He was the champion of the Cheyenne people, an imposing warrior who dressed to kill his enemies and left a staggering impression from Powder River Country to Beecher Island.
Chivalry is the last flowering of a horseback warrior culture on the verge of extinction. It calls to mind virtuous medieval knights who fought honorably on horseback and believed in courtly love. In feudal Japan among the samurai, a loosely analogous concept prevailed—bushido, or “way of the warrior.” Just how much chivalry and bushido translate to the Wild West is debatable, but it is not a stretch to say that certain Cheyenne males in the middle of the 19th century had their own chivalrous code. Chivalry, despite some often gritty and bloody realities, is a romantic concept, one that calls for heroes, champions of the people. Thus we hear warrior tales of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot in Europe, of Miyamoto Musashi in Japan and of Roman Nose in North America.
Roman Nose (the name the whites gave him) was never actually a Cheyenne chief or the head man of a warrior society, but he became the most famous fighting man of his tribe. By the time he was born, in the early 1830s, the Cheyennes had already established themselves on the Great Plains as nomadic buffalo hunters and fierce fighters. By the 1860s, native people across the Plains regarded him as a great warrior, while the whites generally believed that whenever the Cheyennes made trouble, Roman Nose was behind it. To his fellow tribesmen, though, he was their knight-errant at a time when the Cheyenne people responded to their imminent doom with defiance, so much so that even their enemies extolled their virtues and their valor—as soon as they were safely dead.
Before their ascendancy on the Great Plains, the Cheyennes, like their allies and neighbors the Lakotas, were a tribe of relatively peaceful farmers dwelling by the shores of the Great Lakes. Under duress from the Anishinabes (Chippewas), whom white fur traders had introduced to liquor and muskets, the Cheyennes began to develop a warrior culture. Cheyenne folklore tells the tale of an old woman who was cooking a late supper when Anishinabe raiders pushed into her lodge and told her to finish cooking—they wouldn’t kill her until after they ate. The brave old woman threw the soup in their faces and scampered out of the lodge into the night, bearing a torch to light her way. The raiders followed the torch—right over a cliff. The old woman had thrown it over the precipice and ducked to the side. When the Cheyenne hunters returned to camp, they found some of the raiders’ muskets in working condition. A new Cheyenne culture was born. Respect for a good woman, like the old lady who secured them their first guns, was a strong factor in their value system. Their awe of muskets was another.
While the Dakotas cut the heads off fallen enemies and the Lakotas took scalps, the Cheyennes amputated the trigger fingers. Once they reached the Plains and discovered the horse and the buffalo, Cheyennes became the quintessential Plains Indians—valiant, vainglorious and handsome. Cheyenne women were renowned for their goods looks and chastity (some even wore chastity belts to prevent rape, as upperclass women did during the Age of Chivalry). The Cheyenne Nation kept at least one vestige of its peaceful past: Intertribal homicide was a horror, and any Cheyenne who killed another Cheyenne was driven into exile by his own shame and the contempt of his peers.
Among the Cheyennes’ enemies were the Pawnees, formidable warrior-farmers and one of the few tribes north of Mexico to practice human sacrifice, which they thought necessary to preserve the corn harvest. Each year they would capture a virgin from a neighboring tribe, pamper her and keep her ignorant of her fate. On the appointed day, she was told to ask Pawnee families for firewood. Tribesmen then led the girl to a scaffold, directed her to climb it and dispatched her with an arrow through the heart. They then burned her body atop the sticks she collected. Cheyenne and Lakota women were most often the victims, and those tribes came to hate the Pawnees. Warfare was a regular occurrence.
Once the Cheyennes became buffalo hunters and horseback fighters, they developed an array of warrior societies, whose job it was to maintain order during buffalo hunts and train younger society members to fight their enemies. In an amazing corollary to the European knights, Cheyenne chivalry centered on intense respect for virtuous women— four pretty girls, all virgins, sometimes rode out with the warriors and functioned as cheerleaders, and in the ultimate gesture of respect, the Cheyenne men cooked for the girls instead of the other way around. The Cheyenne warrior societies also engaged in rivalry, and in some, like the Bow String Society, the members actually took a vow of male chastity, like the medieval Templars and Hospitallers of the Crusades, who were monks as well as knights. The parallels to medieval chivalry were so pronounced that former Confederate Frank Huston, a proud “squaw man” with an Indian wife, thought the Cheyennes must be of Nordic origin—genetically impossible, but seemingly plausible in cultural terms.
A gloomy parallel also hung over the Cheyennes—a pervading sense of doom. Medieval people awaited the Apocalypse. The black year of the Cheyennes was 1832. The tribe had been introduced to liquor by that time, and that year, while many of the top warriors were somewhat the worse for it, the Pawnees struck and absconded with the Cheyenne medicine bundle—several ears of corn, commemorating the Cheyennes’ years as farmers, and four medicine arrows (two buffalo arrows with vertical heads made to slip through the vertical ribs of a bison, and two man arrows with horizontal heads made to slip through the ribs of an enemy warrior). The Cheyennes’ bad luck temporarily turned with the smallpox epidemic of 1837 (the “year of the spotted head” in winter counts painted on buffalo robes), which devastated the Mandans, Arikaras and Hidatsas, farming tribes along the Missouri River. The Mandans were reduced almost to extinction, while the Arikaras bonded with the whites and provided scouts. But the majority of the Cheyennes, who mostly avoided contact with whites, were unscathed. Their power expanded, but under the shadow of inevitable doom.
Forestalling doom, the Cheyennes fell back on what the white men called “medicine” and what psychiatrists might call an obsessive-compulsive reaction: ceremonies that, if one got them just right, could render a man bulletproof and guarantee him success in hunting and warfare or guarantee a woman success in childbearing and matrimony. Plains tribes were anything but prolific: Indian women understood the rhythm method of birth control and knew of herbs that would induce spontaneous abortions, and they tried not to have more children than they could support. Cheyenne men, having sired one male heir, sometimes abstained from sex for as much as seven years, which kept the birth rate low. Daughters were propagated in sequence until a male heir arrived, which meant that two or three girls often ended up married to the same man: It kept the bloodlines straight, and what Indians hated most was any hint of incest.
The Cheyennes were fascinated, if somewhat aloof, on their first contact with white emigrants on Oregon Trail wagon trains, but the vast numbers of whites unsettled them. Whites liked to cut sharp deals—the Cheyennes called them veho (“spiders”), because they seemed to lie in wait for Indians whose pride got in the way of their haggling. Still, the whites were too fascinating to ignore. When some young Cheyenne men stopped a stagecoach at Grand Island in 1856 to gawk at the funny-looking people and ask for tobacco—a gift that signified peace and brotherhood—some of the passengers fired pistols at them. The Cheyennes chased the coach, lashing the passengers with their quirts without trying to kill them. Later, soldiers attacked in retaliation, killing or wounding several Cheyennes, though most escaped by superior horsemanship once they got over their shock. Doom thundered forward relentlessly after the first clash.
Roman Nose was born into this world of chivalry, menaced by mendacity and a falling birth rate, probably between 1830 and 1835. Not much is known about his parentage or posterity, but he made a staggering impression on those whites who saw him. Well over 6 feet tall, he was called Sautie (“the Bat”) as a boy, which suggests a certain restlessness and a fondness for nocturnal adventures. His adult name was Woqini (“Hook Nose”), which whites translated as Roman Nose. Cheyennes by this time had formed warrior societies, gangs or gentleman’s clubs as one prefers, with loyalties to one another. The Hotamétaneo’o (“Dog Men”)—Dog Soldiers to the whites— took a vow never to run from a fight unless someone pulled up the stake or lance they had driven into the ground to fix them in place when covering a retreat. Dog Soldiers shared the role of elite warrior with the Bow String Society, those warriors who forswore marriage and sex and had their sisters cook for them. Woqini’s warrior society was the Elk Horn Scrapers, who served as camp police and fighters against hostile Indians. Woqini had at least one wife and one son.
A superb physical specimen, Roman Nose reveled in his athletic abilities. Once, when on a one-arrow-to-kill buffalo hunt with his brother-in-law, Roman Nose dropped his targeted buffalo cow with his single arrow. His horse then bumped into his brother-in-law’s horse, the brother-in-law’s arrow flipped up in the air, and Roman Nose caught the arrow from horseback and killed a second buffalo with one shot. Legend also has it that Roman Nose once helped a bashful Lakota boy court and win a Cheyenne girl by slipping into the camp at night—his boyhood name, after all, was the Bat—and teaching the tongue-tied Lakota wooer to whisper endearments in Cheyenne, an immensely complicated language said to induce madness in the most erudite German Jesuit missionaries. Or perhaps the legend-bearer, Dr. Charles Eastman, had drawn inspiration from Cyrano de Bergerac, also a fearsome warrior with a rather large nose, of whom Eastman had read while attending Boston University.
The Gallo-Romans of King Arthur’s time had their Merlin, the Celtic magician whose spells were thought to protect those who observed their conditions. The Cheyennes also had a magician —a medicine man like King Arthur’s Merlin—named Ice, whose spells were also greatly esteemed. In 1857 the 1st U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner from Boston, responded to the Grand Island incident and the Cheyenne raids that followed. Sumner confronted the Cheyenne warrior societies at the Solomon River in Kansas on July 17. The number of white and Indian cavaliers—about 300 on either side—was about equal, but Ice believed he had the edge because, on his instructions, his Cheyenne warriors had washed their hands in a magic lake and were thus invulnerable to the white man’s bullets. Surprisingly Sumner, known as the “Bull of the Woods” for his basso profundo command voice, shouted: “Sling carbines! Draw sabers!”
The Cheyenne warriors, horrified at the notion Sumner had somehow anticipated their medicine, turned and fled at the sight of the sabers, not because they feared hand-tohand combat, but because they believed their medicine had been compromised. The U.S. cavalrymen pursued the surprised Cheyennes for seven miles and killed nine of them, for a loss of two troopers killed and eight wounded. Among the latter was Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart, future Confederate hero, who killed a Cheyenne with a saber, but not before the warrior got a shot off that wounded Jeb. Roman Nose must have been in this battle—he wouldn’t have missed it—but he was not yet a prominent warrior. Like Jeb Stuart, his time would come. After a brief attack on the tiny fort in which Stuart was recuperating, the Cheyennes came in and talked things over. For the next four years, they kept away from the whites, who had read their medicine, and instead pursued quarrels with other Indians.
Roman Nose, however, prepared for trouble. A few years after the saber charge catastrophe at the Solomon River, he had Ice—also known as White Bull—make him a distinctive war bonnet that would render him bulletproof. The original war bonnet, something of an innovation in Plains culture, comprised an arrangement of feathers around the crown of a white man’s hat. The war bonnet Ice made was one of a kind, seen in a dream—a single buffalo horn up front, the skin of a kingfisher behind it, with the skins of a swallow for swiftness, a bat for stealth and night vision and a hawk for courage stitched on the crown. (The Roman legions’ standard bearers practiced the same “medicine” by wearing the pelt of the dominant predator from the regions in which they fought—the bear in Germany, the lion in Persia and the leopard in North Africa.) Two trains of eagle feathers, one red and one white, hung down so far they almost trailed the ground when Roman Nose sat horseback. Like the magic helmet of Germanic folklore that rendered its wearer invisible, the war bonnet of Roman Nose rendered him invulnerable to bullets as long as he honored two taboos: He was never to shake hands—a white custom synonymous with treaty-making— and he was never to eat anything cooked in an iron pot or served with a fork. Indians since the time of Handsome Lake, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) reformer, and notably since Tecumseh had believed that abstaining from white social customs, including liquor, could revitalize their medicine. Disasters like Tecumseh’s death at the Thames River in 1813 were blamed on flawed observance of the taboos.
Roman Nose, not himself a chief, remained at peace with the whites until the November 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. The murder of Cheyenne women and children and mutilation of their corpses was too grotesque a provocation to ignore, though Roman Nose himself seems to have believed the Cheyennes could not achieve ultimate victory against the whites. He remained a member of the Elk Scrapers but affiliated with the Dog Soldiers, the hardcore suicide fighters of the Cheyenne resistance. When Jim Beckwourth, legendary black mountain man and scout, was sent to patch things up after Sand Creek, the Cheyennes sent him packing. “What do we want to live for?” Cheyenne Chief Leg-in-the-Water asked Beckwourth. “The white man has taken our country, killed all of our game; was not satisfied with that, but killed our wives and children. Now no peace. We want to go and meet our families in the spirit land. We loved the whites until we found out they lied to us and robbed us of what we had. We have raised the battle ax until death.”
On July 26, 1865, Roman Nose first gained prominence in the Battle of Platte Bridge Station near Fort Laramie, where his war party killed Lieutenant Caspar Collins. “I saw an officer on a bay horse rush past me,” Cheyenne half-blood warrior George Bent wrote later. “The lieutenant had an arrow sticking in his forehead, and his face was streaming with blood.” The Cheyennes also destroyed Sergeant Amos Custard’s wagon train just outside Fort Laramie. Roman Nose, having heard his brother had been killed, reacted with defiant courage: “Come on, we are going to empty the white soldiers’ guns!” Roman Nose led his followers in a circle around the Army wagons while the soldiers fired at him and missed. When the soldiers’ guns were empty, the Indians charged in, killed the bluecoats and ransacked the wagons. To their dismay, they found only bedding and mess gear.
When U.S. troops invaded the Powder River Country in 1866 to build forts along the Bozeman Trail to the Montana Territory goldfields, it sparked Red Cloud’s War. Roman Nose soon had another chance to demonstrate the bulletproof power of his war bonnet. As the soldiers formed a skirmish line in front of their wagons, Roman Nose, at the head of several hundred warriors, rode straight at them on his white horse, snapped into a turn when he could see their faces, and offered himself as a target to hundreds of carbines blazing away as he rode straight along their front. Not a bullet touched him, though on the fourth pass a bullet struck his pony, tumbling Roman Nose to the ground unhurt. The Cheyennes then attacked, but the firepower of the soldiers staved off a massacre. Roman Nose was fast becoming a legend among the whites as well as the Indians. The Powder River campaign, fought in part by “galvanized Yankees” (Rebel prisoners fighting Indians as an alternative to freezing on short rations), was a disappointment, if not a disaster.
Roman Nose and a number of other Cheyenne leaders drifted away from Red Cloud’s coalition of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors and rejoined older Cheyenne chiefs like Black Kettle, who still believed that peace was possible. They may have been homesick, and they may also have worried that the Lakotas were assimilating the Northern Cheyennes so rapidly, the latter faced extinction either way. The Southern Cheyennes sometimes called the Northern Cheyennes “the Sioux” in reproof, as they used so many Lakota words in everyday speech. Yet the Lakotas admired Roman Nose tremendously, and one of his best friends was the Lakota war chief Pawnee Killer—a name no Cheyenne could scoff at.
Both Roman Nose and pal Pawnee Killer were on hand when the Southern Cheyennes met Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, wounded hero of Gettysburg and future candidate for president of the United States. In 1867 Hancock tried to intimidate the weary older Cheyenne chiefs, whose main thought was to keep a remnant of their tribe alive, by shooting off a couple of howitzers. Hancock demanded to meet Roman Nose, already famous among whites. Roman Nose was only too happy to oblige as Hancock approached the big Cheyenne-Lakota camp on Pawnee Forks in April 1867. He told the older men that, if he had the chance, he would “ride out alone and kill Hancock!” They did their best to talk him out of it while there was hope for peace. Pawnee Killer, himself no friend of arrogant white men, rode out first to calm things down. The Cheyennes designated Roman Nose as their war chief for this occasion—not a great honor in itself, since they weren’t an impulsively violent people—but sent a chief named Bull Bear to cool Roman Nose’s fires before the Hancock meeting.
Roman Nose dressed to impress: He put on a U.S. officer’s dark blue blouse with brass buttons and gold epaulets, a slung carbine and two revolvers, along with his bow and quiver, man arrows and all. Riding out before Hancock and the troops, he made a huge impression on the whites who finally got a look at him: “Of all the chiefs, Roman Nose attracted the most attention,” the contract surgeon Isaac Coates noted. “He is one of the finest specimens, physically, of his race. He is quite 6 feet in height, finely formed with a large body and muscular limbs….His manner showed plainly that he did not care whether we talked or fought.”
“This officer they call Hancock is spoiling for a fight,” Roman Nose told Bull Bear. “I will kill him in front of his own men and give them something to fight about.” Bull Bear told Roman Nose that Hancock had 1,400 men, with howitzers and infantry, compared to 300 Cheyenne warriors—and that the Cheyenne women and children had weak horses, and if fighting broke out, they might not be able to escape. The showdown between Hancock of Gettysburg and Roman Nose of Powder River was a clash of electrified thunderheads.
“Do you want peace or war?” Hancock asked bluntly. “We do not want war,” Roman Nose said, probably biting his tongue. “If we did, we would not come so close to your big guns.” He explained that he had heard different versions of what Hancock wanted, and he had decided to find out for himself. He brought up the horrors of Sand Creek. “We have not been able to hold our women and children,” Roman Nose said. “They are frightened and have run away, and they will not come back. They fear the soldiers.” Hancock, though, insisted, “You must get them back, and I expect you to do so.”
“Are not women and children more timid than men?” Roman Nose asked. “The warriors are not afraid, but have you never heard of Sand Creek? Your soldiers look just like those who butchered the women and children there.”
Bull Bear made a gesture of disgust to show that talking to Hancock was a waste of time. But when Roman Nose whispered this would be a good time to kill him, Bull Bear grabbed his bridle and led him away from the general’s threats. That night the whole Cheyenne tribe vanished. Hancock ordered Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, new to the Plains, to pursue the Cheyennes. Hancock then destroyed their camp—251 lodges, 942 buffalo robes, 436 saddles and hundreds of parfleches (leather folders used to carry food or personal articles). Custer noted the fugitives had cut patches from the lodge covers to provide themselves temporary shelter. The outraged Cheyennes then fell on the frontier settlers. Hancock’s attempt at intimidation had failed. He never made it to the White House.
Edmund Guerrier, a half-French, half- Cheyenne interpreter, was sent to resume peace talks in late 1867. Roman Nose was married to one of Guerrier’s full-blood Cheyenne cousins, so he agreed to attend and listen. Thomas Murphy, superintendent of Indian Affairs, was also there at Medicine Lodge Creek on September 17, 1867. The government offered food, but the Indians wanted guns. While some of the Cheyennes signed away hunting rights, Roman Nose and the Dog Soldiers didn’t sign anything. They continued to bond with Pawnee Killer’s band of Lakotas and some truculent Arapahos seeking to remain free.
In August 1868, Pawnee Killer warned his Cheyenne friends about a special company of white scouts organized to hunt down hostile Indians. When the Lakota warriors found this company near the Arikaree River, they sent out the call to their Cheyenne and Arapaho friends. On September 17 Major George Forsyth’s 50 tough frontiersmen forted up on a sandbar that became known as Beecher (or Beecher’s) Island. The scouts had seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles. When the Indians rushed them, they faced deadly gunfire.
Roman Nose was not among the first rush of warriors. While supping with some Lakota friends, and reluctant to offend his hostess, he had eaten a lump of fry bread served from an iron pot with a fork. He immediately began the purification ritual to restore his bulletproof medicine, but he hadn’t completed the ritual by the time the fighting broke out. Then an aged Cheyenne warrior named White Contrary rode up: “Here is Roman Nose, the man we depend on, sitting behind this hill. All those people fighting out there feel that they belong to you, and they will do all that you tell them, and you are behind this hill.”
Roman Nose, despairing of the purification ritual, responded with a world-weary laugh. A Cheyenne named Wolf Belly, protected by the magic skin of a cougar, had already ridden his horse through the scouts twice and proved invulnerable—or else had so startled the whites that they couldn’t shoot straight. For one’s medicine to work, one had to believe in it. Roman Nose knew he would die, that this was his destiny. He painted his forehead yellow, his nose red, and his chin black—the colors of generation, birth and death in Plains cosmology— and he put on his single-horn war bonnet. Then he charged straight at the white scouts on Beecher Island and their deadly Spencers. Hit from the side by a bullet that struck near his spine, Roman Nose fell from his horse. Some young men recovered him from the river, but he died within hours amid the wailing of the Cheyenne and Lakota women. Indians of both tribes referred to Beecher Island as the Fight Where Roman Nose Was Killed.
Black Kettle, the Cheyenne peace chief and Sand Creek survivor, was killed a few months later at the Washita. These two losses reduced the Southern Cheyennes to such an extent they fought no more. The Northern Cheyennes, affiliated with the Lakotas, fought on, including at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. But Roman Nose’s death marked the apogee of Cheyenne chivalry. Here was a warrior who forfeited his life rather than offend a lady or leave his people without a champion. The death of Roman Nose was, perhaps, the end of active knighthood anywhere on Earth.
John Koster, author of Custer Survivor, is a frequent contributor. Minjae Kim assisted on the research. Suggested for further reading: Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and Thomas E. Mails’ Dog Soldiers, Bear Men and Buffalo Women.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.