The peaceful monotony of the prairie lay untouched. Silent, bland and secure, it gave itself only to the hot winds of summer and the frosty blasts of winter. Then one day, four hundred years ago, Indians sighted the first visitor to the place where the Loup intersected the Platte.
Like some bizarre figure in an Old World painting he rode --- behind him the dusty little band which had journeyed so many thousands of miles. There, on the prairie, the war paint of the North American savage mingled with the royal plumage of medieval Spain. Then Coronado and his men turned their backs upon the legendary treasure they had sought and wearily began the long trek to Mexico and home.
More years and the first strivings of a raw new government brought two adventurers, Lewis and Clark, into the Platte Valley. There was something about the purchase of a territory called, loosely, Louisiana. And now there were men in Washington eager to explore the extent of it.
The Indians fought, rebelled, badgered, pled. But their happy hunting grounds had awakened to the ever-reaching fingers of a civilization which crept steadily across the continent. The symphony of the new world could be heard in the creak of giant wagon wheels and the whine of muskets on the plains. Along one side of the Platte the Oregon Trail left its imprint, while the Mormon Trail creased the hard soil of the opposite shore.
Every day brought more men to the frontier. Finally came the first struggling organizationterritorial status for Nebraska --- and recognition for its citizens who had risked their lives in the effort to build a dream.
One of the most bizarre chapters in American history was that which was written in the dust of the Nebraska plains, near the present bounds of Platte County, by a weary band of erstwhile conquerors led by the Spanish explorer, Coronado. It is a story of vast ambitions and treachery and of a fabulous expedition which, although it was considered a failure in the courts of Europe, actually blazed one of the first trails in the wilderness of North America.
It is only because Coronado's journey was so well documented, so filled with descriptions of the landmarks and territory through which he and his men passed, that we can be certain today of their ultimate destination. For the golden Quivira --- the Eldorado sought by these grandees of a decadent, Old World society --- was to be found in the region of the Loup and Platte Rivers in Nebraska, not far from the present site of Columbus.
But it remained for others, better colonists than the noblemen from Spain, to realize the wealth of this land. The founders of Columbus lived almost three hundred years after Coronado, but they placed their faith in sacrifice rather than plunder, and their reward lay not in miracles but in every-day hard work.
However, in the year 1540, the cry was --- "Conquest!" And the King of Spain was a rich, ambitious king.
THE QUEST OF CORONADO
The governor of New Galicia (Nueva Galicia), Mexico, at that time was young Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, the noted explorer and native of Salamanca, Spain. It was in that year that the news came of the fabulous riches and gold to be found in the wonderful Seven Cities of Cibola. A priest, Padre Marcos de Nizza, O. F. M., who discovered Arizona and New Mexico, and caught sight of Zuni, was said to have located their treasure, but he had returned before penetrating the heart of this unexplored and wealthy land.
Exaggerated reports of the treasure immediately spread throughout Mexico. There were two reasons for this: such pilgrimage never failed to win new recruits for the spread of religion; and the civil authorities, worried over the high spirits of several hundred young noblemen and adventurers, were willing that they depart on a mission of great daring which would, incidentally, conquer a new country for Spain.
Assembling the troublesome two hundred and fifty Spaniards along with more than eight hundred other men, the viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, in February, 1540, turned them over to the command of Coronado with the admonition that he "conquer and colonize the territory and never come back." Thus began the famous expedition into the land of Quivira.
According to the tale told by the Franciscan monk, this new land was marked by houses built of stone and untold amounts of wealth in precious metals, turquoise, beautifully woven cloth, herds of sheep and thousands of head of cattle. Tame birds for food were said to be abundant in this country and even the common people ate from plates of gold and used vessels of rare metal.
After a long, hazardous journey across the desert, the invading Spaniards arrived at the villages of the Zuni and Hopi Indians in Arizona. Instead of gold and riches, they saw only crude huts made of adobe; and in place of the beautiful stones and fine cloth were the native Pottery and primitive weaving of the peaceful Indian tribes.
Eagerly Coronado and his mounted lancers pressed onward. A detachment of the expedition under Cardenas branched farther into the Southwest and discovered the Grand Canyon. But
The History of Platte County, Nebraska
their leader was still restless to find and conquer the land with the "river six miles wide, on which sailed canoes bearing golden eagles on their prows."
The Indians in the Pueblo villages through which Coronado and his men passed were friendly toward the Spaniards. They gave them food and other presents, but the Spanish Army aroused the first feelings of enmity against the white men, by destroying many of the Indian villages and killing or taking prisoner the natives.
One of Coronado's chief scouts, and the man most responsible for his continued pilgrimage to the fabled Quivira, was an Indian guide from the North, referred to as "the Turk" in the journals of Castaneda and Jaramillo. This guide, who presumably had been captured from his Nebraska tribe by the Hopi Indians, urged the explorers onward along a route southeast from the present town of Pecos, Texas.
Meanwhile, as their ammunition and provisions ran out, the soldiers grew suspicious. All around them was barren countryside and the rude dwellings of the Querechos and Teyas Indians. In some places it was necessary for them to erect bridges in order to cross rivers and streams. The terrain was rough. And still the eager Spaniards found nothing resembling gold in the wilderness of this strange country which had been discovered less than fifty years before by an explorer from another land.
Finally, in May of 1541, Coronado called a council of his captains and commissioned officers. Convinced that Quivira lay to the north, he determined to send the bulk of his army back to Tiguez and continue on with a picked army of thirty horsemen and six travelers on foot. According to one version of the historical northward journey, a trip of thirty days followed, terminating near where the 81st Meridian crosses the Platte River.
In spite of his disillusionment at not finding riches, Coronado was impressed with the natural abundance of the country through which he journeyed. In his account of the trip Captain Jaramillo writes:
"This country presents a very fine appearance, than which I have not seen better in all our Spain, nor Italy, nor a part of France ... for it is made up of hillocks and plains and very fine appearing rivers and streams, which certainly satisfied me and made me sure that it will be very fruitful in all sorts of products."
The Spaniards recorded their observation of great herds of "hump-backed cattle" (buffaloes) which the Indians killed for their flesh and skins. Their journals mention a variety of Castilian prunes, "the tree and fruit like that of Castile, with a very excellent flavor ... grapes along some of the streams, of a fine flavor not to be improved upon."
However, in a letter written to the King of Spain by Coronado, he described reaching the area he thought to be the Quivira at a point beyond the present Nebraska-Kansas line.
"Instead of fabulous wealth," he reported, "I found twenty-five villages where the Indians lived in grass huts, raised corn, beans and melons. Their meat was the raw meat of the buffalo which they cut with stone knives. The only piece of metal found was a piece of copper worn by the Chief around his neck."
At about this point in their journey, the Spaniards were met by an escort of two hundred Indians headed by the chief of the territory known as Harahey. These natives were armed with bows and arrows, and wore no clothing except elaborate head decorations. These Indians belonged to the Pawnee tribe. They were the forebears of the Indians who greeted the founders of Columbus three hundred years later.
It had been almost three months since Coronado turned northward after sending the bulk of his army back to Mexico, and he was beginning to doubt the existence of the legendary Eldorado more each day. Records kept by his men prove that the famous explorer and his coterie of followers reached the junction of Beaver Creek with the Loup River, near the boundary of Platte and Nance Counties, northwest of Monroe, Nebraska.
Finally, after all hope had been abandoned of locating the fabled riches in the new land, Coronado's Indian guide confessed that he had woven the romantic legend in the hope of luring the Spaniards to their death. Furious at this deception, the Spanish soldiers strangled "the Turk" before he could escape from camp.
It was at this spot in August, 1541, one year and six months after he had set out from Mexico with great fanfare and the royal blessing, that the unsuccessful Coronado was alleged to have
|The Quest of Coronado||
erected a cross. The inscription on the stone told of his arrival there, and proclaimed the King of Spain the ruler of this new-found country. Historians believe that the cross will be found some day along the Platte River.
After claiming the regions in the name of Spain, the band of adventurers, weary and disappointed by their failure, scoured the entire vicinity on foot and horseback for a period of thirty-seven days, dating from July 11, 1541, but they could find nothing that would suggest either gold or riches. Only the primitive economy of the poverty-stricken Pawnee Confederacy greeted them on every hand, and finally, in resignation, Coronado and his men turned their horses about and reluctantly headed home.
Coronado was not through with bad fortune; before he could reach Mexico he was thrown from his horse and started the return to New Galicia disgraced and depressed. When the once great adventurer reached home in 1542 he was thirty-two years old, but was clearly a broken man. Two years later he was removed from his governorship and shortly thereafter Francisco Vasquez de Coronado died, embittered and forgotten, in the land which had once proclaimed him its conquering hero.
In spite of his personal misfortune, Coronado has since been called "the greatest explorer who ever trod the American continent." His explorations undoubtedly gave the Spanish their first real knowledge of and claim to the Southwest. It remains an undisputed historical fact that he and his little band of thirty soldiers were the first white men to visit the Nebraska plains.
It is only in the writings of these early Spaniards that the strange story of their wanderings receives its full import. Goaded on by the discoveries of the Italian, Columbus, the Spanish explorers, Ponce de Leon, Hernando Cortez and Balboa, were making inroads to the South and West of the New World. The only conquistadors to head expeditions into the North, however, were Coronado and Ferdinand DeSoto, and it is from their writings that the first picture of Nebraska and the country around Columbus --- as it looked three hundred years before it was ever settled --- may be gleaned.
These men wrote of their amazement at the country of the Ariki-ra, or Horn people, (so called because of their strange and elaborate head dressing). They studied the terrain closely in their constant search for the fictional Quivira, the meaning and derivation of which are explained by the Very Reverend Monsignor Michael A. Shine in his volume, "Franciscans in New Mexico."
"It (the Quivira) is the Spanish pronunciation of the name of this Indian nation, the Skidi-ra or Wolf people."
Two cultural imprints were left by this early army of conquerors upon the primitive life of the Indians in the region of Quivira. The first was the missionary work of Padre Juan de Padilla, a Catholic martyr who made the incredible one thousand-mile trip from Mexico and back with Coronado, traveling only on foot.
Father Padilla later returned to live among the Indians and attempt to convert them to Christianity. He was accepted by the tribe and lived for some time, with a group of companions, among the Quivirans, engaged in his missionary work and in the first rudimentary instruction of Scientific treatment of bodily ills.
The early American martyr set out one day to contact a neighboring, hostile tribe and encountered a band of Indians on the warpath. He was killed by these warriors while exhorting his companions to escape that they might carry the news of his martyrdom to the Christian world. Nine years later, in the town of Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico, a Portuguese soldier by the name of Andres Docampos finished a twenty thousand-mile journey. He had struggled through the wilderness for years in an attempt to reach the civilized world with the story of Padre Juan de Padilla's death.
The second cultural imprint made by the Spaniards upon the life of the Pawnee Indian was anything but spiritual, but no less important in terms of his later warfare with the white man. It was transportation.
Up to the time of Coronado's coming, the dog had been trained by the Indian to pull tepee Poles whenever whole tribes moved. The Spaniards, however, had horses, and this marked the first introduction of the Indian to that animal. At first afraid of the horse, he later learned to know and adapt it to his use, thereby revolutionizing his entire mode of life.
The History of Platte County, Nebraska
It then became easier for the young Indian bucks to hunt and fight, and also to travel from place to place. Horses facilitated the problems of the Indian in moving. And, in later years, the Indian knowledge of horsemanship proved indispensable in battles. Never, otherwise, would hostile tribes have been able to attack so quickly nor to retreat so effectively after a raid.
Forty years elapsed after the Coronado expedition before a desire for colonization was rekindled among the Spanish by Espajo. Even this exploration was confined to New Mexico and the Southwest, and it wasn't until 1720 that a record of any expedition is to be found reaching the country around the Loup and Platte Rivers in Nebraska.
But the lure of a new land is a strange, strange lure. Once again in the dusty streets of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a procession began to form. This was no army but a moving colony. Not only were there the inevitable legions of armed and mounted men but accompanying them, in the move of 1720, were women and children and two Franciscan monks. And following the riders came great numbers of horses and cattle. This was the Spanish Caravan --- its destination, the Missouri Valley country; its aim to colonize for Spain.
The Caravan had a plan. With Comanche Indians to act as guides, its leaders hoped to invade the country to the North and conquer the Missouri, the Otoe, the Pawnee and other Indian tribes inhabiting the region near the Missouri River. This accomplished, they planned to secure the region and colonize it for the mother country.
There are many stories extant among historians as to the fate of the Spanish Caravan. All, however, agree on the fateful, final chapter. The several hundred erstwhile colonists moved slowly east and northward until reaching the vicinity of the Platte and Loup Rivers, where Columbus now stands. There, through a coup on the part of the Pawnees whom they planned to destroy, the Caravan was attacked and all the members, with the exception of the monk, were killed. Although the priest was captured and held prisoner, he later managed to escape and made his way to the French forts near St. Louis where he told the story of his comrades' fate.
The most credible account of what happened on the Nebraska prairie in 1720 is an ironic story of callous scheming and accident. The commander of the Spanish Caravan, according to this version, intended to solicit the help of the Osage tribe of Indians, which was at war with the Missouri and the Otoe tribes.
By mistake he reached first a village of the Pawnee, friends of the Missouri, whom he mistakenly thought to be Osage. In confidence, the Spanish leader told them of his plan to conquer the Missouri tribe, to make slaves of its women and children, slaughter the warriors and young men, settle in the Indians' own country and exploit its resources.
The chief of the Pawnee tribe understood the fatal mistake the white man had made and played his part well. With much feasting and welcome, he thanked the Spaniards for including his people in their plan, and promised to join in the war on the colonists' side. Then he sent messages to all the friends of the Missouri and Pawnee tribes for many miles around. Two thousand warriors moved silently upon the camp and waited for the night of feasting to come to an end. Just at daybreak, when the Spaniards were exhausted and relaxed in the promise of their future triumph, the old chief gave the signal.
In the massacre that followed, Pedro the commander, Padre Pedro Minguez, O.F.M., and all the Spaniards --- men, women and children -- were killed except the monk Padre Juan de Dios, O.F.M. All of the Caravan's horses were captured as well as the belongings of the would-be invaders from the South.
In the weeks that followed, the Pawnee and the Missouri tribes set about learning horsemanship. Each day the Indians would force the captive monk to mount a horse and teach them the fundamentals of riding. Finally, one morning, while the braves were practicing this strange, new art, their prisoner jumped upon the fastest horse and rode away. He traveled alone through hundreds of miles of wilderness, reaching the French fort near the Mississippi. And there the story of the Spanish Caravan, which ended in bloody massacre somewhere near the present site of Columbus in Platte County, was finally revealed to the world.
That the monk's account was true was later confirmed by a French writer who tells of the visit made by a small band of Pawnee and Missouri River Indians to the French fort some time
|The Quest of Coronado||
later. With them they brought many of the sacred robes and gold chalices of the church, which they had taken from the monk and intended to trade for goods and food.
Also corroborative of the story was a diary kept by one of the Spanish officers of the Caravan, which came to light many years later. This diary was kept in detail up to August 10, 1720, giving details of each day's march, of the streams crossed and of talks with the Indians. It lists the names of Spanish soldiers in the Caravan and describes the country through which it passed, thus establishing the region of the massacre as the junction of the Platte and Loup Rivers.
Another nineteen years passed after the destruction of the Spanish Caravan before any further record of the white men is to be found. This time the exploration was by Frenchmen. Two brothers, Pierre and Paul Mallet, along with six others of their fellow countrymen, crossed the entire state of Nebraska from northeast to southwest.
Starting from the French settlements in Illinois, not far from the present site of St. Louis, this party traveled up the Missouri River to Dakota County. Journals kept by one of their number show that on May 29, 1739, they set out for the city of Santa Fe.
June 2 found the Frenchmen at a river which they named the Platte. For seventy leagues, or approximately two hundred eighty miles, they followed the left bank of that stream until it made a fork with the river of the Padouca (this is the Sioux name of the Comanche tribe, now in Oklahoma). After a journey of nine hundred sixty-two leagues from the Panimaha villages of Dakota country, the Mallet brothers and their comrades arrived at Santa Fe on July 22 of the same year, 1739.
This exploration on the part of the French is memorable because it was this small group of eight white men who gave the Platte River its name. Their diaries indicated that they were undoubtedly the first white explorers to see the forks of the Platte, and thereby travel the entire length of the state of Nebraska. The Mallets, furthermore, stand out as the first traders to link the Missouri Valley and the mountainous country to the West.
In the stories of the early Spanish grandees and French adventurers, there is more than mere historical interest, more even than romance. The Coronado expedition, for its duration and the vast distance covered, over mountains, desert and plains, from Mexico north to where Columbus now stands, remains one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of American discovery; and yet it was considered a failure by those in power at that time.
The inability to give natural resources of the region through which they passed more than superficial attention was typical of these Spaniards, oriented in the medieval tradition of wealth, artifice and royal conquest. Certainly the wilderness of Platte County in 1541 was only slightly more primitive than that same wilderness in 1856; but it remained for the men and women who finally pioneered the great state of Nebraska and the rest of the country around it to settle there, not with the purpose of exploiting the country, but rather to develop it into a home of which they might well be proud.
Coronado was a great explorer but his extravagant hopes and personal ambition led him, in the first place, to believe the exaggerated stories told about the Seven Cities of Cibola (now identified almost certainly with the Zuni pueblos of New Mexico). And his downfall, brought about by the treachery of the Indian scout, "the Turk," might be traced to the same arrogance which led him to kill and destroy those whom he found living on the land. For it was the Pecos Indians, enraged at their treatment at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors, who persuaded Coronado's guide to lead him into one of the most futile missions in history the quest of the fabulous Quivira, which was never to be found.
Today the modern city of Columbus stands at the site which once marked Coronado's failure and the doom of the Spanish Caravan. The same streams flow out across the prairie, but civilization has come in. The people of Platte County have built upon their natural heritage, not as their arrogant Spanish predecessors, but in the true spirit of American pioneers. The people of Columbus found Quivira where Coronado had failed to recognize it --- under the rich Nebraska soil.
After the Louisiana Purchase had been consummated, President Thomas Jefferson sent Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark to explore the newly-acquired territory. With them were forty-five men, including four interpreters. Their assignment was to go up the Missouri River as far as it was navigable, cross the plains and the Rocky Mountains and reach the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis and Clark were ordered to make maps and bring back reports on the country as well as to make friends with the numerous Indian tribes whom they might meet. They started from the mouth of the Mississippi River, May 4, 1804. Later the expedition reached the mouth of the Platte River and sent out runners to the village of the Otoe near the place where the Elkhorn flows into the Platte.
The Otoe Indians (a tribe of the Pawnees) were doubtless the Octotatas described by Charlevoix, a Jesuit, around 1721. According to the records kept by Lewis and Clark, they were once a powerful nation located on the Missouri not far above the mouth of the Platte. Later they migrated up the Platte where the explorers found them in 1804.
About thirty miles above the Platte, a council was held on August 3, of that year, at which Lewis and Clark spoke to fourteen Otoe and Missouri Indians, telling them of the change in the government and of the desire of the Great White Father at Washington to be friendly with them. This meeting took place on a high bluff, later known as Council Bluff, situated near Fort Calhoun.
Continuing up the river, Lewis and Clark reached Blackbird Hill on August 11. Here they found the burial place of Blackbird, fierce chief of the Omahas, who, with four hundred of his men, had died of smallpox four years earlier. Wherever they camped the hunters would bring in deer, wild turkeys and geese. Catfish were caught in the river and members of the party tamed a beaver which they had trapped.
The principal chiefs who attended the conference, the first ever held by the United States with the Nebraska Indians, were Little Thief, Big Horse and White Horse. They promised to keep peace with the United States, and were given medals by the explorers representing the government. Lewis and Clark also gave the Indians paints, powder and fabric; while the white men, in return, received presents of watermelons.
Many interesting experiences were recorded of this journey through Nebraska in the prepioneer days. At one point in Dakota County at the mouth of the Omaha Creek, the men made a net of willows and with it pulled out eleven hundred fish from a beaver pond in the creek.
At another point, the explorers held a council with the Sioux Indians in Cedar County. They smoked the pipe of peace, and old Chief Shake Hand then addressed the group. He contrasted the Indians' treatment at the hands of the English and the Spaniards. The old Sioux asked for clothes for their squaws and some of the great father's "milk" (their name for whiskey). Presents were given to the Sioux and a peace pact signed between them and the United States.
Throughout Nebraska Lewis and Clark saw great herds of buffalo, elk, deer and innumerable villages of prairie dogs. They crossed the Nebraska line into South Dakota, but returned two years later, in 1806, after they had completed their trip to the Pacific Ocean. On an appropriation passed by Congress of only twenty-five hundred dollars, these men had completed a journey of thousands of miles across unknown terrain, locating a trade route to the Pacific and annotating the resources and topography of the country. In addition, their men had to be trained for the expedition all through the winter of 1803-04 before the party could start out.
Only three years after the completion of the journey, Captain Lewis, who had been private secretary to President Jefferson, died in Nashville, Tennessee. Captain Clark, however, (the assistant commander of the expedition),
|Lewis and Clark||
lived for many years at St. Louis as governor of the great West which he had helped to explore. The Indians were greatly impressed by his physical appearance, since they had never before seen a red-haired man, and frequently conferred with him after he became governor. Omaha tribes still refer to St. Louis as "the town of red-haired men."
Contemporary Nebraskans will take an interest in the transaction whereby the United States gained possession of the western half of the Mississippi Valley. Under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase (France sold the Territory for fifteen million dollars) the boundaries of the region were indefinite. Napoleon characteristically remarked about the agreement that if an obscurity did not exist about the boundary, it would be well to make one. The Lewis and Clark expedition, therefore, was of vital importance in clarifying the new responsibilities and resources of our federal government, and much of Nebraska's future growth was predicated by the route taken by these men.
After Lewis and Clark, the Platte Valley saw more hunters and trappers, with keel boats and makinaws, bull boats and canoes, and other craft adapted to the dangers of the Missouri. Keel boats, and light draft barges ranging from sixty to seventy feet in length were hauled up the river by tow lines. The men would walk along the bank with the ropes over their shoulders, pulling on the lines as they went.
The makinaw boat was very popular on the upper Missouri. This was a flat-bottomed, sharp-prowed vessel propelled by oars. A framework of long, pliable poles, intersected at right angles by shorter ones, was made water-tight by a covering of dressed buffalo hides. The entire vessel was approximately twenty-five feet long and twelve feet wide.
The next early explorer of note to reach Nebraska was Lieutenant Zebulon Pike who, with twenty-one men, left St. Louis in July, 1806. Pike was on his way across the plains to Santa Fe. After a long march across Missouri and Kansas, he arrived in the Republican Valley in what is now Nebraska. Here he found the great village of the Pawnee Republic, number -- two thousand people. Three or four weeks before his coming, the town had been visited by a party of three hundred Spanish cavalrymen from Santa Fe. The Spaniards had given many presents to the Indians along with their promise to open a route for trade. The Spanish flag flew from a pole in front of the Pawnee chief's dwelling.
Lieutenant Pike then held a meeting with. the Pawnees, telling them that they must take down the Spanish flag and erect the "Stars and Stripes," since the land no longer belonged to Spain, but was part of the United States. The old chief was silent, however, for the Spaniards had come with many horsemen and a great display of men, whereas Pike had only twenty-one in his entire force.
The young American lieutenant told the Indians that they could not have two fathers and they must choose between America and Spain. After a long silence, one of the Pawnees arose, went to the door of the lodge and took down the Spanish flag. He then raised the "Stars and Stripes" in its place.
This Pawnee Republic Village (as it was named by the early French explorers), moved north and joined the other Pawnee bands on the Platte River. Grass grew over the former site, and the prairie dust covered it up so that the true location was lost for one hundred years.
Then, in September, 1906, the state of Kansas erected a monument on the supposed site of Lieutenant Pike's victory. In 1923 and 1924, A. T. Hill, of the Nebraska Historical Society, discovered the true site of the Pike-Pawnee meeting in Nebraska, about thirty miles northwest of the place where the Kansas monument stands. The actual location of the former Pawnee Republic, as now recorded by the Smithsonian Institute, is on the south bank of the Republican River, about seven miles southeast of Red Cloud.
This location is confirmed by the findings of historians and others who, excavated in the remains of the graves. Among other things, they found some of the medals given to the Pawnee chiefs who lived in the Republic and were buried with these in their possession.
When, in 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition found Pawnees, Missouri and Otoes in possession of the Platte country, the Poncas. were located near the mouth of the Niobrara, and the Omaha tribes in the northeastern part of the state. The Pawnees, however, were the dominant tribe of the western prairie.
At the time Nebraska
was made a Territory in 1854, the Pawnees were scattered west from what is
now Fremont, in Dodge County, along the Platte River. Most of the tribes were
concentrated just west of Columbus, although their camp extended beyond what
is now Genoa. The Pawnees were not feared as much as other tribes by the white
man, but were fairly friendly.
The History of Platte County, Nebraska
This was in spite of the fact that the Skidi Clan of the Pawnees was supposedly the only clan of Indians in North America that at one time practiced human sacrifice.
The origin of the Pawnees is furthermore considered one of the great mysteries of prehistoric America, for unlike any other Indian tribe, the Pawnees are without legendary history to identify them with any section of the country except that along the Platte River. According to their own tradition, Pawnee tribes originated in that locale as a direct result of a union of the Morning Star with the Evening Star.
The only difficulty encountered by the early traders and settlers in dealing with the Pawnees was their tendency to take anything they wanted from the white men. However, during the Indian uprisings of 1864, and again during the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, the Pawnee braves were organized as government scouts under Major Frank North. This was a source of anger to the Sioux Indians, who constantly interfered with the Pawnees. Although at one time the latter tribe had numbered twenty-five thousand, they had suffered great losses in a smallpox epidemic in 1831, and 1835 figures gave them a total of ten thousand. The year 1861 found their number further diminished to thirty-four hundred, and by 1880 there were only approximately one thousand remaining.
Finally, in June, 1872, Congress authorized a sale of 118,500 acres of land for the Pawnees' benefit, and two years later, the entire population was removed to a reservation in Oklahoma, then known as Indian territory. There the tribes have a perpetual annuity of thirty thousand dollars, and an educational appropriation by Congress of twenty-two thousand six hundred dollars.
The record of the Sioux or "warring" Indians, however, was a very different one. These tribes were scattered throughout the Powder River country, then a part of Nebraska Territory, but now belonging to the state of Wyoming. The period between 1820 and 1860 was known as the "Golden Age of Sioux," when these tribes led a pleasant life, punctuated by occasional raids and attacks upon the Crows. A great deal of honor was attached to these raiding parties; in fact, by almost mutual consent they were arranged so that the "visits" came before and after hunting season.
West of Omaha and along the Platte River, the opening of new settlements always followed a final treaty between the United States government and the Indians. The latter naturally resented the intrusion of the white men into their country, and massacres were not an infrequent occurrence in this period. Following the Civil War there was a particularly bloody era of Indian warfare.
By trading, stealing and breeding horses, the Indian tribes had become cavalrymen instead of infantrymen, a fact which appreciably altered their fortunes in battle. The Indian wars were colorful spectacles due to the redskins' preference for ponies of many hues -- paints, black-spotted palominos and palmettos (gray with small black spots on their flanks) mouse blues, buckskins, and pure white horses with red-rimmed eyes. Like their naked riders, the ponies were painted and beribboned, while the Indians carried shields and piñon lances.
Traditionally, the Indian braves were rough and cruel to their horses, treating them with the indignity, for instance, of mounting on the right side, off side. The size and appearance of the Indian pony is a direct result of the mistreatment of their masters through the years.
In appearance, the Sioux tribes were lighter in color than the Crows, who lived in the same region around the Platte. Inclined to be grim, they had square features, less Mongolian in appearance, and more fierce than the other tribes. "A proud people," they have been called, "well aware of their departed greatness, a chivalric people in their own way, who made war and made treaties formally ... and kept the latter with a strictness the white man perhaps intended, but never was quite able to accomplish."
John G. Neihardt, poet laureate of the state of Nebraska, has captured much of the feeling and the tragedy of the red man in his famous "Song of Indian Wars," taught widely in American literature classes today. This is of special interest to residents of Platte County, inasmuch as their highway was built over the obliterated tracks of buffalo, while Columbus itself stands over the dead ashes of Indian campfires. As recently as 1900, the number of Sioux located on different government reservations was twenty-four thousand.
In 1930, E. E. Blackman of Lincoln, curator of the Nebraska Historical Society, conducted a research expedition in the vicinity of Fullerton. As a result of this, he located the definite vestiges of the ruins of an historic Pawnee Indian village burned by their traditional enemies,
|Lewis and Clark||
the Sioux, about 1840. Just west of Council Creek, Blackman found traces of the rings of earth that marked the foundations of six Indian lodges, and much broken pottery and flints. It is believed that this was the first habitat of the Pawnees along the Loup River after they moved up there from the Republican River, where they had lived in 1806.
He also located the ruins of the foundation of the Platte missionary house (Elvira G. Platt went as a missionary to the Pawnees in the vicinity of Fullerton in 1843). The site is located about half a mile east of the Fullerton depot.
Little now remains of the lore and legends of the once mighty Pawnees. If it is true that they practiced human sacrifice, some credit may be given the story of Peta Leshara, chief of the Tshawi tribe of the Pawnee nation, who came to power about the middle of the nineteenth century (approximately the time when the Pawnees were increasing their contact with the white race). Peta Leshara is attributed with the qualities of kindness, wisdom and benevolence, and a belief grew among the white people that it was because of a mandate of his that the practice of this early sacrificial rite had ceased.
The account of an old chief of the Pawnees, known as White Eagle, would deny this theory however. White Eagle maintained that as a chief of the Tshawi tribe, Peta Leshara had no authority over the Skidi, the tribe which practiced the human sacrifice. He further stated, in a story told to Doctor Melvin R. Gilmore, of the Nebraska State Historical Society, that the Morning Star sacrifice lapsed by common consent rather than mandate. The following is the version told by him:
"At one time a Skidi chief named Wonderful Sun ordered the tribe on a buffalo hunt. While they were in the region southwest, beyond the Republican River, they captured an Indian woman belonging to the Cheyenne camp and brought her along. A man of the Skidi declared the woman to be waruksti (a formula of consecration)."
According to the Indian's story, they traveled with their captive along the south bank of the Platte to the ford at Columbus. Then an Indian named Big Knife went up to the captive woman and shot her with an arrow, because it was feared that the white men at Columbus would take her away from them and send her back to her own people.
Included in the legend is the use of a Sacrifice Pack containing sacred bows and arrows, with which the victim was shot, ancient war clubs (for striking the body after death) and a human skull. The sacrifice was one of atonement, and the body always left bound to four horizontal bars where the birds and wild animals might consume it in order to fulfill the rite.
© 2005 for the NEGenWeb Project by Ted & Carole Miller