Highlands Ranch High School - Mr. Sedivy
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By David Sedivy
Hyde, George E. Life of George Bent. (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman,
Oklahoma, 1968) 389 pages.
George Hyde’s, Life of George Bent, is a narrative of letters written to Hyde by
Bent beginning in 1905 and lasting until 1918 when Bent died. George Bent was the
half-Cheyenne son of William Bent and Owl Woman. These letters discuss life at Bents
Fort, his life with the Cheyennes, and the military events which occurred on the
southern plains during this time. The portion of the book specific to this assignment
is pp. 31-266 and this is what I will summarize. I will refer to statements as "Bents"
since he was the author of the readings.
Bent describes the migration of the many tribes who came down through the Black Hills
of Dakota and ultimately out onto the southern plains. The Cheyennes came south of
the Platte searching for the great buffalo and horse herds that they had been told
of. It was at this time, 1826, that the Cheyenne tribe split into two tribes: the
Southern Cheyennes and the Northern Cheyennes. The Arapahos were closely tied to
them and followed the same pattern. He tells of how they would stalk herds of wild
mustangs; capture and train them. During this period, the Indians were still just
doing their thing - running raids against enemy tribes (the Kiowas and Comanches
had so many horses that they were a prime target) and getting into little battles.
These battles escalated and Bent tells of the Cheyenne’s ill-fated attempt to move
the arrows against the Pawnee.
Bent gives a detailed account of his families history and life at Old Bents Fort
where he lived as a boy. He tells of knowing Kit Carson and of his Uncle Charlie’s
death at the Indian pueblo in Taos. George also gives his account of his father blowing
up the fort and being sent with his siblings to Missouri in 1853.
Trouble had already began between the whites and Indians during the heavy movements
of whites crossing Indian land on their way to the California gold fields. In 1849,
the travelers brought cholera with them and between that and the Sand Creek Massacre
in ‘64, the old Cheyenne clans were practically destroyed.
The establishment of military posts among the plains tribes finally touched off the
inevitable conflicts. Bent would not return to the Cheyennes until ‘63 but he gives
detailed accounts (many based on conversations with actual participants) of the many
skirmishes that ultimately led to the Indian War in ‘64. He tells of the Gratton
incident, and Sumners "saber charge."
With the death of Lean Bear, he leads into his personal, eye-witness account of the
attack on the Cheyennes and Arapahos at Sand Creek.
Bent then covers the numerous raids that were conducted, for revenge as well as survival,
following Sand Creek and a migration north to their cousins. The raids conducted
during the winter of 1864-65 prompted the assignment of Brigadier General Connor,
commander of the troops along the Platte and ultimately all the troops of the Plains.
He had minimal luck but it was one of his scouting parties that killed Bents step-mother
and attacked an Arapahoe village in the Powder River area. Black Kettle and many
of the other chiefs still wanted peace but with the construction of the railroad;
raids kept occurring and Gen. Winfield Scott entered the picture.
In command of the Department of the Missouri, he received numerous exaggerated stories
and decided to frighten the Indians into keeping the peace. He did attempt to have
peaceful conversations but his manner was threatening and by the end of his campaign,
he just stirred up more trouble.
Bent’s accounts of his life are fascinating and an enjoyable read. He was an extremely
detailed writer and as Hyde states in his Introduction,
George Bent differed from all the other mixed bloods I ever knew in that he liked
to write letters. The other mixed bloods would fail to reply to your inquiry or would
write a half-page in faint pencil a year after receiving your letter, and then they
gave up. Bent would answer you fully, giving what information he had, and he would
then look up some old Cheyenne men and women and write down what they had to tell
him... It was all obviously reliable material, allowing for the fact that no two
human beings ever saw the same events eye to eye.
Bent witnessed many of the incidences described through Cheyenne eyes yet he did
not describe them in a blatantly biased manner. Though he never gets particularly
graphic, he makes no bones about the fact that the Indians raised some serious hell.
They did not sit idly by while the whites trampled over them.
What was most fascinating to me was Bents descriptions of the warriors preparing
for battle with ceremony, the enthusiasm with which they went into battle and the
serious partying they did afterwards. They loved a good fight. They had a good time
going on horse raids and even when they attacked Julesburg, there was an air of mischief
in their behavior.
The supporting documentation that accompanies Bents accounts, adds a great deal of
legitimacy to his memories. He was living by "Indian time" and on the Indian
calendar so some of his dates were off but the footnotes give the specifics. It also
appears that Bents accounts are historically accurate and Hyde supports them. The
majority of what I have learned is reinforced by Bents accounts. It can, however,
be confusing because many of the Indians were known by many different names. His
account of the Grattan Massacre gives the name of the Sioux Chief as Whirling Bear
and this student learned it as Bear That Scatters. Close enough. His account of the
Cheyennes moving the arrows against the Pawnees definitely supports the story of
Bulls mishap with the dying Pawnee.
Bents letters make me wonder what his relationship was like with his father and his
brother Charlie. He never refers to reunions with his father as anything special
and speaks of Charlie as just another Indian. There is a footnote by Lottinville,
the editor, that describes an incident at the talks surrounding the amendments to
the Little Arkansas Treaty. Charlie had been drinking liquor. Lottinville states,
"Charles, who, now [was] an acknowledged leader among the Cheyennes, threatened
to kill his father and his brother." George Bent never expresses intense emotion
even when describing the death of his mother in child birth, the murder of his step-mother
by Pawnees, or the massacre at Sand Creek. Perhaps this is the way of the Indian
warriors. I get the impression that Bent was a man of few words and if he said someone
was brave, you believed him.
The Indians were outnumbered when they went to war against the whites and there were
unprovoked attacks upon them. But Bents descriptions make you realize how resourceful
the Indians were. It is amazing that an entire camp of 300 lodges of Cheyennes could
disappear over night right under the nose of Hancock and vanish into the plains.
They covered amazing distances and had a communication system that worked faster
than the telegraphs. The frequency with which they moved was very interesting.
The only problem that I had with the book was that it occasionally became monotonous.
It is not Bent's style that drags on but the same story repeats itself over and over.
Fortunately Bent adds flair to it with his personal descriptions but you can, unfortunately,
predict the outcome. I would recommended Life of George Bent as a strong reference
document and as just an enjoyable and informative book.
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