Sunday, May 20, 2007

A stretch of river XXXVIII: In which Scruffy and the Meridian read some history, with an assist from Richard Slotkin

Keeper of the Plains, which stands on the point where the Little Arkansas empties into the Arkansas

History sleeps all around us here on the banks of the Little Arkansas. Some of it is prettied up for us--case in point is the sculpture you see here, now the center of a beautifully-landscaped plaza and located just a hairpin bend in the Little Arkansas away from where I write these words. Some is not as pretty but intriguing nonetheless, like the old brick I noticed the other day gradually eroding its way out of the raised embankment on the top of which Scruffy and I walk our daily walk; it led me to wonder what downtown building had met its demise well over a century ago, it must have been, judging by the size of the trees that grow out of the embankment now, in order to contribute to the greater good of safeguarding the houses along the river from floods.

Well--maybe "sleeps" isn't quite the word. It's more like, History is here, but those managing it have done their best not to call attention to it, lest it unsettle us unduly. The new plaza celebrates Indian culture but makes almost no mention of the coming of the Spaniards and, later, Americans: it is Chamber-of-Commerce-friendly, touchy-feely History, made physically easy to consume as well by virtue of the two pedestrian suspension bridges spanning each river to convey people to the plaza. Riverside Park has a 1/4-mile running track with plaques at various intervals that denote milestones in the park's history beginning in the late 1870s--it quite literally is white people's history. However, in a reach back to prehistoric times, the park also has a working solar calendar1. But you won't find any direct mention of the Indians in the park except for a marker of 171 words which, though writ small, nevertheless bridges the historical void created by the reticences of the plaza, the park's history and the solar calendar.

I'd made note of that marker before here at good old Blog Meridian and even promised to return to it, but other things led me away from it. But a few days ago I read this over at Jimmy's place, The New York Minute, and the memory of that marker stirred in me--so much so that this morning Scruffy and I actually did a little of what one could call Research on our walk. In my mind, I invited Richard Slotkin to join us. Slotkin, I think you'll find, is a most appropriate companion for this initial journey into the history of my little stretch of domesticated river.

Below the fold: What we encountered, on foot and online, as we searched for the Encounter.

Here again is the text of the marker:

In 1864, about 1500 Wichita Indians, favoring the Union, returned to their ancestral lands and settled along the Little Arkansas River which offered protection from the Confederate tribes until the Civil War ended. The Wichita Indians (consisting of Wichitas, Wacos, Towacanis, Taovayas, and Kechis) are credited with the founding of Wichita. Aside from lending their name, which means "scattered lodges," it was their supply needs that brought traders and eventually settlers. Because of the war, food and supplies for the Indians were meager. This lead [sic] to an illegal yet profitable cattle trade and the development of the Chisolm Trail to connect Wichita and Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). When the Civil War was over, the Indians were ordered to relocate to Oklahoma in October. They were not given ample supplies and their trek was devastating. So many died along the way that Skeleton Creek was named after them. In 1927, the Wichita Indians built a grass lodge on Mead Island (near 13th) as an expression of goodwill to the citizens of Wichita.
I still vividly recall the sensation of reading that last sentence and feeling pulled up short, frankly not sure whether to laugh or weep. You don't have to be an especially attentive reader to note that, apart from their being permitted to resettle in the area during the Civil War, the previous sentences are pretty thin on expressions of goodwill toward the Wichita. All this seems especially bitter given the fact that the Wichita's presence here is given credit for being the reason the first cattle drives began--a period of history that this part of the state still invokes with enormous pride. But in all that invocation, at least that which I have heard over the years, the Wichita merit nary a mention . . . except on this marker--and (here is the bitterness) then only to serve, pretty much, as capitalistic cannon-fodder.

To be fair to the first white settlers, the Wichita were, by the 1860s, already in serious decline as a people, as the Wikipedia article makes clear. But I think it's accurate to say that events of the latter half of the 1860s made more precipitous that decline.

In doing some further reading after we returned from our walk, I came across the "Wichita History" page of the City of Wichita's official website. What follows is the paragraph that covers the span of time covered by the marker in the park:
The first recorded permanent settlement was a collection of grass houses built in 1863 by the Wichita Indians. Due to the tribe’s pro-Union sentiment in the midst of the Civil War, the Wichita moved north from Indian Territory (Oklahoma) under the protection of the U.S. government. J. R. Mead, among others, established profitable businesses trading with the Wichita and supplying the government agency charged with their protection. When the region’s native peoples were "removed" to Indian Territory in 1867 to open the area for white settlement, the trading business followed them, using the Wichita site as a base and establishing the Chisholm Trail as a route of transport.

A little comparing and contrasting of these two city-sanctioned texts reveals some intriguing interstices where the joins between them are less than snug:

*The marker calls the cattle trade with the Indian Territory, established during the war, "illegal yet profitable;" the city's website describes trading with the Indians as "profitable" but doesn't mention the cattle trade until after the Indians' were "removed" (curious, those quotation marks, which are on the page itself, by the way) in 1867.

*The marker says the Wichita were "ordered to relocate" in October of 1865; the city's website, as mentioned above, gives the date as 1867. I don't (yet) know the reason for the difference in dates.

*In any event, the marker gives a sense of the horrors of that relocation; the website has them disappearing over the site's textual horizon, traders following them and thus establishing the Chisholm Trail, and white settlers moving into the area.

I have no further details than these. Still, I don't think one has to be terribly PC in one's thinking to see the story here, in between the combined, not-quite-contradictory lines of the marker and the website page: Once the first inhabitants of this land and then ordered into Indian Territory, the Wichita were (I assume) graciously offered sanctuary in Kansas from the Confederacy-allied tribes to the south. After the war, though, with land to be settled and, more crucially, money to be made through the now-legitimate cattle trade, the Wichita became competitors to be disposed of. "Thank you for establishing this community. Now git th' hell outta Dodge. [As it were.] Oh--and mind if we use your name for this community?"

One last thing, to be picked up in a future post: J(ames). R. Mead (the namesake of the island mentioned on the marker and credited as Wichita's founder) has now become a Person of Interest for me--especially after learning that it appears he is the author of a two-page article entitled "Camps of Prehistoric People in Sedgwick County, Kansas," published in 1889-1890.

Hunting that article will have to wait for another day. But if I'm lucky, his article might double the word count of the marker and that one paragraph from the website.

Also later: more about the Wichita as I learn about them. I hope, though, that readers who happen across this post and know more about any of this will share what they know via e-mail or in the comments section.

1I learned in my reading today (but had forgotten to add until just now) that archeologists estimate that the land where the Little Arkansas meets the Arkansas has been inhabited for at least 11,000 years.

No comments: