Boone County’s Native American History | Family Encounters | Sources
The following is a simplified overview of Nebraska and the Boone County area’s Native American past, intended to give an interested reader a general introduction to this subject. Site maps are from the Atlas of Nebraska and Boone County artifacts are from the collection of the Boone County Historical Society.
This region’s Native American past
“For more than ten thousand years the Beaver Valley and surrounding prairie, with their abundant water and wildlife, nurtured Native Americans.”
- State historical marker located in the small town of St. Edward, in southeast Boone County (NE)
The First Nebraskans
No one knows how long humans have been in the Americas (the date is constantly being pushed back as new discoveries are made), nor is anyone sure when people first reached what is now Nebraska, but humans have been here since at least 12,000 years ago. (Learn more about the Peopling of the Americas.) At that time Nebraska had a cool, moist climate and was covered by pine forest. “Paleoindians,” nomadic hunters subsisting primarily on mammoth and wild plants, roamed this area at that time.
After a time this area’s climate warmed and dried dramaticallyand a great deal of wind-born dust, or “loess”, was deposited across much of the state (making it difficult to find sites from this period). The giant mammoths, along with many other species, disappeared and ancient hunter/gatherers had to adapt by diversifying their diet. The oldest burial in Nebraska, dated to between 6,500 and 8,400 years ago, was revealed by tillage in southwestern Boone County and is from this “Archaic” period.
Two burials found in western Nebraska date to around 5,000 to 4,500 years ago. Utilitarian grave goods (spear points, hide scrapes, etc.) indicate a connection to people in what is today Montana and Canada. Though no burials from this period have been found in Boone County, several camp sites from this period have been identified in the Beaver Valley.
Expansion of Trade for the Care of the Dead
Grave goods in Nebraska became more exotic over time. More than 2,000 years ago people here were trading at least indirectly with both coasts, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes region. The purpose of this trade appears to have been to obtain shell, mica and copper ornaments to accompany the dead, and may reflect an Adena influence from the Ohio Valley where vast treasures were created only to bury under mounds. Dependence on wild seeds increased during this time, helping pave the way for agriculture.
Introduction of Pottery and Early Villages
By about 2,000 years ago pottery making had spread to Nebraska. The first pots were undecorated and conical in shape – they could not have stood upright unless placed in a hole. These early potters lived in semi-sedentary villages and lived in simple pit houses – roughly circular pits with irregularly placed posts supporting a roof. The dead were either buried individually shortly after death or in mass graves (ossuaries) long after death with the bones of many individuals scrambled together (these bodies may have initially been placed in trees or on platforms to be defleshed by birds). Grave goods became much more abundant, consisting of sometimes thousands of shell beads. At least three sites from this early ceramic time period have been identified in this area.
Agriculture and Population Growth
Agriculture was being practiced here by at least 1,100 years ago, and as a result of this more dependable food supply, more people lived in Nebraska from AD 1000 to 1400 than at any other time in prehistory. Pit houses transformed into more substantial earth lodges and were usually located on low bluffs near streams and the adjacent bottom lands where crops were grown. Lone farmsteads and small villages, consisting of two to four lodges, were spread out anywhere from a few hundred yards to a mile or more from each other. Around 30 sites from this time period have been identified near the Beaver in Boone and Nance Counties. Burial customs remained similar to earlier times (with perhaps several villages sharing communal gave sites) but there was a marked reduction in the number of shell ornaments left with the dead.
While ceremonies surrounding death and the dead had been important for some time, it is believed they became particularly important at this time and were possibly connected with the culture of the temple mound builders of the Southeast. Grave goods, including copper-covered ear spools and shells decorated with a “hand and eye” motif (a common design in the Southeast that’s thought to symbolize the entrance to the land of the dead) have been found in Nebraska. Mound burial was practiced at this time along the Missouri River, and cracked and scorched human bones have been found, suggesting the possibility of ceremonial cannibalism.
Prolonged Drought and European Contact
A prolonged period of cool droughts during the 12th and 13th centuries forced many (though not all) to abandon this area, but by about 1500 AD people were returning from both the north and the south. These people are thought to have been the ancestors of the historic Pawnee. Earthlodges became larger and their shape changed from rectangular to round. People still lived much as they had before the long period of drought, by cultivating corn, beans and squash while also hunting deer and particularly buffalo. Villages grew larger and pottery became more elaborate, reflecting an influence from tribes to the north.
This was, of course, the time when Europeans were first reaching the Americas. The Spanish explorer Coronado arrived in central Kansas in 1541 where he met members of the Harahey tribe from the north. The Harahey are thought to have been the Pawnee, making them the first tribe from this area to encounter Europeans. But contact with whites would have been rare here until French traders began to visit this area in the 1700s.
Slave Trade and Proxy War
Despite limited contact with the whites, indirect contact via other tribes was soon impacting life in this part of Nebraska. Plains Apaches (known as the “Padouca” or “Gatakas”) were living and hunting in the Sandhills, and through their kinsmen in the Southwest, were trading slaves captured in this area to the Spanish for horses (few people realize that, in addition to blacks, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans were enslaved in North America). Being mounted gave these warriors a distinct advantage over people living in small, undefended villages spread along streams in eastern Nebraska. As a result, Indians in this area began to join together in larger villages, sometimes surrounded by a defensive earthen embankment.
In the early 1700s French and English weapons from the northeast (along with pressure from tribes farther west) enabled the Pawnee to drive the Apache out of the Sandhills.
The French and the Spanish both claimed broad swaths of the Great Plains, and fought something of a proxy war for control of this area through the Pawnee and Padoucas. In 1720 a Spanish delegation from Santa Fe seeking to form an alliance with the Pawnee against the French, the Villasur expedition, was massacred by this tribe (with help from a few Otoe) near Columbus where the Loup River joins the Platte.
Migration from the East
Disruptions caused by European colonization drove many tribes west, including the Siouan-speaking Omaha, Ponca and Otoe (who were later joined by their kinsmen the Missouria), all of whom took up residence near the Missouri in eastern Nebraska. Traditions of these tribes indicate that the Pawnee and their close cousins, the Arikara, (who later moved into South Dakota and for whom the Elkhorn river is named) taught these woodland tribes how to build earthlodges, cultivate corn and hunt buffalo. As a result, the culture and lifestyle of these tribes came to resemble that of the Pawnee.
The Pawnee and Human Sacrifice
The Pawnee themselves were a confederation of four closely related tribes. Three of these tribes, known collectively as the South Bands, migrated from the south and eventually settled near the Skidi, or “Wolf” tribe (who gave their name – in French “Loup” – to that river system). The Skidi, South Bands, Arikara and several tribes living farther south, including the Wichitas of Kansas. were linguistic cousins (speaking variations of the Caddo language, named for the Caddo tribe in Texas).
The Skidi and the South Bands differed in some ways in their religious beliefs. All Native Americans acknowledged the heavenly bodies – Sun, Moon, stars and planets – but unlike other tribes, the Skidi possessed a highly developed star cult, with each village worshiping a different star (at one point Skidi villages were said to have been arranged to reflect the positions of the stars in the sky). Each of these villages had its own rituals (with ceremonial paraphernalia kept in “sacred bundles”). So important were the rituals involving specific stars and villages, that one village (and later all the Skidi) periodically sacrificed captive maidens (and occasionally captive boys) to the Morning Star.
Perhaps in response to slave raids by the Padouca, the Skidi devised a complex religious scheme which incorporated individual village bundle rituals into an annual ceremonial cycle. By doing so the differing rituals of the various villages were coordinated with each other. This, in turn, allowed the people to unite for their mutual protection.
By the early 1800s contact with the whites was increasing, and with it, white diseases. Smallpox epidemics were common and drastically reduced Native populations (sometimes by 90 or even 100 percent). While the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca and Otoe, who divided their time between growing crops and hunting buffalo were generally peaceful towards whites, warfare with other tribes – particularly the Sioux – remained a constant threat to these peoples. Sioux raiding parties followed the branches of the Loup through the Sandhills to the Pawnee reservation in what is now Nance County to attack women as they worked their fields (at one time this reservation also included Boone County). In 1874 Fort Hartsuff was constructed between Ord and Burwell to intercept the Sioux before they could reach the Pawnee and white settlers who were also in the area. But by this time the Pawnee were already in the process of relocating to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
In 1854 the Omaha ceded most of their land (including their claims in Boone County), moving to a reservation in far northeastern Nebraska (in 1862 the Omaha gave a portion of their land to the dispossessed Winnebago). The Ponca saw their homeland around the mouth of the Niobrara River inexplicably given to the Santee Sioux by the US after that tribe was removed from Minnesota, and in 1877 the Ponca were removed to a reservation in Oklahoma. Only a or two year earlier the Pawnee (who surrendered their claims to Boone County in 1857) had reluctantly relocated there as well. The Otoe gave up their land in Nebraska in 1881, also relocating to Indian Territory and over time the Sioux were confined to reservations in the Dakotas.
Reservations in Nebraska
In the 1870s the Nebraska’ Legislature requested that the U.S. Congress cancel Native American’s land rights in the state. The Omaha/Winnebago and the Santee Sioux did, however, remain on their reservations in Thurston and Knox counties respectively. Due to the heroic efforts of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who in a landmark court case established that Native Americans were human beings in the eyes of the law, some Ponca returned to land near the mouth of the Niobrara. Additionally, the Ioway tribe still owns a small tract of land in Nebraska (less than 50 people live there), as do the Sac and Fox in extreme southeastern Nebraska. At one time there was also the Nemaha Half Breed reservation for people with white fathers and Omaha mothers.
Boone County’s Recorded Native American History
Charlie Cooley of Albion, Nebraska who will be 77 years old on March 19, 1928, picked up this Indian arrow from amongst a dozen other broken ones on the morning of April 8, 1873 from his father’s pig pen where the Indians had killed two pigs and had also taken a calf, which they cooked and ate not over a quarter of a mile from the dugout in which he was living, located on the bank of the Beaver Creek seven miles northwest of Albion in Boone County. – From the archives of the Boone County Historical Society
Over 20 archaeological sites have been identified in Boone County, and a grave discovered in 1977 above the Timber Creek in the southwest corner of the county has been dated to somewhere between 4574 BC and 6471 BC. Many other graves have also been found – including one in our pasture – and a large cemetery on a high point just southeast of Boone was once revealed by coyotes or badgers.
Historically reference to Native Americans in this area, however, don’t begin until 1840 when a group of Omaha Indians was attacked by an unknown tribe near present-day Primrose on the Cedar River, with many killed on both sides. At that time Boone County was not permanently inhabited by any group but was a hunting ground for the Pawnee, Omaha and Sioux.
Because of the conflict among these tribes in this area, many whites believed civilization would never take root here, and it’s no surprise that most of Boone County’s recorded Native American history involves conflict. In the summer of 1855 the well-known half-Omaha half-French interpreter Logan Fontanelle was killed by a group of Oglala Sioux (a very young Crazy Horse may have been among the Sioux attackers) along the Beaver Creek above present-day Loretto (see Historical Marker). In 1859 the Omaha again battled the Sioux along the Beaver Creek north of present-day Albion. During this battle an Omaha woman and a child were captured; though the child was returned, the woman experienced many adventures before finding her way back to her people.
Boone County was opened to homesteading in March of 1871, but it was several years before Indian activity ceased. Early accounts indicate that both the Pawnee and the Sioux had a tendency to take whatever they wanted, including horses, from the homesteaders – Pawnee thieves sometimes pretended they were Sioux in order to cast blame in that direction. Occasionally homesteaders followed the raiding parties to try to retrieve their ponies, but generally these settlers decided against it once they realized they were outnumbered by experienced Native American warriors.
The Cedar Valley
Trouble with the Indians got so bad that a sod fort was built near the Cedar River. The “Cedar Valley Rangers” – volunteers from as far as 16 miles away – trained there weekly, but by the time the fort was completed the problems with Native Americans had subsided and defensive measures were no longer needed. The Rangers did go into action at least once, though, pursuing a band of Indians who had stolen two horses and a mule. In the resulting skirmish several Indians were killed as was one of the Rangers. Upon their return to Cedar Rapids – without the stolen animals – the Rangers discovered that three additional horses had been stolen and one cow butchered while they were gone.
Records from the Cedar Valley show that a group of Sioux trappers camped each fall in a willow thicket near Cedar Rapids. This camp was once afflicted with smallpox, but it did not spread to the local white population. And an early resident of that area remembered how
“An old squaw used to come to our home. Her husband was blind and she led him about with a rope tied around her wrist. Once, when we had killed hogs for our summer meat, there was a sudden hot spell and a lot of the meat spoiled. The meat had been set outside where the old squaw spotted it, insisting that it was good food. She carried it away in a sack she always had with her. She could carry a great deal on her back.”
The Beaver Valley
A taste among Native Americans for questionable pork was also observed in the Beaver Valley. In his memoir, Cass Barnes, who in 1883 settled about a mile from our property, recounted
“During the early eighty’s the Omaha Indians occasionally got permission to leave their agency [at Macy, Nebr., 90 miles away] and came to Beaver Creek about a mile from us to trap beavers. At the time my hogs and my neighbors’ hogs were dying of cholera we would drag them away some distance from the house and leave them on the prairie. The Indians would gather them up and eat them with no apparent bad result…”
Barnes added that
“While the Omaha Indians who made nomadic visits to our neighborhood had the traditional filthy and unsanitary habits of Indians they were really partly civilized and altogether harmless. They were inveterate beggars but as my wife had hardly seen an Indian in her life she was afraid of them. Our nearest neighbor was a woman about my wife’s age and had two little girls about the age of our five-year old Frank. Frank had a large dog that was very watchful and my wife trusted this if any of the Indians came to our house the dog would keep them away as he did strange white people. One day a young Indian riding bareback on a pony with his red blanket flying in the wind came galloping across the unfenced hills and came to the door and asked for money. The dog she had placed her trust in looked upon the Indian as a brother and paid no attention to him… He got no money but was satisfied with a large piece of salted side pork and went away. A few days after our neighbor woman came with her little girls in a great fright saying Indians were coming. She had her bread ready to bake but left it and came to join forces with Mrs. Barnes… It proved to be two squaws who were hired to leave by a liberal supply of eatables and no harm came from them or any others of their tribe.”
In another book (The Sod House) Barnes again tells of these visits, noting that the Indians came during the winter and “in their flimsy, temporary tents they withstood a temperature of 15 below.”
Several early sources describe how members of the Omaha tribe continued to visit this area after the Pawnee had moved to Indian Territory and the Sioux were confined to reservations in the Dakotas. For example, Rosetta Green, one of the earliest settlers in the county, recalled that “The Omaha Indians used to come up sometimes to trap and fish along the Beaver creek and always made calls on the white people. They would beg for everything they could carry off, but were always friendly.” And the Petersburg Centennial book (Petersburg is about 13 miles north of Albion) notes that “No Indians, except members of the Omaha tribe, ever paid the county a visit after…1881.”
The Atwood family, one of the earliest to settle in the county, still remembers when Mrs. Atwood was home alone and had baked a pie. Seven Native men who were camping nearby (a few miles northwest of Albion along the Beaver Creek) smelled it and came to the house. Mrs. Atwood got out her best dishes, silverware, and tablecloth, and fixed these men the finest meal she could. Later, when her family asked her why she went to such lengths, she replied that she could tell by their bearing and manners that these men were “royalty” among their people, and they deserved to be treated accordingly. (The Atwoods still preserve a small piece of land where Indians camped when they visited the area – long ago the family pledged to preserve that ground so the Indians always have a place to camp when they visited. Though it’s been a long, long time since any have visited, the ground remains unplowed. Read more)
The impressive demeanor of Mrs. Atwood’s Native guests is interesting – the Omaha were governed by seven Chiefs who, due to the importance of their position, “had to be deliberate in speech and in movement.” This is not to say that these men were the seven principle chiefs of the Omaha, but whoever these men were, their behavior clearly conveyed a sense of dignity and importance.
Another early settler, Catherine Murray Leonard, who in 1879 settled not far to the northeast of our property, also wrote of encountering polite and friendly Indians:
“There were Indians too, around trapping. One came to our house one day shortly after I came. He wanted to eat, so I set him a lunch. I shook hands with him when he came in and again when he was leaving; he was very friendly. I would of been all alone that day only Lynn Matthews happened to come along, otherwise I don’t know what I would have done, for that was the first Indian I had ever seen. But the next Sunday going to church, we ran into three more. I wasn’t afraid after that.”
The Omaha seem to have maintained a close connection to Boone County for decades after the Pawnee and Sioux were confined to reservations. A search of the Albion Weekly News online archives going back to 1880 reveals that the Omaha made yearly visits to trap, hunt and fish until at least 1904 when it reports that “a party of Omaha Indians which have been camped near Cedar Rapids for some time left last Wednesday.” Most of these visits were in the winter – groups ranging in size from “several individuals” to “about 20” – families with children, ponies and horses – were often north of St. Edward in December and near Albion in early January, moving on up the Beaver to the Loretto area, seven miles to the north. A report from January of 1880 says “a party of Omaha Indians were in town yesterday disposing of furs and taking all the nickels the boys had by shooting them off a stick with their bows and arrows.” In late December of 1890 the News reported that a band of Omaha Indians were camped near town and “gave a war dance one evening for the edification of pale faces.” [Summary of News Items]
The Omaha may have divided into groups when in this area, visiting both the Beaver and Cedar valleys – a report from January of 1891 reports that at the same time a band was camped near Loretto “a company was raised at Fullerton (about 25 miles south of Albion where the Cedar joins the Loup River) to fight the Indians who were said to be getting unruly.”
Our farm was visited by Native Americans for many years (and also by caravans of traveling Roma). These Indians, who would appear to be the same ones Cass Barnes and others wrote of above, periodically camped in the pasture west of the farmstead. They fished in the creeks and a nearby lake, presumably hunting and trapping as well, and harvested wild honey from a hollow tree. These Native Americans would regularly come to the house and ask for items such as eggs, milk, and butter. My great grandmother Helen Mansfield was terrified and had her three small daughters hide in case the Indians were coming for their scalps. She’d tell the Indians to take whatever they needed.
My grandmother Etta was born on this farm in 1900, and by the she was old enough to remember such things these visits had ended. But though she only heard the stories, her three older sisters, born between 1887 and 1892 did recall these visits. Her older sisters said that besides coming here to trap, fish, and ask for food, these Native Americans came to perform their rituals and ceremonies.
An elderly gentleman in nearby Newman Grove, Lloyd Long, told me he grew up on a farm about a mile and a half east and slightly south of Newman Grove where the Omaha crossed the Shell Creek on their periodic visits to this area. And Gene Atwood, whose family settled along the Beaver north of Albion in 1871 and who also retain a memory of regular visits by Indians (see above), once told me he suspects they traveled a regular route that brought them to both our farm and his in turn.
Catching the Train
My father’s grandfather Frank Mansfield, who moved to our farm in 1884, liked to tell a story about these Indians. He said a young man with the group had a pony and a lariat (the same one Barnes mentioned as riding bareback “with his red blanket flying”?). The railroad followed the Beaver Creek and passed our farm just to the south and west. One day as the train chugged past, this young man rode along side the engine and lassoed the smokestack. The engineer, presumably alarmed, sped up, leading to the young man being pulled over his pony’s head and dragged by the train for quite a distance. When the battered young man finally made it back to our pasture, my great-grandfather asked him why he hadn’t just let go. He explained he didn’t want to lose his rope since it was the only one he had.
General Interactions between Native Americans and whites
My family interacted with these people and I wish more about them had been passed on through the generations. But while whites in Nebraska harbored deep suspicions about Native Americans, in many instances whites and Natives coexisted peacefully and a number of stories about their interactions remain.
White and Native culture differed in many ways, including social etiquette. Natives – especially the semi-sedentary earthlodge dwellers in the eastern portions of the state – were accustomed to living with as many as 40 other people in the same lodge and property was mostly held in common. Socializing was frequent and Natives tended to just walk in and make themselves at home when visiting neighboring lodges.
As a result whites – especially women who spent most of their time in the home – were sometimes surprised to find one or more Natives – who could move very quietly – sitting on their floors or examining their possessions and sometimes even their clothing – while they were wearing it. Natives had a tendency to leave with whatever they wanted and if denied entrance by locked doors, would press their faces against the windows until the whites within relented and gave them something to eat.
In 1870 the Grand Island Independent reported that in Genoa (located on the Pawnee Reservation) “half naked” Natives would descend on passengers whenever a train stopped, repeatedly demanding “give it to me tenny cent, heap a hungry.” The Pawnee also sold items through a nearby trading post. An 1872 ad by the proprietor, Lester Platt, offered “Pawnee good, Buffalo Robes, Beaver and Otter Skins, dressed and undressed, and other Furs and Skins, also Indian Curiosities, Moccasins, bows and arrows for sale at my store adjoining the Pawnee Reservation.”
Begging, trading and stealing from whites was a major occupation for many. Sometimes the Natives used white settlers’ fears to their advantage – the Pawnee in particular liked to pretend they were going to attack white settlers who didn’t give them what they wanted. They would howl, grimace and wave weapons, even sharpening their knives if a grindstone was in the yard.
Mary Halverson, an early settler in Newman Grove, about a dozen miles east of Albion, recalled this behavior –
“I was half scared to death when the Indians came. They wanted me because I was dark, and mother was sure scared that they would take me. Then they would get out their knives and sharpen them and stand there. They would beg for something to eat, and Mother would give them bread and meat to get rid of them.”
Fears that the Native would take a child appear to have been well-founded – the two-year-old son of an Irish widower named O’Brien was never seen again after he was kidnapped by Indians southeast of Newman Grove.
Though Native Americans in Boone County mostly killed each other – one source says half of all known Indian battles in Nebraska occurred here – occasionally whites died as well. In addition to the unidentified Englishman killed when the Cedar Valley Rangers attempted to retrieve two stolen horses and a mule, Joseph Dillo, a Boone County homesteader, was murdered by Indians while trapping 35 miles upstream on the Cedar River, leaving a wife and five young children behind. Initial reports blamed the Pawnee but later reports shifted blame to the Sioux. Identifying the killers was made more difficult by the Pawnee tendency to impersonate the Sioux when dealing with unfamiliar whites.
Near the Looking Glass Creek in the West Hill neighborhood east of St. Edward, a white woman who was home alone was shot in the side by a group of Indians. Hearing the shot, her family rushed back and the Indians fled. And “Mrs. Nelson,” one of the first white women in Newman Grove, was shot in the hip by a group of Yankton Sioux while they were stealing cattle from her neighbors the Warrens and was crippled for life.
Both the whites and the Natives were guilty of violent acts. Late in life a daughter of these Warrens recalled that when she was a child
“…two white renegades stayed at their home overnight, making their boasts as to how they had come upon two Indian squaws sitting on a creek bank, nursing their babies, and shot them just for fun of the thing, just as we would shoot ducks today.”
Elvira Gaston Platt, wife of the owner of the Pawnee trading post (and a leading proponent of separating Native children from their parents in order to “civilize” them), recalled that once a white family killed 14 friendly Pawnee who had asked for food and drink. Later a Pawnee named Yellow Sun was accused of killing a white settler on an island in the Platte. After hearing the details, Pawnee chief Lesharu Pitko (Twice a Chief) said to the whites “you have lost one man, fourteen of my men have recently been killed by white men – let’s call it even and let the boy go.” (Records do not show what ultimately happened to Yellow Sun.)
After the Warren family escaped the Yankton Sioux, a small group of soldiers were for a short time stationed near what is now Newman Grove. Soldiers were also stationed near Genoa to protect the Pawnee from raids by the Sioux, but were not effective (often Sioux raids were over before the soldiers were mounted). And on several occasions members of both the Ponca Tribe, which lived about 75 miles to the north of here, and Omaha Indians, which lived about 90 miles to the northeast, were injured, plundered and even brutally killed by soldiers assigned to protect them (in what was termed an “unfortunate incident, several Ponca were killed by solders, including a 12-year-old girl who was shot repeatedly in her breasts). None of the soldiers responsible for these acts were ever punished.
Few whites hesitated to take advantage of the Indians (the few whites who actually came to know the Natives all seemed to agree that they were more civilized than the whites who dispossessed them). Where only a few years earlier the Pawnee had been stealing horses here and there from white settlers, by the mid-1870s whites – sometimes disguised as Indians themselves – were attempting to steal all the Pawnee’s horses en masse, killing with impunity both a boy and a chief’s wife in the processes.
Though it was illegal to do so, whites also stole huge quantities of timber from the Pawnee Reservation (now Nance County, immediately south of Boone County). Timber was scarce in the counties surrounding the reservation, but more plentiful along the Loup River which flowed through the Pawnee lands. The Pawnee needed this wood for cooking and heat, but by 1874 white timber thefts totaled 1,000 wagon loads and at least 50 families in Boone County were depended on this wood for fuel. Timber theft was one of the major factors leading the Pawnee to abandon their ancestral homes in Nebraska to relocate in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). To add insult to injury (or really, injury to injury), the Pawnee’s land (all of Nance County) was sold – mostly to a handful of speculators – for $750,000; while the speculators soon grew wealthy, the Pawnee ultimately received only $177,010.
Early 20th Century
In his memoir, My Life and Times, Russell Hughes, who grew up on the farm immediately west of ours, recalled that
“In the early 1900s there were a few Indian families who traveled the roads in Nebraska and some other western states. They lived off the land, as most people called it. They had a few horses that many times pulled a wagon and it would be followed by a few dogs and some of the family who had to walk.
As they traveled they caught chickens along the road as well as sometimes a pig or a calf. Some of this was done during the night. Dogs were also sometimes caught near some farms. When an animal was butchered, the Indians ate almost all parts of the animal. They cured the hide to make moccasins and string to tie on their clothes. Teeth were used on necklaces and other decorations. Anything not used was buried on the roadside.”
Hughes says his cousin Edgar, who grew up about 10 miles north of Spalding (just a few miles west of Boone County) told of Upper Brule Sioux who would leave the Rosebud Reservation in south central South Dakota and walk across the Sandhills to this area. They would sometimes recover old artifacts from blowouts (areas of bare sand) and refurbish them to sell to whites. Edgar became friends with one of these men, Bill Tebaugh, who according to Hughes
“was between 50 and 60 years old in 1914… He liked the Nebraska Sandhills, so several summers he walked across the sandhills sleeping on top of a higher hill of sand so he could see the sun sink in the west then rise the next morning in the east. He had a little ceremony each time. As the sun set he thanked it for a nice day and for growing the grass and trees and helping the animals grow another day. In the morning he asked the sun to care for all the animals and to care for the grass and trees.”
Bill, who visited Edgar’s family several times, helped Edgar make a 5′ bow out of ash and arrows tipped with bone points. Hughes says Bill could hit a quart tomato can about half the time at 20 paces with this bow and arrows.
“Obstacles That Had to Go”
In The Sod House, one of two memoirs by Boone County settler Cass. G Barnes, Barnes summed up the attitude of most whites:
“Indians and buffaloes were plentiful but never helped develop the country. They were obstacles that had to be removed before the natural resources could be utilized… Sentimental people always criticized the so called wrongs done in taking the land from the Indians. It was an economic necessity because they would not develop the land. The Indian had to go. The buffalo had to go. The coyotes and rattlesnakes mostly followed the buffaloes and Indians.”
Personal Experiences with the Pawnee
Over the years I have been fortunate to come to know several members of today’s Pawnee Nation during their visits to Nebraska. One respected elder, Maude, even allowed me to call her “grandmother”. (Read a letter I wrote to Maude)
Maude’s niece Rebecca invited me to dance with her at a powwow in Genoa. The drummers at the center of the dance circle sang in Pawnee, and I had no idea what they were saying. But the raw emotion of one song struck me in particular and I asked Rebecca what it was about. She said it told the story of their leaving Nebraska for Oklahoma. As a musician I’ve heard a great deal of music in a variety of styles, but never have I heard a song that conveyed as much sadness – even in an unfamiliar language – as this song did. (Read more)
On another occasion I had the opportunity to address a delegation of Pawnee (including the elderly great-grandson of White Eagle, the Chief who led the last group of Pawnee to Oklahoma). I discussed the way pioneers in Boone County had stolen firewood from the reservation. I said that while my family retains no memory of doing this, I wanted to apologize for the role people here played in forcing them from their land. While I hope this isn’t the case, my impression was that no one had ever apologized to them before. (Read more)
My impromptu apology in front of a small crowd didn’t do much to offset the pain Native Americans have experienced. But it was an opportunity to acknowledge that we and the Pawnee share a past, and maybe by remembering that we can somehow, someday, start the process of healing. The stories presented here don’t begin to convey the extent of these people’s suffering from disease, starvation and violence, but both they and their suffering must never be forgotten.
Over the past 12,000 years may different people have lived here. People much like us were captured from their homes and sold as slave labor for Mexican mines and Caribbean sugar plantations. Where today we use fertilizer and hire law enforcement officers, for many more years than we’ve lived here kidnapped maidens were ceremonially sacrificed to bring good harvests and protect people from their enemies.
When viewed from the perspective of the past, one realizes that those of us living here today are just the latest in a long series of people who have struggled to build lives and families here. For our people to endure here – and our population has been steadily declining for a century now – we need to understand this land as well as our predecessors. This is not an easy place to live, but perhaps by remembering that this area has 12 millennia of human history we can chart a course for the future that draws on the wisdom of the past to forge a strong link in an ancient chain – our link – which joins all who have lived here with all who will. (Read More)
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