Indians of the Country—An Account from 130 Years Ago
BY E.S. TOPPING
The Sheepeater Indians who were mostly refugees from the Shoshones and Bannocks ranged in the mountains on the heads of the Yellowstone and Wind rivers; there were but about one hundred and fifty of them and they were as timid as the animal from which they derive their name. They dressed entirely in skins and their diet was mountain sheep, elk, and black tail deer meat without salt, roots that the squaws dug, the inside bark of the pine, and in their season, berries. They hunted with bows and arrows long after adjacent tribes had secured the superior facilities of fire arms.
In 1879, some Shoshones were sent out by the interior department to hunt them up. They were found and brought in to the Shoshone agency at Little Wind river and they have received rations at this place ever since.
The cold and privations endured by the Sheepeaters have left their mark for they are small of stature and in brain diminutive, and compare very unfavorably with their relatives, the Shoshones.
At some time in the past there must have been a large tribe whose summers were spent at the Yellowstone lake, for around its shores and washed up by its waves are many relics of a race superior in some ways to the Indian of the present day. Pieces of finely carved pottery have been found, and Obsidian and Chalcedony spear and arrow heads are quite common.
Some of the Sheepeaters must have descended from this tribe for they have traditions of the swallowing up of most of their people by a convulsion of the earth many centuries ago.
The Crows, Rees [Arikara, from Arikkarees, as pronounced by early traders], Blackfeet, Piegans, Bloods, Gros Ventres, Flatheads, and Pend d’Oreille tribes of Indians ranged and hunted at times on the Yellowstone, but none of them acquired possessory rights till the latter part of the eighteenth century when the Crows claimed and held the country bordering on the river from the mountains to the mouth of Tongue river. The Rees took the country at the mouth of the Yellowstone. All between these two tribes was a debatable land which swarmed with buffalo and until the Sioux came was considered as common property by the tribes mentioned.
The Sioux tribes lived and hunted in the country now embraced by the States of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. As civilization advanced they receded and in their turn drove the Rees and Crows; the latter tribe fought stubbornly for every inch and many were the battles between them. With the Indians wealth is counted by the number of horses owned and a successful horse thief always stands high in his tribe so that for the most part the wars between these hostile tribes consisted in taking and retaking stock. Some of these forays led to sanguinary fights, one of which is worthy of being recorded.
Early in the winter of 1864 twenty nine young Crow warriors, the pick of the tribe, went to the Brule Sioux camp on the Missouri near Mandan’s present site to steal horses. They at last found their opportunity and ran off two bands, in all about six hundred head. Six of the Crows had a band of three hundred, and this number being too unwieldly for so few men to handle, they fell behind the remainder of the party. The Brules soon found out their loss and five hundred warriors started in pursuit. They overtook the six Crows at a butte about eighty miles west of the Missouri. The Crows left their captured horses and went up the butte. The remainder of the Crows were about eight miles in advance and could have escaped; but when they heard the firing they turned back to help their comrades. After some lively skirmishing the Crows all came together on the top of the butte where they made breastworks of loose rocks and dirt dug up with their knives. The Sioux closely invested the place and the fight continued for two days and nights. On the morning of the third day there were but fifteen Crows alive, and these being entirely out of ammunition and suffering greatly for lack of water concluded to distinguish themselves and die like Indian braves. So, singing their most defiant war song and drawing their knives they charged on their enemies and bravely died, having sent before them over one hundred Sioux braves. The hill on which they fought was named Young Men’s Butte and can be seen from the car windows of the Northern Pacific.
The Sioux, after the Minnesota rout of 1863, had that state no more for a hunting ground and were forced across the Missouri river. They drove the Crows from the Tongue and Powder river country and harassed the whites who were all around them at every opportunity. They were discontented and not being handled properly by the authorities at Washington, who showed weakness to these people, who respect nothing but force, [and] were in a chronic state of discontent which culminated in the Fort Phil Kearney massacre 1866.
In 1865 the combined Sioux tribes sent ambassadors to all of the Western Indians to try and induce them to combine against the whites. The Crows refused to join and stated most emphatically that in case there should be a war they would be found with the whites. This decision was in conformity with their actions, for as a tribe they have always been friendly to the white men. Small parties have horses and the proof is strong that they were the Indians that attacked Stuart’s party in 1863, and tried to kill men during the winter of 1875. …outside of these are no charges against them.
The Shoshones range on Wind river and its tributaries. They were very warlike and apparently had neither fear nor pity. They worried all the emigrant trains that passed through Bridger and South passes, and captured several. They became so impudent that the war department made a special effort to subdue them. In the winter of 1863 Gen. Connor with troops and citizen volunteers, in all amounting to about three hundred and fifty men, attacked the main camp of four hundred warriors on Bear river. The weather was intensely cold and the whites suffered terribly in their forced marches. When near the Indian camp a charge was made. The Indians held their ground for a time and this interval killed many of the attacking force; then broke before the fierce charge and fled, and nearly half of their number were killed. Many of them jumped into the river between the rifles of their foes and the floating ice, but few reached the opposite shore.
It is an axiom that an active enemy converted is a strong friend. It was so in this case, for under the leadership of Washikie, a chief who had not taken part in the Bear river fight, they have ever since been friendly to whites and have fought with them several times other tribes.
These Indians and the Crows had been enemies from immemorial, and many piles of rocks or cairns are left between Wind river and Clarke’s Fork to mark bloody fields. When the Shoshones made friends with the whites they also treated with the Crows, and the tribes have remained friendly.
From E.S. Topping’s Chronicles of the Yellowstone, Chapter 2, Indians of the Country, 1883.
About E.S. Topping
Eugene Sayre Topping left us a valuable chronicle of the greater Yellowstone area, our own backyard, as it was during the days of white settlement in the latter 1800s, written from the perspective of a white man of that era and according to his understanding of native peoples. Topping, an extraordinary man if his travels and exploits are taken into account, was born in Long Island, New York, May 15, 1844, went to sea at age 12 in the merchant marines, and headed west in 1868 working as a prospector, miner, and stock trader.
Topping discovered Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin and a shorter route to the Lower Geyser Basin, and operated boats on Yellowstone Lake in the summers of 1874 and 1875. An adventurous man, Topping fought in several Indian battles, including one under the command of Gen. Crook, as a volunteer or scout, and in a battle near a trading fort on the Yellowstone in 1875.
After 6 years in the Dakotas mining and sheep trading, he returned to Yellowstone and in 1882 was in charge of a crew building a road from McCartney’s Hotel to Swan Lake Flats. Topping’s crew continued work on to Firehole and built a bridge over the Gardiner River. He prospected in the Black Hills and northern Idaho before going to British Columbia in 1889, where he acquired a share in a lucrative gold prospect and founded the town of Trail, BC, with friend Frank Hanna. Hanna and Topping ended their business relationship and friendship in 1896 (Frank split up with his wife also, possibly because of Toppping), and 10 years later Topping married Frank’s ex-wife Mary Jane (Palmer) Hanna in 1906. After they married, the couple moved to Victoria, BC, where Topping died in 1917.
Source: “Geyser Bob” Goss.
Editor’s note: Special thanks and appreciation to Ed Turner of Livingston for bringing the writings of E.S. Topping to the attention of the editor.