The Trial of Standing Bear
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The Ponca Trail of Tears:
The Military and Legal Response

If we look back at the history of the American west, the popular view is that the Army was brutal and wanted to exterminate Indians. This is a view made popular by a progression of novels, movies and television programs.

There was brutality, but not every Army officer in the West was bloodthirsty. Many were sympathetic with the plight of Indians and opposed policies of the government that seemed intent on moving all Indians to Indian Territory.

General George Crook, circa 1870s
General George Crook, circa 1870s.
Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-cwpbh-03770

As late as 1871, Gen. Crook had written to President Grant and officially expressed his opposition to aspects of government Indian policy. But his feelings never became public because Crook decided it would be inappropriate for him to take a public stand. After taking command of the Department of the Platte, he came to the conclusion that his official reports were not very productive.

However, by 1879, he became much more vocal in his criticism of federal Indian policies. General Crook interviewed Standing Bear and several of his tribesmen on March 31, 1879, at Fort Omaha. Journalist Thomas Tibbles was invited by Crook to attend the meeting. General Crook asked Standing Bear why he had left the Indian Territory, and Standing Bear replied,

"At last I had only one son left; then he sickened. When he was dying, he asked me to promise him one thing. He begged me to take him, when he was dead, back to our old burying ground by the Swift running Waters, the Niobrara. I promised. When he died, I, and those with me, put his body into a box and then in a wagon, and we started North."

After Standing Bear had spoken, Crook expressed his sympathy with the Ponca, but stated that he had a direct order and would have to obey it. "It is . . . a very disagreeable duty."

The plight of the Ponca convinced General Crook that he had to become more aggressive in expressing his views. Crook’s position brought him into open conflict with government policies, but it also brought him into a closer alliance with the group of civilian reformers he had earlier mistrusted. Thomas Tibbles quotes Crook as saying he would resign his commission if he thought it would help keep the government from forcing the Ponca to return to Indian Territory. He also was quoted as saying he would appeal directly to Washington, except that the government typically issued orders that were the exact opposite of what he recommended.

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