In the Upper Loup Valley there is evidence that prehistoric man was living in this region as early as eleven or twelve thousand years ago. That evidence is limited to stone projectile points which have been typified as being used during early big game hunting periods. There is a site on the North Loup River near Fort Hartsuff which has yielded dates of about 9,000 BP (before present). This thin occupation lens has yielded cultural material but none yet which can be definitively typed. The date was generated in a laboratory by analysis of heated stone.
Much more evidence is present from the last two thousand year period. Woodland sites have been identified. The Woodland Culture could be as early as two thousand years before the present. Many more sites in this area date from about the year one thousand. It is possible that the population of this region, if we exclude centers such as Burwell and Ord, was greater a thousand years ago than it is now. The terrible drought which visited the Plains and Southwest in the decades around the year 1300 depopulated this region. At initial European contact (1600-1860) no Indian groups had actually resettled right here. It was a marginal area utilized for hunting and movement. At the time of the first European settlement, the agricultural Pawnee and the more nomadic Sioux were in use of the rich hunting along the rivers, streams and lakes in central Nebraska. The Omaha, Ponca, Winnebago and other village dwellers traveled to and through on seasonal hunts.
Written descriptions of travel and exploration in our immediate central Nebraska region is limited to four events. The earliest was the MacKay expedition of 1796. The second was the trail blazed by Lieutenant W.D. Smith from Fort Randall Dakota to Fort Kearny on the Platte in 1856. In terms of information gleaned, perhaps Lieutenant Gouverneur Kemble Warren’s exploring expeditions of 1855 and 1857 were the most valuable. The largest, by far, was a major military movement through this area by Colonel Nelson Cole’s huge command as part of the Powder River campaign of 1865. Cole’s expedition passed through two years before Nebraska’s statehood became fact and so would be the last such event to be considered during the Territorial period.
Of the four expeditions mentioned above, only the first was nonmilitary in nature. James MacKay was a Scot engaged by the Upper Missouri Fur Company of St. Louis. He left Fort Charles, a private fur trade fort, to explore the Niobrara and the ‘mauvais terre’, the sandhills south of that river. Fort Charles was located near present-day Homer, Nebraska. MacKay traveled about 200 miles west and then headed south through the sandhills. He struck the Calamus River and followed it to its confluence with the North Loup, then diverged in a northeasterly direction toward his base of operations. His journal describes terrapins and ‘white bears’ observed during this trip. He also mentioned large herds of ‘shaggy oxen’, the bison of the plains. It is just possible that his party named the creek now called “Gracie” north of the Calamus in Loup County. It first appears on maps as “Gracia” and “Grace”. Perhaps it was named by the Spanish members in thanks for finding good water after crossing the desolate sandhills.
In 1864 Lieutenant Smith was ordered to establish a trail between Fort Randall in present-day South Dakota and Fort Kearny near the head of the grand island of the Platte River, Nebraska Territory. His trail is believed to have passed near Fort Hartsuff, to be established eighteen years later. It may be noted that modern day trailblazers are following that same general route to participate in the gambling opportunities recently established near the ruins of the old fort in South Dakota. The Yanktonai branch of the Sioux, of the Nakota linguistic variant, are hosts to these modern travelers. It is understood that many of the non-native participants are leaving much gold and silver behind. They are considered to be more reliable and generous than the federal government itself was with its reparations for past wrongs.
The third expedition of note was headed by Lieutenant G.K. Warren. He was a New Yorker, graduating second in his class from the United States Military Academy in 1850. His mission was cartographic in nature. His observations and notes became the basis for modern map-making of this vast region. He crossed both the Calamus and Loup River systems from north to south in 1885. And ascended the Loup River system in 1857. He, as most cartographers of the period, misplaced the route of the Calamus and confused it with the Cedar River. Generally his observations were sound. His opinion of the usefulness of the sandhills area for railroads or settlement was pessimistic. Warren later played a vital role during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. It was his perception of the pivotal tactical importance of Little Round Top that helped save the very Union cause. Many historians feel that a resounding loss at Gettysburg might have so disheartened the loyalists that a compromise treaty of peace could have resulted. The history of North America and the world itself was held in the balance by our earlier Nebraska explorer, Gouverneur K. Warren, United States Army.
The Powder River expedition of 1865 had a less glorious ending. In fact, it was plagued by controversy and problems from the very beginning. The campaign itself was planned and executed after the Civil War itself had ended. Yet the majority of participants in this grand scheme were members of state volunteer regiments who had entered the army to ‘sojer against the secesh’; not to fight “Lo” the Red Man. They certainly had no desire to march hundreds of miles across plain and mountain to fight an elusive and ‘inferior’ foe. All this for whatever glory which was sure to be overshadowed by the recent American Civil War, the most bloody war ever fought by Americans before or since. Besides, most of the other hundreds of volunteer regiments were going home. They were going home to bands, bunting and parades. Home to wives, mothers, friends and comfort; while participants in the Powder River Campaign suffered heat, cold, hunger, disease and thirst.
The Powder River Campaign was a grand three-pronged ‘pincher’ scheme. It was designed to punish the Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne of the western plains who had been left relatively free to live naturally during the military preoccupation with war further east. Two prongs of the movement were to march through Wyoming on convergent paths to join the third prong coming from the east and surround these thousands of Indians somewhere in Powder River country of southeast Montana. The eastern prong, under Colonel Cole, was gathered at Omaha readying for its thousand-mile ‘dash’.
All three prongs of this ill-fated campaign experienced immense command, logistic, morale and communication problems. The overall commander, General Patrick E. Connor, had responsibility for a huge military District of the Plains. The major campaign which he chose to command personally, would be carried out in Dakota, Montana and Wyoming Territory. His headquarters were in Denver while he tried to coordinate supplies coming via Leavenworth to Forts Kearny and Laramie. His eastern prong was experiencing all the logistical problems and more at Omaha.
The officer chosen to command the eastern prong was Colonel Nelson Cole. He was a relatively inexperienced officer whose service had been limited to his 2nd Regiment of Missouri Artillery. He was to command a force of some 1400 men, all mounted, plus a section of rifled artillery, all supported by a wagon train of no less than 140 six-mule team freight wagons. His orders were to organize and lead this large detachment from Omaha, up the Loup River system, across the sandhills and into Dakota with Bear Butte at the northeast corner of the Black Hills as his first objective.
Cole was to accomplish this feat without competent guides. For some unknown reason the Pawnee Scouts (95 men) and the Omaha Scouts (80+), who would have known the route, were detailed with the columns moving north through Wyoming. His only reliable source of information was Lt. Warren’s report containing maps from his mid-1850’s explorations.
Colonel Cole’s mutinous and disorganized force left Omaha on July 1st of 1865. They saluted the Fourth of July just west of Fremont. They struck the Loup Fork near Columbus on the 6th and by July 8th had already become lost. They went 14 miles up the Cedar River quite obviously on the mistaken assumption it was either the Calamus or the North Branch of the Loup. They returned to the Loup River by angling southwest cross-country. Soon after striking the Loup again, the command received additional orders from General Connor that were to totally negate any positive results of the entire campaign. One element of that order would largely discredit the whole enterprise and ruin the careers of several senior officers, most profoundly that of General Connor.
That order directed Cole to “…not receive overtures of peace or submission from Indians, but will attack and kill every male Indian over twelve years of age.”