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The Ponca Indian Tribe

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                    


In 1803 Captain Lewis and Lieutenant Clarke, of the First United States Infantry, were commissioned by Congress to explore the river Missouri from its mouth to its source, to " seek the best water communication from thence to the Pacific Ocean," and to enter into conference with all the Indian tribes on their route, with a view to the establishment of commerce with them. They report the "Ponca" as "the remnant of a nation once respectable in point of numbers; they formerly resided on a branch of the Red River of Lake Winnipeg; being oppressed by Sioux, they removed to the west side of the Missouri, on Ponca River, where they built and fortified a village, and remained some years; but, being pursued by their ancient enemies, the Sioux, and reduced by continual wars, they have joined and now live with the Maha (Omaha), whose language they speak." Their numbers are estimated by Lewis and Clarke as being only about two hundred, all told; but this small estimate is probably to be explained by the fact that at this time the tribe was away on its annual buffalo-hunt, and their village had been so long empty and quiet that a buffalo was found grazing there. A few years later the tribe is reckoned at four hundred: in a census of the Indian tribes, taken by General Porter in 1829, they are set down at six hundred. The artist Catlin, who visited them a few years later, rated them a little less. He gives an interesting account of the chief of the tribe, named Shoo-de-ga-cha (Smoke), and his young and pretty wife, Hee-la'h-dee (the Pure Fountain), whose portraits he painted.

"The chief, who was wrapped in a buffalo-robe, is a noble specimen of native dignity and philosophy. I conversed much with him, and from his dignified manners, as well as from the soundness of his reasoning, I became fully convinced that he deserved to be the sachem of a more numerous and prosperous tribe. He related to me with great coolness and frankness the poverty and distress of his nation-and with the method of a philosopher predicted the certain and rapid extinction of his tribe, which he had not the power to avert: Poor, noble chief; who was equal to and worthy of a greater empire! He sat on the deck of the steamer, overlooking the little cluster of his wigwams mingled among the trees, and, like Caius Marius weeping over the ruins of Carthage, shed tears as he was des-canting on the poverty of his ill-fated little community, which he told me had 'once been powerful and happy; that the buffaloes which the Great Spirit had given them for food, and which formerly spread all over their green prairies, had all been killed or driven out by the approach of white men, who wanted their skins; that their country was now entirely destitute of game, and even of roots for food, as it was one continuous prairie; and that his young men, penetrating the countries of their enemies for buffaloes, which they were obliged to do, were cut to pieces and destroyed in great numbers. That his people had foolishly become fond of fire-water, and had given away every- thing in their country for it; that it had destroyed many of his warriors, and would soon destroy the rest; that his tribe was too small and his warriors too few to go to war with the tribes around them; that they were met and killed by the Sioux on the north, by the Pawnee on the west, by the Osage and Konza on the south, and still more alarmed from the constant advance of the pale faces-their enemies from the east-with whiskey and small-pox, which already had destroyed four-fifths of his tribe, and would soon impoverish and at last destroy the remainder of them.' In this way did this shrewd philosopher lament over the unlucky destiny of his tribe, and I pitied him with all my heart."

The day before Catlin arrived at this village this old chiefs son - the young Hongs-kay-de had created a great sensation in the community by accomplishing a most startling amount of bigamy in a single day. Being the chief's son, and having just been presented by his father with a handsome wigwam and nine horses, he had no difficulty whatever in ingratiating himself with the fathers of marriageable daughters, and had, with ingenious slyness, offered himself to and been accepted by four successive fathers-in-law, promising to each of them two horses, enjoining on them profound secrecy until a certain hour, when he would announce to the whole tribe that he was to be married. At the time appointed he appeared, followed by sonic of his young friends leading eight horses. Addressing the prospective father-in-law who stood nearest him, with his daughter by his side, he said, "You promised me your daughter: here are the two horses." A great hubbub immediately arose; the three others all springing forward, angry and perplexed, claiming his promises made to them. The triumphant young Turk exclaimed, "You have all now acknowledged your engagements to me, and must fulfill them. Here are your horses." There was nothing more to be said. The horses were delivered, and Hongs-kay-de, leading two brides in each hand, walked off with great dignity to his wigwam.

This was an affair totally unprecedented in the annals of the tribe, and produced an impression as profound as it could have done in a civilized community, though of a different character redounding to the young prince's credit rather than to his shame marking him out as one daring and original enough to he a "Big Medicine." Mr. Catlin says that he visited the bridal wigwam soon afterward, and saw the "four modest little wives seated around the fire, seeming to harmonize very well." Of the prettiest one -"Mong-shong-shaw" (the Bending Willow) he took a portrait, and a very sweet-faced young woman she is too, wrapped in a beautifully ornamented fur robe, much handsomer and more graceful than the fur-lined circulars worn by civilized women.

The United States' first treaty with this handful of gentle and peaceable Indians was made in 1817. It was simply a treaty of peace and friendship.

In 1825 another was made, in which the Ponca admit that "they reside their within the territorial and limits claim of the United States, acknowledge their supremacy, and claim their protection." They also admit "the right of the United States to regulate all trade and intercourse with them." The United States, on their part, "agree to receive the Ponca tribe of Indians into their friendship and under their protection, and to extend to them from time to time such benefits and acts of kindness as may be convenient, and seem just and proper to the President of the United States."

After this there is little mention, in the official records of the Government, of the Ponca for some thirty years. Other tribes in the Upper Missouri region were so troublesome and aggressive that the peaceable Ponca were left to shift for themselves as they best could amidst all the warring and warring interests by which they were surrounded. In 1856 the agent of the Upper Platte mentions incidentally that their lands were being fast intruded upon by squatters; and in 1857 another agent reports having met on the banks of the Missouri a large band of Ponca, who made complaint that all the Indians on the river were receiving presents and they were overlooked; that the men from the steamboats cut their trees down, and that white settlers were taking away all their land. In 1858 the Commissioner for Indian Affairs writes: " Treaties were entered into in March and April last with the Ponca and Yankton Sioux, who reside west of Iowa, for the purpose of extinguishing their title to all the lands occupied and claimed by them, except small portions on which to colonize and domesticate them. This proceeding was deemed necessary in order to obtain such control over these Indians as to prevent their interference with our settlements, which are rapidly extending in that direction. These treaties were duly laid before the Senate at its last regular session, but were not, it is understood, finally acted on by that body.

"Relying on the ratification of their treaty, and the adoption of timely measures to carry out its provisions in their favor, the Ponca proceeded in good faith to comply with its stipulations by abandoning their settlements and hunting-grounds, and withdrawing to the small tract reserved for their future home. Being without a crop to rely upon, and having been unsuccessful in their usual summer hunt, they were reduced to a state of desperation and destitution. As nothing had been done for them under the treaty, they concluded it was void, and threatened to fall back upon their former settlements, some of the most important of which had, in the mean time, been taken possession of by numerous white persons."

The Ponca never heard of Grotius or Vattel; but, in assuming that the treaty was void because it was not fulfilled, they only acted on the natural principles of the law of nations and of treaties, as laid down by all authorities. Thucydides said: " They are not the first breakers of a league who, being deserted, seek for aid to others, but they that perform not by their deeds what they have promised to do upon their oaths."

In consequence of this delay to fulfill the treaty provisions, the Government was forced to step in at the last moment and " incur a heavy expense " in furnishing the Ponca with food enough to keep them from starving; and in 1859, under this pressure, the Senate ratified the treaty. By it the Ponca ceded and relinquished to the United States all the lands they had ever owned or claimed, "wherever situate," except a small tract between the Ponca and Niobrara rivers. In consideration of this cession, the United States Government agreed "to protect the Ponca in the possession of this tract of land, and their persons and property thereon, during good behavior on their part; to pay them annuities annually for thirty years-$12,000 for the first five years, then $10,000 for ten years, then $8000 for fifteen years; to expend $20,000 for their subsistence during the first year, for building houses, etc.; to establish schools, and to build mills, mechanics' shops, etc.; to give $20,000 for the payment of the existing obligations of the tribe."

Two years later the agent newly appointed to take charge of the Ponca reports to the Department the amount of improvements made on the reservation: "One saw and grist-mill; two agency houses-story and a half houses-without inside lining or plastering, 16 by 26 and 18 by 32 feet in size; six small round log-houses (three with a small shed for a stable), a light log-corral for cattle, and a canvas shed for storing under; and about sixty acres of ground, broken, comprised all the improvements."

Evidently a very small part of the $20,000 had been spent as yet. He did not find an Indian on the reservation. From fear of the Sioux (who in 1860 had stolen from them more than half the horses they owned) they had moved down the Niobrara River, some twenty miles nearer the Missouri. It was with the greatest difficulty that the agent induced them to return; and after they did so, they huddled their tents close about the agency buildings, and could not be induced to go half a mile away unless accompanied by some of the white employees.

As the agent had no food to feed them with, and no money to buy any (spite of the appropriation of $20,000 for subsistence and house-building), he induced them to go off on a hunt; but in less than a month they came straggling back, "begging for provisions for their women and children, whom they had left on the plains half-starved, having been unable to find any game, or any food except wild-turnips. Some of them went to visit the Omaha, others the Pawnees, where they remained until the little corn they had planted produced roasting-ears. In the mean time those who were here subsisted mainly on wild-cherries and plums and the wild-turnip, and traded away most of their blankets and annuity goods for provisions."

In 1863 the reports are still more pitiful. "They started on their summer hunt toward the last of May, immediately after the first hoeing of their corn. At first they were successful and found buffaloes; but afterward, the ground being occupied by the Yankton, who were sent south of the Niobrara by the general commanding the district, and who were about double the number, and with four times as many horses, they soon consumed what meat they had cured, and were compelled to abandon the chase. They commenced to return in the latter part of July. They went away with very high hopes, and reasonably so, of a large crop, but returned to see it all withered and dried up. In the mean time the plains had been burnt over, so that they could not discover the roots they are in- the habit of digging. Even the wild-plums, which grow on bushes down in ravines and gullies, are withered and dried on the limbs. The building I occupy was constantly surrounded by a hungry crowd begging for food. I am warned by military authority to keep the Ponca within the limits of the reservation; but this is an impossibility. There is nothing within its limits, nor can anything be obtained in sufficient quantity, or brought here soon enough to keep them from starving. The Ponca 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 corn-stalks, and this when there were cattle and sheep in their sight."

At this time martial law was in force on many of the Indian reservations, owing to the presence of roving bands of hostile Sioux, driven from Minnesota after their outbreak there.

The Ponca through all these troubles remained loyal and peaceable, and were "unwavering in their fidelity to their treaty," says the Indian Commissioner.

In December of this year what the governmental reports call "a very unfortunate occurrence" took place in Nebraska. A party of Ponca, consisting of four men, six women, three boys, and two girls, returning from a visit to the Omaha, had camped for the night about twelve miles from their own reservation. In the night a party of soldiers from a military post on the Niobrara River came to their camp, and began to insult the squaws, "offering money with one hand, and presenting a revolver with the other." The Indians, alarmed, pulled up their lodge, and escaped to a copse of willows near by. The soldiers fired at them as they ran away, and then proceeded to destroy all their effects. They cut the lodge covers to pieces, burnt the saddles and blankets, cut open sacks of beans, corn, and dried pumpkin, and strewed their contents on the ground, and went away, taking with them a skin lodge-covering, beaver-skins, buffalo-robes, blankets, guns, anti all the small articles. The Indians' ponies were hid in the willows. Early in the morning they returned with these, picked up all the corn which had not been destroyed, and such other articles as they could find, packed their ponies as best they might, and set off barefooted for home. After they had gone a few miles they topped and built a fire to parch some corn to eat. Some of the women and children went to look for wild-beans, leaving three women and a child at the camp. Here the soldiers came on them again. As soon as the Indians saw them coming they fled. The soldiers fired on them, wounding one woman by a ball through her thigh; another, with a child on her back, by two balls through the child's thighs, one of which passed through the mother's side. These women were fired on as they were crossing the river on the ice. The soldiers then took possession of the six ponies and all the articles at the camp, and left. The squaws and children who were looking for beans were half a mile below; a little dog belonging to them barked and revealed their hiding-place in the willows. The soldiers immediately turned on them, dismounted, and, making up 'to them, deliberately shot them dead as they huddled helplessly together-three women and a little girl!

One of the boys, a youth, ran for the river, pursued by the soldiers. On reaching the river he dived into the water through a hole in the ice; as often as he lifted his head they fired at him. After they went away he crawled out and escaped to the agency. One of the murdered women, the mother of this boy, had three balls in her head and cheek, her throat cut, and her head half-severed by a saber-thrust; another, the youngest woman, had her cloth skirt taken off and carried away, and all her other clothes torn from her body, leaving it naked!

The men who did this deed belonged to Company B of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry.

The outrage was promptly reported to the Department, and the general commanding the Nebraska District detailed an officer to examine into it. There was some correspondence between the military authorities relative to it, but with no result; and in the report of the next year the Indian Commissioner says: "Attention was called last year to the fact that the murderers of several of this loyal and friendly tribe had not been discovered and punished. I trust that, as there seems to be no probability that this will be done, a special appropriation may be made for presents to the relatives of the deceased."

In 1865 a supplementary treaty was made with the Ponca, extending their reservation down the Niobrara to the Missouri River; and the Government agreed to pay them $15,000, for the purpose of indemnifying them for the loss they had sustained in this outrage and in others. For the ratification of this treaty also they waited two years; and in 1867 the Superintendent of the Dakota Territory says: "Schools would have been in operation at the Ponca Agency before this time but for the long delay in ratifying the supplementary treaty of 1865; and now that this measure has fortunately been accomplished, there can be no further necessity for delay, and it is confidently believed another year will witness the foundation and rapid progress of an English school at this agency."

This superintendent, having been in office only one year, was probably not familiar with the provisions of the treaty of 1859 with the Ponca, in which, by Article three, the United States Government had promised "to establish and maintain for ten years, at an annual expense not to exceed $5,000, one or more manual labor schools for the education and training of the Ponca youth in letters, agriculture, mechanics, and housewifery."

This educational annuity has but one more year to run; whatever may have been done with it up to this time, it really is now being spent on schools, and it seems a great pity that it should soon cease. The Governor of Dakota, in 1868, evidently thinks so too, for he writes to the Department, in the autumn of 1868: " A school has been in successful operation at this agency (the Ponca) for the past nine months, with an average attendance of about fifty scholars, and with every evidence of advancement in the primary department of an English education. But just at this interesting period of its existence we are notified by the agent that with this fiscal year all funds for school as well as for agricultural purposes cease, agreeably to the terms and conditions of their original treaty. This will be a serious and irreparable calamity if not remedied by the most generous action of the Government. If funds for this purpose cannot be otherwise procured, the Ponca are willing and anxious to transfer their old reservation to the Government for a moderate extension of these important and indispensable benefits."

The governor also says that in the past year the Ponca have paid out of their annuity money for all the improvements which had been made on lands occupied by certain white settlers, who were ejected from their new reservation by the terms of the last treaty.

In the report for 1869 we read that the Ponca school has been "discontinued for want of funds." The Department earnestly recommends an appropriation of $25,000 to put it in operation again. The now Governor of Dakota seconds the recommendation, and regrets to say that, "for the enlightenment of the 35,000 Indians embraced in the Dakota Superintendency, there is not one school in operation."

In 1870 an appropriation of $5,000 was made by the Department from a general educational fund, for the purpose of resuming this school. The condition of the Ponca now is, on the whole, encouraging; they are " not only willing, but extremely anxious to learn the arts by which they may become self-supporting, and conform to the usages of white men. With the comparatively small advantages that have been afforded them, their advancement has been very great."

In the summer of 1869 they built for themselves sixteen very comfortable log-houses; in the summer of 1870 they built forty-four more; with their annuity money they bought cook-stoves, cows, and useful implements of labor. They worked most assiduously in putting in their crops, but lost them all by drought, and are in real danger of starvation if the Government does not assist them. All this while they see herds of cattle driven across their reservation to feed the lately hostile Sioux-flour, coffee, sugar, tobacco, by the wagon-load, distributed to them-while their own always peaceable, always loyal, long-suffering tribe is digging wild roots to eat, and in actual danger of starvation.

Nevertheless they are not discouraged, knowing that but for the drought they would have had ample food from their farms, and they make no attempts to retaliation the Sioux for raiding off their horses and stock, because they hope "that the Government will keep its faith with them," and that suitable remuneration for these losses will be made them, according to the treaty stipulations.

For the next two years they worked industriously and well; three schools were established; a chapel was built by the Episcopal mission; the village began to assume the appearance of permanence and thrift; but misfortune had not yet parted company with the Ponca. In the summer of 1873 the Missouri River suddenly overflowed, washed away its banks hundreds of yards back, and entirely ruined the Ponca village. By working night and day for two weeks the Indians saved most of the buildings, carrying them half a mile inland to be sure of safety. The site of their village became the bed of the main channel of the river; their cornfields were ruined, and the lands for miles in every direction washed and torn up by; the floods.

"For nearly two weeks," the agent writes, "the work of salvage from the ever-threatening destruction occupied our whole available force night and day. We succeeded in carrying from the riverbank to near half a mile inland the whole of the agency buildings, mechanics' houses, stabling, and sheds more than twenty houses nearly every panel of fencing. The Ponca worked well and long, often through the night; and the fact that the disaster did not cost us ten dollars of actual loss is to be attributed to their labor, continuous and per- severing-working sometimes over the swiftly-flowing waters, terrible and turbid, on the edge of time newly-formed current but a few inches below them, and into which a fall would have been certain death, even for an Indian."

In one year after this disaster they had recovered themselves marvelously; built twenty new houses; owned over a hundred head of cattle and fifty wagons, and put three hundred acres of land under cultivation (about three acres to each male in the tribe). But this year was not to close without a disaster. First came a drought; then three visitations of locusts, one after the other, which so completely stripped the fields that " nothing was left but a few prematurely dry stalks and straw." One hundred young trees which had been set outbox-elder, soft maple, and others-withered and died.

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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