JANUARY 17, 2001

by Ron Parks

"A Horrible Trip for Men so Poorly Provided"


In 2001 the Kaw Mission State Historic Site and area resident celebrate the 150th birthday of the historic Kaw Mission. This is the fifty in a series of monthly articles describing themes, events, and personalities associated with the Kaw Mission 150 years ago.

One hundred fifty years ago this month about a dozen carpenters worked feverishly in the snow and cold to complete the construction of the Kaw Mission. The month before the masons had finished laying up the stone walls and returned in a blizzard to the Shawnee Mission. Now the carpenters worked long hours to seal the building from the elements before tackling the interior finish work.

We know that weather was miserable here 150 years ago because of the writings of a member of a military expedition that made the 240-mile journey from Fort Leavenworth to Council Grove and back to the fort in January 1851. Twenty-three-year-old Percival G. Lowe, private in B Troop of the First United States Dragoons, recorded the experience:

"The Kaw Indians near Council Grove had been committing some depredations–stealing horses and otherwise making themselves troublesome–and in January, 1851, Major Chilton [Robert Hall Chilton, commander of Troop B], with about fifty men of his troop went to Council Grove, 120 miles, had a "big talk," took four of the principal chiefs of the Kaw Nation prisoners and brought them to Fort Leavenworth.

"About half of the men on this trip were more or less frostbitten, several of them severely. It was a horrible trip for men so poorly provided for a 240-mile march in such severe weather.

"Overshoes, mittens, gloves, leggings or other extra wraps were not then provided by the Government, nor kept for sale, and men made for themselves out of old blankets, skins, pieces of old canvas and cast-off clothing, anything that necessity prompted them to invent for protection from the bitter cold.

"Not a house between Fort Leavenworth . . . . and Council Grove–the whole country an expanse of snow. Plenty of fuel in every camp, and fires kept burning all night. . . . Nothing was left undone that could be done under the circumstances for the comfort of men and horses, but with all that there was great suffering."

Lowe’s account does not mention the sufferings of the Kaw prisoners, but in addition to the physical hardships, the humiliation experienced by the chiefs in being abruptly seized and held hostage by a foreign power is difficult to overstate. One of the Kaw chiefs was Ka-he-ga-wa-che-ha, or "Hard Chief," whose feelings about this imprisonment were recorded by long-term Kaw trader Frederick Chouteau:

"They kept them [the Kaw chiefs] about a month. When they came back Hard Chief was very mad. He said he would kill any Indian who would steal any more horses. He had been sleeping between logs long enough. He was very sore, and he would not do that for any man who would steal horses. He would kill them. They never stole horses after that."

Chouteau was dead wrong about the Kaws never stealing horses again. Taking horses from other Indian tribes and races was a time-honored tradition of the Kaw culture. What was a capitol crime for white people was a means for Kaw warriors to demonstrate courage and gain wealth and stature among their people.

The fact that the Kaw chiefs could do little to prevent their young warriors from stealing horses never seemed to occur to Percival G. Lowe’s commanding officers.

In October 1853, while encamped with his troop of dragoons at Big John Spring two miles east of Council Grove, then Corporal Lowe was ordered by Major Chilton to take twenty men about five miles south to a Kaw village to retrieve five government horses the Kaws had stolen a few months before. If he couldn’t secure the horses, Lowe was instructed to capture the chief and bring him back to the army camp.

Lowe recounted what happened: "I seized the chief by the left arm and Cuddy [another soldier] by his right, and placed him on a horse behind another man, we mounted and were off in less time than takes to tell it. The chief saw at once that he was a prisoner and went willingly. Instantly there was an uproar all over the village, men, women and children howling in every style."

Lowe, his men, and their prisoner had not ridden over one-half mile from the Kaw village when they were met by a messenger from the dragoons’ camp who informed him ". . .that three of the horses had been brought in and the other two promised. It was too late, and we took the chief to camp. He was one of the Major’s prisoners of January, 1851, and they shook hands. The chief was much agitated and distressed. As I made my report, I felt sorry for him."

In Percival Lowe’s time, expressions of remorse for how white people treated Kaws were rare. Lowe proved the exception in these reflections: "...the more I thought of it the more I did not feel at all proud....I became convinced that I had been guilty of an outrage on a man who had been guilty of no wrong, in order to recover some horses that had been stolen by some thieves of his tribe....Whatever of wrong was committed the blame was all mine, and it took me some time to realize the extent of the outrage upon a harmless man."

February  2001: The House Ready to Be Occupied
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