The only means of getting everything--man and woman, beast and wagon--across the rain-swollen Niobrara River was by rope and hand over hand over hand. Dozens of oxen and as many as 500 horses had to get to the other side, as did 523 Ponca men, women, and children.
And the rain just wouldn't stop. It was an excruciating day, all those wagons disassembled and shouldered through and over the raging Niobrara. It took a day to recover, yet another rainy day.
In May of 1877, after endless haggling and heartless bureaucratic inertia, someone in faraway Washington had determined that what remained of the Ponca tribe in northeast Nebraska would be forced to leave their villages, their homes and schools and churches, their sawmill and their flour mill and just about every thing they owned. and walk to Oklahoma.
Just imagine 500 people in soggy early May trudging up and out of endless muddy hills along the Missouri. Imagine rains so heavy and never-ending that on some days it was impossible to travel.
And you didn't want to go. You just plain hated the idea of leaving home, the place where your people had lived for generations. That last night in the village, no one had slept. There was simply too much crying.
Is it any wonder people took sick? Is it any wonder that some of the most vulnerable would die? Should we be surprised that the Ponca's Trail of Tears has countless unmarked graves?
Truth be told, the Ponca people were never troublesome. They hadn't attacked wagon trains or stolen horses, were never war-like or even belligerent. From the Ponca tribe, in all honesty, Washington had little to fear. But Washington determined for no good reason that the Ponca had to leave for Indian Territory. They were, after all, Indian.
On May 23, not far from the Elkhorn River and near a tiny frontier town named Neligh, a little girl, the daughter of Black Elk and Moon Hawk, succumbed to pneumonia. White Buffalo Girl was all of 18 months.
Her parents, who watched her die, were frantic, beyond grief. A Neligh carpenter nailed together a wooden cross. The family was Christian.
Up on the hill in a cemetery called Laurel Hill, Black Elk, distraught, talked to the white folks of the town who, with the Ponca, had gathered around that wooden cross.
"I want the whites to respect the grave of my child just as they do the graves of their own dead," Black Elk said. "The Indians do not like to leave the graves of their ancestors, but we had to move and hope it will be for the best."
Imagine that setting, up on a hill above a thick strap of trees that follow the snaking river below. Nothing anywhere else but an endless ocean of grass.
"I leave the grave in your care," Black Elk told those white settlers. "I may never see it again. Care for it for me."
And so they did. And so they do yet today, 140 years later.
You'll find Laurel Hill cemetery way atop Neligh; and you'll find there, just a short hike from the road, a stone that memorializes a Ponca child named White Buffalo Girl.
Won't be hard to locate. Her grave site is the only one in the yard that stays decorated all year long. Just get out of the car and look for flowers. Look for a wooden cross and lots and lots of flowers.
Tell you what--go there. Go to Neligh some morning. I don't care how far you have to drive, just go there, to Laurel Hill. Go up there and visit the grave of little White Buffalo Girl. It'll bless your heart. Call it a pilgrimage, if you will. Better yet, make it one.
Call it a blessing. Because it is. A shelter in the time of storm.