"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


THE STORY OF THE PONCAS


When the first white men came up the Missouri River they found a little tribe of Indians living in that beautiful part of Nebraska by the mouth of the Niobrara which is now Knox and Boyd counties. They found clear flowing streams, wooded hills, grassy valleys and back of them the buffalo prairies. There were less than a thousand people in the little tribe. They were tall and fine looking and from the first were friendly to the white men and were never at war with them. Their land lay between the Sioux country on the west and the Pawnee and Omaha country on the south and east. The language they spoke was related to the Sioux language but more like that of the Omahas. They were often at war with the Sioux, but generally at peace with the Omahas, so much so that a great many of their young men and women were intermarried with the Omahas. Although such a little tribe, they had their own name, Punka or Ponca; their own traditions; and they had lived so long in that part of Nebraska where the first white men found them that they had no other home, only stories of a far-off time when their fathers had come up the Missouri and settled at the mouth of the Niobrara.


{Ponca Land as Painted for Maximilian, 1833.
(From Thwaites's "Early Western Travels." Arthur H. Clark Co., Cleveland, Ohio.)

After a time white settlers began to come into the Ponca country, to take land and kill off the game. In 1858 the United States made a treaty with the Poncas by the terms of which the Poncas gave up all their land except that part between the Niobrara River and Ponca Creek. The richest of their land below the mouth of the Niobrara was opened to the white settlers. The part which the Poncas were to keep was on the border of the Sioux, their old enemies' country, but the United States promised in the treaty to protect the Poncas, to pay them money every year, to build them houses and give them schools for their children.

Two years after this treaty the Sioux made a raid on the Poncas and stole more than half of their horses. The Ponca hunting ground, where they used to kill buffalo, was covered with Sioux hunting parties and the Poncas could not get their winter supply of meat. A drouth came on the land and their patches of corn were a failure. Even the wild plums dried on the trees and the Poncas hunted over the plains for wild turnips and ate cornstalks to keep from starving.

Then a party of Poncas went to visit their friends, the Omahas. There were four men, six women, three boys and two girls. Some drunken white soldiers killed three women and one girl, burned their tents and drove away their six ponies. Still the Poncas remained at peace with the white people.

In 1868 the United States made a great treaty with the Sioux Indians at Fort Laramie. In that treaty by some mistake all of the Ponca land was given to the Sioux, the bitter and lifelong enemies of the Poncas. This was done without the consent or knowledge of the Poncas. It took away from them their homes, their gardens and the graves of their fathers, which they had defended against the Sioux for hundreds of years, and made a present of them to their deadly foes, the Sioux. Nothing so cruel or unjust was ever done by the United States to another tribe of Indians. And this was done to a tribe which was always the friend of the white men. General Sherman, one of the commissioners who made the treaty at Fort Laramie, said he did not know that this had been done until long afterward. The Poncas did not know that it had been done until the Sioux warriors raided them and tauntingly shouted, "This land belongs to us. Get off." The Poncas had no place to go and remained upon their old reserve even though in daily danger from the Sioux.

During the two years, 1869 and 1870, they built sixty log cabins and put out crops. Then the Missouri River rose and washed away their village site. They had to tear down their cabins and carry them back half a mile to make a new village. The next year after this the tribe put three hundred acres into crops. The grasshoppers came that year and the next and ate the crops.

The year 1876 was a year of great excitement on the Nebraska border. Gold had been found in the Black Hills and the white men wanted to go there after it. The Sioux were fighting to keep the white men out.

The order was given to remove the Ponca Indians "with their consent" from their old home to the Indian Territory. An agent came to the Poncas and told them that they must send their chiefs with him to the new place to pick out a home. Standing Bear and nine other chiefs went. They did not like the land and would not select a place. They said to him: "The water is bad. We cannot live here." The agent told them that they must pick out a place for the tribe or he would not take them home. They refused. He left them there a thousand miles from their Nebraska home in the winter with no money. Standing Bear told this story:

"We started for home on foot. At night we slept in haystacks. We hardly lived until morning, it was so cold. We had nothing but our blankets. We took the ears of corn that had dried in the fields. We ate it raw. The soles of our moccasins were out. We were barefoot in the snow. We were nearly dead when we reached the Otoe reservation in Nebraska. It had been fifty days. We stayed there ten days to get strong and the Otoes gave each of us a pony. The agent for the Otoes said he had a telegram that the chiefs had run away, not to give us food or shelter or any help."

The Otoe agent afterward said when the Ponca chiefs came into his office that they left the prints of their feet in blood upon the floor.


Standing Bear and Family in 1904.
(From photograph by A. E. Sheldon.)

When the chiefs reached their own homes at the mouth of the Niobrara they found there the agent who had left them in the Indian Territory. He had soldiers with him and was making the Ponca people pack up their goods in order to start for the new country. The soldiers put the women and children into wagons with what few things they could carry and started the teams for Indian Territory. This was on May 21, 1877.

It was very rainy that spring. The Poncas were sad and heart-broken at leaving their old Nebraska homes. Some of them were sick. Prairie Flower, a daughter of Standing Bear and wife of Shines White, died of consumption at Milford, Nebraska, and was buried there. The women of the village dressed the body for the grave and brought flowers. The Indians were deeply affected by this kindness. Many children died as the tribe moved south across Nebraska and Kansas. A tornado upset their wagons. Part of the time they were out of food. One Indian became insane and tried to kill White Eagle, a chief, for letting so much trouble come upon his people.

At the end of a three months' journey the tribe reached the Indian Territory. They had left dry log cabin homes, their own plowed fields and beautiful clear flowing streams and springs. In the new land they were set down on unbroken prairies with nothing but their wagons and tents. The water was very bad. All their cattle and many of their horses died. The people were homesick and their hearts were breaking. They talked all the time of their beautiful home in Nebraska. The first winter one hundred and fifty-eight out of seven hundred and sixty-eight died.

Standing Bear's son was among those who died. Before his death he begged his father to take his body to Nebraska and bury it there. In midwinter Standing Bear and thirty of his band broke away from the Indian Territory and set out for Nebraska carrying the body of the dead young man. They had a long, hard journey of three months and reached the reservation of their friends, the Omahas, in the early spring. The Omahas gave them some land to put into crops. While they were plowing it the United States soldiers came and put them under arrest. They had orders to carry them back to the Indian Territory.

The story of their arrest was printed in the newspapers and friends in Omaha came to their aid. Dr. George L. Miller, editor of the Herald took up their cause. Two leading lawyers, -- John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton, -- defended them without pay. There was a trial in the United States court at Omaha. Standing Bear made a speech to the court through an interpreter, which touched all hearts. Judge Dundy decided that Standing Bear and his band should be set free. There was great rejoicing in the hearts of the Indians and their friends.

After they were set free by Judge Dundy, Standing Bear and his party settled on an island in the Niobrara River which was part of their old reservation and had been overlooked when the United States gave their old country to the Sioux. Here they were joined by others from the Indian Territory until they numbered a hundred and thirty. White friends furnished them tools and they began to farm again. Standing Bear was called to go east and tell the Indians' story to great audiences. In 1890 peace was made between the Sioux and the Ponca tribes and the Sioux gave back to the Poncas part of their old lands on the Niobrara. About one third the tribe came back, the remainder staying in the Indian Territory. Standing Bear lived to an old age and died at his home on the Niobrara on September 3,1908.


QUESTIONS

  1. What right had the United States to give the Ponca land to the Sioux?
  2. Would you be willing to have the Poncas taken from their old homes in this way in order to get a home for yourself?
  3. Which would be better -- to submit like the Poncas or to fight like the Sioux?
  4. Tell what you think of Standing Bear from this story.
  5. Ought an Indian to have the same rights in this country as a white man? Why?
  6. What should the people of Nebraska do for the Indian tribes whose old homes were in our state?



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