VA History Tidbit – Native American Scouts – Earliest military service to the U.S. – Native American HeritagePosted: December 17, 2015
Throughout the Colonial period, Native Americans provided services as guides, scouts, and interpreters to European colonists. Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman originally from what today is known as the state of Idaho, was an early scout who she helped guide the Lewis & Clark “Corps of Discovery” expedition team to the Pacific Coast in 1805.
Native Americans lived off the land and were keenly observant and attuned to nature. They were experts at reading and interpreting nature’s many subtle signs. They could also communicate with many other native tribes despite language differences. Their versatile skills came to be of great use to the U.S. military, which contracted with or enlisted Native Americans as scouts beginning in the Colonial period.
Scouts furnished their own horses, guns, and ammunition, and received food rations for themselves, their families, and their horses as part of their pay. Most scouts were paid in goods, such as blankets or supplies, instead of cash. They did not receive government benefits unless authorized through treaties or individual acts of Congress. In 1842 several Cherokee warriors received federal pensions for their services during the War of 1812. It was not until 1858 that the heirs of Richard Farren, “a friendly Creek Indian” who also provided services during that war, were paid $600 for their loss. During the Civil War, Indian scouts served in segregated regiments on both sides along with Union and Confederate volunteer and Regular forces.
When the Army was reorganized in 1866, after the Civil War, Native American infantry and cavalry units were authorized. Being an Army Indian Scout was not an easy job. The men were separated from their homes, families, and own people for long periods, faced blatant racism on a daily basis, often tracked fellow Native Americans, and were exposed to alcohol and other military-related vices. Native American scouts and soldiers served in many of the Indian campaigns during settlement of the American West and several of them received Medals of Honor for their service.
Some Native Americans were recruited for the Regular Army under General George Crook’s “experiment” which began in 1891 near the Mexican border. Crook knew that Native Americans were excellent fighters, so he thought they would easily adapt to Army life, but he greatly under-estimated the value of family and tradition in Indian life, which did not assimilate into Crook’s plans. Despite the experiment being declared an overall failure in 1894 by the War Department, Native Americans soldiers were a success story at Fort Sill and other posts. Native Americans continued to seek military service and proved themselves as valuable warriors for the U.S.
The Army officially ended its Indian scout program in the fall of 1947 when the last four scouts were retired from Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Hunting Horse (Kiowa), Ely Parker (Seneca-Iroquois), Chief Two Bears (Choctaw), Harvey Fawcett (Arapahoe), I-See-O (Kiowa) and Jeff King (Navajo) were among hundreds of Indian Scouts who served with the U.S. military. Their deaths, one by one, closed an important chapter in the history of America and the Army.
These Native American warriors and their legacy of service to our nation must never be forgotten.