Just outside of a fine large wigwam of smoke-tanned buffalo-skins stood Tawasuota, very early upon an August morning of the year 1862. Behind the wigwam there might have been seen a thrifty patch of growing maize, whose tall, graceful stalks resembled as many warriors in dancing-dresses and tasseled head-gear.
"Thanks be to the 'Great Mystery,' I have been successful in the fortunes of war! None can say that Tawasuota is a coward. I have done well; so well that our chief, Little Crow, has offered me the honored position of his chief soldier, ta akich-itah!" he said to himself with satisfaction.
The sun was just over the eastem bank of the Minnesota River, and he could distinctly see upon the level prairie the dwellings of logs which had sprung up there during the year, since Little Crow's last treaty with the whites. "Ugh! they are taking from us our beautiful and game-teeming country!" was his thought as he gazed upon them.
At that moment, out of the conical white teepee, in shape like a new-born mushroom, there burst two little frisky boys, leaping and whooping. They were clad gracefully in garments of fine deerskin, and each wore a miniature feather upon his head, marking them as children of a distinguished warrior.
They danced nimbly around their father, while he stood with all the dignity of a buck elk, viewing the landscape reddened by sunrise and the dwellers therein, the old and the new, the red and the white. He noticed that they were still unmingled; the river divided them.
At last he took the dancing little embryo warriors one in either hand, and lifted them to his majestic shoulders. There he placed them in perfect poise. His haughty spirit found a moment's happiness in fatherhood.
Suddenly Tawasuota set the two boys on the ground again, and signed to them to enter the teepee. Apparently all was quiet. The camps and villages of the Minnesota reservation were undisturbed, so far as he could see, save by the awakening of nature; and the early risers among his people moved about in seeming security, while the smoke of their morning fires arose one by one into the blue. Still the warrior gazed steadily westward, up the river, whence his quick ear had caught the faint but ominous sound of a distant war-whoop.
The ridge beyond the Wahpeton village bounded the view, and between this point and his own village were the agency buildings and the traders' stores. The Indian's keen eye swept the horizon, and finally alighted once more upon the home of his new neighbor across the river, the flaxen-haired white man with many children, who with his white squaw and his little ones worked from sunrise to sunset, much like the beaver family.
Ah! the distant war-whoop once more saluted his ear, but this time nearer and more distinct.
"What! the Rice Creek band is coming in full war-paint! Can it be another Ojibway attack? Ugh, ugh! I will show their warriors again this day what it is to fight!" he exclaimed aloud.
The white traders and Government employees, those of them who were up and about, heard and saw the advancing column of warriors. Yet they showed no sign of anxiety or fear. Most of them thought that there might be some report of Ojibways coming to attack the Sioux, – a not uncommon incident, – and that those warriors were on their way to the post to replenish their powder-horns. A few of the younger men were delighted with the prospect of witnessing an Indian fight.
On swept the armed band, in numbers increasing at every village.
It was true that there had been a growing feeling of distrust among the Indians, because their annuities had been withheld for a long time, and the money payments had been delayed again and again. There were many in great need. The traders had given them credit to some extent (charging them four times the value of the article purchased), and had likewise induced Little Crow to sign over to them ninety-eight thousand dollars, the purchase-price of that part of their reservation lying north of the Minnesota, and already occupied by the whites.
This act had made the chief very unpopular, and he was ready for a desperate venture to regain his influence. Certain warriors among the upper bands of Sioux had even threatened his life, but no one spoke openly of a break with the whites.
When, therefore, the news came to Little Crow that some roving hunters of the Rice Creek band had killed in a brawl two families of white settlers, he saw his opportunity to show once for all to the disaffected that he had no love for the white man. Immediately he sprang upon his white horse, and prepared to make their cause a general one among his people.
Tawasuota had scarcely finished his hasty preparations for war, by painting his face and seeing to the loading of his gun, when he heard the voice of Little Crow outside his lodge.
"You are now my head soldier," said the chief, "and this is your first duty. Little Six and his band have inaugurated the war against the whites. They have already wiped out two families, and are now on their way to the agency. Let my chief soldier fire the first shot.
"Those Indians who have cut their hair and donned the white man's clothing may give the warning; so make haste! If you fall to-day, there is no better day on which to die, and the women of our tribe will weep proud tears for Tawasuota. I leave it with you to lead my warriors." With these words the wily chief galloped away to meet the war-party.
"Here comes Little Crow, the friend of the white man!" exclaimed a warrior, as he approached.
"Friends and warriors, you will learn to-day who are the friends of the white man, and none will dare again to insinuate that I have been against the interests of my own people," he replied.
After a brief consultation with the chiefs he advised the traders:
"Do not hesitate to fill the powder-horns of my warriors; they may be compelled to fight all day."
Soon loud yells were heard along the road to the Indian village.
"Ho, ho! Tawasuota u ye do!" (He is coming; he is coming!") shouted the warriors in chorus.
The famous war-chief dismounted in silence, gun in hand, and walked directly toward the larger store.
"Friend," he exclaimed, "we may both meet the 'Great Mystery' to-day, but you must go first."
There was a loud report, and the unsuspecting white man lay dead. It was James Lynd, one of the early traders, and a good friend to the Indians.
No sooner had Tawasuota fired the fatal shot than every other Indian discharged his piece. Hither and thither ran the frantic people, seeking safety, but seeking it in vain. They were wholly unprepared and at the mercy of the foe.
The friendly Indians, too, were taken entirely by surprise. They had often heard wild talk of revolt, but it had never had the indorsement of intelligent chiefs, or of such a number as to carry any weight to their minds. Christian Indians rushed in every direction to save, if possible, at least the wives and children of the Government employees. Meanwhile, the new white settlements along the Minnesota River were utterly unconscious of any danger. Not a soul dreamed of the terrible calamity that each passing moment was bringing nearer and nearer.
Tawasuota stepped aside, and took up his pipe. He seemed almost oblivious of what he had done. While the massacre still raged about him in all its awful cruelty, he sat smoking and trying to think collectedly, but his mind was confused, and in his secret thoughts he rebelled against Little Crow. It was a cowardly deed that he had been ordered to commit, he thought; for he had won his reputation solely by brave deeds in battle, and this was more like murdering one of his own tribesmen – this killing of an unarmed white man. Up to this time the killing of a white man was not counted the deed of a warrior; it was murder.
The lesser braves might now satisfy their spite against the traders to their hearts' content, but Tawasuota had been upon the best of terms with all of them.
Suddenly a ringing shout was heard. The chief soldier looked up, and beheld a white man, nearly nude, leap from the roof of the larger store and alight upon the ground hard by him.
He had emptied one barrel of his gun, and, if he chose to do so, could have killed Myrick then and there; but he made no move, exclaiming:
"Ho, ho! Nina iyaye!" ("Run, run!")
Away sped the white man in the direction of the woods and the river.
"Ah, he is swift; he will save himself," thought Tawasuota.
All the Indians had now spied the fugitive; they yelled and fired at him again and again, as if they were shooting at a running deer; but he only ran faster. Just as he had reached the very edge of the sheltering timber a single shot rang out, and he fell headlong.
A loud war-whoop went up, for many believed that this was one of the men who had stolen their trust funds.
Tawasuota continued to sit and smoke in the shade while the carnage and plunder that he had set on foot proceeded on all sides of him. Presently men began to form small parties to cross the river on their mission of death, but he refused to join any of them. At last, several of the older warriors came up to smoke with him.
"Ho, nephew," said one of them with much gravity, "you have precipitated a dreadful calamity. This means the loss of our country, the destruction of our nation. What were you thinking of?"
It was the Wahpeton chief who spoke, a blood-relation to Tawasuota. He did not at once reply, but filled his pipe in silence, and handed it to the man who thus reproached him. It was a just rebuke; for he was a brave man, and he could have refused the request of his chief to open the massacre.
At this moment it was announced that a body of white soldiers were on the march from Fort Ridgeley. A large body of warriors set out to meet them.
"Nephew, you have spilled the first blood of the white man; go, join in battle with the soldiers. They are armed; they can defend themselves," remarked the old chief, and Tawasuota replied:
"Uncle, you speak truth; I have committed the act of a coward. It was not of my own will I did it; nevertheless, I have raised my weapon, and I will fight the whites as long as I live. If I am ever taken, they will first have to kill me." He arose, took up his gun, and joined the war-party.
The dreadful day of massacre was almost ended. The terrified Sioux women and children had fled up the river before the approaching troops. Long shafts of light from the setting sun painted every hill; one side red as with blood, the other dark as the shadow of death. A cloud of smoke from burning homes hung over the beautiful river. Even the permanent dwellings of the Indians were empty, and all the teepees which had dotted with their white cones the west bank of the Minnesota had disappeared. Here and there were small groups of warriors returning from their bloody work, and among them was Tawasuota.
He looked long at the spot where his home had stood; but it was gone, and with it his family. Ah, the beautiful country of his ancestors! he must depart from it forever, for he knew now that the white man would occupy that land. Sadly he sang the spirit-song, and made his appeal to the "Great Mystery," excusing himself by the plea that what he had done had been in the path of duty. There was no glory in it for him; he could wear no eagle feather, nor could he ever recount the deed. It was dreadful to him – the thought that he had fired upon an unarmed and helpless man.
The chief soldier followed the broad trail of the fleeing host, and after some hours he came upon a camp. There were no war-songs nor dances there, as was their wont after a battle, but a strange stillness reigned. Even the dogs scarcely barked at his approach; everything seemed conscious of the awful carnage of the day.
He stopped at a tent and inquired after his beautiful wife and two little sons, whom he had already trained to uphold their father's reputation, but was directed to his mother's teepee.
"Ah, my son, my son, what have you done?" cried his old mother when she saw him. "Come in, come in; let us eat together once more ; for I have a foreboding that it is for the last time. Alas, what have you done?"
Tawasuota silently entered the tent of his widowed mother, and his three sisters gave him the place of honor.
"Mother, it is not right to blame our brother," said the eldest. "He was the chief's head soldier; and if he had disobeyed his orders, he would have been called a coward. That he could not bear."
Food was handed him, and he swallowed a few mouthfuls, and gave back the dish.
"You have not yet told me where she is, and the children," he said with a deep sigh.
"My son, my son, I have not, because it will give you pain. I wanted you to eat first! She has been taken away by her own mother to Faribault, among the white people. I could not persuade them to wait until you came. Her people are lovers of the whites. They have even accepted their religion," grieved the good old mother.
Tawasuota's head dropped upon his chest, and he sat silent for a long time. The mother and three sisters were also silent, for they knew how heavy his grief must be. At last he spoke.
"Mother, I am too proud to desert the tribe now and join my wife among the white people. My brother-in-law may lie in my behalf, and say that my hands are not stained with blood; but the spirits of those who died to-day would rebuke me, and the rebuke would be just. No, I must fight the whites until I die; and neither have I fought without cause; but I must see my sons once more before I go."
When Tawasuota left his mother's teepee he walked fast across the circle toward the council lodge to see Little Crow. He drew his blanket closely about him, with his gun underneath. The keen eye of the wily chief detected the severe expression upon the face of his guest, and he hastened to speak first.
"There are times in the life of every great man when he must face hardship and put self aside for the good of his people. You have done well to-day!"
"I care little for myself," replied Tawasuota, "but my heart is heavy to-night. My wife and two boys have been taken away among the whites by my mother-in-law. I fear for their safety, when it is known what we have done."
"Ugh, that old woman is too hasty in accepting the ways of the stranger people!" exclaimed the chief.
"I am now on my way to see them," declared Tawasuota.
"Ugh, ugh, I shall need you to-morrow! My plan is to attack the soldiers at Fort Ridgeley with a strong force. There are not many. Then we shall attack New Ulm and other towns. We will drive them all back into Saint Paul and Fort Snelling." Little Crow spoke with energy.
"You must stay," he added, "and lead the attack either at the fort or at New Ulm."
For some minutes the chief soldier sat in silence.
At last he said simply, "I will do it."
On the following day the attack was made, but it was unsuccessful. The whole State was now alarmed, and all the frontier settlers left alive had flocked to the larger and more protected towns. It had also developed during the day that there was a large party of Sioux who were ready to surrender, thereby showing that they had not been party to the massacre nor indorsed the hasty action of the tribe.
At evening Tawasuota saw that there would be a long war with the whites, and that the Indians must remove their families out of danger. The feeling against all Indians was great. Night had brought him no relief of mind, but it promised to shield him in a hazardous undertaking. He consulted no one, but set out for the distant village of Faribault.
He kept to the flats back of the Minnesota, away from the well-traveled roads, and moved on at a good gait, for he realized that he had to cover a hundred miles in as few hours as possible. Every day that passed would make it more difficult for him to rejoin his family.
Although he kept as far as he could from the settlements, he would come now and then upon a solitary frame house, razed to the ground by the war-parties of the day before. The members of the ill-fated family were to be seen scattered in and about the place; and their white, upturned faces told him that his race must pay for the deed.
The dog that howled pitifully over the dead was often the only survivor of the farmer's household.
Occasionally Tawasuota heard at a distance the wagons of the fugitives, loaded with women and children, while armed men walked before and behind. These caravans were usually drawn by oxen and moved slowly toward some large town.
When the dawn appeared in the east, the chief soldier was compelled to conceal himself in a secluded place. He rolled up in his blanket, lay down in a dry creek-bed among the red willows and immediately fell asleep.
With the next evening he resumed his journey, and reached Faribault toward midnight. Even here every approach was guarded against the possibility of an Indian attack. But there was much forest, and he knew the country well. He reconnoitred, and soon found the Indian community, but dared not approach and enter, for these Indians had allied themselves with the whites; they would be charged with treachery if it were known that they had received a hostile Sioux, and none were so hated by the white people as Little Crow and his war-chief.
He chose a concealed position from which he might watch the movements of his wife, if she were indeed there, and had not been waylaid and slain on the journey hither.
That night was the hardest one that the warrior had ever known. If he slept, it was only to dream of the war-whoop and attack; but at last he found himself broad awake, the sun well up, and yes! there were his two little sons, playing outside their teepee as of old. The next moment he heard the voice of his wife from the deep woods wailing for her husband!
"Oh, take us, husband, take us with you! let us all die together!" she pleaded as she clung to him whom she had regarded as already dead; for she knew of the price that had been put upon his head, and that some of the halfbreeds loved money better than the blood of their Indian mothers.
Tawasuota stood for a minute without speaking, while his huge frame trembled like a mighty pine beneath the thunderbolt.
"No," he said at last. "I shall go, but you must remain. You are a woman, and the white people need not know that your little boys are mine. Bring them here to me this evening that I may kiss them farewell."
The sun was hovering among the treetops when they met again.
"Atay! atay!" ("Papa, papa!") the little fellows cried out in spite of her cautions; but the mother put her finger to her lips, and they became silent. Tawasuota took each boy in his arms, and held him close for a few moments; he smiled to them, but large tears rolled down his cheeks. Then he disappeared in the shadows, and they never saw him again.
The chief soldier lived and died a warrior and an enemy to the white man; but one of his two sons became in after-years a minister of the Christian gospel, under the "Long-Haired Praying Man," Bishop Whipple, of Minnesota.