The Ponca Trail of Tears

After decades of broken treaties, the Ponca continued to suffer from attacks by the Sioux, terrible weather conditions, and lack of financial support from the U.S. Government. In 1875, A.J. Carrier, the Ponca agent, visited President Grant in Washington about moving the Ponca to the Indian Territory. Grant agreed to the move if the Ponca were willing to move. Carrier stated that the Ponca would be better off moving and he returned to the Ponca reservation to confer with the tribe members. As a result of these discussions, Standing Bear and other tribal members signed a paper in which they agreed to move to the Indian Territory.

On September 11 and 23, 1875, Ponca Indian agent A.J. Carrier held meetings with the Ponca. A paper was signed after the last meeting, and Standing Bear and some members of the Ponca Tribe agreed to move to Indian Territory. A request was also included that a delegation of Ponca chiefs should be allowed to visit the Indian Territory to select a new reservation. Carrier later claimed that the agreement represented the unanimous opinion of the Indians present at the meetings. Standing Bear, however, later claimed that there was a misunderstanding, as the Ponca language had no separate word for land in the Indian Territory. He further stated he reasonably thought he was agreeing to move to the Omaha Reservation.

Nevertheless, in 1877 Indian Inspector E.C. Kemble was told by Washington to meet with the Ponca leaders and make arrangement for them to visit the Indian Territory and select a site for a new reservation.

The Trail of Tears began with a scouting mission. On February 2, 1877, Inspector E.C. Kemble, Ponca agent J. Lawrence, Standing Bear, and nine other Ponca leaders left for the Osage Reservation in Indian Territory to select a site for the new Ponca Reservation. Adequate preparations had not been made for the visit to the Osages and many of the Osage chiefs were absent when the Ponca arrived. Consequently, no serious business could be conducted and the land shown to the Ponca as possible sites for their reservation were not satisfactory.

Standing Bear and the other tribal leaders informed Kemble they wanted to return home. Kemble was furious with their refusal to survey any other lands. He called their actions "insubordination." He refused to honor their request to return home. On February 21, 1877, Standing Bear and seven of his fellow chiefs decided to return on their own. It was midwinter, they had to sleep much on the time on the open prairie, and they went for days without rations. An agent for the Otoe Reservation in Gage County remarked that the Ponca leaders left bloody footprints in the snow. After a strenuous journey, the Ponca leaders arrived at the Ponca Reservation on April 2, 1877.

Unfortunately for Standing Bear and the Ponca, Kemble was already back, and he had new orders from Washington — the Ponca were to be moved, using force if necessary, to Indian Territory.

The Ponca were divided in their willingness to leave. Those willing to journey south left with Kemble on April 16. In May, Standing Bear and the remainder of the Ponca Tribe started the long journey to Indian Territory, prodded along by the U.S. military. They encountered bad weather almost from the beginning of the trip, and by the time the tribe reached their destination, the summer heat had become oppressive and they were constantly plagued with insects and extreme weather conditions. Nine people died on the journey, including Stand Bear’s daughter, Prairie Flower, who died of consumption and was buried at Milford, Nebraska.

White Buffalo Girl, daughter of Black Elk and Moon Hawk, also died and was buried near Neligh, Nebraska. The people of Neiligh provided a Christian burial for the girl with an oak cross over the gravesite. Black Elk asked that the grave of his daughter be honored, and in 1913 Neligh erected a marble monument. It is still there.

Watch the story of White Buffalo Girl, a Ponca baby who did not survive the Trail of Tears.
From the NET Television series, Nebraska Stories