Friday, July 05, 2013
What's there and what's not
When the novelist Frederick Manfred was a boy, at a time in his life when his oh-so Frisian name was Feike Feikma (pronounced Fike-y, rhymes with Ike-y), he told once how he came back to the house after milking, took off his shoes, and sat there for a moment, looking over the open fields west of his Siouxland home near Doon, Iowa, and wondered--imagined--what tales the very earth beneath his feet could tell if it would speak. He said he wanted to know more about the real stories that had happened on the square inch of turf where he lived because he simply knew there had to be more.
I don't know whether he knew much about Blood Run, but he wouldn't have had to spend all that much time on horseback to get to a spot on the Big Sioux River just east of Sioux Falls, where 5000 people lived for almost 800 years--5000 Oneota Native Americans, as big a city as any he might have located anywhere on the Upper Great Plains. Same county even--Lyon County, Iowa.
All those Oneota people are long gone now. What remains is a series of burial mounds, many of which have been destroyed when farmers plowed them over for corn or soybeans. But Blood Run is still there in a way, history.
Yesterday we spent way more time in Nebraska than I intended, when I took Hwy. 20 out of Sioux City instead of 75 and never realized the stupid mistake until we were half way to Colorado. On the back of the Buick I'd hung our bikes, and the intent was to find a path north of Omaha--it's been a year since either of us have been on a bicycle, gravel roads being not particularly inviting.
When finally--half a day later, it seemed--we found Boyer Chute Wildlife Refuge, a rugged spot in what was once the Missouri River, a place still suffering, it seemed, from last year's phenomenal flooding, we hiked a bit, then wore out in the hot sun and never took the bikes off the rack.
I'd read some things about Ft. Atkinson, a reconstructed Army fort in Ft. Calhoun, just up the road, so, still overheated, we stopped by. It's an amazing place, where for about a decade in the early years of 19th century, a couple thousand people lived, long before there was a single paleface settlement in the entire state of Iowa.
Just a few years after Lewis and Clark ventured up the Missouri and first met Native folks right there on a place they called "Council Bluff" (not to be mistaken for the Omaha suburb just downstream), President James Monroe ordered a fighting force of infantry men, many of them veterans of the War of 1812, to establish a presence along the Missouri River to facilitate the rich fur trade.
So a couple of thousand people lived on this "council bluff" when the only meaning of the word Omaha was the name of a Native tribe who lived in the neighborhood.
Blood Run and Ft. Atkinson are completely different experiences today. There's nothing, really, to distinguish Blood Run from far-flung farm fields on all sides, except for the lack of row crops. Ft. Atkinson is an entirely reconstructed old fortress, complete (on designated weekends) with a couple dozen "reenactors." It's all here, but very little that's original. Still, the Sixth Calvary is here, strangely enough.
Because somehow both places--both cities--are haunted by what once was and is no more. You step eerily over ground that once was full of people and business and trade, now gone, vanished. What is is redolent with what was.
Ghosts dwell in both places, of course. My friend Diane Glancy loves to haunt such historic spots, to sit and listen to the breeze and the birds and the choral voices that she claims still sing in the silences. To listen and to write.
Frederick Manfred heard voices too--of Hugh Glass, a mountain man and living legend, who dragged his wounded self back here, to Ft. Atkinson, after having been mauled by a bear and abandoned by his friends hundreds of miles northwest of here. Manfred's Lord Grizzily, the Hugh Glass story, nearly won a Pulitzer when it was published.
It's amazing what history is here, right under your feet, so to speak. We never did take the bikes off the rack. Maybe next time. I think there will be a next time.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:44 AM