Harlan Hague

Antonio Armijo returned to New Mexico on April 25, 1830, completing a round trip journey to California during which he traded New Mexican products for mules and horses. The governor of New Mexico proudly reported to the central government that the long-sought direct tie between the two provinces had been found and the economic feasibility of the route proved. Furthermore, he added, the journey was made without compass or map and with “no other guide than the enterprising. . . natives of this country.”

There are two facets of the same story in this last comment: (1) Armijo had Indian guides, and (2) The written record minimized the Indian role in the success of the enterprise.

The fiction of the European and American explorer entering an uninhabited West has long been recognized. Yet the misconception continues to be perpetuated even by the most reputable historians. Explorers and mountain men are sent regularly into the trackless wastes by their chroniclers who then record in vivid detail their ordeals of survival in Indian country. Histories of exploration are filled with Indians, most of whom appear as hindrances. The other side of that story, the contribution of Indians to exploration, is less known. There is strong evidence, especially in the explorers' field journals, that this contribution was significant. Most explorers did not hesitate to credit Indians with valuable assistance, but historians have not been so obliging.

This tendency to exclude Indians from their share of plaudits can be traced largely to the Myth of the Empty Land. In the popular mind, the western explorer was the latest in a long line of brave men who launched out into the unknown, self-reliant giants who shrank from no challenge and overcame all obstacles. He was a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. The American wilderness which he rose to conquer was thought to be as empty as the watery wastes of his forebears. Long after the journals of explorers proved the contrary, the myth persisted.

The West was anything but empty. There were empty spaces because Indians, like other rational people, tended to concentrate in areas that were the most desirable. Explorers, since their objectives were economic and imperialistic, inevitably were drawn to these same areas. They were not entering the wilderness to test their capacity for self-sufficient survival.

Interaction with Indians was essential to the progress of most explorations. Expeditions rarely carried enough provisions to last the duration of a journey. All expected to supplement rations by hunting, gathering, and sometimes fishing. Few expeditions were able to "live off the country.” There were plush times, to be sure, especially on the buffalo plains, but when expeditions moved on or game vanished, explorers starved and came to relish the taste of dog and mule. Ultimately, all welcomed, and most counted on, Indian stores to avoid starving.

The earliest western explorers relied heavily on Indian provisions. While Francisco Vasquez de Coronado commandeered supplies, his successors, Fray Eusebio Kino, Fray Francisco GarcÚs, Juan Bautista de Anza and others, were fed by willing hosts who also traded with the Spaniards. Lewis and Clark frequently purchased food from Indians, at some times relying more on Indians than on hunting, even in country where there was ample game. Pike in 1805 and Long in 1823, exploring the headwaters of the Mississippi River, feasted regularly at Indian villages. Wilson Price Hunt, commanding an Astor expedition, purchased buffalo meat from Snake Indians. David Thompson's North West Company expedition was saved from starvation by Kootanai Indians.

Even wilderness-wise mountain men took advantage of Indian commissaries. Peter Skene Ogden, no lover of Indians, nevertheless depended on them for provisions. En route to California in 1826, Jedediah Smith and his companions almost perished in southwestern deserts before stumbling into the Mojave villages on the Colorado River. Three years later, Mojaves fed another party of starving Americans, trappers under Ewing Young from New Mexico. James Ohio Pattie's famished little band, struggling toward the Pacific through the deserts of Baja California, was given water, fish, vegetables and roots by sympathetic Indians.

John C. Fremont, in the course of extensive explorations of the West, sampled a great variety of Indian foods, from dried buffalo and fresh salmon to pine nuts and rabbit. Even the absence of Indian assistance illustrates the explorers' dependence on it. When Fremont was unable to find Indians from whom he could buy provisions, he sent part of his force to Fort Hall in order to reduce the number of men subsisting on the expedition's scanty stores.

The soldiers of General Stephen Watts Kearny's Army of the West and the early travelers on overland trails were explorers of another Sort. Marching toward California in the early months of the Mexican War, the Army of the West completely replenished stores at the Pima and Maricopa villages on the Gila River. These same Indians had provisioned Spanish and Mexican intruders long before this. Later California travelers on the Gila route came to count on having a mid-journey supply point. Early emigrants on the Oregon-California Trail also benefited from Indian provisions. The Bartleson-Bidwell party owed their lives to foods received from Indians: seeds, roasted fish, pine nuts, venison, berries and acorns. Their experience was by no means unusual in the history of the overland migration.

Another important trade item besides food was often sought by explorers. It was a rare expedition that did not need fresh mounts and pack animals during the course of its journey, and Indians were a ready source of supply. The importance of Snake horses to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition is well known. During his 1805 -1807 expedition in the Southwest, Pike purchased some horses from Indians and rented others. Fremont often sought Indian horses, even halting his march while messengers scoured the countryside for Indians who might be persuaded to sell.

Fur traders and trappers, the latter in the wilderness for months and sometimes years, relied on Indians for animals. En route to Oregon in 1811, Wilson Price Hunt bought and traded horses from Cheyennes and Crows. William Henry Ashley bought horses in 1824 from Pawnees at the forks of the Platte River. On an 1832 summer expedition, Nathaniel Wyeth traded for eighteen horses from the Nez Perces, giving worn out horses and trade goods in payment. Jedediah Smith purchased Indian mounts during both his California journeys. Many California-bound emigrants finished their journeys with Indian animals.

The experience of Canadian explorers was similar. Trekking the American West for the North West Company in 1805, Francois Antoine Larocque bought horses from a number of tribes. Peter Skene Ogden in the mid-1820s regularly traded for Indian mounts. Alexander Henry, a North West Company man, bought horses from Plains Indians and, in the Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods region, found Indian craftsmen selling canoes and presumably purchased some.

In the Southwest, Apaches supplied horses and mules to American forces in the war against Mexico. Riding eastward with dispatches for Washington, Kit Carson traded for fresh mules. Both Kearny and Philip St. George Cooke, leading units of the Army of the West, bought mules. (No matter that the animals usually were stolen from Mexicans.) A few years later, some Pennsylvania argonauts, traveling the southern route, were glad to find the Apaches still friendly and willing to trade fresh for worn out stock. During the 1850s, government survey teams, sent into the West to search for the most likely routes for transcontinental railroads, frequently resorted to Indian traders for riding and packing animals .

One fact emerges clearly from this abundant evidence of trading with Indians for food and horses and mules. Friendly contact with Indians was frequent, and that contact most often was beneficial to explorers. Indeed, many if not most expeditions were seldom out of sight of Indians, or at least evidence of their presence. Explorers benefited from both direct and indirect contact. From Indians they obtained directions and information about the country, and even when they found no Indians to ask, travelers profited nevertheless by following Indian trails.

Yet, an expedition leader who followed an Indian path that seemed to be going in the right direction put his party in jeopardy. He was counting too much on hope and chance. Setting a course based on information from passing Indians could prove as hazardous. Accuracy sometimes was lost in translation. Ultimately, explorers relied on Indian trails and informants only if they could not find Indian guides. Every expedition leader, wherever he might be, knew that he was moving through known country, and he usually sought out the inhabitants of the country to lead his party through it.

Dependence on Indian guides is evident from the earliest European penetration into present-day United States. Cabeza de Vaca almost surely had Indian pilots throughout his wanderings. When the viceroy of New Spain later sent Fray Marcos de Niza to verify Cabeza de Vaca's wonderful tales, the padre had guides, not only Estevanico but also Indian guides and interpreters. Coronado and his lieutenants, dispatched northward to conquer “Marcos’ new Tenochtitlans,” rarely moved without Indian pilots. 

GarcÚs and Anza owed much to their Indian guides. One of the greatest explorers of the American West, GarcÚs' success was based in part on his uncanny ability to find local Indians to lead him. He followed in the footsteps of his pilots throughout treks in California and Arizona. GarcÚs is himself famous as the guide of Anza expeditions, but when he lost his way in California's Colorado Desert, it was a runaway "mission Indian" who led the expedition to a place where local Indians then showed the Spaniards wells and described the country ahead.

On the other hand, enterprises might fail for lack of Indian guides. Father Jacobo Sedelmayr in 1744 gave up his ambition to open a mission in the Hopi villages because he could find no guides to lead him there. In California's Central Valley, GarcÚs' plan to reach Monterey collapsed when "they refused me a guide." Later, in Oraibi, GarcÚs was jubilant because he was on the brink of completing a trip from California to New Mexico, thus opening a direct link between the two regions. But the padre had to turn back because his Yavapai guides would neither accompany him to Zuni nor wait for him among the hostile Hopis.

Farther north, the French explorer, the Chevalier de La Verendrye, was led at all times by Indians, probably Mandans, Crows, Cheyennes and Assiniboines. So convinced was he of the necessity of Indian pilots that he had his men on one occasion build smoking fires to attract Indians to them, “being thoroughly resolved to trust ourselves to the first tribes that might appear.” Though Verendrye is famous as the first European to reach the heart of the Rockies, at no time did he pioneer a trail. He was shown the country by its inhabitants much as he might have shown to visiting Indian chieftains the sights of Quebec.

Lewis and Clark leaned less heavily on their guides, but their debt to Indian pilots was still large. Following the expedition's eastward crossing of the Rockies, Lewis concluded that “without the assistance of our guides I doubt much whether we who had once passed them [the mountains] could find our way . . . . These fellows are most admireable [sic] pilots.” Though the extent of her role as a guide is a point of controversy, Sacagawea's contribution to Lewis and Clark was significant. She gave directions and advice, she acted as interpreter and messenger, and she gathered wild foods and taught expedition members how to forage.

Canadian explorers usually were successful in securing Indian assistance. Larocque, David Thompson and Alexander Henry were guided by Indians, though Larocque on one stretch, without a guide, became lost among rocky ravines and lamented his lack of a pilot. Ogden freely admitted his reliance on Indian guides. Of a particular pilot who was proving difficult, Ogden groaned: “Few can form any idea of the anxiety an Indian guide gives. The fellow knows we are dependent on him.” In northern California, when his guide was killed by a bear, Ogden became so desperate for another that his spirits lifted when some of his horses were stolen. Bring in the culprits, he told his men: "Shd. the thieves be Snakes we may find a guide.”

American fur trappers and traders, popularly known for their self-sufficiency, saw nothing incongruous about employing Indian guides. After floundering about in the Bighorn Range, unable to discover a way through, Wilson Price Hunt was led by Indians over a beaten trail through Teton Pass. Hunt soon decided that he could not do without a guide. Robert Stuart, famed as the discoverer of South Pass, was directed to it by a Shoshone informant.

Jedediah Smith, a leader in western exploration, relied heavily on Indian guides. Crows pointed him to South Pass. Runaway “mission Indians” led him across the Mojave Desert. On his second California expedition, Smith had guides in northern California and Oregon, including the friendly Tillamooks who led him to Fort Vancouver after his party was battered by hostile Indians. On the other hand, when he crossed the Sierra Nevada and the deserts eastward in 1827, he took no guides and suffered a nightmare journey of starvation, broiling sun and thirst. Why he was not able to enlist guides is a mystery, for he did meet Indians from time to time. He was more fortunate near the end of his trek. In the vicinity of Salt Lake, he was able to hire a Snake to lead him to the rendezvous.

James Ohio Pattie's experience in the deserts of northern Baja California might have duplicated Smith's Great Basin ordeal had not Pattie's band chanced on Indians in the midst of the desert who agreed to lead the mountain men to the Mexican coastal towns. So sure was he that the guides were their only hope for survival, Pattie slept at night on the edge of the guides' blankets so they could not move without awakening him. If they had deserted, he wrote later, “we should all undoubtedly have perished.”

Probably no other American explorer covered as much ground as John C. Fremont. His experiences illustrate clearly the worth of Indian guides. He regularly employed local pilots in country that his mountain men guides did not know. When he did not have knowledgeable guides he lost his way. Without local guides, he rejoiced when he found Indian trails to follow, as he did frequently on his trek from Oregon into the western Great Basin late in 1843.

Foolishly deciding on a winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada, Fremont tried to find guides among local Indians. They tried to dissuade him but, when he persisted, they reluctantly agreed to help him, Later, marching through snow in the Sierra, when a guide, wiser than his employer, wished to turn back, Fremont “placed him between two rifles.” Deeper in the mountains, determined that his guides not desert, Fremont forced them to sleep in the commander's lodge, with “Carson lying across the door, and having made them comprehend the use of our fire arms.”

Fremont was lucky that winter, luckier than a party of seven that he had sent earlier to Fort Hall. They were given good horses for the four-day journey and were led over a good road by Francois Lajeunesse, an experienced mountaineer who had trapped the country for years. They lost their way and wandered about, some reaching the fort a week later. Wrote Fremont:

. . . others were brought in by Indians who had picked them up on the Snake river, about sixty miles below the fort, travelling along the emigrant road in full march for the Lower Columbia. The leader of this adventurous party was Francois.

Even experienced mountaineers needed a little help occasionally.

So did the Army and emigrants. Both Kearny and Cooke had Apache guides during part of their transit of the Southwest in 1846. Cooke did not have an Indian pilot during an extremely difficult crossing of the continental divide. He narrowly missed the comparatively easy and locally well-known Guadalupe Pass. Before the main trails became rutted highways, emigrants on the southern and northern routes often employed Indian guides.

Pacific Railroad Survey teams routinely searched out local inhabitants to lead them over the shortest routes and gentlest grades. A typical comment was that of a chronicler of the 38th- and 39th-parallel survey when he declared that his Paiute pilot was “one of the best guides I have ever seen . . . as good a judge of natural wagon roads as any one . . . and was of course familiar with his own hunting grounds.”

Indians not only guided, directed and fed explorers. They also served the intruders as interpreters, hunters, spies, mercenaries and laborers. Andrew Henry's expedition included no fewer than forty-five canoes manned by Indians. Indians carried messages and told mountain men likely spots to set their beaver traps. Friendly bands warned explorers about hostile Indians. They helped trappers chase horse thieves. Both Anza and Kearny left animals and bales of goods for safekeeping with Yumas. Indians found things--a telescope, a flag, a twist of tobacco--lost on the trail or left in camp, and returned them to their owners. They helped individuals and expeditions cross mountain streams and the swollen Colorado, on tule boats and in canoes and swimming with goods on their heads. The list is as long and as varied as the story of western exploration.

Histories of exploration customarily treat Indians as passive or hostile elements that had to be dealt with by expedition leaders. Generally speaking, the opposite was true. Indians helped more than obstructed exploration. Indeed, if Indians had chosen to oppose exploration, they could have destroyed most, perhaps all, pre-Civil War expeditions, and with little difficulty. For the most part, however, Indians did not choose to oppose exploration. They decided instead to assist explorers. This support often was critical in the success of expeditions. Yet, in the histories of exploration, Indians rarely receive more than casual mention.

The writers and readers of exploration history must share the blame for excluding the Indian contribution. We cling to the Myth of the Empty Land for fear that doing otherwise will diminish somewhat the romance of the westward movement. We cherish the suspense and excitement of watching a hero enter the virgin, uninhabited, unknown West. We want him to experience the romance of danger, the struggle to survive and the wresting of wilderness from the elements and wild beasts--and the savage Indians.

And there’s the rub. We cannot have both. Either we must permit the West to be inhabited before the arrival of whites, or we should not. It is not sufficient to add, after the fact, that of course the Indians were there, “I was just referring to the absence of any previous entry by Europeans or Americans.” Indians played too large a role in the exploration, indeed in the “opening” of the West, for this postscript to suffice. If the myth is to be abandoned, it must be done clearly and convincingly, not with a the-jury-will-disregard-the-previous testimony comment following a restatement of a variation of the myth.

The dilemma is delightfully illustrated in the published journal of Alexander Mackenzie. Though the book's title, First Man West, suggests that the explorer entered an uninhabited land, the journal itself reveals that Mackenzie spent a great portion of his time dealing with friendly Indians in whose hands the fate of the expedition rested. A dialogue between the explorer and an Indian is particularly revealing. Mackenzie has asked directions and is answered with a question. Why do you ask about my country , the
Indian says, “do not you white man know every thing in the world?” Mackenzie was taken aback, but recovered and replied:

 . . . that we certainly were acquainted with the principal circumstances of every part of the world; that I knew where the sea is, and where I myself then was, but that I did not exactly understand what obstacles might interrupt me in getting to it; with which he and his relatives must be well acquainted. . . . Thus I fortunately preserved the impression in their minds, of the superiority of white people over themselves.

Have historians also had as much difficulty in acknowledging that explorers needed help from native inhabitants?

Recognizing the contribution of Indians to western exploration will not render explorers less courageous than we have always thought. It is clear, though, that those explorers who had the resourcefulness--and good sense--to seek out local Indians had a greater chance for success than those who did not.

Perhaps they were pathfinders, after all, as one hunts for and locates something. They found paths that already existed, and, more often than not, they were led along those paths by Indians who knew them.


   The author’s manuscript of this article contains fifty-three footnotes citing almost as many published accounts of the major explorers and travelers mentioned in the text. Most are readily identified in standard bibliographies relating to Western exploration and travel. Of particular note is the recent study, John D. Unruh, The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West 1840-1860 (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1979), which shows that interaction between Indians and emigrants was frequent, usually friendly and mutually beneficial.

 This article published in  “The Pacific Historian,” Fall 1982, 54-63. Write to the author.




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