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Where They Died Was a Beautiful Country

By Ron Parks
Opinion | April 21, 2011

COUNCIL GROVE, Kan. - Where they began to die was a beautiful country. Their bodies were strewn in a ragged line across the prairie, enveloped in the lovely, sinuous sandstone hills of central Kansas, the "Smoky Hills," snow-spackled, windswept, and impassive.

The march was a flight of terror, propelled by fear that their enemies were in close pursuit. The few ponies not broken down were mounted, as was the custom, by men, the women and children left on foot. As they advanced, the dead were left in the wake, succumbing to the cold and exhaustion and hunger.

These are the facts...

On or about December 1, 1867, a band of the Kanza tribe was encamped on Plum Creek between present-day Great Bend and Ellsworth. A party of about 40 Cheyenne professing peaceful intentions approached the camp where the Kanza received them hospitability. When leaving the camp, the Cheyenne proceeded a few hundred yards at which point they killed and scalped a lone Kanza herder within sight of the camp.

Enraged, Kanza warriors mounted their ponies and rode out to meet the Cheyenne. During the ensuing four-hour battle, fourteen Cheyenne and two Kanza were killed, many on both sides were wounded, and several ponies died. The Kanza finally drove the Cheyenne from the field, collecting scalps in the process.

The other Kanza bands encamped south of Plum Creek were notified of the battle. Anticipating the powerful and better-armed Cheyenne would return in force, the entire tribe, population 658, hastily began the 110-mile flight back to their reservation near Council Grove. Most of the tribe headed east-northeast, probably staying close to the recently abandoned Fort Riley-Fort Larned road. This route would take them by Fort Harker and through the budding settlements of Salina and Abilene before ending at Fort Riley. Today this journey would roughly follow Highway 156 through southwest Ellsworth County to Ellsworth, there joining Highway 140 eastbound all the way to Junction City.

It is likely the Kanza chose this route rather than their well-established southern trail (through present-day Rice, McPherson and Marion counties) in hopes the army forts, Union Pacific railroad line, and white settlements might afford them protection. By Christmas, all of the survivors had arrived at either Fort Riley or the Kanza agency near Council Grove.

"On their return march from the plains," wrote Kanza agent E. S. Stover, "they suffered terribly from cold, hunger, and exposure; many of their horses died on the march . . . .The Indians were in such destitute circumstances on their return, that I was compelled to issue small quantities of flour and beef to prevent starvation."

During the desperate flight 61 Kanza died, and many died subsequently "from the effects of their exposure and want." Two days after the return of the Kanza, Stover met with them in council, finding them in "most lamentable condition . . . while their children are dying in great numbers from the effect of destitution and exposure."

A closer look at Stover's tabulations of Kanza population in 1867 and 1868 reveals another grim aspect of the tragic march. "You can imagine what their sufferings were when, in the last year, they have decreased from 658 to 539, in one of the most healthy years known since the settlement of the west," the agent reported in September 1868. Stover's reported loss of 119 tribal members represents an 18% decline in total population.

A deeper analysis of these statistics reveals a chilling pattern: in September 1867, Stover counted 298 males; in 1868 there were 275 males, an 8% drop. Females, on the other hand, decreased from 360 in 1867 to 264 in 1868, a 36% decline. Although the individuality of those frozen bodies left behind in the hills of central Kansas will always remain obscure, we can at least infer through the lens of gender their collective identity.

As the Kanza straggled in, they established a camp on the south bank of the Smoky Hill River near Fort Riley. There during the last week of December, amidst "about 300 [sic] warriors sitting around a fire," they performed a series of "war dances" attended by many men from Junction City and the fort.

The Indians were desperate for cash, a majority of them, according to Stover, "having actually nothing to eat except what they buy from the whites," a condition reflected in the following description from the Junction City Union: "The old men of the party were remorseless in their demands for more money while the young chief who led the dances, had just whiskey enough in him to cause him to be exceedingly anxious to give us a first class entertainment."

The ensuing manifestation of female rage proved memorable for both the newspaper reporter and another eyewitness. "But an old squaw," reported the Union, "whose part in the performance seemed important, was in a very bad humor, as her vinegar face indicated . . . and at last she committed an assault on the ambitious and gallant young buck who led the dancers."

The other observer, Fort Riley freighter John Wells, described what happened next: "A little squaw rushed into the circle and made an assault on the big fellow. He was floored and on his back in a jiffy. As fast as he got up he was thrown again by the little Amazon. This was done three times and our enthusiasm had grown to the highest pitch, which our crowd displayed by generous applause." The event terminated when a Kanza chief got up on a stump and "in a gruff tone of command" ordered the white men to go home, which they did without argument.

Neither account betrayed the slightest awareness of the Kanza's recent ordeal nor did the newspaper reporter or John Wells seem to understand they were witnessing a traumatized people. The dance event was merely entertainment spiced by the comedic assault. Context was of little interest.

That context can now be outlined, of course, in broad historical terms, among which are these salient features: Two tribes competing for a diminishing number of bison within cultural framework of a deeply-ingrained militarism which elevated males in the cult of the warrior. The stress of white encroachment on hunting grounds as manifested by increasing numbers of hide hunters, forts, trails, railroads, and more recently settlements extending into central Kansas. The degradation of the plains environment caused in part by the Indians mainly because of market-driven overhunting of game and the subsistence requirements of their pony herds. The effects of climate, especially the increased frequency of drought after 1845. In sum, in 1867 both the Cheyenne and the Kanza inhabited a world of diminishing possibilities.

The December 1867 Kanza march, then, emerges into our view from a background of multifaceted and interwoven cultural and environmental influences. Such complexity does not make good melodrama which means this tragic event has little traction into our imaginations. Even the weather did not cooperate in making a ready-for-Hollywood story because, as Kansas Decembers go, December 1867 was mild, no terrible blizzards; it was just cold enough to kill.

A conventionally dramatic story, especially involving Indians, requires a reduction to polarities: man versus nature, good guys versus bad guys, cowboys and Indians, Custer and Crazy Horse, Dances with Wolves, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, government bullies and Indian victims, and so on. Other American Indian marches attained considerable renown, among the most notable the Cherokee's "Trail of Tears," Navajo Long Walk, Northern Cheyenne's trek home, Nez Perce's 1,600-mile "retreat," and Ponca chief Standing Bear's return. Although each of these tragic walks--all of which involved considerable suffering, injustice, and Indian heroism--has its own unique history, implicit in all is a direct and well-documented causal link between the tribes' forced exiles and the villainy of the U.S. government's Indian policies and practices.

About them books and articles have been written, songs sung, films made, posters hung, statues erected, historical associations formed, roadside markers installed, monuments dedicated, and national historic trails established. They have become, in varying degrees of visibility, national icons.

Today almost no one in or outside the state of Kansas knows anything about the Kanza's death walk. A 1971 book surveying the tribe's history from 1673 through 1873 devotes three sentences to it. The walk isn't within the purview of western history writers more inclined to record each historic hiccup of every Custer horse. Obviously, the 110-mile-distance traversed by the Kanza comes up short when compared to the more famous Indian marches. Perhaps even more significant is there were no witnesses to chronicle the details of the Kanza's flight, no eloquent patriot chief articulating his people's loss.

But the facts remain: ten percent of a people for whom we named this state perished during a 110-mile walk through the heart of this state, a cataclysmic event by any standard of measurement. By way of comparison, the most catastrophic event in our nation's history, the Civil War, caused the deaths of 1.8% of the total U.S. population.

These Kanza dead did not matter then and they still don't matter now. They have no grave markers. Their lives were evanescent as wind-driven cloud shadows drifting across the plains. We know they were disproportionately young and female, but we don't know their names. They are historical non-entities. During a few days in December 1867, they became too weak to go further, dropped to the cold ground, then died--61 of them--on the Kansas prairie.


SOURCES: Elias S. Stover, Report United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1868): 720-721; Elias S. Stover, Letters Received, Office of Indian Affairs, Kansas Agency, December 27, 1867; David Clapsaddle, "Conflict and Commerce on the Santa Fe Trail: The Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road, 1860-1867," Kansas History 16 (Summer 1993): 128, 134-137; Elias S. Stover, Report United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1867): 658; Junction City Union, January 4, 1868; Jean Lindsey, comp., John R. Wells Discovers Kansas (Stockton, Kansas: unpublished manuscript, 1998) "Hunted Buffalo in Plug Hat," from Rooks County Record, June 28, 1917; Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998): 77, 89-90, 191-194, 197-200; 232; Dan Flores, The Natural West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001): 67-70; James E. Sherow, "Workings of the Geodialectic: High Plains Indians and Their Horses in the Region of the Arkansas River Valley, 1800-1870," in A Sense of the American West: An Anthology of Environmental History, James Sherow, ed. (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1998): 96-107; Emporia News, 11-22-'67,12-13-'67, 12-17-'67; William E. Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971): 209. Doug and Pauline Sharp and Marla Evert contributed invaluable research assistance for this article.


Excellent research and writing.

I wonder, if a person went to the Kaw tribe today what do they say about the event?

The entertainment industry has thrilled us with a romantic picture of bravery and heroism as the white man advanced across this great nation. The reality as you, Ron, have documented is not very romantic. The native Americans preyed upon one another, much the same as modern day ethnic and religious groups, in many parts of the world, do today. The immigrants (white man) took advantage of the simple and unstructured society and lack of tribal coordination.

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