A graduate of West Point, General Hugh Lenox Scott (1853–1934) belonged to the same regiment as George Armstrong Custer. As a member of the Seventh Cavalry, Scott actually began his career at the Little Big Horn when in 1877 he helped rebury Custer’s fallen soldiers. Yet Scott was no Custer. His lifelong aversion to violence in resolving disputes and abiding respect for American Indians earned him the reputation as one of the most adept peacemakers ever to serve in the U.S. Army. Sign Talker, an annotated edition of Scott’s memoirs, gives new insight into this soldier-diplomat’s experiences and accomplishments.
Scott’s original autobiography, first published in 1928, has remained out of print for decades. In that memoir, he recounted the many phases of his distinguished military career, beginning with his education at West Point and ending with World War I, when, as army chief of staff, he gathered the U.S. forces that saw ultimate victory in Europe. Sign Talker reproduces the first—and arguably most compelling—portion of the memoir, including Scott’s involvement with Plains Indians and his service at western forts. In his in-depth introduction to this volume, editor R. Eli Paul places Scott’s autobiography in a larger historical context. According to Paul, Scott stood apart from his fellow officers because of his enlightened views and forward-looking actions. Through Scott’s own words, we learn how he became an expert in Plains Indian Sign Language so that he could communicate directly with Indians and bypass intermediaries. Possessing deep empathy for the plight of Native peoples and concern for the wrongs they had suffered, he played an important role in helping them achieve small, yet significant victories in the aftermath of the brutal Indian wars.
As historians continue to debate the details of the Indian wars, and as we critically examine our nation’s current foreign policy, the unique legacy of General Scott provides a model of military leadership. Sign Talker restores an undervalued diplomat to well-deserved prominence in the story of U.S.-Indian relations.
“Once posted to the frontier as a junior officer, Hugh Lennox Scott became the army’s most accomplished practitioner of Plains Indian Sign Language, a skill that brought him many opportunities to interact with Native peoples. Scott consequently developed a level of empathy and respect for Indians that set him apart from his contemporaries. It is this experience that Scott himself was most passionate about in his 1928 autobiography, and it is that portion of Scott’s autobiography that R. Eli Paul offers here with thorough biographical introduction and substantive annotation. The result is to focus on this soldier-diplomat’s unique place in the story of Indian-white relations in the American West.”—James E. Potter, Senior Research Historian, Nebraska State Historical Society, and coeditor of August Scherneckau’s Marching with the First Nebraska: A Civil War Diary
“This deftly edited rendering from Hugh Lenox Scott’s 1928 memoir, long out-of-print and never widely distributed, shows how one officer held remarkably enlightened views of Indians at the turn of the twentieth century. Scott befriended Indians, respected their abilities, listened carefully to their needs, and negotiated on their behalf in times often fraught with resentment, repression, and sometimes violence. Through Scott, R. Eli Paul provides a more enlightened view of Indian positions and a greater understanding of the ideas, concerns, and cultural prohibitions that led to conflict.”—John D. McDermott, author of Red Cloud’s War: The Bozeman Trail, 1866–1868