The Removal of the Ponca Indians

In 1877 the United States government informed the Ponca that they were going to be removed from their traditional homelands in Nebraska and reassigned to a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The Ponca, a nation which had been at peace with the United States and was considered friendly, were to be moved from their reservation on the Nebraska-Dakota border to Oklahoma because their reservation had been given to their traditional enemies, the Sioux, in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

The Ponca first heard about their proposed removal a year earlier. At this time, the chiefs called a great council to discuss the matter. Speaking to the representatives from the American government who attended the council, Standing Bear said:

“This land is ours, we have never sold it. We have our houses and our homes here. Our fathers and some of our children are buried here. Here we wish to live and die.”

The representatives from the American government simply told the Ponca that Indian Territory was a better country.

In 1877, the Ponca were informed of their impending relocation during a Christian church service. During the service, the Indian agent addressed the Ponca and painted a glowing picture of their new lands in Oklahoma. Standing Bear responded to the announcement by pointing out to the agent that they had never sold their land nor had they ever asked to go to Indian Territory. He also reminded the agent that the Ponca had kept their treaty with the United States and that they had harmed no one.

Standing Bear, White Eagle, Standing Buffalo, Big Elk, Little Picker, Sitting Bear, Little Chief, Smoke Maker, Lone Chief, and White Swan were then taken to Oklahoma to see their new lands. For the journey south, the government purchased “civilized clothing” (primarily shirts and vests) for the chiefs. Once in Oklahoma, the Ponca chiefs found that the land did not suit them. They felt that this was not a land where corn and potatoes would easily grow. The land did not compare favorably with their lush green homeland in Nebraska. At this point, the Ponca chiefs realized that once again the Indian agent had lied to them.

The Ponca leaders informed the government that the heat, humidity, and poor soil conditions did not suit them. The Indian agent told them that they were to select land in Indian Territory or starve. The government then refused to take them back north. In his book Standing Bear is a Person: The True Story of a Native American’s Quest for Justice Stephen Dando-Collins reports:

“The chiefs, stunned by this exchange, suddenly had visions of being stranded in this strange land and dying here without ever seeing their families again.”

They had only $8 between them and only the clothes on their backs, They had almost no understanding of English. In spite of this, the chiefs made the 500 mile walk back to Nebraska where the Indian agent had them arrested.

The Ponca chiefs met with Omaha chief Iron Eyes (Joseph La Flesche) and his daughter Bright Eyes wrote out a statement from the chiefs which tells of their ordeal. She then wrote a telegram to the President.

In response to their complaints, an inspector from the Indian Office and the Indian agent called for a council with the Ponca. Before the inspector could address the council, Standing Bear came to his feet. Pulling his red council blanket around his shoulders, he asked why the Indian Affairs men had come to the Ponca reservation when they had not been invited. He concluded by telling the Indian Office men to leave at once.

Standing Bear and his brother Big Snake were then arrested, placed in chains, and jailed for resisting the removal order. The other Ponca chiefs, however, defiantly told the Americans that they would not be removed. The Indian Office inspector simply informed the council that they could move of their own volition or the Americans would use force against them.

At sunrise, army troops—four detachments of cavalry and one of infantry—surrounded the Ponca village. The troops dragged men, women, and children from their cabins. There was no discussion, no negotiation, and no toleration of resistance. The American government had made the decision that the Ponca were to be removed and there was no recourse. The Ponca left behind their homes, their farms, and their farm equipment.

The Ponca were marched south under escort. They were deluged with rain and two Ponca children soon died from exposure. The army showed them no mercy, forcing the wet, cold people to travel along mud-clogged byways and across swollen rivers. When a tornado struck the camp, destroying tents, damaging wagons, and injuring several people, the army simply ordered the march to continue with no delay, except for burying the dead.

It took the Ponca 50 days to reach their destination. They were informed that they were now prisoners and they would be punished if they attempted to leave the reservation. In an article in Chronicles of Oklahoma, Quentin Taylor reports:

“Most of the survivors disliked their new home, and the chiefs petitioned the authorities in Washington to return to their ancestral lands.”

Nearly one-fourth of the Ponca died during their first year in Indian Territory.

A delegation traveled to Washington, D.C. where four Ponca chiefs met President Rutherford Hayes. Each of the chiefs expressed dissatisfaction with their land in Oklahoma and their desire to return to their homeland. Stephen Dando-Collins describes the meeting this way:

“Standing Bear reverently, respectfully told the Great Father that his people had been wronged, that they were now in an awfully bad place, and that he hoped he would do something for them.”

President Hayes was astonished at the story of their forced march and told the chiefs that this is the first he has heard of it.

At a meeting in the Department of the Interior, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs informed the Ponca chiefs that there was no way that their request to be returned to the north could be honored without Congressional action. At a second meeting with President Hayes, who had now been briefed by the Department of the Interior, the President told them that the Ponca must stay in Indian Territory. He assured them that they would be treated well.

The Cherokee Trail of Tears

By the first part of the nineteenth century, many non-Indians in the United States, particularly in the southern states, felt strongly that there should be no Indians in the United States. They felt that all Indians should be forced to move from their ancestral homelands to new “reservations” located west of the Mississippi River. In general, the concept of removal stemmed from two concerns of the Southern non-Indians: economics and race. Southerners lusted for the farm lands held by Indians and Indians were felt to be racially inferior.

The primary argument in favor of Indian removal claimed that European Christian farmers could make more efficient use of the land than the Indian heathen hunters. This argument conveniently ignored the fact that Indians were efficient farmers and had been farming their land for many centuries. Historian David La Vere, in his book Contrary Neighbors: Southern Plains and Removed Indians in Indian Territory, writes:  “It mattered little that the Southeastern Indians had long been successful agriculturalists; in the government’s eyes they were still ‘savages’ because they did not farm the ‘correct’ way, as women still controlled the fields and farming.”

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. The Act passed 28 to 19 in the Senate and 102 to 97 in the House. In making the case for Indian removal, Lewis Cass, the Secretary of War, wrote in the North American Review:  “A barbarous people, depending for subsistence upon the scanty and precarious supplies furnished by the chase, cannot live in contact with a civilized community.”

In 1838, General Winfield Scott began preparation for the removal of the Cherokee. He explained to the Cherokee that there would be no escape: his troops were to gather up all Cherokee. If they attempted to hide in the forests or mountains, he told them that the troops would track them down. He drew up plans to gather the Cherokee in a few locations prior to sending them west. Brian Hicks, in his book Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears, writes:  “Soldiers were told to swarm Cherokee houses without warning, giving the Indians no time to put up a fight or even pack their belongings. Families would be taken at once and brought into one of several camps. The men must be polite and not use profanity.”

The United States Army rounded up the Cherokee who were living in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and Alabama. Mounted soldiers, using their bayonets as prods, herded the Cherokee like cattle. One of the soldier-interpreters for the Army wrote:  “I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes and driven at bayonet point into stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and headed for the West.”

If there were no adults home when the soldiers came to the Cherokee farms, then the children were taken in the hopes that their parents would follow. The vacant farms were then occupied by non-Indians who took over the Cherokee houses, used Cherokee furniture, utensils, and tools, and harvested the crops which the Cherokee had planted and tended. They also robbed Cherokee graves, stealing the silver pendants and other valuables which had been buried with the dead. One non-Indian observer wrote:  “The captors sometimes drove the people with whooping and hallowing, like cattle through rivers, allowing them no time even to take off their shoes and stockings.”

There were 3,000 regular soldiers and 4,000 citizen soldiers who assisted in the expulsion of the Cherokees. These soldiers often raped, robbed, and murdered the Cherokee. Some of the soldiers who were ordered to carry out the forced removal refused to do so. The Tennessee volunteers went home, saying that they would not dishonor Tennessee arms in this way. Many civilians who witnessed the treatment of the Cherokee signed petitions of protest.

The Cherokee were herded into animal corrals with no sanitary facilities. The stockades were so overcrowded that it was difficult to find room to sit down. They were not provided with adequate food and water. Brian Hicks writes:  “These stockades were like fortresses, two hundred feet wide and five hundred feet long with walls between eight and sixteen feet high. There was a single gate. Inside each of these camps a few small cabins ringed a great field.”

The Cherokee were then force-marched some 1,500 miles to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River (now the state of Oklahoma.) During this march, 8,000 Cherokee died. The Cherokee call this episode in their long history Nunna daul Isunyi, which means “trail where we cried”. Others call it the Trail of Tears and often refer to it as the most disgraceful event in American history and as one more piece of evidence about the genocide which was attempted against American Indians.

The Cherokee were not at war with the United States. At this time, there was no American who could remember any unprovoked violence by the Cherokee. The Cherokee were known to be good neighbors and had adopted much of the European manner of living, including Christianity.

In Georgia, however, the press reported on the Cherokee removal with these words:  “Georgia is, at length, rid of her red population, and this beautiful country will now be prosperous and happy.”

The Cherokee were not the first tribe that was moved in this fashion, nor were they the last. The Trail of Tears was not an event which suddenly happened: rather it was the culmination of more than 30 years of actions and attitudes. It was an expression of states’ rights; it was an expression of greed for land; it was a denial of Native American tribal sovereignty; and it was an expression of the government’s inability to understand Indian people. One of the important points of conflict was the government’s concern for individually owned land and the Indian view that land was not to be owned by the individual, but by the tribe.

We talk about the Trail of Tears and similar events so that others may not repeat the errors of the past. It is important that we remember and that we talk about this today. In many ways the political climate of the United States today is similar to that which led up to the Trail of Tears. Let us recall these things now so that we can say: “Never again!” Never again should the United States act in such a callous manner toward those who gave this country so much of its heritage.