Classic tale of a fur trader in the 1880’s who hangs out with the Blackfeet Indians and marries into the tribe.
Published over a hundred years ago in 1907, J.W Schultz was too early to know that future generations would have preferred him to title his memoirs ‘My Life as a Native American’. As is, he’s been a staple of boy’s comics and adventure series and generations born too late to realize the opportunity of living the Wild West with a people whose way of life was taken from them.
Schultz begins his story of leaving his little New England town on the quest for adventure at the age of 20 and he heads up the Missouri river to Fort Benton, a trading post. He begs the ferryman to let him off at each shore that he sees but he’s sharply warned that his scalp wouldn’t last more than a day. As if to confirm the warnings they round a corner and fine the corpses of three white men who met with such an end shortly before:
“They had been scalped and cut to pieces, their heads crushed, hands and feet severed and thrown promiscuously about. We stopped and buried them. I did not ask to be set ashore again.”
He arrives at a trading post with every kind of wild, drunk fur trader imaginable. The scam worked like this: the Indians (sorry, Native Americans) roll in with their buffalo, elk, beaver and wolf skins and trade them for bottles of whiskey, diluted four parts to one with water. If the Indians sold their buffalo skins they could use their dollars to buy tea, sugar, coffee, blankets or rifles. The mark up was so rabid that a $15 sold for $100 out here in Montana.
“There was certainly profit in the trade.” Schultz observes.
But J.W Schultz isn’t out there just to make a living ripping off the tribes. He learns first, sign language and then the language of the Blackfeet tribe so that he can start learning their ways. He heads out with one young brave to help him steal his wife and after that takes part in a raid on the horses of another tribe.
For much of the book, it seems that the various native tribes spend the majority of their time and energy raiding other tribes or defending their own horses. It strikes a strikingly similar chord with the antics of the camel-raiding Bedouins described by Thesiger and paints a more realistic picture of nomadic life than the idealised version handed down to us by Hollywood.
In time, J.W Schultz finds himself irresistably drawn to the beauty of the local Native American girls and after a brief struggle against his better nature, he ends up in the arms of a pretty young squaw named Nat-ah-ki. He starts getting reproachful letters from home though calling him back:
“..I realised with increasing regret that my days of happy wandering were about over, that I must go home and begin the career that was expected of me.”
He tells his fur trader friends of his solemn decision to leave the wild like and return home and they crack up, slapping each other on the back, much like the gang of a hardened criminal who announces he’s going straight. Schultz cannot see anything funny about it however and his guilt at leaving his wife behind is the worst of it:
“You are no different from other white men.” She scowls. “They marry for but a day.”
BUt upon returning to his little home town he soon realises:
“The people were good people, but their ways were as prim and conventional as the hideous fences which marked the bounds of their farms.”
Two months later, Schultz is back in Montana and his friends are surprised only that it took him so long.
J.W Schultz doesn’t really live the life of an Indian but he partakes in it from time to time and listens carefully to their stories concerning their ‘medicines’ and myths. When he’s not living with the tribes he hangs out with the other fur traders and makes a living any which way he can. One trick he has is to use a large cup with a false bottom – it holds the same as a regular cup but it looks like he’s giving way more and so the Indians come to do business with him.
When the fur trade falls out of favour with the US government, Schultz and his friends move just across the Canadian border and carry on their trade there. They return after a couple of years though once the Canadian Mounties arrive on the scene and everything begins to change.
Back in the US also the railroad arrives in Montana and a bunch of immigrants from back East arrive to civilise the place. Afraid and hating, they despise the heathen ways of the Indians and refuse to have anything to do with a ‘squawman’, the men married to a Native American. In particular the wives of the newcomers persuade their husbands to keep the squawmen out of business and politics and soon the fur traders find themselves being edged out.
But in no way comparable to the fate of the Indians, whose fate Schultz describes with passion and eloquence. He relates how the cattle traders trump up charges of raiding against the tribe in order to move them on to government reservations. In addition the buffalo have all but disappeared, something equivalent to imagining that there were no more flowers in the spring – except that the survival of the tribes depended entirely upon the annual buffalo migrations. The white man with his superior machinery had massacred the buffalo in thousands at a time and the nomadic life was over for ever.
Shunted on to reservations to be given rations by government agents, the tribes begin to starve as the agent appropriates for himself their quotas of aid. In return for the odd but of corn the Indians are expected to learn some civilised values, like Christianity and starvation decimates their numbers. Schultz is active in enlisting help from Washington but recognizes he’s no match for the big cattlemen who buy politicians and the police to shoot anyone who gets in their way.
J.W Schultz tells a story most of us already know but it’s not a historical tale, it’s the memoirs of a man who knew the times intimately. His style is simple and lends itself to a popular audience but is without pretension ad rings true. He neither romanticises nor condemns the life of the tribes but he experienced it for himself and so is one of the few who can speak with any truth about a lost era in American history.