Today was a big travel day for me, driving about 314 miles from Beatrice, Nebr. To Ponca City, Okla., completing the second leg of my journey to follow the Ponca tribe’s Trail of Tears from their home near Niobrara, Nebr. to this “Indian Territory” and the Bear Clan’s return home via Omaha.
As I drove out of Nebraska and across Kansas, I was again taken by the abundance of trees and waterways. I crossed eight rivers and creeks along Highway 77 in the first three hours, in slightly rainy conditions. All I could imagine was the Ponca, with most of the tribe walking in heavy rain, along the same path, 12-25 miles per day for 59 days. They carried everything they owned now, on their backs.
On some travel days, the Indian agent reported, the roads were under two feet of water. They experienced two tornadoes, an assassination attempt on the head chief White Eagle, many running away to go back north and hide among the Sioux. Nearly one-third of the tribal members died during the trip, including Standing Bear’s daughter and granddaughter.
The wagon train did not include enough wagons for all to ride along the 600-mile journey, so only the very old and the very young were able to ride in wagons or on horses. It took all day for them to cross the Niobrara River at the onset of their journey, as the wagons had to be emptied of their stores and most passengers to make it across the rain-swollen river.
Five hundred people were trailed by 25 soldiers and 35 oxen marching as much as 28 miles in one day. When one woman stopped to grieve for her daughter who had died that day, the soldiers whipped her and forced her to continue marching. Her five-year-old grandson remembered the incident and shared it with his son years later who, in turn, shared the story with author Joe Starita.
The families had left behind not just their homes, built in the style the white man demanded, but also much of their livestock and farming equipment, their church, saw mill and flour mill and nearly all their household goods and tools. When they arrived in the “warm country,” they were promised all new property and a sunny, paradise-like existence, here in the south. It is certainly warmer here, but the Ponca were left without food, equipment or seed and livestock.
They moved twice more that year, after Standing Bear visited DC and exacted a presidential promise of better land and more government assistance in trade for the land they’d ceded in northeast Nebraska. At the same time, the Sioux, promised the Ponca land in northeast Nebraska in another failed U.S.-Indian treaty, decided they weren’t interested. The Ponca homeland was abandoned.
In the south, many Ponca continued to die that fall and winter and all of the next year, including Standing Bear’s only son. Bear Shield would’ve been the next chief of the Bear Clan, one of nine clans among the Ponca. When he died in December 1878, just a few days after Christmas, Standing Bear decided to go home, back to Nebraska.
Tomorrow, I will explore more of the Bear Clan’s time in Oklahoma. A quick exploration of the Standing Bear Park and Museum was cut short by a long search for a campground near Kaw Lake.
The Kaw Indian tribe was the group most helpful to White Eagle, Standing Bear and eight other chiefs when they visited Indian Territory in February before the forced removal in May, 1877. Looking for a place to stay, the Kaw reservation might have served as a temporary reprieve, but the land was rocky and the rivers were sticky with sickness (malaria).
I didn’t get quite the friendly reception in the Kaw locale as Standing Bear. Since Kaw Lake’s online reservation system and call center were both out of service October 1-4, I was directed to the campground’s office and visitor’s center.
Arriving 15 minutes before 4 p.m., the office was locked and closed. When two park rangers left the center by the same door minutes later, they were more interested in their Smokey Bear outfits than my lodging predicament. I got a motel and a cheeseburger and called it good.