The baby, White Buffalo Girl, left in the care of strangers

Time Before Now, May 1877  Rutherford B. Hayes, former governor of Ohio, was sworn in as the 19th president in March in one of the most contentious elections in the nation’s history.  He served one term, promised to return to Ohio, and kept his word. Chief Sitting Bull led his band of Lakota into Canada and the legendary Crazy Horse fought his last battle against the U.S. Cavalry at Wolf Mountain, Montana Territory in January.  Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s premiered his “Swan Lake”  ballet at the Bolshoi in Moscow and the 19-year-old Chester Greenwood of Farmington, Maine received a patent for earmuffs, an idea that he’d been percolating while ice skating at age 15. He went on to patent a tea kettle, an improved metal rake and the advertising match box.  His inventions is said according to  his Farmington fans, number more than 100 while others dispute that figure.

May 23, 1877

On this day, an 18-month old Ponca child, White Buffalo Girl, died on the edge of a frontier town in northeastern Nebraska.

It was  at the beginning of the Ponca tribe’s 500-mile odyssey from their traditional home on Nebraska’s Niobrara River to Oklahoma. The peaceful community had been routed from their farms by soldiers from nearby Fort Randall in Dakota Territory with no time to prepare, their possessions,  livestock and crops left behind. 

Plagued by late Spring snow and heavy rains, Chief Standing Bear, (right) and his people camped on the banks of the swollen Elkhorn River at Neligh on the second day of the journey.  

It was there the daughter of Moon Hawk and Black Elk* succumbed to pneumonia.  As Christians, the grief-striken parents sought help from the local Christian community to bury their daughter.   Black Elk, fearing he would never be allowed to return,  asked the pioneer families of Neligh to care for the grave of his child.

White Buffalo Girl was buried at Laural Hill Cemetery overlooking the town on May 24, a makeshift cross of fence posts nailed together to mark her resting place.

It was just the first of many tragedies that marked the tribe’s “trail of tears.”  Standing Bear’s own daughter, Prairie Flower, died, as well, and is buried at Milford, Nebraska, near Omaha.  Of the 780 Ponca who were driven to Oklahoma, 167 died the first winter.

1833 painting, “Ponca Land” from “Early Western Travel”

The mass removal of the small tribe of settled farmers began with an error by authorities in Washington.  The land which had been set aside for them in present-day Knox and Boyd Counties in Nebraska was mistakenly included in a map of territory assigned by treaty to the Lakota. 

The Brule Sioux and the Oglala had already hectored their less aggressive neighbors, driving them from their traditional hunting ground.  It was less than a year after Custer’s disastrous defeat at the Little Big Horn.  The U.S. Government decided it would be easier to simply move the compliant Ponca than deal with the contentious Lakota.

But Standing Bear refused to accept the loss of his home.  When his 12-year-old son died along with the other 167, Standing Bear and 23 followers began a trek on foot back to Nebraska to bury him.  He was arrested and imprisoned in Omaha.  

Two years later with the help of pro bono attorneys, John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton, he won a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court granting  the right of habeas corpus, “to be considered persons under the law” for all Native Americans.

Nebraska’s Ponca Elders, 1877.  Standing Bear far right.

Following his legal victory, he lectured  around the country on Native American rights and returned to his home on the Niobrara, resettling there along with 170 other Ponca.  He died in 1908 at the age of 79 and is buried overlooking the place of his birth. 

Chief Standing Bear has been much honored in Nebraska.  He was elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame and is the subject of a bronze statue in Lincoln.  The Standing Bear Memorial Bridge spans the Missouri River not far from his home. 

It is not known if Black Elk and Moon Hawk ever returned to visit the grave of their baby daughter but the people of Neligh have kept the promise to look after it.  More than 140 years later, White Buffalo Girl’s resting place is decorated with flowers year round.  

White Buffalo Girl’s grave site, Laurel Hill Cemetery

A stone marker reads: “White Buffalo Girl, Daughter of Black Elk and Moon Hawk of Ponca Tribe, Died May 23, 1877, en route from Ponca Creek to Indian Territory.  Aged one year six months. ”Black Elk’s request: ‘I want the whites to respect the grave of my child just as they do the graves of their own dead.  The Indians don’t like to leave the graves of their ancestors but we had to move and hope it will be for the best.  I leave the grave in your care.  I may never see it again.  Care for it for me.’ “  And so they have.

*Not to be confused with Lakota Holy Man, Black Elk of “Black Elk Speaks”

Antelope County Historical Society, 410 L Street, Neligh, Nebraska, features artifacts from the Ponca era and tells the story of White Buffalo Girl.  Admission is $3 for adults, students and children under 12 are free.  For information on hours and field trips go to or call (402) 887-5010.  Laural Hill Cemetery is open to the public and home to a Nebraska Historical Marker, “Ponca Trail of Tears – White Buffalo Girl.” 

Historic Neligh Mill, Wylie Drive, on the National Register of Historic Places, is located near the Standing Bear encampment of 1877.  The original 1880 milling equipment is still intact and reconstructed flume, penstock, and the remains of the mill-dam explain the importance of water-powered mills so common across Nebraska and the Midwest in years past.

Summer hours from May 20 to Sept. 2 are 10 to 5, Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday.  Winter hours from Sept. 3 to May 15 are 10 to 12 and 1 to 5 Monday through Friday.  Closed on all Nebraska State Holidays.  Admission is free.  For more information go to mill, call (402) 887-4303 or write Neligh Mill, Wylie Drive, Neligh, NE 68756.  

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.