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Placed on the Waters of the Neosho

By Ron Parks
Opinion | August 2, 2011

COUNCIL GROVE, Kan. - One afternoon in late November 1845, a small group of Kanza Indian men rode into a camp of freighters at the Big John Creek crossing of the Santa Fe Road two miles east of Council Grove. The Indians invited James Josiah Webb and companions to visit their village two or three miles downstream. Here a "swap" would take place, Webb trading a blanket coveted by one of the Kanza for a pail full of honey.

Sure enough, the next morning Webb and his companions enjoyed a sweet breakfast in a Kanza lodge: "They insisted we should take some honey; and a wooden bowl, or deep trencher, filled with honey, and a part of a buffalo horn so shaped that it could be used as a spoon, was set before us. And we enjoyed a feast, passing the spoon back and forth, Indian fashion." Afterwards, one of the Kanza warmed a honey-filled rawhide bag in front of the fire, occasionally kneading it, then filled a pail full to be carried on horseback to the Big John Creek campsite, where that evening Webb once again indulged in copious amounts of honey, in consequence suffering a stupendous bellyache.

Webb visited the Kanza two years before the tribe was officially reported to have relocated to their new reservation on the upper Neosho Valley. In fact, although their permanent villages had been situated in the Kansas River Valley since the 1700s, the tribe had long maintained hunting camps in the Council Grove area and near the Santa Fe Road in present eastern and central Kansas.

In 1807, explorer Zebulon Pike was informed by his Indian guides he was entering Kanza hunting territory when approaching the Cottonwood River, about 40 miles southwest of Council Grove. In early August 1825, U. S. commissioner Henry C. Sibley intended to meet with Kanza chiefs at Council Grove, but as the tribe was west hunting bison, his party parleyed with Kanza chiefs a few days later on Turkey Creek near present McPherson, 70 miles west of Council Grove. At this time the Kanza, as had their Osage allies a few days before in Council Grove, signed a treaty guaranteeing safe passage for wagon trains and providing a right of way to Santa Fe in exchange for cash and merchandise worth $800.

In 1839 Obadiah Oakley encountered Kanza on the Santa Fe Road both east and west of Council Grove. In June 1844 Kanza bands encountered Euro Americans near Council Grove. In August of that year James J. Webb saw bark lodges at Council Grove "left by the Kaw Indians on their return from their spring buffalo hunt."

The tribe suffered intensely during the two-year interim between signing the Mission Creek treaty in January 1846 and their final relocation to Council Grove, a period when they were essentially homeless. Described by their agent as "very poor and indigent," Kanza bands scattered across the territory, a long-established survival strategy employed in times of extreme need. In early February 1846, some of the tribe arrived at their Fort Leavenworth Agency (located four miles west of Westport just inside the present Johnson County line) "exceedingly poor & destitute of provisions." According to Cummins, the Kanza had "nothing to eat, and were the most greedy people for provisions I ever saw, the little meat I gave them only served to make them howl and beg for more; it was painful to my feelings that I could not give them enough to do them some good."

Anticipating the Indians would "be compeled to subsist on roots, sap of trees, etc.," Cummins supplied the tribe with 1,818 bushels of corn, 2,513 pounds of bacon, and 466 pounds of fresh pork. The desperate Indians brought bags for provisions and as many horses and mules they could find, and left with as much corn as their animals could bear, those without pack animals "went off with packs on their backs, both men and women." In late February Cummins reported that the Kanza "seem to be in better health and spirits." That same month they visited their neighbors, the Sac & Fox, who seeing the Kanza's distress, "gave them a considerable quantity of clothing, blankets, shirts, domestics, calicoes etc. between 40 and fifty guns and 70 horses."

In late June five Kanza led by Kebucoma arrived in St. Louis seeking a council with superintendent Thomas Harvey. Dismissing the Indians as beggars, government officials scheduled a steamboat trip back to Kansas for them. This Kebucoma refused, choosing to embark on a journey to Washington D.C. to seek an audience with the Greatfather. Nothing is known about the outcome of this pilgrimage. However, in the ensuing years a good many Kanza frequently replicated Kebucoma's determination to travel the great distance from their Council Grove reservation to the nation's capitol to council with the Greatfather, with or without the approval of the Indian Office.

White Americans often scorned the Kanza for their habit of wandering and begging. The Kanza were a "filthy, lazy, thieving, worthless set of beings," Augustus Heslep wrote after camping at Council Grove in June 1849. Heslep's harsh moral judgment failed to factor in the Kanza's sense of how their command of resources was rapidly dwindling. A modern historian, Elliott West, offers this insight into the Indians' situation:

"What whites saw as begging and thieving can just as well be seen as Indians working within a delicate nexus of limited possibilities. They had to balance the means of getting what they needed. . . . In any case, the friction along the trails is best understood in the context of the Indians' deteriorating situation. The elements of life were dwindling, hostile pressures were growing, the weather was worsening, and their options were narrowing."

On the other hand, the Kanza's hospitality is well-documented, particularly to Euro American travelers in desperate straits. In 1845 Cummins reflected on the tribe's deeply ingrained behavior: "I consider them the most hospitable Indians that I have any knowledge of. They never turn off hungry white or red, if they have anything to give them, and they continue to give as long as they have anything to give."

Cummins' assertion is given credence by no less a luminary than William Becknell, "father of the Santa Fe Trail." Returning in January 1822 from his historic trade expedition to Santa Fe, Becknell recorded: "Among the Caw Indians we were treated hospitably, purchased corn from them." In February 1847, the Kanza assisted white travelers incapacitated by severe weather in two instances. The mail express from Santa Fe lost their mules to extreme cold on the Arkansas River. Headed by Thomas O. Boggs, the eight-man party walked east from Coon Creek, wandering, "half frozen and nearly starved." A camp of Osages provided them with a few ponies and a few days later they came "to the Caw village and here secured guides, two Indian boys, who escorted us across country to Ft. Leavenworth." At about the same time the Kanza found two white men "half starved and frozen" on the prairie and brought them into their village. A few days later they were retrieved by an escort from Fort Leavenworth.

Others presumably beyond the helpful reach of Indians had not fared so well. In mid-December three white men froze to death between the Little Arkansas and Diamond Spring. By early January snow on the Kansas plains was reported at ten inches deep. In early February near Council Grove, the bodies of two men were found lying at the foot of a tree, the bark eaten all around its base.

In the summer of 1846 a "very large crop" of corn was raised on 115 acres near the Kanza village on Mission Creek under the direction of government-appointed farmer, Reverend J. T. Peery. The harvested corn was distributed to both Peery and the tribal members, contributing no doubt to the absence of reports of starving Kanza for the remainder of the year.

On January 14, 1847, Cummins confirmed the tribe's homeless status, writing to Harvey: "They have to go some where, they have by the 1st of may next to leave their present homes, farms, and little patches, where they have been in the habit of raising corn, pumpkins etc." By late April, with the Kanza's new reservation still undetermined, Cummins hastily advised the tribe to plant crops in their old Kansas River Valley fields "as it would be too late to attempt to make it else where this season."At this same time Superintendent Harvey described the Kanza as "the most meek agreeable Indians in the superintendency."

The 1847 crop was probably a failure, judging by the tribe's miserable condition the following winter. During the year Cummins purchased $333.00 worth of hoes out of his own pocket for the Kanza, only to discover in September, in contradiction to the terms of the new treaty, that no money had been appropriated for agricultural expenditures. On October 30, 1847, Cummins reported that of the tribes under his jurisdiction--Kanza, Shawnee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Stockbridge, Munsee, and Christian--all were doing well, "except the Kansas."

By that time, as several eyewitnesses attest, some bands of Kanza were already established on the Neosho. It is plausible that some of the tribe, after waiting while the government dithered for almost two years about relocation, preemptively decided the question themselves, possibly with the tacit approval of Cummins and Harvey, who had a contingency plan to relocate the Kanza to the Neosho as early as July 1846. At that time--one year in advance of the Cummins party expedition--Harvey wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, William Medill: "should it turn out that there is not a sufficiency of timber on their unsold land for agricultural purposes," the Kanza be placed "on the waters of the Neosho; this would be bringing them in the neighborhood of the Osages & removing them further from the Pawnees, their enemies."

A year later and well past the May 1, 1847 deadline set by the Treaty, the new Kanza Reservation question remained unresolved. At this time the Indian Office officials finally took definitive action. Cummins and the Kanza chiefs examined the Council Grove area:

"... Here I found a beautiful and I would say a good Country of land and a sufficient quantity of good timber to answer the Kansas Indians for all agricultural purposes, such as walnut, oak, hickory, hackberry, ellum &c....there are good rock & good watter in abundance here, this country I consider the most suitable location that can now be made for the Kansas Indians, those that were with me, expressed great desire to be located here."

On August 11, 1847, Harvey explained to Medill that the Kanza "location in the vicinity of Council Grove would afford protection to the whites in this neighborhood & would save all necessity of establishing any military fort in that vicinity." His object, he wrote, was "to save time and expense."

Harvey advised Cummins that the reservation boundary "should be 8 or ten miles from the Santa fe road, so as to place them beyond the interruption of the whites passing on the road to New Mexico."Cummins ignored this directive because a reservation located eight miles north of Council Grove would overlap far onto the Shawnee Reservation and, as he had previously reported, there was no timber in this area.

The Kanza agent outlined the new reservation boundaries:

"To commence at a point ten miles due north of the Trading house of Boon & Hamilton and the Government blacksmith shop, both of which are on the bank of council grove creek at the crossing of the santife road, from thence due west five miles, to corner, thence due south twenty miles to corner, thence due east twenty miles to corner, thence due north twenty miles to corner, thence due west fifteen miles to the place of beginning."

On September 8 Harvey stated his approval: "The selection made by him is a good country, the Kansas after having sold a large portion of the best country on the Missouri should not be asked to receive as, their permanent [my italics] home . . . any but what is good." On October 29, presumably having received no response from the authorities in Washington D.C., Harvey desperately concluded a letter to Commissioner Medill: "What Shall be done with the Kansas Indians?"

SOURCES: James Josiah Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1931), 46, 168-69; "Pike's Journal, Part II," reprint in Wagon Tracks 17 (August 2003) 29; Kate L. Gregg, The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968) 16-32; David White, ed., "Obadiah Oakley, 1839," in News of the Plains and Rockies, 1803-1865 2 (Spokane: Arthur H. Clark, 1996) 279, 282-83; Hezekiah H. C. Harrison to James Patton, Justice of the Peace, February 16, 1846, LR, OIA, Fort Leavenworth Agency; Report United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1845) 542; John Haverty, clerk in Superintendent Harvey's office, to Medill, June 26, 1846, LR, OIA, Fort Leavenworth Agency; Ralph P. Bieber, ed., Dr. Augustus M. Heslep letter July 8, 1849, in Southern Trails to California in 1849, (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1937) 366; Elliott West, The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995) 44-45; Harry C. Myers, ed., "Captain William Becknell's Journal of Two Expeditions from Boon's Lick to Santa Fe," Wagon Tracks 11 (May 1997) 22; Louise Barry, Beginning of the West, 659, 661, 663; Rev. J. J. Lutz, "Methodist Missions Among the Indian Tribes in Kansas," KHC 9 (1905-06) 198-199; Ladd H. Schwegman ed., "Memoirs of a Mexican War Volunteer: Charles Henry Buercklin," Wagon Tracks 11 (May 1997) 14; David Clapsaddle, "Four Foot Soldiers on the Trail: An Illinois Odyssey," Wagon Tracks 22 (November 2007) 21-22; Kanza agent Richard Cummins to Superintendent Thomas H. Harvey, February 23, 1846, January 14, 1847; July 17, 1847, October 30, 1847, LR, OIA, Fort Leavenworth Agency; Superintendent Thomas H. Harvey to Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Medill, February 7, 1846, July 3, 1846, April 27, 1847, August 11, 1847, September 8, 1847, and October 29, 1847, LR, OIA, Fort Leavenworth Agency; Cummins to Medill, September 5, 1847, LR, OIA, Fort Leavenworth Agency.

1 Comment

Ron, I thoroughly enjoy your research and account of the Indian situation as Kansas was being settled.

It sure doesn't match what the movie entertainment world presents. Neither does it match what I recall being presented in the history books we studied in school.

I can understand the entertainment people catering to the grandizing of white travelers and settlors, but there is no excuse for our history books not reporting more factually. I guess we've always had problems with revisionists reporting history to suit popular opinion. By depicting the Indians as sub-human, it was easier for the greedy whites to treat them worse than they treated their animals.

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