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Army Letters From an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888

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Army Letters From an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888
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Author(s): Frances M. A. Roe
Date Published: 2010/08
Page Count: 256
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-253-6
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-254-3

On the Western Frontier with the U. S Army

Some of the most valuable and endearing accounts of life on the nineteenth century American Western frontier have come from the pens of women authors. Among those several have been the wives of military men posted to the furthest reaches of the nation to protect settlers, assist in the Westward expansion that was 'Manifest Destiny' and to deal with wars against the indigenous Indian tribes who fought to maintain their own way of life. This book by Frances Roe is one such account. She married her husband, a young infantry officer newly graduated from West Point, Fayette Roe in 1871 and shortly after found herself turning her back on the cosseted Eastern life she had known and heading out to the Wild West. Her life with the colours took her to Montana Territory, to the Colorado lands of the Cheyenne and to Indian Territory. Frances Roe has left us a graphic view of army life in garrison, on campaign and in camp, in all its detail, as well as wonderfully described accounts of her adventures in the untamed and beautiful wilderness.

Well, I have seen an Indian—a number of Indians—but they were not Red Jackets, neither were they noble red men. They were simply, and only, painted, dirty, and nauseous-smelling savages! Mrs. Phillips says that Indians are all alike—that when you have seen one you have seen all. And she must know, for she has lived on the frontier a long time, and has seen many Indians of many tribes.<br>
We went to Las Animas yesterday, Mrs. Phillips, Mrs. Cole, and I, to do a little shopping. There are several small stores in the half-Mexican village, where curious little things from Mexico can often be found, if one does not mind poking about underneath the trash and dirt that is everywhere. While we were in the largest of these shops, ten or twelve Indians dashed up to the door on their ponies, and four of them, slipping down, came in the store and passed on quickly to the counter farthest back, where the ammunition is kept. As they came toward us in their imperious way, never once looking to the right or to the left, they seemed like giants, and to increase in size and numbers with every step.<br>
Their coming was so sudden we did not have a chance to get out of their way, and it so happened that Mrs. Phillips and I were in their line of march, and when the one in the lead got to us, we were pushed aside with such impatient force that we both fell over on the counter. The others passed on just the same, however, and if we had fallen to the floor, I presume they would have stepped over us, and otherwise been oblivious to our existence. This was my introduction to an Indian—the noble red man!<br>
As soon as they got to the counter they demanded powder, balls, and percussion caps, and as these things were given them, they were stuffed down their muzzle-loading rifles, and what could not be rammed down the barrels was put in greasy skin bags and hidden under their blankets. I saw one test the sharp edge of a long, wicked-looking knife, and then it, also, disappeared under his blanket. All this time the other Indians were on their ponies in front, watching every move that was being made around them.<br>
There was only the one small door to the little adobe shop, and into this an Indian had ridden his piebald pony; its forefeet were up a step on the sill and its head and shoulders were in the room, which made it quite impossible for us three frightened women to run out in the street. So we got back of a counter, and, as Mrs. Phillips expressed it, “midway between the devil and the deep sea.” There certainly could be no mistake about the “devil” side of it!<br>
It was an awful situation to be in, and one to terrify anybody. We were actually prisoners—penned in with all those savages, who were evidently in an ugly mood, with quantities of ammunition within their reach, and only two white men to protect us. Even the few small windows had iron bars across. They could have killed every one of us, and ridden far away before anyone in the sleepy town found it out.<br>
Well, when those inside had been given, or had helped themselves to, whatever they wanted, out they all marched again, quickly and silently, just as they had come in. They instantly mounted their ponies, and all rode down the street and out of sight at race speed, some leaning so far over on their little beasts that one could hardly see the Indian at all. The pony that was ridden into the store door was without a bridle, and was guided by a long strip of buffalo skin which was fastened around his lower jaw by a slipknot. It is amazing to see how tractable the Indians can make their ponies with only that one rein.<br>
The storekeeper told us that those Indians were Utes, and were greatly excited because they had just heard there was a small party of Cheyennes down the river two or three miles. The Utes and Cheyennes are bitter enemies. He said that the Utes were very cross—ready for the blood of Indian or white man—therefore he had permitted them to do about as they pleased while in the store, particularly as we were there, and he saw that we were frightened. That young man did not know that his own swarthy face was a greenish white all the time those Indians were in the store! Not one penny did they pay for the things they carried off. Only two years ago the entire Ute nation was on the warpath, killing every white person they came across, and one must have much faith in Indians to believe that their “change of heart” has been so complete that these Utes have learned to love the white man in so short a time.<br>
No! There was hatred in their eyes as they approached us in that store, and there was restrained murder in the hand that pushed Mrs. Phillips and me over. They were all hideous—with streaks of red or green paint on their faces that made them look like fiends. Their hair was roped with strips of bright-coloured stuff, and hung down on each side of their shoulders in front, and on the crown of each black head was a small, tightly plaited lock, ornamented at the top with a feather, a piece of tin, or something fantastic. These were their scalp locks. They wore blankets over dirty old shirts, and of course had on long, trouserlike leggings of skin and moccasins. They were not tall, but rather short and stocky. The odour of those skins, and of the Indians themselves, in that stuffy little shop, I expect to smell the rest of my life!<br>
We heard this morning that those very savages rode out on the plains in a roundabout way, so as to get in advance of the Cheyennes, and then had hidden themselves on the top of a bluff overlooking the trail they knew the Cheyennes to be following, and had fired upon them as they passed below, killing two and wounding a number of others. You can see how treacherous these Indians are, and how very far from noble is their method of warfare! They are so disappointing, too—so wholly unlike Cooper’s red men.
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