<< 3: Little Crow || 5: Gall >>
There was once a Sioux brave who declared that he would die young,
yet not by his own hand. Tamahay was of heroic proportions, herculean in strength, a
superb runner; in fact, he had all the physical qualities of an athlete or a typical
Indian. In his scanty dress, he was beautiful as an antique statue in living bronze. When
a mere youth, seventeen years of age, he met with an accident which determined his career.
It was the loss of an eye, a fatal injury to the sensitive and high-spirited Indian. He
announced his purpose in these words:
The 'Great Mystery' has decreed that I must be disgraced. There will be no pleasure for
me now, and I shall be ridiculed even by my enemies. It will be well for me to enter soon
into Paradise, for I shall be happy in spending my youth there. But I will sell my life
dearly. Hereafter my name shall be spoken in the traditions of our race.
With this speech Tamahay began his career.
He now sought glory and defied danger with even more than the
ordinary Indian recklessness. He accepted a personal friend, which was a custom among the
Sioux, where each man chose a companion for life and death. The tie was stronger than one
of blood relationship, a friendship sealed by solemn vow and covenant. Tamahay's intimate
was fortunately almost his equal in physical powers, and the pair became the terror of
neighboring tribes, with whom the Dakotas were continually at war. They made frequent
raids upon their enemies and were usually successful, although not without thrilling
experiences and almost miraculous escapes.
Upon one of these occasions the two friends went north into the
country of the Ojibways. After many days' journey, they discovered a small village of the
foe. The wicked Tamahay proposed to his associate that they should arrange their toilets
after the fashion of the Ojibways, and go among them; "and perhaps," he added,
"we will indulge in a little flirtation with their pretty maids, and when we have had
enough of the fun we can take the scalp of a brave or two and retreat!" His friend
construed his daring proposition to be a test of courage, which it would not become him,
as a brave, to decline; therefore he assented with a show of cheerfulness.
The handsome strangers were well received by the Ojibway girls, but
their perilous amusement was brought to an untimely close. A young maiden prematurely
discovered their true characters, and her cry of alarm brought instantly to her side a
jealous youth, who had been watching them from his place of concealment. With him Tamahay
had a single-handed contest, and before a general alarm was given he had dispatched the
foe and fled with his scalp.
The unfortunate brave had been a favorite and a leader among the
tribe; therefore the maddened Ojibways were soon in hot pursuit. The Sioux braves were
fine runners, yet they were finally driven out upon the peninsula of a lake. As they
became separated in their retreat, Tamahay shouted, "I'll meet you at the mouth of
the St. Croix River, or in the spirit land!" Both managed to swim the lake, and so
made good their escape.
The exploits of this man were not all of a warlike nature. He was a
great traveler and an expert scout, and he had some wonderful experiences with wild
animals. He was once sent, with his intimate friend, on a scout for game. They were on
They located a herd of buffaloes, and on their return to the camp
espied a lonely buffalo. Tamahay suggested that they should chase it in order to take some
fresh meat, as the law of the tribe allowed in the case of a single animal. His pony
stumbled and threw him, after they had wounded the bison, and the latter attacked the
dismounted man viciously. But he, as usual, was on the alert. He "took the bull by
the horns", as the saying is, and cleverly straddled him on the neck. The buffalo had
no means of harming his enemy, but pawed the earth and struggled until his strength was
exhausted, when the Indian used his knife on the animal's throat. On account of this feat
he received the name "Held-the-Bull-by-the-Horns."
The origin of his name "Tamahay" is related as follows.
When he was a young man he accompanied the chief Wabashaw to Mackinaw, Michigan, together
with some other warriors. He was out with his friend one day, viewing the wonderful sights
in the "white man's country", when they came upon a sow with her numerous pink
little progeny. He was greatly amused and picked up one of the young pigs, but as soon as
it squealed the mother ran furiously after them. He kept the pig and fled with it, still
laughing; but his friend was soon compelled to run up the conveniently inclined trunk of a
fallen tree, while our hero reached the shore of a lake nearby, and plunged into the
water. He swam and dived as long as he could, but the beast continued to threaten him with
her sharp teeth, till, almost exhausted, he swam again to shore, where his friend came up
and dispatched the vicious animal with a club. On account of this watery adventure he was
at once called Tamahay, meaning Pike. He earned many other names, but preferred this one,
because it was the name borne by a great friend of his, Lieutenant Pike, the first officer
of the United States Army who came to Minnesota for the purpose of exploring the sources
of the Mississippi River and of making peace with the natives. Tamahay assisted this
officer in obtaining land from the Sioux upon which to build Fort Sneering. He appears in
history under the name of "Tahamie" or the "One-Eyed Sioux."
Always ready to brave danger and unpopularity, Tamahay was the only
Sioux who sided with the United States in her struggle with Great Britain in 1819. For
having espoused the cause of the Americans, he was ill-treated by the British officers and
free traders, who for a long time controlled the northwest, even after peace had been
effected between the two nations. At one time He was confined in a fort called McKay,
where now stands the town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He had just returned from St.
Louis, and was suspected of exciting his people to rebel against British subjects. His
life was even threatened, but to this Tamahay merely replied that he was ready to die. A
few months later, this fort was restored to the United States, and upon leaving it the
British set the buildings on fire, though the United States flag floated above them. Some
Indians who were present shouted to Tamahay, "Your friends', the Americans', fort is
on fire!" He responded with a war whoop, rushed into the blazing fort, and brought
out the flag. For this brave act he was rewarded with a present of a flag and medal. He
was never tired of displaying this medal and his recommendation papers, and even preserved
to the end of his life an old colonial stovepipe hat, which he wore upon state occasions.
The Sioux long referred to the president of the United States as
The following story is told of him in his later days. He attempted
one day to cross the first bridge over the Mississippi River, but was not recognized by
the sentinel, who would not allow him to pass until he paid the toll. Tamahay, who was a
privileged character, explained as best he could, with gestures and broken English, that
he was always permitted to pass free; but as the sentinel still refused, and even
threatened him with his bayonet, the old Indian silently seized the musket, threw it down
into the waters of the Mississippi and went home. Later in the day a company of soldiers
appeared in the Indian village, and escorted our hero to a sort of court-martial at the
fort. When he was questioned by the Colonel, he simply replied: "If you were
threatened by any one with a weapon, you would, in self-defense, either disable the man or
get rid of the weapon. I did the latter, thinking that you would need the man more than
Finally the officer said to them, "I see you are both partly
wrong. Some one must be responsible for the loss of the gun; therefore, you two will
wrestle, and the man who is downed must dive for the weapon to the bottom of the
Scarcely was this speech ended when Tamahay was upon the soldier,
who was surprised both by the order and by the unexpected readiness of the wily old
Indian, so that he was not prepared, and the Sioux had the vantage hold. In a moment the
bluecoat was down, amid shouts and peals of laughter from his comrades. Having thrown his
man, the other turned and went home without a word.
Sad to say, he acquired a great appetite for
"minne-wakan", or "mysterious water", as the Sioux call it, which
proved a source of trouble to him in his old age. It is told of him that he was treated
one winter's day to a drink of whisky in a trader's store. He afterwards went home; but
even the severe blizzard which soon arose did not prevent him from returning in the night
to the friendly trader. He awoke that worthy from sleep about twelve o'clock by singing
his death dirge upon the roof of the log cabin. In another moment he had jumped down the
mud chimney, and into the blazing embers of a fire. The trader had to pour out to him some
whisky in a tin pail, after which he begged the old man to "be good and go
home." On the eve of the so-called "Minnesota Massacre" by the Sioux in
1862, Tamahay, although he was then very old and had almost lost the use of his remaining
eye, made a famous speech at the meeting of the conspirators. These are some of his words,
as reported to me by persons who were present.
What! What! is this Little Crow? Is that Little Six? You, too, White Dog, are you here?
I cannot see well now, but I can see with my mind's eye the stream of blood you are about
to pour upon the bosom of this mother of ours" (meaning the earth). "I stand
before you on three legs, but the third leg has brought me wisdom" [referring to the
staff with which he supported himself]. "I have traveled much, I have visited among
the people whom you think to defy. This means the total surrender of our beautiful land,
the land of a thousand lakes and streams. Methinks you are about to commit an act like
that of the porcupine, who climbs a tree, balances himself upon a springy bough, and then
gnaws off the very bough upon which he is sitting; hence, when it gives way, he falls upon
the sharp rocks below. Behold the great Pontiac, whose grave I saw near St. Louis; he was
murdered while an exile from his country! Think of the brave Black Hawk! Methinks his
spirit is still wailing through Wisconsin and Illinois for his lost people! I do not say
you have no cause to complain, but to resist is self-destruction. I am done.
It is supposed that this speech was his last, and it was made,
though vainly, in defense of the Americans whom he had loved. He died at Fort Pierre,
South Dakota, in 1864. His people say that he died a natural death, of old age. And yet
his exploits are not forgotten. Thus lived and departed a most active and fearless Sioux,
Tamahay, who desired to die young!
<< 3: Little Crow || 5: Gall >>