Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier

Robert Ranstadler - September 3, 2017

The founding and development of the United States of America certainly didn’t happen overnight, nor did it occur without bloodshed and sacrifice. From the earliest settlers struggling in virgin forests, to the audacious pioneers that relentlessly marched westward across the Great Plains, dangers lurked around every corner. As time went on, most Americans increasingly settled for the relative safety of eastern towns and cities. For a bold few, however, the call of the unknown was irresistible. These frontiersmen and pioneers traveled a dangerous path, literally walking a fine line somewhere between life and death. What follows are some of their stories.

Trapper Survives Grizzly Bear Attack, Crawls Back to Civilization

Our first story is a familiar one, partly due to the success of the 2015 film, The Revenant. It’s a semi-biographical work in which Leonardo DiCaprio portrays the nineteenth-century American frontiersman, Hugh Glass. The explorer’s story has been retold many times over the years. Several literary tales, television episodes, and film adaptations preceded the 2015 movie, variously recounting his gruesome ordeal with differing degrees of accuracy. In a nutshell, Glass managed to fend off a vicious grizzly bear attack, while guiding an expedition through the wilderness. Gravely wounded and left for dead, the resolute frontiersman crawled 250 miles back to civilization, miraculously surviving the entire ordeal.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
“Caught Off Guard” by David Wright.

Regardless of how others embellished Glass’s story over the years, historians agree on two disturbing and impressive points. First, Hugh Glass was the genuine article. Born around 1783, he spent his entire adult life on the frontier. He already established himself as a reliable hunter, tracker, and frontiersman prior to the fated Ashely Expedition of 1823. Also, Glass truly did manage to single-handedly survive the enraged grizzly’s initial assault. Despite being badly mauled, he fired off a pistol shot, which scared the bear and alerted his fellow trappers. Together, the men eventually killed the grizzly.

The remainder of Glass’s story is sometimes overstated but nevertheless remarkable. Fellow trappers carried him through the wilderness for two days, which slowed the entire party and placed the group in immediate peril—an aggressive band of Arikara Indians were hot on their trail. Expedition leaders refused to mercy-kill the near-dead Glass, instead of leaving two volunteers behind with the guide until he succumbed to his wounds. Fictionalized accounts insist that fellow trapper, John Fitzgerald, tried to murder Glass to recoup lost investments and hasten his escape. Fitzgerald, however, simply ran because he thought Glass dead (a fact corroborated by others later down the road).

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
Hugh Glass Monument, South Dakota.

Glass survived unaided in the wilderness for weeks, swearing vengeance on the pair that abandoned him. Despite infected wounds, broken bones, and deep lacerations across his back, he slowly crawled back to the Missouri River. He survived on what could be harvested from the forest floor, including insects and the discarded, half-eaten kills of nearby predators. Glass eventually caught up with the pair of men, threatening to kill one and shaming the other. The tough frontiersman finally met his demise ten years later, along the Yellowstone River, when he was killed by a hostile party of Arikaras in 1833.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier

Mississippi Twister Kills Hundreds

Mother Nature proved one of the most formidable adversaries on the American Frontier, lashing out against pioneers and settlers in a variety of lethal ways. During the spring of 1840, she took the form of a deadly tornado that completely decimated the small river town of Natchez, Mississippi. Still considered the second-deadliest twister in U.S. history, the storm killed 317 citizens and injured approximately 100 more—the only tornado on record where deaths eclipsed injuries. According to modern estimates, the cyclone likely killed a greater number of people, as slaves were not officially counted among the dead.

The evening of May 6, 1840 was much like any other in the small southern town. Heavy spring rains soaked plantations and swelled the banks of the Mississippi River. Farmers, blacksmiths, and common folk tried to wait out the storm. Sunrise brought with it the promise of a new day, revealing loads of bustling steamboat traffic on the nearby waterway. Little would get done in the muddy fields, but river traders and haulers were already hard at work trying to turn a profit. In a world without phones or weather radar, none of them had any way of knowing what was next.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
Devastation in Natchez.

A second thunderstorm engulfed the town around noon, with the killer twister forming on the banks of the river, about twenty miles south of Natchez. The tornado snaked northeast, along the busy Mississippi, gaining strength with every mile. Falling upon the town with a thunderous roar, it flung flatboats like toys. Hundreds of people ran for cover but it was too late. Entire houses were lifter off their foundations, while barrels and carts shot through the air like ballistic missiles. The tornado flattened everything in its wake. A period newspaper reported that “Never, never, never, was there such desolation and ruin.”

Taking into consideration that the tornado struck during an era without the benefits of organizations like the National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or the American Red Cross truly compounds the matter. The people of Natchez, alone and decimated on the western edge of civilization, were forced to recover from the disaster in virtual isolation. Experts today estimate that the storm caused an adjusted $21 million in damage as it ravaged the town with winds exceeding 300 mph. Some meteorologists even suggest that the storm could have achieved F6 status, a rating considered practically impossible by most modern-day weather scientists.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
A typical Deadwood saloon (c. 1880). Pinterest

Man Shrugs Off Bullet to Brainpan

Deadwood, South Dakota received a great deal of popular attention about a decade ago with the emergence of a wild western television series bearing the town’s name. In the three seasons that Deadwood aired on HBO, a recurring cast of actors recounted the exploits of legendary frontier figures, such as Sheriff Seth Bullock, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and the colorful saloon owner, Al Swearengen. As is typically the case with many works of historical fiction, the writers of the series tended to cherry pick and embellish the most exciting elements of Deadwood’s past, which primarily centered around the Black Hills Gold Rush of the mid-1870s.

Although Deadwood remains an entertaining on-demand series, one of the more bizarre stories coming out of the South Dakota mining town never made it past HBO’s cutting room floors. According to official records, in January 1877, a man survived for 67 days after being shot in the head with a revolver. The story goes that the victim, David Lunt, was chatting with a few friends at a local saloon when a crazed drunk burst through the doors. The town marshal, Con Stapleton, attempted to disarm the madman, who inadvertently shot the nearby Lunt through the head.

Discharging a revolver into an unsuspecting person’s face typically leaves the victim dead. Amazingly, David Lunt sat up, dusted off his britches, and headed back home. The stunned onlookers watched Lunt leave the bar and stroll back to his house, with a hole completely through his head. Lunt didn’t complain of any pain and resumed his daily life, while his wild assailant was hauled off to jail. About two months later, however, Lunt began complaining about headaches. He later succumbed to his gruesome wound. An autopsy revealed that a shard of Lunt’s skull had embedded itself into his brain, eventually forming a terminal abscess.

About two months later, however, Lunt began complaining about headaches. He later succumbed to his gruesome wound. An autopsy revealed that a shard of Lunt’s skull had embedded itself into his brain, eventually forming a terminal abscess.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
Painting of an Indian abduction.

Frontier Woman Survives Five Years in Shawnee Captivity

One of the most disturbing first-hand accounts of frontier life was relayed by Margaret Handley Erskine during the early 1840s. An elderly Erskine shared with her family a tale from her tortured youth when, as a young mother and wife, she was abducted by a group of Shawnee Indians while traveling from Virginia to Kentucky. She recounted her plight on previous occasions but had grown tired of telling the story, as each recounting of her capture and captivity was an emotionally tasking ordeal. Her grandson, Allen T. Caperton, fortunately, documented her final accounting of events, which was later archived by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

On September 23, 1779, Margaret Erskine (then Margaret Paulee) departed Monroe, Virginia with her first husband, John Paulee, and infant daughter. Three other armed men and a second family rounded out the party, who were all set on starting new lives on the further west. Early into their trip, near the mouth of the East River (in modern-day Mathews County, Virginia), six Shawnee Indians ambushed the group of travelers. Margaret tried to escape but was brutally clubbed from the back of her horse. The incensed Shawnees murdered the men, took the women captive, and savagely killed Margret’s defenseless baby daughter.

The Shawnees took Margaret and the other prisoners back to camp, where they were beaten and denied food or water for days on end. She spent the next five years in Shawnee captivity, evading an attempt on her life and giving birth to her second child in the wilderness. The Shawnee constantly warred with white militias and the U.S. Army, who pushed further west every day.

Margaret and her child were eventually discovered and purchased out of captivity by a frontiersman, who took the pair back east to Pittsburg. Margaret eventually remarried, had more children, and lived to the ripe old age of 89.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
Captain Jonathan Davis.

Outlaws Ambush the Wrong Prospector

Start talking frontier history and it’s only a matter of time before shootouts and gunslingers enter the conversation. Gunfights literally shaped the history of the Old West, with men making names for themselves on both sides of the law. Popular culture regals many of today’s enthusiasts with romanticized tales of well-known figures, such as Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid. More obscure figures still dot the pages of history, however, and were no less dangerous than their iconic counterparts. One such man was Captain Jonathan R. Davis, a grizzled, no-nonsense militiaman and gold rush prospector of the mid-nineteenth-century.

A native South Carolinian, Captain Davis originally served in the Palmetto Regiment of Volunteers, which officially served the United States as a sanctioned militia unit during the Mexican-American War (1846-48). His unit received federal recognition near the very end of the war after serving in several engagements on the frontlines. On August 20, 1847, Davis was gravely wounded during the Battle of Churubusco, just outside of Mexico City. Several of his fellow volunteers were also killed or seriously injured during the firefight. Following the end of the war, Davis turned to prospect and ventured off in search of gold.

During the winter of 1854, Davis and a pair of fellow prospectors were ambushed near Sacramento, California. A group of eleven armed bandits, all of them murders and thieves, cut down Davis’s companions in minutes. Not one to run from a fight, Davis pulled out his Colt revolvers and went to work. He managed to plug seven of the outlaws before running out of ammo.

Undeterred, the South Carolinian drew his Bowie knife and continued the fight. After the dust had settled, one lay dead, one lost his nose, and a third was seriously wounded. The remaining outlaws ran for the hills. Obviously, they had crossed the wrong man.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
William F. Cody (c. 1876).

Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer

Scalping was a barbarous practice in which human scalps were ritually cut away from a victim’s skull and retained as war trophies by many martial societies of the past. In the New World, the practice developed independently among the tribes of the Americas. Native American warriors developed a fearsome reputation among white colonists for taking scalps but the practice was also a common feature of pre-colonial life. Amerindians frequently scalped one another during bloody intertribal conflicts. One of the most publicized and gruesome scalpings of the American West was perpetrated not by an Amerindian, however, but instead by a well-known white man, the iconic “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

Born in 1846, William Frederick Cody made a name for himself as a pony express courier and military man, eventually achieving distinction as the Army’s Chief of Scouts for the Third U.S. Cavalry. His nickname derived from his time spent while contracting with the Kansas Pacific Railroad when he killed over 4,000 buffalo in an eighteenth-month period. Cody eventually achieved fame as a showman back east, where he produced and starred in a series of popular Wild West shows in big cities like Chicago and New York. Cody made many friends along the way, including the young and flamboyant cavalry officer, George Armstrong Custer.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
“Buffalo Bill’s Duel with Yellowhand” by Charles M. Russell.

Cody was enraged upon discovered that Custer fell at Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876. He extracted his revenge at Warbonnet Creek, where he engaged a group of hostile Indians. Cody, blood drunk, killed and scalped one of the Cheyenne warriors, known as Yellowhand. He infamously waved the grisly trophy over his head while exclaiming, “The first scalp for Custer!” The act was shockingly well-received by the press and people back east, who also wanted revenge for Little Big Horn. Cody went as far as writing the scalping episode into his Wild West show—reportedly using the physical scalp as a marketing gimmick.

The American public eventually turned on Cody, especially after the U.S. Army crushed what little Amerindian resistance remained on the Great Plains. Newspapers and horrified citizens started to criticize Cody, who continued to aggrandize the story of Warbonnet Creek after most Native Americans were confined to reservations. Cody eventually changed his Wild West show, omitting the scalp from the playbill. In later life, the showman publicly regretted taking the scalp but still reveled in the fame he achieved on the frontier. The barbaric scalping remains a popular part of American Western history, with hundreds of images and stories woven around the tale.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
The Staked Plains. Pinterest

The Staked Plains Horror

Around the time Buffalo Bill took his “first scalp for Custer,” another great drama unfolded near the Texas Panhandle. Indian raiders stormed across the Great Plains, emboldened by stunning Sioux and Cheyenne victories at Rosebud Creek and Little Big Horn. In northwest Texas, a large group of Comanches followed suit by going off the reservation in December 1876. These raiders clashed with a party of encroaching buffalo hunters during the winter of 1877, igniting a protracted and bloody conflict. The army sent Captain Nicolas Merritt Nolan and the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry in pursuit of these renegades.

Nolan and about 60 men departed Fort Concho on July 10, 1877 for the Llano Estacado region of the Staked Plains. At 30,000-square miles, the mesa is brutal and unforgiving. Although home to over one million people today, the “Great American Desert” was a literal no man’s land during the late nineteenth century. Nolan encountered a group of vengeful bison hunters on the way to the plateau, who ambivalently agreed to join his column. The next two weeks were a disaster. Alcohol, poor planning, and supply shortages—along with a mutual mistrust between the two groups—proved their ultimate undoing.

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
Buffalo Soldier Tragedy Memorial, Morton, Texas.

After a night of hard drinking, the men departed from camp on July 19, 1877. Most of the wool-clad Buffalo Soldiers suffered under the relentless Texas sun, while the seasoned hunters and civilian scouts derided the green troopers for not rationing their water in the triple-digit heat. Members of the latter group grew restless and abandoned the column after several days of futile scouting. Nolan, wanting to prove himself a capable frontier commander, recklessly pushed forward. The company eventually started to run low on water, foreshadowing what would be recounted as the “Thirsting Time,” a five-day struggle for life and death on the Staked Plains.

On July 26, the soldiers and hunters marched seventeen miles in pursuit of the Comanches. They searched for water, only to find one dry lakebed after another. Desperate, the column stopped to suck the dew from small plants or fruitlessly dig shallow wells along the way. Over the next three days, distressed men drank their own urine or the blood of fallen horses. Some thirst-crazed soldiers even slashed open their own wrists to obtain refreshment. Amazingly, search parties located and the column a few days later. Newspapers later dubbed the ordeal, which claimed the lives and minds of several men, as “The Staked Plains Horror of 1877.”

Life on the Edge: 8 Harrowing Tales from the American Frontier
Sketch of the Great Flood of 1862. View of the corner of L and Fourth Streets, Sacramento.

The Great Flood of 1862

The final entry to make our list of harrowing tales is another horrific act of nature. Still considered one of the greatest natural disasters in the history of the American West, the Great Flood of 1862 remains the largest flood on record for the states of California, Oregon, and Nevada to this day. Precipitated by unprecedented amounts of rain, snow, and a freakishly warm storm during the winter months of 1861/1862, the flood washed away dozens of towns along the swelling Columbia River. From as far north as Oregon, all the way southern reaches of New Mexico, rushing waters devastated anyone or anything that stood in their path.

Recent studies reveal that a powerful weather pattern, like an El Niño type of jet stream, propelled a mile-high ribbon of heavy water vapor down through California from regions further north, such as modern-day Washington and parts of British Columbia. This 250-300 mile-wide “atmospheric river” played havoc with conventional weather patterns in the region, causing major precipitation across the Pacific Northwest and parts of northern California.

The unusual and unpredictable nature of the event, coupled with a lack of modern weather advisories and disaster relief agencies, complicated the catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of Americans endured over forty days of heavy rainfall and ceaseless floodwaters while fighting for their very survival.

Overall effects of the flooding varied by region but few were left unscathed. Steamboats in Oregon could run Willamette Falls, which normally stood over forty feet high. Linn City, Champoeg, and Orleans were completely wiped off the map and never rebuilt. Trapped miners faced starvation in parts of Idaho. California’s Central Valley was completely submerged under raging waters that swallowed entire towns. Although total deaths only numbered in the double digits, local infrastructure, livestock, and economies were completely rocked by the event. Recovering from the disaster took well over a decade and left thousands impoverished or desolate for generations after the flood.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Net – Hugh Glass: The Truth Behind the Revenant Legend

Telegraph – The Revenant: What Was Real and What Was Fake?

The Hollywood Reporter – The Real Story of ‘The Revenant’ Is Far Weirder (and Bloodier) Than the Movie

Natchez MS – The Great Natchez Tornado of 1840

American Heritage – Who Invented Scalping?

History Net – In 1876 George Custer Was Not Scalped, But Yellow Hair Was the ‘First Scalp for Custer’

JSTOR – The Truth Behind Buffalo Bill’s Scalping Act

Wikipedia – Buffalo Soldier Tragedy Of 1877

History Collection – The Notorious Men of the Wild West

History Collection – 12 Notorious Wild West Outlaws