Back to Essay Index     Bibliography


LEDGER:   Arrow's Elk Society Ledger

Early Cheyenne History

In the mid-17th century a core assemblage of blood-kin groups which would later coalesce into the Cheyenne tribe had been established for many years on the headwaters of the St. Peter's (now the Minnesota) River, between Lac Qui Parle and Lake Traverse, in present southwest Minnesota. Where they had been previously, and for how long, is a matter of speculation.

In 1680 La Salle reported that he had been visited at Ft. Crevecoeur in northern Illinois by members of the "Chaa", a tribe living "on the headwaters of the Mississippi". Based on this, Grinnell assumed the Cheyennes had come south from near Mille Lacs. However, it is important to understand that in the 17th century all that was known about the Mississippi headwaters was that there were TWO branches: the one which came from the east is now called the Mississippi; while the western branch is now the Minnesota. So, to locate the Cheyennes "on the headwaters of the Mississippi" is merely to put them at their known position of 1650 on the Minnesota River.

Broad similarities in artistic designs (see Coleman, 1998b), as well as iconic mythological motifs, suggest an earlier connection of the proto-Cheyennes with other Algonkian groups south of the Great Lakes: the Potawatomis, Kickapoos and Mesquakies. It is likely the proto-Cheyennes had moved west across the northern part of present Illinois, then traveled UP the Mississippi until the Minnesota River beckoned them toward a distant destiny. It is doubtful they were ever located on the Mississippi above the mouth of the Minnesota River.

About 1660, proto-Cheyenne groups began to hop-scotch westward from Lake Traverse onto the buffalo-rich area known as the Coteau des Prairies---the glacial upland of present North Dakota, east of the Missouri River. Stopping for a few years in various locations to build small villages of earthlodges, separate groups of proto-Cheyennes were alternately allied and intermarried with isolated villages of the Arikaras, Hidatsas and Mandans whom they discovered already on the Coteau (Grinnell, 1923,I: map at end of volume; and II: Appendix A). These alliances were always small, band-to-band trading pacts. Each proto-Cheyenne group fought with other bands of these same tribes, with whom they did NOT maintain trade relations.

While on the Coteau des Prairies, the Tsistsistas, or Cheyennes proper, encountered another Algonkian-speaking tribe called the Suhta (plural Suhtaio), with whom they soon became allied. The Suhtaio had come from north of Lake Superior, proceeding south along Red River onto the Coteau.

The heavy concentration of Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa earthlodge villages along the Missouri River kept the Cheyennes from pushing west of the Coteau, until the smallpox pandemic of 1782-83 decimated those tribes. About 1785, the Tsistsistas and Suhtaio crossed the Missouri River together, and entered the western Plains. Proceding up what is now called Cheyenne River in their honor, in present South Dakota, they found the game paradise and spiritual haven of the Black Hills, where they formed new alliances with bands of the Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache tribes (Moore, 1987: Map 1). It was here that the Cheyennes stepped clearly into history, in the reports of Jean Battiste Truteau, Pierre Antoine Tabeau, Charles McKenzie, Alexander Henry and Lewis and Clark.


By the turn of the 18th century the Cheyennes were successful middlemen in the Plains trade network. They profitted by exchanging horses traded from the south by Kiowas, for European trade goods including firearms obtained through Canadian sources by the Hidatsas and Mandans. Cheyenne women were famed for production of distinctive buffalo robes elegantly embroidered in narrow stripes of colored grasses and dyed porcupine quills, which were coveted by all their neighbors (Coues, 1897, I: 360).

About 1815, a party of young Blackfeet men looking for adventure came down to the Black Hills to visit their Cheyenne kinsmen. Learning that the Comanches and Kiowas obtained horses further to the south, they continued on into present Oklahoma, where they stole a large herd of Comanche horses. With this booty, and tales of the plains between the Platte and Arkansas rivers being covered by herds of wild horses, the Blackfeet returned to the Black Hills. Young Cheyennes immediately headed south (Hyde, 1968: 32-33; Hyde dates these events in "1826", which is a decade too late). These young Cheyenne adventurers also returned with large herds, free for the taking.

By ca. 1817, an entire kin group that would later be known as the Hevataneo or Hair-rope band had moved down to the Arkansas River where they associated with Arapahoes, Kiowas and Kiowa-Apaches on horse raids deep into Texas, to steal herds from Mexican ranchos (James, 1823, II: 186-87). The Hevataneos liked the country along the Arkansas River, across the southern reaches of present Colorado and Kansas. It was mostly unoccupied, and they made it their own. Other groups of Cheyennes followed the Hevataneo lead, settling along the rivers between the Platte and the Arkansas (see Cowdrey, 1999: Map 1). Part of the tribe remained north and west of the Black Hills. By ca. 1840, the Cheyennes had become separated into Southern and Northern groups, although close contact was maintained between them.

In the late-1820's, two young brothers from St. Louis, Charles and William Bent, with their partner Ceran St. Vrain, who had been trapping beaver along the Colorado Rockies, built a stockade near present Pueblo, Colorado, where Fountain River enters the Arkansas. Here they were visited by the Hevataneo chief Yellow Wolf, who advised them to move further east, since his people rarely traveled so near the mountains. If the brothers would bring trade goods near the Big Timbers, a favorite Hevataneo camping spot where groves of ancient cottonwoods bordered the Arkansas for fives miles, Yellow Wolf promised to bring his people to trade. By 1833, with laborers imported from Mexico, the brothers had built Fort William, later called Bent's Fort. This massive adobe structure with pallisade walls was erected slightly east of the present town of La Junta, Colorado (Hyde, 1968: 60-62).

Bent's Fort, and especially the relationship between William Bent and the Southern Cheyennes, would have immense significance for the tribe, and enduring effect on the history of the United States. The Bents were fair traders who respected their customers, and were respected in turn. In 1835, William Bent married Owl Woman, daughter of the Keeper of the Sacred Arrows, the leading priest of the tribe. This union established a pact of consanguinity between the Cheyenne tribe and William Bent's "tribe", that is, all Americans, which the Cheyennes scrupulously honored for thirty years, until their faith was betrayed in 1864.

If it had not been for this fictive kinship, and Cheyenne tolerence of American movements because of it, the entire history of the United States must have been different. In 1846, Bent's Fort became the staging depot for the Mexican War. Consider the difficulties the American commander Gen. Winfield Scott would have encountered had the Cheyennes been hostile to American troop movements through their country. There could have been no depot, no posibility of a supply line, and no chance of an American victory. Nor would young American officers like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee have received the field experience in Mexico which prepared them for the roles they would play two decades later.

For the Cheyennes, their relationship with William Bent brought vast advantages too: a plethora of European trade goods including firearms, wool, cotton and silk cloth, colorful Mexican blankets, glass beads, mirrors, brass bells, brass and iron cooking kettles, and resident blacksmiths available to forge any type of blade. It was like being married to the Sears, Roebuck Company. The Cheyennes were the best dressed and best armed people on the Southern Plains because of it.


Another trade material to which Cheyennes had early access, because of Bent's Fort, was paper---both as loose sheets, and in the form of bound ledger books. Cheyennes may have been producing art on paper earlier than other Plains tribes, because of their access to the "family store". The earliest reference to such use of paper known to the author occurred in August 1845. The exploring expedition of Capt. John C. Fremont was outfitted at Bent's Fort, where they were encamped for several days. One of Fremont's junior officers was Lt. James W. Abert:

"On Saturday the 9th, Mr. Chabonard called for me to accompany him on a visit to 'Nah-co-men-si', or the Winged Bear, more generally known as Old Bark. He is second in rank to Yellow Wolf and is remarkable for perseverence, enterprise and bravery; although now very old, yet about a year since he went as far as the settlements on a war trail.He regretted very much that he had not a robe for me emblazoned with the history of his bold achievements, but unfortunately he had given them all away...

"The next morning I went out to pay Captain Fremont a visit. Mr. Kern, the artist who accompanies his expedition, showed some sketches by Old Bark's son, in which he had represented himself killing some Pawnees with the lance. The execution was quite good and exhibited considerable feeling for design and proportion" (Abert, 1970: 3, 5).

Here, in a single family and at the same historical moment, we see both a generational change, and an adaptation of materials. The father's painting on buffalo skin, which had been the Cheyennes' medium of choice for many generations, was then tentatively being replaced by paper. Note that this occurred in a family known for "perseverence and enterprise", where both father and son were artists.

It is also significant that Lt. Abert speaks of "considerable feeling for design and proportion." This cannot refer to the sort of stick-figures which characterized Plains Indian drawing of the early 19th century. Already, then, at least one Cheyenne artist was creating full figures with sufficient skill to impress Lt. Abert, himself a trained and able artist.

Probably there were not yet many others making drawings on paper, however, for the following year Lewis H. Garrard, passing the winter with the Southern Cheyennes, noted:

"My books...paper and pencil were great novelties to the [Cheyennes], who would attentively examine them, look at me, shake their heads, and after a sober pause and sometimes with a sober expression...exclaim, 'Mah-ke-o-nih ma-son-ne', Big Wolf's foolish. So it was. Everything beyond their comprehension was ma-son-ne" (Garrard, 1955: 66).

The oldest surviving collection of Southern Cheyenne ledger drawings known to this author are those of Little Shield (Coleman, forthcoming---see the Little Shield Ledger, in the PILA Online collection), which were created during the fighting of 1865, and depict several known events of the Powder River War. Parts of the "Dog Soldier" ledger (Afton, et. al., 1997) were probably done in 1865 as well. We should not, however, conclude from this paucity of evidence---as some art historians have done---that Cheyennes were only then beginning to create paper art. Col. Richard Irving Dodge, who was stationed on the Arkansas River and in intimate contact with the Cheyennes during 1869-73 (Dodge, 1882: 283), observed:

"The Plains Indian making pictures, especially of his own remarkable exploits and achievements...Almost every prominent warrior makes a picture of each prominent event in his life, and many of them keep a book in which their acts are thus recorded. But his pictures are not symbolic. The fight or other act is depicted as nearly as possible as the Indian wishes it to be seen; himself the prominent figure in the foreground, dealing death, or otherwise performing the act. Their pictures of fights in which numbers are engaged are simply the representation of individuals who were prominent either for courage, or from being killed or wounded. In such pictures symbolism is used to make up the deficiencies of his draughtsmanship; thus a great many marks of horses' feet indicate that great numbers were engaged; many arrows or bullets represented in the air show that the fight was hotly contested.

"There is nothing in which white men differ more than in drawing. One draws exquisitely; another with equal opportunities, and equally well educated in other respects, cannot draw at all. Not so with Indians; all draw, and though entirely without knowledge of perspective, all draw quite as well as the average of whites. If one wants Indian pictures, there is no need to hunt a special artist. All he has to do is give some paper and a few colored pencils to any middle-aged warrior. I have many such pictures, drawn by men of different tribes, all so essentially alike in character and execution, that they might have been drawn by the same hand" (Dodge, 1882: 411-414).

By the late-1860's, therefore, "almost every prominent warrior" was keeping a ledger book filled with drawings of his own accomplishments. It is doubtful that this could have happened overnight. The process which Lt. Abert saw beginning in 1845, was probably in full flower by ca. 1860. Between 1864 and 1876, however, the Cheyennes lost fourteen major villages to United States troops, with an aggregate of more than a thousand lodges and their contents destroyed (Powell, 1981: 259-60, 262, 300-309, 379-80, 462-73, 615-16, 722, 724, 734, 875-81, 883-84, 903, 939-44 & 1069). Most of the earliest Cheyenne drawings on paper, along with most of the rest of pre-1870 Cheyenne material culture, disappeared in this holocaust (see Cowdrey, 1999: Fig. 34).


One record which has survived the flames of the 19th century is explored herein. Collected in 1882 at Darlington, Indian Territory, the Agency of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation, it remained with the descendants of the collector Sallie C. Maffet, until sold at auction in 1997 (Sotheby's, 1997).

In five compositions (Plates 140, 144, 150, 154 & 160) the artist identifies himself by the name glyph of an arrow. This is undistinguished by color or shape, so the name seems to be intended generically as "Arrow". Cheyenne informants have indicated that such a name would be restricted to close family members of the Keeper of the Sacred Arrows, the tribal talisman. In the discussion accompanying Plate 27, Ledger Page 92, it will be developed that a close relationship existed between Arrow, and George Bent, the son of William, who founded Bent's Fort. George Bent was a grandson of the Arrow Keeper, so finding him associated with a man named "Arrow" is precisely what we should expect.

The 1880 census conducted at Cheyenne-Arapaho Agency (Oklahoma Historical Society, Microfilm CAA-4) is a wonderful source of information. Unfortunately, the sheets for many Cheyennes (particularly those of chiefly families) are missing, probably having been culled by historical researchers early in the 20th century. "Arrow" is among those names which are missing.

It is possible that he may have been in the north for a few years, although his name does not appear on the 1880 census of Northern Cheyennes either. After the Southern Cheyennes were defeated in 1875, some groups of Southerners fled north to join their Montana kinsmen, and participated in the great battles of 1876---the Rosebud fight, Battle of the Little Bighorn, and Battle to Save Morning Star's Village.

The "Last Bull" Ledger, a Northern Cheyenne Kit Fox Society record (American Museum of Natural History, Cat. No. 50.1/6618), page 55, depicts a man with the same "Arrow" name glyph standing alone against thirteen enemy marksmen, who have stolen a herd of the Cheyennes' horses (see Cowdrey, 1999: Introduction, Fig. a). This may represent the attack on Morning Star's village, Nov. 26, 1876. "When the soldiers charged, the Cheyennes at the lower end of the camp were nearly all on foot" (Grinnell, 1915: 375).

When the Cheyennes in the North surrendered in the spring of 1877, some individuals joined the free Miniconjou camp of Lame Deer, and others chose to remain in small hunting bands, unprotected but free (Marquis, 1931: 299, 316). Arrow may have been among these.

He had rejoined the Southern Cheyennes by 1884, for he is listed on the census made in July of that year, in "Band 57," where his name is glossed into English as "Flint". The Cheyenne word is Moxoz (Moh-ots), which can mean either the type of stone, or that which was most commonly made from it : a flint-tipped arrow (Petter, 1915: 60, 399). He was the "head of household" for seven unidentified others: his wife, another man, and five children. The other heads of household in the camp were Little Hand, Turtle, White Bear, Young Bull Bear, Bird in a Tree, One Eye and Red Lodge. All were likely relatives either of Arrow or his wife.

A year later (still called "Flint"), Arrow had moved to a different band. The 1884 group were probably Arrow's NISSON, his brothers and male cousins. By 1885 they had joined his wife's NISSON (sisters and female cousins), which was the more common Cheyenne residence pattern (Moore, 1987: 267-73). The household consisted of two men and their wives; the children were gone. It is unlikely that five children in one family died in a single year. More probably, the children had been young relatives from Arrow's NISSON, who had remained with their parents when Arrow joined his wife's family. The second man in the lodge was almost certainly a brother or cousin of Arrow, and the two had married sisters or cousins, a common Cheyenne practice.

The other men in Arrow's band of 1885 were Antelope, Red Bird, Flying Coyote, Morning Walker, Four Bulls, Apple, Lone Wolf, Short Teeth, Little Hand, and Young Bull Bear. It will be noted that the last two names had moved in company with Arrow. This most likely indicates that they were close relatives---brothers or cousins, all of whom had married sisters or cousins of the other band. It is likely that Little Hand and Young Bull Bear are two of the principals who appear in Arrow's drawings. Especially, Young Bull Bear may be the NISSON comrade who is shown in
Plates 90, 100, 112, 134, 136, 160 & 163. In the latter Plate, both men are shown as officers of the Crooked Lance, or Elk Warrior Society. A ceremonial shield of the Elk Society was collected from Young Bull Bear, ca. 1885 (National Museum of the American Indian, Wash., D.C., Cat. No. 23/2700).

After 1885, the name of Arrow, or "Flint" vanishes from the census records. He may have died then, or he may simply have changed names. At present, he cannot be tracked further. Since we do not know Arrow's whereabouts in 1882, we cannot be certain that it was he who sold his book of drawings. If he went to the North, the book could have been left with a relative or a friend, who might have sold it without Arrow's knowledge.

The evidence of the drawings, which is introduced in discussions of the Plates, is that they principally record events that occurred in 1874-75, during the Southern Cheyennes' last, desperate battles to save their homeland and their buffalo---their sustenance and the foundation of their religion. It is the story of a brave man who, in the crowded days of a beleaguered time, still found ways to joke with his friends, and to seek a little love in his life, while fulfilling his duties as a provider and protector.

It is also the record of an artist training himself, page by page, growing in skill and insight and technique, as he survives yet another day as one of those "chosen to be killed": Moxoz---Arrow, a Lance Bearer of the Elk Society.