To Robert Dinwiddie
From our Camp at the Great Meadows [Pa.]30th of May 1754
I regret to inform you that my last correspondence relaying the recent encounter with the French and their Indians must be slightly amended. I conveyed before that I had sent Lieutt West and Mr. Sprilldorph with 20 men to contend with the prisoners which I noticed to you would receive all the respect I cou’d to them here, including cloathing and food. As we were affording these men what they should have, a man emerged from them who spoke to Mr. Spilldorph in plain English though he said he was an Indian. The man is older, he says 54 years, and that he was born in what is now French Louisiana but was then a great disputed area on the plains between Fort Orleans and Santa Fe.
He says he is Pawnee and his given name is Banit Hadiku or Black Bird in English. I trouble you with this seemingly trivial set of facts only because he was Spanish slave in 1720 when he was part of a foray by the Spanish into the convergence of the Platte and Loup rivers, an excursion which was a disaster for the Spaniards. His given name as a slave was Francisco Sistaca and he asked earnestly of both West and Sprilldorph that he might speak directly to me because he wished to unburden his conscience about the role he played in the conflict between a Spaniard called Villasur and the Pawnee Indians, the one which the Spaniards were defeated.
At the outset, I confess my skepticism, for although I was familiar with the skirmish more than 30 years passed, I was sure that his claims were a rouse. But as I considered it, I asked West to bring the man to me which he did. He was a striking figure with dark black hair and streaks of gray. His eyes were of the most peculiar green color, lit like glass from some ancient flame. One could not forget them. But importantly, your Honour, he struck me as sincere and honest at least as I measure a man.
As we spoke, he prevailed upon me to transcribe what he said was his testimony. I assured him he was not on trial, neither for the late events between our troops and the French, and even less so for some event that has long passed into history. But it was this point that he pressed, your Honour: his testimony was for History. He won my heart, being myself but one little bit of floatsam in the waters of action and struggle that one day will be called the ocean of history. Any man that is swept into it and lives long enough ought to be able to name his own Livinium should he reach the shore.
So then I tasked Mr. West with a quill to take down this man’s efforts to square himself with posterity and his own conscience. I promised that I would forward this to you, in confidence that you might determine it’s use and value. For his part, Banit as I took to call him, felt that his purpose would be fulfilled with the transmission to you and the whatever consequences or lack of them was irrelevant.
Two notes I would add. Banit made the point to me that the Spaniards had told a story of French regulars to deflect their loss to the Pawnees. Better to have lost to trained French soldiers than savages. When he told his story though, he did not burn with indignation at the Spanish lie.
Second, the child mentioned is alive, a boy, now a man. In what follows, Banit did not discuss him, but he shared more with me in other moments together.
What follows my signature is the story I heard and Mr. West wrote down.
As ever and always, I am Yr Honour’s most Ont Hble Servt
My name is Black Bird, Banit Hadiku, and I was named after the omens given to the families of warriors still on the plains. When warriors were too long in returning home, and families worried, the priests would point to the flocks of birds overhead that assured their return. My mother knew what my story would be when she named me.
My home was in a round earthen lodge among many others south of the river named by the white man after my band, Kitkehahkis. My home was along what would be called the Pawnee trail, it ran south to north from the trail that runs from Santa Fe in the West to Missouri. Our people fished, foraged, and hunted here and made black etched pottery we traded with parties along the trails that crossed back and forth between the Spaniards and French.
Ours was a prosperous and peaceful people, tending to ourselves and with welcome hospitality. But the Apaches to the west found us easy to raid and pillage. Our peaceful time wouldn’t last before we were in a struggle. We took to taking horses when we could and we fought back. And even still, despite their incursions, there was trade with the Apaches and Comanches. Our peoples could trade with others as easily as we would steal or kill them; or them us. All was a balance between white men and each other.
I learned how to steal horses and trade and the languages spoken along the trails, including white men’s languages. By the year 1718 I had experience but I also met my wife Sakuru. She and my mother warned me of the dangers of my life, but I ignored them. One day the Apaches overtook me, following me home. Sakuru had run away into the trees. I knew she could hear me when I said I would return. She heard my voice saying the “Black Bird will return!”
The Apaches took me to Santa Fe, and a man named La Serne bought me. La Serne gave me a different name, Francisco after Saint Francis and something that sounded like Pawnee for fair or white man, chahistaka. They said, Sistaca. I became Francisco Sistaca.
I was valuable and thus fortunate. I spoke languages and could translate, I knew horses, and I knew fighting. So when Valverde told Villasur to prepare an expedition, La Serne made sure I would go. How could I not go? Sakuru was waiting. I knew she was. Francisco Sistaca would join the Spaniards to challenge the French as you do now here in the Ohio. Or so they thought.
We set out along the trail to Missouri to an old Pueblo camp called Cuartelejo. We followed the trail to the Pawnee trail that ran north right near my home. Nobody knew anything about Banit Hadiku; I had woven a story to cover him with Francisco Sistaca. They didn’t know I was home when we passed the dwellings. I had cut the hair on my head and let the hair on my face grow, so my people wouldn’t know me, even family. When we stopped to rest I looked for Sakuru.
I learned she had been taken as a wife by another man, my brother. But I said nothing. I had been gone two years. I was sure they had forced her and said I was dead or gone forever. But Black Bird had returned dressed in the blanket of Francisco Sistaca. And I’d keep the robe for now, because Villasur wanted to go north toward what the Spaniards called the Jesus Maria river. So we did.
It was many long days and nights that August as I wondered about Sakuru, longed for a return, for revenge. But I waited and took my orders. The Apaches followed us to the Loup and Platte confluence. Villasur was foolish and inexperienced. I knew there were no French forces, only angry Pawnee, an anger made worse because of all the Apaches trailing our expedition.
I rode out to the Pawnee. They tried as hard as they could to learn who I was and where I was from. But I wouldn’t give them a chance to see past Francisco. I knew some of them, including my brother who was there asking about what the Spaniards wanted.
“The French,” I said. “They expect French soldiers.”
They told me there were only traders and no regular French troops.
I rode back to the Spaniards and said I was afraid. They told me to go back and negotiate. That was the 10th of August I believe. I looked for my brother again.
“Move further out,” I said. “I’ll bring them back and we’ll cover half the the distance to your new position. They’ll think you’re further away from them than you are. Then, in the night you can move back.”
They said nothing. But they did what I’d said to do and so when I led the Spaniards back, the gap between them and the Pawnee seemed greater but it was closer. My people could hear the Spaniards breathing when they slept.
Before that night, La Serne sent me back with tobacco and other items including a letter which I read then fed to my horse.
When I returned, my brother greeted me.
“The Black Bird has returned,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve given you victory tomorrow, now give me back my Sakuru today.”
He held up his hand and rode his horse a ways away, just out of site, and he returned with Sakuru who sat on another horse.
“Expect no treachery from me, brother,” he said. “But you are dead now and so is Sakuru. I will tell our mother the Spaniards took her.”
He told me I was to disappear into the East, as far as I could go. So I did, with Sakuru. But we had not gone too far before I learned she was pregnant with my brother’s child. I could have lived with this, perhaps. We carried on until we arrived in Quebec. She died in childbirth, so I never learned if I could live with her and raise my brother’s son as my own.
I did betray Villasur’s expedition and the Spaniards, but not to the French only to the Pawnees, my people, who were incensed by the presence of Apaches. I deceived my master, but only for the love of a woman who held a promise that trumped service to him. That the great God above deprived me of any spoils of this is no tragedy, only His will of which we are but grateful actors.
Since then, I have been in the service of France, fighting with them against the British as I did in this late battle. I sense this fire will burn hotter and brighter soon between your people.
As for me, I am happy to be a prisoner again. The Black Bird has returned to his cage, and Francisco Sistaca is free.