There is no possible was of estimating the thousands of people who have stopped to view the historical Massacre Canyon Monument, located three miles east of Trenton. But of these, countless thousands do no realize the efforts put forth in securing the monument, which was erected at a cost of $7,5000, provided by a Federal Appropriation.
Most of the credit for procuring the historical monument goes to the late A.L. Taylor, Editor-Publisher of the Republican Leader. In the early 20's Mr. Taylor conceived the idea of a suitable marker placed in memory of the historical event of frontier days. With the assistance and encouragement of interested persons in Trenton and the surrounding towns, the Massacre Canyon Memorial Association was formed and incorporated.
Congressman Shallenberger, in securing passage of a bill providing for the erection of a suitable memorial achieved, what at that time, was considered a Congressional miracle in Washingotn. He stirred the hearts and sympathies of men who had never seen Nebraska, and secured an overwhelming support of his bill.
The appropriation was not enough to build a Massacre Canyon Monument visualized by Congressman Shallenberger. Unlike Mr. Taylor, he had visions of a statue symbolizing the Indian in combat-the figure of Two-Spear on a horse representing the Brule Sioux, and fighting with him the Pawnee, Sky Chief, going down to death to protect his people. He voted for Gutzon Borglum, later made internationaly famous by his Mr. Rushmore Memorial, to make Massacre Canyon Monument. The construction of this monument was arranged through government bids. Insufficient funds made it impossible for Borglum to secure the contract. R.P. Colling of Indianola, NE erected the shaft.
The Massacre Canyon Monument, first historical monument erected in Nebraska by Federal grant, stands on a three acre plot of ground, three miles east of Trenton. The land was purchased by subscription from Trenton people and the deed is made in the name of the State of Nebraska, and is now known to be one of Nebraska's State Monument.
Minnesota pink granite (from St. Cloud) was used in the construction of the shaft which stands thirty-five feet high. The base measures nine by nine and one-half feet across; the bottom of the shaft is five feet across tapering to two feet and eight inches near the top. The completed structure weighs ninety-one tons.
On the face of the monument to the south is this inscription, written by Supt. Addison E. Sheldon, of the Nebraska State Historical Society: "Along this canyon, strectching northwest three miles, the last battle between the Pawnee and Sioux Indians was fought 5 Aug. 1873. Principal chiefs were Pawnee: Sky Chief, Sun Chief, Fighting Bear. Sioux: Spotted Tail, Little Would, Two Strikes. This monument erected by authority of the Congress of the United States, as a memorial to the frontier days and Indian Wars forever ended."
Facing west and near the top of the monument is carved the face of John Grass, a noted Sioux Indian. A little lower on the east side of the shaft is carved the face of Ruling Hisson, a Pawnee chief who was in the battle, his wife and two children being killed by the Sioux.
Nearly 5000 persons attended the dedication of the Massacre Canyon Monument on 26 Sep. 1930. Ten years had elapsed between the birth of Mr. Taylor's vision for a marker appropriate for the famous battleground.
In his article, Mr. Taylor said, "It was a long, hard fight, and often very discouraging, but my final triumph fully rewards me for the struggle. On dedication day, the people of Trenton, as well as of southwest Nebraska joined hands with me in congratulations and words of appreciation for obtaining this marker for this part of the state." In giving the address of welcome, J.W. Reutzel of Trenton said in part "I hope that someday, somewhere, a monument will be erected as a memorial to the last battle fought between civilized nations of the worlds, as this monument here represents the last battle between two Indian tribes.
The monument was originally on a hill overlooking the Republican River Valley but was moved to its present site one mile north to Highway 6 & 34 and three miles east of Trenton after the new highway and railroad were built in 1951 bypassing Trenton on the north.
The Trenton Chamber of Commerce and the State Historical Society got together with the National Parks Service who agreed to foot the bill if the Chamber of Commerce would procure the land. The state purchased the 7 acre tract from Margaret Roose in September 1960 and the monument was moved in late 1961.
(McCook Gazette Centennial Edition 1867-1967, article "Roadside Park marks Indian Battle scene)
One of the most attractive roadside parks in Nebraska is that located two miles east of Trenton on Highway 34, in which park is located the towering granite shaft erected by the federal government to commemorate the Battle of Massacre Canyon, which occurred on Tuesday morning, Aug. 5, 1873.
A half mile west of the park, the highway curves down into a canyon and crosses the beautiful tree-lined, spring-fed creek, which flows through the lower reaches of they canyon. The battle took place two or three miles up this canyon, where the abrupt banks are lower and the valley much narrower.
Today, that stretch of the canyon looks no different than any other in Southwest Nebraska, but on the afternoon of Aug. 5, 1873, the view was far from ordinary. The first visitors to the battlefield on that afternoon were Captain Charles Meinhold and Co. B, U. S. 3rd Cavalry, and Acting Assistant Surgeon D. F. Powell who described the battlefield in a letter to the Omaha Herald:
"It was a horrible sight. Dead braves with bows still tightly grasped in dead and stiffened fingers; sucking infants pinned to their mothers' breasts with arrows; bowels protruding from openings made by fiendish knives; heads scalped with red blood glazed upon them-a stinking mass, many already fly-blown and scorched with heat." These were the Pawnee dead.
During the preceding decade, the Pawnee, once Nebraska's proudest and most powerful Indian nation, had allied themselves with the whites and had half-heartedly tried to learn new ways. They found themselves and their herds of horses continually threatened by the still free and warlike bands of Brule and Oglala Sioux, who found the Loup valley a natural highway from the Sioux country to the Pawnee reservation in present Nance County. Pawnee women were killed in their cornfields and horses were stolen, but the Pawnee agents warned their wards to keep the peace, which they did in the main, though parties of young warriors would occasionally slip away on horse stealing raids of their own, causing great anguish to their agents.
During the Indian wars of the late sixties, the Pawnee found one release for their hatred of the Sioux. Under the famous North brothers, the Pawnee served as scouts for the U.S. Army, and their determined zeal in seeking out the Sioux and Cheyenne did not lessen the tribal antagonisms. During the early seventies, the Sioux settled into an uneasy truce with the army, but their raids against the Pawnee continued. A series of Quaker agents now served the Pawnee, and their determined and dogmatic ethics only further confused and irritated the young warriors.
The Pawnee retained hunting rights in the Republican valley, but, after 1870 as white settlements spread up the river, they were forced further west each year in their search for the buffalo herds. Each year the risk of the hunt increased, for bands of Oglala and Brule Sioux also frequented the Upper Republican country. Indeed, Whistler and his band of Cut-off Oglalas had their permanent village on the Medicine, near present Stockville.
The summer hunt of 1872 was the last successful buffalo hunt of the Pawnee nation. John B. "Texas Jack" Omohundro, best friend of Buffalo Bill Cody, served as trail agent to the tribe, and, in September,
on their way back down the river after the hunt, they visited the little settlement and military camp at Red Willow. W.M. Hinman, who ran the sawmill there, in a letter to the Omaha Herald, described their visit:
"We had 2,700 Pawnees and Ponca Indians here two or three days, and they killed 200 or 300 buffalo, drove off some cattle and stole two or three horses and tried to sell them Poor things. They mean no harm, but it is so natural to steal that they can't help it. Hinman's sympathetic letter is an exception to the other letters of the period about the Indians, but Hinman was an old frontiersman, having lived at North Platte since the fifties, and knew Indians.
In November 1872, the Pawnee went on their last winter hunt. Though Texas Jack had applied for the job as trail agent, his offer was not accepted, and the Pawnee went alone. In early January, in northwestern Kansas or northeastern Colorado, their horse herd was stolen by a band of Sioux, while they, the Pawnee, were making a buffalo surround on foot. Several Pawnee youths attempted to follow the Sioux, but in so doing one was killed and the others barely escaped. With their hundred-odd horses gone, the Pawnee were forced to return to the reservations as best they could, caching their take of hides and meat in the vicinity. Some of the Pawnee wintered at Alma and Arapahoe, earning food by tanning hides for white hunters.
In June 1873, the Pawnee chiefs began petitioning their new Quaker agent, William Burgess, for permission to leave on their summer hunt, requesting that John Williamson accompany them as trail agent, Williamson, 23, was an employee at the Genoa agency, but he was not familiar with life on the buffalo range as had been Texas Jack.
In the letter of instruction dated July 2nd, Burgess wrote that Williamson was "not to interfere with their regular or customary modes of conducting their hunting operations," but that "you are authorized to give them such counsel as the circumstances in your judgment shall dictate and use all precaution to guard against any incursions by their enemies."
It was probably unfortunate that Williamson was given the assignment, for, though he was popular with the Pawnee, he was new to the frontier and his suggestions were not highly regarded by them. Perhaps this was the reason that the Pawnee favored his appointment over that of Texas Jack. They resented the close supervision of their Quaker agent, and it is likely they knew Williamson would not force his opinions upon them.
Sky Chief, described as one of the ablest Pawnee chiefs, aided by Sun Chief and Fighting Bear, was selected as leader of the hunt, in charge of the 250 men, 100 women, and 50 children. Just prior to the battle, Sky Chief's reputation and known ability would win out over Williamson's inexperience and common sense, bringing disaster to the Pawnee.
The Pawnee left their reservation on July 3rd, crossing over from the Loop to the Platte, which they then followed as far as Plum Creek (Lexington), before crossing over to the Republican, which they reached at a point near Arapahoe. Near Burton's Bend (Holbrook), they crossed the river and on across the divide to the Beaver. It was here that scouts sent back word that a large buffalo herd was feeding on the divide between the Beaver and the Prairie Dog.
Fifty years later, Williamson described that first hunt for the Trenton Republican Leader: "Among white men the announcement that buffaloes had been sighted would have created excitement and confusion. If the Pawnee were excited, it was not apparent from any outward sign. There was no confusion, no haste. At the command of the chief the hunters formed in the shape of the letter V. At the point rode one of the scouts with a spear decorated with colored feathers. There was no noise, no disorder Suddenly the feathers disappeared. That was the signal that the hunt was on. With military precision that V-shaped formation straightened out and 350 Indians swept down into the valley into that herd."
For three weeks the Pawnee hunted on the Prairie Dog and Beaver creeks in Nebraska and Kansas, during which time they made several successful surrounds. Then on August 4th they crossed over to the Republican and spent the night somewhere in the vicinity of Trenton. Three white hunters visited the camp that night and warned Williamson that a large number of Sioux were in the region, and they had been spying upon the Pawnee.
Previously, other hide hunters had given the same warning, but Williamson had doubted their word. Buffalo were becoming scarce in the region, and the Indians were resented by the professionals, so it was thought that they were only trying to frighten the Pawnee from the region. On that night , however, one of the hunters was a young man about Williamson's age, and Williamson was so impressed with his sincerity, that he repeated the warning to Sky Chief. In reply, the chief called Williamson "a squaw and a coward."
But the hide hunters were not lying. The Cut-off band of Sioux under Sub-Agent Nick Janis were on the Upper Frenchman, while a party of Brule with Sub-Agent Stephen F. Estes were on the Stinking Water. The latter had but recently arrived in the area, for on July 26th, Estes had wired the commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, from Julesburg, requesting that the military be ordered to supply his band with a few rations, while on their buffalo hunt. Apparently the Indians were restless, for Estes hoped that the rations would "go far toward keeping them satisfied and contented." It is not know that the request was approved, but, if it was denied, perhaps it played a part in riling the Brule.
The order of events at the Sioux camps is not easily traced, but it appears that the Cut-off band, was the first to discover the Pawnee, and the first to decide to attack. The day afte the battle, Janis wrote: "Little Wound (a chief) came to me and asked if I had any orders to keep him from going to fight them. I told them I had not. He said he had orders not to go to their reservations or among the whites to fight them but none in regard to this part of the country."
Preparing for the attack, the Oglala rode to the Brule camp on the Stinking Water, inciting them to join in against the Pawnee. Also writing the day after the battle, Estes said, "I used every effort to induce the Indians under my charge to make peace with the Pawnees but the young men would listen to nothing."
On August 28th, after having read the letter Janis wrote on the 5th, Estes stated, "My failure to avert the attack was due in a great measure to the ignorance and bad advice given by Sub-agent Janis to the Indians under his charge leaving Little Wound impressed with the idea that he had a perfect right to make war upon the Pawnees."
On Tuesday morning, August 5, 1873, the Pawnee packed their gear and started up the draw which is now Massacre Canyon. Feeding buffalo, perhaps camouflaged Sioux horses, were sighted out on the divide, and the Pawnee men left the women and the pack horses to make their way alone.
The Sioux attack was sudden. The first wave of warriors suddenly appeared on the rim of the canyon, and, while the Pawnee warriors rushed back to defend them, the women and children huddled in fear. Just before leaving the reservation, L.B. Platt of Baltimore, related to a prominent agency family, had requested and received permission to attend the hunt. Under a white flag, Williamson and young Platt rode out to treat with the Sioux, but after being fired upon they retreated to the canyon. Some of the warriors, including the great Sky Chief, were killed out on the divide, although during the first hour the Pawnee were able to hold their own, for the Sioux numbered only about one hundred warriors.
Until then only a few Pawnee had been killed, but then the Sioux were re-enforced, and all sources agree that the Sioux then numbered about one thousand warriors, against the two hundred and fifty of the Pawnee, who had their women and children to defend as well as themselves. The canyon was narrow and the banks were low; the Pawnee panicked. The Sioux were on both banks, and they could easily fire down into the Pawnee without danger of hitting their own on the opposite banks. Discarding all their possession, the Pawnee attempted to flee down the canyon, and, because of the terrain, there was little the Pawnee could do to protect the women and children.
Plains Indians seldom fought out-and-out battles, attaining their glory by making lightning raids, stealing horses and killing a few of the enemy. It is likely that the Sioux were as amazed by their great success as were the Pawnee, for the Sioux ceased their pursuit before the main body of Pawnee reached the mouth of the canyon. While the Pawnee fled down the canyon and then down the valley of the Republican, the Sioux halted and vent their fury upon the dead and wounded Pawnee. Pawnee possessions were piled and put to the torch. Bodies, sometimes still breathing, were thrown into the flames, while the wounded squaws were raped; children were brutally killed. The Brule took four prisoners and the Cut-off seven, all later returned.
Recently discovered military documents disproved the old theory that the Sioux fled because of the arrival of the U.S. Calvary; rather, it seems, they returned to their camps, because they considered the raid at an end.
Captain Charles Meinhold in command, Lt. Lawson, Surgeon Powell, and forty-seven enlisted men of Co. B, U.S. 3rd Cavalry, guided by Leon Palladie, left Fort McPherson on July 30th, on a routine scout of the Republican valley. On the morning of the 5th, they were near the mouth of the Blackwood, when the first of the Pawnee refugees galloped up to the command and informed them of the massacre. They wanted Meinhold to lead them back against the Sioux, but the captain wisely refused their request, knowing that if the Sioux were as many as reported his small command would be unable to defend the Pawnee.
After conferring with Williamson, one of the last to retreat, Meinhold directed the Pawnee down the valley to Red Willow, while he led his command to the canyon, as described by Surgeon Powell. Williamson and young Platt had become separated during the retreat, but Platt accompanied the cavalry to the battlefield, while Williamson went downstream with the Pawnee. Platt had been captured, disarmed, and then freed, after having had his hand shaken and been told to go to the settlement at Culbertson. The military saw no sign of the Sioux, numbered the Pawnee dead at fifty-seven, and returned to the mouth of the Frenchman, where they camped for the night. On a scout the following day, they failed to discover the Sioux camps, believing they had fled back north of the Platte, though the Sioux remained on the Frenchman and Stinking Water for several days.
Besides those killed on the battlefield, several died later. A census taken at the Pawnee Agency in September, according Agent Burgess, showed that twenty men, thirty-nine women, and ten children had been killed, while the eleven prisoners were returned through the efforts of Stephen Estes.
Two weeks after the battle, Janis, the nearest thing to a villain in this story, submitted a bill of $42.50 to the Pawnee Agent, representing it as his expense for the return and care of the Pawnee captives. As far as is known the bill was not paid, while evidence shows that Estes played the major role in their return.
The Sioux casualties are not fully known. Estes said that one Brule was killed and three were mortally wounded. Janis said non of the Cut-off Band were killed, and three were mortally wounded. Janis said non of the Cut-off band were killed, though two were wounded. A few weeks later, however, Robert H. Williams, a Red Willow County settler out on a buffalo hunt, discovered six new Sioux tree burials near the mouth of the Stinking Water, and it has always been assumed that they resulted from the battle.
As soon as it was apparent that there was no danger from the Sioux, the frontiersmen of Hitchcock and Red Willow counties hiked to the battlefield and collected as much of the Pawnee leavings as they could, for the Pawnee had refused to return to the canyon to attempt any salvage. Late in August, however, Agent Burgess sent Samual C. Longshore out from the agency "to collect meat, robes, saddles and other trapping the Pawnee may have left behind."
According to Royal Buck, founder of the Red Willow colony, in a letter to the Lincoln Journal, Longshore succeeded in collecting more than six tons of meat, hides and other goods, some from the canyon but most of it from the settlers. "Before the agent came several parties were boasting of having sevured from two to five hundred hides and other property of value which the Pawnees had left, but since his advent these parties 'had some of the property but it had been stolen'."
Lacking rations, Williamson purchased thirty sacks of flour from John Byfield's store at Red Willow, for which Byfield was later paid $35.65. Dr. J.S. Shaw, who treated the Pawnee woman who died and was buried at the mouth of Coon Creek near Indianola, submitted a bill for services, but it was refused. Dr. W.M. Bancroft, who treated a number of the wounded at Plum Creek, submitted a bill for sixty dollars, but Agent Burgess "on account of meager services rendered" convinced him "under protest" to cut his bill down to twelve dollars.
The Battle of Massacre Canyon deserves to be remembered for several reasons. First, it was the last battle between the Sioux and Pawnee and the last inter-tribal battle in Nebraska, as well as having been one of the few major battles between two Indian tribes.
The second reason is of greater importance. A small number of Pawnee had been eager to move to a new reservation in the Indian Territory, but a majority of the tribe, particularly the old people, had successfully fought leaving Nebraska, in spite of the Sioux raids and the white settlements which were growing up around the reservation. After the Battle of Massacre Canyon, however, the whole tribe was so demoralized that the pro-removal faction gained popular support.
The same fall approximately fifty Pawnee slipped away from the reservation and went south to winter with the Wichita. They returned the following summer and continued their agitation. Because of the battle, the Pawnee had not been allowed their annual winter hunt, though they had finally allowed the agent to purchase buffalo meat from white hunter, and Sioux raids had continued against the Pawnee horse herds.
After much debate the Pawnee decided to cede their Nebraska lands back to the United State in return for Indian Territory lands. After this decision the Pawnee began their long trek south, leaving Nebraska behind forever. Homesteaders flocked into the region and Nance County was organized.
It is ironic that the major Nebraska monument to its most powerful Indian ally, is a monument not to their gradeur but to their most demoralizing defeat. Unfortunately it is an apt memorial to an Indian policy which only suffered the Indian ally, while tending to over-placate the Indian hostiles.
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© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 by Brenda Lawless Daniel