I once stood with a young Ponca man on a hill outside of Niobrara, Nebraska – the Ponca’s traditional homeland – as he told me about his people. The Ponca have built a wonderful Cultural Center there, complete with earthlodge, a bison herd and a statue of their famed chief Standing Bear, a man whose connection to this land was so strong that in the 1880s it led to Native Americans being recognized as human beings in the eyes of the American judicial system. In defiance of the reservation authorities, Standing Bear brought his son’s body back to the Niobrara from Oklahoma to bury him with his ancestors – an act a federal court eventually allowed.
“There are so many Ponca buried here that their bodies supply nutrients for the grass and the trees,” the young man said as we gazed across the broad Niobrara Valley, “That’s why we say the land itself is Ponca.” He went on to explain that while there is now a cemetery nearby, traditionally his people buried their dead anywhere they felt it appropriate.
During a presentation at the Boone County Museum an archaeologist said that Boone County appears to have been occupied more or less continuously for at least the last 12,000 years. Even during the prolonged drought that depopulated this area in the 13- and 1400s some people remained, doing whatever it took to survive. It’s no surprise then that burials are widespread in this area.
In 1916 the Albion Weekly News reported that
A short distance southeast of Boone on a high point of land an extensive burying ground was revealed a few years ago by the coyotes or badgers. Many skulls and human bones were found, indicating that they had been buried together.
Burials weren’t confined to high ground – in June of 1919 the Albion Weekly News reported that in Newman Grove
While grading the lawn around his new house in the north part of town B. F. Witt scraped out a skeleton of a human being. A part of the shoulder and arm and the skull were identified although the skull was badly broken. The teeth would indicate that it was a person fairly well along in years as they were worn somewhat.
Though at the time no one was sure, there’s a strong likelihood it was the remains of a Native American.
In 1940 this paper reported
INDIAN SKULLS UNEARTHED AT STANFORD FARM
University Men Exhume Fifteen Skulls and Other Bones Near Loretto
Prof John L Champe and five students from the Laboratory of Anthropology of the University of Nebraska drove up to the Geo Stanford farm at Loretto last Saturday and unearthed 15 Indian skulls and other bones. Prof. Champe stated that probably the skulls were at least 500 years old and were possibly those of Nebraska or Upper Republican culture Indians who were widespread over this territory at that time. He said, however, their knowledge of the inhabitants of the state at that time was very vague, and they were anxious to get more of these skeletons to study. The discovery was made by Wallace Wicks, Stanfords’ grandson, who keeps a peeled eye for Indian Relics. He uncovered two of the skulls, but because the bones crumbled so, digging was stopped and the university notified. By painstaking methods the remainder of the fifteen skulls were uncovered, painted with shellac to harden them and some were removed in excellent shape. They were all found clustered together in a hole not wider than four or five feet in diameter. Prof. Champe said this was the characteristic method of burial at that time.
Notes from this excavation indicate that the bones were only 8″ to 10″ below the surface of the ground and that 15 skulls but parts of 16 skeletons were found very near the Sanford house and well. The condition of the bones ranged from fragmentary to fair. Below is a drawing of one of the more complete skeletons and the location of adjacent bones:
Burials seem to be much like those reported above – either an individual (or mother and infant) or in groups called ossuaries. Cremation was also practiced in some places, though I am not currently aware of any cremains having been found in this area.
Sometimes individuals were buried in a sitting position with their knees tied against their chests – the fetal position. This practice suggests a belief that the dead were returning to the womb of mother earth, perhaps to be born again. A grave like this was reportedly found southeast of Boone where a woman was dug up holding an infant (the exhumers are said to have each taken a bead from her necklace and then reburied her).
Other times, however, only an individual’s bones were buried, suggesting the body had been defleshed earlier. A grave similar to the mother and child found near Boone was professionally excavated near the Boone/Nance County line. Amateur archaeologist Ron Cruise assisted in this excavation and told me the ground around the bones was stained from the decay of the buffalo skin the bones had apparently been kept in. Near it was a group of small bones, again suggesting it was a mother and her child who had perhaps died in childbirth. Ron wondered to me why their bones had been carried to that spot – it must have had importance in the woman’s life.
Ron is aware of a number of burials in this area. He said some are so close to the surface that they’ve been exposed through plowing, while one, exposed through county road work, extended down approximately seven feet. Ron mentioned another grave that was about three feet below the surface, and this was about the depth of the suspected human bones seen protruding from the bank of the O’Neill Valley Creek just north of the Wright Place.
Ossuaries contain the bones of multiple individuals. These were probably the final resting places of bodies that had initially been placed on platforms or trees to be defleshed by birds. It may have been that people waited until a number of bodies were ready for a “secondary internment” when a larger, roughly rectangular hole would be dug and all the bones deposited together. This may have been for religious and/or social reasons or it could have been because digging through the prairie sod was difficult so digging one grave may have been easier than digging a lot of individual graves. Or these ossuaries may have contained the bones of people who died during the winter when burial would have been impossible (though I have heard of some burials within earthlodges where the ground was not frozen).
Another possibility is that bones were deliberately kept for a time. In some societies, including in the Ohio Valley and Mexico, bodies were curetted (had the tissue removed) and kept for a time. They would eventually be interred communally, joining the undifferentiated “ancestors” and possibly promotion community cohesion by uniting different groups of people in death.
Evidence of the co-mingling of remains among the Ponca was reported in the Albion Weekly News in 1900 when it described how a recent death near Niobrara had been handled:
Indian Method of Burial.
NIOBRARA, Neb.. March 15.—A sample of the civilization of the aborigines of this country was given here last week. An Indian woman was taken suddenly ill and died. Her tribe laid the body out- and notified her husband, who was in the Indian territory. The remains lay in the house for two or three days, until decomposition had begun to show plainly. A coffin was then procured, the body placed in it and deposited on the open prairie still awaiting the arrival of the husband. In a day or two the body of the woman burst and being noticed by the Indians a board shanty was erected around the coffin. The next procedure was to procure all the bones possible of her departed friends and place them in the shed around the coffin.
This indicates that at this time the bones of loved ones were kept by the Ponca and brought together when a tribal member died, a custom that may have centuries of precedent. In an account that appeared in the Lincoln Star on January 5th, 1941 about an excavation the previous summer near the small northeast Nebraska town of Homer, the article notes that in addition to revealing the individual graves of 50 Omaha Indians (many of the skulls were painted red), “An ossuary in which many individuals are buried in one grave was found on Miss Margaret Murphy’s land. It is estimated to be about 500 years old…
“Only two of the persons found in the ossuary appear to have been buried in the flesh because their skeletons are the only completely articulated ones. The other bones appear to have been tossed in afterward for reasons not yet clear. Many Indian tribes are known to have had a custom of exposing bodies on scaffolds until only the bones remained and then carrying the bones around with them or hanging bundles with them in their lodges. Thus parts of the skeletons would become lost, and perhaps when the collection got too numerous The owners would throw some of these bones into these ossuaries in some sort of ceremonial burial.”
The Skeleton in the Pasture
My grandmother Etta, who grew up on the Wright Place, sometimes talked about how when she was a little girl a skeleton was revealed by erosion near the “Lone Tree,” somewhere west of the farmhouse. I had always thought this had been on the Wright Place, but a search of the online Albion Weekly News archives revealed that the bones were found on the farm immediately to the southwest. The article raises the possibility the skeleton was that of an old man who had wandered away long ago, but it seems unlikely he would have buried himself –
December 11, 1907
W.S. DeArmond, of Boone, while out hunting on the Hoffman farm a few days ago, discovered a human skeleton. It was along the bank of the “Lone Tree” pond. The bank had caved off, unearthing it and carrying a portion down. Mr. DeArmond hardly knew what to think of it at first. Beside it was an old rusty case knife. Harvey Maricle, who has been in the county since the early days, said that it might possibly be the skeleton of an old man, who used to live near Bradish, but wandered away a number of years ago and was never heard from again. It may possibly be the remains of some Indian.
When I first started dowsing for graves I assumed they would all be on high ground. But as explained on the Home page, I’ve found that – as with the Ponca – graves can be pretty-much anywhere, including on floodplains near streams (recall that the suspected human bones found north of the Wright Place were revealed by the erosion of the east bank of the O’Neill Valley Creek). This is confirmed by a known burial ground just above the Looking Glass creek southeast of Boone County where a skeleton was found with an arrowhead embedded in its back and watermelon seeds still in its mouth. Many burials are said to be there, yet this area is located on only slightly elevated ground.
Two of three suspected mounds on the Plum Creek between St. Edward and Cedar Rapids have depressions on them (see photo at top of page) suggesting individuals were buried there after the mounds were built. Dowsing indicates numerous burials in and near the mounds on the Wright Place – the mound on the Gillespie Place appears to contain burials as well. If this could be confirmed, perhaps with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), it would suggest that people believed it was advantageous to bury their loved ones in or near these mounds, offering a hint perhaps to why mounds were important.
I’ve heard numerous stories of bones being found when digging basements, during past road work and when a mound near Loretto – which also had depressions in its surface suggesting subsequent individual interments – was bulldozed to clear a path for a center pivot irrigation system. Bones and artifacts were reportedly found in abundance, but the work was not halted and no officials were notified.
While today any road work or construction that revealed human remains would result in an investigation, like the family who once lived north of the Wright Place, many farmers don’t want the hassle they believe would result from reporting remains. Not only are Native remains ignored, pioneer cemeteries are vanishing as well.
My family has taken legal steps to protect both the mounds and suspected burials on our property through a conservation easement held by the Nebraska Land Trust. Even if someday we no longer own the land, the mounds and suspected burials cannot be damaged or dug up. Non-invasive methods, such as Ground Penetrating Radar are allowed, however, and it is hoped that someday we can learn more about these sites without dishonoring the remains of anyone interred there.