Life of George Bent

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Pat Holscher
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Mon Jan 08, 2001 11:12 pm

This is a unique book, put together from the letters of a unique man, George Bent. It offers a very rare insight to plains warfare in the decade following the Civil War; that being the point of view from the Plains Indian.

George Bent was one of several sons of frontier trader Col. William Bent, who operated a series of trading "forts" in what is now southern Colorado, along with his brother. The Bents' institutions became a part of the life of the Cheyenne Indians, with whom they were closely associated. William Bent married Cheyenne women twice, and had several children of these marriages.

When George Bent was young, he was sent to Missouri to attend a boarding school, which is where he still was when the Civil War broke out. A teenager at that time, he joined the Confederate forces under Gen. Sterling Price, and saw combat in engagements in that war, including Pea Ridge, before being taken prisoner. After his whereabouts became known, he was paroled after the intercession of a friend of his fathers. However, his Civil War service fallowed him home, and he soon received threats from Union loyalist. Thereafter his father sent him to live with his mother's people, who were nearby, realizing he would be safer with them. After joining the Cheyenne, he never looked back, and became Cheyenne.

This placed George Bent with the Cheyenne at a critical time in their history. Moreover, he was a literate observer, and a bilingual one. He saw and participated in the critical post war period. He was at Sand Creek when it was attacked, as were two of his brothers (one of whom was scouting for Chivington, the other who was in the Cheyenne camp.) He participated in the raids that followed. He went north with the Cheyennes thereafter, and he was at Platte Bridge Station when it was attacked. He became associated with Black Kettle's band, marrying his niece Magpie. After the Cheyenne defeat, he remained with the tribe until his death many years later.

While all this would be interesting in any event, the fact that he could read and write English meant that, in a series of letters to George Hyde, he was able to record his careful observations. Hyde used Bent for research, and Bent, over a period of years, set much of his knowledge of this period, as well as much of the oral history of the Cheyenne's, and observations of their culture, down in pen.

This book is not, of course, a true military history, although a great deal of it does involve combat on the plains. Some of the book is nearly archeological in text, while other aspects of it would be closer to anthropology. None-the-less, Bent's observations of fighting on the plains, from the Indian perspective, are fascinating. Bent makes clear his opinion that Army estimates of casualties were grossly exaggerated. He also clearly held the Army largely in contempt as far as it fighting ability was concerned. Also of great insight is his Cheyenne outlook on events. For example, he clearly views Custer's actions at Washita as unjust, and yet he himself participated in raids while living in Black Kettle's camp at that time.

All history is filtered through the eyes of the author. Bent, in setting out his views, recollections, and careful observations in letters to Hyde, provided one of the rare true viewpoints from the Plains Indians. It is not the glorified, simplified perspective of non-Indians who try to take the Indian view. It is certainly not Dances With Wolves, or Little Big Man. It is much more than that.

Hyde, George E. from the letters of George Bent. "Life of George Bent", University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, OK. 1968


Pat
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