By Debbi Snook
Ohio’s Wyandot Rest Far From Home
The big bark canoes moved south from Detroit, across the uncertain waters of Lake Erie and into the safe embrace of Sandusky Bay. But it was not safe for long, so they went south again, a five-day ride on the Sandusky River.
The forests there were full of deer and raccoons. Full of chestnuts and cranberries. Full of riverside earth so soft they could farm it by hand.
The big trees invited them to chip away the bark, carve in the faces of the living spirits of the forest. Then they could lift them off and wear them in the firelight, searching for the light within.
They were the Wyandot of Ohio, and for more than 100 years they lived and worked here and called it home.
They were Ohioans like other Ohioans. They raised crops, went to school and many converted to Christianity. They even fought for Ohio in a war. Yet today the bones of their children – and the children of their children – are 1,000 miles away.
Janith English knows why. English is principal chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas. And as she walks up a rare green hill in downtown Kansas City, Kan., she explains why.
To her, this hill surrounded by concrete is the ultimate refuge. It is the Wyandot cemetery.
Hundreds of Wyandots – maybe more than 1,000 – are buried there. Many of them came from Upper Sandusky, Ohio, in 1843.
English can tell you who is here. Over in the walled area is Charles B. Garrett, a veteran of the War of 1812, one of many Wyandots who fought alongside the United States against Britain. Members of the Zane family are in the row at the edge of the trees, each descended from the tribe’s beloved Chief Tarhe and the founders of Zanesville. Nearby is Henry Jacquis, who was chief of the Wyandot when they mustered strength to come here 160 years ago.
“Does it feel different to you?” English says as a breeze lifts her fine white hair off her neck.
English visited the cemetery as a child, picnicking with her family and listening to stories about her tribal ancestors. Her favorite was about Tarhe, a wise and strong leader who happened to be her great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
She loves to hear these stories. She wants them to be told again and again. Stories that have their roots in Ohio.
The crowd at Fort Greenville rumbled with translators and rustled in ceremonial hawk feathers, buckskin and cotton cloth. On an August day in 1795, more than 100 Indian chiefs gathered on Ohio’s western plains. They were the Delaware of Sandusky River, Ottawa of Maumee River, Shawnee and Miami of western Ohio and Potawatomi from southern Michigan. Their leaders were called Michikinakwa or Little Turtle, Weyapiersenwaw or Blue Jacket, and Buckongahelas.
Across the table stood men with lapels and brass buttons. They were assistants to American Maj. Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, and they included William Henry Harrison.
As everyone watched, the parchment was unrolled, and Chief Tarhe took pen in hand. Eight months of negotiations had led to that moment, a moment that could for ever change how Indians would live in Ohio.
It was time for Tarhe to sign the Treaty of Greenville.
By signing, the tribes would give up two- thirds of their Ohio lands. Only the north west corner would be theirs, from the Cuyahoga River west, from Lake Erie half way south to the Ohio River. They also would share $20,000 in goods and another $10,000 every year. They still could hunt on their old lands, but they would have to let more Americans settle on the little land they had left.
If Tarhe could change things, he would. He’d push the Americans away. Far away. For good.
But he no longer believed that could hap pen. The Americans were too strong. They had beaten the British and the Indians in the Revolutionary War. Under Wayne’s command, they had won the Battle of Fallen Timbers, north of Fort Meigs, crushing the Indian resistance.
The loss was more painful because of betrayal. When the Indians ran to a British fort for help from their old friends, the tall gates were slammed shut in fear. The Americans had them pinned, and Indians fell everywhere. Many were shot while crossing back over the Maumee River.
Ten Wyandot chiefs died. The mourning Tarhe was the only leader to return to the Sandusky River.
He had to sign.
If he signed, it would be easier for the other tribes to sign. They looked up to Tarhe. His tribe, the Wyandot, were keepers of the council fire, keepers of the calumet, or peace pipe. The vigorous Shawnee leader Tecumseh – who boycotted the council – was a strong opinion-maker, but the Wyandot were the judges, the historians, the benevolent uncles of the North west Confederacy.
Tecumseh’s followers believed whites wanted to force them across the country and into the sea. They intended to stand their ground. But Tarhe’s peacemaking confederacy clung optimistically to the expanding edge of the United States.
It was a wild, wild west filled with tired refugees. Indians had been through more than a century of war, disease, poisonous liquor and disappearing land and all the comforts that went with it. Tarhe and his followers wanted to live in peace and save what was left.
He leaned his long frame over the page. His dark hair was parted in the center over an aquiline nose, long neck and 6-foot, 4-inch frame. He was taller than most Indians, and most whites. Tarhe, the Crane, they called him.
Tarhe and his warriors once saved a white woman from a band of torturing Del aware. By the time Tarhe got to her, she had been stripped, bound and painted black, the mark of death. He also protected a Christian Wyandot woman from her battering heathen husband.
Tall man, big heart, sound mind.
“Brothers!” Tarhe said to all.
“We now establish a general, permanent and lasting peace forever. Be strong, brothers, and fulfill your engagements.”
Many Indian freedoms were disappearing, but Tarhe was optimistic.
He had signed treaties before, and the words of this one were different:
“The United States will protect all the said Indian tribes in the quiet enjoyment of their lands against all citizens of the United States, and against all other white persons who intrude upon the same.”
He lifted his pen. He imagined a fence, a big, strong fence to protect his people.
The fence did not last.
In 1817, only 22 years later, a new treaty was drawn. The Treaty of Fort Meigs shrunk the fence around the Indians of Ohio. They were told they had too much land, 4 million acres too much, acres that could be sold to raise money for a struggling new nation.
Who would speak for the struggling old nation?
Tecumseh was gone, dead in the War of 1812. Tarhe, an American hero in that war, was dead of pneumonia. His successor, Duon-quot or Half King, couldn’t find an army if he tried. New diseases had wiped out many of his tribe, and liquor was killing others. Now the several hundred remaining Wyandot had to hunt the little spaces where the white man hadn’t settled. They had to relocate to a scrap of land 12 miles square around Upper Sandusky.
In return, the government would give the Indians money to live on, encouragement to farm and the word of Our Lord.
Whether they wanted it or not.
On a Sabbath day after the signing, Wyandots filled the log benches at the council house. They had come each Sunday because they were moved by John Stew art’s sermons about abstaining from alcohol and being ready for judgment day. They heard hope in this Methodist man’s words.
But that week’s sermon was unlike the others. Stewart told his audience that their Indian ways were sinful and dis pleasing to the Great Spirit. They must stop painting their faces and believing it would ward off evil. They must no longer dance and feast to honor forest spirits.
They must accept the Lord, Jesus Christ, and all his ways.
Wyandot chiefs John Hicks and Mononcue were stunned. Surely Stewart didn’t mean it.
“Cast your eyes over the world,” he said. “There are almost as many different systems of religions as there are nations. Say that is not the work of the Lord. We are willing to receive good ad vice from you, but we are not willing to have the customs of our fathers assailed and abused.”
If God wanted Indians to have his word in a book, he would have given them one, he said. “Ours is a religion that suits us red people, and we intend to keep and preserve it sacred among us.”
Stewart pressed on, drawing faith from his own experience. He was a free black man from Virginia who once fell into alcoholism. Then he found God and a better life. If this grace had worked for him, he knew it could work for spiritually exhausted Indians.
He told the Indians that before the Son of God ascended into heaven, he asked his disciples to go and preach his word to all nations.
“Not to white people only,” he said, “but to all nations . . . white, Indian and African,” each with a share in salvation.
The traditionalist Wyandots searched their souls. Was it possible to give up the old ways? Turn their backs on what the proud, strong ancients had given them?
They would have to put aside forever their story of creation, how the wife of the ruler of the sky world plucked and ate a blossom from the sacred tree of light. How she fell to the watery lower world. How a council of turtles took some soil that fell from that tree’s roots and built her a home on one turtle’s back.
How that home was the very land they stood upon.
At a later Sunday service, a spell seemed to come over some of the Indians. They called out for mercy, falling to the floor and professing their Christianity.
Big Tree converted. He was a tribe elder who still wore the silver ear bobs of tradition, ornaments that made his lobes grow down to his shoulders. What he wanted more than anything else was to see his tribe strong again. Inside his home of meticulously fitted cornstalks, he dropped to his knees and embraced prayer. “O Homendezue,” he said in Wyandot, “tamentare, tamentare.” (Oh, Great Spirit, take pity on me, take pity on me.)
Between-the-Logs converted next. Tall, sad-eyed and warm, he had been Tarhe’s right-hand man. But he had lived with paralyzing guilt ever since he killed his wife in a blind, drunken rage. He had given up drink, but it had not made him whole. Stewart provided the missing piece: a religion with forgiveness.
Mononcue talked about it to Hicks. “I begin to feel somewhat inclined to abandon a good many of our Indian customs,” he said, “but I cannot agree to give up painting my face.” It would, he believed, make him sick.
Yet he continued to think about converting and continued to talk with Stew art at the meetings.
When the next traditional feast rolled around, Stewart received a formal invitation. The “heathens” wanted him to see, once again, exactly how good-natured a feast can be. He accepted in the spirit of diplomacy.
The aroma of cooked deer and bear were in the air, and the music began. The first dancer let out three shrieks, making Stewart jump. Driving rhythms, peals of flutes and the lusty drone of a conch-shell horn built layers of musical momentum.
Some of the young men were dancing near him and cutting what he thought were some of the most ludicrous figures imaginable. They threw their heads to one shoulder and closed their eyes, then threw their heads back so hard he thought they might dislocate their neck bones. They bent forward so low he thought they might touch the ground. All the while their arms were akimbo and their feet kept time with the music.
Mononcue watched, watched some more, and finally could not hold himself back. A crestfallen Stewart saw him take his place in the circle of dancers. Mononcue started moving his feet to the beat like the others, at one with the others, lost yet found, head up, head down, in patterns that ran through the oldest, deepest parts of his soul.
It was not easy to walk the white man’s way.
Wyandot chiefs spread the Methodist word
On a summer day in 1826, the gaslights dimmed at the Peale Museum in Philadelphia and a smaller light came on behind a wheel of pictures. As the wheel started turning, the pictures blurred, then emerged distinct, moving as if they were alive.
A party of four from Upper Sandusky, Ohio – three Wyandot Indians and one white minister – watched the action un fold: The devil and a drunk were in a tug-of-war. They pulled this way and that until the devil grabbed the foot of the drunk and flipped him off his feet. The show ended in darkness, followed by silence.
“Waugh,” said an amazed Mononcue, a chief in the tribe.
Mononcue, a second chief named Between-the-Logs, interpreter Samuel Brown and the Rev. James Finley were on a well-deserved sightseeing break. In the first two weeks, they covered a lot of ground.
They rode horseback to San dusky Bay, took a steamboat to Buffalo (where a choppy Lake Erie made the chiefs seasick), canal boat to Schenectady and stagecoach to New York and Philadelphia. They were touring east ern cities, preaching, raising money at Methodist events and impressing everyone.
They were the most civilized savages cityfolk had ever seen. Possibly the only Indians the whites ever had seen.
After the picture show, some one at the museum asked them to return the next day. Finley, who ran the Ohio mission, did not commit.
The next morning, a local pa per carried an item saying the chiefs would be appearing at the museum. Finley suspected a “catchpenny maneouvre” and declined the invitation by letter. But curiosity got the best of him, and he and Brown showed up outside the museum just to see if the notice had stirred interest. The streets were mobbed with carriages.
Their stories about the mission created an even greater sensation among the Methodists. After 10 years of missionary work in Up per Sandusky, the church had more than 200 members, nearly half the reservation.
It was a white, red and black congregation, and notably sober.
Its agricultural program was fruitful, and the vocational school was so good, heathens were enrolling their children.
Wyandots were forsaking their bark homes and building sturdier homes made of logs. The United States had given them a gristmill in recognition of their service in the War of 1812. (“Indians always served first,” said the list of rules.) The government also had provided money to build a church, with plenty of Indians volunteering to pull the lime stone slabs out of the Sandusky River bottom and stack them into walls.
The Indians attributed the changes to Finley, who they said led them by example.
Mononcue and Between-the-Logs were eager to show off the results. On the road, they took turns preaching.
In Baltimore, Between-the-Logs spoke in front of several thousand Methodists, describing the changes that their religion had made for his people.
“The Great Spirit has taken the tomahawk out of our hands, and his love has taken it out of our hearts, and buried it so deep [in the earth] that it will never rise again,” he told them. “And this peace shall go to all people, and it will bury all war, and make all the world love like brothers. For Jesus died himself to make peace. Yes, my brothers, he died.”
Brown, the interpreter, was not feeling well. Between-the-Logs told him to rest and proceeded to perform a pantomime of the crucifixion. He said the word Jesus plainly and then knelt, praying, eyes beseeching heaven. The crowd was struck with quiet. He stretched his hand across a wooden post and “nailed” his forefinger into it. Praises to God rolled across the room. He did the same to his feet. More praise. His head dropped to his shoulder, suggesting death. The crowd was weep ing and shouting.
Finally, Between-the-Logs lifted his vest and, using his other hand like a spear, struck his side as if aiming for the heart. He drew it back with a whizzing noise, as if blood was flowing. He held out his hand, as though blood were dripping off it.
A flood of tears rushed through the crowd, and the wail of the faithful sailed over it. Christ was dead, but the Christian Indian was born.
The four were ready to go back to Ohio. The city was noisy, and the hotel beds were too soft. They rolled out their blankets and slept on the floors instead.
But now more people knew that the Wyandot were a special tribe. The church, the government and the Indians themselves could see the changes in Upper Sandusky. So when their Indian agent started asking them if they would like to move to a reservation out West, they talked it over. The heathens felt a move would remove them from the evils of white culture and help preserve tribal ways. But the majority, led by the Christians, did not want to leave all that had been built and buried. They also remembered Tarhe believed there would al ways be a fence around their land, protecting his people. They would never have to leave.
They declined the offer by letter.
A few years later, in 1830, President Andrew Jackson submitted a bill to Congress that would allow the government to give tribes new land west of the Mississippi in ex change for their land east of the Mississippi. It would pay for more than 100,000 Indians to move and help them live their first year on new territory.
Jackson pushed hard. The de bate was heated and rushed, with little chance for fact-finding or strategy. Congress passed the In dian Removal Act, 102 to 97.
More than one Wyandot wondered if the fence around them would hold.
The Beginning of the End
William Walker Jr. was no fool. The son of a white man captured by Indians and a part- Wyandot woman, he was business-savvy in both worlds. He was a Wyandot chief, expert on Wyandot history, prolific writer, manager of a general store and postmaster of Upper Sandusky, Ohio.
He did not want his tribe to give up their Ohio lands and move to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi.
Why should they? The Wyandot reservation in 1831 might have been small, but it was a fine piece of property. Fifty miles south of Lake Erie, it still had canopies of trees, a curvaceous river and soil almost magically fertile. Those 100,000 acres held a mill, a mission church and a school. Hundreds of log homes clustered on its protected plains.
Who would trade it for the unknown?
Not Walker. And not his tribe.
The federal government thought otherwise.
One year after President Andrew Jackson rushed his Indian Removal Act through Congress, James B. Gardiner, an ardent Jacksonian, came knocking at the Wyandots’ door. He had been hired to make treaties with Indians. He wanted to know if they would like to trade this reservation for a roomier one out west.
No, they said. They would not. They had told him so in the past.
Gardiner pointed out that other Ohio tribes had agreed to make the move, including the Shawnee, Ottawa and Seneca.
The Seneca actually welcomed the removal act and the money Congress put behind it. They had been asking the government for years to move them away from the harassment and bad influence of their white neighbors. And they only lived 30 miles north of the Wyandot.
The Wyandot understood harassment, and they knew that the increase in white settlers meant a decrease in hunting grounds. But the majority of Indians, led by Christians and businessmen such as Walker, thought they had something that could never be replaced.
The government had told them so only a few years ago. Federal inspector John L. Leib reported that they were the only tribe that was “entirely reclaimed” by civilization. It would be cruel to remove them, he said. “They ought to be cherished and preserved as a model of a colony.”
Another government man once told them that they should never sell their land. And wasn’t that man Lewis Cass, the current Secretary of War, who was now calling the shots on removal? Talk about speaking with a forked tongue.
The answer about moving was no. But this would be for their own good, Gar diner said.
That’s what President James Monroe said back in 1825, and now this was what President Jackson was saying. Even their longtime friend, Indian agent John Johnston of Piqua, was saying it. He said the Indians must leave sooner or later.
“Would it not be better,” he wrote the Rev. James Finley at the Upper Sandusky Methodist mission, for them to “have a country which would be theirs forever?”
Finley, who had been converting tribe members, fired back. Had Johnston for gotten that he once promised the Indians could have these lands forever?
No, the Wyandot said again. We will not leave. After all, why should we pick up and move to a place we’ve never seen?
Gardiner turned away but came back with money for an all-expenses-paid trip to Indian territory in the West.
That was more like it.
William Walker Jr. led the six-man expedition chosen by the tribe. He took them by horse to Cincinnati, steamboat to Kansas and overland to the Little Platte River Valley in Missouri.
The journey took three months, and when the group came back, the answer was no. Quite specifically, no. Walker had some hefty criticisms: no sugar maples, no good soil, not enough game. They would have to share the land with other tribes for nine years, and the whites around there were no better than the whites back home. He called them “fugitives from justice from the states of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee.” Also, Walker pointed out, Missouri was a slave state. “Slaveholders are seldom very friendly to Indians.”
The discussion was over. Gardiner fumed. He accused members of the expedition of going into the trip with a negative attitude and spending most of their time bear hunting.
He didn’t last long on the job.
Still, other Indian agents came knocking.
They came in 1834, when the Ohio legislature passed a resolution asking the federal government to get rid of the tribe. All that good land was going to waste, just when the canal and the railroad were coming through.
They came in 1836, non-Christian Wyandot furious when the tribe’s Christians turned a treaty down again. Warpole, one of the chiefs, got so mad he pulled a knife at a tribal council meeting. He and two others landed in jail.
They came in 1837 with liquor, offering plenty of drinks before getting Indians to sign a petition saying they wanted to leave. The petition was not recognized.
And they came in 1839, inviting Indians to take another look out West.
As always, the Wyandot community was tormented by the news. Would they go? Would they stay? Momentum slowed, the reservation went unkempt, and people were drinking more.
William Walker Jr. was having trouble getting his work done. He was not re-elected chief.
The tribe wanted somebody tougher. They knew more government men would come knocking.
A Revered Wyandot Chief Is Murdered
The news arrived in searing images on a December day in 1841: Bodies hidden under brush. Axes through their heads. White murderers on the run.
And good Chief Summunduwat was dead.
Details blurred and conflicted. There were two attackers. Or three. Indians dismembered. Or not. Murderers living 18 miles away. Or seven.
One fact remained: Summunduwat, the Wyandot leader with the heart of an Indian and the soul of a Christian, was gone.
The tribe shuddered.
Oh, to cast aside that scene of violence and hold fast to a more peaceful image of the man. A man who lived a rich life.
Summunduwat was a full-blooded Wyandot who had given up his massive feathered headdress at the moment of his conversion. It was taken off and put into the fire, just before he fell to his knees.
The Indian religion “was all outward,” he once told a visiting Methodist bishop. “There was nothing in it to reach the heart.”
A heart now stilled.
In a scene reminiscent of Jesus turning the money-changers out of the temple, Summunduwat once locked himself inside the mission church. It was no place for Indian agents to distribute annuities, he said. And that was that.
Who would lock out the money- changers now?
Just before he died, he had been on his winter hunt, a few days’ ride north of Upper Sandusky.
It was fruitful. He could sit by the light of the campfire knowing his horses would head home stacked high with deer and raccoon skins.
The hides were money in his pocket. Better yet, they were a merciful sign that the western plains of Ohio still held bounty for its native people.
Lord, did they not?
Whites who lived nearby chased the murderers to their home and found them with all the chief’s belongings. They had the hides, the tools, the gems, the horses – even the dogs.
They also discovered the ruse. The murderers had told Summunduwat that they were lost and needed directions. Could they stay by the firelight for the evening and go their way in the morning? The tall, muscle-toned chief agreed and offered them food to eat. He said his prayers and went to bed.
Middle of the night, the axes came down.
The men who went West with Summunduwat on a land-scouting party remembered him sharing good times at traditional dances and ballgames with the Seneca tribe. They remembered how upset he had been at the Ar kansas Statehouse, seeing the bloodstained chair of a murdered state senator. The chief didn’t think it was right to find blood on a chair in the middle of civilization.
Now his blood stained the for est.
The Wyandot got some relief when two of the three suspects, James Lyons and John Ander son, landed in the Henry County jail. But the relief was short- lived. Within a few weeks, they escaped their negligent jailer.
The third suspect, John Ellsworth, showed up in the Wood County jail on counterfeiting charges.
But Wood and Henry County officials refused to spend the money to prosecute Ellsworth. Indian agent John Johnston pleaded with the Commission of Indian Affairs for help, but it was denied.
The Wyandots’ great Chief Tarhe believed that the government’s treaty provided a protective fence around the tribe. But justice around the reservation had crumbled once again. If an Indian stole from a white, an In dian agent would take the money out of the Indian’s government account and pay the white. If a white stole from an Indian, there was no money, no jurisdiction and often no justice.
The Wyandot had their own form of justice. Compensation was a large part of it. If a woman lost a son in a battle, she might get a captive – white or Indian – to replace him.
Outright murder carried a more severe penalty. In the old days, the murderer was tied to the ground, face up. The victim would be sus pended above him, decaying onto his dying killer. In Summunduwat’s time, the sentence was quicker: death by firing squad.
Summunduwat’s murder occurred off the reservation, so the case was out of the tribe’s hands.
Hardly a “case.” It was a big hole in the rotting fence around them.
Almost immediately after Summunduwat died, the government showed up to offer land out west again. The Indians went for a look. They came home and started talking. The federal government was represented by John Johnston, the Indian agent well-known to the tribe. The Wyandot brought in John McIntire Armstrong, a part-Wyandot who recently had passed the Ohio bar exam. The Indians also came armed with independent land assessments.
Talks went on for 11 months. When they were done, in late 1842, the Wyandot had the largest removal settlement of any Ohio tribe. They would get nearly the going rate for land prices in Ohio, payment for reservation improvements, an annuity of $17,500 – $6,000 more than what the government originally offered. Some tribe principals got extra land.
Many Wyandot still didn’t want to leave. But staying was a diminishing option. If the government actually kept its word this time, the tribe could go any where and build one mighty strong fence around itself.
The Wyandot Begin The Long, Sad Journey West
One month after the Wyandot signed a treaty to leave Ohio, English writer Charles Dickens came to town. His arrival on the April day in 1842 was purely coincidental. Upper Sandusky was a stagecoach stop on Dickens’ trip from Cincinnati to Niagara Falls.
After a spine-rattling ride along Ohio’s stump-filled roads, he and his traveling companions spent the night at the town’s log inn. When one of his friends found himself sharing a room with a snorer, the friend took refuge in the coach itself. But it wasn’t a good . . . well, this is how Dickens described it:
“This was not a very politic step as it turned out, for the pigs scenting him, and looking upon the coach as a kind of pie with some manner of meat inside, grunted round it so hideously, that he was afraid to come out again and lay there shivering till morning.”
Worse, Dickens couldn’t get a glass of brandy to warm him. Not in an Indian village, where the government didn’t allow it. A pity, he wrote, since they could get liquor – of a greater price and lesser quality – from black-market sellers.
Dickens saw the Indians on the streets, thinking that they looked like “a fine people, but degraded and broken down.” They reminded him of gypsies at home in London. He thought they must be related to that “wandering and restless people.”
He ate breakfast with none other than John Johnston, the Indian agent who had negotiated the Wyandot treaty. Dickens thought Johnston was a mild old gentleman, and while the author was saddened by the Indians’ fate, he seemed to take the agent’s word that removal was the best thing for them.
And that was it. The champion of the underclass in his own city packed up and left to go see one of the natural wonders of the world.
Dickens was not in town a few months later when the wagons started assembling for the move west. There were 120 wagons and about 300 horses. And plenty of liquor sellers.
They came day and night, clinging to the wagon train like leeches.
They came with pocket bottles, jugs and barrels. They returned when Indians slept so they could steal provisions, harnesses and even the linchpins from the wagon wheels.
Who could defeat them? Who possibly could keep sober a slow- rolling procession of more than 600 people?
It was bad enough that the Wyandot had to leave their home in Upper Sandusky for an unknown territory in the West. They also had to run the gauntlet of civilization’s evils.
To make it to Cincinnati’s steamboats in one week, they became their own law enforcers. They set up watches and patrols. One whiff of firewater which was particularly devastating to Indians and they flew into action.
On the second day of the trip, the Wyandot were camped on the banks of the Scioto River when a man showed up with a jug. One of the guards grabbed it and started pouring the alcoholic contents on the ground. The man begged them not to waste it and told a pitiful story of need. The guard kept pouring.
Later that night, the same man showed up in camp dispensing liquor not from a jug, but from a big barrel at the back of his wagon. The Indian guards rolled the barrel out of the wagon, poured the liquor out and tossed the barrel into the river. Another seller, frightened by the action, hopped on his horse and took off, Indians in close pursuit.
The struggle for sobriety continued throughout the trip, but the tribe faced a bigger battle: the toll of grief.
Few wished to leave their stone church and the bones of their dead. They refused to sell that property and, for protection, dug up the remains of beloved chiefs Between-the-Logs and Summunduwat and transferred them to it.
Church services had stepped up in the weeks before the move. So did tears.
In his final address, Chief Squire Grey-Eyes said a melancholy farewell.
“No more shall Sandusky’s plains and forests echo to the voice of song and praise,” he said. “No more shall we assemble in our temple to sing the sacred songs and hear the story of the cross.
“Here our dead are buried. We have placed fresh leaves and flowers upon their graves for the last time.
“Soon they shall be forgotten, for the onward march of the strong white man will not turn aside for the Indian graves.”
Federal Indian agent Purdy McElvain, who was interested in buying parts of the reservation, described the tribe’s parting mood as one of “perfect resignation.”
The trail to Cincinnati produced a few groves of peace, places to read the Bible and hear some preaching. But it was otherwise rugged. It was full of wheel-sucking swamps, of stumps that rocked the wagons and narrow, overgrown passages that clawed the canvas coverings. Worse were the towns where white men stood at the edge of dusty streets and stared at the Indians as they passed. More than one Indian felt this was not a people equipped to teach proper manners.
It was the same in every town – Bellefontaine, Urbana, Springfield, Xenia and Lebanon.
In Cincinnati, crowds of curious whites were escorted off the riverboats to make room for the Indian passengers. The pressing attention sent a buggy horse into a start, knocking his driver off and breaking his legs. A cry of “fire” on a nearby riverboat proved true, but the threat was quickly snuffed. An ill Indian child and a 103-year-old woman died as soon as they got on board.
Liquor sellers, as usual, were everywhere.
The night before the boats left the dock, an Indian long soured on brew staggered aboard, lost his balance and fell into the water. Before he drowned, other Indians could hear his last roar of life. They knew that alcohol or sadness had killed him.
He would not be with them on this journey to the unknown.
The Wyandot Board Boats Headed For The Unknown
Barely a mile from the Cincinnati dock, the steamboat Nodaway’s growling engines fell silent and her floors stopped shaking. Capt. Cleghorn prepared for a salute.
On July 21, 1843, a line of Wyandots formed on the top deck. Each man pulled his hat from his head in a sign of recognition. The boat faced the Ohio riverbank and the grave of William Henry Harrison.
The ship’s cannon fired, thrashing the silence.
The men standing had fought with Gen. Harrison in the War of 1812, helping the United States quell the last rally of the British in American territory.
It had been a controversial move, since Tecumseh and his warriors fought against the Americans. They intended to halt settlers in their tracks. The Wyandot, led by Tarhe, believed the Americans would prevail and wanted to live with them in peace.
“Let me tell you, if you should defeat the American army this time, you are not done,” Tarhe’s messenger, Between-the-Logs, had told tribes near Detroit.
“Another will come on, and if you defeat that, still another will appear that you cannot withstand, one that will come like the waves of the great water and overwhelm you, and sweep you from the face of the Earth.”
Although the Wyandot fought alongside the Americans, they too were being swept from Ohio. By treaty, more than 600 of them were leaving a land that had become greedy, bullying and hostile. They were the last tribe to be removed from the state, no longer its residents.
But still its veterans.
“Farewell Ohio and her brave,” Chief Henry Jacquis called out from the deck.
The engines fired up and the Nodaway’s paddle churned ahead, its tall stacks leaving billows of sooty smoke.
Indians weren’t fond of steamboats. Canoes were good enough to get anywhere, including across the fickle Lake Erie.
Steamboats were mechanical monsters. Instead of human power, they took wood, fire and boiling water to run. They were known to explode, catch fire and sink. They were bigger than many log houses put together, and when they moved, the fire in their bellies roared.
Some Shawnee, Seneca and Ottawa refused to be removed by boat. “They do not wish to . . . be scalded, ‘like the white man cleans his hog,’ “ wrote Indian agent James B. Gardiner.
But the choice of those tribes to move by land became – with the ineptitude of the federal government – a tragedy of bad weather, sickness and death. The Seneca alone lost 30 of their tribe.
The Wyandot knew this and were the only tribe given permission to organize their own removal. Within the group were several reassuring chiefs and former chiefs who had gone on earlier land-hunting expeditions.
The broad Ohio River was the country’s entrance to the infant states of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois and the unexplored West. For those seeking fortune, the boat trip could be a dally through the green bosom of the country. Deer, bear, elk and buffalo could be spotted across the steep round hills on either side.
But for the displaced, like the Wyandot, each turn in the river brought a fear of the unknown.
Worse, children fell seriously ill from the measles after someone carrying the disease came aboard in Cincinnati.
The Ohio River took the Wyandot to the Mississippi and upriver to the Missouri. The water churned there, startling Indians who had never seen rapids.
Capt. Cleghorn grew more irritable as the weeklong trip progressed. He was convinced the Indians were going to ruin his furnishings. He rolled up his carpets and packed them away and limited the Indians’ movement on the boat.
A few miles from their final destination, he stopped and insisted that the Indians leave the boat overnight. He said he had to make a trip upriver. There was but one small house for lodging, so most of the tribe, including children, slept unprotected outdoors. They awoke sopping with dew to see that the boat had never left.
There was no cause for celebration when they arrived on July 28 at their final destination in Westport, Mo., near Kansas City. The Kansas land promised by treaty was no longer available. Until December, they camped on lowlands. Floods there were so vicious, they left buffalo carcasses rotting in the trees. Fatal diseases swept in with them.
Every time they buried one of their own, the Wyandot marched up a hill near the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers. The scrap of land was a gift from the Delaware tribe.
They marched up to the small cemetery more than 100 times in the year after they left Ohio. They carried elders, children and those in between.
The tear-stained hill belonged to the dead. Chief Jacquis and his tribe wondered if this hill of sadness and bones was all they would ever own.
Wyandot Fight For The Right To Rest In Peace
The Conley sisters were up on the cemetery hill with shotguns. Word of it flew around Kansas City, Kan., in 1906.
Fine ladies, those sisters. Good Kansas stock. Lyda and Lena commuted to college by rowing across the Missouri River. After graduation, Lyda taught telegraphy at the local business college and Sunday school at the Methodist church. She also passed the Missouri bar exam.
Now, these part-Wyandot women, both in their 40s, were ready to pass buckshot into the first person to disturb the graves of their ancestors.
Their own mother, Eliza Burton Zane Conley, was buried there. So were others descended from the founders of Zanesville, Ohio, and from the respected Chief Tarhe, leader of the Wyandot in Upper Sandusky.
The Indian burial ground in down town Kansas City also held Wyandot- American veterans of the War of 1812, infants who died from measles during the journey from Ohio in 1843 and some 60 Indians who died homeless and fevered during their first cold months on flooded Kansas lowlands.
May they rest in peace.
Or else – the Conleys decided.
The Wyandot had other cemeteries. Quindaro, north and west of town, served Wyandots who once ran an underground railroad operation there. There was another in Oklahoma, where some 200 members of the tribe fled after the Civil War turned Kansas City into a brutal battleground.
But 63 years after the Wyandot came 1,000 miles from Ohio, the cemetery in Kansas City told their fullest story.
To many, like the Conleys, it was the tribe’s most sacred ground.
So when the Oklahoma Wyandotte tried to sell the Kansas City cemetery for profit and move remains elsewhere, the Kansas Wyandot were shaken to the core.
Permission for the transaction had appeared at the last minute within a congressional bill. Right after the bill passed, the government sent a team to Kansas City to take bids on the land.
Lyda and Lena didn’t waste a minute, either.
In the dark of a summer night, they slipped into the cemetery with a load of building supplies. They put “No Trespassing” signs on the graves of their relatives.
They built a shack with windows on all sides, got in and loaded both barrels.
Two American flags stood by as emergency armor. Should “the troops” show up, Lyda said, they would wrap themselves in the flags and dare them to shoot.
They were only two women, but the Conleys had lots of support. Compared with other tribes, the Wyandot women had strong roles. They had the job of choosing chiefs and keeping oral histories and laws. The Jesuits in Canada had tried to teach them to be submissive to their husbands, not realizing their hallowed tradition of being proud, ill-tempered and disobedient.
The Conley sisters stood their ground when women across the country were standing their ground. They did not yet have the vote, but they were protesting and gaining rights day by day: right to divorce, to own land, to practice law. Local women’s reading clubs expressed support for “the Conley girls.”
Yet Lyda knew the sword was not always mightier than the law. She filed injunctions left and right to stop the sale. When those failed, she filed more, including the claim that the cemetery had been given to the tribe in a treaty. No court had ever recognized such a claim, and no court had ever recognized a “moral imperative” to save American Indian burial grounds.
Lyda lost those claims, too. Undaunted, she stepped up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1909.
Only two women had argued in the country’s highest court, and Lyda couldn’t appear without a Washington lawyer to vouch for her abilities. She couldn’t find one and refused to let anybody else argue her case.
“No lawyer would plead for the grave of my mother as I could,” she said.
She decided to argue as a citizen rather than a lawyer.
In preparing her argument for cemetery preservation, she wrote, “I cannot believe that this is superstitious reverence, any more than I can believe that the reverence every true American has for the grave of Washington at Mount Vernon is a superstitious reverence.”
The court was impressed, but unconvinced. It ruled the treaty was not legally enforceable. The United States “was bound . . . only by honor, not by law.”
Still, Lyda and Lena had won the war. They had developed such a strong following in town that anyone trying to buy the cemetery would face a solid fence of public opposition.
The cemetery was safe. For a while.
A new battle begins
The Oklahoma Wyandotte tried several times to sell the cemetery, but things did not get as hot until some 90 years after the Conley stand.
In the 1990s, the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma decided to build a casino in Kansas. Of the four Wyandot Nations – also in Kansas, Michigan and Canada – the Oklahoma group is the only tribe recognized by the U.S. government. They claim certain downtown lands still belong to them, including the cemetery. Word got around that, if necessary, they would build a casino right on top of the graves.
A collective gasp came from the Kansas City community and drew headlines across the country. The Kansas Wyandot were enraged, still burying their dead on this last scrap of shared land.
Other shared land had disappeared long ago. The federal government started dismantling Indian reservations in the 1850s, dividing them into individual family farms for tribe members and selling off the rest. Tribal governments were expected to disband as well.
Not all tribes lost their reservations, but the Kansas Wyandot did. Over the decades, their small shared cemetery became more dear.
Leaford Bearskin, current chief of the Oklahoma tribe, said his group never intended to build a casino on the cemetery, and that the idea was cooked up and spread by casino opponents.
But Harold Walker, the city’s law director, said he heard the tribe’s lawyers talk about building on the cemetery. Walker believed the Oklahoma tribe did it to get attention. They are one of several former Kansas tribes attempting to build casinos in the city.
Relations between the Oklahoma and Kansas tribes grew threadbare through the ordeal.
But in 1999, after the cemetery casino idea had died, representatives of the four Wyandot nations met in Midland, Mich., for reconciliation.
And today they work together, all Wyandot.
An evening of peace
On an early evening in June, most of downtown Kansas City is a canyon of concrete shadows. The golden light of late day catches the hilltop cemetery, seeming to burnish every leaf, every blade of grass. Janith English, principal chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, has come from her modest home in the suburbs for her one- woman cemetery cleanup duty, armed with trash bags and disinfectant wipes.
The city’s rare green space lures kids looking for summer shade. It brings the homeless to the shelter of a low stone wall around the Garrett family grave site. A trumpeter shows up to practice a lyrical solo to empty city sidewalks.
English picks up empty quart beer bottles and fast-food wrappers. Her tall and broad-shouldered frame moves purposefully in the warm light as she scans the grass with her delicate yet fiery blue eyes.
She would prefer not to talk about the cemetery casino proposal.
“It was nasty, bitter, and it’s in the past,” she says.
Neither will she talk about what happened at the reconciliation, although she says it was meaningful.
“I never knew how powerful forgiveness could be,” she says.
English sits, remembering sack lunches here with her Aunt Edith, who would tell stories about the great Wyandot leader Chief Tarhe and her other ancestors.
English is French and English, too. But her aunt’s stories made her feel more Wyandot than anything else.
“Timeless,” is the word she uses to describe the feeling.
If English had her way, her tribe would regain their federal recognition. They filed a petition 11 years ago, becoming one of hundreds of tribes still waiting for an answer. Unlike the Oklahoma group, which runs several businesses for the benefit of its tribe, the Kansas nation is not interested in gaming.
But they are interested in establishing a health center for urban Indians who do not receive reserva tion health benefits. They would like to support a tribal inventor developing a green energy project. And they would like to publish information on the Wyandot culture. There is not one Wyandot left who knows how to converse in the native language.
English favors reconciliation with church, state and other Indians, even if some tribes find such ceremonies to be too little, too late.
“People are isolated by guilt and shame,” says the mental-health nurse. “Separation from others means a separation from God. Dealing with our own mistakes frees us to strive for the best in ourselves and in everyone.”
Could this have been true in Ohio 160 years ago?
English knows it would have been difficult. One people wanted to share the land, and another wanted to cut it in pieces.
“But if we can look at our history now and discuss it dispassionately, I believe we can learn from each other,” she says.
“If the Creator desires that we all live in harmony, who is to say it’s impossible? What do we have unless we hold onto our faith and hope?”
English says she wants to be buried in this cemetery. She looks around the old green space.
“I’d like to see it fenced in,” she says.
Wyandot Timeline: 1826-1830
1826: More than 250 Shawnee and Seneca move to Kansas at the encouragement of their Indian agen. No federal monies are provided, leading to hardship and misery on the route.
1828: Seneca of Sandusky region ask for removal to avoid the evils of the white population around them.
1830: Indian Removal Act passes, with a vote of 102-97 in May. The bill scuttles treaties and does not define the Indians’ constitutional rights but promises to “forever secure and guranty (sic) to them and their heirs or successors, the country so exchanged with them.” President Andrew Jackson says it will be good for them to be away from whites. “They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of imporvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition.”
Wyandot Timeline: 1831-1840
1831: The Seneca of the Sandusky River area leave Ohio for Oklahoma, the first tribe in the state to be officially removed. A grueling nine month journey through winter claims more than 30 lives. Rep. David Crockett bucks President Jackson and the Tennessee legislature and speaks against Indian removals. An Ohio Wyandot inspection committee checks out lands being offered in the West. They turn them down.
1832: In mid-September, several hundred Shawnee and Seneca leave logan County for Oklahoma. The unwieldy caravan is 80 miles long. In late September, Ottawa and Shawnee leave Wapakoneta for Kansas. The Wyandot Indian agent claims the tribe in Upper Sandusky won’t move because they are under the sinister influence of whites who are missionaries and family members. Christian Indians remain opposed to removal; others are for It. The tribe gives up its smaller reservation, Big Spring.
1833: Remaining Shawnee leave Hog Creek for Kansas.
1834: United States declares land west of the Missouri River as Indian Country. A second Wyandot inspection party looks at and rejects land offered in Kansas.
1836: Second Seminole War, one of the longest and costliest in American history. Tricked into an illegitimate removal treaty, 15,000 Cherokee in Georgia sign a petition in protest. Wyandot give up a small portion of their main reservation to the federal government; pressure for removal continues.
1837: Ottawa near Toledo are removed to Kansas. Michigan becomes the 26th state.
1838: United States sends 7,000 soldiers to remove 16,000 Cherokee by force. Whites loot their homes. The largest Trail of Tears begins, eventually taking 4,000 Indian lives. The removal act opens 25 million acres to white settlement and slavery. Upper Sandusky’s traditionalist Wyandot go to Washington to try to promote a separate removal agreement. They retum home, and their chief pulls a knife at a tribal council and lands in jail.
1839: Ohio’s remaining 150 Ottawa are removed to Kansas. A third Wyandot inspection party arrives in Kansas and is impressed. Three months later, a fourth inspection party arrives. They sign a preliminary land purchase with the Shawnee.
1840: Ohio becomes the third most populous state. The U.S. Senate rejects the Shawnee-Wyandot treaty. American public opinion generally accepts Indian removal. The Seminole say settlers value possessions and use people; Indians value people and use possessions. William Henry Harrison is elected president
Wyandot Timeline: 1844 to today
1844: Wyandot build their first Kansas church and start a debating society.
1845: Wyandot build their first Kansas school. Methodist Episcopal Church splits over the topic of slavery.
1846: Mexican War begins; some Wyandot enlist in U.S. Army.
1847: Wyandot William Walker Jr. purchases a slave, outraging many in the tribe.
1848: Tribe splits over slavery issue. Indian territory is overrun with settlers and gold rushers heading west. Some Wyandot join the search for gold.
1850: Wyandot relinquish all claims to land, getting cash payments instead.
1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act opens the territory to white settlers who take over Indian land through seizure, fraud or purchase.
1855: Wyandot become the first tribe offered citizenship by federal treaty. The Wyandot cemetery in Kansas City, Kan. , is deemed a permanent public cemetery for the tribe. Abolitionist John Brown arrives in Kansas.
1856: A group of Wyandot create Quindaro, a refuge for anti-slavery settlers. United States falls behind in payments, and many tribe members lose their land.
1857: U. S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision says Negroes cannot be citizens. About 200 Wyandot, disillusioned with Kansas, move to Seneca reservation in Oklahoma. They later flee the Civil War violence there and return to Kansas.
1859: John Brown executed for his raid on Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.
1860: Led by Cochise, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Geronimo and others, Indians resist settlers and their governments. Wyandot are counted in the “white ” category of the U. S. census. Wyandot receive land deeds. Abraham Lincoln elected president.
1861: Civil War begins.
1863: Slavery abolished in the United States. Quindaro ministers tutor children of escaped slaves.
1864: Kansas state legislature wants to remove all Indians.
1865: Civil War ends.
1867: Wyandot in Oklahoma get part of the Seneca Oklahoma reservation and federal recognition. Kansas Wyandot still fight for federal status.
1871: Congress rules that tribes are no longer nations, removing much of their political power.
1876: Some agents ban traditional Indian rituals on reserva tions. They also hold final sway over Indian courts.
1890: A Kansas senator proposes to sell the Huron Indian Cemetery in Kansas City. He is met with a storm of protests.
1899: Wyandotte of Oklahoma, now with a new spelling of the tribal name, agree to sell the cemetery to real estate speculators. Local Wyandot protest again, and the land is never sold.
1906: Congress authorizes the sale of the cemetery and removal of bodies to another Wyandot cemetery.
1908: Secretary of the Interior declares it a private cemetery.
1909: Lyda Conley, a lawyer and Wyandot, argues against the sale before the Supreme Court.
1918: City of Kansas City, Kan. , is contracted by the federal government to “forever maintain, care for and preserve ” the cemetery.
1924: Indians allowed to vote.
1940s and 1950s: Oklahoma Wyandotte try on more than one occasion to sell the cemetery again. Opposition comes from local Wyandot, the city ’s historical society and President Harry Truman.
1959: Wyandot Nation of Kansas corporates as a nonprofit.
1971: The Kansas Wyandot Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
1983: Leaford Bearskin is elected chief of the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma.
1994: Kansas City ficials and the Oklahoma Wyandotte portedly agree to move the 600 to 1,000 bodies in the cemetery so that the tribe can build a casino there. Wyandot Nation of Kansas protests.
1999: Oklahoma Wyandotte agree not to build a casino on the cemetery but are still looking for another location in the area. All Wyandot tribes agree to preserve the cemetery. In a ceremony, Wyandot from Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Canada agree to reconcile.
2003 : Wyandot Nation of Kansas, about 600 strong, still waiting for federal recognition.
Information, including dialogue, used in today’s installment of this series came from many hours of inter views with American Indian experts and from the following publications and Web sites:
“Address of Tarhe, Grand Sachem of the Wyandot Nation, to the Assemblage at the Treaty of Green ville, July 22, 1795,” Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma Web site, https://www.wyandotte-nation.org/history/tarhe_greenville_address.html
“The American Revolution,” by Edward Countryman, Hill and Wang, 2003.
“Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History,” by Helen Horn beck Tanner, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
“The Heathen’ Party: Methodist Observation of the Ohio Wyandot,” by Martin W. Walsh, University of Michigan.
“History of the Wyandott Mission at Upper Sandusky, Ohio,” by the Rev. James B. Finley, Methodist Episcopal Church, 1840.
“In the Wigwams of the Wyandots: The Story of Jonathan Pointer,” by Myrtle E. Felkner, K.Q. Associates, 1984
“Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties,” Uni versity of Oklahoma Digital Library, http://digital.library.okstate.edu/kappler/Vol2/treaties/wya0145.htm.
“The Missionary Pioneer, or A Brief Memoir of the Life, Labours, and Death of John Stewart, (Man of Colour) Founder, under God of the Mission among the Wyandotts at Upper Sandusky, Ohio,” electronic edition by Joseph Mitchell, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999, http://docsouth.unc.edu/mitchell/mitchell.html.
“Moccasin Trails to the Cross,” by Thelma R. Marsh, United Methodist His torical Society of New York, 1974.
“Tecumseh: A Life,” by John Sugden, Owl Books, 1997.
“The Ohio Frontier,” by R. Douglas Hurt, Indiana University Press, 1996.
“Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars,” Robert V. Remini, Viking, 2001.
“In a Barren Land: The American Indian Quest for Cultural Survival, 1607 to the Present,” Paula Mitchell Marks, Perennial, 1998.
Proclamation on the wall at Indian Mill Museum, Upper Sandusky.
“White, Red, and Black: The Wyandot Mission in Upper Sandusky,” by Donald L. Huber, Ohio Timeline, May/June 1996.
Original letter by John L. Leib in the Thelma Marsh Collection, Upper San dusky Public Library.
Original letters by the Rev. James Finley and John Johnston at the Hayes Presidential Center Library, Fremont.
“The Wyandot Indians, 1843 to 1876,” by Robert E. Smith Jr., Univer sity of Oklahoma, 1973.
“White Attitudes and Their Effects on the Wyandot Indian Removal,” Elizabeth L. Plummer, master’s thesis, Bowling Green State University, 1976.
“American Notes,” by Charles Dickens, St. Martin’s Press, 1874.
Letter by the Rev. James Wheeler transcribed for the Wyandot Nation of Kansas at www.wyandot.org.
“Moccasin Trails to the Cross,” by Thelma R. Marsh, United Methodist Historical Society of New York, 1974.
“The Removal of the Wyandots from Ohio,” by Carl G. Klopfenstein, Ohio Historical Quarterly, Vol. 66, April 1957.
“The Removal of the Indians From Ohio,” by Carl G. Klopfenstein, from “The Historic Indian in Ohio,” edited by Randall Buchman, Ohio Historical Society, 1976.
‘Trespassers, Beware!’: Lyda Burton Conley and the Battle for Huron Place Cemetery,” by Kim Dayton, Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 1996. Can be found at www.wyandot.org.
“The Rights of Indians and Tribes, The Authoritative ACLU Guide,” by Stephen L. Pevar, Southern Illinois University Press, Third Edition, 2002.
© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.