Thursday, May 30, 2013




The Spybucks were a Shawnee family but they intermarried with other Ohio native groups who came west.  The famous Chieska was the father of Spybuck, and probably his mother was Polly Butler, the half-breed daughter of General Richard Butler and a sister of Cornstalk.

    Chieska aligned himself with Blackhoof and he served as a scout with Anthony Shane on the side of the United States in the War of 1812.  Chieska was with Capt. William Wells in the shootout with the Potawatomi warriors when Wells was fatally wounded.  Those who knew Chieska praised him to Draper in his interviews.  And they spoke highly of his agile son, Spybuck (Saucothcaw).

Known for his plain dress and easy manner, Spybuck was often a companion of Simon Kenton during that scout's last years.  Spybuck went west and like James Swannock, Little Beaver, and many others profiled here, he became a free hunter.
    Spybuck was the tracker in James Kirker's band of scalp‑hunters who attacked and nearly wiped out Cochise's band.  When Kirker's party arrived in Chihuahua with the plunder, "Governor Trias refused to pay the scalp money, and many Mexicans were claiming the recovered mules and horses as their property.  This vexed Spybuck so deeply, he stripped himself of his buckskins and walked naked except for his loin cloth and a feather in his hair.  He drank a bottle of brandy, stuck a knife and tomahawk in his belt, and headed for the governor's mansion...'

     "The Shawnee broke through a guard at the governor's door, grabbed Trias by the throat and threatened to kill him if he were not paid immediately for his scalps.  He was paid and, returning to the bull ring, he gathered up his share of mules and horses and announced that he would not stay and do business with people who would not keep their word.  He then headed for Bent's Fort..."

     These Shawnees were also frank and fearless men, often confused with the more numerous Delawares with whom they rode.  John Bushman, a Potawatomi who married a Shawnee, was also known as a Delaware, but he did not consider it any slight on his reputation.  Bushman served as guide to Captain R. B. Marcy on an expedition to the Red River in 1852.  Marcy considered him dignified, reserved, taciturn, self‑reliant, and fearless.  In 1853, Lt. Whipple endeavored to enlist him as a guide through Comanche territory, but Bushman declined, saying that the Comanches would “scorch the earth behind them.”  The famous Cherokee scout, Jesse Chisholm, also turned him down, as well as the best-known Delaware scout, Black Beaver.



Black Beaver


     Like Bushman, Black Beaver was brave but not stupid.  He had been an interpreter for Col. Richard Irving Dodge in 1834, and had commanded a company of Shawnee and Delawares against in the Mexican War of 1846.  Then in 1849, Captain Randolph B. Marcy engaged Black Beaver as a guide.  He found that Black Beaver was familiar with the western and northern tribes, that he "converses fluently with the Comanche and most of the other prairie tribes.  He has spent five years in Oregon and California, two years among the Crow and Blackfeet Indians.  Has trapped beaver on the Gila, the Columbia, the Rio Grande, and the Pecos; has crossed the Rocky Mountains at many different points, and indeed is one of those men that are seldom met with except in the mountains."

     All of the many contemporary accounts of Black Beaver agree that he was an extraordinary man, a master tracker gifted with rare intelligence, perfectly reliable.  Often he told stories, exaggerating his own follies and laughing at them.          

     The Kickapoos bought a fleet thoroughbred from a Missourian and took him out onto the plains for the express purpose of racing against the Comanche horses.  Black Beaver was in on the deal, convinced that the thoroughbred was a sure thing.  While a guest of the Comanche chief, Black Beaver foolishly bet all of his possessions, and the chief took all of his bets.  After the thoroughbred was badly beaten, the Comanche chief did not have the heart to take Black Beaver's horses, but advised him to never again bet against the Comanches.

     The story came up because Lt. John Buford of Marcy's command had one of Abe Buford's Kentucky thoroughbreds along.  Black Beaver advised against racing him against the Comanches, having learnt his lesson.



Fall Leaf


     Like the modest, soft-spoken Black Beaver, Capt. Fall Leaf was a Delaware scout often found working for the U. S. Government.  Fall Leaf a Delaware who was a guide for filibuster John Fremont and was later with Major Sedgewick in the Civil War.  There are many stories about this exceptional man, far too many to recount here.

     In 1860, Capt. Fall Leaf was the leader of five other Delaware scouts in Major Sedgwick's expedition against the Comanches and Kiowas.  There was also a band of Pawnee scouts along.  The expedition was confronted by a large band of Cheyenne, estimated between 900 and 1000.  Peck, in his journal, says that the soldiers were greatly outnumbered and he became especially fearful when he noticed that the Cheyenne were stretching out their ranks and outflanking them on both sides of the river, their ranks three‑deep.

     Peck says that they were still out of rifle range when "we saw our old Delaware chief, Fall Leaf, dash out from our line 'til he got about midway between the two sides, when he suddenly halted his horse, raised his rifle and fired at the Cheyennes."  He circled around and rode back, while the Cheyennes returned fire.

     "A large party of the Cheyennes had turned their left, and some were coming up in the rear behind the pack‑horses."  The order was given to draw sabers, Peck says, "and our three hundred bright blades flashed out of their scabbards."

     At this, the Cheyennes hesitated.  "At their first checking of speed, a fine‑looking warrior mounted on a spirited horse, probably their chief, dashed up and down in front of their line with the tail of his war‑bonnet flowing behind, brandishing his lance, shouting to his warriors...evidently urging his men to stand their ground...Many of us found time to admire his superb horsemanship, for he presented a splendid sight as he wheeled his horse, charging back and forth, twirling his long lance over his head now and then."

     The soldiers charged and the Cheyennes scattered.  Peck estimated that thirty of them were killed in the running fight.  Peck says, "Old Fall Leaf and his Delawares went into the fight with us and did good service, but the cowardly Pawnees that Colonel Sumner had brought with him from Fort Kearney, only followed in our wake, scalping the dead Cheyennes and gathering up their ponies..."



Tom Hill


    Both Black Beaver and Fall Leaf were dark-skinned, but the Delawares and Shawnee scouts came in all colors, from white to black.  Spybuck, for instance, was white enough to pass for a white man, while Tom Hill, born white, was adopted when young and raised Delaware.

     Thomas Hill became one of these  Delaware scouts, associating with such master scouts as Black Beaver, James Secondine, James Swannock, and Kit Carson.  Carson (who had an American Indian wife) and Tom Hill made an excursion into Comanche country with a small party of six hunters, three of them Delawares.  Attacked by an enormous band of Comanches, they "cut the throats of their mules and forted behind the animals.  With three firing while the other three reloaded, they held off a dozen attacks, killing 42 Comanches.  The horses of the attackers shied at the fresh blood from the dead mules and would not approach very near.  When night came, the six defenders headed back for the Arkansas on foot, abandoning their beaver."

     Thomas Hill rode as far west as California where he fought alongside Fremont and James Swannock, and he went as far north as Oregon where married a Nez Perce woman.  Hill and his sons took part in the later Nez Perce War.  A fair report of his adventures would probably require a book.  Hill married several times, probably, but one marriage was to Nancy Washington, a Wyandot, and among their known children was Sarah Hill, through whom they have many descendants.  Thomas Hill appears to have divorced Nancy, and she soon married another famous Delaware scout, James Secondine.




James Swannock


     By 1850, there were few Delawares who did not have their white relations.  I think that the original James Swannock, whose son and namesake was also a famous scout, was likely the son of James Sherlock, interpreter for George Rogers Clark in Kentucky.  The names of both men were variously spelled in the Indian traders ledgers.  James Sherlock appears as Shireluck, Sharlock, and Shawlock.  Anyone whose native language was Shawnee or Delaware would have had trouble pronouncing the English "r" and would substitute the "l" or "w" sound.

     Trader William M. Boggs referred to the Delaware scout as James Swarnock and trader Alexander Barclay used James Sharnock.  In his excellent study of the man, Harvey L. Carter listed all the variations but decided to use Swannock for the purpose of his sketch, and I too will use Swannock, which is what the name became.

     James Swannock was born in Indiana territory and he appears to have been the adopted son of Chief William Anderson, who listed him as a son and requested a special annuity for him.  Swannock was probably one of William Connors' band of thirty Delaware scouts at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.  He belonged to the Wolf clan and was later recognized as a war chief.  

     Those Delawares under James Swannock's leadership reverted to their old style of living as wide‑ranging free hunters, traversing the west in search of beaver furs, which were then high in demand.  Often their hunting parties included Shawnees.  As Carter points out, these hunters "seem to have been generally accepted by the white trappers and to have associated with them on a basis of virtual equality.  They appear to have mastered the technology of the whites as it applied to hunting, trapping, and warfare, while retaining all of the basic Indian lore on these subjects."

     Carter presents several documented stories about James Swannock and his Delawares and their clashes with the Pawnees, Cheyennes, and other tribes.  The core of his hunting band consisted of Swannock, Big Nichols, Little Beaver, and Jim Dickie, but at various times it must have included some other famous names as well.

     Once, his hunting party of six Delawares were joined by a band of seventeen white trappers on an expedition into Blackfoot country.  There, they were surrounded by a band of about fifty hostile Blackfeet.  Swannock singled out the leader and threatened to immediately kill him if he did not call off the attack.  The chief obeyed, and Swannock's party rode out of the trap.  The Blackfeet then tried to entice the Delawares and white men to visit their camp, but Swannock saw it as another trap and refused.  Only one man of the party, called Nez Perce Jack, was willing to leave the company of the Delawares.  He rode over to the Blackfeet and was immediately killed by them.  The others followed James Swannock who was then given credit for saving their lives.

     There was trouble when the Delawares moved into what the Plains tribes considered their own territory.  In 1829, three Delawares including Puchies (the Big Cat), another of Chief William Anderson's sons, were killed by the Pawnees.  In retaliation, James Swannock raised a war party and burnt the Pawnee village.  With government intervention, a peace was made between these tribes in 1833.  Then in 1841, Swannock was hunting with his party up the Republican River.  They engaged a band of Sioux, including Touch‑the‑clouds with his iron shirt.  The Delawares fired at the armor, their bullets glanced harmlessly off, and the rest of the Sioux closed in before they could reload and killed eight of them including the elder Swannock.

     It was the younger James Swannock who served as a scout with Fremont, and although he was probably not as dark as his friend, Big Nichols, he was a darker man than his father.  Big Nichols, one of the Delaware free hunters, was part-Iroquois, part-Delaware, and part-black.  Some of the traders called him Big Nigger, but they seem to have liked him--or at least, they respected him.  Reading Blood Meridian, I could not help but think of Big Nichols as something of a Black John Jackson.  But happier, because he was a Delaware.



Big Nichols


     Ruxton said:  "Amongst the hunters on the upper Arkansas were four Delaware Indians, the remnant of a band who had been trapping for several seasons in the mountains and many of them had been killed by hostile Indians, or in warfare with the Apaches while in the employ of the states of New Mexico and Chihuahua.  Their names were Jim Dickie, Jim Swannick, Little Beaver, and Big Nigger.  The last had married a squaw from the Taos Pueblo and happening to be in New Mexico with his spouse at the time of the late rising against the Americans, he very naturally took part with the people by whom he had been adopted.  In the attack on the Indian Pueblo, it was said that Big Nigger particularly distinguished himself, calling by name to several mountain men who were amongst the attacking party and inviting them near enough to `throw them in their tracks....'

     It was said "that the Delaware killed nearly all who fell on the side of the Americans, his squaw loading his rifle and encouraging him in the fight.  By some means or another he escaped after the capture of the Pueblo."   

     In Henry L. Carter's excellent "Jim Swannock and the Delaware Hunters," he says the core of Jim Swannock's brave band of roving free hunters consisted of Little Beaver, Jim Dickey, and Big Nigger.  These men refused to be tied down by reservation life.  Because of their savvy and love of freedom, they earned the respect and admiration of all the trappers, the soldiers, and the other tribes with whom they had contact.

     Big Nichols probably was born in 1823.  He probably trapped and traded as widely as James Swannock, which means he went from the lands of the Pueblos to the land of the Blackfeet and Nez Perce and all points in‑between.

     Carter says, "`Big Nigger' appears as an entry in John Brown's account book under date of December 28, 1846.  Apparently the Delawares did some trading at Brown's post on Greenhorn Creek.  From here Big Nigger went to Taos. where he was reported to have a wife among the women of Taos Pueblo.  When he arrived there the Taos Rebellion against American occupation of New Mexico was already being fomented and when it broke out on January 20, 1847, he threw in his lot with his wife's people.  On February 3, the American forces under Colonel Sterling Price and a volunteer company of mountain men under Ceran St. Vrain attacked Taos but were repulsed, with the loss of Captain Burgwin who led the attack.  Big Nigger was a conspicuous leader among the rebels.  Next day, when the attack was renewed, Big Nigger was one of those who stubbornly defended themselves in the adobe church.  He was finally killed in a back room of the church to which he had retreated for his last heroic but unavailing stand against overwhelming odds.'

     "So spectacular was the fight he put up that the legend arose that he had escaped to the Wet Mountain Valley, a favorite hunting ground of the Delaware trappers, where he was said to have lived as an outlaw.  There is no reason to believe this tale but its existence is a tribute to a valiant fighter, who died after such desperate resistance that people were reluctant to believe that he was gone."

     Carter says in a footnote, "For two contemporary accounts of Big Nigger's outstanding part in this battle, see George F. Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains...Garrard visited the church after it was stormed and says that Big Nigger's body had thirty bullets in it.  Garrard is uniformly more trustworthy than Ruxton and there is not the slightest reason to distrust his account.  If Big Nigger had survived, it seems likely that his name would have appeared in Barclay's diary after this date.  It does not, although the other Delaware hunters continue to be mentioned.  However, Ruxton's statement that, during the fight, Big Nigger called by name to the Mountain Men whom he knew, daring them to come near enough for him to shoot them in their tracks has the ring of truth."

     Well, after reading this, I thought it probable that Big Nichols escaped.  The reason he no longer appeared in the trader's logbooks around Tao was, it seemed to me, that he went back to live in the Delaware Reservation in Kansas.

     Sometime after I finished the above, historian Rodney Staab sent me yet another version of the Big Nichols story.  It is, I think, an interesting account‑‑a remarkable lesson in history.

     It seems to me now, barring further revelations, that we have the truth about Big Nichols.  Here is the story:

     Capt. James Swannock left home with three other free hunters in 1844 to trap in the mountains around Taos.  The others in his band were, as Carter pointed out, Jim Dickie, Little Beaver, and Big Nichols, whose Delaware name was En‑di‑ond, "Where‑he‑was‑seen," probably a Delaware concept name for “stealth.”

     In February or March of 1847, they were trapping in the mountains about two days travel from Taos.  Big Nichols told the other trappers that he was making a trip into Taos to get some bread‑stuff and whiskey.  When he arrived at Taos, he stopped at the house of a Pueblo and was invited inside.  A crowd of Pueblos came into the house and demanded to know why Big Nichols was there.  Big Nichols, who spoke some Spanish and "tolerably good English," explained his purpose, but the Pueblos were rebelling against the authorities of the United States, and accused Big Nichols of being a spy.

     They stripped Big Nichols of his guns and knives, took him to an adobe house, and put him under guard.  After keeping him there a few days, they came and told him that they had already fought the whites one time, and that the whites were on their way to the town to fight them again.  They offered him his life if he would join them in the upcoming battle.  Big Nichols agreed to fight, and the guard brought him his gun.

     Soon after, the white troops came in sight, and Big Nichols kept his word and fought with the Pueblos until the whites stormed the church, and then Big Nichols and the Pueblos concealed themselves in the adobe buildings.

     The Pueblos then decided to give up and make peace, but they did not know how to talk to the whites.  Big Nichols told them if they made a white flag and walked out under it, the whites would not shoot them.  They sent two women out with the flag first, and the men followed.  Big Nichols stayed behind, hidden in the upper story of a large house.

     In the lower story of the house that Big Nichols was hiding in, there was a big whiskey barrel where the white men came every day to drink, and Big Nichols observed their coming and going.  His thirst got the best of him at last, and he asked for a drink.  Two white men told him to come on down and get some whiskey.  He came down.  The white men said, "You are no Pueblo.  Who are you?"  He told them, and they informed their officers of his presence.

     His old Pueblo guard came to Big Nichols, warning him to make his escape as the officers had been overheard talking about him, that they were planning on doing "something bad to him."  The guard brought Big Nichols his gun and he escaped in the night.

     Big Nichols rode his horse hard, two days and two nights.  He found the other Delawares, and told them what had happened.  They gave him some extra gun powder and advised him to go back to the Delaware reservation.  So Big Nichols started home.

     After he got over the mountains and near the road, he fell in with a band of Cheyennes whose camp was adjacent to that of a Comanche village.  The Cheyenne treated him as a friend and gave him plenty to eat.  Big Nichols stayed among them for several weeks, letting his horse recover.

     A few days before Big Nichols was to continue his journey home, some Spanish traders came with corn flour and goods to trade with the Cheyennes and Comanches.  They called a council and invited Big Nichols to attend.  When the council convened, the Spanish traders told the chiefs that they wanted them to kill every white American they could find and to take and destroy everything they had.  The traders detailed the battles that had taken place between the Pueblos and the white Americans, and told them that there was one remarkable Delaware among the Pueblo at the battle and that he had killed thirty white Americans himself.  The Cheyennes laughed and said maybe this is the same man who is now with us.

     In a few days, a Mexican captain rode into camp and called the Cheyennes and Comanches to council again, but this time the Cheyennes told Big Nichols to stay away, possibly for his own safety.  When the Delaware left, the Cheyennes told him of an Arapaho camp, and advised him to call on them on his way home, where he would be welcomed.  After riding some time, Big Nichols finally discovered the Arapaho camp.  As the Cheyennes had predicted, the Arapahos treated the Delaware courteously, and so he lingered there, letting his horse graze and recuperate a few days.

     After starting again for the Delaware reservation, he came upon some Cheyennes and Comanches who were preparing for war upon the white troopers.  They detained him, as they were afraid he would warn them of their plans.  But finally they let him go and he returned to the Delawares and related this story to the chiefs, who related it to their Indian agent, Richard W. Cummins, who wrote an account of it to Major Thomas H. Harvey, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis.

     Back on the reservation, Big Nichols became one of the councilors to Chief Neconhecond of the Wolf clan of the Delawares.  "Big Nigger or Big Nichols" appears on a contemporary list of Delawares, and Weslager's´ The Delaware Indians contains a picture of the Delaware leaders including John Sarcoxie, Colonel Jackson, Big Nichols, and others.  In one of the pictures (p. 409) is a Willie Nicholas who, I suspect, is Willie Nichols, Big Nichol's son.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks. I'd read about the Big Nigger. Never knew him by the name Big Nichols. If he was not killed at Taos, I wonder who Lewis Gerrard really saw? I'd also heard by the way that several Delaware Indians had been with James Kirker when he killed Apaches for the Mexican government in Chihuahua, and I think I read one of them might have been the Big Nigger? Not sure I am right on this. I'd also read, maybe from Ruxston, that he'd fought with the insurgents because he saw no gain for himself, at least, in fighting with the Americans.