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A Mormon monument stands out there in the middle of nowhere. You have to hunt to find it, search hard simply to get up close. It’s been at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers for 110 years, at a time when there were far more people around.
In the middle years of the 19th century, the Poncas were there, the Santees were there, even some Pawnees–and occasional Sioux bands never far away. That meant cavalry and agents and suppliers and draymen, not to mention swells of dreamers when anyone out west claimed there was gold in them thar’ hills. Simply said, once upon a time there were far more people coming and going.
The silence today wasn’t here in the winter of 1846, when Mormons, on their way to the Salt Lake, stopped there to winter. They intended to be all the way to the Rockies, but once the cold set in, they found themselves shivering right there, but they weren’t alone. Soon after arriving, eight Ponca chiefs rode up and graciously made an offer of shared comfort to get their strange neighbors through the winter. Angels really, saints all around.
Nonetheless, the Mormons were totally unprepared when a grass fire the Poncas started roared through the Mormons’ makeshift village of shacks and dugouts, not to mention dangerously ill-prepared for the brutality winter on the Plains stages for those who can live through it. But the Poncas helped them regroup with their own building materials and restock their makeshift cupboards when men from both tribes went out together to hunt buffalo.
But some church members succumbed that winter–eleven to be exact. And today a fine stone monument, off the beaten path, names some of those who did–Newel Knight, for one, the leader of the ward that wintered near the Ponca camp. He died of pneumonia, dead of winter. Here’s the journal account written by a man named Joseph Holbrook.
Brother Newel Knight died this morning half past six o’clock. His complaint, cold and inflammation on the lungs. His age 46 years. He was one of the first that embraced the work of the last days, and the last that remained of the branch that he led to Zion.
Mormons were pilgrim refugees, people of a selective faith that wasn’t the approved revelation of those in the majority. In hand-pulled carts, they left Illinois for the promised land of Utah. But Newel Knight’s pilgrimage ended right there. Just a few days after he fought that prairie fire, he died right there at the mouth of the Niobrara.
But the Mormons’ long winter of 46-47, right there where two great rivers meet, is not only a story of death and deprivation. It’s also a story of a community, open doors and open hearts, because those Ponca who lived there shared their lives and meager fortunes with the odd, religious white men and women stranded in the frozen snow.
In 2003, the LDS church and its people thanked the Ponca tribe formally and richly for what they did for their own who wintered there, ancestors fearful and hungry and anxious that this huge westward movement might just be a pipe dream.
This story of community is worth telling again and again, maybe crucially after an election season which served only to further reveal the weakened seams that hold us together.
It’s a long ways away from anywhere, but I think more of us should take a drive past the monument marking the thanksgiving of Mormon people for what the Ponca did for them so many years ago.
It’s a blessing to know that once upon a time Mormon refugees by the thousands swarmed across the cold ground of the largely uncharted Great Plains on their way to place I don’t doubt most of them couldn’t even pronounce–Utah. Just so happens that along the way, some few of them sought shelter at the confluence of two rivers; and right there those refugees were sustained–accepted and provided for–by a band of Native Americans who were themselves often besieged by warring neighbors all around.
Once upon a time two beleaguered peoples in troubled families helped each other out, sustained nothing less than life itself. It happened. Out here in a place where even few of us ever pass, it actually happened.
It’s a story we need to hear–and tell.
Ponca Chief, Karl Bodmer.