Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

The Incest Capital of the World?

At the far eastern edge of Kentucky, nestled in Appalachia, resides Letcher County. In spite of its isolation and poverty (approximately 30% of the county's population lives below the poverty line), Letcher County has managed to grow at an impressive rate, from a population of just 9,172 in 1900 to a present-day population of nearly 25,000. However, even if Letcher County tripled or quadrupled its present population, there's still a pretty good chance that virtually all of the county's inhabitants would be related to each other-- thanks to one particularly fertile family whose astounding rate of reproduction can put even the friskiest rabbit to shame.

Around the year 1900, Letcher County was the home of a man by the name of Jason L. Webb, who made national headlines for having the one of the largest families in the world. According to newspaper reports of the era, Jason had 19 children, 175 grandchildren, and 100 great-grandchildren. Perhaps even more impressive was his b…

The Ticking Tombstone of Landenberg

If you look closely at a map of Pennsylvania, you'll see an anomalous semi-circular border at the extreme southeastern part of the state. This circle, known officially as the "Twelve Mile Circle", serves as the border between the Keystone State and Delaware. Much of the strange circle is surrounded by Chester County, one of the three original Pennsylvania counties created by William Penn in 1682. While there are many historical points of interest in Chester County, few are strange or as steeped in legend as the Ticking Tombstone.

Near the London Tract Meeting House in Landenberg is an old graveyard which contains a tombstone which is said to make eerie ticking noises, much like the ticking of a pocketwatch. Landenberg locals claim that the ticking is the result of two very famous surveyors who arrived in town during the 1760s- Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.  A young child supposedly swallowed a valuable pocketwatch owned by Mason and later died, and the boy's head…

Jenny Hanivers, Mermaids, Devil Fish, and Sea Monks

Three centuries before P.T. Barnum attracted flocks of crowds with his mummified Fiji Mermaid (which turned out to be a papier-mâché creation featuring a monkey's head and a fish's body), sailors around the world had already began manufacturing "mermaids".  Known as Jenny Hanivers, these creations were often sold to tourists and provided sailors with an additional source of income.  These mummified creatures were produced by drying, carving, and then varnishing the carcasses of fish belonging to the order rajiformes- a group of flattened cartilaginous fish related to the shark which includes stingrays and skates.  These preserved carcasses can be made to resemble mermaids, dragons, angels, demons, and other mythical creatures.

Jenny Hanivers became popular in the mid-16th century, when sailors around the Antwerp docks began selling the novelties to tourists.  This practice was so common  in the Belgian city that it may have influenced the name; it is widely believed …