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International Mormon History Month at JI: A Tahitian, Mormon Indian Scout

By: Amanda - June 17, 2013
Grouard

Grouard as a young man

Frank Grouard was something of an enigma in the nineteenth century.  In 1876, he had become a Chief Indian Scout for the United States Army, helping General George Crook locate and fight bands of Sioux who were refusing to stay on their reservations.    On June 25, 1876, he saw smoke signals rising from the Battle of Little Bighorn, rode to the scene of the battle where he discovered the bodies of the dead, and reported the death of Custer to the General Crook.  He also interpreted during peace negotiations between Crazy Horse and the American government and was present at the Battle of Wounded Knee.  For much of his life, Grouard lived in relative anonymity but a series of newspaper articles and the publication of an as-told-to biography in in 1894 catapulted the Indian scout to fame.

In spite of his newfound renown, however, certain parts of Grouard’s life remained mysterious.  One of the most interesting and perplexing for those at the time was Grouard’s racial background.  At various times, he was identified as a Lakota Indian, as a mulatto, as a French-Creole, and as a half-breed.  Throughout his life, however, Grouard claimed to be the son of Benjamin F. Grouard, a Mormon missionary who had traveled to the South Pacific in the 1840s and had married an indigenous Maohi woman.  It is the latter story that the archival record bears out.

Grouard as an Indian Scout

I first encountered Grouard in the diaries of Louisa Barnes Pratt and her husband Addison.  Grouard had been born in 1850 while the Pratts were serving as Mormon missionaries in the South Pacific.  After being forced to leave French Polynesia by a French colonial government worried about the missionary’s influence, they traveled to San Bernardino.  Grouard’s father Benjamin traveled with them, bringing his Maohi wife and children.  When they arrived in San Bernardino, however, Groaurd’s father discovered that the local Mormon community didn’t accept his mixed raced family.  His wife struggled to conform to white, middle class standards of domesticity and preferred to go barefoot than adopt the long skirts and tight shoes so common in nineteenth-century California.  Eventually, Grouard’s father entered polygamy, taking a white woman as his second wife. Conflict between the two women eventually led Grouard’s father to consent to his first wife returning to Tahiti.  Although she took her youngest child with her, she left Grouard and his sister in California.  The Pratts brought the boy into their household as an adopted son.  Louisa referred to the child as her “little island boy,” but he never really fit into the family.  Louisa worried constantly that he was going to run away.  Her older daughter Ellen lamented the “disgrace” that he brought upon the family by stealing clothing and bedding from their neighbors whenever he could.  When he ran away permanently in 1861, however, Louisa mourned his loss.

Grouard’s story is interesting because it reflects the wide-ranging history of early Mormonism.  His life spans the American West and the Pacific and reflects the desire of Mormon missionaries to spread the gospel not only in the United States but also among the “nations of the earth” and the “isles of the sea.”  It also reflects the difficulty that Mormons have had in integrating indigenous people into Mormon society.  Although Louisa and her husband Addison considered Grouard and his mother to be members of a chosen race and a descendant of the peoples of the Book of Mormon, they found it difficult to accept his mother’s reluctance to adopt European clothing and struggled to tame Grouard’s unruly behavior.

Grouard’s story also provides a lens through which to view the racial politics of the nineteenth century.  Contemporaries found it difficult to believe that Grouard was half-Polynesian and tried to fit him into pre-existing racial categories.  A child born in French Polynesia and reared in San Bernardino became Lakota, mulatto, and a half-breed.  At times, he could even be identified as white.  Although the as-to-biography written by Joseph DeBarthe in the 1890s suggested that Grouard’s dark features facilitated his adoption into Indian society, much of the book stresses the Indian Scout’s whiteness and describes his decision to become a scout for Crook as revenge for the murder of white men and women by Indian men.  He is described as an “avenging sprite” and as a man biding his time by living with men who he knows are doomed to succumb to “a riper intelligence” – that of the “Caucasian.”

Grouard’s fame was transitory.  Although DeBarthe’s biography was reissued in the 1950s, he has not received the same recognition as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, or Custer.  He has become an interesting footnote in history.  Taking his story seriously, however, provides historians with an opportunity to illuminate part of the international history of Mormonism and the complicated, messy history of race within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the American West itself.

Note: I have been unable to find much information about what happened to Grouard’s sister.  I have found references to her in the census and in the Charles C. Rich Papers but nothing after she reaches young adulthood.  If anyone knows any information about her, it would be much appreciated.

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9 Comments

  1. Amanda, What an interesting and important piece of history. Thanks!

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 17, 2013 @ 10:30 am

  2. This is great, Amanda. In my research on Wounded Knee (massacre, cough, cough), I’ve seen several references to the scout and interpreter Frank Grouard, but I’ve never heard about his Mormon connection. Most of the scouts/interpreters had mixed-race backgrounds and existed in a liminal space between whiteness and Indianness, a phenomenon that Jill Lepore talks about in The Name of War.

    (As a minor sidenote, his “as-told-to autobiography” is vague whether he was present at Wounded Knee. P. 455 indicates that he was ordered to Wounded Knee with the troops, but was called away before reaching there, and his narration of the fight seems to be based on second-hand information.)

    Comment by David G. — June 17, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

  3. Thanks, Gary!

    David, thanks for the information about Wounded Knee. I made the list of battles based on secondary sources and appreciate the additional information about Grouard’s participation (or possible lack thereof). When I was reading the as-told-to biography, I felt a weird tension. It seemed that DeBarthe was at once eager to make Grouard into an “avenging sprite” but was also cognizant that this was a betrayal and was reluctant to recognize the role Grouard played in killing people that he would have lived with and had once considered his friends.

    Thanks also for the reminder that Wounded Knee was a massacre and not a Battle.

    Comment by Amanda — June 17, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

  4. This is super interesting, Amanda. Do the Pratts mention any sort of Book of Mormon/House of Israel connections with Grouard specifically?

    Comment by J Stuart — June 17, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

  5. Very cool.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 17, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

  6. J Stuart – They don’t single out Grouard but while in the Pacific they teach indigenous converts that they are descendants of the people of Book of Mormon. They also decide to call the child “Ephraim” while he lives with them, which may or may not be related to his status as an Israelite. Later, most Pacific Islanders are identified as being of the tribe of Manasseh. I don’t know when that idea develops, however, or if Grouard would have been similarly identified.

    Comment by Amanda — June 18, 2013 @ 3:34 am

  7. Amanda,

    Thank you for sharing an interesting aspect of Mormon-Tahitian history, most specifically the life of Frank Grouard. I had two or three conversations with George Ellsworth before his death in 1997 about Frank Grouard and his activities as an Indian scout. Grouard was clearly one of his favorite characters he encountered while researching the Addison Pratt and Louisa Barnes Pratt diaries. If you haven’t already done so, you should take a look at Ellsworth’s research files at Utah State University. I believe there is some excellent original (and unpublished) research on Grouard there. Go to: http://uda-db.orbiscascade.org/findaid/ark:/80444/xv97897#5
    Good luck in your research!

    Comment by Noel Carmack — June 19, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

  8. Noel, thanks! That’s really helpful. Frank Grouard is absolutely fascinating. I haven’t had a chance to go to USU but I definitely need to make a trip.

    I’m also really sad that I never had a chance to meet George Ellsworth. One of my good friend’s parents worked for Ellsworth as a graduate student and then knew him as a friend a few years later when her husband was hired as faculty at USU. Her stories about him are always warm and fun.

    Comment by Amanda — June 19, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

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