Few people, perhaps, notice that the census
reports of 1880 and 1890 do not agree about the area of Nebraska.
Indeed the small difference of about 600 square miles might easily
be supposed to be due to correction of estimates, in the case of a
state having nearly 80,000 square miles within its borders. There
is, however, a long story to tell about that matter, and a simple
statement of it I now offer you.
In 1882, a law* of the United States gave to Nebraska the land north of the Niobrara river that had previously belonged to Dakota. Our northern boundary follows the forty-third parallel eastward to the Missouri river. Before 1882, it followed this parallel only to the Keya Paha branch of the Niobrara, and these two streams constituted the remainder of the northern boundary to the Missouri. In and about the corner of lowland, prairie, and hills between the Niobrara and the Missouri, the earliest white explorers found a tribe of simple Indian folk, living by the chase and by primitive horticulture, unassuming, generous, and brave. The report of the expedition of Lewis and Clark to the northwest, which reached the confluence of these rivers in September, 1804, has this item:
"The two men whom we dispatched to the village of the same name, returned with information that they had found it on the lower side of the creek; but as this is the hunting season. the town was so completely deserted that they had killed a buffalo in the village itself. This tribe of Poncaras, who are said to have once numbered 400 men, are now reduced to about fifty, and have associated for mutual protection with the Mahas, who are about
200 in number. These two nations are allied by a
similarity of misfortune; they were once both numerous, both
resided in villages and cultivated Indian corn; their common
enemies, Sioux and small pox. drove them from their towns. which
they visit only occasionally for the purpose of trade; and they
now wander over the plains on the sources of the Wolf and Quicurre
The numbers given by travelers concerning tribes of Indians are rarely accurate. Between the beginning of this century and the time of accurate statistics in recent years, the number of Indians under the care of the government has been variously estimated. In fact, even the Secretary of War and the Indian Commissioners varied 340,000. Samuel Parker, in an account of his travels from 1835 to 1837, came nearer the truth when he said: "The Ponca Indians * * * number six or eight hundred and speak the same language, as the Omahas."Ý While explorers, traders, hunters, and missionaries followed the Missouri to its source, or traveled the plains through which the Platte slowly makes its way to the sandy bottoms at its mouth, the Poncas attracted little notice. Chance paragraphs now and then said there was such a tribe; that they were related to the Omahas and spoke the same dialect; and that they occupied "all the territory between the White Earth river and the Niobrara."
The United States came into treaty relations with them first in 1817. Perpetual peace and friendship were declared, every injury was to be forgot, and the Poncas acknowledged the supremacy of the United States. French traders had been much up and down the river and across the country in the early years of this century, and when the Louisiana country came under the laws of the rising western republic the agents of this new power gradually found their way up the Missouri from St. Louis. At first, one general agent dealt with the tribes. Then division of labor began with a second agent for "the tribes on the Missouri above the Kansas." Even he resided at St. Louis. During the war of 1812, the axe which the agents had to grind, under the
With the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854,
the so-called "Indian Country" of our western plains passed into
history. Immigration set in from the well populated east and the
half occupied Mississippi valley, until there was left in the
vicinity of the Missouri hardly a section of land across which the
settler had not passed. The reports of Indian officials from 1850
to 1856 make almost no reference to the Poncas. The agent for this
section of country had a score of tribes to deal with during a
portion of this time. and he could not be expected to pay any
attention to such in insignificant and harmless tribe as the
Poncas. A chance reference to them in the report of 1855, however,
says that the Pawnees and the Poncas, who with the Omahas, Otoes,
and Missouris constituted the Council Bluffs agency, were in an
"unsettled State."* The superintendent writes: "The Poncas have
also been guilty of depredations, and have the character of
lawless Indians." It is "very desirable that the Pawnees and
Poncas should be brought under some restraint." "It is understood
that the Poncas are anxious to make some treaty arrangements." The
report of the next year gives a clue to the cause of this unusual
restlessness. Writing from St. Louis in September, 1856, the
superintendent thus alludes to the Poncas:
"The Ponca Indians have no existing treaty with the United States, and such is also the case now with the Pawnees. The former tribe inhabits the valley of the l'Eau qui Court, and the adjacent country below that river. They plant corn to some extent, but pass much of their time on the roads leading to the Platte. Their lands are being settled upon by squatters."Ý The commissioner of Indian affairs, too, remarks: "From the uncertainty of reaping the fruit of their labors," the Pawnees and the Poncas "seem to be depressed."§
The circumstances leading up to the treaty of 1858 seem to be clear. The Indians on their part were anxious to have some sort
of a safeguard against the tide of population that was
beginning to encroach upon their lands. I say "their lands," for
they lived by what their district supplied them. Their idea of
possession was very unlike ours. They did not conceive of
individual ownership of the soil, and their claim to occupancy of
a district ceased as soon as there failed to be anything to
support them. They then emigrated.
On the part of the government and the Indian Commissioner there was a desire to systematize dealings with the Indians, and to confine the tribes within certain boards. When both parties were willing to have a treaty it was not long in forthcoming.
On the twelfth day of March, 1858, in the city of Washington, six chiefs of the Ponca nation concluded a treaty with the government of the United States, by which they gave up all the lands that had supported them, except a small reserve about twenty miles long and six miles wide, lying between the Niobrara and Ponca rivers.* Under the second article of this treaty the United States agreed: First, "to protect the Poncas" in the possession of this tract of land, "during good behavior on their part." and to protect "their persons and their property thereon." Secondly, to pay them or to expend for their benefit certain annuities described in the treaty. Thirdly, to expend $20,000 in subsisting the tribe during the first year, while they should be accommodating themselves to their new location and adapting themselves to an agricultural life. Fourthly, to establish and to maintain for ten years a manual labor school, or schools, for the education and training of the Ponca youth in letters, agriculture, the mechanic arts, and housewifery. Fifthly, to provide the Poncas with a mill suitable for grinding grain and sawing lumber. And finally, to expend $20,000 in liquidating the existing obligations of the Poncas. The right of eminent domain was asserted by the government, the same as for any other land under the laws of the United States.
As the government agreed to protect the tribe, they in their turn agreed not to enter into hostilities with other tribes.
Such was the agreement under
which this little tribe of Indians commenced their struggle
towards a realization of the happiness which they supposed the
whites enjoyed. Perhaps the most remarkable provision, everything
considered, is the article touching intemperance, which reads as
"To aid in preventing the evils of intemperance, it is hereby stipulated that if any of the Poncas shall drink, or procure for others, intoxicating liquor, their proportion of the tribal annuities shall be withheld from them for at least one year; and for a violation of any of the stipulations of this agreement on the part of the Poncas, they shall be liable to have their annuities withheld, in whole or in part, and for such length of time as the President of the United States shall direct." Whatever may be said of its severity, the effect was certainly wholesome. I question if there has been a more exemplary set of Indians west of the Mississippi than these have been since that treaty.
In 1865 a supplemental treaty was made, in place of a portion of the other reserve, - the greater portion be it said, - they were given somewhat more land further down between the Ponca and Niobrara rivers and the greater portion of six fractional townships south of the Niobrara. They then held the land on either side of the Niobrara for four or five miles immediately above its mouth, with some frontage upon the Missouri. The government did this, in the words of the treaty itself, "by way of rewarding them for their constant fidelity to the government and citizens thereof, and with a view of returning to the said tribe of Ponca Indians their old burying grounds and cornfields."
Here was the basis, in these two treaties, of a permanent settlement of all questions that arise between the government and its wards, as far as the Poncas were concerned. They had given up their old life, except that they sometimes got permission to hunt buffalo, when reduced to starvation; they had settled down to an agricultural life; they adhered to the letter of their agreement, in their relations with the other Indians; and there is not a single report of the Indian agents from 1858 to the time of the third act in his drama, in 1877, that does not speak in the highest terms
of this little band. During this period their average
number was 809. Their interest in improvement and their real
successes you may gather from the paragraphs found here and there
in the reports of the officials.
In 1866 it was said:* "There are, however, two tribes in this superintendency (Poncas and Yankton Sioux) who have for a number of years been settled upon reservations adjacent to the white settlements, and who have generally taken the first steps toward improvement and civilization and it is believed they are prepared to make another advance. * * * It is believed to be proper at this time to offer encouragement for a second step," the opening of schools. The Commissioner said in 1869:Ý "The Poncas are the most peaceable and law-abiding of any of the tribes of Indians. They are warm friends of the whites and truly loyal to the government, and they fully deserve its consideration and protection."
In 1873§ the agent, Mr. Birkett, commenced the plan of distributing the supplies to families, instead of putting the supplies into the hands of the chiefs, to be allotted to the families attached to them according to fancy or favor. There were at this time three villages, located within two miles of each other: Agency Town, Fish Village, and Point Village. The government had kept its promise to erect a sawmill, and in the winter time, when ice covered the rivers, logs were brought from the islands. In 1862, almost entirely by the work of Indians, 35,000 feet of lumber were cut. From 1868 to 1876 very nearly half a million feet were reported cut, of which 150,000 were cut in 1871.
The system, or lack of system, of distributing rations gratuitously among the families or heads of families, was abolished in 1873 also. The plan must work greatly to the prejudice of close application and industrious habits generally. In place of that, they substituted the rule that each Indian, in order to get his share of supplies. must do his part of the daily work in the field
or at the mill or in the shops. The old and the sick were
excepted. The innovation worked to a charm; for soon the head
chief of the full-bloods, White Eagle, the very last to adopt the
plan, before the year was over, guided both a reaper and a mower.
They were said in the years 1874 and 1875 to be "peaceable,
agriculturally disposed, provided with good lands and plenty of
farming implements, and not utterly averse and unaccustomed to
The story about the farming implements does not tally with a report a year or two later, which says: "They are peaceable and well-behaved, and have worked faithfully during the past five months considering the many difficulties they have had to contend with - the repeated attacks by the hostile Sioux, the scarcity of farming implements, etc. Many of the Indians were obliged to cut their wheat with butcher knives, owing to the fact that we have only one reaping machine and could not get around in time to harvest it; consequently much of the wheat crop was lost.`
The misfortunes that came to these well-deserving people were many. The fact that there was no game whatever upon their reserve would not have disheartened such sturdy fellows if their crops had been successful. But with the exception of two or three seasons, crops failed successively. Sometimes grasshoppers came and the crop departed with them. Infrequently, the Missouri flooded the bottom lands where their farms were, and left no hope of sufficient subsistence. When these evils came not, perchance they saw a fair harvest shrivel at the touch of thirsty winds. But all these together worked much less injury to their cause than the Sioux. From earliest years scarcely a report fails to mention the "hostile Sioux." These Dakotas were many tribes, and added to superiority of numbers was an aggressive temperament that made them a terror to all the Indians in the Platte valley. Only the Pawnees seemed to contend successfully with them.
The Dakota tribes situated nearest to the Poncas crossed the latter's reserve on their way to hunt in the Platte valley and
never failed to express in an Indian's way their contempt
for "treaty Indians." In their daily or weekly visits they stole
the horses of the Poncas, killed their oxen, and sometimes in the
skirmishes that ensued killed members of the tribe. The agent was
powerless to do more than place in a defensive attitude the
Indians under his charge. They had given up their arms to the
government; but there were a few guns on the reservation that
could be used. The agent called upon the army officials to station
soldiers at the agency. Half a dozen were finally placed there.
Later, as many as fifteen were allowed for protection against
bands of Sioux numbering 200 to 300.
The Poncas became so terrorized that they could be removed scarcely far enough from the agency buildings to do the farm work. The hostile Indians frequently showed themselves at the tops of the bluffs in sight of the agency and shot at anything in sight. Some feeble effort was made by the commissioner to secure protection. In 1871, this small paragraph found its way into the Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs: "The government owes them (i. e., the partially civilized tribes) the protection of their rights, to which it is solemnly pledged by treaty, and which it cannot fail to give without dishonor."*
How did the Indians themselves behave under these circumstances? I will read you for answer two excerpts from the reports. The agent in 1863, referring to the failure of crops and the destitution of the Indians, says:Ý
"The Poncas have behaved well; quite as well, if not better than, under like circumstances, the same number of whites would have done. I have known whole families to live for days together on nothing but half-dried cornstalks, and this when there were cattle and sheep within their sight. If I had given them what beef they could have consumed, the fifty head at this agency would not have lasted them ten days. * * * If there are any Indians who deserve the charity of the government, the Poncas do."
Governor Newton Edmunds, of Dakota
territory, wrote in 1866:* "Since my acquaintance with this tribe
for a period of upwards of five years, they have remained faithful
to their treaty obligations in every particular, under
circumstances that would have palliated, if not excused, a hostile
attitude on their part."
Here, then, was a problem: A tribe of Indians willing to work, placed where they were unable to gain a living by the chase, and where by a fortuitous combination of circumstances they were unable to raise enough to subsist themselves from year to year. Their annual appropriations, while apparently large, afforded very insufficient means of living when expended upon various kinds of things: the school, the two mills, the agricultural machinery, clothing, labor of government blacksmith, physician, and farmer, - every separate item of this kind drew upon their funds until an appropriation of $20,000 went but a small part of the long way to a tolerable condition of life.
From the Indians' own standpoint a solution could be had in this way: They might go down to their cousins, the Omahas, where there was apparently subsistence enough, and certainly land enough. for both. At the failure of their crop in 1863, in fact, they did go there and the Omahas shared their own corn with the Poncas. The Secretary of the interior suggested in his report for that year that the Poncas perhaps could be settled upon the Omaha reserve. Several times this was suggested, and in one report it was declared that both tribes desired it and that there was nothing lacking except funds for purchasing lands of the Omahas and for expenses of removal.
Meanwhile the government had greatly complicated matters by a treaty with the Sioux tribes, in which, all the Ponca lands were included within the territory granted to the Sioux. It may be true that the Ponca language is property classified as a "Siouan dialect." But it is very clear that the Sioux did not regard the Poncas as one of their kind. The Brule Sioux, from whom the Poncas seem to have suffered most, told them long before this treaty that the country where the Poncas hunted was
Sioux territory. After the unfortunate treaty of 1868,
the continuance of the Poncas within the Sioux reservation was
construed by the Sioux as a breach of the treaty by the whites.
From more distrust came more hostility towards both Poncas and
whites. Instead of correcting the mistake of extending the Sioux
reserve over the Ponca lands; instead of affording sufficient
protection to these defenseless Indians at their original
establishment upon the very border of hostile territory, the slow
machinery of our government found another way. There appears no
evidence in the reports through which I have looked that the
Indian commissioner seriously considered the proposition to locate
the Poncas and Omahas together. It was determined to locate the
Poncas in Indian Territory, nominally with their consent, really
without it.* By 1876, when money was appropriated for the purpose
of relocating them, "with their consent," better times had come.
The Sioux had quite ceased to trouble them; crops were better; and
they were much more contented to remain in their native land than
go to others they knew not of. Said the agent sent out from
Washington: "An order has been issued to take the tribe to Indian
Territory." In the council of his tribe, assembled to hear this,
Chief Standing Bear replied:Ý "This land is ours. We never
sold it. We have our houses and our homes here. Our fathers and
some of our children are buried here. Here we wish to live and
die. We have harmed no man. We have kept our treaty. We have
learned to work. We can make a good living here. We do not wish to
sell our land, and we think no man has a right to take it from us.
Here we will live and here we will die."
"The Indian Territory is a very much better country," was the answer. "You call raise more grain and not work near so hard. If you once see it you will not want to stay in Dakota. Let the chiefs go down and look at the land and if they do not like it the Poncas may stay where they are. And if they want to sell the Great Father in Washington will buy your Dakota lands and give you all the land you need in Indian Territory."
The tribe chose ten of the leading men to
look at the Country. They came, they saw, but they did not choose.
They preferred their own lands in Dakota. The officials of the
government now began to use shall instead of may.
Upon repeated refusal of the chiefs to consider the matter, the (sic) the commissioners lost their temper. "Then stay here and starve," they said; and they left the Indians to be arbiters of their own fate. The ten Poncas saw sickness there, and stony ground, and they said: "It is better for ten of us to die than that the whole tribe, all the women and little children, should be brought there to die." Eight of the ten commenced the journey home on foot, two being old men, too feeble for such exertion. In fifty days they reached the Otoe agency in southern Nebraska. With the help they obtained of the Otoes, the rest of the journey was made more rapidly. Again at the Ponca agency, they found those same agents and officials. Standing Bear's temper now got the better of him, and he said:
"What are you here for! What business have you to come here at all? I never sent for you. I don't want anything to do with you. You are all liars. You are all bad men. You have no authority from the Great Father. You came out here to cheat and steal. You can read and write and I can't and you think you know everything and I know nothing. If some man should take you a thousand miles from home, as you did me, and leave you in a strange country without one cent of money. where you did not know the language and could not speak a word, you would never have got home in the world. You don't know enough. I want you to go off this reservation. You have no business here, and don't come back until you bring a letter from the Great Father. Then if you want to buy my land, bring the money with you so I can see it. If I want to sell, I will talk with you. If I don't, I won't. This is my land. The Great Father did not give it to me. My people were here and owned this land before there was any Great Father. We sold him some land, but we never sold this. This is mine. God gave it to me. When I want to sell it, I will let you know. You are a rascal and a liar,
and I want you to get off my land. If you were treating a
white man the way you are treating me he would kill you and
everybody would say he did right. I will not do that. I will harm
no white man, but this is my land, and I intend to stay here and
make a good living for my wife and children. You can go."*
The half-breeds were the only part of the tribe that wanted to go. The Poncas refused. On the 17th of April, 1877, 170 members of the tribe, mostly half-breeds, accompanied the agent across the Niobrara river and began the journey on foot towards the Indian Territory. Mr. E. A. Howard, just appointed their new agent, reached Columbus in time to meet this detachment there. He left this advance guard with the former agent, and made his way to the Ponca reservation. Several councils were called without avail. Finally, when the United States soldiers had been sent for, and it was represented to the Indians that the soldiers were coming to fight with them, they sorrowfully chose the other alternative.
This journey was also by foot, at a time when rains detained them and swollen streams lengthened their long way, and the slippery path made home-leaving doubly hard. With heavy hearts the tribe moved their baggage across the Niobrara on the 16th of May, and traveled fifty-four days before they reached the new location in Indian Territory, tired and sick. The first part of the tribe had occupied two days longer than this in their trip. A last word from the agent, taken from his report for that year, will be sufficient to show the lack of foresight, the deliberate stupidity, the brutal neglect, of the government in the last act. After reporting the details of this injustice, Mr. Howard writes:Ý
"I am of the opinion that the removal of the Poncas from the northern climate of Dakota to the southern climate of the Indian Territory, at the season of the year it was done, will prove a mistake, and that a great mortality will surely follow among the people when they shall have been here for a time and become
poisoned with the malaria of the climate. Already the
effect of the climate may be seen upon them in the ennui that
seems to have settled upon each, and in the large number now
"It is a matter of astonishment to me that the government should have ordered the removal of the Ponca Indians from Dakota to the Indian Territory, without having first made some provision for their settlement and comfort. Before their removal was carried into effect an appropriation should have been made by congress sufficient to have located them in their new home, by building a comfortable house for the occupancy of every family of the tribe. As the case now is, no appropriation has been made by congress except of a sum but little more than sufficient to remove them; no houses have been built for their use, and the result is that these people have been placed on an uncultivated reservation to live in their tents as best they may, and await further legislative action."
The trials of this brave and patient people during the years that have intervened between that sad day and the present may sometime be told as a sequel. Only one other chapter remains to be written of them, in their relation to Nebraska, and that may not here be given. It is the attempt of a number of the Poncas to return to their native place, known in law as the Ponca Habeas Corpus Case.
This very small and insignificant tribe of Indians has cost the government of the United States, in appropriations, about $1,280,100. Its members are perhaps no happier to-day than they were 100 years ago, and much of the time during which the United States has acted as their guardian, the Poncas have been in actual distress.
If a small tribe costs a million and a quarter, what does a large tribe cost? A single instance will suffice to show how it sometimes costs. In 1877, the same law which set apart $15,000 for removal of the Poncas, appropriated outright, in one lump sum, $1,125,000 "for subsistence, [for the Sioux] including the Yankton Sioux, * * * and for other purposes of their civilization." The same act also appropriates, besides this, in several
small sums, $419,600. The government had to be more
liberal in dealing with the Sioux, for they were crafty
Where two generations ago the Ponca chiefs led their warriors in the chase, and where later these tried as best they could to learn the white man's ways and endured untold hardships to keep unbroken the word of promise which they held sacred, white farmers now follow the plow, unconscious of the pitiful story acted out upon that soil.
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