David Thompson: Vol V ~ Sukamappee's Story, 1730
Explorer and mapmaker, David Thompson, has contributed to our heritage through his explorations and his map-making, but also through his extensive eye-witness journal. Here is a fascinating first-hand account recorded in Thompson’s journal of the final great Snake-Blackfoot war on the plains, the introduction of fire-arms, and the first sighting of a horse by the Blackfoot. The estimated date is approximately 1730.
The story-teller, Sukamappee, was 80 years old but was still over six feet tall, broad shouldered and strong-limbed. His high forehead and prominent nose were regal under thick gray hair. His face, slightly marked by small pox, carried a mild and sometimes playful expression. While his step was firm and he was at ease on horseback, he left the hunting to his sons. The following is his account of former times. Original spellings and punctuation have been retained.
The Peeagans* were always the frontier Tribe, and upon whom the Snake Indians made their attacks…and the Peeagans had to send messengers among us to procure help. Two of them came to the camp of my father, and I was then about his age (pointing to a Lad of about sixteen years)….My father brought about twenty warriors with him. There were a few guns amongst us, but very little ammunition, and they were left to hunt for the families;…I had a Bow and Arrows and a knife, of which I was very proud. We came to the Peeagans and their allies….We were feasted, a great War Tent was made; and a few days passed in speeches, feasting and dances. A war chief was elected by the chiefs, and we got ready to march. Our spies had been out and had seen a large camp of the Snake Indians on the Plains of the Eagle Hill, and we had to cross the river in canoes, and on rafts, which we carefully secured for our retreat. When we … numbered our men, we were about 350 warriors. They had their scouts out, and came to meet us. Both parties made a great show of their numbers, and I thought that they were more numerous than ourselves.
After some singing and dancing, they sat down on the ground, and placed their large shields before them, which covered them: We did the same, but our shields were not so many, and some of our shields had to shelter two men. Theirs were all placed touching each other; their Bows were not so long as ours, but of better wood, and the back covered with the sinews of the Bisons which made them very elastic, and their arrows went a long way and whizzed about us as balls do from guns. They were all headed with a sharp, smooth, black stone (flint) which broke when it struck anything. Our iron headed arrows did not go through their shields, but stuck in them; On both sides several were wounded, but none lay on the ground; and night put an end to the battle without a scalp being taken on either side, and in those days such was the result, unless one party was more numerous than the other.
I grew to be a man, became a skilful and fortunate hunter, and my relations procured me a Wife. She was young and handsome and we were fond of each other. We had passed a winter together, when Messengers came from our allies to claim assistance. By this time the affairs of both parties had much changed; we had more guns and iron headed arrows than before; but our enemies the Snake Indians and their allies had Misstutim (Big Dogs, that is Horses) on which they rode, swift as the Deer, on which they dashed at the Peeagans, and with their stone Pukamoggan knocked them on the head, and they had thus lost several of their best men. This news we did not well comprehend and it alarmed us, for we had no idea of horses and could not make out what they were. When we came to our allies, the great War Tent [was made] with speeches, feasting and dances as before; and when the War Chief had viewed us all it was found between us and the Stone Indians we had ten guns and each of us about thirty balls, and powder for the war, and we were considered the strength of the battle. After a few days march our scouts brought us word that the enemy was near in a large war party, but had no Horses with them, for at that time they had very few of them. When we came to meet each other, as usual, each displayed their numbers, weapons and shields, in all which they were superior to us, except our guns which were not shown, but kept in their leathern cases, and if we had shown them, they would have taken them for long clubs…We prepared for the battle the best we could. Those of us who had guns stood in the front line, and each of us had two balls in his mouth, and a load of powder in his left hand to reload.
We noticed they had a great many short stone clubs for close combat, which is a dangerous weapon, and had they had a bold attack on us, we must have been defeated as they were more numerous and better armed than we were, for we could have fired our guns no more than twice…they formed their long usual line by placing their shields on the ground to touch each other…We sat down opposite to them and most of us waited for the night to make a hasty retreat. The War Chief was close to us, anxious to see the effect of our guns...we watched our opportunity when they drew their bows to shoot at us, their bodies were then exposed and each of us, as opportunity offered, fired with deadly aim, and either killed, or severely wounded, every one we aimed at.
The Snake Indians finding so many killed and wounded kept themselves behind their shields;…our shots caused consternation and dismay along their whole line. The battle had begun about Noon, and the sun was not yet half down, when we perceived [they]… had crawled away from their shields, and were taking to flight.
….After all was over...we were anxious to see a horse of which we had heard so much. At last, as the leaves were falling we heard that one was killed...but the Snake Indian that rode him, got away; numbers of us went to see him, and we all admired him, he put us in mind of a Stag that had lost his horns; and we did not know what name to give him. But as he was a slave to Man, like the dog which carried our things; he was named the Big Dog.
The terror of that battle and of our guns has prevented any more general battles, and our wars have since been carried by ambuscade and surprise, of small camps, in which we have greatly the advantage…1
David Thompson spent the winter with Sukamappee when he heard this account of the era before horses on the plains. Primary sources are records of events by someone who experienced or witnessed the event, without any interpretation or commentary. Secondary sources are a step removed from the event, and offer an explanation or restatement of primary sources. Historians place high value on research using primary sources. For more eye-witness stories, see With the Indians in the Rockies, a story by James Willard Schultz (1859-1947) who, in 1877, at the age of 18, traveled from New York to Montana Territory where lived for many years with the Blackfoot Indians as an accepted member of their nation. Also, see The Complete How-To Book of Indiancraft: 68 Projects for Authentic Indian Articles from Tepee to Tom-tom by Ben Hunt.
Peigan (Pikuni) form the largest of the 3 First Nations of the Blackfoot. The spelling of the tribe's name in Canada is Peigan; in the US it is Piegan. The original English spelling Peeagan is retained in the text.
1 Thompson, David. David Thompson's Narrative of his explorations in Western America, 1784-1812. 1916. Ed. Joseph Burr Tyrrell and Richard Glover. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1962. 240-245. 13 June 2007 .
© 2007 Donna Ward