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

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