One of the joys of research is a road trip. Working on Damming the Osage took us the length of the Osage River and across areas of Missouri and Kansas that were once the domain of the Osage Indians. Early in September 2009 we explored back roads and small towns in southern Kansas in what was once the Osage Diminished Reserve. The long strip of land along the Kansas-Oklahoma line comprised 4.8 million acres and was the last of Osage holdings after they had ceded millions of acres of Missouri to the westward moving Americans.
There in Montgomery County was the Little House on the Prairie site at County Road 3000 and U.S. Highway 75.
Yes I was one of those legions who read “the little house” books, every single one, and fantasized about being a pioneer kid because it sounded fun and not too dangerous. My recollection of this volume centered on the technology – how Pa ‘swam’ the wagon across the river, built a log cabin or dug a well – and what it must be like to camp on the open, empty prairie, and the sound of a fiddle under the stars. One scene, however, was still etched in memory – the procession of Osages past the Ingalls’ cabin as they began their trek to Indian Territory, Oklahoma.
What I didn’t remember – or more accurately, never knew or understood – was that the Ingalls family was trespassing on the Osage Diminished Reserve. It’s been a long time since I’d read the book, so I picked up a copy to refresh my memory and see what other references there were to the Osages or to “Indians”. There were a lot more than I remembered. Those red tabs mark the references.
I also hadn’t retained the fact that Charles Ingalls was aware that they were trespassing on Indian land. According to Ma: “ … the Indians would not be here long. Pa had word from a man in Washington that the Indian Territory would be open to settlement soon. It might already be open to settlement. They could not know, because Washington was so far away.”
The Ingalls family arrived in the summer of 1869 and built their log cabin home on the prairie near Walnut Creek. Pa was one of the more tolerant settlers who felt that the newcomers and the Indians could coexist. He and “the Tall Indian” smoked a pipe together on the hearth of the fireplace in the cabin. Laura recounts one winter in the cabin and more summertime activities. The cabin now on the Ingalls’ homestead site is a recreation based on the description found in the book. The Ingalls’ home was listed as the 89th residence of Rutland Township in the 1870 U.S. Census.
Some time after the dramatic day of departure of the Osages, Pa drove the team and plow to the cabin while talking animatedly to a couple of neighbors: “No Scott!” Pa said. “I’ll not stay here to be taken away by the soldiers like an outlaw! If some blasted politicians in Washington hadn’t sent out word it would be all right to settle here, I’d never have been three miles over the line into Indian Territory. … we’re going now.”
The Osages were paid $1.25 per acre for their land. After buying their own land in Oklahoma from their former enemies the Cherokees, the tribe still had $8.5 million in trust, drawing five percent interest. They held the land in common, until they had to apportion it. Still they maintained community ownership of mineral rights to their land. When huge oil deposits were discovered in Osage County, the tribe became rich.
The Ingalls loaded their covered wagon and headed back to Wisconsin where they still owned property.