September 22, 1841 — Indian Encounter

Wednesday, 22nd.  This morning 80 or 90 Indians were seen coming full speed from the W. Many had horses–one was sent about a half a mile in advance from the rest-–so we ought also to have done, but Capt. B. was perfectly ignorant of Indian customs, and the whole band of savages were suffered to come directly up to us, and almost surround our camp, when Mr. B. Kelsey showed by forcible gestures they would be allowed to proceed no farther. The Indians were well armed with guns and bows and arrows. The only words I recollect hearing Capt. Bartleson say were “let them gratify their curiosity!!”

The Indians were Sheshonees, but like other savages always take the advantage where they can. Besides, they were not a little acquainted with warfare, for they undoubtedly visited the Buffalo Country (having many robes) which requires much bravery to contend with the Blackfeet and Chiennes, who continually guard the buffalo in the region of the Rocky mountains. They traveled as near us as they were allowed, till about noon, when they began to drop off, one by one, and at night there were but 8 or 10 remaining. Distance about 12 miles.

This incident further sunk Bartleson’s reputation in John Bidwell’s eyes. The custom on the plains was for parties meeting for the first time to send out “ambassadors” to check each other out and find out what the other party’s intentions were. Did they want to trade? Did they need help? Or were they looking for trouble? Bartleson, by carelessly ignoring this custom, was endangering the entire company.

Four Mounted Indians, by Charles Marion Russell

In his 1877 Dictation, Bidwell tells how he and several of the other men “seized our guns and ran toward them, making signs that they must keep off to one side.” He was sure that only a show of force would give them the upper hand and allow them to continue traveling unmolested.

During the day I said to one of the men who messed with [i.e., ate with] Captain Bartleson, “Our captain don’t appear to understand Indian character. If we don’t make those fellows afraid of us, they will certainly attack us. Captain Bartleson is too timid and cautious with them.”

This remark got back to Bartleson, further souring the relationship between the two men.

Nancy Kelsey remembered this incident as well, and particularly her husband’s role in controlling the situation.

At one place the Indians surrounded us, armed with bows and arrows, but my husband leveled his fun at the chief and made him order his Indians out of arrow range.

“The Recollection of Nancy Kelsey” in The Bidwell-Bartleson Party, edited by Doyce B. Nunis

The Indians, as it turned out, were Shoshones, and willing to be friendly, although obviously capable of inflicting damage if they so chose. The Indians offered a dressed buckskin for a handful of ammunition, which they were always in need of. They then rode on either side of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party for several hours, until they gradually dropped off and went their way.

Group of Ute (Shoshone) Indians on the War Path. 1868. Andrew J. Russell, photographer. Imperial collodion glass plate negative. Collection of Oakland Museum of California.

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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