Nebraska’s most problematic historical markers
By David L. Bristow, Editor
June 1, 2021
“The Chadron area was once the scene of bitter warfare between the fierce migratory plains Indians and the whites.”
These words appeared on an official Nebraska State Historical Marker at Chadron State Park. Placed many years ago, the marker is being replaced this year with a new version that doesn’t slander Native peoples as “fierce.”
The Nebraska Historical Marker Program is one of History Nebraska’s most popular programs. We’ve placed more than 500 markers across the state over the past 60 years or so. People love the markers and sponsor new ones.
But some markers have not aged well. History is written by people, and people have biases and blind spots. As far as older Nebraska markers go, the worst offenders are those addressing Native American history. We’re reviewing our markers to identify and prioritize the ones that fall short of our standards.
Excluding Chadron State Park, here are the five markers I think are most in need of revision. Together they illustrate the types of problems that exist on about two dozen other markers. (You may have a different top five!) In some cases, the issue is offensive language or loaded words. More often, it’s what the marker insinuates, or what it omits or conceals.
At the end of this post I’ll tell you how you can help and how your voice can be heard.
Fort Atkinson. Fort Calhoun, Washington County
I’ve underlined the two most egregious phrases on this marker, but the problems run deeper.
“Civilization came to the west bank of the Missouri with establishment of Fort Atkinson in 1820 about a half mile southeast of here. Named after its founder, General Henry Atkinson, this western-most Fort protected the frontier's developing commerce. Established as a temporary camp in 1819, Fort Atkinson was the largest and strongest outpost above St. Louis. The permanent post went up a year later on the site of Lewis and Clark's Council with the Oto and Missouri Indians. From Fort Atkinson troops under the command of Col. Henry Leavenworth moved up the Missouri River in 1823 to punish the Arikara Indians after an attack on William H. Ashley's fur trading party. Members of the garrison ascended the river in 1825 on a mission of peace, participating in a series of treaties with the Indians. This spearhead of white civilization was abandoned in 1827. But in seven years Fort Atkinson had brought the first school, the first white family life, a library, a sawmill, a brickyard, a grist mill, and large-scale agriculture of the west bank of the Missouri.”
The most obvious issue is the assumption that Native peoples were uncivilized and that civilization is white. The narrative also distorts the history of the Missouri River fur trade even as it provides some genuine facts.
Native tribes had their own trade networks long before European traders arrived on the scene. The international fur trade provided new trading partners and new trade goods, and various tribes and outside nations (France, Spain, Britain, and eventually the US) attempted to control the trade. Fort Atkinson was built to help US traders gain the advantage over their British counterparts.
While it’s true that the US tried to reduce intertribal warfare, this had more to do with maximizing profits than some altruistic mission of peace and civilization. The Arikara went to war against Ashley’s party to protect their economic interests against an intruder, but the narrative implies that they were disobedient children defying a rightful authority.
Overall, the marker turns an important story of trade and economic rivalry into a triumphal narrative of “white civilization.”
Ash Hollow. Garden County
This one mistakes a bit of folklore for history, and then whitewashes a massacre.
First, “The hollow, named for a growth of ash trees, was entered by Windlass Hill to the south. Wagons had to be eased down its steep slope by ropes.” The hill was steep and dangerous, but the story about using windlasses is a tall tale.
More important is this: “In 1855 a significant fight, commonly called the Battle of Ash Hollow, occurred at Blue Water Creek northwest of here. General Harney's forces sent out to chastise the Indians after the Grattan Massacre of 1854 here attacked Little Thunder's band of Brule Sioux while the Indians were attempting to parley, killed a large number and captured the rest of the band.” (Full marker text here.)
“Chastise the Indians” is a polite, old-timey way of making a slaughter sound like a spanking. Here it describes an unprovoked massacre in which soldiers fired on men, women, and children, and burned food and supplies so that survivors would face starvation come winter. “Savages must be crushed before they can be completely conquered,” Harney wrote.
The marker also implies that Little Thunder’s band was responsible for the Grattan Massacre (rather, Harney attacked the first band of Lakotas he encountered), It also assumes that Lt. Grattan needed avenging, though the army well knew that he had needlessly instigated the 1854 fight in which he and his men were killed.
A more recent marker in the area, “The Battle of Blue Water,” provides a much better account of this event.
Half-Breed Tract. Auburn, Nemaha County
“I hate that word,” Victoria Hoff told the Lincoln Journal Star in 2018. “I’d rather anybody call me anything else, other than that.”
Hoff, of mixed Native and White ancestry, was talking about the controversial name of Half Breed Drive near Auburn. The “Half-Breed Tract” historical marker stands near the intersection of that road and Highway 136.
“It was an accepted custom for many early fur traders to marry into Indian tribes. As the Indians ceded their lands, the rights of the half-breed descendants were not always identified. This situation was recognized by the government in 1830, by the Prairie Du Chien Treaty which set aside a tract of land for the half-breeds of the Oto, Iowa, Omaha and Santee Sioux tribes….” (Full marker text here.)
Accuracy isn’t the issue here. “Half-Breed Tract” was the government’s official name for this reservation, and no one disputes that the reservation’s history is a worthy topic. The problem is that the marker repeatedly uses the pejorative “half-breed” as if it’s currently an acceptable term for people of mixed ancestry. And it doesn’t help to have that term headlining the marker in all caps.
A different approach might be to retitle the marker “A MIXED-RACE RESERVATION.” The first paragraph could read: “The Prairie Du Chien Treaty of 1830 set aside a tract of land for mixed-race people of the Oto, Iowa, Omaha and Santee Sioux tribes. It was known officially as the ‘Half-Breed Tract.’” We can remember the name without appearing to endorse it.
Fort Niobrara. Near Valentine, Cherry County
This marker makes Lakotas sound like intruders in their own country. It begins:
“When a Sioux Indian reservation was established north of here in Dakota Territory in 1878, early settlers in the region grew fearful of attack. They requested military protection, and in 1880 Fort Niobrara was built a few miles east of present-day Valentine. There was no later Indian trouble in the immediate area, and the Ghost Dance religion in the early 1890's brought the last major Indian scare.”
The narrative is misleading. It’s true that settlers requested military protection after the Rosebud Indian Agency was founded in 1878, but the agency stood on what had long been recognized by treaty as Lakota land. The marker omits that part of the story, and that the US Army had been the aggressor in the 1876 Sioux War.
“There was no later Indian trouble,” the marker says. The expression “Indian trouble” appears on multiple markers, along with references to “hostile” and “friendly” Indians. These terms function in the same blame-shifting way as “the Negro problem” did in the Jim Crow-era South.
Likewise, “Indian scare” implies that the Lakotas did the scaring. In fact, the Ghost Dance movement was grossly misrepresented by the government, and political agendas and newspaper fearmongering led to the massacre of Lakotas by US troops at Wounded Knee in 1890.
The marker ignores Native perspectives, using nearly half its words to namecheck prominent white men tangentially connected to the fort. The entire narrative assumes that the priorities of white soldiers and settlers are the only ones worth mentioning.
Ponca Tribe. Near entrance to Niobrara State Park, Knox County
This one has a mixture of good and bad points. It tells the story of the Ponca, how the government forced them from their land, and how Chief Standing Bear successfully sued the US government. Then it says this: “In 1962, at the request of the Ponca, Congress provided for a termination of the reservation. Today the Ponca can be proud of their fight for justice….”
It reads like a happy ending, but the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska tells a different story:
“Ironically, as late as 1966, the Ponca would, yet again, be considered ‘persona non-grata’ when the United States government, in its infinite wisdom, terminated the Tribe. The policy of terminating tribes began in 1945. This policy affected approximately 109 tribes and bands and almost 1.5 million acres of trust land. In 1962, Congress decided that the Northern Ponca would be one of the tribes terminated. Thus, by 1966, the tribe’s termination was complete. The termination removed 442 Poncas from tribal rolls. In effect, this meant that not only did the Ponca no longer exist but also that their remaining land and holdings were dissolved. It was not until 1990, almost a quarter of a century later, that the Ponca would, once again, gain federal recognition. However, in the interim, much of the Tribe’s cultural heritage would be forever lost.” (Read more at the Tribe’s official website.)
A few things to keep in mind
- This is not a final statement about Nebraska Historical Markers! It’s a preliminary acknowledgement that we have some work to do.
- By state statute, History Nebraska manages the Nebraska Historical Markers program, but we don’t control other markers, plaques, or monuments in the state.
- This isn’t about “erasing history.” It’s about unerasing history, making it more accurate as we consider more points of view.
- The State doesn’t pay for markers, which cost about $6,000 each. It’s not practical to alter a sign with cast metallic letters, so editing an old marker means buying a new one.