- Historic Sites
A Dakota Boyhood
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
Often a few families of Indians were allowed to leave the reservation, and many times we would wake up in the morning and find that they had set up a camp of eight or ten tepees close to our ranch house. On one of these occasions Grandfather thought it might be a good opportunity to get me a pony, so we went to look them over. I found one in the Indians’ herd that I liked. He was small and young and I certainly wanted him. My grandfather knew that money wasn’t of much value to the Indians, so he had taken along an empty silver watch case attached to a long silver chain. Its covers snapped shut with a click. He showed it to the chief, who was delighted with it, and after a conversation in sign language we made an easy trade. The chief liked opening the case and snapping the covers shut. After searching in a pouch, he found something to put in his new possession. My grandfather said it was probably a sacred charm. The chief strode away waving his hand toward the herd. After much running about, we got my pony and took him home. For the watch case my grandfather thought we might have had a number of ponies! I named the pony “Billy.” He was small, even for a bronco, but he was tough and strong. He was a bay color, but his long mane and tail were black. In the winter the hair under his neck and belly grew to be five inches long. I had experiences of all kinds with him, and some of them were not too happy. He was very nice arid gentle at times, but, as is the case with most broncos, he was very temperamental.
He wanted to remain in the Indian camp with the other ponies, for which I couldn’t blame him, and he wouldn’t stay home, so I had to keep him on a picket line. An iron stake with a swivel around its top was driven into the ground and attached to a rope long enough to give him plenty of chance to feed. When he wanted to get away he would go to the end of the rope, lean away from the stake, and walk around in a circle, leaning harder with each step. When the stake was loosened to his satisfaction, he would run as hard as he could straight across the circle, the picket pin would fly into the air, and he would be off. He usually did this when there were Indians near. How he knew, we never discovered, but when we found the camp, there in the herd, with the picket pin and rope dragging, would be my pony. The Indians were amused, and the Indian boys usually helped catch him.
There were many kinds of snakes on the prairie, ranging all the way from rattlers to garter snakes. One kind was exceedingly disagreeable. My grandfather called it a “blow snake.” I have no idea what kind it really was, but it was a dark, earthy color, and the one I recall most distinctly had a blunt tail. It turned its head toward us and emitted a foglike vapor which my grandfather said would make us deathly sick. Then there was the prairie bull snake, which looked very much like a rattlesnake. It would enter the holes in a prairie dog village, possibly to eat the young prairie dogs.
And, by the way, it is true, as has been said, that owls fly out of holes. I have seen them. Maybe they were on the same mission as the bull snake, although they were very small; nor did they confine themselves to prairie dog holes, as I have seen them fly from holes belonging to other animals. They may have wanted a dark place to stay in during the day, or possibly they were looking for leftover food.
One of my many pleasures was to watch a prairie dog village, which was an actual village because the mounds were close together and sometimes covered half a mile or more in one direction and a little less in the other. Each mound was about two feet high, and the hole which was at its center was quite deep. It was amusing to see a large number of prairie dogs sitting on top of these hivelike mounds, to watch their antics and see them fall into their holes when frightened. Probably their snappy bark is the reason for their being called dogs. They were easily scared and would dash for the hole, barking noisily, if anyone came near. They are very difficult to shoot, and a hunter rarely knew whether he had hit one or not because of their habit of straddling the hole and dropping into it. There was very little grass near the village as the dogs ate up the supply as fast as it grew, and they had to cover quite an expanse of prairie to get enough food.
Then there was fishing, another of my pleasures—such remarkable fishing. The rivers teemed with pike, bullheads, catfish, and perch, although there were other kinds less frequently caught. While fishing in the spring, I often saw the trappers in their canoes come down the Jim River—that’s what we called the James, which was the biggest river near Mitchell. The trappers were very picturesque in their buckskins and their beaver caps. They must have had great success, because their canoes were always well filled with pelts.
The mill dam on the Jim River was a wonderful place to fish, so I liked going there. The mill was on the east bank, and the trappers were forced to make their portage around the dam to the west. They would carry their packs and their canoes down the path, repack them, and be on their way again. I have modelled a statue of Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition from my memory of a trapper I saw at this place. He was a magnificent figure as he stood against the sky at the top of the dam.