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The Early History and Names of the Arapaho

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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 mountains.

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 Arapaho.

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 linguistic family.

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 says:

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 any Indians.

"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 acquired."

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 barren."15

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 purpose."

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 Arapaho:

"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 Blackfoot20 Indians; making the range of these Indians along the base of the Rocky Mountains, from the Rio del Norte to the Saska-tche-wine."

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 " - (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. 451, 1834.
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 Anthropologist, 1907

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