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George Caitlin's "Buffalo hunt. Under white wolf skin" (1845) (From the New York Public Library)

George Caitlin's "Buffalo hunt. Under the white wolf skin" (1845) ; From the New York Public Library



The dark blessed and tightened the bond among Jim, Blue Corn Harvest, Pierre and Spotted Calf. They

had spent many an early morning like this together on hunting trips. Today, it was Virginian deer they

were after in a heavily wooded area.

For hours, they had hidden themselves near a tiny lake by standing still and barely breathing. Such

serenity a person could not find at any other time. Images of life seeped into the minds of the four

friends. The lush, verdant grass, the umbrella cottonwood tree of two intertwined trunks that Jim leaned

against and the glimmer of pink that gracefully whispered the break of day sent a tremor through Jim.

He looked across the water at the incline of land and spotted a beige and white rope winding its way

around the trees to the lake’s edge. The others saw it too. They braced themselves. Mentally, they

prepared to shoot. They had already shaken gunpowder from their cow powder horns into their rifles.

Once a shot was fired, the fleet moving animals would not give the hunters a second chance. Their

white chests strong and their brown bodies perfect, the deer were, after all, game to the men. The deer’s

meat would be eaten; their skin saved for breeches, moccasins and satchels. The morning calm would

be shattered by the death flight of acrid ammunition.


Jim shot a doe drinking water with three young bucks. The hunters hurrahed. The other deer fled. The

men watched, mesmerized, as the beige and white rope disappeared through the maze of trees. In a

flash, it was gone. The friends recouped their game for the day. Jim skinned it and tied it to the pole

which Pierre and Spotted Calf carried on their shoulders.

As they walked to the village, Pierre, Jim, Blue Corn Harvest and Spotted Calf chatted in the Sac

language about the fun they had had. They had known each other more than a year now and they liked

and trusted one another. It was June or what the Indians called Moon When the Green Grass Is Up.

Months ago after some wheedling, Pierre had confided that he had been having rendezvous with Red

Moon, the sister of Spotted Calf. He had met her early one morning when she was walking back to the

village from a lake with water in a jug that she carried on her head. Other girls were with her but when

Pierre appeared, handsome and manly, and expressed an interest in talking with her, they giggled and

walked ahead. Behind them, the romance began.

Red Moon was sixteen and the only daughter in a respectable family. Pierre had honourable intentions

but her family demanded that he prove himself by earning enough money to buy horses as gifts for her

hand. Pierre, a true mountain man, did not save money. He worked hard, collected his pay and then

squandered it on liquor, geegaws and transitory delights. Red Moon was a hardworking young woman.

Her long, silken, black hair shimmered in the sun as she tanned and decorated skins, an art at which she


For a long time, Pierre did not know how Red Moon felt about him. She had many other suitors. Then

he became friendly with Spotted Calf who assured him that she had given her heart to him. It was their

parents who needed the tangible evidence of his care for her. They expected Red Moon’s husband to be

much older with a well-developed character.

Red Moon looked like a youthful Sweet Water. Her skin was smooth and tight where Sweet Water’s had

begun to wrinkle and loosen. Pierre did not recognize the resemblance and he spoke of his wife to no

one. He did not think it deceptive. It was still too painful for him. He had felt so at home with that

woman. Adjusting to living with her was as effortless as walking across a room. Her disappearance had

tripped him.

Pierre did not love Red Moon. He wanted a friend who would keep him company when he was at home

and wait for him when he went away. Red Moon would wait, he thought. That was why he wanted to

marry her. His friends assumed different reasons. They thought that it must be her beatific face, her

perfect body or her sweet ways.

“I would like to have children,” Pierre told them, as he walked carrying half the weight of the deer.

“Papa Pierre,” Jim teased. He and Blue Corn Harvest laughed and jostled with each other.

“To see Red Moon’s belly swell with my child, that would make me happy,” Pierre said.

“Her child and yours,” Spotted Calf said. “My wife is too old to have children. Our way is to marry a

person two or three times our age the first time, someone to take us by the hand and teach us how to

live. The man must also be able to serve and care for his in-laws. When a woman’s husband dies or the

marriage ends, she usually marries a man younger than herself. I’d say that the second husband would

be about one-third her age. A man also tends to take a younger woman the second time.

“If a man can maintain harmony in the lodge and support the family, he can have more than one wife. A

difficult thing. I have seen heartbreaking situations where envy of youth and jealousy of past intimacy

tore at the women and confusion gnawed at the man. But then, among the right people at the right time

in their lives, it can work.”

“Yes, it can work. Look at my parents,” Blue Corn Harvest said. “Chief Lots of Stars and Willow Reed

were married nine years before my father married Sparrow Woman. Now Willow Reed and Sparrow

Woman are good friends. They are almost inseparable. If one of them were to leave, I think that the

other would follow. They are more attached to each other than to my father. If he were a smaller man,

he would be jealous of them. He isn’t. He feels that he made the right choice for a second wife.”

“Yes, your father is a good example,” said Spotted Calf, who ranked with Pierre in age and thought more

deeply on marriage than did the two younger men. “But your father also married Willow Reed first at

an appropriate age. She was older than he. I am so thankful to have married Brown Lady. She has been

a patient steady companion. Marriage to a young girl would not have lasted. What could I have taught


Pierre was becoming more and more uncomfortable. He felt that this discussion of nuptials was meant

for his ears. Was this how Red Moon’s family felt? They wanted an older man for her? He already

knew that they would have preferred him to be a Sac. And from a good family.

“I can teach Red Moon,” he said, in a fighting voice that startled Jim and Blue Corn Harvest. “I want to

teach her.

“I want to serve her family. Your family,” Pierre said, throwing a hard gaze at Spotted Calf.

“How could you be so eager to teach when you have never been taught,” asked Spotted Calf, who had

expected the outburst. “How can you serve when you have never been served?”

It was true that Pierre had never served his wife’s family. Sweet Water was alone in the world. Her

paternity was uncertain. Her mother had died soon after giving birth to her only child. Sweet Water was

taken in by parents who admired her quiet way and old soul. The other children, however, grew jealous

of their parents’ affection. Ill feelings lingered when her adoptive parents died. Sweet Water lived with

a sister who did not care about her and had poisoned the minds of her husband and children against her

adopted sibling.

Sweet Water’s acceptance of Pierre’s marriage proposal came from the mouth of a tribal outcast. There

was no family for the Creole man to impress or convince. The Illinois head chief quickly gave his

sanction of the union.

Sweet Water was desperate for acceptance.

Pierre cared about her. He spoke to her with kindness in his voice. He kept her warm and made her

laugh. He made her feel loved.

Sweet Water tempered Pierre’s coltish quality. She was grateful for him and showed it by making a

harmonious life for them. Pierre assured her that he would return after his trapping and hunting

expeditions. But he could not make her believe that he would not leave her. It tormented him that he

could not make her believe.

“I know that I am younger than Red Moon’s other suitors,” Pierre said. “I know that I am not as

experienced as they are in caring for a wife and her family. But, Spotted Calf, I know that her feelings

for me are true. Mine are for her. I have much to learn but I am willing to learn. And there are some

lessons I can pass on to her even at this juncture in my life. Believe me.”

“Who knows what will happen,” Spotted Calf said. “You are my friend. She is my sister. I do wish you

both the best.”

The group reached their favorite spot, a clearing and a small pond. Pierre and Spotted Calf rested the

deer against a tree. All four stripped and took a dip in the fresh water pool. They played like small boys,

dunking and splashing each other. Then they basked in the sun on the grass.

“Jim, what would you be doing now if you were in St. Louis,” Blue Corn asked.

“I would be at Casner’s shop shoeing some horses and wishing I were here,” he said.

“How could you wish you were here,” asked Blue Corn. “You didn’t even know here existed?”

“I knew that there was somewhere better suited for me,” he said.

Jim had won his bout with homesickness. He did not think of St. Louis often. He lived very much in

the present turning from the past and trusting the future to time. The plainness of life in St. Louis bored

him. Here in Galena, dreams and visions and quests stirred life up. Omens crashed onto the relief

turning the picture topsy-turvy. The meaning of occurrences were unpredictable to Jim because he had

not grown up with the knowledge of portents. He took the world for what it appeared to be as did his

father. When Jim was six years old, he overheard a shouting argument between his parents that flew out

through the cracks of their closed bedroom door. Jennings had caught Winifred consulting a Caribbean

servant, Dominica, in the kitchen about her gangly, nine-year-old daughter, Matilda.

“I don’t like it, Winifred. I don’t like it one bit. It’s not very Episcopalian to have this obeah woman

casting spells, talking in some African language and telling fortunes in my house. You are much too

intelligent a woman to believe in that mumbo jumbo.”

“I do believe. I do believe. I do believe. I was not casting spells or wishing ill on anyone. I was simply

talking about a dream I had had, a disturbing one about Matilda.

“I believe, yes, as my mother did.”

“Your mother,” Jennings said, with a scowl, about the deceased strong-willed woman whom he disliked

intensely. “Well, that’s argument enough, isn’t it?”

Earlier downstairs, Dominica, wrapped in a thin gold and blue striped full skirt and blouse, had revealed

to Winifred the possible meaning of her dream.

“Your daughter will rear a large family and run a well-stocked household at a young age. She will smile

all the time. But her smile will mask a sad heart. She has a creative talent that she may not be able to

exercise because of her family responsibilities. Mrs. Beckwourth, your daughter needs freedom.”

Jim had balked at Dominica’s insights. He had accepted his father’s way. He had exhorted everything

unseen except that which the Rev. Thompson recognized. Even some of those things, Jim had trouble

believing. But in Galena, no one second-guessed the validity of omens and ceremony and of ritual and

meaning. They lived by them. Jim was changing. He was becoming less judgmental. At this time a

year later, he would not have been as sceptical about Chief Lots of Stars’ psychic reading. Since then,

he had learned to speak the Algonquian language of the Sac and Fox peoples. He was beginning to

think in it.

“This deer is getting heavy,” said Spotted Calf. Pierre grunted in agreement. They had resumed their

walk back to the village.

“We’re almost there,” Blue Corn Harvest said.

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than they turned a bend and walked into the clearing of the

village. A band of young girls played with a ball made of an animal’s bladder and stuffed with wool.

They took turns kicking it up into the air, six to ten feet above the ground, again and again until they

missed and the following player took over. The present kicker was doing well.

“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,” her friends shouted as the ball drew imaginary loops in the air.

The girls focused their concentration so tightly on the ball that they did not see Spotted Calf and Pierre

carrying the deer. As the determined kicker chased the ball in the air for the twentieth kick, she crashed

into the deer transporters toppling all three of them to the ground.

“Stupid girl,” shouted Spotted Calf. “Don’t you know what your eyes are for? They’re for you to see.

Try using them.”

“The day looks fine, doesn’t it,” said Fire Starter, a stocky, middle-aged warrior. He was not just any

man. This year, he was special. He secured the well-being of the community by rituals and his state of


During the winter buffalo hunt, Fire Starter had been instructed in a vision to supervise the young corn

plant ceremony in early June only a few weeks ago. While still on the hunt, he had killed a buffalo he

pronounced as sacred. He and five shamans had eaten the dried meat of the animal in preparation for the

summer buffalo hunt.

Jim recognized Fire Starter as the leader of the young corn plant ceremony procession. Blue Corn

Harvest had invited Jim to join his family and the entire village in following Fire Starter as he

symbolically carried the corn plant from birth to infancy to motherhood of a girl and finally, to Mother

of the people. A shaman had uprooted the sacred corn sprout which represented birth. Fire Starter had

toted the plant, wrapped in buffalo wool, on his back just as a woman does her child. Everyone sang

lilting songs as they proceeded behind him on his way to the ceremonial lodge.

An arrow shaft maker had whittled a body from a dogwood stick with special tools. He smoothed the

body with sandstone and then painted it red and white. The red line drawn the length of the shaft

represented the windpipe. It meant breath. Life. A nursing mother anointed the young “mother” with

milk from her heavy breasts. First, one shaman spoke to the young mother corn. Then he passed her

around to the four other shamans who also talked to it. The second time they passed her around, they all

breathed on her.

Finally, a designated man ran through the village crying out for a robe, a hairy cow skin and a buffalo

hair belt for the new “mother”. A volunteer brought the prepared clothing to the ledge. “Mother” was

wrapped in the robe with her face exposed so that she could watch over her children who had become

the entire community. Fire Starter had tied the “Mother of her people” outside of a sacred bundle which

held medicines.

The otherwise undistinguished man would assume a guardianship role during the upcoming summer

buffalo hunt. He would remain tightly wrapped in a buffalo skin robe, forbidden to wash. His feet must

not touch water lest the village see torrential rains this year. Before and during the summer hunt, he

must sustain gentle thoughts to assure a gentle time for his people.

Consequently, Spotted Calf was frightened that Fire Starter might have heard angry scoldings of the

little girl who had collided with him. It was everyone’s responsibility to keep Fire Starter in good


“Ready for the buffalo hunt,” Fire Starter politely asked the entire group, though he knew Jim and Pierre

would not be joining them.

“Yes, we’re ready and excited,” Blue Corn said.

“Oh yes. So excited,” Spotted Calf repeated.

“We won’t be going but we will keep watch over the village grounds until you return from a successful

hunt, no lives lost,” Jim said.

Pierre nodded his head in agreement. ”It’s a good day,” the young kicker said, in her high soprano


“Yes. Yes, it is,” the other girls said at once.

The responses pleased Fire Starter. He wished them well. Then he moved on. The girls and the four

men were relieved. Spotted Calf apologized to the girls for losing his temper. He kicked their ball up

into the air and they happily resumed their game.

Jim, Spotted Calf, Blue Corn Harvest and Pierre walked less than a quarter of a mile to Blue Corn

Harvest’s lodge. They split the deer four ways outside of his house. Pierre and Jim headed out to the

miners’ camp with their half.



The Shepheard household tittered with anticipation of Mr. Jennings Beckwourth’s visit. He had sent

word with a courier that he wanted to talk with Eliza and her mother on Sunday afternoon, days after

Jim left Beckwourth’s Settlement early on a Tuesday morning. They had sent word back that the visit

would be most welcome. Eliza and her mother exercised very good manners always. They invited

Jennings to dinner.

Both Eliza and Portia Shepheard were proud women. Eliza’s mother, a small, dark chocolate woman,

was given her papers by her North Carolinian owner, Jason Shepheard. She had been his mistress for ten

years after the death of his first wife. The stocky, barrel-chested, red-haired man had taken her from her

slave quarters after one month of widowhood. In his grief, he had led her into a downstairs storage

room and pounded into her all his hatred of life. It lasted a furious five minutes. Portia did not resist.

She resembled a stone sculpture except for the tear trickling from her right eye. Jason withdrew what

felt like a knife to young Portia who was a virgin. The sight of blood dripping down the inside of her

thighs shocked Jason. He had noticed Portia long ago. He enjoyed watching her work in the tobacco

fields, her full breasts bouncing and her shapely behind riding high and firm. It had never occurred to

Jason that this well-developed black girl had not had her first man. Black girls did not wait, he thought.

Portia had waited. The red of the tip of his penis made him ashamed. He was a monster! A frightening,

unleashed monster who had raped a fifteen-year-old child half his age. She lay on her back wedged

between two trunks. Her slanted, dark brown eyes stared past Jason into space. She looked dead. Jason

pulled up and buttoned his pants. He pulled down Portia’s dress. Then he scooped up the Ashanti girl

of noble descent and carried her upstairs to his room. He put her to bed under layers of blankets. Sher

slept alone. He fed her meals. He stayed with her. He cared for her as a father would for his sick

daughter. One week later, she spoke her first words since the rape. She was well enough to return to the

slave quarters. Jason did not want her to leave. He asked her if she would stay and she consented.

Portia had no family at the Shepheard plantation. She had been born into United States slavery. She did

not know her father. Her mother had been with her for some years before the older woman was sold to a

landowner in Virginia. She remembered her mother vividly. Portia’s mother was a queenly woman who

taught Portia about her rich history and powerful grandparents. She told Portia that she was not meant

for backbreaking field labor. She was meant to be served, and served well. Jason, who never absolved

his guilt, satisfied that need in the privacy of their bedroom. Portia stopped working on the land. She

spent the day in the house’s library educating herself.

Portia and Jason became close friends. But the nut of their relationship was an ugly manifestation of the

social order that stayed foremost in their minds. Portia prepared herself for a change of heart on Jason’s

part. Each month, two weeks after her menstrual period, she drank a strong potion of bitter herbs to

prevent pregnancy. Portia accepted the constraints of her living situation. No show of affection outside

of their room. No innuendo of intimacy. No children to further complicate matters. For years, Jason

resisted family pressure to marry a white woman of proper social standing and father an acceptable heir.

Finally, he succumbed. Portia left a cold spot in his bed that was never warmed by the woman who took

her place. Ironically, Portia became pregnant during one of their last times together. Jason had hoped to

keep Portia as his mistress. However, Portia felt that Jason’s impending marriage marked the end of

their liaison.

They had not vowed for better or worse to each other. They had never discussed marriage. It was clear

that Jason would not marry Portia and sever his connection with family, wealth and white respectability.

As it was, Portia thought that their relationship demeaned them, pretending to be something other than

what they were. Understandably, she refused to sneak around Jason’s wife. He had made his choice, an

inevitable one, although Portia had dared to hope sometimes that they would continue together. She

herself had not considered marrying another man on the plantation.

News of Portia’s condition bolstered her case for being set free. She wanted to leave the state and start

life fresh with their child. Jason gave her papers, enough money to live on for a year or more and a letter

of introduction to a friend in St. Louis. He did this with no conditions. He knew that Portia would not

get in touch with him. She moved to Missouri with their unborn child growing inside her. This woman

would try to remake her life and herself.

Six months later, Eliza was born. She inherited her mother’s deep past and her father’s freedom. Portia

told her daughter about her Ashanti ancestors whom Eliza resembled in every way but her coloring. Her

skin looked like buttermilk and her hair was a brownish red that flickered like fire in the sunlight. She

often wore it brushed back hard and tightly pulled into a chignon. Little time would pass before her hair

would rebel and unfurl itself into stubborn, kinky tendrils framing her face and tickling her neck, better

able to reflect the light from above.

Portia did not talk about North Carolina. In St. Louis, she taught free black children in a school she

began in her house.

The Shepheard women scrambled to ready the house for the respected guest and, hopefully, soon-to-be

member of the family.

“I’m happy that Mr. Beckwourth asked to speak with us,” said Portia, as she chopped carrots.

“Perhaps he will explain how Jim’s disappearance will affect your marriage plans.”

“Oh Portia,” said Eliza, who had refused since her thirteenth year to call her mother by anything but her

first name. “You think Jim ran away from me, don’t you? Well, he didn’t. Our wedding plans won’t be

changed. We’ll marry when he comes home.”

“I hope so, for your sake, darling,” said her mother. “I know that your feelings run deep for Jim. And I

think that he is a good person. But he needs time to grow up. The two of you are very alike. Neither of

you has had to cope with hardship. That isn’t the best way to begin a marriage.”

“We are ready, Portia. We are ready for marriage,” Eliza insisted.

She was fifteen.

“Then why did he leave town, Eliza,” Portia asked. “And why did he leave without seeing you?”

“I don’t know,” said Eliza, dejectedly. “I don’t know.”

“Darling, whatever happens, it will be for the best,” said Portia, as she dropped her knife and hugged her

daughter’s shoulders from behind.

“Portia, did you love my father,” asked the daughter.

Portia twirled her around. She gave her a steady look. Eliza did not know the truth about Jason.

“We respected and needed each other,” said Portia. “That counted for more than love.”

“Why don’t you talk about him,” asked Eliza. “Is it because he’s dead?”

“Yes, it’s because he’s dead.”

Eliza began to cry.

“I wish I had known him,” she garbled. “I miss him.”

“I miss him, too,” said Portia, holding and comforting her child. “But thank God we had you.”

“And you are very alive and have your whole life ahead,” she said, spinning Eliza around. “I’ll finish

dinner. You get dressed.”

Eliza’s emotions swung quickly in her adolescent way as she slipped on a faint pink cotton dress with

ruffles on the bodice and the hem. It is Jim’s favorite, she thought, as she wondered about what his

sudden departure from her meant to them. She calmed herself by whispering softly that Jim loved her.

That was all that mattered.

Jennings felt honoured that his son had entrusted him with an errand of the heart. He visited his wife’s

grave with his customary purple violet and red rose bouquet on Sunday. He talked over the prospect of

Eliza for a daughter-in-law with Winnie. She would be a good wife for Jim, they agreed. Settle him

down. Then Jennings rode into St. Louis.

The senior Beckwourth performed gallantly at his first social affair in two years. Though restrained

around his children, he was a welcome guest at parties and other gatherings. Jennings had a gift for

timing. He knew when to spin a story, tell a joke, pay a compliment. And he knew how to listen. In no

time, they were done with the roasted chicken, dumplings and honey glazed carrots. They topped it off

with peach pie and coffee.

“Jim asked me to tell you that he loves you very much, Eliza,” Jennings began. “He was sorry that he

could not say goodby. But he had a boat to catch up with. I tried to talk him into staying and opening a

blacksmith shop in St. Louis or on Beckwourth’s Settlement. Jim didn’t want that. And he refused to

forego this expedition for another. I’m sad that he didn’t take my offer but I’m also proud that he

didn’t. He wants to prove himself, Eliza. Prove himself as a man. He wants you to wait for him.”

“Of course. Of course I will wait for him. I love him too,” Eliza blurted out.

“Please leave the room, Eliza,” Portia ordered. “Mr. Beckwourth and I have some talking to do.”

Eliza left like a dutiful daughter. She was happy. Portia’s mind, however, had not been put to rest by

Jennings’s delivered message.

“Does Jim plan on marrying my daughter, Mr. Beckwourth,” she asked, in her straightforward way.

“Yes, I believe he does at this time, Mrs. Shepheard,” answered Jennings.

“At this time,” she repeated. “Do you mean that he may not at some other time?”

“I mean what I said, yes,” he answered. “He does love your daughter dearly now. He wished her no


“I understand, Mr. Beckwourth. You and I want only the best for our children.”

“Where are your people from,” asked Jennings. “Jim has never talked about them.”

“I never talk about my people on this side of the ocean,” Portia said, calmly. “Nothing much to


“Mrs. Shepheard, I don’t mean to pry,” said Jennings. “But if my son plans to marry your

daughter, I think we should know who she is.”

“You already know who she is,” said her mother.

Portia did not want to spoil Eliza’s chance for happiness. She did not want to be disloyal to

Jason. She felt that Jennings might be empathetic but she could not risk telling the truth.

Eliza’s mother did tell Jennings about her mother and her years as a slave. She recounted old

stories about her mother’s parents in West Africa. Then she embellished a story about a difficult

time she had had with a white man in Mississippi. Jennings flinched frequently when she talked

about the snubs she and Jason had suffered for the sake of their wedding vows. She concocted a

tragic hunting incident in which Jason was shot dead by a fellow hunter. It was an accident, the

hunter had said. But Portia confided that she never believed it. It was murder. She told

Jennings that Eliza did not know about her suspicion or the daily terror of marriage to her father.

Portia wanted to spare her that. She said that her husband’s family, bitterly opposed to them,

chased her off the cotton plantation. They claimed the two had been living together out of

wedlock. So Portia left, pregnant, and found her way to St. Louis.

Portia cried quietly. She despised her life. She despised lying about it. Jennings offered his

white, starched handkerchief. He sensed a confusion in Portia. Her story might have been true.

Winnie also had suffered. She was not one to talk much about it either. Winnie and Portia had

not become more than acquaintances. Winnie had thought Portia a nice enough woman but she

distrusted her. It was Winnie who had planted seeds of doubt in Jennings’s mind years ago.

Well, never mind, Jennings thought. The truth will shake itself out. It always does.


#cornceremony #buffalohunt

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