Great Crow Chieftain, Warrior & Peace Negotiator
It is shocking that one of the most remarkable female Native Americans ever to ride the Plains would be so little known in American history. She became famous in the 1800s and made an impression with everyone she met, red, white and black.
She was extraordinary even as a child. Born to the Gros Ventre, an enemy tribe of the Crow, she was kidnapped by the Crow when she was only ten. A Crow warrior adopted her as his own daughter, but soon realized that she could ride and fight better than all the boys her own age. Her foster father encouraged her even more, as he had lost his own sons in battle and she became a source of pride for him.
The Crow called individuals who showed characteristics or behaviors of the opposite sex “two spirits” or “berdeche” (from the French). Some young women who wanted to be warriors dressed as men, but she still dressed in female dress. She distinguished herself in horse riding, marksmanship and could field-dress a buffalo faster than any man or woman. Then, as a teenager, she gained renown as a warrior when she fought off many Blackfoot attackers during a raid and turned back the attack. At a very young age, she became a war leader and led her own band of warriors attacking Blackfoot villages and stealing horses and taking scalps. (240)
One of the most famous accounts of Woman Chief was by a black mountain man named James Beckwourth who lived with the Crow in the 1820s and 1830s. He lived with the tribe for about nine years and was integrated into their society as if he was a tribe member. Decades later, as an old man, he wrote an autobiography of his life and his years with the Crow that was published with great fanfare and popularity in 1860.
In his book he wrote of a young woman, a teen girl, who had been kidnapped from the Gros Ventre and grew up in the Crow village. She was an extraordinary horsewoman and warrior and distinguished herself during a Blackfoot raid. This young girl was known as “Pine Leaf.” Although there would later be some controversy about his account, many, including the author, believed that Pine Leaf would grow up to become Woman Chief. His autobiography included an illustration of Pine Leaf riding hellbent on a horse. That would become the best-known depiction of Woman Chief, aka a young Pine Leaf.
Beckwourth wrote that Pine Leaf had vowed to kill 100 enemy before she would marry. Eventually, she would get married—to FOUR wives! She would become a renown warrior, then would become a bacheeítche, the Crow word for chief, in the Council of Chiefs. She was given the name Bíawacheeitchish, or Woman Chief, and became one of the leading chiefs of 160 lodges.
Later, she would evolve into a successful peace negotiator with the Upper Missouri tribes with which the Crow had been in constant warfare. Following the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie (see map), she was able to finally negotiate peace with the Gros Ventre, the brutal enemy of the Crow but the tribe of her own birth. The peace she brokered lasted for several years. But, ironically, she would meet her end at the hands of her own people, that is the tribe of her birth. A Gros Ventre war party would break the peace she had negotiated and ambush her, killing her in 1854, near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers near what is today the Montana, North Dakota border.
Near where Woman Chief died is the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. It marks the most important fur trading post on the upper Missouri from 1829 to 1867. It was a bastion of peaceful co-existence and friendly trading between whites and Indians, and even between traditionally hostile tribes. Perhaps Woman Chief was riding toward the trading post under the false impression that all came in peace, when she was ambushed. She was 48 years old.
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“Woman Chief, Great Crow Warrior” was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on April 24, 2021
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