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The Pawnee massacre

Monday, January 28, 2013

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Sky Chief
(Note: 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Massacre Canyon Battle of 1873. From time to time this year we will take a look at some of the various aspects of this great Battle, between the Pawnee and the Sioux, the last great Indian battle in Nebraska.)

Traditionally, Nebraska, especially between the Platte and Republican Rivers was the home of the Pawnee Indians. The Pawnee were a semi-nomadic people. They maintained permanent villages in the eastern part of the state, and practiced agriculture, planting corn, beans and squash, as contrasted with tribes like the Comanches, Sioux, Cheyenne and others who ranged over vast areas of the Midwest -- who lived in tipis, and relied almost entirely on the hunt for food and shelter.

The Pawnee also depended primarily on the buffalo for subsistence, for food, hides, and trade. Twice a year, once in the early summer, and again in the fall, Pawnee men, women and children traveled from their mud-lodge towns to the buffalo ranges. The horse gave them great mobility -- they could travel further in a given amount of time, pack more supplies, and return with a greater amounts of meat and hides.

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Two Strikes
The Buffalo was important to the Pawnee (as with most Midwestern tribes) for its religious significance. Most of the Pawnee religious ceremonies required offerings of buffalo meat. Pawnee lodges contained altars with buffalo skulls. To the Pawnee, buffalo were nearly as important as maize, which they referred to as "Mother Corn."

The Pawnee considered Southwest Nebraska as their rightful home, and the buffalo, which ranged there, as their own. For a long time they were able to keep their "homeland" relatively free from "foreign" intruders. But all this began to change when President Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase from France, and sent Lewis and Clark on their historic expedition. Gradually, the West was opened to more economic opportunities by white Americans. After 1810, tens of thousands of Indians from Eastern Indian Nations were removed to the West. This displacement of Indians created new problems for the Pawnee and other Plains Indians.

Through a series of treaties the U.S. Government extended its influence onto the Great Plains, encroaching on the traditional Pawnee lands, with their great buffalo herds. From the 1840s to the 1870s the Pawnee people were severely weakened by famine, disease and war with other Plains Indian tribes. As a survival measure many Pawnee warriors allied themselves with the U.S. Army, as Pawnee Scouts, and participated in the Army's campaigns against the Sioux.

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Lute North and F.W. Williamson, the only white men present at the Battle of Massacre Canyon in 1873, shown at a Trenton Pow Wow in the early 1920s.
In the decade of the 1860s the railroads moved west, and were followed by waves of homesteaders. This, coupled with the hunting of the various Plains Indian tribes, and the wanton destruction of the buffalo by white hunters, severely limited the Pawnee's means of making a living. By 1873 they were confined to a reservation in Nance County, near Genoa. Their population had shrunk to some 2,400 people (600 warriors). They were on the verge of starvation. That summer the Genoa Agency Superintendent allowed a summer buffalo hunt (the last one, as things turned out), and a young Genoa Agency employee, J. W. Williamson, was assigned to accompany the hunt, to generally keep a close rein on the hunting party. On July 2nd, 700 Pawnee left Genoa (350 men, 250 women and children). The men carried bows and arrows, some old fashioned muzzle loading rifles, and a few Spencer Carbines. All were mounted, and in addition they took with them 800 extra ponies to pack home meat and hides from the hunt.

The hunt had gone well, and by August 4th the expedition had reached the north bank of the Republican River, near Trenton and went into camp. Young Williamson received the report that a large band of Sioux warriors were camped only 25 miles to the northwest and were awaiting an opportunity to attack the Pawnee. Williamson believed his informer, and passed the report on to Sky Chief, the senior Pawnee leader of the day. Sky Chief, having heard similar reports many times before, was adamant. Williamson spoke of the incident some years later, "Sky Chief said the men were liars; that they wanted to scare the Pawnees away from the hunting grounds so that white men could kill buffaloes for hides. He told me I was squaw and a coward. I took exception to his remarks, and retorted; 'I will go as far as you dare go. Don't forget that!'"

The following morning the Pawnee hunting party broke camp and started north, up the divide between the Republican and Frenchman Rivers. Sky Chief made pains to mend his friendship with Williamson, saying that the two were brothers. Still, he did not believe that it was necessary to throw out scouts in the direction the Sioux were reported to be. He was wrong!

Not more than a mile up the canyon the Pawnee ran into the first of some 1500 Sioux warriors, under the command of the Brule Sioux Chief, Snow Flake. Even though the Pawnee women and children had been ordered to take cover at the first sight of the enemy, the entire Pawnee party was overrun. Excerpts from Williamson's report:

"A buffalo scout reported that Sky Chief had killed a buffalo and was skinning it when the advance guard of the Sioux shot and wounded him. Sky Chief attempted to reach his horse, but before he was able to mount, several of the enemy surrounded him. He died fighting ... The Pawnees were putting up a splendid fight, but the odds were against them ... The Pawnee chiefs noticed that the enemy was surrounding the head of the canyon and gave orders of retreat...."

Facing annihilation, the Pawnee retreated down the canyon, leaving behind their dead, their provisions, their buffalo meat. Williamson continues, "...six or seven hundred Indians, men women and children, and as many ponies, all huddled together and going down the canyon, with a thousand thirsty savages shooting down on them. In some places the canyon was quite narrow, and caused them to almost stop, then was when the most of the lives were lost." It was a short battle, and at the end, between 60 and 80 Pawnee, mostly women and children, lay dead. Eleven women and children were taken captive. All of these were later returned to the Pawnee. The Sioux lost three warriors in the battle (some reports say six Sioux bodies were found later).

One result of the Massacre was that the Pawnee Nation was forced to relocate from their Nance County Reservation to the Indian Territories in what is now Oklahoma, where they reside to this day.

In 1923, the citizens of Trenton sought to commemorate the Massacre Canyon battle. They brought in some Lakota Sioux Indians from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to celebrate this last fight between the Pawnee and the Sioux, in what was to become an annual celebration, known as The Trenton Pow Wow. It was not until 1925 that the committee was able to bring in any Pawnee for that event. At the 1925 celebration it was planned that representatives from the Pawnee and Sioux Nations should smoke the peace pipe and formally end hostilities between the two tribes. Even after 50 years feelings between the two sides ran deep.

It was not until the second day of the 1925 celebration that the Pawnee could be persuaded to sit down with the Sioux and smoke the Pipe of Peace, thus officially ending hostilities between these old adversaries, and in effect, marking the end of the Indian wars in America.

Sources: Massacre Canyon, by James Riding In, PhD.

Last Buffalo Hunt of the Pawnees, by J.W. Williamson


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By