myself to my feet. My wounds were painful now. As I raised up I saw an Indian close by me sitting on his pony watching me. As I was hobbling away, I glanced backward and saw him on one knee aiming his gun at me. Then followed a twinging sensation in my left side, and the report of the gun and I dropped forward on my face. The ball had struck me on the side above the hip and came out in front of the abdomen.
I thought that this had “fixed me” beyond hope of recovery and I lay perfectly motionless expecting the Indian to finish the job with the hatchet.
I must have lain here fully twenty minutes expecting to die every moment, and during the time, I think my mind must have dwelt on every incident of our trip. I supposed my wife had been killed. I knew the fate she and Ida would be subjected, and my whole nature was aroused as I thought of it.
Directly I heard Indians talking. The were coming up the trail and I could hear them driving numbers of loose horses. They passed within forty feet of me, but I was unnoticed and they were soon out of hearing. I waited for a few moments, then turned over and took a look around me.
I now took another inventory of my wounds, and in trying to rise found that I could not use either of my lower limbs. They were both paralyzed. I then turned up my face and began crawling by pulling myself with my elbows. I thus managed to get into some willows where I found water which I drank eagerly, and felt greatly refreshed and strengthened. I now began crawling as before, pulling myself on my breast with my elbows. In this way, I crawled to a little stream of warm water, and raised up on my hands and entered the water. I immediately sank to my shoulders in the mud, and the water came up to my chin.
This would not do, so extricating my hands, I again began crawling as before, and found that I could thus cross it. Having crossed it, I entered the willows on the bank, and began crawling down stream and followed it until I struck the East Fork about a half mile below where I started from. It was now about one or two o’clock in the morning and being completely exhausted I lay down and rested until daybreak.
At dawn, I again started and crawled until noon, when I again stopped to rest. I had been here but a few moments when I again heard Indians approaching, coming down the trail. They passed within ten feet of me and were soon out of hearing.
I lay here for an hour or so and again resumed my wearisome journey. By nightfall, I had made four or five miles, and I kept on during the night, resting at short intervals.
I kept on down the trail, or rather by the side of it, and Indians kept passing by me every little while, driving ponies as they went. I could hear them approaching and then I would lie down and wait till the passed.
I kept this up until Monday morning, have crossed the East Fork Sunday night, and reached the wagons we had abandoned on Friday. I had crawled about nine miles in sixty hours.
As I reached the wagon, I found my faithful dog, Dido, laying beneath it. I called to her, and see came bounding to me, and covered my face and wounds with caresses. The pleasure of the meeting was mutual.
The buggy was laying upon the ground, all of the spokes having been taken from two of the wheels, and I could search it without rising. I found some rags, a portion of a man’s underclothing, which were very acceptable, but I could find nothing to eat.
It occurred to me that I had spilled some coffee when in camp, on Thursday in the Lower Geyser Basin, and calling my dog we started for it, I crawling as before, and the dog walking by my side. The coffee was four miles distant, but I thought not of that. The only idea was to possess the coffee. I was starving.
While crawling along close to the trail, my dog stopped suddenly and began to growl. I grasped her by the neck, and placed my hand over her nose to keep her from making noise. Peering through the brush, I saw two Indians sitting beneath a tree but a few feet from me. I began moving back cautiously and made a circuit around them, keeping the dog close by me. I thus avoided them, and reached the Lower Geyser Basin on Tuesday night.
Here, as I anticipated, I found some coffee, and a few matches. I found about a handful of coffee, and placing it in an empty can that I had found, I pounded it up fine. I then got some water in another empty can that, that had contained molasses, and building a fire, I soon had some excellent hot coffee that refreshed me greatly. This was my first refreshment that I had taken in five days and nights.
I now began calculating my chances for being picked up. I would not starve, as I could, as a last resort, kill my dog and eat it. I shudder now, as I think of sacrificing my noble, faithful dog, one that money cannot purchase now, but circumstances were such that I did not view it then as I do now. The natural desire for life will force one to any necessity.
I remained where I was Tuesday night. No one can imagine my thoughts during that time. I supposed that I was the only one of the party left, unless it be my wife, and the speculations upon her fate almost set me mad. It was horrible. All night long I lay there suffering instead of resting, and I hailed with pleasure the break of day.
I made some more coffee, and drank it, which seemed to give me renewed strength, but as my strength returned I felt more keenly the horrors of my position. I thought now I would crawl to where the East Fork empties into the Fire Hole River, so calling my dog I began my journey.
I found that I was gradually growing weaker, as I could now crawl but a little ways when I would be compelled to stop and rest. At about a mile and a half distant I came to the place of our first night’s camp on entering the basin. Here again, I had to cross the river, but as the water was not deep, I made it without mishap. Here I rested for a few moments, before starting for the timber, which was about a fourth of a mile distant. I got there about two o’clock in the afternoon, and laid down under a tree and some brush close to the road. I was now exhausted and could go no farther. It was an expiring effort, and having accomplished it I gave myself up for dead.
In about two hours, I hear the sound of horses coming, but so completely tired out was it that I did not care whether they were Indians or not. My dog began to growl, but I did not try to stop her. The horses drew nearer, and approached and stopped. The riders had seen me. I looked up and saw that they were white men. They alighted and came to me, and one of them asked: “Who are you?”
I replied that my name was Cowan, and asked them if any news had been received of my wife. They replied that there had not been, and I then cared for nothing further. I turned from them and would have been glad to have died.
One of them kept talking to me, and asking questions that I cared not to answer, while the other built a fire and made some coffee for me. The told me that they were scouts from Howard’s command, and that the troops would reach me some time during the next day. They left me some “hard tack” and a blanket, and went on to the scene of the massacre to find the bodies of the party. After they were gone and I had eaten, my desire for life returned, and it seems the spirit of revenge took complete possession of me. I knew that I would live and I took a solemn vow that I would devote the rest of my life to killing Indians, especially Nez Perce.
I laid here until Thursday afternoon, when I heard the sound of approaching cavalry, and shortly afterwards General Howard and some of his officers rode up to me. In a few minutes, I saw Arnold coming. He came up, recognized me, and knelt beside me. We grasped hands, but neither spoke for some minutes. I could only gasp: “My wife!”
“No news yet, George,” he replied.
The Army took George with them as they pursued the Nez Perce across the roadless wilderness of Yellowstone Park. He survived the ordeal and was reunited with wife three weeks after he was found.
— Condensed from George F. Cowan’s account in Frank D. Carpenter, The Wonders of Geyserland, Black Earth, WI: Burnett and Son, 1878, pages 143-148.
— Image from Progressive Men of the State of Montana.
— For more stories about tourists’ encounters with the Nez Perce in Yellowstone Park, click “Nez Perce” under the “Categories” button to the left.
— I’m working on a book about the Nez Perce and tourists, Encounters In Yellowstone.