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.
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.