KEARNEY – Americans have recognized military veterans in vastly different ways over the past 247 years. They’ve thrown parades for some and scorned others.
But the Pawnee Scouts, who protected pioneers, freighters and railroad workers in Nebraska during the mid-19th century’s great migration west, were largely forgotten outside the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma.
“Those Scouts were the very first in our tribe to serve in the military, so we hold our veterans on a high pedestal, almost like chiefs,” said Pat Leading Fox, head chief of the Pawnee Nation Chiefs Council and a safety/compliance officer in the Tribal Employment Rights Office. “We hold them up in high esteem for what they did.”
Now, as part of Kearney’s year-long 150th anniversary celebration, the Pawnee Scouts’ service finally will be formally acknowledged at an event Oct. 7.
There will be history re-enactors, activities and displays in the morning at Fort Kearny State Historical Park southeast of Kearney. Afternoon events at the nearby state recreation area will include the Pawnee Scouts recognition, plus Pawnee singers, drummers and dancers.
A Native harvest exhibit will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pawnee Seed Preservation Society, a partnership of Nebraska gardeners and the Pawnee in Oklahoma that has restored more than 20 Pawnee corn varieties.
Share the History, Share the Harvest
What: An event recognizing the military service of the Pawnee Scouts and celebrating the 2023 harvest of Nebraska-grown Pawnee crops
When: Saturday, Oct. 7
Where: Fort Kearny State Historical Park (1020 V Road, Kearney, NE 68847) and Fort Kearny State Recreation Area (2199 30 Road, Kearney, NE 68847)
- 9 a.m.-noon – Living history reenactors and displays at historical park
- Noon – Lunch available for purchase at state recreation area
- 1-5 p.m. – Pawnee Native harvest exhibit, Pawnee Scouts recognition, and Pawnee singers, drummers and dancers at state recreation area
Cost: Admission is free but a Nebraska State Park entry permit is required at both sites
Learn more: Head to VisitKearny.org or call (308)865-5305
“Generations of Pawnee who had known their corn as only some kernels in jars for display have seen it return to its historic role as healthy food,” said Nebraska growers leader Ronnie O’Brien of Shelton.
The Pawnee Scouts arrived at Fort Kearny as the faraway Civil War raged, and stayed for seven years, until 1871. Across the Great Plains, an estimated 1,000 Pawnees served as military allies.
They knew the terrain, were intimately familiar with Lakota and Cheyenne fighting tactics and could endure in battle, said Mark van de Logt, a Texas A&M at Qatar history professor and author of “War Party in Blue, Pawnee Scouts in the U.S. Army.”
This knowledge proved invaluable as white settlers and American railroads moved west, he said.
Many Scouts, including Leading Fox’s own grandfather, did basic training at Fort Kearny, their home post.
“It will be nice to be there, especially for those (Pawnee) who have not been to Fort Kearny before to see where their ancestors used to be,” said Leading Fox, who also serves on the Pawnee Seed Preservation Society Board.
The Pawnee Scouts story has mostly been handed down through families. It’s not taught in schools, Leading Fox said.
“I think it should be,” he said. “My children (four girls ages 15-29) know all about the Scouts, and about our culture and our ways.”
The original Fort Kearny was actually built along the Missouri River near Nebraska City, then moved west to the banks of the Platte River – near the present-day city of Kearney.
Nearly 350,000 people passed by the fort while traveling west on the Oregon-California Trail from 1848 to 1866.
Union Pacific Railroad crews also worked in the area as they built the Nebraska segment of the transcontinental railroad.
Fort Kearny, which had an original footprint of 10 square miles, was closed as a military post in 1871, five years after Nebraska’s section of the railroad was completed. Its buildings were torn down and the American government offered the land – once Pawnee territory – to homesteaders.
Moving to Oklahoma
The closure of Fort Kearny hastened the Pawnee’s relocation, or removal, to Oklahoma.
It’s not a pretty story. But it’s a story that needs to be told, said Broc Anderson, community engagement director for the Buffalo County Historical Society. The Oct. 7 event aims to shed light on a different perspective of the region’s history while honoring the contributions of the Pawnee Scouts and the importance of Pawnee corn, he explained.
“Despite the widely celebrated pioneering history in Kearney throughout the 150 years since incorporation, the history of the Pawnee is largely forgotten or negligibly told,” Anderson said. “As a dispossessed indigenous people from their homeland in Nebraska, the Pawnee were relocated to present-day Oklahoma for American interests related to the manifest destiny ideals on which Kearney was founded.”
Other events contributed to the Pawnees’ relocation. They were rarely allowed to leave the Nebraska reservation for buffalo hunts, Leading Fox said. They were constantly being attacked by the Lakota and Cheyenne, who had received arms from the U.S. government, he added.
When hunting permission was granted in 1873, the Pawnee were ambushed on Aug. 5 by Lakota warriors near Trenton in southwest Nebraska at a site now known as Massacre Canyon. Leading Fox called that “the last straw” for the Pawnee, who had already ceded most of their Nebraska land to the U.S. government.
“That (relocation) had to be a very hard decision for the chiefs to make. They had no choice. But we’re still here,” he said, noting that the Pawnee population had fallen to 604 by the early 1900s. It’s now more than 3,000 people.
Pawnee veterans also struggled to get military pensions after their battalion officially disbanded in 1877, according to van de Logt.
Fort Kearny State Park
The Fort Kearny Memorial Association purchased 40 acres of the old military grounds in 1929 and donated it to the state. The site was dedicated as a state historical park in 1959.
The first 180 acres for the state recreation area, a mile east of the historical park, were purchased in the mid-1960s. It now has 230 acres.
Fort Kearny’s history as a military post and vital stop on the Great Platte River Road is reflected in visitors center museum displays, and replicas of the stockade, blacksmith’s shop and other features on the historical park grounds.
“There are times when I’m closing up the buildings at night, and I pause for a few minutes and think of who has been there. And you’re walking in the same places they did,” said Gene Hunt, longtime Fort Kearny State Park superintendent.
That includes Pawnee Scouts and other soldiers, settlers, pioneers preparing to continue west in search of gold and homesteads, and well-known Civil War officers.
Hunt, who grew up north of Arcadia and has been at Fort Kearny for 51 years, has spent his entire life in parts of the Pawnee homeland in central Nebraska.
He has found arrowheads near the farm in grass-covered hills where the Skidi band of Pawnee once lived and hunted buffalo. A local dentist found remnants of an earth lodge in the area.
Hunt’s mother Leah was convinced that she had Pawnee ancestors. Clues included having grandparents from Oklahoma, an often-told family story and a photo of a woman thought to have Pawnee blood. Her features – nose and brown skin and eyes – resembled Leah’s.
After Leah died in 2003, Hunt’s brother Darwin took a DNA test that confirmed the family has no Pawnee connection. The brothers learned the woman in the photo was German.
“I’m so glad my mom left Earth thinking she was Pawnee,” Hunt said, because she respected them and was proud to think she was related.
Hunt expects the long overdue recognition of the Pawnee Scouts on Oct. 7 to be the second most important event of his career.
The celebration of Fort Kearny’s 150th anniversary in 1998 ranks first. Three of Hunt’s personal heroes – his dad, uncle and a mentor – all died within six months of the event, which recognized veterans like them.
But there was a glaring omission at that celebration. The 150th event had displays to honor veterans from the Revolutionary War through Desert Storm. Pawnee Scouts weren’t included.
Hunt credited relationships built the past 20 years through the Pawnee Seed Preservation Society project with making the upcoming honoring of the Pawnee Scouts possible.
He noted that Union Pacific officials didn’t wait nearly so long. In gratitude for Pawnee help in protecting the company’s rail construction crews, they gave the Scouts special tickets in 1867 for free train rides.
Seeing descendants of Pawnee Scouts honored at Fort Kearny just might elevate the Oct. 7 event into a tie for first in Hunt’s career highlights, he said.
“I know it’s going to be close.”
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