Getting blown away by history: Fort Robinson State Park to Fort Robinson State Park
Sunday May 12, 2013
The history at this state park is overwhelming. There is so much of it. And so much of it is sad.
Fort Robinson was an active military post from 1874 to 1948. It began as a temporary camp protecting the Red Cloud Indian Agency during the Indian Wars. In the late 1880s it became the most important fort in the region after the closing of Fort Laramie. In the 1920s, it became a remount depot, responsible for supplies, equipment, horses, dogs and mules. In the 1940s, when the calvary regiments were dismounted, up to 12,000 horses were sent here to be surplussed. Also in the 1940s, this was a K-9 training center with 14,000 dogs trained here. A prisoner of war camp housed 1500 to 3000 enemy soldiers during World War II.
And that is just a tiny fraction of the history here.
The fort is large – you can tour through many of the buildings and do a self-guided tour of the entire grounds. I’m saving that for this afternoon. First, I want to go for a hike up in the buttes. During the summer season you can take horse rides and jeep tours here, but I’m too early for any tourist activities. Instead, I quietly make my through a herd of longhorn steers (a wee bit intimidating), and head up a trail into the pine-covered hills. The ticks are really bad; I’m constantly brushing them off my legs.
The views from the top are expansive. You can walk right out onto the cliff tops and look down on the fort and far to the south, east and west. The prominent ridge of Arikaree rock traces an edge to the valley of the White River below. I try to imagine bands of the Sioux nation arriving at the old agency site below. It seems a long time ago – in reality it is very recent history. I was born just 100 years later.
I wander around on the trails for awhile, no real idea of where I’m going, but no real fear of getting lost. Later, I head down to the fort and go check out the history museum. It is a lot to take in and try to understand. I try to put the timelines together in my head. I try to take myself back to that time and see things from different perspectives. I tour the buildings and read the interpretive signs. My brain hurts from trying to assimilate so much information.
After lunch at my campsite, I go tour the original part of the fort and take some time to look at the buildings where Crazy Horse was killed and where a band of Northern Cheyennes attempted to break out in January 1879. They had been intercepted in their flight from a reservation in Oklahoma to their homeland of the Powder River Country in Wyoming. The other band fled into the Sand Hills and escaped. The 149 men, women and children taken here were faced with the ultimatum to return south, and when they refused, they were denied food, water and fuel. Desperate, they attempted to break out. Over a two-week period, 64 Cheyenne were killed and most of the rest wounded and recaptured. 11 soldiers were killed.
After reading all the interpretive material, I head down to the site of the Red Cloud Indian Agency. From 1873 to 1877 this agency was an administrative centre and distribution point for annuity goods for the Oglala Sioux bands, as well as several bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho. There is so much history here – so much turmoil, so much corruption, so many lies and, in the end, a people forced to surrender even though every treaty they ever signed was broken.
I sit there on the hilltop, in the late afternoon sun. There is nothing but silence and solitude. I try to imagine this place with thousands of Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne camped nearby. I try to imagine the deals, the conversations, the trouble that arose. I try to imagine how it could have been different. I relate this story in my head to the same story told in so many places at so many times throughout history.
There is no one around. It’s just me, the grass, the views and, most likey, a whole bunch of spirits. In the peace and stillness of the present, I have a good cry. For the Sioux, for the Cheyenne, for the Arapaho. For the land. For humanity – for our inability to learn from the past and for our insatiable greed. I grieve for all that was lost and all that will never be.
I ride back to camp feeling very somber. In my pre-trip notes, I’ve written “frontier and Plains Indian War history, tent-camping, hiking”. What an understatement. I am blown away today by the history here. It breaks my heart. It makes me feel shameful. Just as it should. It makes me wonder what subtle and not-so-subtle acts of government terror I am complicit in today. How do we keep from repeating this story over and over again?