Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Spring 2016 issue.
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“Gentle River Goes Mad”: The Republican River Flood of 1935 and its New Deal Legacy ∙ Stacey Stubbs
After years of drought, the arrival of rain at the end of May 1935 at first seemed a blessing to the residents of the Republican River Valley. Years of poor farming methods followed by severe drought resulted in a period known as the Dust Bowl, marked by crop failures and massive dust storms from Nebraska to Texas during the first half of the 1930s. While conditions in the Republican Valley were not as severe as in some areas to the south, farmers struggled nonetheless. Rain signaled the valley’s revitalization. However, it also marked a new era for the region, one in which the federal government and its “New Deal” programs played a significant role in the aftermath of natural disaster.
The change to the usually gentle Republican River came with little warning. In their survey for the Department of the Interior, Robert Follansbee and J. B. Spiegel stated that the Dust Bowl, ironically, created conditions ripe for flooding. The dry ground proved incapable of absorbing large amounts of precipitation. Several days of rain, along with a cloudburst over Colorado, quickly saturated the ground. The runoff rolled into the Republican River and its tributaries, all of which overtopped their banks. The result was “the greatest flood of record.” Normally 300 to 400 feet wide, the river spread a mile wide in most places, and up to four miles wide in several areas of Nebraska and Kansas. The Omaha World-Herald described the resulting trail of disaster under the headline, “Gentle River Goes Mad.”
The Republican River’s drainage basin covers 22,400 square miles and stretches across Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. Its flooding, therefore, affected a wide area. Although reports vary, an estimated 113 people perished in the flooding. Most families recovered the bodies of their lost loved ones, but the remains of several victims eluded search efforts. Most of the flooded ground was farmland, and property losses, including livestock and machinery, came to approximately $26 million. An estimated 341 miles of highway, 307 bridges, and 74,500 acres of farmland were damaged, along with the many homes and buildings of those living near the river.
As the waters receded, residents across the valley began the recovery process. “But it has been a hard fight,” wrote H. H. McCoy, publisher for the Orleans Chronicle, “and however brave these men may be, they alone cannot forever play the role of Hercules.” Many disaster victims relied on the assistance of family and friends, but residents needed outside help in their rebuilding efforts. Private organizations such as the American Red Cross aided the valley’s recovery. But just as important, the federal government began taking a larger role, and like other regions of the country, the Republican River Valley would benefit from the work of government officials, the armed forces, and federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2016 issue.
“The Greatest Gathering of Indians Ever Assembled”: The 1875 Black Hills Council at Red Cloud Agency, Nebraska ∙ James E. Potter
For a month in late summer 1875 the nation’s gaze was drawn to proceedings at the remote Red Cloud Agency in northwestern Nebraska. Home to Red Cloud’s Oglala division of the Lakota (Western Sioux), the agency had been chosen as the site for important negotiations between U. S. Government commissioners and the Indians. The so-called “Grand Council” would focus on gaining the Indians’ agreement to cede ownership of the Black Hills, then a part of the Great Sioux Reservation. It was the second of two councils held in western Nebraska that were noteworthy for the issues involved, their effect on the future of Indian-white relations, and because they were among the largest such gatherings in American history.
The first council took place in September 1851 at Horse Creek, just east of the modern Nebraska-Wyoming state line in today’s Scotts Bluff County. Originally set for Fort Laramie, the council was moved to Horse Creek because the ponies of the assembled Indians had consumed all the grass near the fort while the delegations were waiting for government officials to arrive. Plains and mountain tribes, including the Lakota, Crow, Shoshone, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Assiniboine, and Arickara attended the eighteen-day council (some estimates say eight to ten thousand Indians were present). The resulting treaty was known officially as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, but it is often called the Horse Creek Treaty.
In return for government compensation in the form of rations and presents, the Indians would accept tribal boundaries, keep the peace among themselves and with the whites, permit the government to build forts in their country, and refrain from molesting emigrants along the Oregon-California trails. As in other instances where the negotiating parties did not speak the same language, represented vastly different cultures, and did not share similar concepts of land possession and use, the whites likely overestimated the extent to which the Indian signatories (band chiefs and headmen) understood the treaty and the ability of those leaders to bind their followers to its terms. It would not be long before conflict occurred.
August 1854 saw the first significant fracture in the tenuous peace the treaty sought to secure. Ironically, the event occurred near Fort Laramie when Bvt. 2d Lt. John Grattan led a detail from the fort to arrest an Indian who had butchered an emigrant’s cow and taken refuge in a massive Lakota village. When Brulé headman Scattering Bear was unable to deliver the alleged offender as Grattan demanded, the inexperienced and headstrong officer ordered his twenty-nine soldiers to open fire. Grattan and his party were quickly killed after Scattering Bear was struck down by the soldiers’ initial volley. This episode led to the army’s retaliatory attack on Little Thunder’s Brulé village near Ash Hollow, Nebraska Territory, in September 1855.
After the notorious November 1864 massacre by Colorado volunteers of a peaceful Southern Cheyenne village at Sand Creek, Colorado Territory, the Lakota and Cheyenne responded by attacking settlements and travelers along the Platte Valley travel and communications corridor. During the summer of 1865 the U.S. Army mounted a punitive campaign against the Indians, who by then had concentrated in the Powder River region of today’s Wyoming and Montana. The army’s subsequent construction of forts along the Bozeman Trail, which arrowed through the heart of Lakota country from Fort Laramie to the new Montana gold fields, sparked Red Cloud’s war against the U.S. Army. In December 1866 near Fort Phil Kearny, Red Cloud’s followers and allied Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors wiped out Capt. William J. Fetterman and the eighty men under his command. For months afterwards the Indians besieged the soldiers in their trailside enclaves and attacked them when they ventured forth. Indian resistance finally forced the U.S. government to the bargaining table, leading to the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty.
The treaty offered something for both parties. In addition to bringing peace by ending “Red Cloud’s War” and removing the troops from the Bozeman Trail forts, it established the “Great Sioux Reservation” in Dakota Territory north of Nebraska and west of the Missouri River, (the western portion of today’s South Dakota) from which whites would be permanently excluded. In return for the Lakota giving up the right to roam and hunt wherever they chose and accepting a designated reservation, the government would provide them with rations for four years, and educational and agricultural assistance for longer periods to help them adapt to the inevitable end of their hunting lifestyle. The government’s largess would be distributed at agencies located on the reservation and administered by agents appointed by religious denominations under President Ulysses S. Grant’s so-called “Peace Policy.” Eventually, it was hoped, the Indians would learn to become self-supporting, i.e. “civilized,” agriculturalists and could then receive individual allotments of land to farm within the reservation.
The region “north of the North Platte River and east of the summits of the Big Horn Mountains,” which included the Bozeman Trail and the protective U.S. military posts, was declared to be “unceded Indian territory” not open to white settlement. The treaty provided that although the Indians would not have the right to occupy this region permanently, they could continue to hunt there and on the Republican River in Nebraska for as long as buffalo ranged “in such numbers as to justify the chase.” Once the forts were abandoned and the Bozeman Trail closed, the treaty was finally consummated when Red Cloud signed it on November 6, 1868. The Senate ratified it February 16, 1869.
Unlike several of the treaty’s more straightforward provisions, those relating to the process of “civilization” seemed vague and tenuous to a people who had long supported themselves by hunting and were seemingly being encouraged to continue doing so by the treaty’s grant of hunting rights outside the reservation. The treaty also anticipated the prospect of future cessions of reservation land to the government, but only with the agreement of three-fourths of the adult males of the bands who had been parties to the treaty.
Some of the Lakota proved more amenable to a reservation future than others, particularly those whose places of habitation had brought them into contact with white overland migration, incipient settlements, and railroad construction already compromising the game resources on which they depended. Notwithstanding the recent victory over the army, Red Cloud and other leaders, such as Spotted Tail of the Brulé, had concluded that fighting the whites in the future would be futile. These men represented Lakota bands that had mostly given up the chase, or were soon to do so. Several of these same chiefs and headmen had been exposed to the United States’ seemingly limitless population and technological prowess during visits to meet with government officials in Washington, D.C. Although they recognized that the nomadic life was unsustainable, they sought to extend the inevitable transition to the reservation over a generation or two to give their people time to adapt. In Red Cloud’s view, the change should occur “on Lakota terms, at Lakota speed.”
Even the leaders of the more geographically isolated Lakota bands, such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who had had much less contact with the whites, had not signed the 1868 treaty, and wanted nothing to do with reservations, understood that the nomadic life could not last forever. Nevertheless, they determined to maintain it for the present, rejecting the government’s annuities and reservations and resisting white encroachment on their hunting grounds west of the designated reservation for as long as game held out there. Maintaining control of the Black Hills was central to this approach. The Black Hills represented a “food pack” that could sustain the people in times of scarcity and allow them to delay accepting the government handouts that had already become essential to the reservation bands’ survival.
It was gold that upset the rather indefinite timetable for transforming the Lakota from hunters to farmers and precipitated the 1875 council, the first in a series of dramatic developments that would rapidly and forever change Lakota life and relations with the government. Rumors of gold in the Black Hills had been circulating for years, and occasional exploring parties had given the rumors credence as early as the 1850s. In 1875 former fur trader Geminien Beauvais recalled acquiring gold dust from the Corn band of the Brulé in 1858, which the Indians had taken from Black Hills streams. Although interest in these potential mineral riches continued to grow, whites were barred from entering the Black Hills, part of the reservation set aside by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Lacking an incentive more powerful than the fear of Indian retaliation for trespass on the reservation, only the boldest of whites would dare enter this relatively unknown and somewhat forbidding region. That powerful incentive was soon provided.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2016 issue.
The Best War I Ever Expected To Have: Hall County Doughboys’ Letters Home ∙ By Daryl Webb
“These are the days that try men’s souls over here,” wrote U.S. Army First Lieutenant Harold Prince from a trench in France during World War I. “The nights are generally quiet,” Prince explained to his family back in Grand Island, Nebraska. “Then comes a crash of the big guns, but more ominous by far than that out of the quiet night comes the sinister ‘put-put-put-put’ of the machine guns. Then all is quiet again. Up goes a brilliant flame, again the ‘put-put-put-put’ of the machine gun, then quiet again. Such is the night. Then the daylight comes. Airplanes fly far overhead an occasional shell or two [is dropped], so it is day after day, night after night.” Prince explained that this was nature of battle for weeks on end, “no permanent change of important lines, then a push, a slaughter, a battle, a counter charge, until finally equilibrium is again established, quiet and peace again. Such is war on the front.”
Prince, like so many other Grand Island men who served in World War I, recorded his experiences in letters home to friends, sweethearts, and family members. These letters tell the story of Grand Island and other Hall County servicemen’s wartime lives. Much of this correspondence appeared in the Grand Island Daily Independent, which published over two hundred letters from military personnel. Most of the men who authored the letters were from Grand Island, although a few letters were from rural or small-town Hall County men. These men’s friends and family members apparently simply brought the servicemen’s personal letters to the newspaper and the Daily Independent published them in the column “Letters from Our Lads on the Front.” The letters provide a window into the lives of Hall County military personnel in almost real time. Most were written within days or even hours of the events about which they comment so the memories and emotions were still fresh and sometimes raw.
While the letters offer great insights into World War I military life, they also hold pitfalls for scholars. The letters are not without editing. At various points U.S. military personnel read and edited personal correspondence by enlisted men, removing any information that might give the enemy details about troop movements or strategy. This knowledge caused the doughboys to self-edit, fearing some information might not make it past the official censor. Many were also aware that the Daily Independent published military men’s letters and knew that their correspondence might appear in the newspaper. Some welcomed this publicity and appear to have written for public consumption. Others, knowing their letters might appear in the paper, may not have been as honest and forthcoming as they might have been in a truly private letter. Along with self-censoring, it is also possible that editing took place in Grand Island. Friends and family members may have removed parts of letters they considered too private to print. In some cases the editors of the Daily Independent omitted information. During the first weeks of the column, the paper published only extended excerpts from letters and in other cases information that the editors considered too sensitive was omitted. However, while some of the letters may have been altered, they still provide invaluable insights to Hall County doughboys’ wartime experiences. They reveal their bravado and fear, excitement and loneliness, and how they were changed by battle.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, the European conflict had already raged for over two-and-a-half years. Britain, France, Italy, and other Allied powers had fought the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their partners to a stalemate. When in 1917 the Central Powers began attacking U.S. ships, President Woodrow Wilson reversed the nation’s neutrality stance and the United States entered the war on the Allied side.
When the U.S. declared war in April 1917, a Daily Independent editorial urged all Hall County residents, whether they were “pro-Ally or pro-German in months gone by,” to do their patriotic duty and support the war effort. The editorial called for “unison and solidarity at home.” “Our country, its institutions, its democracy plead for this and demand this of us,” the editorial concluded. The newspaper continued to demand unity and solidarity on the part of Hall County residents throughout the war and promoted total loyalty and support of the war-effort over the nineteen months the U.S. was in the conflict.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2016 issue.
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