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Story of Removal

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                    


The story of that removal was written out in full at the time by the agent who superintended it. That he should forward this report to the Department of the Interior was natural; but that the Department of the Interior should have been willing to publish it to the country, to have it on the official record of its management of Indian affairs for the year 1877, is strange. It will make a fitting conclusion to this sketch of the history of the Ponca tribe. The name of this agent was E. A. Howard. He calls the report "Journal of the March."

"May 21st. Broke camp at seven o'clock and marched to Crayton, a distance of thirteen miles. Roads very heavy. The child that died yesterday was here buried by the Indians, they preferring to bury it than to have it buried by the white 'people.

"May 22d. Broke camp at seven o'clock and marched to Neligh, a distance of about twenty-five miles. The day was cool, and, the road being high and comparatively good, the travel was made without much inconvenience.

"May 23d. The morning opened with light rain; but at eight o'clock a terrific thunderstorm occurred of two hours' duration, which was followed by steady rain throughout the day, in consequence of which we remained in camp. During the day a child died, and several women and children were reported sick, and medical attendance and medicine were procured for them.

"May 24th. Buried the child that died yesterday in the cemetery at Neligh, giving it a Christian burial. Broke camp at ten o'clock and marched about eight miles, crossing the Elkhorn River about two miles below Oakdale Village. Were unable to cross at Neligh, the road being about two feet under water and the bridges being washed away. The road was fearfully bad, and much time and labor were expended in making the road and bridges at all passable over the Elk-horn flats, where the crossing was affected.

"May 25th. Broke camp at six o'clock and marched twenty miles, to a point on Shell Creek. No wood at this place, and none to be had except what little had been picked up and brought in by the trains. Weather cold, damp, and dreary. The Indians during the day behaved well, and marched splendidly.

"May 26th. The morning opened with a heavy continuous rain, which prevailed until ten o'clock. Broke camp at eleven o'clock and marched eight miles farther down Shell Creek, when it again commenced raining, and we went into camp. The evening set in cold and rainy, and no wood to be had except what was purchased of a settler.

"May 27th. The morning opened cold, with a misty rain. Rain ceased at half-past seven o'clock, and we broke camp at eight and marched eight miles farther down Shell Creek, when a heavy thunder-storm coming on, we again went into camp. Several of the Indians were here found to be quite sick, and having no physician, and none being attainable, they gave us much anxiety and no little trouble. The daughter of Standing Bear, one of the chiefs, was very low of consumption, and moving her with any degree of comfort was almost impossible, and the same trouble existed in transporting all the sick.

"May 28th. Last evening I gave orders to break camp at five o'clock this morning, intending, if practicable, to reach Columbus before night; but a heavy thunderstorm prevailed at that time. Broke camp at seven o'clock. Marched seven miles, when we came to a slough confluent to Shell Creek, which was only made passable after two hours of active work in cutting willow-brush and bringing a large quantity of wheat straw from a distance of thirty rods, with which we covered the road thickly. After crossing the slough we marched to a point on Shell Creek and camped, having made about fourteen miles during the day.

"May 29th. Broke camp at seven o'clock and crossed Shell Creek. For about five miles the road led over a divide, and was quite good; but in coming down on the flats, which extended for five miles between the Bluffs and Columbus, we found the roads for the entire distance almost impassable, owing-to the many deep, miry sloughs which cross the road, and the generally flooded and yielding condition of the soil aside from the sloughs. Teams had to be frequently doubled, in order to get the wagons through. The difficulties were finally overcome, and the train marched into Columbus at two o'clock, and went into camp at Soap Fork, having made a march of about ten miles, the march of five miles across the flats occupying about seven hours. Major Walker, who had accompanied us from the Niobrara River to this place with twenty-five soldiers, under orders from the War Department, took leave of us, and returned to Dakota."

It was asserted again and again by the Secretary of the Interior, and by the inspector, E. C. Kemble, that these Indians were not removed by force-that they consented to go.

In another part of this same report this agent says:

"On the 15th" (six days before the "march" began) " I held another council, which was largely attended by the chiefs, headmen, and soldiers of the tribe, and which was of more than four hours' duration. At this council the Indians maintained that the Government had no right to move them from the reservation, and demanded, as an inducement or equivalent for them to give up the reservation and move to the Indian Territory-first, the payment to them by the Government of the sum of $3,000,000; and, second, that, before starting, I should show to them the sum of $40,000 which they had been told had been appropriated by the Government for their removal. To all of which I replied positively in the negative, telling them that I would not accede to nor consider any demands that they might make; but that I would take under my consideration reasonable requests that they might submit touching their removal, and, as their agent, do what I could for them in promoting their welfare; that I demanded that they should at all times listen to my words; that they should go with me to their new home; and that they should without delay give me their final answer whether they would go peaceably or by force. The Indians refused to give answer at this time; the council closed without definite results; and the Indians dispersed with a sullen look and determined expression."

This evidently was not the " consent" of which we have heard. We come to it presently.

"On the following morning, however, May 16th, they sent word to me, at an early hour, that they had considered my words, and had concluded to go with me, and that they wanted assistance in getting the old and infirm, together with their property, over the Niobrara River, which was much swollen by the rains and at a low temperature."

What a night must these helpless creatures have passed before this "consent" was given! Seven hundred people, more than half of them women and children a farming people, not armed with rifles, as the Ogallala Sioux were, when, one year later, on this same ground, the Chief Spotted Tail told Commissioner Hayt that, if he did not give an order to have his tribe on the way back to White Clay Creek in ten days, his young men would go on the war-path at once; and the much terrified commissioner wrote the order then and there, and the Sioux were allowed to go where they had chosen to go. Behold the difference between the way our Government treats the powerful and treats the weak! What could these Ponca farmers do? They must, "without delay," give their "final answer whether they would go peaceably or by force." What did "by force" mean? It was "by force" that the Government undertook to compel the Cheyenne to go to Indian Territory; and in that Cheyenne massacre the Cheyenne men, women, children, and babies were all shot down together!

What could these Ponca farmers do? What would any father, brother, husband have done under the circumstances? He would have "consented" to go.

The agent, as was wise, took them at their word, quickly, and that very day, " at five o'clock P.M., had the entire tribe, with their effects, across the river, off the reservation, and in camp in Nebraska."

The agent should have said, "with part of their effects," for it was only a part, and a very small part, that this helpless consenting party were allowed to take with them. All their agricultural implements and most of their furniture were left behind.

"It was a hard days work," the getting the tribe and their " effects " across the river, the agent says; " the river being about forty rods wide, and the current so swift that it was found impossible to move the goods across in any other way than by packing them on the shoulders of the men, the quicksand bottom rendering it unsafe to trust them on the backs of animals; even the wagons having to be drawn across by hand."

Let us dwell for a moment on this picture. Seven hundred helpless, heart-broken people beginning their sad journey by having to ford this icy stream with quicksand's at bottom. The infirm, the sick, the old, the infants, all carried "by packing them on the shoulders of the men!" What a scene! The Honorable Secretary of the Interior said, in one of the letters in his newspaper controversy with the inspector in regard to the accounts of this removal, that " the highly-colored stories which are told about the brutal military force employed in compelling their [the Ponca'] removal from Dakota to the Indian Territory are sensational fabrications; at least, the official record, which is very full, and goes into minute details, does not in the least bear them out."

There was never any accusation brought against the "military force" of "brutality" in this removal. The brutality was on the part of the Government. The simple presence of the" military force" was brutal. It meant but one thing. The Indians understood it, and the Government intended that they should understand it; and when the agent of the Government said to these Indians that they must give him their "final answer whether they would go peaceably or by force," he intended that they should understand it. Has anybody any doubt what were the orders under which that "military force" was there? any doubt what it would have been the military duty of Major Walker to have done in case the Ponca had refused to " consent" to go?

And now let us return to the " Official Record," which is, indeed, as the Honorable Secretary of the Interior says, "very full," and "goes into minute details," and let us see in how much it will "bear us out;" and when we have done with this "Official Record," let us ask ourselves if any imagination could have invented so " highly-colored" a "story" as it tells.

"June 2d. Broke camp at seven o'clock and marched seventeen miles, going into camp near Ulysses. Roads in bad condition.

"June 3d. Had some trouble in getting started. Broke camp at eleven o'clock and marched eight miles. Went into camp on Blue River. Many people sick, one of whom was reported in a dying condition. Had bad roads. Rained during afternoon.

"June 4th. Broke camp at six o'clock. Marched fifteen miles, and went into camp on Lincoln Creek, near Seward.

"June 5th. Broke camp at seven o'clock. Marched fourteen miles, and went into camp near Milford. Daughter of Standing Bear, Ponca chief, died at two o'clock, of consumption.

"June 6th. Remained in camp all day, for the purpose of obtaining supplies. Prairie Flower, wife of Shines White and daughter of Standing Bear, who died yesterday, was here given Christian burial, her remains being deposited in the cemetery at Milford, Nebraska, a small village on Blue River.

"In this connection I wish to take official knowledge and recantation of the noble action preformed by the ladies of Milford, in preparing and decorating the body of the deceased Indian woman for burial in a style becoming the highest civilization. In this act of Christian kindness they did more to ameliorate the grief of the husband and father than cold have done by adopting the usual course of this untutored people and presenting to each a dozen ponies. It was here that, looking on the form of his dead daughter thus arrayed for the tomb, Standing Bear as led to forget the burial-service of his tribe, and say to those around him that he was desirous of leaving off the ways of the Indian and adopting those of white men.

"June 7th. Quite a heavy rain during the afternoon. The storm, most disastrous of any that occurred during the removal of the Ponca under my charge, came suddenly upon us while in camp on the evening of this day. It was a storm such as I never before experienced, and of which I am unable to give an adequate description. The wind blew a fearful tornado, demolishing every tent in camp, and rending many of them into shreds, overturning wagons, and hurling wagon-boxes, camp-equipages, etc., through the air in every direction like straws. Some of the people were taken up by the wind and carried as much as three hundred yards. Several of the Indians were quite seriously hurt, and one child died the next day from injuries received, and was given Christian burial. The storm caused a delay until the 8th for repairs, and for medical attendance upon the injured.

"June 8th. Broke camp at Milford and marched seven miles. Roads very bad. Child died during the day.

"June 9th. Put the child that died yesterday in the coffin and sent it back to Milford, to be buried in the same grave with its aunt, Prairie Flower. Broke camp at seven o'clock and marched to within three miles of Crete.

"June 10th. Broke camp at seven o'clock and marched one mile beyond De Witt, where I employed a physician to visit camp and prescribe for the sick. A woman had a thumb accidentally cut off, which caused further commotion in the camp.

"June 12th. Broke camp at seven o'clock and marched to within two miles of Otoe Agency. Crossed Wolf Creek with a part of the train, the crossing being very difficult; but the Indians worked splendidly."

"The Indians worked splendidly!" Is not this a well-nigh incredible record of patience and long-suffering? These poor creatures, marching from ten to twenty-five miles a day, for twenty-two days, through muddy sloughs, swollen rivers, in tempests and floods and dreary cold, leaving their wives and their

"June 13th. After considerable time we succeeded in building a bridge over Wolf Creek out of drift-timber, and succeeded in crossing the balance of the train. Broke camp and marched three miles, and went into camp again near Otoe Agency.

"June 14th. Water-bound, and had to remain in camp all day waiting for creek to run down. The Otoe Indians came out to see the Ponca, and gave them ten ponies.

"June 15th. Still water-bound. Remained in camp all day.

"June 16th. Broke camp at seven o'clock and reached Marysville, Kansas, where we went into camp. During the march a wagon tipped over, injuring a woman quite severely. Indians out of rations, and feeling hostile."
What wonder that the Indians felt hostile? Hunger added to all the rest of their direful misery!

"June 18th. Broke camp at seven o'clock. Marched nine miles and went into camp at Elm Creek. Little Cottonwood died. Four families determined to return to Dakota. I was obliged to ride nine miles on horseback to overtake them, to restore harmony, and settle difficulty in camp. Had coffin made for dead Indian, which was brought to camp at twelve o'clock at night from Blue Rapids. A fearful thunder-storm during the night, flooding the camp-equipage."

This is a " highly-colored " story, indeed! The darkness; the camp flooded by the driving rain; thunder and lightning; a messenger arriving at midnight with a coffin; the four families of desperate fugitives setting out to flee back to their homes! What "sensational fabrication" could compete with this?

"June 19th. The storm of last night left the roads in an impassable condition, and, in consequence, was obliged to remain in camp all day. Buried Little Cottonwood in a cemetery about five miles from camp.

"June 25th. Broke camp at six o'clock. Marched to a point about fifteen miles farther up Deep Creek. Two old women died during the day.

"June 30th. Broke camp at six o'clock. Passed through Hartford, and camped about six miles above Burlington. A child of Buffalo Chief died during the day.

"July 2d. Broke camp at six o'clock. Made a long march of fifteen miles for Noon Camp, for reason that no water could be got nearer. An Indian became hostile, and made a desperate attempt to kill White Eagle, head chief of the tribe. For a time every male in camp was on the war-path, and for about two hours the most intense excitement prevailed, heightened by continued loud crying by all the women and children."

This Indian, who is reported here as having "become hostile," no doubt, tried to kill White Eagle for having allowed the tribe to be brought into all this trouble. It is the general feeling among the less intelligent members of a tribe that their chiefs are bound, under all circumstances, to see that they come to no harm.

"July 9th. Broke camp at six o'clock, passing through Baxter Springs at about one o'clock. Just after passing Baxter Springs a terrible thunderstorm struck us. The wind blew a heavy gale and the rain fell in torrents, so that it was impossible to see more than four or five rods distant, thoroughly drenching every person and every article in the train, making a fitting end to a journey commenced by wading a river and thereafter encountering innumerable storms.

"During the last few days of the journey the weather was exceedingly hot, and the teams terribly annoyed and bitten by green-head flies, which attacked them in great numbers. Many of the teams were nearly exhausted, and, had the distance been but little farther, they must have given out. The people were all nearly worn out from the fatigue of the march, and were heartily glad that the long, tedious journey was at an end, that they might take that rest so much required for the recuperation of their physical natures." Now let us see what provision the Government had made for that "rest" and "recuperation," surely " much required " and fairly earned. Not one dollar had been appropriated for establishing them in their new home; not one building had been put up. This people was set down in a wilderness without one provision of any kind for their shelter.

"It is a matter of astonishment to me," says Agent Howard (p. 100 of this "Report "), "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 home 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 little more than sufficient to remove them; 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."

This journal of Mr. Howard's is the best record that can ever be written of the sufferings of the Ponca in their removal from their homes. It is "highly colored;" but no one, however much it may be for his interest to do so, can call it "a sensational fabrication," or can discredit it in the smallest particular, for it is an "official record," authorized and endorsed by being published in the "Annual Report" of the Secretary of the Interior.

The remainder of the Ponca tribe is still in Indian Territory, awaiting anxiously the result of the efforts to restore to them their old homes, and to establish the fact of their indisputable legal right to them.

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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