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Published on Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Working For The Pawnee Agency

By Oscar Case


In 1836, I was hired on as a farmer to work for the Indian Agency for the Pawnees and Otos. The Agent said I would be working with the Pawnees out in the field in Nebraska on the new reservation. I had already traveled from Ohio across Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa to reach the Agency in western Iowa,    
and he told me I'd be out in the middle of nowhere in the wilds of Nebraska with nothing but Pawnee Indians for neighbors. I hoped I would find myself working in a more populated area with a few towns around and be among a few white people.

I brought my wife and sons along in the wagon with me and found a place in Council Bluffs for them to stay while I was away, but my boys, who were seventeen and twenty years old, argued that they wanted to go along with me.

"You'll need us among those Indians, Pa," the older one, Jeremiah, said. "And we can't let you go out there alone even if Reverend Hooper is going with you. He won't be much of a help against those Pawnees. Ma will be perfectly safe here in Council Bluffs with her woman friends to look after her."

"That's right, Pa, and I went to school to learn all that Indian language," said Samuel, "and if you make us stay here, I won't even be able to speak it. I got to go with you to get any use out of it."

Hell, I couldn't speak a word of that lingo and if the Reverend wasn't around to interpret, I wouldn't know what anybody was talking about, I thought, so I gave in to the boys after I made sure the wife was going to be safe and happy in Council Bluffs. We set out for the reservation in our wagon with some new farm equipment from the agency along with the agent, Bill Adcock, who was going to show us the layout and introduce us to the tribe. Reverend Hooper said he was coming later.

"First, I have to get hold of Reverend Abbott and Reverend Johnson, and they are both visiting the Otos up north. I'll just wait here for them before I start out there."

I guess I should explain why I was with the Reverend Hooper in the first place. In order to get to Council Bluffs I needed a job, so as a good Presbyterian, I jumped on his band wagon the minute I heard he needed an assistant to go with him to the West. He had been preaching to and converting the Indians around our little town of Atlas for three or four years, and I had made it a point to become his friend in the hopes he would help Samuel, my youngest boy, in his heart's desire to learn the Indian lingo. And he did. Sam went on his rounds with him from Indian village to Indian village after he completed some schooling, and by the time the Reverend was going West, Sam could speak a passel of that lingo. At least I thought he was pretty darn fluent. So, anyway, that's how I ended up with the Reverend.


The first day, once we got across the Missouri at Omaha, we traveled to the Platte River and made camp.

"You'll find that the Pawnee are a right friendly tribe once you get to know them," said Agent Adcock, as we sat around the fire with full bellies. "Yup, they haven't killed any whites now for about three months, I reckon, and it was just a matter of luck that they killed them. They got off the trail, the whites, and wandered into Pawnee territory where they wasn't supposed to be. So, what were the Pawnee to do, just let 'em go free? Uh-uh, not under their system of tribal justice. Heck no, they had to kill 'em in order to send a message to any others that wandered away from the trail."

I didn't know whether he was telling the truth or not, but I knew that we would be sticking pretty close to home out there in the wilds, if we got there in one piece.

"That son of yours, the young one, he speaks a pretty good bit of their dialect already," said Adcock. "Do you think he would want to work as an interpreter for us?"

"If you could pay him to do it, I'm sure he would," I said. "As it is, all three of us have to live on what I make, and I have a wife to support in Council Bluffs, too. And if you could hire the older one somehow that would make it even better."

"Right now, I don't have any openings, but he can help you out 'til something comes along. We hire men who say they can do it all right, but when they get out there on the reservation, some of 'em get cold feet, especially after they get wind of some Indians on the warpath or something. Yup, some don't stay long."

Six, or was it seven, more days of travel found us within the reservation boundaries on the Loup River. How he could tell, I don't know, other than we had picked up a Pawnee escort. They seemed to be hell-bent on killing us until they found out the Indian Agent was aboard the wagon. They came riding up out of a gulley, yelling and whooping, and waving their arrows in the air like some kind of mad men. I thought sure we had seen our last days on earth. Sam and Jeremiah had their rifles at the ready sticking out the back end of the wagon, scared stiff, but game, but we were severely outnumbered.

Adcock, sitting on the seat beside me, stood up and waved his arms around, trying to get the Indian chief's attention, but I couldn't tell which was the chief and which was just an ordinary Indian. Mr. Adcock was just missed by an arrow coming at us that one of the Pawnees let fly before the chief finally recognized him. And that arrow came whipping by me, too, just in front of us and barely missed my arm stretching out to hold the reins of the team that was startled by all the commotion.

Anyway, that chief came galloping up alongside by Adcock and looked like he was going to let him have it with another arrow at the ready until he raised his right arm straight up in the air. I guess that was a signal to the other Pawnees to hold off with their arrows until the greetings were over. A more frightening man I never saw. He looked absolutely dangerous as he started parleying with Adcock about all the grievances he could think of that the whites had perpetrated on them since they had last seen the Agent. At least, that's what Adcock told us, my son agreeing with him, after we had commenced traveling again.

About three more hours we moseyed along with the Pawnees all around us before we stopped at a little cabin sitting all by itself with nothing around it except a stable and barn out back and a couple of other small structures.

Adcock said, "Here we are," and climbed down from the wagon. "You can just park the wagon alongside the house and put the animals in the stable."

Later, sitting at the crudely built table, Adcock told us, "It looks like we don't need to do anymore traveling. The Pawnees will be wanting to take a gander at their new farm boss and will be showing up tomorrow morning, you can count on it. The chief will be among them, and all you got to do is tell him how many Pawnee you need to get the farm going."

Sure enough, the next morning the Indians were all standing outside, maybe thirty or thirty-five of 'em. Sam told the chief that we had some shovels and seed in the wagon that they could unload.

The farm was situated on fairly level ground in a small valley with a good water supply by means of a creek running though it. I started walking to take a look at the earth and the extent of it, followed by ten or twelve Pawnee and a couple of their women. Sam came, and the chief also. Jeremiah and the Agent stayed behind to dole out the equipment and supplies. Adcock said he'd be gone before I got back.

We walked down by the creek and around part of the farm checking on the leftover plants, the weed crop, and various other things that came to mind with the chief prattling away all the time, barely giving Sam enough time to tell me what he said. I liked the perspective of it ever since I caught a good glimpse of it from the cabin. The agent had told me it was around five hundred acres in extent, but he hadn't managed to get it all under cultivation for one reason or another-that is, my predecessor didn't. I speculated there was maybe only fifty acres with a crop of some type planted the year before, mostly wheat, but some corn and beans.

The agent was still there when we came back to the cabin. His last words to me were, "I hope you have better luck than the last farmer did. He complained to me every time I visited that the Pawnees were lazy and wouldn't work, but I know you can do a better job now that you got an interpreter working with you."

"What happened to him?" I asked.

He looked at me like he hadn't been expecting that question and finally said, "Poor fellow, he got an arrow through him from one of 'em that didn't want to work. He barely made it back to Council Bluffs before he died. The Pawnee that did it is resting in the Omaha jail. We can't let them get away with that. Anyway, I'm sure you won't meet that end, being religious and all, but good luck."

And he climbed on an Indian pony and left with a party of Pawnees.

I didn't like the looks of this and began to have second thoughts about being out here in the first place. But we went to work in earnest, the best we could manage with the help we could find and made it through the summer all right. By the time October rolled around we had increased the cultivated acreage to almost a hundred and fifty acres. We added barley and oats to the wheat acreage and increased the corn and bean area by about twenty acres and added squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, and some regular vegetables. In September as it started to turn cold, we added some winter wheat into the bargain. Reverend Hooper visited us for three days in late October then returned to the Oto tribe. I guess he was just checking to see if we were still alive and spent most of his time talking to the Pawnee chief.

The three of us, my sons and me, were sitting around the fireplace talking about what we had accomplished one evening in early November, complimenting ourselves on the hard work and the size of the farm now, when we heard a noise outside that grew closer and closer and louder and louder. I jumped up and opened the door to take a gander and saw a frightening sight. The Pawnees had organized a war party or something and were traipsing around the cabin yelling and singing and hopping about like men doing the St. Vitus dance, most carrying torches they waved around throwing an eerie light on everything. Scared, I closed the door and told the boys to grab their rifles and get ready for anything. I mustered up my courage, opened the door, and stood in its frame hoping that one of the Pawnees would tell us what's going on. All of a sudden some of them broke away and ran through the fields setting fire to anything that would burn, and others broke into the granary and cellar and were throwing all the food and seed out in the yard, trying to burn up what the women didn't carry away.

I gathered the boys around me and we prayed to the Lord to spare us from misery and a Pawnee death, praying they didn't set the house and barn on fire. Huddled together as we were, we looked in each other's eyes and prayed to the Almighty to spare our lives.

Our prayers were answered, because in the morning we were still alive and in good health, as it were, and took a look outside to see what havoc had transpired during the rest of the night. It was just before dawn they stopped dancing and began to disperse, and we thanked God for our salvation.

Mr. Adcock didn't show up until the next spring after we had spent a miserable winter living like the Pawnee, managing to find enough food to survive and scrape by.

We didn't see any Indians all winter long. They must have gone south or something, so we didn't find out why the uprising happened in the first place. But the first thing Adcock did was lay us off for being lazy and no good at farming. I told him that I didn't see how he could expect us to be working in the snow and cold when the Pawnees had burned up all our equipment and supplies. He didn't want to hear it and stuck by his firing.

"You might as well pack up and move on," he said.

So we packed up and moved back to Council Bluffs.

We found out later that somebody had been smuggling the Indians hard liquor, and we weren't the only ones not allowed back onto the reservation, but we were blamed for the uprising.

Uncivilized, is what I called it, since we didn't have a thing to do with smuggling that liquor to the Pawnees.

Just plain uncivilized, the whole lot of them.



Oscar Case writes Western stories and ten years ago began writing family history and genealogy books for his family. The above story, "Working for the Pawnee" is a fictionalized account of some events experienced by his great-great grandfather at the Pawnee Indian Agency in the 1830's and 1840's. His one self-published book, "The Stranger from the Valley" is available at The novel is set in the Uintah Mountain foothills in Utah. He is retired and lives in Sun City, Arizona with his wife, Mary.


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