The Trial of Standing Bear
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The Story of the Ponca

The large Siouan tribal language group was made up of many smaller tribes such as the Ponca, Omaha, Osage, Kansa, and Quaqaw tribes. These five tribes once lived in an area east of the Mississippi River, but just prior to Columbus’ arrival, they had begun moving westward. The Ponca and Omaha split from the other tribes sometime prior to 1500. According to tradition, the Omaha and Ponca followed the Des Moines River to its headwaters and then moved northeast.

Story of the Ponca
Follow the Ponca on their journey

Eventually they crossed the Missouri River and drove out the Arikara Tribe that lived on the west bank of the Missouri River in an area that would later be included in the state of Nebraska. Sometime after the encounter with the Arikara, the Ponca and Omaha separated. The separation date has been placed as early as 1390 and as late as 1750. Certainly by 1789 the Ponca were living on lands where the Niobrara flows into the Missouri. The Ponca Tribe was never very large. Between 1800 and 1900, they probably never numbered more than 800.

Recreation of a Ponca Village
A re-creation of a Ponca village.
From the 1988 NET Television production of The Trial of Standing Bear

They appear on P. C. LeSeur's map of 1701 and were "discovered" again by the trader Juan Baptiste Munier in 1789. By that time there were living near the mouth of the Niobrara River. About that time they suffered heavily from a smallpox epidemic. Lewis and Clark estimated that they numbered only 200 people in 1804. By 1874, they were back up to 733 individuals, all living near the Niobrara.

Mag Me! Select the magnifying glass
for an extreme close-up.
Standing Bear
Standing Bear, a Ponca chief.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2066-5-1
Standing Bear was known to the Ponca Ttribe as Ma-chu-nah-zah. He was born on the Ponca reservation around 1834, although some sources say he was born in 1829. Because he showed unusual abilities, he became a chief at an early age.

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