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Preface from...
The Nebraska Indian Wars Reader, 1865-1877

Blue Hawk and Coming Around with the HerdPawnee Scouts Blue Hawk and Coming Around with the Herd (Nebraska State Historical Society M613-3)

No comprehensive history of the Indian wars in western Nebraska exists, which is somewhat surprising. The subject is a fascinating one, as vast as the state's open plains and as rich as its soil. Luckily the dearth in this particular area of historical writing does not mirror a similar paucity of surviving documentation. To the contrary, many participants left accounts of the events, places, and personalities of the Plains Indian wars, over which countless students and scholars have pored and pondered, subsequently putting their own thoughts on paper.

One goal with this anthology, The Nebraska Indian Wars Reader, 1865-1877, is to display the contributions of both the eyewitnesses and the later scholars. Another is to do some historical chinking. Until some ambitious historian tackles the entire topic in a book-length study, this collection of articles goes far to fill this gap in the literature.

Nebraska History, the medium in which all but one of these essays originally appeared, has been the quarterly journal of the Nebraska State Historical Society since 1918. Hundreds of historical articles have graced its pages, documenting the state's land and its people. Many of the articles comprise studies of Indian-white relations on the Great Plains, providing the editor of an anthology with an abundance of possibilities.

The easy editorial choice was narrowing the anthology's subject and scope. Here I drew upon historian James T. King's "Forgotten Pageant" (Introduction), which divides Nebraska's Indian wars history into four periods, spanning the years 1854-90. (Luckily, King's article also serves as an excellent introduction to The Nebraska Indian Wars Reader, a literary effort that I did not feel compelled to duplicate.) The dozens of pertinent articles in Nebraska History blanket all four of King's periods, and anthologies for each, equaling this one in size, could have been readily organized.

I have confined this collection to King's third period, the one covering western Nebraska for the years 1865-77, and the decade in which, wrote King, "the military frontier. . .reached its full development." This was a time when the blue-clad frontier regular replaced his volunteer replacement during the Civil War years, and, in turn, raised the heat on their Indian foes. Recent Historical Society research projects have also focused on themes central to this period, specifically on publications about Crazy Horse's people (The Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger, Nebraska State Historical Society, 1994) and on Fort Robinson (a forthcoming two-volume history; volume one to appear in Spring 1999). This anthology sprang from those efforts.

Once the focus narrowed to the 1865-77 period, though, the compiler's decisions became more difficult, the most challenging being: Why these selections? I wanted to feature all the major personalities--"Buffalo Bill" Cody, Frank North, Red Cloud, and Crazy Horse--and the major adversaries--the Pawnee, Lakota, and Cheyenne tribes arrayed for or against the United States Army. Spotlighted as well are the major places and events--building and guarding the transcontinental railroad across Nebraska, the Republican River Expedition of 1869, the Battle of Massacre Canyon, the flagpole incident at Red Cloud Agency, Camp Robinson in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, and the killing of Crazy Horse. These are all Nebraska stories, illustrating the integral role western Nebraska played in the Plains Indian wars.

The initial selection of articles--twice the number that survived--not only covered these topics, but fell neatly into four categories. The group headings, "Seizing Control of the Platte and Republican Rivers," "Pawnee Triumph, Pawnee Tragedy," "Red Cloud Agency in the Spotlight," and "Sioux War Saga," reflect the shifts in Nebraska's cultural and historical geography during this relatively brief period. Although the number of articles in each section was whittled away, the balance I sought remained.

Soon I saw that this anthology might evolve beyond a mere "best of" compilation. To make the final cut each candidate article had to possess strengths in two areas. First, it could stand alone on its historical and scholarly merits. Second, the articles taken together had to present a comprehensive story that discussed the important persons, places, and events while avoiding redundancy. To turn a stale phrase, the sum of the whole had to exceed the sum of its parts. This mathematical impossibility has, to some degree, been achieved by the gathering of articles that have never appeared together, thereby providing a fuller context for all, and the inclusion of a previously unpublished article as an epilogue.

Although the death of Crazy Horse, the dramatic denouement of the Great Sioux War, figures largely in Eleanor Hinman's "Oglala Sources on the Life of Crazy Horse" (Chapter 10), several loose ends remained. Most are drawn together by James E. Potter's "The Pageant Revisited" (Epilogue), a study appearing for the first time in this book. Potter's tracing of the record of Nebraska Medal of Honor recipients in the frontier army provides another overview to the Indian wars in western Nebraska, complementing King's introduction and the chapters to follow.

Looking at both sides of this epic struggle and striving to reach a balance in the storytelling required the inclusion of first-person, eyewitness accounts by participants--Indian, white, and mixed-blood--in addition to the traditional, analytical studies by professional historians. This mix also reveals the predilections of Nebraska History: the magazine for decades has welcomed reminiscences and oral histories. These intimate accounts by persons who were there cannot be overlooked. They are also exceptional reading.

Articles appearing in Nebraska History based on personal experiences and oral traditions, though, inevitably succumbed (as did the storytellers) to studies published in the journal based on archival sources, scholarly research methods, and an expanding historiography. These too are vital to our understanding and appreciation of the era, and Nebraska History continues as a venue for both types of articles, the major change being the increased annotation of first-person accounts demanded by modern scholarship.

One last question remains: What else needs to be written about the era covered by the anthology? The lives of three historical figures immediately spring to mind--George Crook, Crazy Horse, and Eli S. Ricker. Historian King called for a "re-evaluation" of Crook in another article in Nebraska History ("Needed: A Re-evaluation of General George Crook," 45 [Sept. 1964]:223-35). Neither he nor any other historian has met the challenge of providing a sorely needed biography of this influential officer, although fascinating works on such military contemporaries as Philip H. Sheridan, Nelson A. Miles, Ranald S. MacKenzie, John G. Bourke, and Charles King have appeared recently. Those interested in Crazy Horse's life must return, by necessity, to Mari Sandoz's Crazy Horse, Strange Man of the Oglalas, an increasingly unsatisfying work that has been purchased, read, and cited for half a century. A new biography is desperately needed before Crazy Horse is forever lost to the world of myth. Lesser known, of course, is Judge Ricker, the Chadron, Nebraska, amateur historian, whose early twentieth century interviews of Indians, soldiers, and frontiersmen are universally recognized as premier source documents of the Indian wars. His interview of Billy Garnett (Chapter 8) is one of only a handful that have been published in Nebraska History. Editing the approximately 5,500 handwritten pages of interviews and the several boxes of Ricker's voluminous correspondence have thus far proven to be beyond our energies, although not beyond our dreams.

It may seem contradictory to look wistfully to future scholarship when drawing so heavily from the past in creating this book. From the great body of knowledge found in Nebraska History, and partially encapsulated in these essays and reminiscences, however, comes a wealth of facts and a source of encouragement. The tradition continues--to question, understand, and disseminate our discoveries about the past.

R. Eli Paul
Nebraska State Historical Society

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