Costiano Tries to Take a Scalp

My grandmother, Abbie Young, had light brown hair that hung to her waist which she took great pride in and others in the settlement admired. It almost got her scalped. In 1894 scalping of settlers was rare but scalps were still valued as personal trophies or to be sold or traded as a valuable items. The scalping victim was usually killed first, but if not, the act was incredibly painful and the victim often died soon after from infection or other complications. This is the story from our family history of how my grandmother’s beautiful hair almost got her scalped.

Big Mouth Spring

Big Mouth Spring, Piegan (Blackfeet), not Costiano (Apache/Navajo), showing a trophy scalp on his right shoulder. Image from The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis, circa 1910 via Wikipedia article on scalping.

Costiano was an Indian, well known to the early settlers in the San Juan country of New Mexico. He was the son of an Apache chief but, when an infant, he had been stolen by the Navahos during a war between the two tribes. The chief of the Navajos then raised him as one of his own sons. Thus, while he lived among the Navajos and had adopted their customs and manner of dress, he had the temperament of the much more savage and warlike Apaches.

Costiano was strikingly handsome, and was very proud and talented. He had a a fine voice and loved to sing and whistle. Music of all kinds appealed to him, especially dance music. He could speak Navajo, English and Spanish quite fluently and, in addition was an excellent horseman. But he never liked white people.

He, and the other Indians on the Navajo reservation, soon learned to distinguish between the Mormons and the other settlers, since, as a rule, the Mormons treated them more kindly and hospitably. They called white people in general Melicanoes and the Mormons they called Gomleys. It was the nearest they could come to pronouncing either name.

When the Mormon settlers first became acquainted with Costiano, he had a wife and small daughter, both of whom he idolized. No husband or Father would have been more devoted to his family. When his little girl died and, shortly afterwards his wife, he was grief stricken for weeks. Later he married another squaw who was almost as proud and good-looking as he was. And when he died a white man married his widow and lived happily with her and her children.

Knowing how kind and soft-hearted Costiano was with his own family and among his own people, it is hard to understand how he could have terrorized the early settlers as he did. But, of course, he thought white people were his enemies and was honest enough with himself to treat them as such. They feared him while he looked down upon them and puzzled them.

There was no telling when or where he would appear, or in what mood he would be. He was as graceful as a cat, and could move about almost as quickly and silently. No Indian in that part of the country was known better or dreaded more, especially if he were drunk. His character and deeds were so well known and frequently spoken of by the settlers on the San Juan that his name is almost a legend among their descendants.

In 1880 when Walter and Abigail Stevens moved to what is now Fruitland, New Mexico, Costiano was one of their first visitors. They had scarcely gotten their tent pitched when he rode up on a fine horse, looking like a traveling arsenal. He had guns attached to a heavily loaded ammunition belt, and carried a scalping knife and tomahawk. Abigail, who met him in front of the tent, was astonished and frightened but tried not to show it. She offered him food but he refused it, saying “Me no like Melicanoes. Me Kill ’em! White man no good.” Again she offered him food and invited him to dismount and come into the tent and she would give him all he could eat.

He shook his head. “Me no trust Melicanoes. Me Kill ’em.” he declared.

“Most white men are good just as most Indians are.” Abigail said. “They are brothers and the Great Spirit loves both of them. They shouldn’t kill each other.”

“Me kill white man” he repeated.

“But you are a brother and we feed our brothers.” Abigail insisted.

She stepped back into the tent and hastily collected a plateful of food which she presented to him. He ate without getting off his horse, then passing the plate back to her he rode away. Thereafter he seemed rather friendly disposed towards them and the other Mormon families who shortly joined the settlement. Still it was thought that he stole from them occasionally, and when he was drunk they generally gave him a wide berth for he was apt to be in an ugly mood.

The youngest daughter of the Stevens family was named for her mother, but was called Abbie to distinguish between the two. She was a fine-looking girl with long, wavy, light brown hair which, when let down, reached well below her waist. When Abbie washed her hair she would frequently dry it by sitting on a chair out of doors and allowing it to cascade down around her in the open air. It was so long that its ends would rest on the papers she placed on the ground, and thick enough to hide her chair and almost cover her. Sometimes the hair would take hours to dry even though she combed and moved it about continuously. On such occasions it would almost shimmer in the sun-light as it rippled to the ground in natural waves, thus showing to advantage its softness and golden tints. Abbie was proud of her hair, her family loved it, and most of the other girls in the settlement were envious because of it. But it was also the kind of hair most prized by the Apache Indians. If an Apache brave could display such a scalp he would be respected by his tribe, just as our soldier boys who wear distinguished service crosses are held in high esteem by all of us.

Seven years after the Stevens’ moved to New Mexico, Abbie married Apostle Brigham Young, Jr., becoming the youngest of his plural wives. They had been married several years and had two children when the following incident occurred:

On July 2, 1894 Brother and Sister Young were spending the day quietly at the home of her parents in Fruitland, New Mexico. Their children and all of her folks, riding in two carriages, had gone to Farmington, twelve miles up the San Juan river. The excuse for this buggy ride was to get some ice and lemons which could not be purchased in Fruitland. They planned on making ice cream and lemonade to go with the feast they were preparing to celebrate Sister Stevens’ birthday on the third of July. The following day which was the glorious Fourth would also be fittingly commemorated.

When the carriages had driven away, Sister Young straightened up the house, then gave attention to her personal appearance, her hair – as usual – receiving special consideration. She stood facing a large mirror with her back towards the open door as she combed it, her husband came in and paused to admire her locks.

Abbie, he said, “I can’t grow hair, but you can grow enough for the entire family. And it’s marvelous. I have never in my life seen such beautiful bronze-gold hair.” He secured a tape measure and insisted upon measuring it.

“Why it’s forty-six inches long!” he exclaimed. “And it’s growing all the time. When I come down from Salt Lake on my next visit it’s apt to be all of four feet long. You don’t see a woman with a head of hair like that very often.”

As she continued using her comb and brush, he settled down by a table in one corner of the room and began writing in his journal. Suddenly he dropped his pen and stood up saying:

“Merciful powers! What have we here? I have never felt such an evil influence!”

As he stepped away from the table he caught sight of Costiano through the window. The Indian had crept up noiselessly to the open door; and when Brother Young first saw him he was just behind Abbie, his piercing black eyes – which seemed to cry out “Oh, what a trophy!” – were fixed gloatingly upon her hair, and his leathery face was drawn into lines of savagery. He dropped into a crouch like a huge cat about to spring, spit on the palm of his right hand to make sure of his grip, threw back the blanket he was wearing, and seized the handle of a small sharp hatchet which he carried at his belt. It all happened so quickly that the fellow was about to strike before Brother Young could cry out a warning to his wife. When he did, Costiano whistled and dashed for his horse, and leaping into the saddle he sped away as fast as his mount could take him.

Apparently he had noticed the carriages leave and believing that everyone in the house had gone with them, had decided that this was a good time to do some pilfering. Then seeing Sister Young’s long wavy hair and thinking that she was alone, his Apache nature must have gotten the better of him. He may have wanted her scalp for himself, but it is more likely that he planned to sell it so some member of his erstwhile tribe. They prized such hair and would have paid a fancy price for the scalp.

Brother and Sister Young heaved deep sighs of thankfulness and relief. They both realized what a close call it had been, and how much they were indebted to the inspiration of the Lord which had warned Brother Young of danger just in time to prevent his wife from being struck down with a hatchet.

Source: The content of this story probably had to come from either Abbie Stevens Young or her husband or both. Abbie may have written it, or it may have been written by one of her five daughters. I got it from copies of family journals provided by my cousin, Elaine Knight.