While Thomas Twiss was rebounding from his vain efforts to spare the Lakotas and the United States two pointless wars, another man was turning the tables in even more dramatic fashion. As a “spy” for white officials in Colorado Territory, Robert North may have instigated Sand Creek, the worst massacre of Indians in the history of the West. Afterward he became a “white renegade” and may have led Arapahos at the Fetterman Fight. North was said to be illiterate and, unlike Twiss, left no eloquent record, which is why he is almost forgotten today. But Westerners in the 1860s knew who he was.
North was a longtime trapper married to an Arapaho woman. He appears to have lost several fingers, either to frost bite or a mishandled trap. Somehow, North fell in with John Evans, territorial governor of Colorado, as a consultant on Indian matters. In 1863 Evans heard that Lakotas had offered the war pipe to Cheyennes and Arapahos. North added to the governor’s fear by sharing the story of how he had recently rescued an Arapaho woman from the Utes and been honored with a tribal dance, at which Arapahos, Lakotas, Cheyennes, Kiowas, Apaches and Comanches had all pledged to go on the warpath against the whites in Colorado Territory the following spring.
“I saw the principal chiefs pledge to each other that they would shake hands with and be friendly to the whites until they procured ammunition and guns,” North reportedly told Evans. John Smith, a respected interpreter and Indian agent, confirmed that the tribes were plotting a war but that the Arapahos and most Cheyennes wanted to stay out of it. Charley Bent, half-blood son of Cheyenne trader William Bent, also said the Cheyennes and Arapahos had refused the war pipe. Despite the rumors and rumblings, little happened in 1863.
But on June 11, 1864, an Arapaho raiding party along Box Elder Creek murdered ranch manager Ward Hungate, his wife and two young daughters. Civilians trailing the raiders found Hungate and his wife, scalped and mutilated, their daughters by their side, throats cut to the backbone, their house burned to the ground. The ranch owner brought the bodies to Denver in a wagon box and, in a grotesque lapse of decorum, put them on public display. Denverites initially blamed the atrocity on the Cheyennes. North now publicly predicted that the Cheyennes would soon be on the warpath, that their warriors were no longer listening to their own peace chiefs and that they—not his wife’s own Arapaho tribe—wouldn’t rest until they’d run all the whites off the plains. A drunken trader named Jack Jones agreed with North. Their warnings—unconfirmed by more responsible traders like John Smith and William Bent— touched off a general Indian scare that eventually led to the appalling slaughter of as many as 160 friendly Cheyennes and Arapahos at Sand Creek
on November 29, 1864.
Half bloods suffered in the fighting. Troopers murdered Jack Smith, interpreter John Smith’s son. Charley Bent survived but was so alienated that he and brother George joined their respective mothers’ Cheyenne people to fight the soldiers. President Andrew Johnson pressured Evans to resign, the massacre having stirred outrage and investigations in Washington.
North suffered a strange reversal: Having ostensibly brought on the massacre by telling Evans what the governor wanted to hear, the trapper dropped out of the white world and became a warrior with the hostile Arapahos. Jim Bridger, a squaw man but not a renegade, told Army officials that North had taken the war pipe from the Arapahos to the Lakotas at the beginning of Red Cloud’s War.
North became a sinister legend among soldiers on the Bozeman Trail. In September 1866 2nd Cavalry Lieutenant Winfield Scott Matson was riding to the aid of a besieged haying party five miles from Fort Phil Kearny when hostile Indians surrounded his 40-man command. As the hostiles withdrew, a white man dressed as an Indian and missing the fingers from one of his hands rode up to confront Matson. The white man identified himself as Captain Bob North. The young lieutenant had heard stories about a white renegade who rode with the Arapahos. But before he could question the strange figure, scouts rode up to report that Indians had attacked a contractor’s train and killed three men. As the scouts and Matson spoke, North slipped away.
The next day North was back, leading his Arapaho raiders in pursuit of the fort’s cattle herd. Waving blankets and buffalo robes, the Indians ran off almost 100 cattle, this time closely pursued by a detachment of soldiers and armed prospectors under Lieutenant Frederick Brown. After a 10-mile chase, the soldiers and miners caught the raiding party, and the Indians turned and rushed them. The soldiers and miners dismounted, formed a skirmish line and opened fire. Brown noted that the leader of the war party was a white man in buckskins and beaded moccasins who hurled curses at the soldiers in English as he led his warriors. Brown’s men hit several warriors and in the last charge knocked the white warrior from his horse. An Indian swooped in and carried him off. “Lieutenant Brown and a few men charged the Indians with revolvers, killing five Indians and one white man, I think Bob North, who led them in every case, and wounding 16,” reported Colonel Henry Carrington, commander at Fort Phil Kearny.
North, however, wasn’t dead yet. Rumor had him taking part in the ambush of Captain William Fetterman’s party that December, during which then-Captain Brown himself was killed or committed suicide. Two years later a soldier wrote home from Kansas that he had seen the notorious North in a frontier jail. Frontier yarn-spinner Joseph Henry Taylor claimed North was permanently hanged in Kansas in 1869— but there are no known official records of such an execution.
Whatever happened to North, the heyday of the renegades ended with the end of Red Cloud’s War. Most of the Plains tribes moved onto reservations after 1868, ranging “off the rez” occasionally when the rations ran out. Sitting Bull, whose Hunkpapa Lakotas remained out of the loop, wasn’t very accommodating to live-in whites: “Bull was ‘peculiar’ and at such times objected forcibly to the presence even of half-breeds—or ‘breeds,’ as we termed them,” recalled Frank Huston, a former Confederate soldier and admitted squaw man who denied having fought his fellow whites during the Indian wars—though not everyone believed him. Huston, indeed, may have been a renegade, but he left no memoirs and no witnesses.
Another white man, reportedly a captive raised by Apaches, claimed he fought whites and once told of how proud he was to take his first scalp—but Apaches didn’t take scalps. Renegade recollections from the epoch of great showmen like Buffalo Bill Cody have to be taken with a big grain of salt. But Robert North, illiterate and partially crippled, seems to have been driven by such a traumatic guilt after Sand Creek— or such a frantic desire to escape the blame of his Arapaho in-laws—that he fought against the U.S. Army.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.