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Across the Fence: Pawnee legends in the Nebraska Panhandle
September 26, 2013 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting

Courthouse and Jailhouse Rock

Pawnee legend does not name the young brave who saved his grandmother and captured the buffalo calf with the spotted hide. But the legend of the warrior and his dun colored horse continues.

Some time after the young Pawnee warrior returned to the camp at the foot of Courthouse Rock, the miraculously rejuvenated horse once again spoke to him, foretelling of an impending battle and instructing the young warrior on what he must do. “The Sioux war parties are coming,” said the horse. “They are now near the wigwam and tomorrow they will come. Our people will meet them about half way and when we meet, ride among them and kill their chief, and then withdraw. Then again, ride me among them and kill another chief and withdraw. Do this again and again, four times only, for if you should go a fifth time, some terrible fate will befall you or me.”

The ‘wigwam’ was the Pawnee name for the rock formation that we now call Chimney Rock. So, heeding the horse’s command, the young brave called together the warriors of the tribe. The assembled war party left the village and rode from the foot of Courthouse Rock toward Chimney Rock. The next day, at a location on the southern plains of the North Platte River and north of present day Reddington Gap, the Sioux and Pawnee engaged in a great battle.

As the two warring tribes collided, the young warrior rode the old dun horse into the clash of battle. The air was thick with the swish and thud of arrows as the feathered shafts flew from powerful bows and lodged deep in naked flesh. Dodging the arrows and flint-tipped lances, the young brave rode among the Sioux, found the chief and with his war club left the Sioux leader dead on the field of battle. Unharmed in the battle that raged around him, the warrior withdrew as the old dun horse had commanded. A second time he rode into battle, found another Sioux chief and slew him as he had the first, then withdrew unharmed. Three times and again a fourth, the warrior plunged into the fury of battle and four times he killed and retreated without harm.

But the battle was not yet won and in the glorious savagery of war the young man failed to heed the warning of the old dun and charged, a fifth time, into the fray. Immediately the Sioux warriors turned their bows to the dun horse for they sensed that the horse possessed some mysterious powers. In a short time the old horse succumbed to the many wounds that pierced his hide and spewed dark blood. As he stumbled to the ground the Sioux descended upon the fallen steed, cutting and pounding his flesh and bones until only scattered pieces remained. The Pawnee warrior, with courage born of rage, fought his way through the Sioux that surrounded him and escaped unharmed from the battle.

At last the Sioux were routed and a running battle ensued as the Pawnee chased them across the river, to the north, and up an arroyo whose waters dumped into the Platte. Because of the many relics of this battle that were found there in later years, the little tributary became known as Indian Creek.

The Pawnee warrior mourned the tragic loss of the dun and after the battle he gathered up the pieces of his fallen companion and piled them together. He then climbed to the rim of an overhanging rock and there remained, refusing to return to his village where his fellow warriors celebrated their great victory. As darkness descended on the bloody field of battle, a great storm gathered in the hills.

Thunder shook the ground and echoed through the rocks as jagged bolts of lightning ripped the dark curtain of night. Torrents of rain rushed from the angry clouds overhead when the young man saw, in a flash of lightning, two blackened arms reach down from the clouds and touch the earth.

The storm passed and on the battlefield below something had begun to take shape from the pile of flesh and bones that the warrior had gathered. A second storm swept over the rocky bluffs and left in its wake what appeared to be the shadowy form of a horse. As the young Pawnee peered into the darkness a third storm gathered overhead. The roar of thunder and blinding bolts of lightning were more frightening and powerful than the first two storms had been and the warrior huddled against the rocks for protection. When the third storm had finally passed, there on the battlefield below, lay the old dun horse. The young man climbed down from the bluffs and went to the horse that was just as he had been found before – sore-backed, crippled, and starved. The warrior wept in shame for he knew that it was his disobedience and selfish quest for glory that had brought about this great tragedy.

However, the old horse held no animosity toward the young Pawnee and told him that because of his devotion to his grandmother, his kind treatment of an old crippled and broken down horse, and because of his deep sorrow, ‘Ti-wa-ra’, the spirit of the great rock where the Pawnee camped, had allowed the old horse to return. “But hereafter,” the dun cautioned, “do just that which I tell you.”

The dun horse then commanded the Pawnee warrior to lead him south, through the pass and into the valley beyond and to leave him there, return to the village and come back each tomorrow for ten tomorrows.

The young man obeyed what the dun horse commanded and on each of the ten tomorrows he returned to the village riding a horse that was finer than any other horse in the village. Each day he rode back to the village on another horse of another color – grey, roan, pinto, bay, and black, and each horse was finer than the one before.

Now the Pawnee warrior was rich and the chief added to his wealth with the gift of his daughter, and the young man honored her with a tribute of his affection by spreading the Spotted Robe before her. The dun horse was brought to the village and cared for in all of his remaining life. For many years thereafter the Pawnee claimed, as their own, the beautiful lands of the Nebraska Panhandle.

In time, circumstance and beaver hats necessitated the establishment of trading posts and stockades along the Great Platte River. The Sioux and Cheyenne began to once again crowd into the hunting grounds of the Pawnee along the valley of the North Platte. It was during these times that the Pawnee warrior was faced with one of life’s most tragic turns. Death came to the lodge of the well-respected warrior and his princess bride when their young son became ill and passed too soon into the great hereafter. His father wrapped his small body in the sacred Spotted Robe and laid his lifeless form in the branches of a cottonwood tree. The time of morning was long and grievous. It was not long after that the old dun horse died and the good fortune of the Pawnee began to crumble away like soft sandstone against the onslaught of water and wind.

Sioux raids against the Pawnee become more fierce and frequent and the Pawnee determined to move their camp further east along the Platte. As the village moved out, a small contingent of warriors remained behind as a rear guard. The Sioux mounted a fierce attack against the fleeing Pawnee village and while a number of Sioux followed the main camp, another band engaged the Pawnee warriors at Courthouse Rock. It was here that the legend of the Sioux siege at Courthouse Rock was born. It is told that the defending Pawnee fled to the top of Courthouse Rock and held off the Sioux who tried to follow. The Sioux laid siege to the rock and certain that there was no way to escape, intended to starve out the Pawnee warriors who defended their position. After many days, without food or water, a Pawnee warrior discovered an eroded tunnel, or ‘well,’ that led from the top of the rock to the base. Tying ropes together, the Pawnee escaped down the south side while the Sioux guarded the north. According to local telling of the siege and eventual escape, this supposedly happened around 1835.

It is said that the main contingent of Pawnee made it as far east as Ash Hollow before the Sioux overtook them and attacked with deadly ferocity. At the end of the battle nearly 50 Sioux warriors and 60 Pawnee had spilled their blood on the valley floor. Perhaps early emigrants, who camped near the clear fresh water, after lowering their wagons by rope and pulley to the valley floor, heard the chilling war cries and screams of agony and despair as the wind blew ghostly echoes of those who perished there.

Editor’s note: M. Tim Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. He can be conatacted at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com
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