The Detective: Tukufu Zuberi
The Place: Portland, Oregon
By the middle of the 19th century, a vast new territory from New Mexico all the way to California beckoned settlers and homesteaders. But as their wagon trains rumbled west from Missouri, along major arteries such as the Santa Fe Trail, they cut through the heart of Indian country and came under frequent attack.
More than a century and a half after these violent events, History Detectives takes a closer look at an old paper that shows President Millard Fillmore engaged in what appears to be an unusual act for the time--sparing the life of a Native American convicted of murder.
In the paper the President commutes the death sentence to life in prison for a solitary Native American named See-See-Sah-Mah, convicted of murdering a St. Louis trader along the Santa Fe Trail. Fillmore’s pardon saved See-See-Sah-Mah’s life, but why?
But an investigator at the crime scene had found tracks made by boots, not moccasins. This cast suspicion on the victim's brother-in-law. To avoid a miscarriage of justice, two well-connected lawyers took See-See-Sah-Mah's case. When he lost, they asked the US Attorney General to intervene, and he asked President Fillmore to consider a pardon. Fillmore agreed.
A telegram arrived with 20 minutes to spare as See-See-Sah-Mah was headed to the gallows. But all this did was commute his sentence to life in prison. The show surmises that he died soon after being incarcerated. The real killer went free.
Fillmore and Indians
As the show notes, Fillmore had a remarkable change of heart between his 1850 and 1851 State of the Union speeches:
State of the Union Address: Millard Fillmore (December 2, 1850)
Along the Mexican frontier and in California and Oregon there have been occasional manifestations of unfriendly feeling and some depredations committed. I am satisfied, however, that they resulted more from the destitute and starving condition of the Indians than from any settled hostility toward the whites. As the settlements of our citizens progress toward them, the game, upon which they mainly rely for subsistence, is driven off or destroyed, and the only alternative left to them is starvation or plunder. It becomes us to consider, in view of this condition of things, whether justice and humanity, as well as an enlightened economy, do not require that instead of seeking to punish them for offenses which are the result of our own policy toward them we should not provide for their immediate wants and encourage them to engage in agriculture and to rely on their labor instead of the chase for the means of support.
For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.
Below: Our 13th president.