In September of 1874, the great Cheyenne "Sweet Medicine Chief" Little Wolf made the long overland journey to Washington, D.C., with a delegation of his tribesmen for the express purpose of making a lasting peace with the whites. Having spent the weeks prior to his trip smoking and softly discussing various peace initiatives with his tribal council of forty-four chiefs, Little Wolf came to the nation's capital with a somewhat novel, though from the Cheyenne worldview, perfectly rational plan that would ensure a safe and prosperous future for his greatly besieged people.
The Indian leader was received in Washington with all the pomp and circumstance accorded to the visiting head of state of a foreign land. At a formal ceremony in the Capitol building with President Ulysses S. Grant, and members of a specially appointed congressional commission, Little Wolf was presented with the Presidential Peace Medal-a large ornate silver medallion-that the Chief, with no intentional irony, a thing unknown to the Cheyennes, would later wear in battle against the U.S. Army in the Cheyennes' final desperate days as a free people. Grant's profile appeared on one side of the medal, ringed by the words: LET US HAVE PEACE LIBERTY JUSTICE AND EQUALITY; on the other side an open Bible lay atop a rake, a plow, an ax, a shovel, and sundry other farming implements with the words: ON EARTH PEACE GOOD WILL TOWARD MEN 1874.
Also in attendance on this historic occasion were the President's wife, Julia, who had begged her husband to be allowed to attend so that she might see the Indians in all their savage regalia, and a few favored members of the Washington press corps. The date was September 18, 1874.
Old daguerreotype photographs of the assembly show the Cheyennes dressed in their finest ceremonial attire-ornately beaded moccasins; hide leggings from the fringe of which dangled chattering elk teeth; deerskin war shirts, trimmed at the seams with the scalps of enemies and elaborately ornamented with beads and dyed porcupine quills. They wore hammered silver coins in their hair, and brass-wire and otter-fur bands in their braids. Washingtonians had never seen anything quite like it.
Although over fifty years old by this time, Little Wolf looked at least a decade younger than his age. He was lean and sinewy, with aquiline nose and flared nostrils, high, ruddy cheekbones, and burnished bronze skin that bore the deep pockmarks of a smallpox epidemic that had ravaged the Cheyenne tribe in 1865. The Chief was not a large man, but he carried himself with great bearing -head held high, an expression of innate fierceness and defiance on his face. His demeanor would later be characterized by newspaper accounts as "haughty" and "insolent."
Expressing himself through an interpreter by the name of Amos Chapman from Fort Supply, Kansas, Little Wolf came directly to the point. "It is the Cheyenne way that all children who enter this world belong to their mother's tribe," he began, addressing the President of the United States, though he did not look directly in Grant's eyes as this was considered bad manners among his people. "My father was Arapaho and my mother Cheyenne. Thus I was raised by my mother's people, and I am Cheyenne. But I have always been free to come and go among the Arapaho, and in this way I learned also their way of life. This, we believe, is a good thing." At this point in his address, Little Wolf would ordinarily have puffed on his pipe, giving all those present a chance to consider what he had thus far said. However, with usual white man bad manners, the Great White Father had neglected to provide a pipe at this important gathering.
The Chief continued: "The People [The Cheyennes referred to themselves simply as Tsitsistas -the People] are a small tribe, smaller than either the Sioux or the Arapaho; we have never been numerous because we understand that the earth can only carry a certain number of the People, just as it can only carry a certain number of the bears, the wolves, the elks, the pronghorns, and all the rest of the animals. For if there are too many of any animal, this animal starves until there is the right number again. We would rather be few in number and have enough for everyone to eat, than be too many and all starve. Because of the sickness you have brought us (here Little Wolf touched his pockmarked cheek), and the war you have waged upon us (here he touched his breast, he had been wounded numerous times in battle), we are now even fewer. Soon the People will disappear altogether, as the buffalo in our country disappear. I am the Sweet Medicine Chief. My duty is to see that my People survive. To do this we must enter the white man's world-our children must become members of your tribe. Therefore we ask the Great Father for the gift of one thousand white women as wives, to teach us and our children the new life that must be lived when the buffalo are gone."
Now a collective gasp rose from the room, peppered with scattered exclamations of astonishment. To interrupt a man while he was speaking, except to utter soft murmurs of approbation, was an act of gross impoliteness to the Cheyennes, and this outburst angered Little Wolf. But the Chief knew that white people did not know how to behave, and he was not surprised. Still, he paused for a moment to let the crowd settle and to allow his chiefly displeasure to be registered by all present.
"In this way," Little Wolf continued, "our warriors win plant the Cheyenne seed into the bellies of your white women. Our seed will sprout and grow inside their wombs, and the next generation of Cheyenne children Will be born into your tribe, with the full privileges attendant to that position."
At exactly this point in Little Wolf's address, President Grant's wife, Julia, fainted dead away on the floor, swooned right from her chair with a long, gurgling sigh like the death rattle of a lung-shot buffalo cow. (It was unseasonably hot in the room that day, and in her memoirs, Julia Dent Grant would maintain that the heat, not moral squeamishness at the idea of the savages breeding with white girls, had caused her to faint.)
As aides rushed to the First Lady's side, the President, reddening in the face, began to rise unsteadily to his feet. Little Wolf recognized that Grant was drunk and, considering the solemnity of the occasion, the Chief felt that this constituted a fairly serious breach of etiquette.
"For your gift of one thousand white women," Little Wolf continued in a stem, louder voice over the rising clamor (although at this point interpreter Chapman was practically whispering), "we will give you one thousand horses. Five hundred wild horses and five hundred horses already broke."
Now Little Wolf raised his hand as if in papal benediction, concluding his speech with immense dignity and bearing. "From this day forward the blood of our people shall be forever Pined."
But by then all hell had broken loose in the room and hardly anyone heard the great leader's final remarks. Senators blustered and pounded the table. "Arrest the heathens!" someone called out, and the row of soldiers flanking the hall fell *into formation, bayonets at the ready position. In response, the Cheyenne chiefs all stood up in unison, instinctively drawing knives and forming a circle, shoulders touching, in the way that a bevy of quail beds down at night to protect itself from predators.
President Grant had also gained his feet, swaying slightly, his face scarlet, pointing his finger at Little Wolf, and thundering, "Outrageous! Outrageous!" Little Wolf had heard that the President was a great warrior and a man much respected by his enemies. Still, the Sweet Medicine Chief did not care to be pointed at in this impertinent manner, and if he'd had his quirt with him, he'd have knocked the Great Father, drunk or not, to his knees for this behavior. Little Wolf was infamous among his people for his temper-slow to be aroused but grizzlylike in ferocity.
Order was finally restored. The Cheyennes put their knives up, and the guards quickly ushered the Indian delegation out of the hall without further incident, the great chief striding proudly at their head.
That night doors were locked A over Washington, shades pulled, wives and daughters forbidden to go outside as word of the Cheyennes' blasphemous proposal swept the capital. The next day's newspaper headlines further fanned the flames of racist fears and civic hysteria: "Savages Demand White Women Love Slaves!," 'White Brides for the Red Devils!," "Grant to Swap Injuns: White Girls for Wild Horses!" In what must surely have been every nineteenth-century American man's worst nightmare, those few citizens who did venture out with women on their arms over the next few days cast furtive glances over their shoulders, keeping an anxious watch out for the hordes of mounted redskins they secretly feared might swoop down upon them, wailing like banshees as they lifted scalps with a single slash of glinting knife blade, to carry off their shrieking womenfolk and populate the earth with half-breeds.
Official response to Little Wolfs unusual treaty offer was swift; a tone of high moral outrage dominated the proclamations of the Congress, while the administration itself moved quickly to assure a nervous citizenry that no, white women would certainly not be traded to the heathens and, yes, immediate steps were being taken by the U.S. military to ensure that the virtue of American womanhood would be well protected.
Two days later Little Wolf and his entourage were packed inside a cattle car and escorted by armed guard out of the nation's capital. Word of the Indians' peace initiative had leaked out over the telegraph wires, and angry citizens wielding denunciatory placards turned out in lynch mob-like crowds along the way to taunt the Cheyennes as they passed, pelting their train car with rotten fruit and racist epithets.
At the same time that the Northern Cheyennes were being booed from train platforms across the Midwest, another parallel, and far more interesting national phenomenon was gaining momentum. Women from all over the country were responding to the Cheyennes' marriage proposal telegraphing and writing letters to the White House, volunteering their services as brides. Not all of these women were crackpots, and they seemed to cut a wide socioeconomic and racial swath: everything from single working girls in the cities looking to spice up their drab lives with some adventure; to recently emancipated former slaves hoping to escape the sheer drudgery of post-slavery life in the cotton mills, sweat shops, and factories of newly industrialized America; to young women widowed in the War Between the States. We know now that the Grant administration did not turn a deaf ear to their inquiries.
In private and after the initial uproar had abated, the President and his advisors had to admit that Little Wolf's unprecedented plan for assimilation of the Cheyennes made a certain practical sense. Having already implemented his Indian Peace Policy, which gave over management of the Indian reservations to the American Church, Grant was willing to consider any peaceful solutions to the still explosive situation on the Great Plains-a situation that impeded economic progress and promised yet more bloodshed for frontier settlers.
Thus was born the "Brides for Indians" (or "BFI" program, as its secret acronym became known in the President's inner circle). Besides placating the savages with this generous gift of brides, the administration believed that the "Noble American Woman," working in concert with the church, might also exert a positive influence upon the Cheyennes-to educate and elevate them from barbarism to civilized life.
Other members of the President's cabinet continued to champion the original plan for resolution of the "Indian problem," and it was understood by all concerned that any recalcitrant tribes would still be subject to the "final solution" of military annihilation.
Yet while the genocide of an entire race of native people was considered by many to be morally palatable and politically expedient, even the more progressive members of the Grant cabinet were aware that the notion of white women interbreeding with the savages would never wash with the American public. Thus, in a series of highly secretive, top-level meetings on the subject, the administration decided, in age-old fashion, to take matters into its own hands-to launch its own covert matrimonial operation.
Grant's people assuaged their political conscience with the proviso that all of the women involved in this audacious experiment be volunteers- really little different than mail-order brides -with the added moral legitimacy of being under the wing of the church. Official rationale had it that if these socially conscientious and adventuresome women chose to go West and live with the Indians of their own volition, and if in the process, the Cheyennes were distracted from their warlike ways, then everyone benefited; a perfect Jeffersonian example of government greasing the wheels of social altruism and individual initiative.
If the "Brides for Indians" program had an Achilles' heel, the administration knew that it lay in its plan to supplement an anticipated shortage of volunteers by recruiting women out of jails, penitentiaries, debtors' prisons, and mental institutions -offering full pardons or unconditional release, as the case might be, to those who agreed to sign on for the program. One fact that the government had finally learned in its dealings with the natives, was that these were a literal people who expected treaties to be fulfilled to the letter. When the Cheyennes negotiated for one thousand brides, they meant exactly that number -and in return would deliver exactly one thousand horses to fulfill their end of the bargain. Any discrepancy in these figures would be sufficient cause to send the Indians back on the warpath. The administration intended to ensure that this did not occur-even if it meant early release of a few low-level felons or minor mental defectives.
The first trainload of white women bound for the northern Great Plains and their new lives as brides of the Cheyenne nation left Washington under a veil of total secrecy late one night the following spring, early March 1875 -just over six months after Chief Little Wolf made his startling public request of President Grant. Over the next several weeks trains departed stations in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
On March 23, 1875, a young woman by the name of May Dodd, age twenty-five years to the day, formerly a patient in the Lake Forest Lunatic Asylum, a private facility thirty miles north of Chicago, boarded the Union Pacific train at Union Station, with forty-seven other volunteers and recruits from the Chicago region-their destination Camp Robinson, Nebraska Territory.
[NOTE-: The following journals are largely unedited, and, except for very minor corrections in spelling and punctuation have been here transcribed exactly as written by their author, May Dodd. Contained within May Dodd's journals, are several letters addressed to family members and friends. There is no indication that any of these letters were ever mailed, and they appear to have served the author primarily as a way for her to "speak" to individuals in her notebooks. It is also probable that May left this correspondence, as she says of the journals themselves, to be read later by her family in the event that she not survive her adventure. These letters, too, are presented in the order and form in which they appear in the original notebooks.]
Excerpted from One Thousand White Women © Copyright 2002 by Jim Fergus. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin. All rights reserved.
One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
- paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
- ISBN-10: 0312199430
- ISBN-13: 9780312199432