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The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (4/7)- The American Frontier

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(Continued from The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (3/7): The Canadian Prairies)

The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (4/7): The American Frontier


The Pony Express


In spite of the incident at Portage la Prairie, Brown continued to trade with the Indians for over a year. Throughout that time he frequented Fort Garry (present day Winnipeg, Manitoba), where he once had his image captured, perhaps for the first time, on photograph:

“I sat for a tintype photo at Fort Garry and was told it was the first ever taken at the Fort. The man with the camera was a Swede named Olson, from St. Paul.”

More than a year after the shootout, in the early summer of 1867, while visiting Fort Garry, Brown met a recruiter for the so-called “Pony Express”, a courier service that delivered mail across the United States. Ever restless, the Irish adventurer decided to join the predominantly Metis (and sometimes Mexican) ranks of the Pony Express Riders and leave the Red River Valley of Canada for the dangerous American frontier. Upon accepting the job, Brown was tasked with delivering mail across present-day North Dakota, from Fort Totten (about 250 kilometers southwest of Fort Garry) to Knife River:

“I was only in Fort Garry a short time, but while there a fellow came in looking [for riders] for a pony express route in Dakota territory. He took two or three of us to Fort Totten and I began riding from this place to Knife River, a tributary of the Missouri where Theodore Roosevelt afterwards established a cattle ranch…”

Sometime in in the fall of 1867, while delivering mail for the Pony Express, Brown was captured and briefly detained by a band of Sioux. The Indians informed Brown- who had learned some of the Sioux language while trading in the Red River Valley near Portage la Prairie- that they intended to intercept all mail and kill the American riders. The Sioux observed that wherever white men settled, the buffalo disappeared, and were thus determined to keep the Americans from their territory. Shortly after the incident, another mail carrier- a Red River French Metis named Gardepie- was similarly captured by the Sioux and released with a warning.

True to their word, the Sioux of present-day North Dakota killed a number of Pony Express Riders that winter, effectively destroying the company that Brown had worked for:

“There must have been sixty or seventy riders on the route which extended from St. Paul right to Helens, Montana. There were station keepers every fifty or sixty mile. They ran bigger risks than we did, although they were not paid any more money. Indians always knew where to find them. Most of the station-keepers were eventually killed and the company lost hundreds of horses killed and stolen by the Indians. Their enormous losses finally led the company into bankruptcy and they still owe me $400 today.”


Captured by Sitting Bull


With the Pony Express company bankrupt, the United States Army was forced to start up its own courier service. Instead of building a series of posts as the company had, the Army used its own already-established forts spread throughout the country and determined that the commanding officer of each fort would be responsible for seeing mail safely delivered to the adjacent posts.

As most of the American soldiers were too inexperienced with the country to be effective couriers, the Army contracted former Pony Express Riders who were expert horsemen, well-acquainted with the languages of the country, and (for the most part) white. Brown fit all the requirements, and was hired accordingly on April 20, 1868. The Army sent Brown to Fort Stevenson, North Dakota, along with two newly-hired horsemen. These other riders served as replacements for two mail carriers who were killed by the Sioux earlier that spring.

Just twenty five days after Brown was hired, on May 15, two carriers named Charley MacDonald and Joe Hamlin rode out from Fort Stevenson with mail bound for Fort Totten. The road from Fort Stevenson to Fort Totten passed through the Dog Den hills, a sacred ground to the hostile Sioux who populated it. When the two riders failed to return, Brown and another carrier- a Sioux half-breed named Joe Martin who was also employed as an interpreter- took their place. Brown and Martin rode out with mail for Fort Totten on the grey, rainy morning of May 23.

At early evening the next day, with the sky dour and overcast, Brown and Martin arrived at Strawberry Lake, about 60 km southeast of present-day Minot, North Dakota. There, the two riders would come face to face with Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux, nearly eight years before the infamy of the Little Bighorn. In later years, Brown wrote of his encounter with the Chief in vivid detail:

“We were within half a mile of Strawberry Lake and it was about seven o’clock in the evening of the twenty fourth of May, the Queen’s birthday. I have good reason to remember the date. We jumped off our horses and crept up to the top of the hill to take a good look for Indians… Getting on our horses again we rode down to cross this coulee and to get to the camping grounds by the lake. Just as we went down the steep bank, the Indians charged on us yelling out, “Don’t shoot, don’t be fools, we’re friends…”

In the dash they made at us Sitting Bull was leading, riding a fine big grey horse… In the melee that followed, Lady Jane Grey, our pack mule, broke away and started for Fort Stevenson as fast as she could travel, but the Sioux took after her, soon captured her and appropriated everything in our pack…

Sitting Bull ordered us to get off our horses and when we did he had us stripped as naked as the day we were born. They took everything, dispatches, mail, guns, horses, clothes… Some of the young bucks began yelling “Kash-ga, Kash-ga”, meaning kill them, kill them. Sitting Bull raised his hand and shouted, “Don’t be in a hurry, we’ll make a fire and have some fun with them.” We understood every word they said, of course, and we knew that Sitting Bull meant some playful mode of torture that the Sioux often inflected on their captives. It might have been sticking pieces of pine pitch or other inflammable dry wood all over the victim’s bare body and setting them afire.

But someone called out, “come over here, we’ll have a little talk.” So we went over to the edge of the coulee… and sat down in a circle. My companion who was a Santee Sioux half-breed said to Sitting Bull in Sioux, “what is the matter with your people? Why do they rob us and talk bad to us. I am a Sioux half-breed, one of your own people. This man with me is a Sioux half-breed too. Why do you want to kill us?”

To this Sitting Bull replied, “I se you are Sioux, but your companion here (pointing his finger at me) looks like a whit man.” Then turning to me he said, “this is true that you are a half-bred?”

In those days I wore my hair frontier style, about twenty inches long…

To Sitting Bull’s question I answered in Sioux, “My father was a white man and my mother a Santee Sioux woman.”

“Well,” he said, “your skin is very white and your eyes are blue, but it may be that you are a half-breed. You talk good Sioux. Why do you help our enemies, the isa thonga?” (meaning the long-knives, the Sioux term for American). I said, “we are poor and just come down from the prairies, and as we were passing Fort Stevenson the soldiers gave us some letters to carry for one trip.”

It was now getting dark and a dispute arose over the disposition of our two horses, Lady Jane Grey, the stuff in the pack on her back, and our personal belongings. To settle the matter, Sitting Bull called his warriors in a council about forty yards from the fire around which we were huddled bare naked. This was on the very edge of the coulee leading into Strawberry Lake. I said two Joe, “Lie down and let us roll into the coulee and they will never miss us.”

“We’ll be killed sure,” said Joe, “but we had better be shot than burned alive.”

I was watching the council circle carefully and as soon as I saw their eyes off us I nudged Joe with my elbow and whispered, “roll, roll.” We rolled about a hundred feet into the coulee and down we sprinted for our lives, bare feet, bare naked as the day we were born, right into the lake.

It was quite dark by this time and as Strawberry Lake was covered al about the edges with cat tails and other weeds that could easily hide a man, we were safe for a time at least, but we didn’t’ know for how long. We were standing in the water up to our necks, with Indians running up and down the shore firing at random into the weeds… It was blowing a regular hurricane and pouring down torrents of rain and this is probably what saved us. Failing to locate us in the lake they conceived an idea that we had run down the road. Anyway, they left us, but we stood in the water for another half hour. Finally, half dead with cold, we stole quietly out in the pitch darkness and scrambling up the bank took to our heels, but not along the travelled road. We kept away from that. After we got away a couple of miles we stopped to get our breath and Joe said, “We’re safe now, we will travel the road again.” So away we went in the darkness toward Fort Stevenson with not as much on our bodies as Adam and Eve in the garden.

The sun shone on us next day and millions of mosquitoes seemed to find out that two naked human beings were available for food. They fairly swarmed upon us and there was not a spot on our bodies as large as a pinhead that they had not bitten.

We arrived at Fort Stevenson early in the afternoon. Our travel was slow during the night but when daylight came and we got our bearings we made good time… There was bastions on the fort and one of the sentries saw us coming. He reported to the Sergeant of the guard, and he in turn reported to the officer of the day that two Indians were approaching the Fort bare naked. The guard was sent out to capture us but when the Sergeant saw who we were he ran to meet us with “what’s up? What’s up?” I replied, “Oh, nothing much. The Sioux have your mail, horses and out clothes, and came very near to getting us. We have walked from Strawberry Lake.”

Brown went on to describe how he and Martin, covered with mosquito bites and with bleeding feet, were presented to Major General Phillippe Regis de Trobriand, “the old Frenchman” who was in command of Fort Stevenson, along with Fort Totten and Fort Buford. Said Brown of de Trobriand:

“He asked us how it happened and, as we related the incidents, he used very unparliamentarily language most of which was directed against the United States Government for allowing such hostiles to be alive. One of the things I remember him saying was, “They should be wiped off the face of the earth.” There was a decanter of whisky beside him and pouring out three glasses we all had a drink. In fact, we had several drinks, and because we had not eaten since noon the day before, the whiskey went to our heads and I suggested to the General that we should go to our quarters before we said or did anything foolish. We were both in such a state that we didn’t care whether we ever got anything to eat or wear. The General agreed and we were taken to our quarters, fed clothed, and our bodies and feet doctored and we were soon asleep. Neither of us were conscious again until next morning.”

De Trobriant’s Version


Major General Phillippe de Trobriant, who met with Brown and Martin after their return to Fort Stevenson, recorded a slightly different version of the riders’ encounter with Sitting Bull in his journal. De Trobriant’s is a contemporary secondary account written shortly after hearing Brown and Martin’s tale over whiskey (specifically on May 26, 1868), while Brown’s account was recorded just before the start of World War I in 1914. It is possible that Brown, due to the deleterious effects of time, misremembered some of the details of his encounter with the Hunkpapa chief, some of which were recorded true in de Trobriant’s journal. True or not, de Trobriant’s account sheds an interesting light on Brown’s adventure, and is worth sharing here:

“The day before yesterday, Sunday, two of our carriers left with the weeks mail to meet those from Totten halfway. They were Brown, an Irishman recently enlisted in government service, and Martin, a half-breed employed since last year. Both knew the country well, spoke Sioux fluently. Toward evening of the first day, they were approaching Clear Lake when they noticed something that looked like buffalo to them. In reality, it was Indians, who, in order not to betray themselves, lay on the necks of their horses, which made them look like the animal for which they wanted to be mistaken. So our men went on their way, while the Hunkpapahs set an ambush for them. Arriving at a narrow ravine through which they had to pass, the carriers suddenly found themselves surrounded by Sioux coming in on them from all sides crying, “Don’t shoot! We are Medicine Bear’s men (an allied chief). We are friends.” And the first ones exchanged handshakes with Joe Martin, who was nearest to them. Brown’s horse took fright and ran away, and some young men ran to bring it back. The pack mule with the despatch pouch and supplies galloped off in an opposite direction, his speed accelerated by fear. When Martin was so surrounded that he could not defend himself, an Indian slapped his hand on the withers of his horse, uttering a cry of triumph, the meaning of which the prisoner could not mistake. He felt that he was doomed. He was immediately stripped of everything, weapons, equipment and clothes. His horse had been taken from him first. Brown was brought back and promptly suffered the same fate. He had been brought back by an enemy riding the well known horse of Charley MacDonald, which set him thinking. When they were in just their boots and drawers, the chief gave Martin an old overcoat to cover himself (for it had poured all day, and was still raining), and he easily recognized it as Joe Hamlin’s. The overcoat was pierced by two bullet holes in the chest and two rents in the back. The chief asked the prisoners who they were and what they were doing on the prairie. They answered that they were half-breeds from the Red River and that they were going to St Joseph to hunt.

Their chief then told them that his men had killed two men and a soldier a few days before’ our two carriers and a man from the convoy commanded by Lt. Smith. “I would not have had the two men from the Red River killed,” said the chief, “but the young men killed them before they found out who they were. “I am the one who killed one of them,” said one of the savages, coming forward armed with MacDonald’s sixteen-shot carbine (Henry system). “I shot an arrow through his body’ he fell from his horse and I finished him off on the ground with a revolver.” Then the two prisoners noticed that the chief was wearing MacDonald’s watch chain and recognized several pieces of his clothing and Joe Hamlin’s on the backs of the Indians. “Let’s kill them,” several of them were saying. “Why waste time talking? Let’s do to them what we did to the others.” At that the chief took the prisoners aside and said to them: “The young men are saying evil things and are ready to do an evil deed. Take advantage of the night that is coming and run away quickly before it’s too late.” He did not have to tell our men twice, and, half naked, they hurried off. Instead of following the direction they had first taken, they ran to hide in the marshy underbrush, making a circle calculated to throw them off pursuit.

It was well for them that they did. The chief had given them life only because he did not yet know that they were carriers. As I have said before, the mule carrying the dispatches had run away. It took some time to capture it, and, those who did feasted on the supplies they found in the saddlebags. When they came back bringing the animal and the packet of dispatches, our men had already left. They took up their trail intending undoubtedly to put them to death; but night had come on, or at least dusk was falling, and they were unable to find them.

[Brown and Martin] wandered around part of the night, and at day-break found themselves still in sight of the enemy. By sneaking in ravines and hiding themselves as well as they could, they hurried away in the direction of Stevenson, where, completely worn out, not having had a mouthful to eat since the morning of the day before yesterday, they arrived today at sunset with no further misfortune.”


Plains Blizzard


After his encounter with Sitting Bull, Brown briefly took up a safer occupation as a storekeeper at Fort Stevenson before returning to his former duties in the fall of 1868. In November 1868, he was put in charge of Fort Stevenson’s mail carriers and remained in charge until June 1869. Although no couriers were lost under Brown’s leadership while on Army business, one of Brown’s side assignments in the late winter of 1869 ended in disaster.

In March 1869, Brown was persuaded to undertake a side assignment in which he would act as guide for a Fort Stevenson carpenter named Richer, who was returning to Canada on account of family business, and Voyles, a veteran of the United States Army. He was to be accompanied by Fort Stevenson’s Private Shank and Mr. Bittner.

On March 7, the party set out on the first leg of the journey, en route to Fort Totten. On March 12, Brown was stricken with snow blindness. To make matters worse, the wind picked up and devolved into a ferocious blizzard on the afternoon of March 13.

The snow storm raged without respite for nearly a week. In the end, Brown and Richer, half dead with cold and hunger, were found sheltering in one of the mail stations between Forts Stevenson and Totten. The frozen bodies of Bittner and Shank, who had wandered off in the storm, were recovered several miles from Fort Totten. Voyles’ body was never found.

(Continued on The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (5/7)- Living with the Metis)



  • Kootenai Brown: The Unknown Frontiersman, 1996, William Rodney


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