Scots in the American West
1790 - 1917 Scotland
and the American Indians
In 1964 the principal chief of the Creek Nation of
Oklahoma, who boasted the surname McIntosh, attended the annual
gathering of his clan in the Highlands. To everyone’s surprise, he
appeared in full Native regalia. The Plains Indian headdress, beaded
shirt, and moccasins contrasted sharply with the kilts, sporrans, and
dirks. To a bagpipe audience, he explained his pride in his dual
The story of these Scoto-Indians is a fascinating
one. Like their French and Spanish counterparts, the Scots fur traders
arrived in the West largely as single men. Like the other Europeans,
they soon aligned with Native women, usually "in the fashion of the
country." As historian Sylvia Van Kirk has noted, this form of
"country marriage" facilitated trade because the Native wives
usually taught their husbands the tribal language. The Montreal-based
North West Company actively encouraged this policy, whereas the HBC
discouraged it, because of expense, until the 1 820s. Eventually,
however, all the fur-trade enterprises acknowledged the key role that
Native wives played in their operations.
In Indian country these unions were considered as
binding as Christian church ceremonies. Later, however, if a trader
returned to Britain, he often "turned off’ his country wife to
her family, although he usually maintained a minimum of economic
responsibility for her and the children. For example, Sir George
Simpson, head of the Athabasca District of the HBC and one of Canada’s
most powerful figures, left his country wife to marry his cousin in
London in 1830.1. G. Mactavish, head of York factory for most of the
1820s, William Conolly, chief factor in charge of New Caledonia, and
countless other Scots followed along similar paths. The same situation
occurred in the South Atlantic region. One scholar has estimated that in
late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century Georgia, Indian women
raised about four hundred mixed-blood offspring by themselves.
But not all Scots fur traders left their Native
consorts. Alexander Ross remained devoted to his Indian wife, as did
Angus McDonald, Donald A. Smith, John McLoughlin, and a number of others
who stayed with their Native or mixed-blood women for life. Whichever
arrangement prevailed, however, the end result was to produce a number
The emergence of these Scoto-Indians should not be
all that surprising. Historically there were a number of parallels
between the American Indians and the Highland and Island world from
which the traders usually came. In each case the physical conditions of
life, governed by the change of seasons and often perched on the edge of
hunger, proved similar. There could not have been much difference
between an Isle of Lewis beehive shieling and a Great Plains tipi or a
Mandan earthen lodge.
The two groups shared cultural similarities as well.
Each was an indigenous people. Each had fought lengthy battles,
stretching over centuries, both against one another and against English
speaking invaders. Each had achieved partial, but by no means complete,
success in fending off the invasions.
As indigenous peoples, their social structures
reflected numerous similarities. Each viewed land as essentially a
communal resource, not a commodity to be bought and sold for profit Each
identified itself by bands or clans, and since chiefdom descended
through lineage, each devised a system flexible enough to allow
selection of the best person for the job. (The British monarchy found
itself much more restricted in this regard.) Some anthropologists have
found parallels between the fall Indian Green Corn dances and the
Highland Beltane fires and harvest ceremonies. Since the cultures were
primarily oral, each group accorded the bard or orator a position of
great significance. The ballads, songs, folklore, and stories passed on
to the children contained the distilled wisdom of their people.
One even finds a similarity between Native and
Scottish naming practices. Historian George MacDonald Fraser has argued
that many a Scots Borders name, such as Hob the King, Dand the Man, Red
Cloak, and Wynking Will, carried special meaning. The similarity to
American Indian names such as Black Elk, Crazy Horse, Red Shirt, and
Rain-in-the-Face is intriguing. In each case these names must have
carried connotations of social significance, "elegant
recklessness," and prowess that modern researchers can only
estimate. That members of both groups were driven from their homelands,
one by the infamous Highland Clearances, the other by white encroachment
and Indian removal, deepens the parallel. Finally, the deep wisdom and
strength of character that each group has displayed over the centuries
has allowed them to endure these calamities with dignity.
Viewed historically, the Highland Scots and the
American Indians were tribal peoples. Modern Scottish clan maps show how
each chieftain drew the lines of his territory. For the laird, having a
group of men at his call alone meant security. The symbol for gathering—a
fiery cross sent around from village to village—later took on far more
sinister connotations in the United States.
Anyone who looks at Scottish history is astounded by
the constant round of violence and murder. No element of society was
spared. Of the six Stuart sovereigns from James I to Mary Queen of
Scots, for example, only one died a natural death. The ultimate symbolic
event of the internecine warfare occurred in the valley of Glencoe,
where, on February 13, 1692, the Campbells massacred the MacDonalds
after enjoying their hospitality for several weeks.
It has been said that Glencoe symbolizes the end of
the old Highland social order, as the traditional hospitality fell
victim to political considerations. As historian Allan I. Macinnes has
shown, the shift from a traditional to a commercialized society began as
early as the seventeenth century. From that time forward the various
clan leaders themselves, not just outside forces, helped accelerate the
demise of traditional Highland society.The power of the
clans was not finally broken until the battle of Culloden in 1746, after
which the traditional rivalry was siphoned off into wars of empire and,
later, the sporting contests of the famed Highland games. The Scottish
tradition of using clan names for fore- and surnames (Gordon Ross; Ross
Gordon) shows the desire to keep these clan distinctions alive.
The lack of written records makes the re-creation of
Native history before contact a bit more problematic, but
anthropologists agree that the band or town served as the chief social
unit here, too. As among the Scottish clans, trading and raiding against
one another proved commonplace among the American Indians. The Peace
River in northern Canada drew its name from a reconciliation between two
warring tribes, the Cree and the Beaver. Navajos and Apaches regularly
attacked the Pueblos of the Southwest. The Huron despised the Iroquois,
the Crow distrusted the Blackfeet, and the Sioux were disliked by all
their neighbors. Indeed, one reason why the British, Spanish, and French
could gain their initial footholds on the continent was that Native
bands were willing to use the
Europeans in their long-standing conflicts with their
neighbors. The Pan-Indian movement did not really gain ground until the
late nineteenth century.
A number of nineteenth-century travelers remarked on
these Celtic-Native similarities. In 1838 Hugh Murray admired the bonds
within the tribal union. ‘The honour and welfare of the clan supply
the ruling principle," noted Murray, "and are cherished with
an ardour not surpassed in the most brilliant eras of Greek and Roman
patriotism." He commented that, like the Highland clans, so long as
any tribal member had sufficient food, no one was in the least danger of
starvation. Another traveler, D. B. Warden, observed how tribes
recognized basic boundaries between groups as they wandered over the
Great Plains. Impressed by the hospitality and kindness of certain
tribes to their friends, he saw an obvious Celtic-Indian link. "So
unbounded is the hospitality of the Osages," he wrote, "that
cooks are sent about to cry as in some parts of Ireland, come, come, and
partake of the feast of the chief man of the village; and to refuse this
invitation is a proof of bad manners." In The Heart of
Midlothian (1818) Sir Walter Scott told of a Highland outlaw who
escaped to America to become an Indian chief. Almost fifty years later
Lady Aberdeen found among the Black-feet "many faces reminding us
of Scottish characteristics."
From the early nineteenth century forward, many
observers believed that both Highland and American Indian cultures were
on the inevitable road to extinction. Given the evolutionary
anthropology of the time, this made perfect sense. All societies were
seen as climbing the "ladder of culture" and the more
"primitive" ones would soon disappear. In 1840 Highland
traveler James Browne concluded his massive three-volume study, A
History of the Highlands and of the Island Clans, with the
prediction that the old feelings, habits, customs, traditions, and
superstitions would vanish within a few years. Across the Atlantic, many
held similar views regarding the Indians. Writing
in America’s centennial years, British observer W.
Bond Dawkins urged people to record the "red man’s history"
immediately or it would be lost forever. A few years later, photographer
Edward Curtis began his massive documentary program with just this theme
in mind. Curtis’s famed image, "The Vanishing Race,"
reflects this perspective."
Such facile assumptions took more than a century to
pass from view. In the 1990s the American Indian birthrate considerably
exceeds the national average. So, too, are the Westerm Isles of Scotland
gaining in population. Not only that, the Highland Gaels and the
American Indians have assumed almost mythic proportions for their
respective nations. Bagpipes, kilts, and misty glens entice tourists
north of the Tweed just as Indian festivals, powwows, and reservations
lure them to the western American states. As Tom Sawyer might have
remarked, the story of their demise has been greatly exaggerated.
Since both Highland and Native societies revolved
around a fluid oral culture, no figure was as central to their life as
the bard. A warrior might perform valiant deeds, but his fame would soon
vanish if he had no bard to record them for posterity. The bardic
tradition had especially deep roots in Scottish life. In the early
fourteenth century poet Blind Harry composed his Wallace, which
was followed in 1375 by John Barbour’s The Brus. The
quasi-fictional work by eighteenth-century poet James MacPherson,
attributed to an ancient Celtic bard, Ossian, drew from this oral
tradition. About the same time, the vernacular bards merged their songs
with a set of Jacobite lyrics. Since political Jacobitism was no longer
a serious threat by the late eighteenth century, the Jacobite popular
song gradually emerged as the focal point of Scottish culture. Robert
Burns, Scotland’s most famous bard, drew heavily upon these songs for
his poetry, as did Sir Walter Scott. When one thinks of Scotland, the
ballads, poetry, and music always emerge as prominent cultural elements.
The American Indians had a similar oral culture. At
the time of contact the bands of North America spoke more than five
hundred mutually unintelligible languages, representing perhaps the
greatest linguistic diversity in the history of the world. Early
negotiators of treaties recognized how important the orator was for this
world. Gilbert Imlay’s 1792 description of the western territory of
North America remarked on the Indians’ "talents of natural
eloquence." A generation later, Hugh Murray observed how the
Indians of New York State had mastered all the tricks of European
diplomacy. He marveled even more at the oratorical skills of the
Iroquois leader. When the chief of the Iroquois spoke to the French
governor, he informed him in no uncertain terms that he spoke for all
the five nations. ‘The function of oratory among the five
nations," Murray noted, "had become a separate profession,
held in equal or higher honour than that of the warrior."
A native folk wisdom permeated these oral traditions
at every juncture. The Celtic lands of Eire, Northern Ireland, and
western Scotland are replete with folk legends. In fact, this region may
well have produced the richest folk tradition on the face of the globe.
Highland folklore abounded with tales of the invisible "little
people" (faeries) who moved easily between seen and unseen worlds.
Legends of mermaids, banshees, sea monsters, black dogs, kelpies,
charms, potions, and enchanted wells have long infused Highland life.
Most of these creatures proved troublesome, and few humans meddled in
their affairs without sorrow. For example, modern New Yorker
writer John McPhee spoke of a man who was wandering along the coast of
the island of Colonsay when a city woman
popped up from behind the bushes to warn him not to kiss any faeries he
might encounter (which is certainly good advice).
A number of these tales crossed to America with the
Scots settlers. Both the southern Appalachian frontier and the Ozarks
abound with such stories. If a cock crows at midnight, a death
will follow; to break a mirror brings seven years’
bad luck; black cats mean trouble; wearing a garment wrong side out
brings luck to those involved in water witching; "charming" a
rifle makes it more accurate—it can
even remove an enemy spell, if one has been cast upon it. The list could
Yet the brunt of Celtic folklore remained firmly
anchored on the British side of the Atlantic. Castles, dungeons, ruined
manses, haunted wells, and spirit stones proved essential habitats for
the elves, faeries, and brownies. Similarly, American sheep raising did
not provide a suitable setting for shepherds’ pipes or for beautiful
shepherdesses dancing on the green. The absence of enchanted forests,
deserted valleys, and "castles mouldering into ruin" meant
that the New World would produce a different type of folk tradition. No
invisible spirits could live in a log cabin, remarked traveler Judge
James Hall. The Indians produced no accounts of aboriginal ghosts or
"copper coloured brownies."
Judge Hall, however, missed the point. If the Native
folklore tradition did not produce any "little people," it did
produce a number of "little animals." The Native stories
frequently touched on a time long, long ago, when humans and animals
could speak with one another. Spider Woman taught the Navajos of the
Southwest to weave, and Beaver taught the Eastern Woodland peoples how
to work with wood. From the birds, the Natives learned which berries to
harvest and which to avoid. Tales of the half-human Sasquatch of the
Pacific Northwest kept children near the campfires at night. The legend
of Buffalo Calf Woman is still central to the Northern Plains people,
and the story of the White Buffalo calf is an essential item of faith.
No character achieved more fame in Native folklore
than Coyote. The universal trickster of virtually all western bands,
Coyote always caused trouble for the other animals, and he dearly paid
for it in the end. Native children
loved Coyote stories, for the moral was obvious. Indian parents have
used them for
centuries to teach their children. (I will discuss
Coyote in more detail later in the chapter.) Whether spoken around
Native campfires during the winter storytelling season or woven into
hundreds of songs and poems in Gaelic communities across the world, folk
narratives such as these have embodied a social wisdom that has endured
Such wisdom proved especially necessary in times of
trouble, and both groups have experienced more than their share of it.
As the Highland crofters lived through the infamous Clearances of
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so, too, did the Natives of
North America suffer through a series of removals that began in the
seventeenth century and culminated in the 1830s. Overlooked for years by
the dominant culture, the stories of the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the
Navajo Long Walk are slowly becoming better known. The books by
historian Angie Debo, a number of recent films, and the decision by the
National Park Service to officially demark the main spots on the Trail
of Tears have led to a renewed consciousness of this tragic aspect of
Although the saga of the Scottish Clearances is well
known in Canada, it is much less widely recognized in the United States.
Yet this forced and semiforced exodus continued for over a century.
Historian Michael Lynch has noted that because of the varied nature of
crofter society, the Clearances emerged as hundreds of "local
Emigration from the Highlands and Islands varied
considerably over the years. During the late eighteenth century, many
emigrants left voluntarily, often in opposition to the wishes of their
landlords. Historian J. M. Bumsted has termed this wave of departures
the "people’s" Clearance. It was this group that James
Boswell observed, on his famous 1773 trip to the Western Isles,
poignantly performing a "dance called America." From the early
nineteenth century onward, however, most Clearances contained an element
of explicit or implicit force. Almost fifteen thousand left the
Sutherland estates alone during the first part of the century; perhaps
sixteen thousand emigrated from the Highlands and Islands in the
aftermath of the potato famine of the 1 840s. Although the Worst
Clearances came at the hands of mid-nineteenth-century absentee
landlords, Highland folk memory has seized on the expulsions from the
northern county of Sutherland—c. 1806 to c. 1820, led by the infamous
factor Patrick Sellar—as the most heartless. Even today, locals term
the Sutherland Clearances "the evictions."
The population losses proved both severe and
permanent. In Sutherland, for example, a region that had once supported
two thousand people soon contained a Work force of about thirty
shepherds herding countless sheep. In other areas, such as Upper Deeside,
the straths have never again been brought under cultivation.
Given the population pressure and scarcity of land,
many nineteenth-century reformers touted emigration as the best answer
to Highland and Island social problems, although one observer compared
the task to that of Sisyphus. The emigration from the Outer Hebrides
continued well into the twentieth century. A 1923 account describing the
departure of the Metagama, with three hundred from the Isle of
Lewis on board, would easily have been recognized in Boswell’s time:
Since the lights of the Metagama dipped
below the horizon, we have all been conscious of a lack in our lives
and have engaged in our daily occupations with a heaviness of spirit
mingled at times with a sense of buoyancy born of our hopes for the
future—probably prophetic of the days when our young men and women
will return to us richer in material benefits, and with the moral
qualities characteristic of our Celtic nature, refined and matured by
contact with the sterner fires of nature which are to be met with in
the land of their adoption.
Through countless retellings over the years, the
emigration from the Highlands and Islands and the removal of the
American Indians from the east to Oklahoma have assumed mythological
proportions. These narratives operate on many levels, of
course, but their chief function is to anchor the present firmly in
the past. Thus, for those who think primarily in images, as most oral
cultures do, the present retains a distinct historical echo. For oral
cultures, place looms as far more significant than time. Whenever one
passes by the location of a major event, whenever it may have
occurred, one recalls the story in all its splendor.
Thus, for both Native and Celtic cultures, the past
is never very far away. ‘The Highlander loves his past and his
native land with a passionate attachment and the story of the
Clearances is still deeply embedded in his mind," wrote Ian
MacPherson. "A storekeeper in Edinburgh’s High
Street or a fishmonger in Perth can no more get away from the past
than can an inhabitant of Hawaii get away from the Pacific
Ocean," observed historian Geddes MacGregor. In many
areas of the Highlands local folk memory still blames the Clearances
for the collapse of traditional forms of life. A telling incident to
this effect occurred during the early 1970s, when a radical Scottish
theatre group performed a traveling drama that reenacted the infamous
Sutherland Clearances onstage. One weekend they performed for some
isolated Highland villagers, and during the play a woman stood up to
denounce the character playing the chief villain of the piece, Patrick
Sellar. Why, she asked him, had he done such terrible things to her
One finds a similar "presence of the
past" in American Indian cultures. Pueblo Indians of the
Southwest annually observe the anniversary of the 1680 revolt that
drove the Spanish invaders to El Paso for a decade. A number of
Pueblos are still critical of Isleta Pueblo, which generally sided
with the Spanish in this conflict. Whether contemporary New Englanders
would harbor the same intensity of feeling about the Salem
witchcraft trials of 1692 is an open question. In the late 1930s some
Bureau of Indian Affairs reformers were explaining the
then-little-known Battle of Wounded Knee to a group of congressmen.
"When did all this occur?" one asked. Eighteen ninety was
the reply. "Why, that’s ancient history, isn’t it?"
he snapped. For the congressman, yes—but not for the Sioux.
Perhaps it is no accident that some contemporary Scots term the
English who move to their land "white settlers."
The cultural similarity between these two tribal
societies meant that the Scotch-Native interaction could assume many
forms. Take, for example, the cross-cultural borrowing of clothing
styles. In the Rocky Mountain region local tribes adopted the Scottish
brimmed cap, often embellishing it with designs of their own. Similarly,
the New York Iroquois added elaborate beadwork to produce a modified
Highland Glengarry bonnet. The most documented Scottish influence on
Native clothing, however, occurred among the Cherokee, Creek, and
Seminole of the Southeast.
As early as the 1730s, British philanthropistJames
Oglethorpe enticed a band of Highlanders, mostly from the Inverness
region, to settle in Georgia with the hope that this Presbyterian group
would serve as a buffer against the Catholic Spanish in Florida. The
settlers thrived, and by midcentury members of Clan Chattan virtually
controlled all the Indian trade within the Creek nation. One trade item
that proved popular was cloth for a kilt, for by coincidence the
outlawed Scottish kilt resembled the traditional male Creek breechcloth.
Both of these skirtlike outfits proved especially suitable for Georgia’s
wet, marshy terrain, and traveler William Bartram once likened Creek
dress to the Highland kilt. The Scots traders influenced Creek headgear
as well, selling a number of turban like coverings, to which the Natives
usually added feathers. With each passing decade, noted historian J.
Leitch Wright, Jr., "the dress of Muscogulge warriors seemed more
like that of Highland lairds."
The cultural borrowing between Scots and southeastern
Natives did not stop with the modification of material objects. Ideas,
stories, and legends must have been exchanged as well. Although these
are hard to trace with any precision, they are potentially far more
powerful. In the legends surrounding the Battle of Culloden, one meets,
perhaps, the most extensive Scots-Native borrowing of all.
The battle of Culloden in 1746 did far more than
simply send Jacobite sympathizers to North America. This last dramatic
rallying of the Scots clans may also have had an impact on the evolution
of American Indian resistance strategy against the Euro-American
settlers. Although this is admittedly a speculative argument—no
documentary evidence exists one way or the other—it has the benefit of
historical logic. The case revolves largely around the activities of the
Clan McGillivray proved one of the most staunch
supporters of the Stuart cause. McGillivray of Dunnaglas led Clan
Chattan at Culloden. A number of Jacobite ballads celebrate the name
McGillivray. An early list of members of the Charleston St. Andrew’s
Society (founded in 1729) contains the names of several people banished
to the Colonies after the 1715 Jacobite uprising, including John and
Lachlan McGillivray. This Lachlan McGillivray is almost certainly the
fur trader who in the 1750s married a mixed-blood Creek-French woman
from the prestigious Creek Wind clan. In c. 1759, she had a son,
Alexander McGillivray, who would become the most powerful Native leader
of his generation.
In the early 1770s Lachlan sent young Alexander to
Charleston, South Carolina, to study with his cousin, Presbyterian
minister Farquahar McGillivray. There Alexander was tutored in Greek,
Latin, British history, and literature. He also briefly worked in a
mercantile firm. During these years, Alexander certainly must have
listened to tales of Culloden and the massing of the clans, especially
These stories of Culloden would almost assuredly have
assumed the form of "might have beens." "If only"
the prince’s army had not been so weary; they had not been forced to
fight on a badly chosen field; all the clans had rallied and they had
not been so outnumbered; the powerful Clan MacPherson had been
available; Clan McDonald, which had fought on the right with Robert
Bruce at Bannockburn, had not been shifted to the left at Culloden
(confirming the old prophecy in the Western Isles that when Scotland’s
right hand in battle was withdrawn from the McDonalds, bad luck would
follow); and so on. As the initial romantic lost cause, theJacobite
defeat of 1746 emerged in legend, story, and song as the first
"revisionist" history. As such, it
assumed protean forms.
When the American Revolution broke out, the senior
McGillivray supported the British and eventually retired to an estate in
the Highlands. Alexander, however, returned to his Creek homeland. There
he lived in a style reminiscent of a country squire, owning a large
estate and several slaves.
From this time forward, Alexander McGillivray tried
to steer his divided Creek peple through the intense political realities
of the day. Termed "the American Tallyrand," he negotiated
with the British, Spanish, and Americans regarding the Creek homeland.
Since he boasted that he could call out ten thousand Creek warriors at a
moment’s notice (a Scottish clan pattern as well), the Euro-Americans
treated him with respect. The Spanish put him on their payroll; the
Florida-based British trade firm of Panton, Leslie and Company employed
him; and George Washington gave him annual payments. When McGillivray
visited New York City at Washington’s invitation, the new government
entertained him like visiting royalty, which, in a sense, he was.
A shrewd negotiator and prolific letter writer,
McGillivray presented the Creek case with skill. In 1784 he denounced
the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution, declaring that the Creeks
had always been a free people and that the British king had no right to
give away their ancestral lands to the Americans. He even spoke with a
U.S. congressman’s representative about the possibility of the Creek
Nation’s entering the American Union as a distinct "ethnic
state." Since Canada and Florida remained in British hands, the
eastern seaboard with the Americans, and Louisiana and St. Louis in
Spanish control, the diplomacy proved intricate. McGillivray once
predicted that ‘Three Kings" (British, Spanish, and American)
would soon divide the continent.
Yet the heart of McGillivray’s plan was to unite
the often quarrelsome Creek factions, plus the other usually
antagonistic southeastern tribes, into a pan-Indian movement to halt the
inexorable American advance into Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. He
even negotiated—unsuccessfully—with northern tribes on this matter.
His fragile southeastern alliance held, more or less, until his death in
1793. Afterwards, Native factionalism in the Southeast brought further
pan-Indian efforts to an end.
A generation later, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and
his brother, the Prophet, created a similar, even more successful
pan-Indian confederation to resist the encroachment of the Americans.
Tecumseh’s mother, Metheataske (Turtle Laying Its Eggs), it should be
noted, was an Alabama Creek of McGillivray’s generation. She must have
been aware of McGillivray’s earlier efforts to unite the Creeks
against the European invaders.
Even if Culloden had not occurred, there is little
doubt that the American Indians would have adopted a similar pan-Indian
defensive tactic. The Ottawa chief Pontiac attempted this in his 1763
uprising, drawing Shawnees, Delawares, Hurons, Senecas, Miamis,
Potawatomis, and Chippewas into his movement. But since the saga of the
massing of the clans had surely been part of McGillivray’s household,
it is possible—theevidence
will support no stronger statement—that the famed Creek leader also
drew on the historic legend of Culloden to bolster his own case. In
truth, it would be astonishing if he did not.
Although Alexander McGillivray was the most prominent
southeastern Scoto-Indian, he was not alone. The surnames McPherson and
McIntosh (originally from the Inverness region) remain prominent in
Creek history, especially in the Removal Era. The Colbert family played
a role in Chickasaw life all through the nineteenth century, as did the
McCoys and McKennans for the Choctaws.
The most famous Scoto-Indian of the early nineteenth
century, the leader who oversaw Cherokee removal to Oklahoma, was John
Ross. By blood Ross was seven-eighths Scots and one-eighth Cherokee.
Educated by clergymen, he always spoke English better than Cherokee,
although he understood it fluently. A visitor to Ross’s boyhood home
once likened it to a Scottish manor house.
John Ross never forgot his Scottish links. During the
spring of 1847 he read of the efforts of a Philadelphia organization to
aid the Highland poor—estimated to number three hundred thousand—who
were suffering from the potato famine. "Have the Scotch no claim on
the Cherokees?" Ross asked. "Have they not a very especial
claim? They have." Thus, he wrote to the Cherokee Advocate to
request that the tribe meet in Tahlequah to raise money for the cause.
The Cherokees met, appointed a relief committee, and in May 1847, sent
$190 to a New York bank "for the relief of those who are suffering
by the famine in Scotland." Many an Oklahoma Indian surname today
harkens back to a distant Scottish ancestor.
The Southeast was not alone in this regard, for many
other regions boasted Scoto-Indians as well. In Hispanic California, for
example, Hugo Reid, originally from Cardross, married a wealthy
Gabrieleno woman, Doña Victoria. By this union he inherited two ranchos
and two adopted sons, Felipe and José, who soon sported imported kilts
and went by the surname Reid. Unfortunately, neither lived long enough
to continue the line. In the 1840s Rev. David Macrae found a common bond
with an Iroquois leader whose mother was a "Mac" and who
proudly claimed Scottish blood. In 1850 William Ferguson encountered a
Scoto-Indian woman near Galena, Illinois, who lived in a wigwam near the
town. Scoto-Indians became especially prominent in the Pacific
Northwest. James Findlay, pioneer explorer of Saskatchewan, sired a son,
Jacco Findlay, who was a leading figure in Spokane until his death in
1828.J. G. MacTavish, who forced the surrender of John Jacob Astor’s
Fort Astoria in 1813, fathered many children by Native women, as did
Aberdonian trapper of the Columbia, Finian MacDonald. The list could be
On several occasions these fathers renewed their
connections to Scotland by returning there with their families or by
sending the children overseas for a European education. The most
outstanding early twentieth-century athlete on the Isle of Lewis, for
example, had an Indian mother. So many Orkney men returned with their
American families that the islanders erected a small college in St.
Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay to educate the mixed-blood
children. One of these returnees, a lad named "Huskie"
Sanders, arrived in Stromness in 1886. Product of an Orkney father and a
Cree mother, Sanders was sent to Orkney to be educated by his
grandparents. For three years young Sanders participated in the life of
a Scottish schoolboy, but he longed to return to Canada and finally his
family agreed. When he boarded the ship in 1889, his schoolmates cheered
his departure until the ship rounded Hoy and disappeared from view.
Probably the most articulate of these Scoto-Indian
returnees was Alexander Kennedy Isbister. Son of a Scots HBC clerk and a
Cree mother, Isbister lived in Red River, Canada, until his father sent
him to enroll at King’s College, Aberdeen, from which he graduated in
1842. He later became a dean of a British teachers’ college. From this
post he lobbied both Westminster and the Colonial Office on behalf of
the Red River Métis. Eventually, he denounced the HBC’s treatment of
Indians and mixed-bloods in a pamphlet, A Few Words on the Hudson’s
Bay Company, with a Statement of Grievances of the Native and Half Cast
Indians, Addressed to the British Government Through Their Delegates Now
in London (1847). In one eloquent passage he compared their lives to
those of the slaves in the American South.
Historians have just begun to pay attention to the
Scoto Indians. Both Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer S. H. Brown have
recently provided major contributions to our understanding of these
peoples, but a great deal needs to be done. One generalization can be
tentatively set forward. During the nineteenth century, French Métis
often adopted different life-styles from those of the Scottish
mixed-bloods. Captain John Palliser, who explored western Canada during
the 1850s, observed that the Métis preferred Native life, whereas the
"Scotch half-breeds" were anxious "to profit by the
advance of civilization in the old country as well as [they] can."
Perhaps Palliser’s off-the-cuff observation
contains a grain of truth. If so, the most likely reason for this would
rest with the father’s influence. From the mother, a young mixed-blood
person would learn North American survival skills; from the father he or
she would hear stories about another version of education. The French
and Scottish fur traders came largely from the same social class. But
the Scots retained a respect for "democratic learning" that
the French trappers often lacked. And the heart of this attitude
involved literacy. Rev. John West, HBC Episcopal chaplain to Red River
in the 1820s, was astounded to discover on his trip over that the Scots
sailors were both well and scripturally informed. Every one of them
could read the New Testament.
Consequently, many Scoto-Indians were exposed to at
least a smattering of Western-style education. This, in turn, allowed
them to assume yet another social role: that of cultural broker. One can
find a number of nineteenth-century Scoto-Indians who served as cultural
brokers or intermediaries between the Native and white worlds.
One does not have to look far for examples. James
Ross, son of Alexander Ross and an Okanogan mother, received a formal
education and served for years as night editor for the Toronto Globe.
Jerry Potts, a mixed-blood son of a Scots trader and a Piegan woman,
played a similarly important role in Northern Plains history. Potts
participated in the Blood and Piegan victory over the Cree and
Assiniboins in the fall of 1870 and for years was highly valued by the
Canadian government for the skill with which he explained the ways of
the Canadian Mounted Police to his people. He was also a leader in the
destruction of the illegal whiskey trade to the Piegans. The Canadian
Mounties thought highly of him.
James R. Murie, who was born in Nebraska in 1862, had
a Scottish father and a Skin Pawnee mother. He enrolled in Hampton
Institute in Virginia in 1879 and graduated in 1884 with skills in
printing and teaching; he was also confirmed in the Protestant Episcopal
Church. After rejoining his mother’s group—then removed to Oklahoma—in
the 1890s, Murie faced great difficulty in readjusting to Native life
until he began work as an ethnographer.
At some time during the 1890s a Pawnee priest,
Kurabus, taught Murie an elaborate Pawnee ceremony, which Murie recorded
on the old Edison wax cylinders. For over fifteen years he continued to
collect, annotate, and record a large body of Pawnee songs, stories, and
dances on the cylinders. Pioneer anthropologist Alice Fletcher
Cunningham relied heavily on his aid for her studies, as did Smithsonian
curator George A. Dorsey. In 1914 James R. Murie published Pawnee
Indian Societies, one of the most important works on Pawnee cultural
traditions. Thus, Murie served as an effective "broker"
between Pawnee and white worlds.
Army scout Archie McIntosh served as a cultural
broker in quite another manner, both in the Pacific Northwest and in the
desert Southwest. Born at Fort William, Michigan, of Scots/Chippewa
ancestry, Archie’s father moved to the Fraser River with the HBC.
During their stay there, the senior McIntosh taught Archie to spell and
do elementary mathematics while the two of them canoed the lakes to
check their traps. After his father’s murder by an unknown assailant
(at the time believed to be a Native jealous of white trappers), Archie
was sent to Vancouver for two years of school. At age twelve he was put
on a ship to Edinburgh to live with relatives, and he received two more
years of Scottish education. Upon his return to Vancouver he worked as a
clerk with the HBC for about a year.
In 1855 Archie McIntosh entered the service of the
U.S. Army as a scout. Working with another Scoto-Indian, Donald McKay,
he saved a band of U.S. soldiers from a number of Columbia River Native
attacks. As one contemporary reporter observed, ‘The whole body of
troopers would have been massacred had it not been for the strategy of
those two cunning half breeds."
McIntosh’s reputation grew steadily, and he soon
became General George Crook’s favorite scout. Crook trusted him
implicitly, and McIntosh played a major role in the campaign against the
Pitt River Indians and the Piutes of Northern California. The common
soldiers also respected his skills. This respect grew to semimythical
proportions in January 1867, when Archie McIntosh led General Crook and
his men through a blinding blizzard to safety at Camp Warner in Oregon.
In 1896 McIntosh confessed to a reporter how he did it:
I knew there was going to be a blizzard and watched
the course of the wind. When it [the
blizzard] was upon us, General Crook asked if we had not better go
into camp until it passed over, but I said "follow me and I will
put you into Camp Warner by 4 o’clock p.m." So the General said
no more but kept close behind me, and you bet I kept the wind on my
right cheek for nine long hours, but had it changed its direction ten degrees my goose would
have been cooked.
McIntosh battled a drinking problem all through his
military career, but his skills were so admired that his commanders
usually overlooked it. In 1871 he was again assigned to General Crook,
who had recently been sent to Arizona Territory to battle the San
Carlos and Tonto Apaches. There he fought in the 1874 clashes near
florence and Globe and participated in Crook’s last campaign against
Geronimo. McIntosh was present in Geronimo’s camp in the Sierra
Madre mountains of Mexico when Crook had his famous interview with the
Apache chief. The situation was so tense, McIntosh recalled later,
that if a gun had accidentally discharged, all the whites would have
After the close of the Apache campaign McIntosh
married a San Carlos woman (he seems to have had an earlier Pacific
Northwest family as well) and settled on the San Carlos reservation in
Arizona. There he gained a reputation as a great teller of stories. He
later sent his son to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, and
McIntosh descendants held important roles in San Carlos affairs well
into the twentieth century. Praised at the time for his
"gallant and invaluable service" as a scout, Archie McIntosh
played an important broker’s role in both Oregon and Arizona.
Perhaps the most famous Scoto-Indian cultural
broker of his generation was Montana’s Duncan McDonald. McDonald was
born in 1849 at Fort Connen, the last HBC post established within the
present boundaries of the United States. His father, Angus McDonald,
was born in Ross Shire in 1816,joined the HBC in 1838, and was posted
to Fort Colville in Oregon Territory. Fluent in Gaelic, French, and
several Native languages, Angus soon became well respected in both
Indian and white circles. Territorial governor Isaac I. Stevens
thought very highly of him. Duncan’s mother was full-blood, Salish-speaking
Flathead. Thus, Duncan McDonald grew to maturity with one foot in both
the Indian and white worlds.
After retiring from the HBC McDonald senior ran large
herds of cattle on the plains of Montana. He died in 1889, the year
Montana became a state. McDonald had hired tutors to teach Duncan to
read and write, talents that allowed his son to become the most
prominent mixed-blood spokesman in Montana’s history.
Duncan gained his initial audience shortly after the
Nez Perce war of 1877. Both McDonalds believed that the Native version
of the conflict deserved publicity. They contacted a local newspaper,
the Deer Lodge New North-West, and the paper paid Duncan’s
expenses to travel to Canada to interview White Bird, to whom he was
related, plus a number of other Nez Perce leaders. Together with his
father, Duncan reworked his extensive notes into a series of essays that
the New North-West published in several installments from January
1879 forward. The editors boasted that the data in the articles
"can be relied upon as authentic from the Nez Perce
The lengthy articles on the war and the Native
retreat were both well written and crammed with detail. There was no
question of McDonald’s perspective. ‘The gallant Seventh
Infantry!" he said. "It should be called the cursed Seventh.
They were not satisfied in killing Indians whom they found asleep. They
must kill women and children, too." The articles also provoked
several white responses: one merely asked for more details, but another
accused McDonald of down playing Native atrocities against white
families. These newspaper essays by Duncan McDonald were probably the
first authentic historical accounts written from the Indian perspective.
Although McDonald once replied to a question about
his schooling, "Education—I never had any education," his
later career belies that comment. Although almost completely
self-taught, over the years he became highly skilled with words. An
astute observer, he moved easily in the Salish world and that of Montana
white society. Toward the end of his long life (he lived until 1937),
newspaper reporters turned to him regularly on a variety of Native
issues. One reporter, M. O. Hammond of Toronto, called him "well
read and bright." Another, Ellen Nyc, termed him "almost a
savant among his red brethren." Reporter H. T. Balley called him
"the sage of the Flathead. In 1922 McDonald led a group of news
people to the remains of the Kullyspell house, the first trading post in
the Northwest, which was established by Welsh explorer David Thompson in
1809. On another trip he led Montana reporters to the site of the first
Flathead Indian agency. On many an occasion McDonald spoke of his
boyhood growing up on the old HBC trading post.
Duncan McDonald assumed many roles in Montana
society. Not only did he write the first Indian-perspective history, he
was also the first American Indian to compile a list of Coyote tales and
systematically present them to white audiences. Like his father, an
inveterate storyteller, McDonald first told his versions of Coyote tales
over several sittings to University of Montana journalism dean A. L.
Stone, who later printed them in a series of articles in 1912.
Coyote tales played an important role in almost all
American Indian societies. Trickster, sexual athlete, and general
all-around nuisance, Coyote served as a perfect source to explain the
origin of things as well as to convey moral lessons about behavior.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung later became fascinated with Coyote. Modern
Indian educators still draw on Coyote tales, and today they are formally
taught in elementary schools across the Navajo Nation. Working with
Stone, McDonald was probably the first person to make them available to
white audiences. One Coyote tale will suffice here:
One day long ago, the Holy People began to hang the
stars in the heavens. The stars lay in a heap in a large wicker basket, and one by one, the Holy People
picked them up to hang in their proper places.
Coyote wanted to help. "Let me hang stars,
too," he said. "I would be very good at this."
The Holy People said no. You’re too untidy,
they told him. This task has to be done with great precision. We can’t
have sloppy, careless people like you hanging the stars.
Coyote sulked and went away. For days he hid
behind the bushes watching. It seemed to him that the Holy People
took forever just to hang a single star. They would never be able to
finish at this rate.
Finally, Coyote could stand it no longer. One day
when everyone was away, Coyote raced over to the basket full of
stars. He grabbed it and ran to the edge of the mesa. With a great
heave he scattered the stars all across the heavens.
And that’s why the stars look the way they do
Duncan McDonald became a fixture of early
twentieth-century Montana society. Tourists who frequented the region
often sought him out, and in 1909 he enthralled a group at the Roman
Buffalo Round-up with Coyote tales and stories of early Montana. A
Toronto Globe reporter listened to McDonald’s yarns for more
than two hours, later remarking: "It was most interesting, and we
had quite a discussion over the morality of the white and red
Famed Montana artist Charles M. Russell knew and
respected Duncan McDonald. Once they even worked together to help move
a buffalo herd to Canada. In turn, McDonald praised Russell as a
skilled student of Indian life and sign language. In a collection of
short stories, Trails Plowed Under (1927), Russell immortalized
him in a short story, "Dunc McDonald," which told of his
harrowing escape from a wounded cow buffalo. Duncan
McDonald thus emerges as the most famed Scoto-Indian cultural broker of
the modern American West.
In 1984 historian L. G. Moses was doing research in
the Indian Archives Division of the Oklahoma Historical Society in
Oklahoma City. He observed many "Anglo"-looking people
approaching the archivists for help in tracing down a lost grandmother,
usually described as a Cherokee "princess." (The Cherokees
have no princesses.) Often the archivists rolled their eyes as they
assisted the researchers. Shortly afterwards, Moses was examining Native
American materials at the South Dakota Historical Society in Pierre.
There he observed a Brule Sioux from the nearby Rosebud Reservation
seeking out the archivists. The man wanted to look through the records,
he said, because he had just learned that he was descended from a
Scottish nobleman. The saga of the Scoto-Indians, it seems, appeals to
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.