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Petalesharo, the Bravest of the Brave

Charles Bird King Washington, 1821

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The little Washington schoolgirl dressed in crisp crinoline, her pretty face ringed with curls and her young heart thumping in her chest like an imprisoned bird, held up the velvet ribbon from which hung a silver medal.

The handsome Indian, his face streaked with red and black paint, bent down. The girl carefully placed the ribbon about his neck and recited her rehearsed speech. The interpreter, to Colonel McKenney's disgust, clumsily translated the words. Then Petalesharo (Generous Chief) with great dignity thanked the schoolgirl for her kindness.

The scene in the living room of the home of the young Mary Rapine, a student in Miss White's Seminary for Select Young Ladies, was a moving climax to the Pawnee's visit to Washington. He and the delegation of Pawnee and their allied tribes would leave the capital in a few days, but it would be years before the wonderful tale connected with Petalesharo's life would be forgotten. Romantic, thrilling, brave, it had touched many female hearts, not only in Washington, but in all the eastern cities.

The story of how he had saved a young Comanche girl from a human sacrifice was first printed in the Washington National Intelligencer, then later reprinted by eastern newspapers. In the winter of 1821 the New York Commercial Advertiser published a florid eleven-stanza poem entitled "The Pawnee Brave." It became so popular with sentimental New Yorkers that they held parties in their stiff, chilly parlors to read aloud the poem and weep over the gallantry of this wilderness savage.

The Comanche girl was not the first prisoner Petalesharo had saved from the sacrificial pyre. Once before the young chief had defied his people to rescue a young Spanish boy who had been taken prisoner. When the boy's captor demanded he be burned at the stake in a public ceremony as a sacrifice to the Great Star (Morning Star, or Ho-Pir-i-Kuts), Petalesharo warned his father, chief of the Pawnee, " I will take the boy, like a brave, by force."

The old chief knew his son would kill the brave and cause a serious rift in the nation. Instead, he sent criers about the Pawnee villages asking for presents to buy the boy's freedom.

Piles of skin, knives, and trinkets were placed before the old man's wigwam. But the brave still refused to release his young captive. Petalesharo, infuriated, threatened to kill him if he didn't accept the presents. With Petalesharo's knife at his throat the brave not only freed the boy but agreed to let the gifts be sacrificed in his place.

Poles were erected on the spot where the boy was to have been burned, then the skins, strouding (coarse cloath or blankets used in Indian trade), and buckskins were slashed, hung from the piles, and burned.

Petalesharo was not successful in his third attempt to save a prisoner from sacrifice. In May 1833, together with an Indian agent, he tried to free a young Cheyenne girl who had been taken captive in a raid. Petalesharo, then chief, was lifting her to the saddle of the agent's horse when she was killed by a shower of arrows. When she fell, Petalesharo and the agent were overwhelmed by the mob that tore the young girl "limb from limb," and smeared her blood on the bodies of the assembled Pawnee.

Petalesharo was a member of the delegation of sixteen Indians, principally Pawnee, who came to Washington in the winter of 1821-1822 to be greeted by the President, his cabinet, most of Congress, and the entire Supreme Court.

On New Year's Day, 1822, Petalesharo and his braves performed a war dance in front of the White House before six thousands spectators. All businesses were closed for the day and Congress adjourned its session.

This portrait is undoubtedly one of the first McKenney commissioned Charles Bird King to do for his famous Indian Gallery. It was painted during Petalesharo's visit to Washington.


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