By Lloyd Divine
The earthquake rumbled across Eastern Kansas shaking Eliza and little John Jr., her newborn son, from their afternoon nap. John Sr. abandoned the plow mules on a fifteen-acre cornfield as he ran to the cabin to check on his wife, four daughters and son. The earthquake was centered near Manhattan, a distance of about eighty-five miles from their cabin. Located on an eighty-acre allotment, the cabin was on the far western edge of what was once the Wyandot Reserve. Just a little over seven miles due east of the Bland homestead was Silas Armstrong’s allotment. Silas was Eliza’s uncle and his allotment, near the junction of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, would be the epicenter from which Kansas City, Kansas would expand. Kansas City was formed in 1868 and would eventually become a full-fledged metropolis as designed and desired by Silas. The city would grow over the ensuing years and eventually consume the cornfield under a bustling highway in the 1960s.
The Kansas earthquake on April 24, 1867 was a very rare event, but significant for many within the Indian Party of Wyandots. Chief Tauromee had just two months earlier secured an agreement with the United States Government and a treaty was signed on February 23, 1867. The treaty established a new home for the Wyandot who rejected US citizenship, with the desire to remain Wyandot. The healing process began at the close of the American Civil War. Mother Earth was using the earthquake to repair the last of the damage suffered during the bloody years of the War. The Wyandot needed some time to repair their wounds as they too had suffered much loss. Stress and tension had been high for too long and something had to give after so much had been taken. The losses suffered by the Wyandot, along with their loyalty to the Union, was instrumental in securing their reinstatement. Trying to stay and live in Kansas while remaining Wyandot would prove impossible. Moving again to Indian Territory would bring much unwelcome hardship, not that what they had already endured had been easy. Moving would be a high price to pay for remaining true to the noble heritage that preceded them.
John Bland, Jr was born on February 24, 1867 in a small modest cabin. John’s birth, the day after Chief Tauromee signed the Treaty reestablishing the Wyandot as a Federally recognized tribe, represented the first born of a new Wyandotte era. His life would represent the plight of many Wyandotte, the difficult decisions they had to make, and the fruitful rewards for their perseverance as given to hopeful future generations. John’s mother, Eliza Armstrong Bland, had experienced similar circumstances as a child. She was born in Ohio in 1838 and was five years old when the Wyandot left for Kansas in July of 1843 aboard the steamboats Nodaway and Republic. In John’s 1937 WPA interview, he stated that he too would have been five years old when in 1872 his family left Kansas in six covered wagons for the long difficult journey to Indian Territory in the dead of winter.
At that time, in a family with all sisters, John’s birth was the hope of carrying on the family name. In 1867 the importance and understanding of the Wyandot clan system was beginning to fade. Within the clan system family lineage, possessions and prominence was passed down through the mother. With John being the first of a new era we can begin to see where the Western/American patrilineal society was beginning to replace the traditional Wyandot matrilineal society. Many Wyandot were marrying outsiders, as in John’s case his mother married John Bland Sr., a white man from Kentucky. John took his place in Eliza’s clan, the Porcupine, but unfortunately he was never given a clan name, nor fulfilled a true role in the traditional clan society. In 1867 this was not an unusual occurrence, nor was it a personal challenge for John to overcome; after all, he had Mononcue and Robert Armstrong as great grandfathers.
Mononcue was a full-blood Wyandot chief and will forever be known as a Wyandot preacher taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to neighboring tribes. His life adventures were made famous in 1840 when the Rev. James Bradley Finley, a Methodist missionary to the Wyandot in Ohio, published History of the Wyandott Mission. Reverend Finley tells how in 1817 after a sermon by John Stewart, a black missionary to the Wyandot, Mononcue converted to Christianity. Mononcue initially resisted Christianity, as he believed, “the Book …, and all its doctrines, were sent to another place, and another people…” After coming to understand that the followers of Jesus were commissioned to take the Gospel to all people throughout the world, Mononcue is quoted as saying, “I have some notion of giving up some of my Indian customs; but I cannot agree to quit painting my face. This would be wrong, as it would jeopard my health.” The painting of ones face was thought to provide measures of personal protection.
Reverend Finley considered Mononcue a true friend to himself and the Wyandot people. Mononcue was instrumental in the founding of the Wyandot Mission at Upper Sandusky and the ensuing education that was brought to many young Wyandot children that attended the Mission School. Mononcue was known for a fiery personality that was powerful and thunderous. His speeches and sermons were compelling, challenging and hard to set aside as being irrelevant. He was intelligent, loyal and a servant to his people, but cross him and there was a hard price to be paid. Little is know about Mononcue’s death other than he died before removal to Kansas. The wife of Mononcue is unknown by name and mentioned in the William Walker, Jr. Journals simply as Widow Mononcue. She is reported to have died on December 19, 1852. Their daughter is Ska’ Mehn-Dah-Teh, or her English name Elizabeth, was also a full-blood Wyandot. She would eventually marry George Armstrong, the first son of Robert Armstrong.
Brother Mononcue now rose up, and with thunder hanging on his brow and countenance, with a commanding voice, ordered silence, and said, “When you meet to worship God and to hear from his word, shut up your mouths, and open your ears to hear what is said. You have been here several days and nights, worshiping your Indian god, who has no existence, only in your dark and beclouded minds. You have been burning your dogs and venison for him to smell. What kind of a god or spirit is he, that can be delighted with the smell of a burnt dog?
History of the Wyandott Mission – pp 100
Much has been written about Robert Armstrong and many Wyandotte families can trace their lineage back to Robert. The Wyandot captured Robert, a white boy from Pennsylvania, in 1786 when he was four years old. He was promptly adopted into the Big Turtle clan, and his clan name was O-no-ran-do-roh. Robert chose to spend his life among the Wyandot even after being given the opportunity to go back to his parents at a later age. Initially Robert lost his command of English, but upon regaining the use of the language he served as interpreter for the Wyandot, which afforded him much prominence and respect. Reverend Finley also spoke of Robert in History of the Wyandott Mission with much acclaim and referred to Robert as his personal armor bearer. Robert is said to have also accepted Christianity in 1819. Robert was not a well-educated man and this is said to have led him into many unfortunate business enterprises often causing him great loss. On one occasion his white relatives were positioned to take him for all he had. Robert found protection within his Wyandot family as they stepped forward and intervened, assuring him of no loss of property or finances. Robert was a trusting individual and everyone he met he considered a friend.
The identity of Robert’s first wife is essentially unknown, but there is one widely accepted belief. His wife is assumed to be a full-blood Wyandot woman named Tishatoons. She is thought to have been born somewhere around 1761 making her twenty-one years Robert’s senior. Could Robert’s first marriage have been a clan arrangement after the death of Tishatoons’ husband? We know that adoptions were often made and/or used to replace lost individuals within the tribe. He and his first wife are known to have had one son named George in 1801. Upon George’s birth, Robert would have been nineteen years old and his mother possibly forty. Giving birth at forty years in the backwoods of 1801 Ohio country could have presented many problems for Tishatoons.
Obviously something happened to Robert’s first wife as in 1808 he married Sarah Zane. Sarah was the daughter of Isaac and Myeerah Zane. Myeerah was the daughter of Tarhe. Much historical attention is given to Robert’s second marriage and family. So much so that George is often forgotten and looked upon as an outsider within the Armstrong family. Robert died on April 20, 1825 with what was described as the disease of consumption, more commonly defined today as tuberculosis.
John Bland, Jr’s grandparents were Ska’ Mehn-Dah-Teh and George Armstrong. They were married somewhere around 1832. As George matured in Wyandot ways his clan mothers gave him the position of clan chief. We do not know to which clan George belonged. To serve as clan chief George would have been an intelligent and gifted individual. This would have afforded him full knowledge of the ancient Wyandot traditions. At least the knowledge that still remained and was held in common by the Wyandot. In Ohio, George was an accomplished farmer and made significant improvements upon his land. Serving as clan chief he signed the 1842 Treaty removing the Wyandot to Kansas. Upon arriving in Kansas he continued to farm, still served as a clan chief and also served on the Legislative Council, which met on numerous occasions within his home. In 1846 William Walker, Jr. asked George to visit the Seneca in Indian Territory. His visit to the Seneca opened the way for many Wyandot to eventually settle upon their reservation after the 1855 treaty terminated the Wyandot. George served one term as head chief in 1848. When the Wyandot were terminated under the Treaty of 1855, George was assigned a float. The city of Le Compton was sited on George’s float and served as the only capital of Kansas Territory.
There is very little known about Ska’ Mehn-Dah-Teh. She is indirectly mentioned in the William Walker, Jr. Journals when on April 21, 1846 he issues a divorce to her and George. A footnote in the Journal by Willian E. Connelley noted that Ska’ Mehn-Dah-Teh was known to be a virago. Does this mean that Ska’ Mehn-Dah-Teh was a masculine and aggressive woman with a domineering and overbearing personality, or a woman of great stature, strength and courage? We don’t know for sure, but looking at generations that follow Ska’ Mehn-Dah-Teh it’s easy to see where other women, her granddaughters, may have inherited some of her traits. Many of those traits do not exemplify a woman of great stature, strength and courage. After their divorce Ska’ Mehn-Dah-Teh disappears from the records, George on the other hand remarries. On Christmas Eve 1846 George marries the widow Hannah Charlow Barnett. They remained married until George’s death on November 19, 1851.
There are three things we know of John Bland, Sr. He was a white man born in Kentucky around 1828, he married Eliza Armstrong, and he is buried in Bland Cemetery, Ottawa County Oklahoma after his death in 1888-89. Unfortunately the exact location of his gravesite in Bland Cemetery is a mystery. The historical record and even John’s 1937 WPA interview shares little knowledge of his father. We can surmise that he was a farmer, good provider, hard worker, and well respected by the Wyandotte as being one of their own. John mentioned that his mother and father met and married in Kansas. Details of the courtship can be left to visions of fairy tails. Eliza Armstrong, at the time of meeting John Bland, would have been living with her uncle Silas Armstrong one of the most prominent and wealthy Wyandot of his day. Eliza’s father died in 1851 and the whereabouts and condition of her mother was unknown. In 1851 Eliza was thirteen years old and essentially orphaned.
George and Silas were half-brothers, but the relationship between the two was very distant. Catharine, George’s half-sister admitted to not knowing of his existence until later in life. Upon George’s death his children, including Eliza, went to live with Silas, as he became their guardian along with the help of Zelinda Hunter Armstrong, his wife. The two brothers were very different in the vision for the future of the Wyandot. George would have preferred to remain true to the heritage and traditions of the Wyandot as the Wyandot conformed to living alongside the whites in a friendly yet distant relationship. Silas on the other hand was a very industrious businessman that wanted to see progress with purpose. He wanted the Wyandot Reserve to be part of Kansas Territory and positioned himself to profit from the absorption of Reservation land into Territorial land. His business decisions made him very wealthy and after the termination of the Wyandot in 1855 he was capable of living a very comfortable life. Eliza was seventeen in 1855 when US citizenship was extended to the Wyandot. Silas being Eliza’s guardian chose citizenship for her as he did for the rest of his household; after all, she was still considered an incompetent minor incapable of making those types of complicated decisions for herself.
When Eliza came to live with Silas she stepped into a comfortable household, but unfortunately shared a distant relationship with her uncle and his family. It appears that she never really bonded with them. Silas managed her affairs, sent her to school, spent her money, and made decisions for her that was according to his wishes and not always to those of his half-brother. Eliza lived under the care of Silas until she married John Bland, Sr. in 1860. Court records published in 1871 indicate that in April of 1866, after Silas’ death in 1865, the married couple sued the estate of Silas Armstrong for $561.90. Silas Armstrong, Jr. and A. B. Bartlett, both administrators of the estate, paid $246.30 each to Eliza. This suit most certainly contributed to furthering the distance between the branches of the Armstrong family tree, at least the Armstrong and Bland branches.
The events leading to Eliza and John’s marriage are unknown. We can only imaging what it must have been like for a white man from Kentucky to knock on the front door of Silas Armstrong’s estate, at the time a very powerful and influential man, asking for her hand in marriage. Actually, it could be that he didn’t ask. At the time of their marriage Eliza was twenty-two years old, they may have eloped, which could explain the need to take Silas’ estate to court for her money. We just don’t know. They did move from what was the bustling and growing Kansas City, Kansas to the far western edge of the highly sought and fought over remnants of the Wyandot Reservation. When the land was allotted, it was quickly sold, stolen, traded and protected by the few Wyandot that wanted to remain Wyandot. The land was all they had and it was a source of their wealth and curse as the American Civil War loomed on the near horizon. The Bland family headed west and huddled down to ride out the Civil War as they began to make a family of their own.
Eliza and John, Sr. managed to raise a family through the War apparently untouched. John, Jr. was born two years after the war ended and a sense of normalcy must have begun to settle back into everyday life, with one exception. The land on which they lived was still very valuable. The number of people passing through, offering to purchase and squatting for the hope of getting a piece would have been a constant vigil for John, Sr. to defend against. The time had come to look for a better place to live and raise their family. Indian Territory would be difficult, but at least it extended a sense of hope.
Matthias, John’s younger brother, was the last sibling born in 1869. John, in his WPA interview, mentioned that when the move to Indian Territory was finally undertaken the trek was taken alongside an uncle and a neighbor in 1872. We know that in 1872 a number of Wyandot that had accepted citizenship were adopted back into the tribe. It’s safe to assume that Eliza’s status of being an American citizen, as gifted her by her Uncle Silas, initially hindered her and her family in making the move to Indian Territory. For Eliza to be adopted back into the tribe tells us that she never forgot that she was Wyandot. Petitioning the tribe for admittance would have taken some effort and with the distance a lot of time. In 1872, Eliza along with her six children, were adopted back into the tribe as Wyandotte citizens.
John Bland, Jr. gives a little insight into his childhood and youth. From his description, he was a wild boy sent to the Mission School by his father, which he attended for five years, with a love for fighting. John states that he was the member of a gang. John continues by mentioning Fred Long, another Wyandotte boy in the Mission School by name saying, “his days of education ended when Fred broke a slate over my head during a gang fight.” It doesn’t matter the generation or the place in time, boys will be boys and trouble comes in many different disguises. John goes on to say how he moved to the Colorado Mountains in 1887, as he desired to be a cowboy. Without a doubt, John’s desired to be a cowboy shows external influences were at play among the Wyandotte in Indian Territory. Outside distractions were pulling the personal identities of our children and youth away from their native traditions. John was but one of many that left the Reservation; however, he returned within a year due to the death of his father in 1888-89.
While in Colorado, or during his trip to and from, we can assume he met a young white woman named Lula Ormsbee. John referred to her as Allie. John says she was born near Lincoln, Nebraska on June 17, 1872. They were married on June 26, 1891 in Columbus, Kansas. Lula’s great-granddaughter, Wanda Bland Divine, remembers Lula from her childhood and stated that she was a beautiful white woman with blond hair who smoked a corncob pipe and was an incredible baker of bread. Very little is known about Lula, other than she helped tame a wild Indian boy and chose to live with him until his death in 1941.
Upon his return to Indian Territory, John never left home again. He lived and raised his family of five daughters, and a grandson as his own son, in a single room, hewn log cabin that epitomized the humble, hard-working man he became. A photo of John taken in 1911 by Dr. Charles Marius Barbeau, standing in the doorway of his log cabin holding Jeanette, his two-year-old daughter, is a picture of extreme poverty. The question must be asked, what defines wealth? Money, position, power and Earthly comfort that masks life’s troubles? No. The contentment of one’s own heart knowing you are doing what you have been purposed to do in your short stay upon this Earth. John roped his wild youthful days of wanting to be a cowboy, with the help of a white woman, turning himself back into being a good Indian.
John became a successful and industrious farmer working and improving both his and the land he leased. In a 1909 application to the Department of the Interior for removal of restrictions on one of his allotted forty-acre plots, Superintendent Ira C. Deaver, describes John as follows. “He is a man of good character and reputation. He has always been considered industrious and self supporting; same derived from the results of his own labor.” Mr. Deaver goes on to say, “He is not addicted to the use of intoxicants, and his physical condition is only fairly good.” In a final summation of John, Mr. Deaver states, “…[John] was always regarded as a man who could be relied on in any emergency.” Mr. Deaver approved of John selling his allotted plot of land, which literally required the final approval from the Secretary of the Department of the Interior.
John Bland, Jr. was asked to run for chief of the Wyandotte on several occasions, but he always declined. His great-grandfather Mononcue and grandfather George Armstrong both served as chiefs, but John never fancied politics. All young Wyandotte men were required to attend council, as an attempt to preserve the heritage of the tribe. John attended the council meetings and served as “moccasin.” His duty as moccasin was to inform citizens of meetings, carry messages and news throughout the Reservation. This put John in a position to be known by everyone. John also served on the business council until his death. In his 1937 WPA interview John stated, “…we have had our disturbances during my time.”
One such disturbance he described was centered around Smith Nichols and the impending loss of traditional Wyandotte heritage. John indicated that Smith wanted to be chief, but unfortunately at the same time of wanting to be chief he petitioned the Seneca-Cayuga and was adopted into their tribe. Since he was adopted into the Seneca-Cayuga, giving him dual citizenship, members of the business council felt it inappropriate that he be chosen to serve as chief. Smith was a traditionalist and began pulling in opposite directions of the tribe in his attempt to retain knowledge and practice of the old ways. The business council focused on business at hand for the overall preservation of the tribe and unfortunately our traditional language, dances, songs and traditions were not a priority – survival was. At the turn of the twentieth century most Wyandotte were struggling to remember their ancient heritage. Few spoke the language, sang songs and danced. Those that did were inclined to go to the Seneca-Cayuga to celebrate the Green Corn Feast and practice sacred traditions. Wanda Bland Divine remembers hearing John speak Wandat as she visited his home growing up as a young girl. She does not remember him dancing or participating in the Green Corn Feast.
Mark C. Crotzer was the brother-in-law of John Bland, Jr. as in 1875 Mark married John’s sister Catherine. In his 1937 WPA interview Mark states that after his and Catherine’s wedding they were helped in raising logs for their cabin. After the second day of working they held a community dance. John would have been eight years old. Mary Williams states in an interview with Dr. Charles Marius Barbeau in 1911, “The last Green Corn Feast took place at John Coon’s about 1881 at which a large number of people were present.” If John attended this “last” Green Corn Feast of the Wyandotte he would have been just fourteen years old. With John leaving for Colorado in 1889 his exposure to traditional and sacred Wyandotte celebrations, such as the Green Corn Feast, looks to be minimal at best. John’s exposure to a very small amount of traditional Wyandotte culture was not unique and fairly representative of most tribal citizens in the late 1800s. John’s daughter Margaret, in a 1964 application for disability, states she knew “nothing of her Indian heritage.” Again, such a statement was not unique and fairly representative of most Wyandotte, which is very sad indeed. We will see that deficiency change within our lifetime as the Barbeau exhibit exemplifies that obtainable hope.
Just as John desired to be a cowboy and left the tribe, Smith desired to be an Indian and left the tribe too. Smith didn’t leave to live in a white mans world, but the Indian world as an adoptee into our cousins the Seneca-Cayuga. This within itself raised a lot of questions as to what Smith thought of his own people, which is the focus of the controversy John referenced. John returned home to his heritage, or at least what remained of it, and contributed to the overall good of the tribe. Smith in turn went to the Seneca-Cayuga removing his knowledge of our traditional ways from the Wyandotte and ultimately gave them to the Seneca-Cayuga. When Dr. Charles Marius Barbeau came to Oklahoma in 1911-12 he found Smith Nichols living with the Seneca-Cayuga. Smith’s contributions to the efforts Dr. Barbeau made in preserving our language, songs and dances are undeniable and have proven invaluable. John finished reminiscing about Smith and his own days on the business council by saying, “…he [Smith] never became chief.”
John eventually sold all of his allotted land and at the time of his death in 1941 was living on land that was originally allotted to Matthias, his brother. Matthias was struck and killed by lightening as he was returning home from a trip to Tulsa in 1890. John had an invested interest in Matthias’ land and moved there after the sale of his allotment-surrounding Bland Cemetery in 1921-22. In John’s 1937 WPA interview with Nannie Lee Burns he stated, “After we sold our home, we moved to the Mudeater Bend and lived some years, when my wife went blind. So during the years that followed I spent my money with the various doctors and finally one at Fort Scott was able to restore her sight. We have raised our family of one boy and seven girls. Five of the girls are still living and mother and I do not have much left, but she has her sight back and we are happy together.” This goes to prove that you can have nothing and in that nothingness still retain true happiness. John Bland, Jr. died unexpectedly in his sleep on September 24, 1941.
Partial List of Sources
Armstrong Jr, Ralph W. The Descendants of Robert Armstrong, Indian Captive. Wilmington: Self Published. 1980. Print.
Burns, Nannie Lee. An Interview With Mr. John Bland. Works Progress Administration (WPA) Indian-Pioneer History Interviews Vol. 015. Washington: GPO, 1937. Print.
Clum, H. R. Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior For The Year 1871. Washington: GPO, 1872. Print (208).
Connelley, William E. The Provisional Government of Nebraska Territory and the Journals of William Walker Provisional Governor of Nebraska Territory. Lincoln: State Journal Company, 1899. Print.
Finley, Rev. James Bradley. History of the Wyandott Mission, At Upper Sandusky, Ohio, Under the Direction of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Cincinnati: E. P. Thompson, 1840. Print.
Appendix E – Earthquakes in Kansas. Kansas Geological Survey, Geologic History of Kansas. http://www.kgs.ku.edu/publications/bulletins/162/10_app_e.html. April 2006. Web.