I know this is an old thread, but it isn't totally dead yet.
There was a lengthy thread on another part of this forum recently discussing What is the Proper Name for "Possibles Bag". The discussion was lively and informative, and one of the best parts, to me, was that the Muzzleloading Forum "Brain Trust" came through with some insights and references that were new to me. One of these was Four Years in the Rockies, or, the Adventures of Isaac P. Rose, published in 1884, and suggested by brother pab1. This should be considered a fur trade classic, but in my ignorance, I had never heard of it. I found the entire book available online, for free. Just click that link (above), and you can read it, too.
The information provided by blackhorse in the quote above came directly from Isaac Rose's memoir, pages 137 and 138:
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It is true that the old-time trappers were prone to telling "windys," and it is documented (in Two Years Before the Mast, I believe) that only sailors were better liars, although the author of that seafaring classic conceded that the trappers were better riflemen. However, I didn't find anything unbelievable in Four Years in the Rockies. I believe Rose himself was later wounded in the arm by a poisoned musket ball, and became critically ill as a result. He did recover some use of his arm, but considered himself crippled. This injury was the reason he left the mountains and went back east, where he became a school teacher! The use of poisoned bullets came up several times in his narrative, and my own possibly naive impression is that the stories are believable.
Moving on, participants in this discussion mentioned the possibility of fabric fibers being introduced into a bullet wound and causing infection. There was a wonderful article in The Western Horseman magazine (Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1: January 1973, pp. 26ff) entitled "Recollections of the Pawnee Scouts," by Brummett Echohawk, who was himself Pawnee. In describing a conversation with an old scout named Fancy Eagle, the author wrote, "He [Fancy Eagle] spoke of the Pawnee Scouts stripping to the breechcloth for battle, discarding uniforms. They believed that if hit, an arrow or bullet could take particles of clothing into a wound and cause infection." The practice must have been an old one. One of the Segesser Hide Paintings depicts a battle between Pawnee, Oto, and French allies and Spanish and New Mexican Indian allies, led by Pedro de Villasur in 1720. The painting clearly shows the Pawnee and Oto men stark naked, clothed only in moccasins and paint:
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This battle must have been quite a mix-up. You see Pawnees and Otoes headed in every direction, while the Spanish Soldiers and priests and their fully-clothed Native allies are headed toward the left, and the Frenchmen are moving toward the right. However, the point of this is that this old painting could support Fancy Eagle's comments.
You beat me to it @Notchy Bob! As I was reading through this thread I was ready to post a reply quoting Rose's experiences with poisoned balls. I am glad to be the inspiration for you reading this book! Its great documentation not as widely known as mountaineers like Russell, Leonard or Ferris.
I agree that Rose's story is absolutely believable. I hope some of those who doubted the validity of poison balls in this thread ( @Einsiedler, @Ames and @ugly old guy ) see this documentation. Thanks for posting it!
@ugly old guy, when you ask what would the point of a poison ball be since a ball placed in the vitals would be fatal, the answer is fairly obvious. These fights (especially from the native side) were not conducive to taking carefully aimed shots at your target to ensure that a ball fired from your "tack driving" rifle entered your enemy's vitals.A B.S. story if there ever was one.
What would be the point?
If hit with a round ball in a vital area, you be dead, "poisoned ball" or not.
Look at all the folk killed by a not poisoned round ball in warfare around the world before the Minie Ball conical was invented.
Look at all the deer and larger taken every year by a not poisoned round ball or bullet.
Poison only makes sense for them hunting or warring with a blowgun. And NOT to cause infection.
Even not poisoned arrows are deadly if they strike a vital area. With or without a broadhead.
Look at all the deer and larger taken every year by archery hunters.
(hunting regulations do specifically require a broadhead, and specifically prohibit poisoned and exploding arrowheads.)
That tale is stupid and makes no sense on the surface or deeper.
No doubt it is something thought up by Hollywood, or some dime novel "author" (note quotes) back in the day.
Also, look at all the soldiers on both sides of the Civil War who died of infection from being hit bt a NOT POISONED ball, conical, or sword cut from a not poisoned sword.
(many did live, but lost an arm or leg to infection from being shot or stabbed/ sliced there.)
They did not need anything back then to make infection more likely.
They did not know how to prevent infection.
These fights often took place with the shooter on the back of a running horse. If not mounted, the shooter often sprinted toward their enemy, paused to take a quick shot, then ran to the best cover or concealment they could find to reload. The gun they were using was often a smoothbore trade gun loaded with a bare ball. The combination of these things did not lend itself to reliable "shot in the vitals" accuracy.
When you say "That tale is stupid and makes no sense on the surface or deeper," I say it could not make more sense. More people (on both sides) are wounded in battle than those that are killed outright. Wounded people are usually not hit in the vitals. When your tactics and equipment don't lend themselves to precise accuracy, why not get the most out of any shot that impacts the intended victim.
As related in Rose's narrative, which is actual documentation from the fur trade era, not from "Hollywood or dime store novels", poisoned balls were very effective. Even a marginal hit could be deadly. This makes a lot of sense when you take a bead on your enemy's heart, but due to your pounding heart beat, extremely heavy breathing, galloping horse and/or inaccurate gun, your shot impacts his thigh. As with the bite of a rattler, the effect is on this marginal hit may not be immediately obvious. The victim likely won't die on the spot, but often will die nonetheless.
Poisoned balls were not likely used large scale. My guess is that some individual would have thought of it, related his thought to members of his tribe and tried it. The idea might have only spread to tribes in the immediate surrounding area. Some may have seen the logic in it and gave it a try.
Here's one reason this practice may have only taken place on a relatively small scale among natives. A shot in the "lights" (heart/lung area) or a central nervous system (brain/spine) may have the immediate reward of seeing your enemy incapacitated and removed from the fight. The same is not true for someone hit by a marginal shot with a poison ball.
An enemy impacted with a poison ball might still be able to function for the remainder of the fight. However, in that situation, time is on your side. Due to the rattlesnake venom, that seemingly minor wound might get much worse. It might incapacitate the man, making him wish he were dead, or in some cases actually causing his death.