Story of the Great Plains: The Last West by Russell McKee

An excerpt from the book The Last West by Russell McKee which examines the history of the Great Plains in the United States.

THE LAST WEST. By Russell McKee. New York: Crowell, 1974.

About the book: This is a lively history of one of the most ignored parts of the U.S.: the Great Plains. Starting with the land, the author moves on to the peopling of the Plains: the Indians, the Spanish conquistadores, the French trappers and traders and the English explorers. Emphasis is placed on some of the unusual and forgotten personalities who were part of the transition from wilderness to civilization. A good book for people who are used to relating to the area as something to be passed through on the way to somewhere else.

From the book: Though only sketchy accounts of [Etienne de] Bourgmond remain, and almost no accounts of some of the others, he at least led a full life. Born of an old Norman family, son of a renowned physician, young Bourgmond entered French military service, was soon shipped to America, and in the spring of 1706 found himself an ensign commanding the tiny garrison at Fort Detroit, now Detroit, Mich. One night soon after he arrived, a large and determined force of Fox Indians attacked the post. After an all-night battle, Bourgmond and his 15-man army succeeded in driving off the attackers. The residents of the village were pleased by the courage the little garrison had shown, and generous in their praise. The settlement's most luscious member, Madame Tichenet, was especially generous to the gallant young commander. The pair eloped from her bedchamber to join a colony of deserters tenting through the summer on the shore of Lake Erie. Monsieur Tichenet, understandably annoyed, raised a posse of 50 men and marched off to capture the fugitives. The battle was brief and all the renegades were hauled back to Detroit. Despite the obvious evidence of desertion and wife theft, Bourgmond was acquitted by the court at Fort Detroit. His judges also saw fit to reinstate him in the army and soon after rewarded him with a promotion. As French officers, they recognized merit when they saw it.

His next amorous encounter was with an Indian girl named La Chenette, and she led him to still another Indian charmer who has remained nameless, but who proved so fascinating that Bourgmond again deserted, this time for the land of the Missouri River, where he set up housekeeping and lived with his new mate from 1712 to 1719.

It was during this period that he began to change from a simple frontier rogue to a political power among the Indians of the eastern plains border. As his prestige increased, his sway with the Missouri Indians soon built a bastion of French influence against the Spanish further west. There seemed to grow from Bourgmond an element of trust that the Indians found easy to accept. One story that has survived tells of Bourgmond going alone and unarmed to an Indian village where a French trapper had been murdered. Bourgmond called for a public trial of the killer. It was held on the spot, and the murderer was sentenced by his people to die. Before Bourgmond left the village, the condemned man had been executed by his own brother.

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