The Nestor of the Rockies

Kit Carson, who died in 1868, comes midway in the list of American Indian– fighting frontier heroes that begins with Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and ends with Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody was the genuine article in his youth but was soon seduced by the stage. His Wild West show with its Congress of Rough Riders of the World was hugely popular for a time, but he was not a man to balance income and outgo and he squandered or gave away several modest fortunes. Always strapped for funds and sometimes plain broke at the end of his life, Cody made one “final tour” or “last appearance” after another well into the twentieth century, before he died at last in 1917.

All of the frontier heroes killed Indians but none as conspicuously as Cody in July 1876, when he shot and scalped the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hair in plain view of Colonel Wesley Merritt’s Fifth Cavalry and five hundred Cheyenne warriors at a place then called War Bonnet Creek. (It has since been demoted to Hat Creek.) Cody lifted the bloody mess above his head and shouted, “First scalp for Custer!”—referring to the one-time boy general killed with all his men on the Little Big Horn three weeks earlier. Within a week Cody had forwarded the Indian’s scalp, headdress, and other paraphernalia to Rochester, New York, where a friend put them on display in his clothing store window. Within a year Cody was reenacting the duel on the New York stage—so vigorously, in one performance, that he cut the actor playing Yellow Hair. Cody went on killing and scalping Yellow Hair for many years.

Killing Indians and taking scalps, glorious in Cody’s day, are generally condemned as barbarous now, but what people say changes more quickly than what they do. The body count of Vietnamese killed by Americans in any fiscal quarter of the war in Vietnam probably would have finished off the whole Sioux nation, with maybe a smaller tribe or two thrown in, and more than one American soldier kept personal score by taking the ears of his victims. Not long ago a museum curator, when the subject of Yellow Hair’s scalp came up, asked me if I had ever seen one. I had not. He pulled open the wide, shallow drawer of a case I had just been leaning against, and there, on a white cloth, were several scalps prepared in the Indian way—a palm-sized piece of hard dry skin, hair-side down, stretched with rawhide thongs on a round wooden hoop decorated with porcupine quills. The hair was long and black; these scalps had come from Indians. But the curator said he knew the whereabouts of plenty of others, and among them some blond, some red, some short, some silky suggesting they had been taken from children or infants. (The name of Cody’s Cheyenne victim, Hay- o-Wei [Yellow Hair], referred to the blond scalp he had taken from a …

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