Friday, March 02, 2007

Representations of Indians and US Army along the Oregon Trail: Nebraska up to the Kearney Complex

The first 180 or so miles in Nebraska are uneventful. Wagon trains passed the Great Plains of Nebraska searching for an oasis in the wilderness. This stop would have full supplies and even mail for some of the emigrants. The stop was Fort Kearny, which today is in the lower-middle of Nebraska. It was a safe harbor in a sea of bad dreams.

To get to Fort Kearny the pioneers had to pass by a vast expanse of territory. After St. Marys they left the Potawatomi reservation and entered the unregulated lands of the Pawnee. Many wagon trains gave offerings for safe passage but there were reported incidents of murder and a raid or two. Tensions were high and the happy days of Kansas were behind as the realism of a 2,000 mile trek began to settle in the minds of emigrants.

Due to the Pawnee's semi-nomadic nature there were no common site for meetings and other forms of interaction. Partly because of this there are no makers or monuments relating to local Indians or anything else dealing with the Oregon Trail from Rock Creek Station to Fort Kearney. There are roadside markers at the site of Pony Express stations but the only times Indians are mentioned are when a band attacked or harassed a station.

The first stop, Rock Creek Station, is dedicated to life along the trail but does not deal with Indians or Army. However, the station began operations in the late 1850s and the Indian issue was for the most part moot in that region by then.

Flash forward many miles and one reaches the Kearney Complex of Fort Kearny and Great Platte River Road Archway Monument.

The fort was named after Stephen Kearny and opened 1848. The fort served as a center of operations for dragoons and calvary, a supply post for Oregon/California/Mormon migrants, and a trading post for Pawnee and even Sioux Indians. In 1864 there was heightened tensions leading to conflict in the area but the era of the classical Oregon Trail was over by then.

The fort today is beautiful. A gift store/information center is located in the museum while a few recreated buildings like a blacksmith shop and a wooden stockade occupy the grounds. The mueusm focuses mostly on the daily life of a solider and officer. The idealized hero on the threshold of a new frontier is replaced by the average man just trying to do a job. There is a section of the museum which focuses on the Pawnee scouts who aided the US Army against their mutual rival, the Sioux.

After Fort Kearny one visits Kearney, Nebraska's great monument to fiscal waste known as the Great Platte River Road Archway. For eight well-spent dollars one is taken on a multimedia tour of the Great Platte River "road." About 1/2 of all exhibits deal with the Oregon/California/Mormon trail while the other half deals with the Pony Express, transcontinental railroad, Lincoln Highway, and interstate system.

The Archway is a nice place for people who know little of what the trails were like. I was quite impressed by its presentation. There were some oddities however. Fort Kearny is the start of the museum and is seen as the last stop of civilization rather than an outpost. No hint is given of army patrols which sometimes aided the wagon trains. Also, Indians are given their fare mention but are separate from interactions with emigrants. Finally, all Indians are presented as the same in the sense they lost the West. However, groups like the Potawatomi never had the west and groups like the Pawnee came out much better than tribes like the Sioux.

Kearney is now behind us. Ahead is another long stretch of unmarked space until Ash Hollow.

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