Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MY NEBRASKA: MASSACRE CANYON

One of my favorite things since moving to west central Nebraska is taking road trips and exploring points of interest related to the rich history of the area. One such place is located about a hundred miles due south of where I live, down almost to the Kansas border. It is called Massacre Canyon --- the name alone being enough to intrigue anyone with an ounce of imagination. I spotted the name on a map shortly after moving out here and immediately made plans to drive down and visit it. I also immediately knew that one day I wanted to use that name as the title of a book or short story. I --- like most writers, I suspect --- always have an assortment of names, titles, situations, random scenes, story ideas, quotations or exchanges of colloquial dialogue I've overheard, etc., filed away in a "some day" compartment of my brain; meaning that some day I will find the right circumstances in which to use one or more of these items in my writing.

One Sunday a couple weeks back I had the urge to take a long drive. At the same time I also had the need to come up with a short story idea. I decided to combine the two and make a return visit to Massacre Canyon, where I hadn't been for several years, and see if the trip could inspire me to finally make use of the title and come up with a story to fit it ... And, lo and behold, it worked. By the time I returned home I had the whole story roughed out in my head and even a few notes I'd stopped to scribble down along the way.
I wrote it and fine-tuned it in less than a week and subsequently have been able to place "Massacre Canyon" at a popular webzine where it will appear shortly into the new year ... More on that when the time is closer.

In the meantime, let me tell you a little bit about the true historical events that gave Massacre Canyon its name:
The battle of Massacre Canyon took place on August 5, 1873, in what is now Hitchcock County, Nebraska. It marked the last large scale battle between two Indian tribes of the West --- the Pawnee and the Sioux.
The Pawnee, who for many years had been very cooperative with the white man and had often served as Army scouts (including to such notables as George Custer and William F. Cody), were living peacably on a reservation in southern Nebraska. Each summer they were allowed to form a large hunting party and roam off the reservation in order to hunt buffalo. They were accompanied by a white guide or "trail agent" and promised protection from the Sioux, who frequently raided into Pawnee territory, sometimes killing and destroying crops and property but usually just stealing horses.
In the summer of '73, a Pawnee hunting party of about 350 men, women, and children left the reservation for their annual. As usual they were accompanied by a trail agent, this time a young man named John Williamson, and given to believe that cavalry troops were nearby to provide protection if needed. They started out in early July and began to have luck tracking a sizable buffalo herd. At one point they encountered a party of white buffalo hunters who warned them that Sioux were in the area, but neither Williamson nor the Pawnee chiefs took the warning seriously, believing the white hunters were trying to trick them into leaving the area so they could have better hunting for themselves.
As it turned out, the warning was true. There was a party of nearly 1,000 Sioux in the area and they were tracking both buffalo and Pawnees. When the Sioux attacked in August, the Pawnees fought a running battle down the low canyon running southwest from present-day Highway 34. The braves held back and fought while the women and children fled down the canyon. The Sioux divided and took control of both banks of the canyon, firing down on their adversaries. This advantage, on top of their superior number, quickly won the day for the Sioux. So convincingly were the Pawnees defeated that remaining members of the tribe were left demoralized to the point of shortly thereafter leaving Nebraksa altogether (where they had been the dominating force for more than a century before the coming of the white man) and relocating permanently to the Indian Territories of Oklahoma.
None of this, by the way, is meant to paint the Sioux in a bad light. Their actions were simply reflective of the way things were back then between Indian tribes --- they fought, harrassed, stole, and generally made life miserable for one another.
The real bad guys of this episode may have been (surprise) certain members of the Indian Agency overseeing the Pawnee on their Nebraska lands. Americans love a good conspiracy theory, right? So here goes:
On previous summer hunts the trail agent assigned to accompany the Pawnees had been "Texas Jack" Omohundro, a veteran plainsman and contemporary of Buffalo Bill. Jack probably would have done a better job of advising the Pawnee when the buffalo hunters tried to warn them, and also likely would have verified that the promised cavalry protection was nearby (which it was not). Williamson, who was substituted at the last possible moment and did his best, including fighting bravely during the battle, was a recent arrival to the frontier from Wisconsin and was simply too inexperienced for the assignment. So, were these last-minute changes in personnel, the failure of the Army to know about the large party of Sioux present in the area, and the "mis-cue" as far as having a cavalry troop in closer proximity to the Pawnee all unfortunate coincidences? Or was the whole thing allowed to happen as part of a plan calculated to encourage the Pawnee to leave the fertile grazing and farming lands of Nebraska (where vast cattle ranches quickly flourished) and flee to the Indian Territories? Conjecture continues, but only the mists of time know the real answers ...

As a final note, the marker that indicates the battle site has a bit of a history all its own. It is the first Federally-funded such marker in Nebraska, and its distinct obelisk column design contains many fascinating designs and symbols. The faces in relief on the sides of the column are representations of the Indian cheifs who fought in the battle.

All in all, a fascinating place with a fascinating history.


Persevere --- WD

1 comment:

WRITING FOR THE BRAND said...

Great essay, Wayne. I enjoyed it so much that I think I'll swing by Massacre Canyon on one of my own trips from Colorado to my home state of North Dakota--fifth-wheel travel trailer in tow--next summer. Thanks for writing this.

Peter Brandvold