Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Legend of Pawnee Rock


Pawnee Rock is located in Barton County, Kansas and reportedly received its name (according to Stories of the Old Santa Fe Trail by Henry Inman, 1881) when a troup of hunters bound for the west in 1833, which included a young Kit Carson, camped at the landmark and engaged the Pawnee near that location. As travel increased along the route to Santa Fe, this story began circulating in newspapers across the country.

*Disclaimer* The legend presented here is transcribed in its entirety without edits to remove the prejudices of the day. The views included do not reflect our own.


The Legend of Pawnee Rock

The Times-Picayune, November 15, 1840, New Orleans, LA.


A portion of Pawnee Rock, photo taken in 2017

“The rock is cleft as if by the lightning, and one portion of it stands inaccessible except by a dangerous jump by the other part. Thus discovered, this solitary heap of stone bears some resemblance to the huge head of a buried monster, with its jaws open, gasping for air and liberty.

From the legend as told, and even to this day believed by the Pawnees, it is evident there had been in practice among the Great Medicines a system of imposition very similar to the exploded religious charlatanry of ancient times in other countries. This petrified Gorgon was represented by the priests as the bad spirit who caused earth-tremblings, storms and inundations of the land. He was at certain times of the year to be conciliated with presents, and in hunting seasons especially plentiful stores of the finest buffalo meat were always placed in the jaws of Pawnee Rock before the hunters dare venture upon regaling themselves. When war was to be made, or sickness spread among the tribes, or any calamity or danger threatened the people, the first thing thought of was a pilgrimage to the rock, where prayers and presents were duly offered up, and the pleasure of Manito was made known with mysterious solemnity by the priests. Malefactors were sometimes dropped into the bad monster’s jaws, tied hand and foot and left through the night to his fate. Then the next day the whole tribe would return and find the clean picked bones of the criminal scattered about the rock. Of course he had been eaten by the earth fiend, and none but the cunning priests themselves ever suspected the wolves of the unhappy man’s death.

They also tell how this monster of stone was once free and used to travel about the land drinking the rivers dry, tearing up the trees, upon which he existed, and tumbling in the night great stones down the mountain side. It was him, they say, who caused the prairies, by eating away the trees and even tearing up their roots so they never sprouted again. At length Manito enchained him here in the earth lest he should destroy the red men, and now he is quite harmless, save that now and then he groans and spits forth storms and shakes the earth with struggles to be free.

A terrible punishment, it is said, is sure to fall upon any who are rash enough to interfere with the fate of a condemned criminal, and one little story is told, of deep and pathetic interest – doubtless, too, the relation of an actual occurrence – which we shall here set down, if possible in the same simple manner in which we heard it.

A white boy, the son of a Canadian trapper who was drowned in one of the forks of the Platte, had fallen among a tribe of Pawnees, and lived with them until manhood found him one of the bravest and most expert of the young warriors of the nation. He loved the daughter of the chief in whose wigwam he had been nurtured, and the devoted Indian girl gave up her whole heart and being to the young American. Though Indian in all his habits and tastes, he yet possessed instinctively the superior intelligence of his own nation, and though yielding obedience to the superstitious observances of the tribe, his lip curled in derision whenever called upon to practice them. The priests read these thoughts in the young Canadian’s mind, and his destruction was soon resolved upon. Being in high favor with the whole tribe, they could not proceed directly against him, but through the girl he loved, the old chief’s daughter, they determined to inflict their first stroke of revenge.

An alarming visitation of the small pox soon afforded the vengeful Great Medicines an opportunity to carry out their designs. They addressed the Great Spirit with mystic rites and incantations, and then pronounce to the tribe the will of Manito that the old chief’s daughter should be sacrificed to the stone fiend of the prairie. Disputing one of these decrees was a thing never dreamed among the Pawnees, and the young Canadian knew that to offer even the slightest opposition would be to turn the whole nation against him, even to the very father of his betrothed, and inevitably stamp his own destruction. The priests expected him to oppose the decree, which was the end they aimed at, as then they would have pronounced the same doom upon himself, and nothing could have saved him or the poor Indian girl. So only despair or the alternative of some desperate strategies was left for the young white lover.

The day of doom arrived, and a mourning train of warriors and women left the village and set forward to the distant rock. The song of sacrifice was chanted at nightfall, and the young betrothed of the white man was consigned to the rocky jaws of her lonely desert bridegroom, while the poor Indians turned back to their homes again, believing the angry spirit was appeased and they would now be released from the terrible disease under which they were groaning.

That night the young white man disappeared from the village and was never heard of more. The Indian legend ends here, and nothing further is told of the forest girl and her lover. But as the traders elaborate the story, it would seem that the lover sought Pawnee Rock in the night, released his betrothed, and, not daring to be seen again among the Pawnees, they wandered about the wilderness, seeking to reach the white settlements of Missouri. Not many years since a rude cross was discovered upon the bank of a small creek which the Santa Fe traders cross in their progress, and upon digging beneath it, the bones of a female were found, together with beads and ornaments such are usually worn by a Pawnee girl. This incident has been attached as a sequel to the Legend of the Rock, and the place is now pointed out as the poor girl’s lonely grave. But the most ingenious story teller among the old travelers has never yet attempted to finish the narrative with the fate of the young white warrior.”