A Fate Worse Than Death: Captured By The American Indian
“traded back and forth… transformed into tribal prostitutes, their worth measured in horses. Each time the frail young women were forced to fetch wood or water… each could expect to be raped as many as six times per trip…”
A Fate Worse Than Death
The little bottle lay on the sand. Nearby, waves lapped softly against the beach. How long the bottle had been laying there no one knows. Whether it was the tide or a storm that placed it, we do not know that either. This much we do know: At some point, someone walking along the sand spotted the bottle and instead of breaking it or hurling it back out to sea, they stooped to pick it up. We also know that when the finder uncorked the bottle he discovered that a note was folded inside. After fishing out the note and reading the words on the paper, whoever held it must have been dumb-struck. Finally, we also know that soon after the finder read the note and recovered from his shock, word quickly spread.
Thus ended one of the most remarkable journeys ever recorded.
The little bottle’s story began somewhere on the high and dry plains of northwest Texas or eastern New Mexico, hundreds of miles from where it was found. Here, at a camp of the Southern Cheyenne Indians, a ragged and frightened young white woman secretly brought out her hidden treasure — a bottle, a cork, a pencil, a piece of paper — then nervously scratched out a note, a desperate plea for help. The girl quickly folded the paper into the bottle, corked the end tightly, then tossed it into the headwaters of the Brazos River. In this arid region, the Brazos during the best of times is a mere trickle of water; at worst, it is just a sandy draw. Nevertheless, this bottle and the tiny trickle that floated it were the best, and perhaps last, hope for freedom that the young woman would know.
Several months earlier, in September, 1874, Catherine German and her family had been moving up the Smoky Hill River in western Kansas with everything they owned in the back of a covered wagon. The Germans, originally from Georgia, were bound for Colorado and a fresh start. Just moments after breaking camp that morning, the family was surprised by Indians. Within minutes the wagon was in flames, the mother, father, and two children were dead and scalped, and four daughters — Catherine, aged 17, Sophia, 12, and little Julia and Addie, aged 7 and 5 respectively — were carried off into captivity.
Catherine’s story is not a pretty one to relate. There are no Harlequin Romance endings here; no Dances With Wolves Hollywood nonsense; no silly sentimentality. Catherine was raped repeatedly during her captivity, as was her sister, Sophia; both were traded back and forth from one brave to the next; both were transformed into tribal prostitutes, their worth measured in horses. Each time the frail young women were forced to fetch wood or water for their respective lodges, each trembled in fear for each could expect to be raped as many as six times per trip.
Hence, Catherine’s desperate attempt one day with her little bottle along the Brazos. Pathetic as her gesture was, it was all she had. Over the next several months, as her prayer drifted slowly down a shallow stream, this hope was the only thought that kept the young woman going. When all else had been stripped from her — her virtue, her freedom, her dignity — Catherine at least had her little star of hope.
Finally, after five months of captivity, the band holding Catherine and Sophia at last returned to their reservation and surrendered the girls. Along with the two younger children, who earlier had been rescued during a thundering cavalry charge, the two shattered girls tried to pick up the broken pieces of their lives.
Unbeknownst to Catherine, throughout her captivity, during all the rapes and beatings, during the freezing nights and terrifying days, the little bottle that she had secretly tossed into a trickle of water on the high plains had, despite snags and shoals and rocks and floods, continued its slow journey down a winding river.
Four months after Catherine’s rescue, the Ellsworth (Kansas) Reporter picked up an article from a Houston, Texas, newspaper. The startled editor then informed his readers:
Strange to say, after having traveled eight hundred or one thousand miles along the devious windings and changing current . . . a bottle . . . was picked up on the beach of the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Brazos River, in which upon examination, was a written account of the capture of. . . .
Thus ended an incredible journey. After the message was uncorked and read, it can only be hoped that the reader saved the little bottle and today, passed from one generation to the next, it sits atop some bookshelf, an antique, curious and pretty . . . if nothing more.
Although the details surrounding Catherine’s rescue are a bit unusual, the conditions of her captivity are not. During the research for my book, Scalp Dance: Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865–1879, I had a chance to study at random the ordeals of some dozen young women captured by Indians, including Catherine German and her sisters. With little variation, the accounts told the same sad story—rape, enslavement, brutality, beatings, abuse. For good reason I named their chapter in the book, “A Fate Worse Than Death.”
Such accounts, of course, fly in the face of all we have been told — or not told — about life among the wild Indians of North America. Despite the attempts of Hollywood and academia to convince us that the lot of a captive white woman was really not such a bad thing, perhaps a bit rough in some spots, but overall a satisfying, even pleasant experience, nothing, I repeat, nothing, could be further from the truth.
Unlike the Hollywood version of captivity and unlike the silly day-dreaming moonshine of modern Romance writers, not one woman that I studied grew so enamored with her “natural” life among the Indians that, when the time came, she actually chose to remain among them. Nor, I might add, did even one woman fall madly, hopelessly in love with her red rapist. Quite the opposite. For those white females who somehow survived captivity and who were something other than “raving maniacs” upon their release, many begged to see their captors killed on the spot. When she realized that indeed her captivity was over and her cruel captor was now a prisoner, one young woman tried desperately to snatch a pistol from a white soldier’s belt to blow out the brains of the monster who had tormented her for so many months.
Based upon the accounts of the women I studied, here is a rough rule of thumb of what you might expect were you a young white woman captured by Indians of the High Plains:
1. After witnessing the murder and mutilation of your loved ones, your clothes are ripped from your body; immediate and violent gang rape and sodomy commence by however many warriors are present, for however long they choose.
2. If you have crying children, these are often instantly killed by a sharp blow from a war club or by swinging them against rocks and dashing out their brains. Little children are also commonly scalped.
3. With a rope around your neck you are then led back to the Indian camp in your stunned condition, naked, bruised, barefoot, and bleeding from the vagina. When you fall from exhaustion, hunger or thirst, you are whipped mercilessly to your feet with rawhide or rope.
4. Once in the village you undergo a howl of taunts from the old people; women and children ridicule you and lash you with switches. Even the hordes of dogs seem against you as they snap, snarl and bite your legs
5. You are claimed by a powerful man, perhaps a chief, and, in addition to his own sexual demands, you become his personal prostitute; you are traded among the men of the village for valuables, including horses. Just because you are owned by one man does not shield you from the rape of others.
6. Beatings and back breaking work are piled upon you by increasingly cruel and jealous squaws. Grooves are worn into your shoulders from the straps of heavy loads; long lacerations from beatings refuse to heal and remain open wounds.
7. Abuse takes its toll and you age and gray rapidly during the months, or years, of slavery. You are filthy. You are infested with fleas and lice.
8. At night, after another day of sex-on-demand and back-breaking work, you dream of rescue . . . or death, whichever comes first; you dream of bugle notes sounding the charge as the U.S. Cavalry arrives to save you. Alas, little do you realize that should you hear those beautiful notes they will signal both your rescue and your death since Indians commonly kill their captives at the first sign of trouble.
9. If somehow you do manage to survive and are eventually rescued, you have a half-breed child in tow, you are pregnant again, you are emaciated, you are broken, you are sick, you are diseased, you look twenty years older than your actual age, you are mentally unhinged, you will never be normal again.
Don’t look for Hollywood and Stephen Spielberg to depict the events described above with any degree of accuracy any time soon. Their mission, their agenda, their racial imperative these past fifty years has been the hammering home of white guilt to white audiences by pounding in the idea that the white race has been the curse on the world; that in addition to all the other crimes committed against man and nature over the ages, whites were also guilty of ruthlessly destroying one of the most peaceful and pastoral cultures ever to grace the earth—that of the gentle and deeply philosophical societies of the North American Indian tribes.
Many moderns, perhaps most, willingly buy into white guilt and other such rot, but those who actually lived through the period knew better. Catherine German certainly did.