Read Scarlet Plume, Second Edition Online

Authors: Frederick Manfred

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Scarlet Plume, Second Edition (3 page)

BOOK: Scarlet Plume, Second Edition

I promise you that
Scarlet Plume
will reward your reading efforts and will provide much for you to think about, much to be disturbed about, and much to engage your emotions. You will never again encounter its like. And after you have finished it, there’s a lot more Manfred to read.


Arthur R. Huseboe

Scarlet Plume
is the fourth of the Buckskin Man Tales in order of writing and the closest of all five to the territory that Frederick Manfred calls home, the Siouxland of Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska. Its events spring out of the soil of his first adopted state—Minnesota—and spill over into his second—South Dakota. Just as the abducted Judith Raveling in
Scarlet Plume
moves with her Sioux captors from Minnesota into the plains of South Dakota, so over the years Manfred’s creative imagination has expanded out of the narrow confines of farm life on the northern prairies into the vast and varied landscape of the frontier West, the old Dakota Territory, the wide plains that the Sioux Indians roamed over freely before the coming of the white man.

Not until the writing of
Scarlet Plume
, the thirteenth of his novels, did Manfred realize that he had created a special series of fictional accounts of the Old West, tied together on a basis of accurate facts and each dealing with a different important era in the history of America. In the spring of 1962 he had been reading for the second time
Buckskin and Blanket Days
by Thomas Henry Tibbles, reminiscences about Plains Indian life in the 1850s and 1860s. From Tibbles he had already absorbed countless details in preparation for the writing of
Conquering Horse
(1959), his first Indian novel of pre-white days, but now Tibbles’s title provided a name that could tie together all four novels about the frontier West:
The Buckskin Man Tales
. Manfred decided that the tales should include
Lord Grizzly
(1954), about mountain man times in 1823;
Riders of Judgment
(1957), about the Johnson County range war of 1892;
Conquering Horse
(1959); and now
Scarlet Plume
, written but not yet published, about the Sioux Indian Uprising in Minnesota in 1862. With the later addition of
King of Spades
(1966), a tale of love and death in the Black Hills in 1876, Manfred would complete his vision of the historical process that during the nineteenth century had shaped the people of the Northern Plains.

It was the first of the Buckskin Man Tales,
Lord Grizzly
, that taught Manfred how to handle the historical research that so enriches
Scarlet Plume
and the other books in the group. Until late 1944 he had drawn primarily on his own wide-ranging experiences as the basis for his writing, but in that year he came upon the story of mountain man Hugh Glass and his terrible wrestle with a grizzly bear along the Grand River in South Dakota. In a copy of the WPA
Guide to South Dakota
he discovered a woodcut and the account of Glass’s terrible wounding, followed by his crawl across half of western South Dakota, and by his unusual revenge. The sheer magnitude of Glass’s ordeal appealed to Manfred, but, even more, he was drawn to learn more about frontier days on the Northern Plains because in writing his first novels, especially
The Golden Bowl
(1944) and
This Is the Year
(1947), he had come to the realization that his knowledge of his own farm people was incomplete: he did not fully understand the land on which they had settled and flourished. Who were the Indians and white men, Manfred wondered, who had lived and traveled here? Something was wrong, something was missing. His characters up to now had no background; they came from nowhere. Manfred realized that he knew nothing beyond his grandparents and nothing about the land on which their grandchildren were now living. Furthermore, while the term “Siouxland” that he had coined fit very well the white farmers of the region of the Sioux River, it also carried the intriguing suggestion of a larger area, the land where the Sioux had once roamed, from western Minnesota and Iowa across the Dakotas and into Wyoming. Manfred began to burn with a passion to know the answers to his questions.

The thought of a novel about such unfamiliar material as mountain men and Indians, however, was at first a discouraging one. He knew nothing of the mountain man and only a little more about Indians. Fortunately, his birthplace in northwestern Iowa had been a few rods off old Highway 75 and so he had some early familiarity with the Sioux, for he had seen their caravans traveling back and forth between Flandreau, South Dakota, and Nebraska. More significant was the fact that from 1936 to 1937, while playing basketball for a business school in Sioux Falls, he had developed a close friendship with a young Sioux named Jimmy Wells and he had also roomed with a man who had been brought up among the Indians. These experiences, however, were not nearly enough to go on if he were to capture the reality he wanted. He would have to do extensive reading, more than he had ever done before.

In the winter of 1944–45 Manfred started a Hugh Glass tab in his notebook and entered items from time to time from his wide reading. But not until 1952 did he bring a climax to his campaign to learn everything that he needed to know about mountain men and Indians. It included visits to the reservations, especially to Pine Ridge, where he had long talks with Andrew High Pine and where he went with the reservation leaders to get a tree for the sun dance. At Fort Berthold in North Dakota he talked many days with an old Ree, a Mandan, and a Sioux. Later on he traveled to the Grand River in South Dakota, where he recreated parts of Hugh Glass’s crawl south to the Cheyenne River. As further contributions to accuracy he gathered flowers, weeds, and insects as he followed Hugh Glass’s trail between Lemmon and Pierre and then had them identified at the University of Minnesota; and near his home in Bloomington, Minnesota, he dragged himself about the bluffs, his leg in a splint-like contraption, learning how Hugh might have managed with his broken leg tied to a tree branch.

Lord Grizzly
appeared, it impressed reviewers and readers everywhere as an accurate picture of the fur trade frontier. His good friend Fred Blessing, an archaeologist and an expert on Indian lore, encouraged Manfred to write a full-length Indian tale. Even Indian readers, who would seem to have every right to be dubious, recognized the verisimilitude of Manfred’s portrayal of the Arikaras and the Sioux. One of the most unusual acknowledgments of that fact came one day, a couple of years after
Lord Grizzly
had appeared, when Manfred was working in his cabin overlooking the Minnesota River. Without warning a single drumbeat shook the building and he jumped from his chair. Out in his yard was a group of Indians, led by Otto Thunder, dressed in ceremonial regalia and gathered in the shade about a large drum. After several minutes of drumming and singing, Otto rose and turned to the cabin. “This thank-song was for Fred Manfred, our friend,” he said, and the group climbed quietly into their cars and left.

Lord Grizzly
Conquering Horse
and even deeper and wider reading about the Plains Indian. Manfred had struck up an acquaintance with William Lemons, who had lived at Standing Rock reservation for a time, and he introduced the novelist to a woman living in Minneapolis, Angela Fiske, an Indian in her late seventies. For Manfred it was a marvelous discovery, for Angela had been brought up in the old ways. Long visits with her about traditional Sioux beliefs and daily life rounded out Manfred’s book learning and gave him the confidence that in
Conquering Horse
Scarlet Plume
his vision of Indian life in Siouxland was a true one.

Not long after the completion of
Conquering Horse
Manfred moved to Luverne, Minnesota, a few miles north of his birthplace near Doon, Iowa, and began building himself a house in the rock of Blue Mound, a massive outcropping that dominates Siouxland. He had gathered so much Indian material already that he felt able to contemplate two more Indian novels, the first of them the story of the Sioux Indian War of 1862. But a head injury suffered in a fall at his new house interrupted work on
Scarlet Plume
in its early stages, and when he at last returned to it, the longer enterprise had left his mind.

The novel that consumed Manfred’s attention in the early 1960s was based on the largest Indian uprising in American history, and it concluded with the greatest mass execution, the hanging of thirty-eight Indian men for their part in the atrocities that had occurred across three hundred miles of the Minnesota frontier. The outbreak had begun on August 18 along the Minnesota River valley, and within two days nearly a thousand settlers had been killed or taken prisoner. Thousands more fled eastward in every sort of conveyance, on foot, on horseback, and even on the backs of oxen. The military was virtually helpless during the first few weeks, the experienced troops having been siphoned off for the Union armies in the South. Settlements like that at Skywater (Lake Shetek), where Judith Raveling lived with her missionary sister and brother-in-law, were especially vulnerable because they were far away from the large towns like New Ulm and from what few troops there were.

The Sioux Uprising came about after many years of mistreatment by Indian traders and by the government and followed an especially bad harvest and a bitter winter. But one event, a scornful remark by a leading trader at the Lower Agency, triggered the outbreak of violence. In June 1862, when the Indians had gathered at the Upper Agency (near present-day Granite Falls) for payment of the annuity that was due them by treaty, the agent refused to distribute any stores until the money arrived from Washington. After much fruitless pleading and driven to desperation by hunger, the Sioux bands traveled down river to the Lower Agency to arrange with the traders there to dole out provisions. When the leader of the traders replied scornfully that if the Indians were hungry they should eat grass, outraged members of the tribes began to plan for war. It broke out three days later and the head trader was among the first to be killed. When the body was found, the mouth was stuffed with grass. Manfred knew that story well and used it to depict the end of Charlie Silvers, the trader at Skywater who tells the Christianized Indian Pounce, “You and your whitewashed bunch can go eat grass.”

For a month bands of Indians ravaged the frontier. Then, on September 20, government troops under General Henry R. Sibley won their first considerable victory. Near the Upper Agency a force of two thousand men with cannon crushed a quarter that number of Indians. The negotiations that followed led to the surrender of some fifteen hundred warriors and the return of more than two hundred prisoners, nearly all of them women. Sibley’s report describes the terrorized state of these poor wretches, and in telling Judith’s story Manfred drew heavily on the account, as well as on General Sibley’s letters to his wife. Sibley speaks of the scanty clothing, the dumb stares, the wild weeping, and the desperate insistence with which the rescued girls and women pleaded to be taken to safety. Many had been chosen as wives by leading warriors, but most had been passed around like property, and the psychological effect on them had been devastating.

While there is no evidence that the atrocities were widespread or typical, Manfred was able to discover in the histories of Minnesota enough eyewitness accounts to provide him with the details he needed in
Scarlet Plume
: reports of the mother and infant chased down by braves who stabbed the baby while the mother struggled to protect it and who then crushed the skulls of both, of the discovery of the mutilated bodies of whole families, and of children wandering aimlessly through deserted settlements and driven so wild by fear that they had to be hunted like animals by their rescuers. There were also reports of dramatic escapes by captives, and their accounts and those of the returned prisoners were especially useful. He says: “I checked all the records and read all these captivity stories and went into the Civil War. . . . Then I ran across this letter from General Sibley to his wife about this woman. That caught my mind. From that point on I began to drop the historical-looking and went more in for the character-looking.”
Manfred excerpted several passages from the Sibley letters as a historical preface to
Scarlet Plume

Although he had read widely in preparing to recreate the suffering that some captives had undergone, many of the facts had of necessity been of his own contrivance: the rape-murder of Judith’s daughter Angela and of the pregnant Mrs. Christians, and the abuse and murder of Maggie Utterback and Theodosia Codman. To his surprise, however, after
Scarlet Plume
was essentially complete, and at a time when he thought the violence might be overdone, he came upon an account that outdid his wildest imaginings. At Tracy, near Lake Shetek, he witnessed an unusual celebration, the centennial of the return of the captives of the 1862 Uprising. There he heard from a newsman of the existence of the medical reports on the women who had been brought back. Manfred was able to read the account in full, a two-hundred-page typescript made by the physician attached to General Sibley’s staff who interviewed most of the returned prisoners. When he had finished reading the report, Manfred realized that what he had imagined in
Scarlet Plume
—while accurate in the main—was tame by comparison. What he did discover and did add to the draft of the novel was the fact that, in the case of this particular group of prisoners, the worst offenders were the supposedly Christianized Indians. They had cast off the weak restraints of their new faith and the half-forgotten rules of their old and committed the most brutal atrocities.

The two characters whom Manfred chose to place at the center of the action of his novel about the Sioux Uprising could well be thought of as a summation of the story of centuries of relations between white people and Indians in America: the Indian, the reluctant but fated victim of the white’s hunger for land; the white man coming to a slow and grudging realization that there is value to be found in a way of life that is now destroyed beyond possible recovery. Judith Raveling is Manfred’s most fully realized woman character, and the story is told from her point of view. She is intellectual by inclination and quick enough with languages to learn Dakota. She is a frontier bloomer girl, a fervent supporter of women’s rights, so strong-willed that she dares to speak defiantly to her Indian husband, Whitebone, against the murder of her brother-in-law, the Reverend Claude Codman, even after the three white women with her have been killed for disobedience. And she shows a sort of ultimate strength of will when she steadfastly defends Scarlet Plume’s innocence from the moment of his arrival to his execution, defying the military and the traumatized whites by continuing to wear her Indian clothing.

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