“Cheyenne” Gets His Nickname (Nicholas Dawson Part 3)

There were two men in the Bidwell-Bartleson Party named Dawson: Nicholas and V.W. Almost nothing is known about V.W., including what the initials stood for, but he went by the nickname “Bear.” The two men were not related. It was not long into the journey when Nick Dawson earned his own nickname.

While we were in the Platte valleys a little incident occurred that gave me a nickname for the rest of the journey: we were now in the country of hostile Indians, and Fitzpatrick had warned us not to stray beyond sight of the wagon train. But one day, curious to see the country that lay beyond the range of hills, I had ventured farther than usual, and coming upon a herd of antelope I, in my eagerness to get a shot at them, had followed them still farther. I was off my mule . . . trying to creep near enough for a shot at them, when I was startled by an Indian whoop.

I sprang upon my mule, but he perversely wheeled and ran toward the sound, I pulling desperately at the reins. Finally I got his head in the direction I wanted to go, but no amount of urging could get that mule to hurry, and in an instant I was surrounded by Indians. One galloped by me, thrust a spear along my back, and motioned for me to dismount. I did so. They seized my gun and knife, stripped me of my outer clothing, and taking my mule, left me. I hurried after our train, and overtaking it, told my story.

The alarm spread along the line, and all was confusion. Fitzpatrick galloped back, calling out the horsemen as he came, and was off with them to find the Indians, and if necessary, give them battle. I was very angry now, and intent on vengeance, so hastily borrowing a horse and gun, I hurried after the party. I came on at full speed and was aiming at the first Indian within range, when I was stopped by some forcible language from Fitzpatrick, and perceived that Fitzpatrick and the Indians were engaged in a friendly powwow. It had proved to be a band of Cheyennes, friendly but thievish.

They camped near us that night, and Fitzpatrick attempted to get back my property. He and I and the Indians sat around in a circle, and for every article to be returned, gifts of blankets, clothes, etc. had to be thrown down, a peace pipe smoked by all, and much haranguing done. Fitzpatrick’s patience gave out before all was got back, and declaring that I ought to be satisfied to have got off with my life, he refused to intercede further. I chafed under my enforced friendliness, and after that, to distinguish me from another Dawson in the company known as Bear Dawson, I was called Cheyenne Dawson.

Nearly everyone who wrote a memoir of the journey mentions this incident. John Bidwell, Josiah Belden, Nancy Kelsey, and James John all relate it. Bidwell had this to say:

A young man (Dawson) was out hunting, when suddenly a band of Cheyenne Indians about 40 in number came upon him; they were pleased to strip him of his mule, gun, and pistol, and let him go. He had no sooner reached the camp and related the news than the whole band came in sight. We hastened to form a corral with our wagons, but it was done in haste. To show you how it affected the green ones, I will give the answer I received from a stout, young man (and he perhaps was but one of 30 in the same situation), when I asked him how many Indians there were. He answered with a trembling voice, half scared out of his wits, there are lots, gaubs, fields and swarms of them!!! I do really believe he thought there were some thousands. Lo! there were but 40, perfectly friendly, delivered up every article taken, but the pistol.

Bidwell was proud of his “self-possession” and you wouldn’t catch him admitting to being frightened.


Portrait of Cheyenne chief Wolf-on-the-Hill by George Catlin, 1832

Josiah Belden left the best description of the Cheyennes:

We found them to be a war party of the Cheyenne tribe, about 50 or 60 warriors, fine looking, and they said they were looking for the Pawnees. They were fully armed with bows and arrows and tomahawks, and some few guns. They were the finest looking body of men I ever saw for Indians, quite a formidable looking party.


About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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