Nebraska Historical Marker: Massacre Canyon

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Location

U.S. 34, Trenton, Hitchcock County, Nebraska

View this marker's location 40.206898, -100.9643

View a map of all Nebraska historical markers, Browse Historical Marker Map

Marker Text

The adjacent stone monument erected in 1930 was first placed about a mile south of this area. Originally on the highway overlooking the canyon, it was moved to this location after the highway was relocated. Massacre Canyon is the large canyon about half a mile west of here. The battle took place in and along this canyon when a Pawnee hunting party of about 700, confident of protection from the government, were surprised by a War Party of Sioux. The Pawnee, badly outnumbered and completely surprised, retreated into the head of the canyon about two miles northwest of here. The battle was the retreat of the Pawnee down the canyon to the Republican. The Pawnee reached the Republican River, about a mile and a half south of here, and crossed to the other side. The Sioux were ready to pursue them still further, but a unit of cavalry arrived and prevented further fighting. The defeat so broke the strength and spirit of the tribe that it moved from its reservation in central Nebraska to Oklahoma.

Further Information

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Massacre Canyon, from the southeast looking up. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The Battle of Massacre Canyon

Considered to be the last battle between Indian tribes in American history and one of the largest intertribal battles in the historical record, the Battle of Massacre Canyon was fought between Pawnee and Sioux Indians on August 5, 1873.

Origins

Once a powerful tribe occupying much of Nebraska, the Pawnee were weakened by disease, war and removal. In 1857, the Pawnee signed a treaty ceding most of their land for a reservation in east-central Nebraska (present-day Nance County). The government promised to protect them against their enemies, but they were often raided by Sioux bands. The Loup River system in central Nebraska connected the Sioux and the Pawnee, making it easy for the Sioux to come into Pawnee territory to kill women and steal horses. After the Civil War, the Pawnee helped the military fight against the Sioux and their other old enemy, the Cheyenne. During the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877), Quaker missionaries came to the Pawnee and urged pacifism as part of Grant’s peace policy. Many Pawnee agreed to stop fighting, but many continued to go on horse stealing raids. Tensions rose during this time when white settlers used up Pawnee resources like timber and grazing land. In 1871, the Quakers urged the Pawnee and Sioux to sign a peace treaty. Many Pawnee were skeptical of the Sioux’s trustworthiness, and the treaty never came to be.

Buffalo Hunts

While the Pawnee did plant some crops, they relied on annual buffalo hunts for meat. As the number of buffalo in the Great Plains decreased with white overhunting, the Pawnee had to go farther and farther away from their reservation to find game, meaning they had to go farther and farther away from the control of the reservation. It also meant they had more interaction with the Sioux. The buffalo hunts were indeed a source of violence. In the winter of 1872, three Pawnee were killed by white hunters after they allegedly tried to steal bread. Shortly after that incident, some Sioux raided an encampment of Pawnee and Oto Indians, ruining their food supply and morale.

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Massacre Canyon, looking west in 1950 (with memorial in background). (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The Battle

On July 3, 1873, 350 Pawnee left the reservation for what would become the last major Pawnee buffalo hunt. After a successful hunt, the Pawnee began to return home on August 2. On August 4, they camped near present-day Trenton in Hitchcock County. They were warned that there were Sioux in the area, but assumed that the warning, coming from white hunters, was a trick to get them to leave the area. In fact, there were some 1000 Sioux in the region. The agent of the Pawnee, John Williamson, tried and failed to convince the Pawnee chief, Sky Chief, of the danger. (Another source, however, reports that the Pawnee had asked the military for protection but was denied help, since they deemed the Sioux to not be a threat. See the Blaine essay in the references for further discussion.) On the morning of August 5, the Pawnee moved into the canyon. After spying some buffalo, several Pawnee, including Sky Chief, rode ahead in an attempt to catch them. However, they were ambushed by Sioux and killed. (Williamson reported that Sky Chief was killed early in the battle, but some Pawnee oral history sources say he died later in the fight, after rallying the troops against the Sioux. One account says that Sky Chief killed his young son (who was 3 or 4) so he wouldn't be dismembered by the Sioux.)

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Pawnee and Sioux survivors of the battle meet on August 5, 1925 at the Massacre Canyon Peace Conference to smoke a peace pipe. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Pawnee tribal accounts indicate three waves of Sioux attacks. The Pawnee were thrown into chaos at first but regrouped and began to fight back. When the Pawnee saw how outnumbered they were, Williamson was sent out in an attempt to make peace with the Sioux but had his horse shot out from under him. The Pawnee began to retreat while the Sioux continued to fire at them. When the Pawnee reached the Republican River Valley, the Sioux withdrew and returned to the canyon to rape and mutilate the bodies still there. It is not known exactly why the Sioux withdrew when they did; perhaps they were aware of the military presence in the region (which did not arrive in the canyon until much later) or they had simply accomplish what they had come to do: make off with Pawnee prisoners and treasure. Accounts differ about the number of casualties in the battle. Immediately after the battle, the army found 63 Pawnee dead- 13 men and 50 women and children. A census taken at the Pawnee Reservation found 69 dead- 20 men, 39 women and 10 children. The census also noted 12 wounded, 11 prisoners (who were later returned) and several missing children. Other sources give numbers in the 100s. It is not known how many Sioux were killed. One source says that none died, while other evidence suggests the Sioux lost at least 6 men. Regardless, it was clearly a huge victory for the Sioux.

Accounts of the Battle

Facts about the battle are difficult to ascertain with certainty. Only two written accounts from the time survive. One was written by Williamson; the other was written by Lester Beach Platt, a minister who accompanied the Pawnee on their hunt. Both accounts are problematic. Beach published his version in 1888 in The Cosmopolitan. The time difference between the event and the publication of his account, along with its rather romantic style, cast some doubt on its veracity. Williamson’s account is more trustworthy, but contradicts with Pawnee oral records and other eyewitness accounts. For example, many Pawnee claim that Williamson ran away during the battle while Williamson himself claimed he stood and fought with the Pawnee. The Pawnee oral records, while not written down until much later, are perhaps the best source of information about the battle.

Problems with Numbers

In 2013, some fourth grade students at Randolph Elementary in Lincoln were informed by their teacher, Thomas Pargett, that a discrepancy existed between two Nebraska State Historical Society markers about the Battle of Massacre Canyon. The battle’s main marker says that 700 Pawnee were present at the fight, while another marker describing the battle, Pawnee Woman’s Grave (Marker 206), claims that there were only 350. The class wrote letters to the NSHS asking about the conflicting data. Why is there a conflict? As noted, the sources about the battle differ. The nature of the battle made it difficult to get accurate numbers about the battle. The marker at Pawnee Woman’s Grave was written later and is believed to be more accurate. The marker at Massacre Canyon also incorrectly notes that the battle caused the Pawnee to leave Nebraska. As the following paragraph will show, this is not true.

Aftermath

The Pawnee never made another buffalo hunt in Nebraska after 1873. Between 1875 and 1876, the tribe was moved to Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma). Some have suggested that the massive casualties suffered at Massacre Canyon were a major reason the tribe decided to leave Nebraska. However, Pawnee removal had many other, more significant causes. The tribe’s population had decreased considerably in the previous decades. There were about 10,000 Pawnee in the 1830s but only 3,000 in 1873. War and disease were the primary causes of this drop. The Pawnee, once the most powerful tribe in Nebraska, had also already lost much of its land and culture.

Pawnee Woman’s Grave

A Pawnee woman who survived the battle but lost a child was discovered by a homesteader, who brought her to Indianola, a settlement established one year previous. The settlers there cared for her, but she died a few days later and was buried in a crude coffin near Coon Creek. In 1975, she was reburied as part of the American Revolution Bicentennial Year with a representative from the Pawnee Tribe present.

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Several people pose in front of the Massacre Canyon marker at its dedication. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Memorial

Beginning on the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1923, a Powwow attended by Sioux survivors was held annually until the late 1950s. In 1925, Pawnee survivors joined the Sioux and smoked a peace pipe. On September 26, 1930, a monument was built at the site of the battle. Thirty-five feet tall and made of Minnesota pink granite, the monument was one of the few monuments to a local historical site funded by the U.S. Congress. The monument cost $7,500 and was moved in the 1950s so it would be closer to Highway 34.

The addresses given at the monument’s dedication are indicative of the language used about Native Americans at the time. J. W. Reutzel, a resident of Trenton, said: “I hope that someday, somewhere, a monument will be erected as a memorial to the last battle fought between the civilized nations of the world, as this monument here represents the last battle between two Indian tribes.” Governor Weaver was not able to attend but wrote: “The Battle of Massacre Canyon was not only disastrous for the Pawnee but also to the Sioux, for the time had come when the plow would replace the rifle and the hunting grounds would be converted into cultivated fields. Nebraska was on the eve of fulfilling its destiny as the home of a civilized people producing food for millions. The Monument... also marks a new era when the white man acquired sovereignty and began the building of a new state.”

Bibliography

Blaine, Garland James and Martha Royce Blaine. “Pa-re-su A-ri-ra-ke: The Hunters that Were Massacred.” Nebraska History. Fall 1977: 343-357.

Riley, Paul D. “The Battle of Massacre Canyon.” Nebraska History. Summer 1973: 221-249.

Taylor, A. L. “Massacre Canyon Memorial.” Nebraska History Magazine. July-September 1935: 171-177.

Marker program

See the Nebraska Historical Marker Program for more information.