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Crops Destroyed by Locust

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                     


In 1875 the locusts came again, destroyed the corn and oats, but left the wheat. Much of this crop, however, was lost, as there was only one reaping-machine on the agency, and it could not do all of the work. Many of the Indians saved a part of their crop by cutting it with large butcher-knives; but this was slow, and much of the wheat dried up and perished before it could be harvested by this tedious process.

This year was also marked by a flagrant instance of the helplessness of Indians in the courts. Two Ponca were waylaid by a party of Santees, one of the Ponca murdered, and the other seriously wounded. This occurred at the Yankton Agency, where both parties were visiting. When the case was brought up before the courts, a motion was made to quash the indictment for want of jurisdiction, and the judge was obliged to sustain the motion, there being under the present laws no jurisdiction whatever "over crimes committed by one Indian on the person or property of another Indian in the Indian country."

In 1876 the project of consolidating all the Indians in the United States upon a few reservations began to be discussed and urged. If this plan were carried out, it would be the destiny of the Ponca to go to the Indian Territory. It was very gratuitously assumed that, as they had been anxious to be allowed to remove to Nebraska and join the Omaha, they would be equally ready to remove to Indian Territory a process of reasoning whose absurdity would be very plainly seen if it were attempted to apply it in the case of white men.

After a series of negotiations, protestations, delays, and bewilderments, the tribe at last gave what the United States Government chose to call a "consent" to the removal. The story of the influences, deceits, coercions brought to bear on these unfortunate creatures before this was brought about, is one of the most harrowing among the harrowing records of our dealings with the Indians. A party of chiefs were induced, in the first place, to go, in company with a United States inspector Kemble by name to the Indian Territory, to see whether the country would suit them. It was distinctly promised to them that, if it did not suit them, they should then be permitted to go to Washington and consult with the President as to some further plan for their establishment.

The story of this journey and of its results is best told in the words of one of the Ponca chiefs, Standing Bear. No official document, no other man's narrative-no, not if a second Homer should arise to sing it-could tell the story so well as he tells it:

"We lived on our land as long as we can remember. No 'one knows how long ago we came there. The land was owned by our tribe as far back as memory of men goes." We were living quietly on our farms. All of a sudden tone white man came. We had no idea what for. This was the inspector. He came to our tribe with Rev. Mr. Hinman. These two, with the agent,. James Lawrence, they made our trouble.

"They said the President told us to pack up-that we must move to the Indian Territory.

" The inspector said to us: The President says you must sell this land. He will buy it and pay you the money, and give you new land in the Indian Territory.'

"We said to him: We do not know your authority. You have no right to move us till we have had council with the President'

"We said to him: When two persons wish to make a bargain, they can talk together and find out what each wants, and then make their agreement.'

"We said to him: We do not wish to go. When a man owns anything, he does not let it go till he has received payment for it.'

"We said to him: We will see the President first.'

"He said to us: I will take you to see the new land. If you like it, then you can see the President and tell him so. If not, then you can see him and tell him so.' And he took all ten of our chiefs down. I went, and Bright Eyes' uncle went. He took us to look at three different pieces of land. He said we must take one of the three pieces, so the President said. After he took us down there he said: No pay for the land you left.'

"We said to him: You have forgotten what you said before we started. You said we should have pay for our land. Now you say not. You told us then you were speaking truth.' All these three men took us down there. The man got very angry. He tried to compel us to take one of the three pieces of land. He told us to be brave. He said to us: if you do not accept these, I will leave you here alone. You are one thousand miles from home. You have no money. You have no interpreter, and you cannot speak the language.' And he went out and slammed the door. The man talked to us from long before sundown till it was nine o'clock at night.

"We said to him: We do not like this land. We could not support ourselves. The water is bad. Now send us to Washington, to tell the President, as you promised.'

"He said to us: The President did not tell me to take you to Washington; neither did he tell me to take you borne.'

"We said to him: You have the Indian money you took to bring us down here. That money belongs to us. We would like to have some of it. People do not give away food for nothing. We must have money to buy food on the road.'

"He said to us: I will not give you a cent."

"We said to him: 'We are in a strange country. We cannot find our way home. Give us a pass, that people may show us our way."

"He said: ' I will not give you any."

"We said to him: This interpreter is ours. We pay him. Let him go with us."

"He said: 'You shall not have the interpreter. He is mine, and not yours."

"We said to him: Take us at least to the railroad; show us the way to that."

"And he would not. He left us right there. It was winter. We started for home on foot. At night we slept in haystacks. We barely lived till 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 wore out. We were barefoot in the snow. We were nearly dead when we reached the Otoe Reserve. It had been fifty days. We stayed there ten days to strengthen up, and the Otoe gave each of us a pony. The agent of the Otoe told us lie had received a telegram from the inspector, saying that the Indian chiefs had run away; not to give us food or shelter, or help in any way. The agent said: would like to understand. Tell me all that has happened. Tell me the truth.' "

(This Otoe agent afterward said that when the chiefs entered his room they left the prints of their feet in blood on the floor as they came in.)

"Then we told our story to the agent and to the Otoe chiefs how we had been left down there to find our way.

"The agent said: I can hardly believe it possible that any one could have treated you so. That inspector was a poor man to have done this. If I had taken chiefs in this way, I would have brought them home; I could not have left them there.' "In seven days we reached the Omaha Reservation. Then we sent a telegram to the President: asked him if he had authorized this thing. We waited three days for the answer. No answer came.

"In four days we reached our own home. We found the inspector there. While we were gone, he had come to our people and told them to move.

"Our people said: Where are our chiefs I What have you done with them I Why have you not brought them back I We will not move till our chiefs come back.'

"Then the inspector told them: Tomorrow you must be ready to move. If you are not ready you will be shot.' Then the soldiers came to the doors with their bayonets, and ten families were frightened. The soldiers brought wagons; they put their things in and were carried away. The rest of the tribe would not move.

"When we got there, we asked the inspector why he had done this thing, and he got very angry.

"Then we said to him: We did not think we would see your face again, after what has passed. We thought never to see your face any more. But here you are.'

"We said to him: This land is ours. It belongs to us. You have no right to take it from us. The land is crowded with people, and only this is left to us.'

"We said to him: Let us alone. Go away from us. If you want money, take all the money which the President is to pay us for twelve years to come. You may have it all, if you will go and leave us our lands.'

"Then, when he found that we would not go, he wrote for more soldiers to come.

"Then the soldiers came, and we locked our doors, and the women and children hid in the woods. Then the soldiers drove all the people the other side of the river, all but my brother Big Snake and I. We did not go; and the soldiers took us and carried us away to a fort and put us in jail.

There were eight officers who held council with us after we got there. The commanding officer said: I have received four messages telling me to send my soldiers after you. Now, what have you done '

"Then we told him the whole story. Then the officer said: You have done no wrong. The land is yours; they had no right to take it from you. Your title is good. I am here to protect the weak, and I have no right to take you; but I am a soldier, and I have to obey orders.' "

He said: I will telegraph to the President, and ask him what I shall do. We do not think these three men had any authority to treat you as they have done. When we own a piece of land, it belongs to us till we sell it and pocket the money.'

"Then he brought a telegram, and said he had received answer from the President. The President said he knew nothing about it.

"They kept us in jail ten days. Then they carried us back to our home. The soldiers collected all the women and children together; then they called all the chiefs together in council; and then they took wagons and went round and broke open the houses. When we came back from the council we found the women and children surrounded by a guard of soldiers.

"They took our reapers, mowers, hay-rakes, spades, ploughs, bedsteads, stoves, cupboards, everything we had on our farms, and put them in one large building. Then they put into the wagons such things as they could carry. We told them that we would rather die than leave our lands; but we could not help ourselves. They took us down. Many died on the road. Two of my children died. After we reached the new land, all my horses died. The water was very bad. All our cattle died; not one was left. I stayed till one hundred and fifty-eight of my people had died. Then I ran away with thirty of my people, men and women and children. Some of the children were orphans. 'We were three months on the road. We were weak and sick and starved, When we reached the Omaha Reserve the Omaha gave us a piece of land, and we were in a hurry to plough it and put in wheat. While we were working the soldiers came and arrested us. Half of us were sick. We would rather have died than have been carried back; but we could not help ourselves."

Nevertheless they were helped. The news of their arrest, and the intention of the Government to take them back by force to Indian Territory, roused excitement in Omaha. An Omaha editor and two Omaha lawyers determined to test the question whether the Government had a legal right to do it. It seemed a bold thing, almost a hopeless thing, to undertake. It has passed into a proverb that Providence is on the side of the heaviest battalions: the oppressed and enslaved in all ages have felt this. But there are times when a simple writ of habeas corpus is stronger than cannon or bloodhounds; and this was one of these times. Brought into the District Court of the United States for the District of Nebraska, these Ponca were set free by the judge of that court. Will not the name of Judge Dundy stand side by side with that of Abraham Lincoln in- the matter of Emancipation Acts?

The Government attorney, the Hon. G. M. Lambertson, made an argument five hours long, said to have been both "ingenious and eloquent," to prove that an Indian was not entitled to the protection of the writ of habeas corpus, "not being a person or citizen under the law."

Judge Dundy took several days to consider the case, and gave a decision which strikes straight to the root of the whole matter-a decision which, when it is enforced throughout our land, will take the ground out from under the feet of the horde of unscrupulous thieves who have been robbing, oppressing, and maddening the Indians for so long, that to try to unmask and expose their processes, or to make clean their methods, is a task before which hundreds of good men-nay, whole denominations of good men-disheartened, baffled, and worn-out, have given up.

When Standing Bear found that by the decision of Judge Dundy he was really a free man, and could go where he pleased, he made a speech, which should never be forgotten or left out in the history of the dealings of the United States Government with the Indians.

After a touching expression of gratitude to the lawyers who had pleaded his cause, he said: " Hitherto, when we have been wronged, we went to war to assert our rights and avenge our wrongs. We took the tomahawk. We had no law to punish those who did wrong, so we took our tomahawks and went to kill. If they had guns and could kill us first, it was the fate of war. But you have found a better way. You have gone into the court for us, and I find that our wrongs can be righted there. Now I have no more use for the tomahawk. I want to lay it down forever."

Uttering these words with eloquent impressiveness, the old chief, stooping down, placed the tomahawk on the floor at his feet; then, standing erect, he folded his arms with native dignity, and continued: " I lay it down. I have no more use for it. I have found a better way."

Stooping again and taking up the weapon, he placed it in Mr. Webster's hands, and said: " I present it to you as a token of my gratitude. I want you to keep it ill remembrance of this great victory, which you have gained. I have no further use for it. I can now seek the ways of peace."

The first use that Standing Bear made of his freedom was to endeavor to procure the freedom of his tribe, and establish their legal right to their old home in Dakota. Accompanied by a young and well-educated Omaha girl and her brother as interpreters, and by Mr. Tibbles, the champion and friend to whom he owed his freedom, he went to the Eastern States, and told the story of the sufferings and wrongs of his tribe to large audiences in many of the larger cities and towns. Money was generously subscribed everywhere for the purpose of bringing suits to test the question of the Ponca' legal right to the lands which the United States Government had by treaty ceded to them in specified "townships," thus giving to them the same sort of title which would be given to any corporation or individual.

Very soon this movement of Standing Bear and his companions began to produce on the community a strong effect, shown by the interest in their public meetings, and by expressions of strong feeling in the newspapers. This attracted the attention of the authorities at Washington. Letters were published contradicting many of Standing Bear's assertions; statements were circulated injurious to the reputation of all members of the party. A careful observer of the whole course of the Department of the Interior in this matter could not fail to come to the conclusion that for some mysterious, unexplained, and unexplainable reason the Department did not wish-in fact, was unwilling-that the Ponca tribe should be reinstated on its lands. Discussions on the matter grew warm. The inspector who had been concerned in their removal published long letters reflecting equally on the veracity of Standing Bear and of the Secretary of the Interior. Standing Bear replied in a few pithy words, which were conclusive in their proving of the falsity of some of the inspector's statements. The Secretary, also, did riot think it beneath his dignity to reply in successive newspaper articles to the inspector's reflections upon him; but the only thing that was made clear by this means was that either the Secretary or the inspector, or both, said what was not true.

In Boston the interest in the Ponca case reached such a height that a committee was appointed to represent the case in Washington, and to secure legislation upon it. Standing Bear and his party went to Washington, and, in spite of the secret hostility of the Interior Department, produced a powerful impression upon Congress. Senator Dawes, of Massachusetts, and Senator Morgan, of Alabama, both became warm advocates of their cause. The subject once started, case after case came up for investigation; and the Congressional committees called for evidence in regard to several of the more striking instances of injustice to Indians.

White Eagle, one of the Ponca chiefs, who had lost his wife and four children, and who was himself fast sinking under disease developed by the malarial Indian Territory, came to Washington and gave eloquent testimony in behalf of his tribe. The physicians there predicted that he had not three months to live. A bill was introduced into Congress for restoring to the Ponca their old reservation in Dakota, and putting their houses, farms, etc., in the same good condition they were at the time of their removal.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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