Uncle Nick was shy about the scar on his head from being shot by an Indian arrow and always wore a cap. Most folks would show it off as a conversation opener, and Uncle Nick wasn’t shy about conversation.
He always had plenty to talk about.
At one time or another, he was a Pony Express rider, blacksmith, carpenter, cabinet maker, rancher, prison guard, prison inmate, bishop of the Mormon Church, fiddle player, trader, mountaineer, trapper and “frontier doctor.”
The Indians loved him — with Shoshone Chief Washakie adopting him as a “brother.”
Born in 1842 in Utah, Elijah Nicholas Wilson as a kid was a runaway and never attended school. He learned the alphabet as a grown man from his wife, and at the end of his days became an accomplished story teller and author.
Native Americans called him Yagaki — “the Crier.” Whites called him the White Indian Boy and later Uncle Nick.
“My grandchildren and other children,” he wrote in his book The White Indian Boy; the Story of Uncle Nick Among the Shoshones (c1919), “and even grown people, ask me again and again to tell these tales of the earlier days…That is why I finally decided to write them.”
When he was about 12, his father put him and an Indian boy named Pantsuk to work herding sheep under conditions that Nick thought miserable. The boys did this for two years and became close friends, with Nick learning the Goshute language.
Pantsuk’s people liked him and gave him a beautiful pinto pony and asked him to join them — promising great adventure.
Hating his job herding sheep, Nick accepted the offer and ran away from home to live with Shoshone Chief Washakie and his wife, Hanabi, for two years, learning Indian ways and the Shoshone language.
During that time, the Chief’s mother — whose Indian name was Lost Woman — took charge of his care.
Nick called her “Mother.”
At one point a member of Chief Pocatello’s band of hostile Shoshones tried to kidnap the boy, but Washakie’s warriors rescued him.
Learning the Indian way of life was an incredible experience for young Nick — and often grim. He witnessed a great battle between the Shoshones and the Crows, with many warriors killed on both sides. He watched as Washakie’s men buried their dead, while leaving the dead Crows to the wolves and buzzards.
“I had seen so many Indians scalped that I felt sick and wished from the bottom of my heart that I was home with my kindred,” Nick wrote in his book.
One day, a dog belonging to an old woman in the tribe bit Nick in the leg, creating a huge ugly wound. “He tore off quite a piece of my flesh and I shot him through with an arrow, leaving the feathers on one side of him and the spike sticking out of the other.”
The angry woman who owned the dog lassoed Nick and with the help of a girl tied him up, and then grabbed a butcher knife, intending to cut his head off.
A sick Indian lying nearby stopped her and sent for help. Quickly Hanabi rushed in and rescued the boy, telling the old woman, “If you don’t kill that dog before sundown, I will kill you!”
The medicine man put herb poultices on the boy’s wound, but it got worse and turned black. He said he’d have to cut the leg off but Nick wouldn’t let him, and refused further treatment from him.
For weeks, Nick was in agony, but slowly the leg healed as Hanabi took care of him.
The dog was killed, and the medicine man was banished from the tribe.
While the tribe was heading south to Salt Lake City to sell their buffalo robes, they crossed the Bear River in southeastern Idaho that ran close to Nick’s old home.
“That started me to thinking about my dear father and mother, my brothers and sisters I would like so much to see, and I could feel the tears running down my cheeks.”
Some visiting Pocatello Indians told Washakie that whites were planning to search for Nick, so the Chief called a meeting of tribal elders to discuss what to do. Wishing to avoid trouble with the whites, they decided that Nick should return to his family, but he’d always be welcomed back.
With great reluctance, Nick accepted their advice, promising to return soon. They gave him his pinto pony, another horse and loads of buffalo robes and other items. Then with two Indian escorts he headed south.
When he arrived home, his family was overjoyed to see him.
Nick never returned to live among the Shoshones. His Indian “mother” died and was buried in a grave like white people — as she requested — and Hanabi also died. Chief Washakie remarried and Uncle Nick saw him many times and they remained lifelong friends.
Washakie ended up on the Wind River Reservation where he was “honored by his tribe and respected for his goodness and his wisdom by all the whites who knew him.”
In later years, Nick did some trapping — at one point writing “I never have made money faster.”
The great frontiersman Kit Carson spent two months living with him. “We had a good time swapping yarns that winter, I can tell you.”
Then he worked on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation with the job keeping the Indians who often had wanderlust on the reservation.
Once he was sent out to bring back a band of disgruntled Indians under Chief Old Sagwich, who was angry about “being cheated and otherwise mistreated.”
When he finally found them up in the mountains, Old Sagwich threatened to tie him to a tree and burn him alive, but wiser tribal heads talked him out of it.
In 1860, Nick’s ability with horses led to a job as a Pony Express rider. When a band of Indians angry at white intruders attacked a Pony Express station in Nevada where he was, an arrow hit him above the left eye, entering his skull. He was unconscious for 18 days but survived, thereafter covering the scar with a hat.
When the army was called to quell the Indian violence, Nick became a scout for General Albert Sidney Johnston at Camp Floyd, south of Salt Lake.
On a scouting mission with a soldier he ran into Yaiabi, an old Indian friend and found out they were planning to attack and burn Pony Express stations.
Johnston’s troops quickly tracked down and attacked the marauding Indians.
“I saw a soldier and an Indian in a death struggle. They had each other by the hair of the head, and I saw a squaw run up to them with an ax and strike the soldier in the back and he sank to the ground, the she split his head with the ax.
“While she was doing this, a soldier ran a bayonet through her, and that is the way it was going over the whole battleground.
“This was the worst battle and the last one I ever saw.”
The army won and the way-stations were saved.
The Pony Express didn’t last long and was replaced by the telegraph, and Ben Holloday’s Overland Stage that hired Nick as a stagecoach driver. The danger from Indians then switched to outlaws.
In 1889, when he was in his late 40s, Nick rescued five families and their cattle by leading them over the Teton Pass and into Jackson Hole in western Wyoming near the Idaho border.
Nick would later settle at the base of Teton Pass, where the town of Wilson, Wyo., is today.
He joined the Mormon Church and married two women, resulting in him serving time in prison for polygamy.
Uncle Nick always loved the Indians and was always sympathetic to their concerns, even though from time to time he had to battle them to the death.
“They were misunderstood and mistreated as they always have been,” he wrote. “The Indian has always been pushed aside, driven, and robbed of his rights. It is a sad thought with me to see the Redmen giving away so rapidly before our advancing civilization.”
Uncle Nick Wilson died in Lincoln County, Wyoming the day after Christmas, 1915.
He was one of the Old West’s finest.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org
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About the Indians… “I know that the Indians were a treaturous and revengeful people. They always demanded a life to pay for a life, and they would often do bloodthirsty things. But the whites were mostly to blame. “If they had been fair with the Indians, and treated them kindly, instead of taking mean advantages of them, the Indians would have been kind and friendly. I cannot blame the Indians as much as some do. “They were good friends to me, and most of them have peaceful hearts.” ---Uncle Nick Wilson, “The White Shoshone”
Writer’s note… Researching and writing history stories means sorting through multiple narratives that unsurprisingly change over time. Facts, spellings, dates often differ from one report to another, usually due to shoddy scholarship, unintentional error, exageration, erroneous interpretation, or deliberate intent to change the record of what really happened. On the bright side, correcting faulty history is an ongoing process through better scholarship and writing, revised information from new discoveries, records, data, modern technologies and other sources. This story about Uncle Nick was taken mostly from the book he wrote which is as close as later writers can get to the true events without having been there. Elija Nicholas Wilson has been praised for the credibility of his writings by numerous sources, suggesting that he painted a true picture of those times in the American West.
Coming Home… “As I rode up, two of my little sisters who were playing by the side of the house, ran in and told mother that an Indian was out there. She came to the door, and she knew me the moment she saw me. “I cannot tell you just what passed the next hour, but they were all happy to have me back safe at home again.” ---Uncle Nick Wilson, “The White Shoshone”
Chief Washakie honored… By the late 1800s, Chief Washakie head of the Eastern Snakes was the only Snake warrior to be honored by the U.S. Government. He helped General George R. Crook’s army defeat the Sioux after Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn in 1876.
The dark side of life among the Shoshones… “Some of (Chief) Pocatello’s Indians had several scalps they had taken from some poor emigrants they had killed. I saw six of these scalps. One was a woman with red hair, one a girl’s scalp with dark hair, and four were men’s scalps, one with grey hair, the rest with dark hair. “I cannot describe the feelings I had when I saw the red devils dancing around those scalps. It made me wish I were home again herding sheep.” ---Elijah Nicholas Wilson, “The White Indian Boy”