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With the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854,. the so-called "Indian Country" of our western plains passed into history. Immigration set in from the well populated east and the half occupied Mississippi valley, until there was left in the vicinity of the Missouri hardly a section of land across which the settler had not passed. The reports of Indian officials from 1850 to 1856 make almost no reference to the Poncas. The agent for this section of country had a score of tribes to deal with during a portion of this time, and he could not be expected to pay any attention to such an insignificant and harmless tribe as the Poncas. A
A chance reference to them in the report of 1855, however, says that the Pawnees and the Poncas, who with the Omahas, Otoes, and Missouris constituted the Council Bluffs agency, were in an “unsettled state.' The superintendent writes: "The Poncas have also been guilty of depredations, and have the character of lawless Indians." It is "very desirable that the Pawnees and Ponc'as should be brought under some restraint." “It is understood that the Poncas are anxious to make some treaty arrangements." The report of the next year gives a clue to the cause of this unusual restlessness. Writing from St. Louis in September, 1856, the superintendent thus alludes to the Poncas:
"The Ponca Indians have no existing treaty with the United States, and such is also the case now with the Pawnees. The former tribe inhabits the valley of the l'Eau qui Court, and the adjacent country below that river. They plant corn to some extent, but pass much of their time on the roads leading to the Platte. Their lands are being settled upon by squatters.”+ The commissioner of Indian affairs, too, remarks: “From the uncertainty of reaping the fruit of their labors,” the Pawnees and the Poncas "seem to be depressed."
The circumstances leading up to the treaty of 1858 seem to be clear. The Indians on their part were anxious to have some sort
* Mess. and Docs. of U. S., 1855–56, I, 325.
of a safeguard against the tide of population that was beginning to encroach upon their lands. I say “their lands,” for they lived by what their district supplied them. Their idea of possession was very unlike ours. They did not conceive of individual ownership of the soil, and their claim to occupancy of a district ceased as soon as there failed to be anything to support them. They then emigrated.
On the part of the government and the Indian Commissioner there was a desire to systematize dealings with the Indians, and to confine the tribes withịn certain bounds. When both parties were willing to have a treaty it was not long in forthcoming:
On the twelfth day of March, 1858, in the city of Washington, six chiefs of the Ponca nation concluded a treaty with the government of the United States, by which they gave up all the lands that had supported them, except a small reserve about twenty miles long and six miles wide, lying between the Niobrara and Ponca rivers.* Under the second article of this treaty the United States agreed: First, “to protect the Poncas” in the possession of this tract of land, “during good behavior on their part," and to protect “their persons and their property thereon.” Secondly, to pay them or to expend for their benefit certain annuities described in the treaty. Thirdly, to expend $20,000 in subsisting the tribe during the first year, while they should be accommodating themselves to their new location and adapting themselves to an agricultural life. Fourthly, to establish and to maintain for ten years a manual labor school, or schools, for the education and training of the Ponca youth in letters, agriculture, the mechanic arts, and housewifery. Fifthly, to provide the Poncas with a mill suitable for grinding grain and sawing lumber. And finally, to expend $20,000 in liquidating the existing obligations of the Poncas. The right of eminent domain was asserted by the government, the same as for any other land under the laws of the United States.
As the government agreed to protect the tribe, they in their turn agreed not to enter into hostilities with other tribes.
* Treaties of U. S. (Boston, 1860), pp. 65, 66.
Such was the agreement under which this little tribe of Indians commenced their struggle towards a realization of the happi. ness which they supposed the whites enjoyed. Perhaps the most remarkable provision, everything considered, is the article touching intemperance, which reads as follows:
"To aid in preventing the evils of intemperance, it is hereby stipulated that if any of the Poncas shall drink, or procure for others, intoxicating liquor, their proportion of the tribal annui. ties shall be withheld from them for at least one year; and for a violation of any of the stipulations of this agreement on the part of the Poncas, they shall be liable to have their annuities with held, in whole or in part, and for such length of time as the President of the United States shall direct.” Whatever may be said of its severity, the effect was certainly wholesome. I question if there has been a more exemplary set of Indians west of the Mississippi than these have been since that treaty.
In 1865 a supplemental treaty was made. In place of a portion of the other reserve,—the greater portion be it said,—they were given somewhat more land farther down between the Ponca and Niobrara rivers and the greater portion of six fractional townships south of the Niobrara. They then held the land on either side of the Niobrara for four or five miles immediately above its mouth, with some frontage upon the Missouri. The government did this, in the words of the treaty itself, "by way of rewarding them for their constant fidelity to the government and citizens thereof, and with a view of returning to the said tribe of Ponca Indians their old burying grounds and cornfields."
Here was the basis, in these two treaties, of permanent settlement of all questions that arise between the government and its wards, as far as the Poncas were concerned. They had given up their old life, except that they sometimes got permission to hunt buffalo, when reduced to starvation; they had settled down to an agricultural life; they adhered to the letter of their agreement, in their relations with the other Indians; and there is not a single report of the Indian agents from 1858 to the time of the third act. in his drama, in 1877, that does not speak in the highest terms
of this little band. During this period their average number was 809. Their interest in improvement and their real successes you may gather from the paragraphs found here and there in the reports of the officials.
In 1866 it was said:* “There are, however, two tribes in this superintendency (Poncas and Yankton Sioux) who have for a number of years been settled upon reservations adjacent to the white settlements, and who have generally taken the first steps toward improvement and civilization and it is believed they are prepared to make another advance.
It is believed to be proper at this time to offer encouragement for a second step,” the opening of schools. The Commissioner said in 1869:† "The Poncas are the most peaceable and law-abiding of any of the tribes of Indians. They are warm friends of the whites and truly loyal to the government, and they fully deserve its consideration and protection."
In 1873; the agent, Mr. Birkett, commenced the plan of distributing the supplies to families, instead of putting the supplies into the hands of the chiefs, to be allotted to the families attached to them according to fancy or favor. There were at this time three villages, located within two miles of each other: Agency Town, Fish Village, and Point Village. The government had kept its promise to erect a sawmill, and in the winter time, when ice covered the rivers, logs were brought from the islands. In 1862, almost entirely by the work of Indians, 35,000 feet of lumber were cut. From 1868 to 1876 very nearly half a million feet were reported cut, of which 150,000 were cut in 1871.
The system, or lack of system, of distributing rations gratuitously among the families or heads of families, was abolished in 1873 also. The plan must work greatly to the prejudice of close application and industrious habits generally. In place of that, they substituted the rule that each Indian, in order to get his share of supplies, must do his part of the daily work in the field
* Rept. Sec. Interior, 1866–’67: Letter of Gov. Newton Edmunds, Sept. 22, 1866. | Rept. Ind. Com., 1869, p. 753. Rept. Ind. Com., 1873, p. 240.
or at the mill or in the shops. The old and the sick were excepted. The innovation worked to a charm; for soon the head chief of the full-bloods, White Eagle, the very last to adopt the plan, before the year was over, guided both a reaper and a mower. They were said in the years 1874 and 1875 to be "peaceable, agriculturally disposed, provided with good lands and plenty of farming implements, and not utterly averse and unaccustomed to work."
The story about the farming implements does not tally with a report a year or two later, which says: "They are peaceable and well-behaved, and have worked faithfully during the past five months, considering the many difficulties they have had to contend with-the repeated attacks by the hostile Sioux, the scarcity of farming implements, etc. Many of the Indians were obliged to cut their wheat with butcher knives, owing to the fact that we have only one reaping machine and could not get around in time to harvest it; consequently much of the wheat crop was lost."
The misfortunes that came to these well-deserving people were many. The fact that there was no game whatever upon their reserve would not have disheartened such sturdy fellows if their crops had been successful. But with the exception of two or three seasons, crops failed successively. Sometimes grasshoppers came and the crop departed with them. Infrequently, the Missouri flooded the bottom lands where their farms were, and left no hope of sufficient subsistence. When these evils came not, perchance they saw a fair harvest shrivel at the touch of thirsty winds. But all these together worked much less injury to their cause than the Sioux. From earliest years scarcely a report fails to mention the "hostile Sioux." These Dakotas were many tribes, and added to superiority of numbers was an aggressive temperament that made them a terror to all the Indians in the Platte valley. Only the Pawnees seemed to contend successfully with them.
The Dakota tribes situated nearest to the Poncas crossed the latter's reserve on their way to hunt in the Platte valley, and
* Rept. Ind. Com., 1876, p. 32.