White Buffalo Girl’s grave was left in the care of strangers

Time Before Now, May 1877  Rutherford B. Hayes, a former governor of Ohio, was sworn in as the 19th president in March after 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 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 are said to number more than 100, according to his Farmington fans, while others dispute that figure.

May 23, 1877

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

The first tragedy struck at just the beginning of the tribe’s 500-mile odyssey from their traditional home on Nebraska’s Niobrara River to Oklahoma. The peaceful Ponca had been routed from their farms by soldiers from nearby Fort Randall. With no time to prepare, their livestock and crops were left behind.  On the second day of the journey,  plagued by a late Spring snow and heavy rains,  Chief Standing Bear (right) and his people camped on the banks of the swollen Elkhorn River at Neligh.  

It was there the daughter of Moon Hawk and Black Elk* succumbed to pneumonia.  The grief-stricken parents, as Christians, turned to the small community’s two established churches, the Congregationalists and Methodists, for help.   Fearing they would never be allowed to return,  Black Elk asked the pioneer families of Neligh to care for the grave of his child as they would the grave of their own children.

White Buffalo Girl was buried at the pioneer 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  misfortunes that marked the Ponca’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.

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

The mass exodus of the small tribe of settled farmers began with an error by authorities in Washington.  The land set aside for the Ponca was mistakenly included in a treaty with the Lakota.  The Brule Sioux and the Oglalas had  hectored their less aggressive neighbors for decades, driving them from their traditional hunting ground. 

Timing, as they say, is everything.  It was less than a year after General George Armstrong Custer’s disastrous defeat at the Little Big Horn and the government believed it was easier to simply move the compliant Ponca than deal with the contentious Lakota.

But Standing Bear refused to accept the loss of his land.  When his 12-year-old son, Bear Shield, died in Oklahoma, in 1879,  he and 23 followers began a trek back to Nebraska to bury the boy along the Niobrara.  When word of the departure reached Washington, however,  Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz  ordered them arrested.  

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

Brigadier General George Crook, commanding the Department of the Platte, had the Ponca held at Fort Omaha, delaying their return to Oklahoma.  Appalled by their description of conditions there, Crook (right) appealed to Thomas Tibbles, editor of the Omaha Daily Herald, a long time vocal advocate for Native American rights. 

Tibbles publicizing the saga widely, garnered Standing Bear the help of two pro bono attorneys, John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton.  The pair  launched and won a landmark Supreme Court case,  Standing Bear v. Crook U.S. which granted the right of habeas corpus, “to be considered persons under the law” for Native Americans.

Following his  victory in court, Standing Bear lectured around the country on Native American rights.   He returned to his home on the Niobrara along with and was resettled along with 170 other Ponca.  He died in 1908 at the age of 79 and is buried overlooking the place of his birth.  He has been much honored in Nebraska.  He was elected to the Nebraska Hall of fame and the subject of a bronze statue in Lincoln.  The Standing Bear Memorial Bridge spans the Missouri River not far from his home and in 2019, Benjamin Victor’s nine-foot bronze statue of Standing Bear was installed at the U.S. Capitol, part of the National Statuary Hall Collection.

Standing Bear was accompanied on the lecture tour by translator Susette (Bright Eyes) La Flesche, (left) a member of the Omaha tribe’s distinguished La Flesche family, as well as Thomas Tibbles, who continued his advocacy campaign. In 1881, the widowed Tibbles and La Flesche were married.

Considered a pioneering Native American woman of letters, La Flesche was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. Her sister, Susan La Flesche Picotte, was the nation’s first female Native American physician.  The La Flesche Memorial Hospital in Walthill, Nebraska, was named a National Historic Monument in 1993. 

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.   A stone marker at her grave site 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.

White Buffalo Girl’s grave site, Laurel Hill Cemetery

*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.

Open 1 to 5, Tuesday through Saturday in summer and 1 to 5 Wednesday through Friday off-season.  For more information go to antelopecountymuseum.org 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, N Street and 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.

Admission is free.  Summer hours from May 1 to October 1 are 10 to 4:30, Tuesday through Saturday and  winter hours by appointment.  Closed on all Nebraska State Holidays.   For more information or to schedule a tour,  go to history.nebraska.gov/neligh mill, call (402) 887-4303 or write Neligh Mill, Wylie Drive, Neligh, NE 68756.

© Text Only – 2022 – 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.