Wargaming With The Rocky Mountain Tribes 1780-1840

We’re delighted to have another article from Tim Greene – this time focusing on his love of wargaming with specific tribes and how you can do the same using the French & Indian War range.

“Head west til you hit the sunset and turn left at the Rocky Mountains”

By Tim Greene

Back in 1996 I got interested in skirmish gaming with Plains Indians. Some time earlier I had seen an advert offering a line of Sioux, Crow, and Pawnee figures but did not remember the scale, except it was one of the larger ones, nor the manufacturer. I could find neither the advert nor these figures so I picked up a few rules sets and a few 15mm figures. But I was dissatisfied with the mostly generic figures as I wanted to do inter-tribal skirmishes and wanted figures that looked like specific tribes. In 1997, shortly after I started with my 15’s, Wargames Foundry came out with a set of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers in duplicate mounted and dismounted poses. I eagerly snapped them up, abandoning 15mm for the new and increasingly popular “large” 25’s (28mm). To oppose my Cheyenne I had a band of Comanche customized by Marc Williams; a figure converter and painter of great skill who shared my enthusiasm for this period.

About this time Chris Peers’ two articles on customizing Plains Indian wargames figures to represent specific tribes came out in Wargames Illustrated. I found the whole idea of putting together war parties from specific tribes quite intriguing. At length I was able to find those figures I had seen some years back. They were from a manufacturer named Tomstins, were an odd scale (1:48 or 36mm), and did not come in duplicate mounted and dismounted poses. Converted by Tom himself (one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet) and mounted on Foundry ponies these provided me with war parties of Sioux, Crow, Pawnee, and Blackfoot. Well provided with figures but dissatisfied with the available rules I decided to write a set of rules in which the Plains Indians would act like Plains Indians and not Europeans dressed in buckskin and feathers.

I also finally found a set of rules that do what I have been looking for all these years. Earlier this year I saw an ad for a skirmish rules set called “A Good Day To Die” by Chris Peers. Because of the title and as I knew Mr. Peers to be a knowledgable aficianado of Plains Indian warfare with whom I had corresponded at an earlier date I was curious to see if  “A Good Day To Die” was for wargaming the Plains Indian wars as I was, to be quite honest, not entirely happy with my own set. “A Good Day To Die” proved to be a set of skirmish rules for the 19th and Early 20th Centuries but not about the Plains Indians specifically.

Then, in the April 2003 issue of WI, Mr. Peers published an article entitled “War On The Plains” designed as a supplement to his excellent skirmish rules “A Good Day To Die”. “War On The Plains” enabled players to game the intertribal wars of the Plains Indians and focused on the earlier period I had come to prefer! Fortuitously, a letter from Mr. Peers arrived a few months later with a copy of his rules-set and a reference to his article (both of which I already had in my possession) along with a solicitation of my opinion. I was most happy to give it.

I was so pleased with what Mr. Peers had done that I had, in fact, taken the liberty of adding to “War On The Plains” some additional chrome of my own devising such as rules for generating mountain man forces and depicting tribes not covered by Mr. Peers. I even devised a solitaire engine for the system so I could play against myself when an opponent was not handy.

I shared all this with Chris Peers and the result was a mutually edifying correspondence. I offered my ideas to Mr. Peers for his use in “War On The Plains”. This led to a decision to co-author a supplemental book to “A Good Day To Die”, along the lines of Mr. Peers’ excellent “In The Heart Of Africa. This supplement will cover Plains warfare as thoroughly as “In The Heart Of Africa” covers African warfare and in much the same enjoyable style.

Which is why I am writing this article. In his earlier articles (WI 113, 114) Mr. Peers gives the interested gamer much useful information on how to customize their favorite Plains Indian tribe for the wargames table. But there were other tribes on the periphery of the Plains which played a significant role in events, and which players may have an interest in representing on the tabletop, particularly if they like to game in the earlier period and with mountain men. Some of the information here was gathered to facilitate the creation of a Ute or Shoshone war party for my own wargames collection. In this article I hope to give players some useful information which may help them to assemble their own war party for the tabletop from one of these Rocky Mountain tribes. What follows are descriptions of some Rocky Mountain tribes which may be of interest to wargamers and suggestions on how to make them distinctive on the wargames table.

The Flathead

Like the Nez Perce, the Flathead or Tetes Plattes, are misnamed in that none of the tribe practiced head-flattening although some of their Salish-speaking relatives further west seem to have done so. Perhaps the name came from the flat topped fur hats that some of the men of the tribe wore. The Flathead were one of the tribes who lived to the west of the Plains in the Rocky Mountains but regularly invaded the Plains to hunt buffalo. This brought them into conflict with the tribes whose hunting grounds they invaded, such as the Crow, Shoshone, Blackfoot, and Gros Ventre.

The Flathead were extremely friendly to whites and never fought them. They forged a close relationship with the mountain men, many of whom married Flathead squaws. They also allowed French Jesuit missionaries to convert them to Catholicism, apparently because they firmly believed that this religion was the war medicine of the whites and the secret of their power! Despite their friendliness with whites, who often considered them peaceful folk, the Flathead were in fact a rather warlike people and carried on bitter feuds with their Indian enemies, particularly the Blackfoot. It is said that the feud between the Gros Ventres and the Blackfoot was started when some Flathead braves stole horses from a Gros Ventre camp. Pursued by the Gros Ventre warriors the Flatheads abandoned their horses near a Blackfoot camp. The Gros Ventres, thinking it was the Blackfoot who had stolen their horses, attacked the camp and killed several Blackfeet thus starting a bitter feud between the two tribes that lasted well into the 1880’s! Apparently the Blackfoot, who had earlier accepted the Gros Ventres into their confederacy and offered them refuge on their buffalo range, felt that this behavior was a, well, Gross, betrayal of their kindness and consequently never forgave them. The Flatheads were considered to be well armed and had a reputation as good shots with guns (unusual for Indians, who usually had little ammunition to practice with).

Flathead are said to have dressed and looked very much like the Shoshone. They were known to wear the stand up bonnet also worn by the Nez Perce, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot or flat fur caps. Top hats and buffalo horn headdresses were also worn. Shirts were knee length tanned bucksin often adorned with owl or eagle feathers or ermine strips. The short, waist length Plateau-style shirts with punched ornamentation were also worn. Breechclouts were narrow and sometimes the flaps went to mid-calf length. Leggings were thigh length of buckskin decorated with quillwork or beads, later of blue stroud tradecloth. Like the Nez Perce, Flathead warriors usually did not go in for much face painting and perhaps one distinctive feature of a Flathead war party could be leaving the faces and bodies free of warpaint.

The Gros Ventre

The Gros Ventre are not, strictly speaking, a Rocky Mountain tribe but I cover them here because Chris did not cover them in his articles and they are an interesting tribe. The Gros Ventre, French for “fat-boys”, or Atsina split off from the Arapaho in Montana. Both these tribes had migrated west from the Red River of Saskatchewan. The Arapaho turned south to become one of the classic Plains tribes while the Gros Ventres remained in Montana. They joined the Blackfoot Confederacy to escape harassment by the more numerous Sioux and Assiniboine.

The Gros Ventre shared a hatred of the mountain men with the Blackfoot. A famous battle between them and the mountain men took place at Pierre’s Hole in the early 19th Century. The mountain men and their Flathead allies trapped a band of Gros Ventres returning from a visit with their Arapaho relatives, with whom they maintained very close ties. The Gros Ventres, outnumbered, fought hard all day and the survivors had begun to sing their death songs. Then they employed a ruse calling out to their enemies that they might kill them but that a large war party of their tribesmen was expected momentarily and their deaths would be avenged. The mountain men and their allies decided discretion was the better part of valor and withdrew! The Gros Ventre, for some reason, did not have a reputation as great warriors. After they fell out with the Blackfeet they allied themselves with the Crow. Gros Ventres were frequently found on the southern plains in the early 1800’s visiting their Arapaho relatives and stealing horses from Mexico and the southern plains tribes who had huge herds. In fact, it may have been the Gros Ventres who were responsible for the decision by part of the allied Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to migrate to the southern Plains in the 1830’s. Some Gros Ventre warriors joined the Blackfeet in burning down a Hudson’s Bay trading post. Fearful of retaliation the warriors went south to spend some time with their Arapaho relatives. While camping with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes they got tired of listening to the Cheyenne warriors boast of how many horses they were stealing from the Comanche and Kiowa. So they went out themselves and penetrated further south than any other war party had done to date. The Gros Ventre and Blackfoot warriors returned with many horses and tales of the fantastic numbers of buffalo and horse herds on the southern ranges. It is said that these stories inspired some of the Cheyennes and Arapahos to move south permanently.

The appearance of Gros Ventre warriors would be very similar to the Arapaho. Some warriors wore the stand up bonnets of the Blackfoot and others wore their hair in a pompadour. A few warriors wore “Crow bows” in their hair. War shirts painted with celestial symbols like those of the Arapaho were worn. Gros Ventre No-Retreat warriors carried a drum into battle instead of wearing a sash. When the enemy was encountered they would throw the drum towards them and then run to stand beside it and prevent it from being captured. These Drum Society warriors painted the whole body red and painted white spots and zig-zag lines, representing thunder and lightning, on their bodies. The Dog Society leaders wore caps covered with owl feathers and war shirts, painted solid red or yellow, covered all over with raven feathers.

The Navajo

The Navajo, along with their Apache cousins, were Athapaskan speakers whose ancestors are believed to have entered North America at a slightly later date than other Amerindians. About the 14th Century some Athapaskans moved south from the MacKenzie River Valley onto the Great Plains. These Athapaskans eventually stretched from Saskatchewan to Texas and were the first true Plains Indians. Living out on the Plains they pursued the buffalo herds afoot. The southernmost tribes were the Apaches and Navajos. In the 17th Century these acquired horses and began raiding their enemies, particularly the Pawnees and other Caddoan tribes. They also adopted the agriculture and permanent sod-covered dwellings of their victims, often settling in abandoned Pawnee towns, which at the height of the Pawnee Nation’s power had stretched all the way across the Plains to the foothills of the Rockies. This proved to be a bad decision though, for when the Utes and Comanches acquired horses they began to raid the Apaches and Navajos as these tribes had themselves harried the Pawnee. The rancherias, as the Spanish called their towns, of these Athapaskans were easy for the Utes and Comanches to find and attack while the Apaches were at a handicap when retaliating against their more mobile foes. Eventually, the Comanches usurped the southern buffalo plains driving the Navajos westward into the deserts and mountains of New Mexico and Arizona and the Apaches into the badlands of west Texas and the Colorado Rockies. Unlike the other Rocky Mountain tribes covered here the Navajos did not adopt any aspect of Plains culture except the horse. Even then, they and their Apache cousins were more what we would call “mounted infantry” than true cavalry. They preferred to fight on foot and saw the horse mainly as a mode of transportation.

Unlike the other Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes the Navajo rarely took scalps. They had a powerful cultural fear of ghosts and on the rare occasions a scalp was taken a long and strenuous purification ceremony was needed. Nor did they count coup. For the Navajos war was a business the objectives of which were loot and revenge. Loot enabled men to live and revenge was obtained by killing enemies. While this pragmatic approach to war may make a wargames band of Navajo seem a less than colorful choice, it is well to note that at one time the Navajo were the most feared tribe in the Southwest. They were tough fighters who fought regularly with the Utes, Comanches, Kiowa, and Arapahos. They were also bitter enemies of the Mexicans. On one occasion they even scrapped with a band of Blackfoot who had come as far south as Taos! The Navajo sometimes carried long lances, like those of the Comanches and Crows. They were also very good with the bow.

Navajos would be very distinctive “eye candy” on the wargames table. They wore their hair long and loose tied back with a bandana like the Apache or bound up in a figure eight bun on the back of their heads with the headband. Some warriors wore war caps made from the skin of a mountain lion with the ears standing up. Combined quivers holding both the bow and arrows and made from the entire skin of a mountain lion like those of the Kiowa were also used by some warriors and would be striking on the wargames table. War leaders often wore war caps like those of the Apache, topped with owl feathers. Another distinctive feature of the Navajo was their use of turquoise and silver jewelry such as squash blossom necklaces and conchos. White cotton pants, flaring at the bottom and with a slit up each leg from hem to mid calf were worn as were leather trousers cut the same way and with silver or brass tacks in a line up the side of each leg. Navajo moccasins were ankle-length bucksin with slightly turned up toes, often decorated with conchos of German silver. And, warriors would have striped ponchos or blankets made by the famous Navajo weavers from wool. Warpaint would be rare and should be omitted. When worn it usually took the form of a stripe across the bridge of the nose in white or red.

The Nez Perce

Traversing the Columbia River Basin Lewis and Clark encountered a friendly tribe who helped them reach the Pacific and provided them with horses. These Indians, known to the French as the Nez Perce (“pierced noses” an odd appellation since apparently none of the Nez Perce pierced their septums), would have an extremely good relationship with the United States, it was their proudest boast that no Nez Perce had ever killed a white man, until the late 1870’s when white greed for Nez Perce land finally led both to war with this tribe and the discovery that these friendly people were in fact, excellent warriors. This fact was already well known to neighboring tribes.

Like their Blackfoot enemies, the Nez Perce remained at peace with the whites but they were hell on other Indian tribes. They fought the Blackfoot, the Crow, the Gros Ventre, the Paiutes, the Bannocks, and the Shoshones who were their particularly bitter enemies. Most Nez Perce were salmon fishers and camas root gatherers but the eastern bands, particularly the band known as the Montana Nez Perce, regularly ventured onto the plains of Montana to hunt buffalo. As they were a small tribe, they often joined forces with other tribes from the Rocky Mountains, particularly the Flatheads, Kutenai, Cayuse, Umatilla, and Yakima when venturing onto the Plains. Sometimes they even made common cause with their Crow or Shoshone enemies; in fact the Montana Nez Perce were regular allies and trading partners of the Crow. When on the Plains these allied hunting bands were constantly skirmishing with the Blackfoot Confederacy and Gros Ventres; or even Crows or Shoshones and they quickly adopted Plains military organization and tactics.

The Nez Perce were tough fighters known for their use of bows backed with sinew and for the excellent Appaloosa horses they bred which had a reputation for speed. Nez Perce would appear very distinctive on the wargames table. Among their features were characteristic short Plateau-style war-shirts with perforated decoration. Nez Perce often dyed their buckskin a salmon color. Red was a favorite color for moccasins. Their breechclouts tended to be knee-length and of bucksin or blue stroud trade cloth with vertical beaded bands. Nez Perce warriors wore the stand up bonnet also used by the Blackfoot and the Cheyenne. Wolfskin headdresses with the ears standing up were also popular. Leggings of buckskin often had horizontal stripes on them. Face painting was not as common as among the Plains tribes and red was the most usual color to paint the face with. Common hairstyles included hair loose with a pompadour, two braids with a pompadour, and hair loose with a forelock hanging over the nose. Braids have white thongs twined into them or are wrapped with otter fur.

The Shoshone

The Shoshone, or Snake, Indians originally lived in some of the most rugged and poorest terrain in the Western United States; the deserts and mountains of Nevada, Idaho, and Utah. They were a stocky, dark-skinned, rugged folk whose lives revolved around the daily search for food. Some bands acquired Spanish horses in the late 17th Century and for a brief period they ruled the northern buffalo plains of Montana all the way to the Black Hills and terrorized all the tribes around them. They were known to the French as the “Gens du Serpent”.

In the late 1700’s the French and English fur companies sold large quantities of muskets to their enemies. These, particularly the Blackfoot, Gros Ventres, Crees, and Hidatsas, drove the Shoshone back into the Rocky Mountains so that when the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered them in the early 1800’s they told William Clark they were unable to feel secure hunting buffalo east of the Rockies, for fear of their enemies who had guns while they did not. They asked for guns with which, they said, they could defeat their enemies who had always feared them when they met on equal terms.

Among the features distinguishing Shoshone from other tribes are the following: Shoshone leggings had flaps rather than fringes. They were usually very close fitting (often made of antelope) and thigh length. There were often rectangular patches of a contrasting color with two square panels sewn on at the bottom. Shoshone warriors often painted the face black for war. Shoshone war shirts were thigh length, of antelope, deer, elk, or mountain sheep hide. Eastern and northern (these are the Shoshone bands the gamer would be interested in too; the Lemhi, Aigaduka, and Wind River Shoshone who were closely related to the Bannock and to the Yamparika Comanche) bands’ shirts often had underarm and sidearm fringes; the bottom retained the forelegs of the animal and often there were quillworked shoulder bands.

Shoshone painting on robes and bodies was more detailed and realistic than the stick figures of other tribes. According to Paterek Shoshone braves painted their faces and bodies with “complex and symbolic realistic representations of snakes, bears, painted hands, wavy lines, horseshoes and other designs”. The Shoshone also sometimes tattooed themselves on face, arms, and legs. Since their Contrary Society was called the “Yellow Noses” I assume that Shoshone Contraries painted their noses yellow; perhaps a yellow band across the nose or the upper face painted yellow or the nose bridge and eyes in yellow etc. Shoshone hairstyles included the pompadour, two braids, the forelock, loose with bangs on forehead, or loose with two small braids in front.

The Ute

The Ute were cousins of the Shoshones and Comanches. They lived in the Rocky Mountains of Utah and Colorado. They acquired horses in significant numbers in the late 17th Century and soon became feared raiders and marauders striking out from their mountain strongholds. They helped their Comanche cousins acquire horses and together with them drove the Apaches from the southern plains. But then the Comanche turned on the Ute and drove them back into the mountains. The Ute then made alliance with their old Apache enemies and fought all the Plains tribes; particularly the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. The Ute had a reputation as rugged fighters and were regarded by many of the tribes who fought them as the bravest of their foes. One band of Utes regularly raided into Alta California, sometimes as far as Mission San Bernadino, for horses and slaves! That would be an interesting wargames skirmish, Californio Lancers against Ute horse thieves.

Here are some ways to make the Utes distinctive One thing about them was their breechclouts were often long, going down to ankle length (others knee length); made of trade cloth usually a dark color with a light colored band along the bottom. Another is that yellow and black stripes were commonly painted on the body for battle. Yet another is their bows often had a distinctive flat shape. This might be accomplished by compressing the round bow staves in a vise or something similar. As for hairstyles some wore the pompadour and others braids; others clumps. Hair was often parted on the sides rather than in the middle and some warriors wore their braids in white beaded cylinders or hair tubes. They liked German Silver disc hair ornaments and their leggings had large, rectangular beaded panels done in contrasting light and dark colors. Leggings commonly had flaps at the sides rather than fringes though fringes were worn by some. Leggings sometimes had war exploits painted on the flaps while others had a row of brass tacks or bells down the sides.

Ute war shirts were shorter than the Plains tribe’s and were in the Southern Plains style with bunched fringes. The Utes had a society called the Dog company and their insignia was a necklace made from a slit wolf skin. So another distinctive way to make Utes stand out on the wargames table is to have one or two figures with a wolfskin around their necks, easy to fashion from Miliput.

Well, I hope this article inspires some of you to try wargaming the colorful skirmishes between the Plains and Rocky Mountain tribes and helps you to build your own unique war party of Rocky Mountain Indians. After all, anyone can field a war-party of Sioux or Cheyenne so, why not do something different for a change?

Sources

Francis Haines, The Plains Indians, 1976. A good account of the early history of the Plains Indians including their origins, migrations, and cultural development.

George E. Hyde, Indians of the High Plains, 1959. A sweeping account of the settlement of the Plains 1300-1800 and some of the earliest interactions between European Imperial Powers and Amerindians. Particularly good on the Apache conflict with the Ute and Comanche.

T.E. Mails, The Mystic warriors of the Plains, 1972, now published in paperback by Auburn Press, 1995. This is the definitive book on Plains Indian warfare.

T. E. Mails, Dog Soldiers, Bear Women, and Buffalo Men, 1973. This is an exhaustive study of the Soldier Societies of the Plains Tribes.

Josephine Paterek, Encyclopaedia of American Indian Costume, 1994. A definitive reference on the dress, hairstyles, and bodily decoration of North American Indians.