A Child of Nebraska’s Sandhills

One of my favorite American writers, Willa Cather (1873-1947), put Nebraska on the literary map when she immortalized the state in several novels. I have previously reported on our literary pilgrimage to her childhood home. Thanks to my husband, who has read several books by a second Nebraska author, our recent visit to our neighboring state also included a second literary pilgrimage.

Mari Sandoz (1886-1966) was a daughter of Nebraska’s Sandhills. She grew up on an isolated homestead along the Niobrara River until the age of fourteen, when her parents moved the family to a second homestead, even more remote than the first. Her formal education ended after eighth grade, but she was a determined autodidact and lifelong learner. Following a brief marriage and divorce, she moved to Nebraska’s capital, Lincoln, at the age of twenty-two, where she spent many years, similar to Willa Cather. In another parallel, both women left Nebraska for the lure of New York.

Mari loved to write even as a child, but her parents not only discouraged her passion, they even punished her for it. When she won a prize for one of her short story submissions at the tender age of twelve, her father, Jules, a stern, opinionated, and violent man who considered writers “the maggots of society,” beat her badly, a treatment she had to endure throughout childhood. Undeterred, she continued to compose in secret, until she lived on her own. In Lincoln, while working as a teacher, she also attended classes at university, despite the lack of a high school education. And she wrote, submitted manuscripts, and suffered rejection after rejection. Reportedly, she burned seventy-plus manuscripts in 1933, before she moved back to the homestead after her father’s death, to live with her mother. Two years later, the publication of her first novel, Old Jules, ironically based on her complicated relationship with her father, was a career-turner, and the associated $5,000 award afforded her the freedom to write full-time thereafter.

Her canon includes at least twenty-one major works of fiction, non-fiction, biography, and essays, and many of her books are still in print. One of the benefits of her upbringing was exposure to Native Americans who lived in the vicinity, visited and exchanged stories with her father to which she was privy, and which caused a deep and abiding interest in and concern for the fate of the Indians. Many of her works deal with their history, such as Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Autumn. She was sympathetic to their situation, outraged at their mistreatment, and concerned for their future on reservations, and became an outspoken (outwritten) American Indian Advocate.

A selection of Mari Sandoz’s publications

Several critics faulted Mari for taking liberty with history. Even though many agreed that her writing was based on actual, well-researched facts, she was censured for inventing dialogue and details to fill in the blanks; for creating overly sympathetic characters; for being exceedingly enamored with the Indian subjects of her stories. Her detractors might have reflected the unwillingness of a country to deal with a black stain in its history.

Chadron State College in Chadron, about twenty miles east of Fort Robinson, houses the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, one of our destinations during our recent trip to Nebraska. It is a fitting tribute to one of the state’s exceptional daughters, offering an honest evaluation of her life and accomplishments, but also of the controversy regarding her critical reception.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

We finished our pilgrimage by driving through the Sandhill country of Mari’s girlhood, passing near the site of the first homestead, then spending a few hours in the neighborhood of the family’s second home, which also became Mari’s final resting place.

As we sat on a bench next to her grave, overlooking the wide valley where bison and Indians once tread, where settlers put down roots, where Mari developed her talents in secrecy, where her mortal remains have mingled with Nebraska’s soil, where a gentle breeze caressed the green hills, we recalled one of the quotes highlighted at the museum: “Mari had a talent – a talent for catching and bringing to life the stories that blew across the plains like the everpresent and enigmatic wind.”

Fort Robinson

The Cook Collection and its connection to Sioux Chief Red Cloud at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument mentioned in my previous post served as the perfect transition to and preparation for our next stop, Fort Robinson State Park. Located in the ruggedly beautiful Pine Ridge landscape of northern Nebraska, close to South Dakota, it was the site of momentous events that determined the fate of several Plains Indian tribes.

Fort Robinson was established in 1874 and served multiple functions until 1947. It played a major role in the era of the Indian Wars of the late 1870s, and the ensuing banishment of regional tribes onto totally inadequate reservations – the sad reality repeated time and again all across the country. As was typical, the fort was established near an Indian Agency, in this case, the Red Cloud Agency. Agencies were supposed to provide food and additional supplies to Indians who had “agreed” to cede their land to the US Government, or to exchange it for land considered less valuable, until something of value was discovered. This befell several Sioux (Lakota) groups, who had been guaranteed possession of the Black Hills in South Dakota, in a treaty. Like most other treaties, this one was broken after the discovery of gold, and the Lakota rose up in defense of their land and way of life, fighting bloody and bitter battles, until they were outnumbered and outweaponed.

When the combined forces of multiple native tribes defeated General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry in the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it was called among indigenous peoples, but more commonly referred to as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, on June 25, 1876, Crazy Horse, among the best-known leaders of the Oglala Sioux, became one of the most-hated and sought-after men. Custer was considered a national hero since the American Civil War and his death contributed to the resolve to deal with the “Indian question” once and for all. Following loss of land and bison, the center around which the Plains Indians’ life revolved, Crazy Horse eventually surrendered in 1877. Though he was guaranteed safe keeping, he was instead stabbed to death at Fort Robinson in a sequence of events that has sparked heated debate to this day.

A few years later, in 1879, a group of Northern Cheyenne, attempting to return to their homeland in Montana Territory, were imprisoned at Fort Robinson, after fleeing from a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), where they had been deported. When they were threatened with transport back, they attempted to flee, thinking it better to die near home than to live in a strange, inhospitable place. And die they did, as the text on a number of commemorative plaques reminded us.

Compared to the ugliness of humans’ actions against fellow humans, the area’s natural beauty stood in stark contrast. The rocky splendor of the Pine Ridge, the lush vegetation, the various animals in the vicinity, including a herd of 150 reintroduced bison, seemed somewhat surreal in the context of the region’s tumultuous history.

After several days of inclement weather the sun showed again, and we slept in the tent without the risk of getting soaked, having the primitive camping area adjacent to the developed campground basically to ourselves. Very near to where Crazy Horse was murdered, and where the Cheyenne Outbreak started, we breathed the same air and gazed at the same stars as the First Americans, whose spirits are said to linger in their native lands.

Pikes Peak

The highest heights have inspired humankind since times immemorial. In Colorado, we are spoiled not only with lofty mountains, but with a generous number of 14ers: at least 53 stretch above fourteen thousand feet, though the actual number is still debated, depending on the definition used. That Colorado Springs was put on the map had much to do with the proximity of one of these giants. The city’s founder General William Jackson Palmer thought it the perfect neighbor.

American Indian tribes knew this mountain, venerated it and its spirits, and called it by different names. Other early visitors to the region likely laid eyes on it, and chose their own appellations. We know that the local band of Utes thought of it as “Tava”, meaning sun, and they were known as Tabeguache (People of Sun Mountain). It is ironic that the man for whom the mountain was named was not among the summiteers, but also understandable, considering that Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) and his men were ill-prepared for a winter ascent in November 1806, when they explored portions of the new United States territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Before designated trails, attaining the mountaintop at 14,115 feet on foot must have been an even greater physical challenge than it is on existing paths today. The most popular approaches are the 12.5 mile Barr Trail from Manitou Springs up its east slope, starting at an elevation of 6,800 feet, and the shorter, 7 mile hike across the northwest slope beginning at an altitude of 10,000 feet near the Crags. Both are worth every drop of sweat and every rise in heartbeat.

As some are not inclined or able to cover such distances on foot, soon after settlement of the region other means to arrive at the summit were contrived. A crude carriage road was completed in 1887, and a railroad in 1891. Improvement on the road commenced in 1915, in order to make it more accessible for automobiles. Eventually, the nineteen mile Pikes Peak Highway between Cascade and the top was paved all the way.

A remarkable woman who challenged herself before the existence of trails and who did not mind the perspiration was Julia Archibald Holmes (1838-1887), one of the Bloomer Girls, and the topic of a previous post, who summited on foot in the summer of 1858. Another visitor particularly entranced by the summit experience was Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), English professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In 1893, she taught at Colorado College during the summer semester. Unlike Julia, she chose to ride to the roof of Colorado in a carriage. Notwithstanding her breathlessness, the superb vistas moved her to wax lyrical. Her poem was later turned into a song many Americans consider an alternative to the national anthem: America the Beautiful. A bronze plaque at the summit is engraved with the first two stanzas, and a bronze statue of the author gazes at the source of her inspiration from in front of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum downtown.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties,

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

 

Sand Creek

     One hundred fifty-three years have lapsed since one of the most infamous chapters in the annals of Colorado, the Sand Creek Massacre, on November 29, 1864. While the Civil War was raging in the East, in the West conflicts with American Indians defending their homeland from intruders had increased in frequency and severity. When territorial Governor Evans formed a temporary 100 day militia in August 1864 to deal with the “Indian Problem”, he invested Colonel John Chivington with its command. Hero of the Battle at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico in 1862, his forces had helped prevent an army of Texas Confederates from taking over the Colorado gold fields.

     Evans and Chivington, both Methodists – the latter an ordained minister before his military career – did not conceal their hostile views of the Indians which reflected the attitude of most settlers. They conspired to attack an encampment of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek, about 40 miles north of Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado, choosing to disregard that leaders of this group had sought out the Governor in Denver to express their peaceful intentions, as well as his own earlier proclamation to the “friendly Indians on the plains” to go to designated “places of safety”. Evans wanted to placate Coloradans who were demanding forceful actions against worsening attacks by marauding Indian bands. He was determined to use his volunteers before their term of service expired, even if he had to overlook that this gathering of Indians at Sand Creek was nonviolent.

Colorado Territory Governor Evan’s blatant proclamation about how to deal with the Indians who were in the way of “progress”

     Chivington marched the volunteers of the 3rd Colorado Regiment from Denver to Fort Lyon, where he arrived on the evening of November 28. He immediately imposed a lockdown, thereby preventing any potential sympathizer from warning the Indians. Under cover of night, he led nearly 700 men, his contingent reinforced by troops from Fort Lyon, to Sand Creek, where the American flag was flying above the camp. As the army advanced in the early morning hours of November 29, Chief Black Kettle, one of the recent delegates to Denver, hoisted a white flag. Since most of the warriors were away hunting for food, the majority of the remaining 600 to 700 villagers were elderly men, women and children. Nevertheless, the soldiers attacked, supported by field Howitzers. At least 150 Indians were murdered and a similar number injured, while the rest managed to flee, having to leave all their possessions behind, with winter looming.

Location of the Indian encampment

Sand Creek provided vital water for the inhabitants of the camp

     The casualties would certainly have been higher had two officers, Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer from Fort Lyon not refused to fight people who had been assured safety at their Sand Creek site by the US Army. Thanks to their eyewitness accounts, the extent of the bloodshed and the subsequent mutilation of the victims became common knowledge. The public display of body parts of the “savages” paraded in Denver once the “victorious” brigade returned corroborated their descriptions. Soule and Cramer testified in the subsequent government investigation and by doing so, risked not only their military careers, but also their lives. Captain Soule was, in fact, shot in Denver several months later in what was generally acknowledged to be retribution for his courageous moral stance. His murderer(s) were never brought to justice. Evans and Chivington, even though they stepped down from their respective posts and were reprimanded by Congress, never suffered legal consequences and were considered heroes in the eyes of many throughout their lives.

     To defenders of this massacre who point out that the perpetrators were children of their age and merely represented the existing worldview I reply that many contemporaries condemned the crimes committed, Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer first among them. In Colorado Springs, writer Helen Hunt Jackson, profoundly affected by the speech of a different Chief, Standing Bear, became an American Indian Activist. She called a spade a spade, and publicly criticized the mistreatment of North America’s native inhabitants. They are heroes I can look up to.

Monument at what became Sand Creek National Historic Site in 2007

     Since 1999, descendants of the survivors of Sand Creek honor Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer with their annual 180 mile Spiritual Healing Run in late November, from Sand Creek to Captain Soule’s grave at Riverside Cemetery in Denver.

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The Original Helen Hunt

Out-of-town visitors to Colorado Springs regularly think of the present-day Hollywood actress when Helen Hunt’s name comes up during my tours as a volunteer docent at the Pioneers Museum. Both share a name and a relationship to California, but Helen Hunt, the First (1830-1885), was a pioneering woman and writer during our town’s infancy, in the latter half of the 19th century. Her initial impressions were inauspicious. “I shall never forget my sudden sense of hopeless disappointment at the moment when I first looked on the town. There stretched before me, to the east, a bleak, bare, unrelieved desolate plain. There rose behind me, to the west, a dark range of mountains, snow-topped, rocky-walled, stern, cruel, relentless. Between lay the town-small, straight, new, treeless. One might die of such a place alone.” No chamber of commerce would advertise these words on its banner. It is ironic that Colorado Springs did, in time, pride itself of the person who expressed them and name the popular waterfalls in North Cheyenne Cañon after her.

Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne Cañon

Helen Hunt, née Fiske, was 43 years old in November 1873 when she suffered these somber sensations after a cross-country train journey across the flat, monochromatic Great Plains from her home in Massachusetts to Colorado. Knowing about her past life, they are understandable. Motherless since age 13, fatherless since 16, she had lost her 11 month-old son Murray at 23, her 42 year-old husband Edward B. Hunt when she was 32, and her nine year-old son Warren at 34. Ill at heart and ill in body, she came at the behest of her physician, who recommended a change of scenery for a chronic respiratory condition. Before the antibiotic era, Colorado, by virtue of its healthy climate, was among the premiere destinations for health seekers suffering from consumption. During a period of frequent misdiagnosis, Helen might have been afflicted by tuberculosis, but officially it was asthma.

Fortunately for the burgeoning community at the foot of Pikes Peak, founded only two years prior, the dry air of the mountains did, indeed, benefit her health, while their beauty lifted her spirits. Helen decided to stay, after a complete reversal of her earlier attitude. In an essay about her new home in the New York Independent in August 1874, less than a year after her arrival, she reflected, “To-day I say, one could almost live on such a place alone.” “Almost” because she continued to love and pursue travel.

While mourning in Massachusetts, Helen Hunt had started to compose and publish poetry. Once she voyaged abroad, travelogues ensued. Her circle of friends in New England included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Emily Dickinson. Helen encouraged Emily to publish  her poems – but she only a allowed a few to appear anonymously during her lifetime, while the bulk of her prolific rhymes were published posthumously. Once settled in Colorado, Helen added novelist to her résumé. She belonged to an elite group of women authors able to make a living from their craft.

Colorado Springs, designed on a drawing board and in an early state of growth, did not yet offer many accommodations. Helen resided at the Colorado Springs Hotel, the settlement’s earliest, where she met fellow boarder William Sharpless Jackson. He was secretary and treasurer of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad which, like Colorado Springs, had been founded by General William Jackson Palmer. Helen and Mr. Jackson’s friendship led to marriage in 1875.

Four years later, a lecture by Ponca Chief Standing Bear altered the course of Helen’s few remaining years. She researched the mistreatment of the Indians and became an outraged and outspoken activist on their behalf. In 1881, she distributed her critical treatise, A Century of Dishonor, to members of Congress. Though it remained largely unnoticed, it led to an assignment by Century Magazine to explore the situation of the Indians of the former Spanish missions in Southern California. She subsequently managed to have herself appointed a special agent by the Commissioner for Indian Affairs, and described the Indians’ pitiable living conditions and prospects. Her experiences also moved her to fictionalize their predicament. In a May 2, 1883 letter to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly she articulated her ambitions thus, “If I could write a story that would do for the Indians a thousandth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful for the rest of my life.”

In her novel Ramona, feverishly written in four months, and published in 1884, she conveyed her indignation. A tragedy about the ill-fated love between an American Indian man and a mixed-race Indian-Scottish woman, raised as an orphan by a family of Spanish-Mexican heritage, it delves into the racial prejudices and abuses suffered by the Indians of the Catholic missions in the former Mexican territory of California which was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

While the extent to which Helen Hunt’s reporting effected Indian policy reforms has been difficult to quantify, her novel Ramona became a literary bestseller. It has been in print since 1884, adapted for multiple film versions, and, since 1923, performed annually as a drama at the Ramona Pageant in Hemet, California.

Sadly, Helen’s death soon followed the birth of her masterpiece. I sincerely hope that the sale of more than 15,000 copies in the 10 months between its publication and her passing, was gratifying to her. True to her convictions till the end, she beseeched President Grover Cleveland to correct the wrongs inflicted on the Indians from her deathbed in California, where she was trying to recuperate. On August 2, 1885, she succumbed to presumptive stomach cancer at only 54, with William by her side.

Helen loved Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs so much that her husband had remodeled their house to enable her to view it from her chambers. Now he honored her wish and buried her in the mountain’s shadow, at Inspiration Point near Seven Falls, already a tourist attraction in her days. She lay interred under a growing mound of rocks, lovingly placed by the hands of her many fans who pilgrimaged to the site.

Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point (with the wrong year of birth)

View of modern-day Colorado Springs from Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point

Eventually, she was relocated to the Jackson family plot at Evergreen Cemetery. It is consoling for her acolytes to know that her grave is the one closest to, and with a direct view of the mountain she so cherished.

Helen Hunt’s resting place at Evergreen Cemetery, with a view of Cheyenne Mountain

When the city acquired the Jackson property in 1961 and the house was slated for demolition, the family donated portions of her domicile to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, which showcases four of Helen’s original rooms and furnishings in a permanent exhibition.

Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Portions of Helen Hunt’s dining room and library in the preserved rooms at the museum

Helen Hunt Jackson occupies a special place among the early citizens of Colorado Springs. Her indomitable spirit allowed her to overcome one blow of fate after another, and her American Indian activism was unusual for a woman of her era and social standing. In our local historic universe, she shines as one of the brightest stars.

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Helen Hunt’s portrait came from a photograph I took of a postcard issued by the Pikes Peak Library District. Photographer and date unknown.