Friday, July 6, 2012

George Champlin Sibley

I envy the explorers, the first men who saddled up, rode out and explored new lands and people. They knew not what they would find and what dangers they would face.

George Champlin Sibley (April 1, 1782- January 31, 1863) was one of the lesser known explorers of the American West. He was born in Massachusetts, but spent time growing up in Rhode Island and North Carolina. In 1808, through friends such as William Clark and connections to Thomas Jefferson, he got a job as factor at Fort Osage on the frontier of western Missouri, near present day Kansas City, Missouri. In 1821, the Mexican War of Independence opened up trade between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Missouri. Charles Bicknell is credited with being the first to establish trade, hazarding both the difficult passage, the weather and the Indians along the way.

Because of the many Indian tribes hunting and living on the route, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton petitioned Congress to survey the Santa Fe Route and establish treaties with the Indians guaranteeing safe passage. And, in 1825, because of his experience with the Osage Indians near Kansas City, George Champlin Sibley was put in charge. The task lasted two years.

So it was, that I crossed paths with George Champlin Sibley on Old Highway 81, just south of Elyria, Kansas. Near here, on August 16th, 1825, Sibley met with Son-Ja-Inga and other Kaw Indian chiefs.

Dry Turkey Creek

The site for the treaty was under an oak tree along the Dry Turkey Creek. The location is south of the Santa Fe Trail by a mile or so and about 37 miles from the Kaw Indian village. It was chosen because, in a mostly treeless prairie, this was one of the few spots where a grove of trees managed to escape the prairie fires that swept the plains.That there was an oak tree is all the more remarkable, for cottonwoods, cypress, and mulberries were the hardier stock that eked out a living along the creeks.

Grass near Dry Turkey Creek

Monchousia by Charles Bird King, image from Wikipedia

The Kaw were a distant branch of the mighty Sioux Nation. They had established a village on the Kansas River at present day Manhattan. Their living came primarily from hunting the buffalo and trading with French traders.

In 1822, President Monroe had a delegation of seventeen Native Americans visit Washington. Charles Bird King was hired to paint portraits of the delegation members. Monchousia, one of the delegates, wears a colorful turban, wampum necklace, mollusk shell earrings, and a peace medal given to the delegation by Monroe. Although Monchousia was not present at the 1825 meeting with Sibley, he prominently figured in many Kaw Indian matters.

As I said, I envy the excitement that Sibley must have felt meeting with the Kaw Indians. The clash of cultures must have been eye-popping for one used to houses, roads, and "refined living". It is the chance to test oneself against the elements that we aspire to. Truly living means to get away from civilization. What better way than to experience the thrill of the buffalo hunt, the danger of the prairie fire, and the vastness of the plains which stretched on to the horizon.

Then reality sets in. George Sibley, speaking of the practicalities of travel, described it this way:
"... with difficulty and embarrassment, arising chiefly from the annoyance of the green flies of the Prairies, which obliged the Party to travel much in the Night, frequently leaving the direct route in order to find Shelter from the flies during the day, in the Small groves that are Seen here and there Scattered like little green Islands."
And anyone today who has felt the annoying bite of the tic and chigger in the tall grass, the painful irritation of brushing against stinging nettle along the banks of a creek, or the swelling that comes from contact with poison ivy that populates the verge between forest and field, knows that travel can be down right discomforting.

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