This is what might have been. There are no drawings, no artists' renditions, no aerial photography, only what scattered historical references can be found and/or inferred from a sweet little valley along the Big Sioux River not all that far from here, just across the river from the city of Sioux Falls. This is what might have been because there are no images of what was.
If you're standing on this ground today, you can see suburbs--that's how close. See the river?--that's the Big Sioux. Today, just over the bank stands the eastern edge of the city.
The place is called Blood Run, from the creek that runs through it; and it might well have looked like this at about the time those angry Concord patriots were preparing to fire the shot heard round the world. In the 18th century, Blood Run was home to what may have been the most populace trading center west of the Mississippi, a city far bigger than Omaha or St. Paul, and all Native.
Chances are, the Yanktons got to Blood Run long after the town had put down roots. Chances are, they got there only because they lost too many fights with the Ojibwe from Big Woods, up north in Minnesota, their long-time enemies. To say that Siouxland was always Siouxland is patently false--the language families we've called Sioux for so long (Lakota, Dakota, Nakota) were only recent arrivals, themselves something akin to illegal immigrants. If they'd had their druthers, they'd have stayed up north in wild rice country, but the Ojibwe didn't take a shine to them so they left--west and south, to the plains. They were asked to leave, you might say, if you want to be nice.
What historians know about Blood Run is that it was a thriving trading center with all sorts of dwellings constructed there by what are called Oneota peoples, indiginous folks who may have called themselves the Ioways or Otoes or Missouris, the Quapaws, the Kansas, the Osage or the Omaha peoples. Without a doubt, they traded with the Ojibwe and the Yanktons and the other Sioux nations, even Cheyennes, and all of that commerce and community life went on what is today a gorgeous piece of undeveloped land that has been declared a National Historical Site almost fifty years ago.
Want to go? Good luck. It's not well advertized. There is a sign at the entrance, but little else. No souvineer shops, not even a pit toilet. If you want to see what's there, you'd better ask someone who knows what and where.
The truth is, those who care about the site don't really want crowds, don't want people hauling in picnic baskets or six-packs, don't want metal detectors or fox hole shovels because enough has been done to the site to ruin it already. Much of the land has been farmed for nearly a century.
The stories of Blood Run have yet to be written, I suppose, because all the civililzation that went on here, all of the culture, the wares, the trade, the bartering, the horse-swapping, the story-telling--it all disappeared for reasons no one has ever established. What was here--as big a city as one might find anywhere in the continental U.S. in 1780--is simply gone, and no one knows for sure why.
And I'm telling the story because it's regional, because it's part of the history of the earth where I live, part of the story no one ever taught me, even though I went to college here, part of the story few of the region's residents even know.
Struck by the Ree and his wife
But it's also part of Struck by the Ree's story, that Yankton leader born while Lewis and Clark, on their way up the Missouri, were bringing in baubles for the Yanktons, trying to enlist them to the American way by establishing trade--we wanted their beaver pelts and eventually a whole lot more. A Yankton woman, wife of a head man, had a baby just then, at a camp on a bluff above what is today the Gavins Point Dam, and--or so the story goes--Lewis and Clark asked to hold that precious newborn. When they did, they wrapped him in an American flag and, as if equipped with a crystal ball, made the outlandish claim that this boy, this child, would be great leader for peace.
Which he was.
Should he have been?
Was he a hero or Sioux nation's own version of Benedict Arnold?
That's a tough question. And it's made more difficult by the historical fact of Blood Run because once upon a time the Yanktons took this land, too, just as, archeologists might say, other tribes had before them. Might it be true that if I were among, say, the Omahas, I might harbor a grudge toward the Yanktons? After all, it's not unlikely that they took our land.
Here's the diffiicult question. Given what happened in the 19th century to a proud people out here in what we still call Siouxland, how do we judge heroism? When is a peacemaker a turncoat? In war, what is bravery and what is sheer madness?
More than 150 years have passed and the answers to those questions aren't any easier.