The orphan who survived a Sioux scalping

Robert McGee, circa 1890

Robert McGee was a teenage orphan in the summer of 1864 when he went to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to enlist in the army. Being only 14 years of age, he was rejected, but he soon found work as a teamster, transporting flour to the territory of New Mexico.

The flour caravan embarked on its journey along the famous Santa Fe Trail on July 1. Two weeks later the teamsters found themselves near Great Bend in Kansas and decided to make camp in the shadow of Fort Zarah, feeling safe and secure.

However, they soon encountered danger as Little Turtle, the Sioux leader, launched an attack against the wagon train. The Sioux warriors massacred the teamsters, staining the Kansas prairie red with blood. The teamsters never had a fighting chance.

The assault was so brutal that the soldiers at Fort Zarah stood by and watched in horror. The commanding officer of the fort was later court-martialed for his cowardice. There was only one survivor-- young Robert McGee.

McGee didn't emerge from the massacre unscathed, however. He had been savagely scalped (McGee later told newspapermen that it was Little Turtle himself who had done the deed).

McGee became a national celebrity after the massacre, and since everyone else in the caravan had been slaughtered, he was the only one left to tell the tale. Of course, this probably led to some colorful embellishment of the facts, but McGee's story is wildly entertaining nonetheless.

According to McGee, after he had been scalped by Little Turtle, as he lay face down in the dirt, he had received multiple arrow wounds from the Sioux, along with a pistol shot in the back. The warriors, to ensure that he was dead, stabbed him repeatedly with their knives as he lay on the ground. McGee later claimed that he suffered as many as 18 bullet wounds, depending on the version of the story he was telling and who he was telling it to.

In 1892, The San Francisco Chronicle published a story on McGee, who claimed that the burial party attempted to bury McGee, but was shocked to discover that he was still alive, "despite the fact that he was scalped and had fourteen wounds, any one of which would have terminated the life of the average man".

McGee said he was then taken to the fort's surgeon, who managed to save his life. McGee's employer, meanwhile, received a large government settlement for damages resulting from the Indian massacre. In October of 1864, McGee brought his case to the attention of President Lincoln, who granted the young scalping survivor the privilege of drawing rations and supplies at any U.S. military facility.

The story of Robert McGee then swerved into the realm of myth; after newspapers made him a living legend it became impossible to determine which aspects of his colorful life were fact and which parts were fiction. Some papers claimed McGee spent years stalking and hunting down his Sioux tormentors, eventually managing to bring 10 of them to frontier justice.

In his later years, McGee traveled the country as a sideshow attraction, billed as "The Man With 14 Lives". Curiosity-seekers paid a dime to see him and gawk at his scarred, disfigured scalp.