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Presented at the session of the State Historical Society, January 16, 1895, by Jay
Few people, perhaps, notice that the census reports of 1880 and 1890 do not agree about the area of Nebraska. Indeed the small difference of about 600 square miles might easily be supposed to be due to correction of estimates, in the case of a state having nearly 80,000 square miles within its borders. There is, how. ever, a long story to tell about that matter, and a simple statement of it I now offer you.
In 1882, a law* of the United States gave to Nebraska the land north of the Niobrara river that had previously belonged to Dakota. Our northern boundary follows the forty-third parallel eastward to the Missouri river. Before 1882, it followed this parallel only to the Keya Paha branch of the Niobrara, and these two streams constituted the remainder of the northern boundary to the Missouri. In and about the corner of lowland, prairie, and hills between the Niobrara and the Missouri, the earliest white explorers found a tribe of simple Indian folk, living by the chase and by primitive horticulture, unassuming, generous, and brave. The report of the expedition of Lewis and Clark to the northwest, which reached the confluence of these rivers in September, 1804, has this item:
“The two men whom we dispatched to the village of the same name, returned with information that they had found it on the lower side of the creek; but as this is the hunting season, the town was so completely deserted that they had killed a buffalo in the village itself. This tribe of Poncaras, who are said to have once numbered 400 men, are now reduced to about fifty, and have associated for mutual protection with the Mahas, who are about * 47th Congress, 1st sess., chap. 52: U. S. Statutes, vol. 22, pp. 35, 36.
200 in number. These two nations are allied by a similarity of misfortune; they were once both numerous, both resided in villages and cultivated Indian corn; their common enemies, Sioux and small-pox, drove them from their towns, which they visit only occasionally for the purpose of trade; and they now wander over the plains on the sources of the Wolf and Quicurre rivers.”*
The numbers given by travelers concerning tribes of Indians are rarely accurate. Between the beginning of this century and the time of accurate statistics in recent years, the number of Indians under the care of the government has been variously estimated. In fact, even the Secretary of War and the Indian Commissioners varied 340,000. Samuel Parker, in an account of his travels from 1835 to 1837, came nearer the truth when he said: “The Ponca Indians
number six or eight hundred and speak the same language as the Omahas.”† While explorers, traders, hunters, and missionaries followed the Missouri to its source, or traveled the plains through which the Platte slowly makes its way to the sandy bottoms at its mouth, the loncas attracted little notice. Chance paragraphs now and then said there was such a tribe; that they were related to the Omahas and spoke the same dialect; and that they occupied "all the territory between the White Earth river and the Niobrara."
The United States came into treaty relations with them first in 1817. Perpetual peace and friendship were declared, every injury was to be forgot, and the Poncas acknowledged the supremacy of the United States. French traders had been much up and down the river and across the country in the early years of this century, and when the Louisiana country came under the laws of the rising western republic the agents of this new power gradually found their way up the Missouri from St. Louis. At first, one general agent dealt with the tribes. Then division of labor began with a second agent for “the tribes on the Missouri above the Kansas." Even he resided at St. Louis. During the war of 1812, the axe which the agents had to grind, under the
* Lewis and Clarke's Travels (London, 1815), I, 91.
superintendency of Mr. Clarke, governor of Missouri territory, was the prevention of British influence from the north. An Indian Report says of Manuel Lisa, who was agent and interpreter in 1815 at a salary of $548: "He has been of great service in preventing British influence the last year.”* Presents were made to the Missouri tribes in 1814, "by order of William Clarke,” to the amount of $11,847.58, “to counteract British influence, and set them at war.”* A few years later, the agent of the Missouri tribes was located at Council Bluffs, a height of land overlooking the Missouri from the Nebraska side, where the brave and hardy explorers of 1804 entertained some Indian chiefs in council. On the heels of the movement of the military up the river came the Ponca treaty of 1825. Mutual concessions were made. The government agreed to protect the Poncas, and the tribe in turn agreed not to supply the enemies of the United States with necessaries. They again acknowledged the supremacy of the United States, guaranteed protection to authorized agents of the government, and it was agreed that all trade should be at some designated point. The question that presented itself to the authorities at that time was almost wholly one of trade. Reports are full of it. Members of congress tried their minds upon the utility of the so-called “factory system,”. and their acts make a long story of the rise and fall of trading houses. Meanwhile the tribes went on their semi-annual buffalo hunt, to secure robes and furs for trade, and subsistence for themselves. The years between the treaty of 1825 and the opening of the lands west of the Missouri to the rising tide of fortune hunters and settlers, were not eventful for these Indians, but they were big with promises of what the pale-face would bring with him and of what he would take away from them. The curse of strong drink came with the stranger; but fortunately, the chapters of awful misdeeds that may and will be recorded about that need not be written of the Poncas. This same stranger took from them their lands. * Amer. State Papers, Indian Affairs, II, 76. † Amer. State Papers, Indian Affairs, II, 75. # Amer. State Papers, Indian Affairs, II, 595–596. U. S. Statutes at Large, VII, 247-249.