Over the past few years, my aunt, Sandy Pattan and I have found that we have some things in common…besides the fact that we are related. One of the most interesting things to me is a mutual love of the family history. All her life, Aunt Sandy has been listening. She listened to the stories her parents, aunts, and uncles told her about the family. She, like me, could picture it all in her head, as if she were standing there watching the whole thing. She could picture the Indian chiefs that her grandfather and her dad, not only knew, but were even respected by, in a time when the Indians and the White Man didn’t necessarily get along. It was a time that she and I could never relate to, were it not for the stories of her parents, my grandparents. And now…in their honor, Aunt Sandy is passing along the history she received from her parents, so that the family history will not fade away. I think that is the reason that she and I love the family history so much. It is like the blood that flows in our veins, a part of our DNA, it is our story, because we came from our ancestors, and their past experiences shaped their lives, and therefore, our lives too.
Aunt Sandy is a loving, caring person. She is quick to do nice things for others, like taking her sister, my Aunt Virginia Beadle to brunch after church on Sundays; or picking my mom, Collene Spencer up, when she was still alive, to go to get togethers with their siblings. Being the youngest of nine children, Aunt Sandy is still able to drive, while some of the siblings aren’t…or weren’t. Of the original nine siblings, only five remain. That is a fact that weighs heavily on Aunt Sandy, and the remaining siblings. I suppose that is partly why she tries to spend as much time as she can with those who remain, and I understand that train of thought. She doesn’t want to waste the time she has left with her siblings. That shows a great degree of not only wisdom, but a deep love for her siblings.
Aunt Sandy is a deep, logical thinker too. I think that is one of many reason that we connect so well. I love our conversations, whether they are about family, politics, or just general interest, because she has amazing insight to so many issues, as well as a great sense of humor. Of course, being the humble person she is, Aunt Sandy would most likely disagree with me when it comes to her amazing mind, but as I have said before, “I call ’em as I see ’em.” Aunt Sandy has a wide range of interests, as do I, and that is part of what makes or conversations so interesting. I feel very blessed to have Aunt Sandy in my life. Today is Aunt Sandy’s birthday. Happy birthday Aunt Sandy!! Have a great day!! We love you!!
As the pioneers headed west, there were various disputes over ownership of the lands they were settling into. The Native American people did not think that they should have to surrender their lands to the White Man, but it seemed that they had no choice. Still, there were some Native Americans who refused to be pushed around by the government. On August 17, 1862, violence erupted in Minnesota as desperate Dakota Indians attacked white settlements along the Minnesota River. This was a fight that the Dakota Indians would eventually lose. They were no match for the US military, and six weeks later, it was over.
The Dakota Indians were often referred to as the Sioux, which I did not know was a derogatory name derived from part of a French word meaning “little snake.” It almost makes it seem like they were talking badly about them to their face, but so they couldn’t understand it. The government treated the Dakota poorly, and the Dakota saw their hunting lands dwindling down, and apparently the provisions that the government promised to supply, rarely arrived. And now, to top it off, a wave of white settlers surrounded them too. To make matters worse, the summer of 1862 had been a harsh one, and cutworms had destroyed much of the crops. The Dakota were starving.
On August 17, the situation exploded when four young Dakota warriors returning from an unsuccessful hunt, stopped to steal some eggs from a white settlement. The were caught and they picked a fight with the hen’s owner. The encounter turned tragic when the Dakotas killed five members of the family. Now, the Dakota knew that they would be attacked. Dakota leaders, knew that war was at hand, so they seized the initiative. Led by Taoyateduta, also known as Little Crow, the Dakota attacked local agencies and the settlement of New Ulm. Over 500 white settlers lost their lives along with about 150 Dakota warriors.
President Abraham Lincoln dispatched General John Pope, fresh from his defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Virginia. Pope was to organize the Military Department of the Northwest. Some of the Dakota immediately fled Minnesota for North Dakota, but more than 2,000 were rounded up and over 300 warriors were sentenced to death. President Lincoln commuted most of their sentences, but on December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were executed at Mankato, Minnesota. It was the largest mass execution in American history, and it was all because they were starving, and had no hope of living through that year.
The Indian tribes didn’t usually have much use for the White Man, especially the ones who worked for the government. It seemed all they wanted to do was to herd the Indians onto the reservations and take away their lands, culture, and their language. This made the majority of Indians pretty angry, but President Calvin Coolidge was different than most government people. It wasn’t a matter of what he was able to accomplish, but rather what he wished he could accomplish, and maybe what he set the stage for…and mostly what the Indians knew was in his heart.
President Coolidge had made it very clear that, on personal moral grounds, he sincerely regretted the state of poverty to which many Indian tribes had sunk after decades of legal persecution and forced assimilation had been forced upon them. Coolidge made a public policy toward Indians, that included the Indian Citizen Act of 1924, which granted automatic United States citizenship to all American tribes, something that made perfect sense, since they had been here longer than the nation had existed. Nevertheless, during his two terms in office, while Coolidge presented a public image as a strong proponent of tribal rights, the United States government policies of forced assimilation remained in full swing during his administration. At this time, all Indian children were placed in federally funded boarding schools in an effort to familiarize them with white culture and train them in marketable skills. During their schooling, they were separated from their families and stripped of their native language and culture, something that should never have happened, and something that has since been changed.
While not able to fix all the wrongs done to the Indians, Coolidge was still considered a friend of the Indians. In 1927, he planned a trip to the Black Hills region of North Dakota. In anticipation of the trip, the Sioux County Pioneer newspaper reported that a Sioux elder named Chauncey Yellow Robe, a descendant of Sitting Bull and an Indian school administrator, had suggested that Coolidge be inducted into the tribe. The article stated that Yellow Robe graciously offered the president a “most sincere and hearty welcome” and hoped that Coolidge and his wife would enjoy “rest, peace, quiet and friendship among us.” Calvin Coolidge was very pleased at the offer, and decided to accept. This was not something that was offered to many people, so it was a great honor. The Sioux County Pioneer newspaper of North Dakota reported that on June 23, 1927 President Calvin Coolidge would be “adopted” into a Sioux tribe at Fort Yates on the south central border of North Dakota. At the Sioux ceremony in 1927, photographers captured Coolidge, in suit and tie, as he was given a grand ceremonial feathered headdress by Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear and officially declared an honorary tribal member.
I often wonder how it must have felt to live in a time when so many things were changing in ways that man had not seen before. Things like the automobile, the airplane, the light bulb, the telephone, and the telegraph, all came into being between the 1800s and the early 1900s. Prior to these things, our world was rather primitive concerning things like travel, communication, and even the home life…at least by today’s standards, anyway.
When families began moving West to find land and adventure, it was often a very sad time, because many of these people would not see their loved ones again. They might not even hear from them. This really seemed like an unacceptable situation for most of the people on both sides of that spectrum. The people needed to hear from their loved ones, and so like every other idea, from necessity came a solution…the Pony Express. Prior to the Pony Express, people might try to send a letter with a wagon train heading West to see of they could manage to get it to a loved one who had left a year or more before. Imagine the impossibility of that feat. The person with whom the letter was sent, might not even know the person to whom the letter was being sent. It meant asking around in the area they had planned to settle in, and if they had moved elsewhere…well that is the real definition of the dead letter.
The Pony Express became the first dedicated postal service ever, on this day, April 3, 1860, but it was a far cry from the mail service of today, about which many of us complain. The men who chose to be Pony Express riders had to be told about what they might be riding into. There were Indians, who did not like the White Man. Treaties had been broken, and the White Man was considered an intruder on Indian land. To say that the White Man was not welcome in the West, was putting it mildly. Every time the Pony Express rider set out, he was taking on the risk of never coming back. The Help Wanted posters clearly stated the dangers, and the riders had to be single young men preferably under eighteen and preferably orphans!! Not a glowing help wanted ad, for sure, still there was a need, and these brave men took the challenge and made it work. The Pony Express was a short lived phenomenon, however, lasting just eighteen short months. I suppose something had to be done to make mailing a letter safer. At the point when the last Pony Express rider rode his route, the telegraph had somewhat taken its place. Most what had been needed was to be able to let people about the death of loved ones and other urgent or important news, so it seemed like an unnecessary risk to place on these men, when a safe way had been found.
The first Pony Express rider to make the run has been a matter of dispute, but historians have narrowed it down to Johnny Fry or Billy Richardson. James Randall was credited with being the first Eastbound rider, heading out from San Francisco to Sacramento, and William (Sam) Hamilton took the mail from there to the Sportsman Hall Station, where he handed it off to Warren Upson. Other riders were Gus and Charles Cliff, Robert Haslam, Jack Keetley, Billy Tate, and the famous William Cody, known to most of us as Buffalo Bill. Together, these men rode into history as some of the bravest men who ever lived. Riding alone through dangerous territory, risking their lives to make life a little easier for the ever expanding nation we lived in.
My great grandfather, Cornelius Byer was a friend of the Indians at a time in history, when that was rather uncommon. During his lifetime, the White Man was well known for backing out on treaties as the need or desire for more land warranted, resulting in the pushing back of the Indians further and further off of the land they had been promised. This of course eventually resulted in the placement of the Indians onto reservations, many of which still exist to this day. It also cause much contention between the Indians and the White Man, and of course, the Indian Wars. At that time and even beyond, many Indians did not trust the White Man, even after peace came about, however my great grandfather was a man they not only trusted, but indeed, loved and respected. Over the years, the family would see many times when the Indians would show up at the house, with their whole families in tow. The women and children always waited outside while the men went in to visit with Grandpa about whatever it was they had come for. For the children, I suppose all this seemed normal, but when we look at it in light of history, it seems strange to think of the Indians having such trust and respect for any White Man, and therefore strange to think that they came to the house, and that they were welcomed into it. Nevertheless, this is what happened, and Great Grandpa Byer went to their villages as well.
On one such visit to the Indian village of Chief Red Cloud, my grandfather, George Byer was allowed to go along. He recalled that when they entered the tent, Chief Red Cloud was sitting by a fire wrapped in his robe or blanket. Apparently it was customary in this case for him to have little or nothing on underneath that, so I almost have to wonder if it was a sweat lodge or something. Either way, that is what my grandfather recalled as a young boy of about ten years. His dad had gone to visit Red Cloud about something, and in during the visit, the peace pipe was passed around. When it was handed to my grandfather, he was allowed to take it and that resulted in his smoking the peace pipe for the first time as a very young boy, who was apparently considered man enough to do so by the Indians. I doubt if many of us can say, in this day and age, that they know someone who smoked a peace pipe before, but that is the truth.
My great grandpa was so greatly respected that not only was he asked to smoke the peace pipe with them, but when he was dying, a rather amazing thing happened. Because he had been their friend, the Indians came to pay their respects. As they had before, they brought their families, but this time the families did not stay outside. The braves came in to shake Great Grandpa’s hand, as did their wives, and their children. Every single one of them shook his hand…from the oldest to the youngest. It was such a moving show of respect for him, and one that was almost never afforded to a White Man. But then, Great Grandpa Cornelius Byer was their friend, and that made him more than just any other White Man. He was like a brother to them.
I have often wondered what our nation looked like before the Native Americans altered the landscape with the only way they really had of clearing the land…fire. When the summer grasslands would grow so tall that it made travel by horse or on foot troublesome, the Indians just started a fire to clear the area. Since there was nothing standing in the way of the fire, it ran until it came to a river or some other kind of obstacle, such as an area void of vegetation, and then it simply burned itself out. Of course, rain or snow would have the same effect too. I wonder, like many other people do, if prior to that practice, there were forests where we now have plains.
Of course, the White Man, has come a long way in trying to bring trees back into our nation, but there are still many places that are just wide open spaces filled with prairie grass, sagebrush, and cactus. When my grandparents, Anna and Allen Spencer decided to move to Texas to check out the booming oil industry, they found a land that seemed to run for hundreds of miles, with little to see, but wide open spaces. Like many people, they longed for trees, and other vegetation to give a different view to the land they found themselves living on. Having lived on five acres myself for a number of years before moving into town, I can certainly understand wanting trees. That didn’t make it easy to grow any of them up to much size, however. I suppose it might have been easier in Texas, due to their warmer climate.
I understand the need Native Americans had to clear the land, and the lack of sufficient tools to do so, when it was necessary. Nevertheless, I wish they had not burned down the trees…or the prairies, because that stopped the young trees from growing, and lets face it…we need trees for shade, and the very air we breathe. These days, with all the necessary tools, from lawnmowers to farm equipment, there is no need to burn down the prairie grass to keep it from getting so deep, so clearing the land is a much smoother project. The older I get, the more I find myself wanting trees around me, and while it is still hard to get them up to some size, due mainly to the deer that roam freely inside the city limits of Casper, Wyoming, I do have some volunteer Silver Birch trees that have moved themselves from the neighbors tree into our yard.
We were so excited when the first tree started coming up, but our neighbor, Bill thought we would be upset about the little trespassing trees, and so he cut the down…until we told him that we wanted them. Then he left them alone so we could decide to let them grow or not. That first tree is now taller that our house, and we have several in the back yard too. Before these trees began growing, we had three cedar bushes in our front yard, one that was let grow to the size of a rather ugly tree. Finally, the day came that we got one of those little trespassing trees to come up in the right place. While we liked the bushes, that ugly Cedar tree needed to go. Then that tree got to an area where it could work for what we wanted. This past summer, it had grown to the point of being about my height. Life was good. We cut down that ugly Cedar bush that had been pretending to be a tree, and watch with excitement as our new little trespassing tree grew and flourished…and then it happened. The deer that I love to have in our yard, because they are so beautiful…decided that our little tree was just the right size for lunch. It’s hard to say if it will come back in the spring, but if not, there will be another little trespasser to grow in its place…life is still good!!!
The Indian motorcycle came into being in 1901, and is noted as the first motorcycle in the United States. My grandfather, Allen Luther Spencer owned one, which he dubbed That Old Indian Motorcycle in the very early 1900’s. He decided to ride the motorcycle from Ladysmith, Wisconsin to Rushville, Nebraska to meet and visit his Aunt Tessie Spencer Davis. Because gas stations were few and far between, he would have to carry gas with him. Even then, there were times he ended up pushing the motorcycle to the next gas station, such as the point in South Dakota where he pushed it for quite a few miles after running it out of gas.
My Uncle Bill tells of a point in Nebraska, where his dad ran into a bunch of Indians, who invited him to supper. He wasn’t sure how the Indians felt about the white man at that point, so wanting to make sure he didn’t offend them, he accepted their offer. There were about a dozen Indians, with several horses and a bunch of dogs there. Indians had always had a bunch of dogs around, because they are a kind of self storing, self perpetuating food supply. The Indians picked out a rather plump dog, killed it and made a stew.
Now, I don’t know about you, but my mother always told me that when you are invited for a meal, you eat what is put in front of you. I know that a lot of people have eaten things like snake or rabbit, and been told that it tasted just like chicken. I’ve eaten rabbit, and I do not agree. There is no similarity as far as I’m concerned. I have never eaten horse or dog meat, and I think I would have to be just about starving to death before I would consent to eat it…sorry Mom. Nevertheless, my grandfather had no desire to offend those Indians, so he ate the bowl of stew offered. After that, they offered him a second, third, and finally a fourth bowl. He pretended the stew was very good, while secretly praying they would not offer a fifth bowl. He really didn’t want to offend the men who far outnumbered him, and there was nowhere he could turn for help. Finally, they could tell that he was either very full, or maybe even a little green around the gills, so they decided that supper was over and after talking a while, they set up some tents and settled in for the night. Grandpa moved his motorcycle a little way away from their camp, and tried not to fall asleep, wanting to keep his scalp, and not knowing if they still scalped people or not. He finally fell asleep, in spite of his efforts not to, and in the morning the Indians were gone.
The rest of the trip was completed without further incident, and he made it to Aunt Tessie’s house, scaring her and her 7 year old daughter Ruth, when he came down the road as boldly as you please. They were the only ones home, and they lived many miles from the nearest neighbor. After dismounting the motorcycle, he walked up to her front door, and when she answered, he said, “Aunt Tessie, I’m your nephew, Allen Spencer, from Wisconsin.” It was an unusual way to meet her nephew, and it might have helped if he had sent her a letter telling her he was coming, but they quickly got to know each other, and he spent several months with the family before heading back to Wisconsin. I would imagine it was a visit that Aunt Tessie never forgot.
For any one whose ancestors came out to the West, homesteading probably is a word we know, and something we know a little about. Even if it is back in the history of our family, we knew that yes, the land was given to the homesteader, but in reality, they earned every blade of grass that was on their homestead. Homesteading was no easy way to live. Homesteading began when the United States government decided to give 65 acres to anyone who wanted to move out west and settle. They had to work the land for 5 years and then it became theirs. This all sounded like an amazing opportunity to many people, but there were many who came out west to get a homestead and then went back home before the 5 year timeframe was passed. They just couldn’t make it. The didn’t have what it takes. Homesteading was not a lazy man’s way to get land. This land was hard and full of rocks and trees. It had not been plowed and planted before. They would be the first to do that, and they didn’t have all the equipment we have these days to plow up the hard soil so it was suitable for growing crops on.
My grandparent were among those who came out and earned that homestead, by working that land and making it grow the crops they wanted it to grow. I doubt that they got by without ever losing a crop, because hail, drought, flood, fire, and tornados were bound to have happened at least once during that 5 year timeframe, but they stuck it out and made it work. They proved that they were tough enough to earn that homestead…to the government and to themselves.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that the ones that went home were no good, they just didn’t have what it took to make it in the old west. This was rough country, and you had to be tough to stick it out here. They had to learn to get along with the Indians too, because the Indians weren’t real happy with the White Man being here at all. Treaties had been broken to allow the west to be settled, and they didn’t like it one bit. I think we can all agree that this country was going to expand one way or the other, because as people have children and those children have children, and those children have children, and so on…well, more space was bound to be needed. Still, I suppose we should have handled it in a different way. Nevertheless, many White Men made peace with the Indians, and learned to live together. The White Man had come to the West. He was here to stay, because he had earned that homestead.
Most of us are able to trace our roots back to the Old West, since many of our ancestors were homesteaders. The Old West was a dangerous place to live. There were few, if any lawmen around, and outlaws found it to be a good hiding place. Probably a bigger concern for many of the settlers was the Indian population. There were a lot of hard feelings toward the white man, because of broken treaties and stolen lands. Still, this wasn’t really the fault of the settlers and homesteaders, but they were the ones who often suffered the consequences. For this reason, friendships between the Indians and the White Man were rare.
My grandfather’s family was privileged to have one of those rare relationships. They were accepted and even loved by the Indians in the area. They were invited to the Pow Wows and other celebrations. The had meals and probably hunts with the Indians, and got to know them well. They knew men like Chief Thin Elk and Sitting Bull, two Lakota Sioux Indians and their tribes. They spent time with them, and learned their customs…spoke their language. Not many White Men had the opportunity to do that.
Of course, when we think back on the Old West, the first thing that comes to mind are the old shows, like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Little House on the Prairie. We seldom think of the real people who lived those times…especially our own ancestors. I had been told that my great grandfather knew some Indians, but it just didn’t register until I saw pictures of him with the Indians…being friends with the Indians…having Pow Wows with the Indians. My great grandfather was one of those rare people who really did know Indians from the Old West. It was such an eye opening moment for me.