By Hugh Lenox Scott
The Cheyenne and the Arapaho are the westernmost representatives
of the Algonquian linguistic family, which occupied a large part of
northern North America from the Atlantic ocean to the Rocky
Captain W. P. Clark, Second cavalry, U. S. A., in his able work
on Indian Sign Language (p. 39), makes the statement that
"very reliable tradition locates this tribe in western Minnesota
several hundred years ago, meeting the Cheyenne as they (the
Cheyenne) came out on the prairie, and for many years moving and
camping with or near them, so that for all practical purposes they
were one people, and the history of one relates very closely to the
history of the other." While this is probably true, diligent
research has not yet brought to light any tradition that definitely
places the Arapaho in a territory farther east than the Missouri
river; and in the scant early references to the Cheyenne east of
that stream, I have been able to find no mention whatever of the
There are at present three known main divisions of the Arapaho
tribe, viz, the Northern, the Southern, and the Atsina or Gros
Ventres of the Prairie often called in earlier times Les Gros
Ventres de Fort des Prairies, after the fort of that name on the
Saskatchewan. These latter were formerly sometimes confounded with
the Blackfeet, with whom they were wont to roam; and also with the
Gros Ventres of the Missouri, or Hidatsa, who belong to the Siouan
Since 1874 the Northern Arapaho have lived with the Shoshoni near
Fort Washakie, Wyoming; the Southern Arapaho with the Southern
Cheyenne on the Canadian river and its branches in Oklahoma; the
Gros Ventres of the Prairies near the Assiniboin on Milk river,
Montana. Each division has its individual name in the sign language
of the plains.
Probably the first white men to see the Arapaho were those who
accompanied the expedition of La Verendrye in 1742-43. These also
first saw the Black hills and Badlands of Dakota, and the northern
Rocky mountains. A number of tribes are mentioned in La Verendrye's
report1 as being near the Black hills
and the Rocky mountains at that time, but only five of these can now
be recognized with any degree of probability. These are as follows:
- Gens de la Flecke collee ou Sioux des Prairies, the
mention of whom disposes of the assertion, made by some writers,
that the Sioux did not reach the Black hills until 1775-76.
- The Mantanes, or Mandans of Dakota.
- Gens des Chevaux, referring probably to the Cheyenne,
the identification of whom will be treated at a future time.
- Les Beaux Hommes, probably Crows, or Absaruka, who
are said to have been a very handsome people. Catlin2
especially was impressed by their fine appearance: "A Crow is
known wherever he is met by his beautiful white dress, and his
tall and elegant figure; the greater part of the men being six
feet. The Crows are very handsome and gentlemanly Indians. I
have been painting a number of the Crows, fine-looking and noble
gentlemen. They are really as handsome and well-formed set of
men as can be seen in any part of the world. There is a sort of
ease and grace added to their dignity of manners, which gives
them the air of gentlemen at once."
- Les Gens du Serpent, readily recognizable as the
Shoshoni or Snake Indians.
In addition to these tribes, La Verendrye mentions the Gens de
l'Arc, the Gens de la petite Cerise, and Les Pioya, none of whom I
can now identify; but as it is well known by their common traditions
that the Kiowa, Kiowa Apache, and Arapaho were in this northern
territory in the middle of the eighteenth century, it is not
improbable that these tribes may have been comprehended in the list.
The Arapaho have been known by many different names, usually given
in their own language by interpreters from other tribes.
The French name, Gros Ventres, is first mentioned in the report
of Legardeur de Saint Pierre, who wrote as follows from Fort de la
Reine, on Assiniboine river, in 1751:3
"Mais mes forces me l'eussent-elles permis, la guerre que toutes
ces nations avoient contre les Iactchejlini, les Brochets et Gros-Ventres,
auroit ete un obstacle insurmontable."
This indicates that the Gros Ventres were in the Blackfoot country
in 1751, and contradicts the statement in
Blackfoot Lodge Tales (p. 224) that they reached that country
early in the nineteenth century.
In 1789 this band again appears under the name Fall Indians, "the
translation of their Cree designation, because they lived near the
falls of the Saskatchewan. Mackenzie4
|Next to them [the Blackfeet], and who extend to the
confluence of the South and North branch [of the
Saskatchewan], are the Fall, or Big bellied Indians, who
may amount to about 600 warriors. The Fall, or
Big-bellied Indians, are from the South-Eastward also,
and of a people who inhabit the plains from the North
bend of the last mentioned river [Missisoury], latitude
47.32. North, longitude of. 25. West, to the South bend
of the Assiniboin River, to the number of seven hundred
men. Some of them occasionally come to the latter river
to exchange dressed buffalo robes and bad wolf-skins for
articles of no great value."
This information, coupled with the fact that the Gros Ventres of
the Prairie and the Arapaho belong to the Algonquian family,
constitutes the only record, so far as is known to me, that the
Arapaho have come from the direction of Minnesota.
Edward Umfreville5 says:
|"This [Fall] nation is thus named by us, and by the
Nethethawa [Cree] Indians, from their inhabiting a
country on the Southern branch of the river
[Saskatchewan], where the rapids are frequent. As they
are not very numerous, and have a harsh, guttural
language peculiar to them-selves, I am induced to think
they are a tribe that has detached itself from some
distant nation, with which we are not as yet acquainted.
"This is another instance of the impropriety of the appellation
bestowed upon these Indians by the Canadian French, who call them
Gros Ventres or 'Big Bellies,' whereas, rather than being remarkable
for their corpulence, they are as comely and well proportioned as
"Though we have interpreters for all the other languages, none
has yet gained a sufficient knowledge of the Gros Ventres tongue to
make themselves understood, the general medium of conversation with
them being the Blackfoot language, which is agreeable and readily
The same linguistic difficulty has been observed wherever the
Arapaho have been met. It first came to my notice in 1877, at the
mouth of the Marias; again at Fort Belknap on Milk river, and later
among the Southern Arapaho, where the services of the veteran
Cheyenne interpreter,, Ben Clark, were generally brought into
requisition because most of the Arapaho understood Cheyenne while
many of their oldest men spoke Comanche as well.
Captain W. P. Clark, in 1880, speaking of the Arapaho language, said
that "it is almost an impossibility for a white man to learn to
speak it. At neither of the three agencies during the past season
was there an interpreter." I believe, however, that it is possible,
though difficult, for a white man to learn Arapaho if he be willing
to expend the labor in acquiring it, although it shares with the
Kiowa the reputation of being the most difficult language between
the Missouri and the Rockies.
Lewis and Clark,6 in 1806, call them
Paunch Indians and Gens de Panse as well as Fall Indians.
Alexander Henry, the younger,7 in
1808, confirmed Umfreville and Mackenzie, saying:
|"The Big Bellies, or Rapid Indians, are now
stationed south of the Slaves,8
between the South Branch [of the Saskatchewan] and the
Missourie. Formerly they inhabited the point of land
between the North and South branches of the Saskatchewan
to the junction of those two streams; from which
circumstance, it is supposed, they derived the name of
Rapid Indians. They are of the same nation as the Big
Bellies of the Missourie, whom I have already mentioned.9
Their dress, customs, and manners appear to me to be the
same. Formerly they were very numerous, and much dreaded
by the neighboring nations. But since the smallpox their
numbers have diminished very much, through the effects
of that baneful disease, and in consequence of
depredations committed upon them by tribes with whom
they have been at variance. The Slaves [Blackfeet]
have fought many bloody battles with them, though they
are now on amicable terms.10
They are a more industrious people, and commonly bring
us a good trade in grizzly bear and buffalo robes. In
dressing these robes they are far superior to the Slaves
and fully equal to the Mandanes."
Lewis and Clark11 call them
"Kanenavish" or "Gens des Vaches," and place them "on heads of the
Paducas fork of the river Platte, and south fork of Cheyenne river.12
"They also say these nations all live to the southwest by south to
the west of the Rickeries; all speak different languages, all follow
the buffalo, and winter near the mountains. Henry13
says the "Schians and Sioux - for the camp was composed of both of
these nations, and a few Buffalo Indians" - meaning Arapaho. This
camp was to the east of the Black hills of Dakota in 1806. He
further identifies (p. 384) the Kaninavish with the Buffalo Indians,
or Arapahos, as follows:
|"Near the sources of these two rivers [one the
Platte] they [the Cheyennes] make their annual hunts of
bear and beaver in company with the Buffalo Indians or
as some call them Caneninavish tribe inhabiting that
part of the country they consist of about 500 tents."
H. M. Brackenridge14 in his table of
the Indian nations of Louisiana, mentions the "Kan-ne-na-wish, 1,5O0
warriors, 5,000 souls, a wandering people, on the heads of the
Yellow Stone river. "Also (p. 86)" Paunch Indians, 800 warriors,
2,500 souls, northeast of the Missouri near the head, trade with the
British, "but inimical to Americans; and the "Gros Ventres of the
Prairie," northeast of the Missouri.
Captain W. P. Clark (p. 40) and others say that the Northern and
Southern Arapaho separated about 1868. The following quotations,
however, will show that they and the Northern and Southern Cheyenne
had separated as far back at least as 1816:
|The Shiennes associated with these wandering tribes,
are a small band of seceders, from the nation of the
same name, residing upon the Shienne river. They are
said to be daring and ferocious. They are, however, kept
under restraint by the energy and firmness of their
chief. The Bear's Tooth, who is the principal
chief of the Arapahoe, and the head chief of all these
nations, possesses great influence over the whole. "The
Arapaho, Cheyenne, and others" formerly carried on a
limited trade with the Spaniards of Mexico, with whom
they exchanged dressed bison skins for blankets, wheat
flower, maize, etc., but their supplies of these
articles are now cut off, by a war which they are at
present waging against that people. They also, at
distant periods, held a kind of fair, on the
tributary of the Platte [whence the name Grand Camp
creek], near the mountains, at which they obtained
British merchandise from the Shiennes of Shienne river,
who obtained the same at the Mandan village, from the
British traders that frequent that part of our
territory. Last winter, they traded a great number of
horses and mules, with a party of white men, who had
ascended the Red river. The Kiawas, Arrapahoes, and
Kaskaias or Bad-hearts, had been assembled together,
with forty-five French hunters in the employ of Mr.
Choteau and Mr. Demun of St. Louis. They had assembled
for the purpose of holding a trading council with a band
of Shiennes. These last had been recently supplied with
goods by the British traders on the Missouri, and had
come to exchange them with the former for horses. The
Kiawas, Arrapahoes, etc., who wander in the extensive
plains of the Arkansas and Red river, have always great
numbers of horses, which they rear with much less
difficulty than the Shiennes, whose country is cold and
This also shows the Cheyenne to have been intermediaries between
the British traders in the north through the Mandan, as well as the
Indians of the southern plains, for horses in 1816.16
Fowler, writing in 1821,17 says:
|"It is but Justice to Say we find the Kiawa the best
Indeans possing more firmness and manly deportment than
the arrapoho and less arogance and Hatey Pride than the
Ietan - we Ware Invited this day to Eat With one of the
arrapoho Cheefs He Seet before us a dish of fat meat of
Which We Eat plentyfully We Ware then asked if We new
what kind of meat We Ware Eating We told him We did not
He then Said it Wa [s] a dog telling us it [was] a great
feest With the Indeans and that He Invited us for that
The Comanche call the Arapaho Sariet-tethka, i.
e. `dog eaters,' a term of reproach. The Shoshoni have the same
name for them.
Morse18 thus speaks of the Southern
|"Their number is estimated at 10,000. Their
country extends from the head waters of the Kansas,
south to the Rio del Norte. They are a warlike
people, and often make predatory and murderous
excursions on their eastern and northern neighbors."
After Morse's time very little notice seems to
have been taken of them.
R. Graham19, Indian agent in 1824,
testified as follows:
|"The Arrepahas, who inhabit the country south of
the Yellow Stone, and who are also erratic, and
depend entirely upon the chase, are a tribe of the
making the range of these Indians along the base of
the Rocky Mountains, from the Rio del Norte to the
Fowler in 1822 and Farnham in 1839 mention them
as being near the Arkansas. Prince Maximilian of Wied (1834)21
follows Mackenzie, and adds:
|"They are well made, little differing in
appearance from the Piekanns, and other Blackfeet. .
. . Well informed persons affirm, that they have at
present not more than 200 tents; and from 400 to 500
warriors. . . . The Buffalo skins, dressed by them,
are said to be now better than those of most of the
other Indians. In the main, their customs agree with
those of the Blackfeet, and they dispose of their
dead in the same manner. They are reputed to be
brave in war. Their language is the most difficult
of all those of the Missouri and the Rocky
Mountains. The Fur Company had not a single
interpreter for this language, though great pains
had been taken to procure one."
1 Margry, Decouvertes, vi, 598, 1886.
2 North American Indians,, 1, 46, 49, London, 1841.
3 Margry, op. cit., vi, p. 640.
4 Voyages from Montreal to the Frozen and Pacific
Oceans in the Years 1789 and 1793, pp. lxx, 1xxi, London, 1801.
5 Present State of Hudson's Bay, p. 197, 1790.
6 Statistical Review, in American Stale Papers,
Indian Affairs, 1, p. 717, 1832.
7 Henry Thompson Journals, Coues ed., p, 530.
8 The term Slaves is applied by Henry to the
Blackfeet. See pp. 523 and 533 of his journal.
9. This, however, is a mistake, since the latter are
the Hidatsa, a Siouan tribe.
10. This is somewhat at variance with the statement
in Blackfoot Lodge Tales (p. 244), derived from Clark, to the effect
that they were at peace with the Blackfeet until 1862.
11 Am. State Papers, op. cit., p. 716.
12 The Thwaites edition of Lewis and Clark (vol. 1,
p. 190, 1904) has "Kun.na-nar-Wesh - (Gens des Vach) Blue heeds."
Note by editor on the same page: "Meaning 'cow-people' - that is,
Buffalo tribe. The Indian name here given, written by Biddle (1, p.
34) Kaninaviesch is only a Chippewa appellation of that tribe, now
known as the Arapaho, (See Mooney's sketch of this people, in U. S.
Bur. Ethnology Rep., 1892-93, pp. 953-957)."
13 Op. cit., p. 377.
14 Views of Louisiana, p. 85, 1814.
15 Long, Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, I, p.
502; II, p. 367, Phila., 1823.
16 See also Henry Thompson Journals, Coues ed.
17 Journal of Jacob Fowler, Coues ed., 68, 1898.
18 Report to the Secretary of War, 1822, p. 253.
19 American State Papers, Indian Affairs, II, p.
20 Gros Ventres of the Prairie are here confounded
with the Blackfeet, with whom they only roamed.
21 Travels in North America, 1843, p. 234.
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The Early History and the Names of the Arapaho, American
Native American Nations