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Running Water

By March 8, 2024 6 Comments

In a sunny sky especially, the huge sandstone cutbanks along the Missouri can be perfectly stunning. To stumble on them after endless hours of treeless prairie must have seemed a miracle. But if you just came upriver, as most did in the 19th century, those cliffs may well have seemed just another set of bright gold walls in the summer sun. Just across the river from Santee, Nebraska, a set of those masters stands so straight and strong they seem almost military.

Over there on the east side, a place called Running Water is working hard at hanging on. The place takes its name from the river that flows into the Missouri just upstream—“the Niobrara,” a Ponca word for “wide waters.” Once upon a time, when the river was the interstate, the town of Running Water was a port in the storm, more life back then than you can rouse today even on a Fourth of July weekend.

Once upon a time the Ponca were here. It was—and is—something of a homeland for them, both sides of the river. When you stand anywhere close enough to that golden sandstone, you’re sure enough in Standing Bear country, the home where the committed Ponca head man returned twice, on foot both times, from Oklahoma all the way to where the Niobrara washes into the Missouri. Standing Bear and his people refused to live to Indian Territory, where Washington wanted them. This is home, where their Old Ones were buried. When the government said they were hostiles, Standing Bear fought the law in a courtroom battle. And won. Today, his statue is in the Statuary of the Capitol in Washington D. C.

That bridge running right up to that stand of gorgeous cutbanks—that’s the Standing Bear Bridge and you can guess why. 

Back in the 1840s, sixty-some deeply religious Mormon families on their way to Zion were shepherded here by the Poncas, who recognized that these headstrong white people were dreadfully unprepared for deathly cold. The Poncas brought them here, befriended them, a story far too rarely told. A single monument stands just up the road. You have to hunt for it, but it’s there, a thankful gift from the LDS.

An old-country chap named Albert Kuypers was here too in the 1880s, where he met a group of fifty-some immigrant Hollanders who’d just arrived–he’d led them. There were others too, all kinds of white folks picking up land that had once belonged to the Yanktons. All those white folks, like the Hollanders, were looking to homestead cheap land. Albert Kuypers had come over with them, as he had with other groups of Dutch immigrants; but he’d gone out in front to have a look at the land his son had picked out, a piece somewhere close to Platte creek, he’d told his father. Kuypers, a deeply religious man, wanted, more than anything, to offer needy Dutch farm families a chance at a better tomorrow in a new land. All that land was just a few more miles upriver. They had to be anxious to get there, but they had to be prepared.

Right here at Running Water they unloaded what little cash they had for what they were going to need—horses and wagons and all kinds of things for the shelters they were going to build to hopefully and prayerfully find new lives. Sometime later, they discovered they’d paid far too much for things that wore out too easily, including livestock. But they made a go of it, just four hours’ walk from right here aside those golden cliffs. They called their settlement Friesland. No surprise there.

Some Dutch men and women were of some social standing in the old country. They found it difficult, if not downright impossible to talk to many farmers around them, Dutch or not. They found milking difficult in white shirts and ties. The women wore unlikely dresses to slop hogs. For a time. They were, an old resident historian said, “short of purse and long of pedigree.” Slowly all of that changed. 1880s South Dakota was no place for pretense. 

Those cutbanks just west of Running Water are never more generous with their awe than when they catch the afternoon sun. They’ve all seen it–the Ponca, the Yankton, the Frisians, and Mormons and the Yankees. Those cliffs up over the river have been there for endless generation, even though they don’t don buffalo coats in winter, and even though their thin sandstone remakes them subtly every year. 

A picture can’t capture what’s here. That kind of immensity of time and space won’t fit in a lens, on a canvas, or, for that matter, on a page. Stand there for a while at the Standing Bear Bridge, watch the sun light those magnificent cutbanks, and realize the plain and simple truth that it’s all, every bit of it, so big, so right, and so much God’s world. The heavens will do it, I’m sure–prairie skies create huge pulpits, but so do those big bright cutbanks—here, it seems, the whole mind-boggling world around declares, as David says, the glory of God, a sermon-and-a-half, and more.

I know places—and so do you–place like this so wondrous it makes me want to dress up like those arrogant old Hollanders. You too, I bet. You too know places that just make you want to pull on a tie.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I love it when you do this.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    You have opened a window into history, ancestry, and beauty. Thank you.

  • Henry Baron says:

    I agree with Diane. Keep educating and delighting us, Jim!

  • Marlyn Visser says:

    It is unfortunate that the west bank of the Floyd is not as picturesque as the Running Bank of the Missouri. More tragic is the oblivious location of Kuyper’s Friesian settlement. This prevents you from building a new house on the bank which would insinuate you into the community of Hollanders. Oh! that could have reflected your current location near Alton.

  • James C Dekker says:

    This is transcendent. Thank you, Jim.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Wonderful. Yes, please keep doing this. Thanks, Jim.

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