abraham lincoln meets chief lean bear-- 12/20/16

Today's selection -- from The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens. In 1863, the Cheyenne Chief Lean Bear met at the White House with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, normally adroit in his meetings with visiting dignitaries, was less than artful in this instance. Within two months, Lean Bear was dead at the hands of U.S. soldiers:

"Chief Lean Bear was a member of the Council of Forty-Four, the governing body of the Cheyenne people. Council chiefs were peace­makers, enjoined by tribal custom never to permit passion to displace reason and to always act on behalf of the tribe's best interests, which in 1863 most elder Cheyenne chiefs construed as friendly relations with the mushrooming white population in the Territory of Colorado that crowded their already diminished hunting lands. But official Washing­ton was troubled. Confederate agents were rumored to be circulating among the Plains Indians, trying to incite them to war. To counter the threat (which was in fact baseless) and smooth over differences with the tribes, the Indian Bureau had arranged for Lean Bear and ten other chiefs to visit the Great Father. The Indian agent Samuel G. Colley and their white interpreter accompanied them.

"On the morning of March 26, 1863, two weeks before the opening of their New York extravaganza, the Indians, their agent, and their interpreter had filed into the East Room of the White House through a murmuring throng of cabinet secretaries, foreign diplomats, and distinguished curiosity seekers. 'Maintaining that dignity or stolidity characteristic of the stoics of the woods,' a Washington journalist told his readers, 'they quietly seated themselves on the carpet in a semi­circle, and with an air of recognition to the destiny of greatness to be gazed at, seemed quite satisfied with the brilliancy of their own adorn­ings and colorings.'

Lean Bear and the Council of Fourty-Four pictured with their interpretor and Mrs. Lincoln (far right).

"After a fifteen-minute wait, President Lincoln strode into the room and asked the chiefs if they had anything to say. Lean Bear arose. As the crowd of dignitaries pressed closer, Lean Bear momentarily lost his composure. The chief stammered that he had much to say but was so nervous that he needed a chair. Two chairs were brought, and Lincoln sat down opposite the chief. Cradling his long-stem pipe, Lean Bear spoke, hesitantly at first, but with a growing eloquence. He told Lin­coln that his invitation had traveled a long way to reach them and the chiefs had traveled far to hear his counsel. He had no pockets in which to hide the Great Father's words but would treasure them in his heart and faithfully carry them back to his people.

"Lean Bear addressed Lincoln as an equal. The president, he said, lived in splendor with a finer lodge, yet he, Lean Bear, was like the president, a great chief at home. The Great Father must counsel his white children to abstain from acts of violence so that both Indians and whites might travel safely across the plains. Lean Bear deplored white man's war then raging in the East and prayed for its end. He closed with a reminder to Lincoln that as chiefs of their peoples he and the other Indian leaders must return home, and Lean Bear asked the president to expedite their departure.

Cheyenne Chief often identified as Lean Bear

photographed in 1863,  Washington, D.C. 

"Then Lincoln spoke. He began with good-humored but marked con­descension, telling the chiefs of wonders beyond their imagination, of 'pale-faced people' in the room who had come from distant countries, of the earth being a 'great, round ball teeming with whites.' He called for a globe and had a professor show them the ocean and the conti­nents, the many countries populated with whites, and finally the broad swath of beige representing the Great Plains of the United States.

"The geography lesson over, Lincoln turned somber. 'You have asked for my advice ... I can only say that I can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race excepting living as they do, by the cultivation of the earth. It is the object of this government,' continued Lincoln, 'to be on terms of peace with you and with all our red brethren ... and if our children should sometimes behave badly and violate treaties, it is against our wish. You know,' he added, 'it is not always possible for any father to have his children do precisely as he wishes them to do.' Lincoln said an officer called the commissioner of Indian affairs would see to their early return west. The chiefs were given bronzed-copper peace medals and papers signed by Lincoln attesting to their friendship with the government, after which Lean Bear thanked the president and the council concluded. ...

"President Lincoln's peace pledge rang hollow in the Territory of Colo­rado, where Governor John Evans's idea of interracial amity was to con­fine the Cheyennes on a small and arid reservation. Although they had signed a treaty three years earlier agreeing to accept reservation life, Lean Bear and the other peace chiefs were powerless to compel their people to relinquish their freedom. Cheyenne hunting parties ranged over eastern Colorado and the unsettled western Kansas plains as they had always done. They harmed no whites; indeed, the Cheyennes con­sidered themselves at peace with their white neighbors, but Coloradans nonetheless found their presence intolerable. Governor Evans and the military district commander, Colonel John Chivington, who had polit­ical ambitions of his own in Colorado, took dubious reports of cattle theft by hungry Cheyennes as an excuse to declare war on the tribe. In early April 1864, Chivington ordered cavalry to fan out into western Kansas and to kill Cheyennes 'whenever and wherever found.'

Lean Bear and his fellow peace chief Black Kettle had passed the winter and early spring quietly near Fort Larned, Kansas, where they traded buffalo robes. Now tribal runners brought word of the immi­nent danger. Recalling their hunting parties, Lean Bear and Black Kettle started their people northward to find protection in numbers among Cheyenne bands gathering on the Smoky Hill River. But the army found them first.

"On the night of May 15, 1864, Lean Bear and Black Kettle camped on a muddy, cottonwood-fringed stream three miles short of the Smoky Hill. At dawn, hunting parties fanned out onto the open plain in search of buffalo. Before long, they were back, pounding their ponies to the lodge of the camp crier. They had spotted four columns of mounted soldiers on the horizon, and the troops had cannon. As the crier awak­ened the village, Lean Bear rode forward with a small escort to meet the soldiers. His medal from President Lincoln rested on his breast in plain view, and in his hand he carried the peace papers from Washing­ton. From atop a low rise, Lean Bear saw the troopers at the same time they saw him. Their commander ordered his eighty-four men and two mountain howitzers into a battle line. Behind Lean Bear, four hundred warriors from the village assembled warily.

"Lean Bear rode forward, and a sergeant cantered toward him. All must have seemed well to the chief. After all, he and the Great Father had pledged mutual peace. Dignitaries from around the globe had greeted him at the White House. Army officers in the forts around Washington had been gracious and respectful. The people of New York City had honored him. He had his medal and peace papers to prove that he was the white man's friend. But the Great Plains was a world unto itself.

"Lean Bear was just thirty feet from the soldiers when they opened fire. The chief was dead before he hit the ground. After the smoke cleared, several troops broke ranks and pumped more bullets into his corpse. As Lincoln had cautioned Lean Bear, his children sometimes behaved badly."


Peter Cozzens


The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West


Borzoi Book published Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2016 Peter Cozzens


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