The People before the Settlers
By Jerry Johnson and the Sutton Historical Society
|This map identifies the geography of major tribes on the plains. The map is part of an extensive private website|
at www.fransrealm.com which has numerous interesting photos and comments.
We have choices for dating the beginning of Sutton. Luther French filed for his homestead in 1870; the first waves of settlers arrived in 1871 and there were two incorporation attempts.
Sutton residents chose the second of those incorporation attempts in 1874 to celebrate the town’s 65th birthday with a shindig in 1939. An old friend of early Sutton helped the town to celebrate. Sioux Chief Black Horn returned to remind residents of a story of those days.
|Sioux Chief Black Horn posed with Mrs. Laura|
(Schwab) Lewis at the 1939 festival celebrating
Sutton's 65th birthday.
Various accounts tell of a band of Indians who traveled about in the Central U. S. during the 1870’s. Their itinerary included a few weeks camped in the Sutton Park each summer. One of the local merchants, likely Isaac Clark developed a rapport with this band earning their business for their annual shopping needs. Chief Black Horn was 78-years old in 1939 putting his date of birth in 1861 and a pre-teen or early teen during these visits during those first years of the Sutton settlement.
We usually being the Story of Sutton with Luther French’s dugout in 1870, but the Chief reminds us that the Sutton area, the Great Plains, the U. S. and indeed, the whole hemisphere had a population with a history before Luther French.
The story of Native Americans covers a lot of territory. From the Inuit of the Arctic to the Tehuelche people at the southern tip of Patagonia there were scores of different ethnic groupings, each with many different tribes or nations and each of those made up of separate identifiable people who may have been even further divided.
The Pilgrims encountered the Patuxent or Pawtucket tribe of the Wampanoag confederation and on the east coast. Wikipedia lists eighteen different tribes along the Pacific Northwest coast. And in between there were many tribes and sub-tribes.
For instance, we know there was a Sioux tribe. But there were “Seven Council Fires” of the Sioux nation including the Yankton Sioux, the Teton (or Lakota), Mdewakanton, and four more with names you are unlikely to recognize.
And the Lakota people further divided themselves into yet another level of seven bands or “sub-tribes” with some fun names: “Brule” or “Burned Thighs”; “Ogalala” or “They Scatter Their Own”; “Sans Arc” meaning “Without Bows”; “Hunkpapa” translated to “End Village” sometimes “End of the Circle”; “Miniconjou” or “Planters Beside the Stream”, “Black Feet” (not to be confused with a distinct tribe further west) and “Oohenupa” or “Two Kettles” or maybe “Two Boilings”.
|The family of Mrs Laura (Schwab) Lewis and her|
daughter Mrs. Dorothy (Lewis) Johnson donated the
tie and moccasins worn by Chief Black Horn in that
photo above - on display at the Sutton Museum.
Another fuzzy topic concerns where various tribes were located. Some communities were nomadic and even the ones that tended to settle in one place also drifted about.
For instance, there are the Omaha and the Ponca tribes. Their ancestors were part of a larger group near the Ohio River when they split off moving to Minnesota and later to South Dakota. The Dakota tribe drive them down to the Missouri River about the year 1500.
The Ponca and Omaha separated in 1650. The Omaha tribe settled along the Bow River in Nebraska and moved to their current reservation site in Dakota County in 1855. They sold part of their land to the Winnebago ten years later.
The Ponca moved to the Black Hills after their split with the Omaha tribe and later lived at the mouth of the Niobrara River. The tribe was forcibly moved to Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1877. Several died on the trip including the daughter of Chief Standing Bear. His son died soon after arriving in Oklahoma. Standing Bear attempted to return his son’s body to Nebraska but was arrested for defying orders to stay on the Oklahoma reservation.
The Omaha Daily Herald and the public followed the trial at Fort Omaha where, in a landmark case, the court ruled that an Indian was a “person” and that Standing Bear and the Ponca tribe should be allowed to return to their home in Nebraska.
Unfortunately, their home had already been taken from the Ponca people and only 225 of the 800 returned to Nebraska.
The Omaha and Ponca qualify as members of the tribes of the Plains Indians. What other tribes are counted among the Indians of the Plains and specifically, who lived in our area?
The most common answer is the Pawnee. It’s a good answer but there were many other tribes among the Plains Indians. There are more than a dozen dioramas at the Hastings Museum describing the Plains Indians. Their list includes the Pawnee, the Omaha and Ponca, Winnebago, Santee Sioux, the Plains Apache, Missouri and Oto tribes, Teton Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho,
The Pawnee tribe was a dominate tribe living in Nebraska and Kansas. There were four distinct bands who moved north from the Arkansas River during the 1770’s. The Skidi, Chaui or Grand Pawnee, Kitkehahkis and the Pitahauerats were the names of those bands.
|Tepees? So primitive. This display at the Hastings Museum shows the cross section of a Pawnee earth lodge.|
Native Americans were killed in violent encounters with Europeans and between themselves, but those numbers paled beside deaths by disease.
Population estimates of the number of indigenous people in the Americans before Columbus vary widely from lows around 20 million to a high of about 100 million. Most scholars chose something in the middle feeling comfortable that between 50 and 60 million people lived in the western hemisphere. European population in 1500 was just over 60 million.
The Pawnee were among the more sedentary natives of the plains becoming successful farmers. Our common stereotypical idea for the home of an Indian is a tepee. The tepee was common. It was a handy house for someone who lived a nomadic life, picking up and moving often. The Pawnee and other Indians with a stationary lifestyle developed a more permanent structure, the mud house or earth lodge.
The Hastings Museum has an excellent display describing the construction and nature of the earth lodge. Lodges were circular and as large as 45 feet in diameter with wooden posts and covered with grass and sod. Sod houses of white settlers were a reminder of these earth lodges, though not many housed as many as 30 people as might live in the Pawnee lodge.
Pawnee hunters, the men, normally took two hunting trips a year for buffalo and deer giving them a diverse diet.
The Santee Sioux have a reservation in Knox County on the south bank of the Missouri. Their story includes a period when they were squeezed into a narrow strip by white settlers and rose in armed rebellion in 1862. Eighteen hundreds of them were arrested by the U.S. Army and 307 tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. Protests to President Lincoln resulted in reprieves for all but 33 who were hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
The Missouri (meaning “having wooden canoes”) were closely related to the Oto and were once in the same group as the Winnebago and the Iowa tribes. They were soundly defeated by the Sauk and Fox Indians scattering among the Osage, Kansa and the Oto.
They were living near the mouth of the Platte River in 1805 but were nearly wiped out by smallpox in 1823. The tribe ceased to exist by the 1930’s.
So, we see that the story of the Native Americans of the Plains is a long slide from millions of people living and often prospering for a long time before contact with the French, Spaniards and especially the English settlers brought disease, loss of land and a tragic loss of life, very many lives. But where did the Native Americans originate.
Scientists such as anthropologists, archaeologists and others have long understood that the indigenous people of the Americas originally came from Asia about 20,000 years ago across a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska at a time when the ocean level was a few hundreds of feet lower.
DNA research has confirmed the connection between Native Americans and Asians east of the Yenisei River in the middle of Russia. Very recent studies show that indigenous people in the Arctic are not closely related to those people further south suggesting there were two separate migrations across the land bridge.
That’s a long history for the people who inhabited our area before Luther French dug a home out of the bank of School Creek. Our own history in Sutton is approaching 150 years and is seriously dwarfed.
But our history has been long enough for the story of the Native Americans to have faded. Even just sixty years ago my contemporaries in Sutton rode their bicycles north to walk newly worked fields along the Blue River where arrowheads could be easily found. Does anyone still do that? When did that part of growing up in Sutton end?
There is a rich assortment of online web sites that preserve the story of Native Americans. I recommend the trip to the Hastings Museum to see their exhibits on the subject and I urge parents to introduce their kids to those exhibits. There was a rich and interesting history on the Plains before European settlers arrived.
|Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca nation was successful in a court case leading to the finding|
that Native Americans were indeed "people", perhaps Nebraska's shining moment in the
history of civil rights.
This article first appeared in the November, 2016 issue of Sutton Life Magazine.