Patricia Craig Johnson --- Searching for My Ancestors --- Sharing My Life Stories

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Visit To Warriors And Heroes ---- Way Back In 1990

[Author's note: This was written in 1991 and it is a LONG story. Have you guessed yet that this blog will eventually have all of my stories in it -- mixed in with current stuff of course. patj]

Being human can mean being an expert at putting off things. Dreaming about doing something, or wishing, or imagining is a wonderful aspect of being human, but it's easy to go no further in fulfilling those things dreamed and talked about.

In my own experience I find that sometimes I have to make myself put forth the effort to act on my dreams and plans. The close of 1990 is a perfect example because I had talked and dreamed for ten years of being at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on December 29, 1990. This would be the one hundredth anniversary of that infamous and tragic end to the Indian Wars.

The early winter of 1990 was relatively mild so my plans raced headlong into December. Around the middle of the month, Mother Nature , or the weatherman, or my personal "character building guardian angel" stepped in. The weather turned bitterly cold, I mean twenty below zero cold! Suddenly the everyday conversation was concerned with cars that wouldn't start, water pipes that were frozen solid, wind chill factors of seventy-five degrees below zero, and other such cheerful topics. Not exactly weather that was conducive to a trip into the Plains of South Dakota.

This called for a serious talk with myself! Have I turned into one of those "normal" people that are primarily concerned with personal comfort? One of those people that have never been on my ten most admired list? Isn't new adventure and new experiences what is most important in life? Isn't my new philosophy that as I grow older I can afford to be more daring and risk taking because I am cashing in the dividends of living for over a half a century? Isn't this a commitment I had made to myself many years ago to do something that's a "one moment in time" opportunity? After all, I have a relatively good vehicle, and a willing and adventuresome companion in my husband, John.

I don't believe it's even remotely possible that my "conservative and logical" self could out maneuver my "eccentric and idealistic" self, but it tried! As the referee in this debate I have to admit that I was slightly biased and extremely pleased with the outcome!

John and I left Mom and Lee's house on the day after Christmas. It had been a beautiful Christmas with Don and Cindy, Chad and Ryan, Laurie and Logan, John and I all being together at Mom's. Mom had overcome frozen pipes and other cold weather obstacles and had created a warm and hospitable weekend that we will all cherish in our memories. The wonderful smells of good food cooking, the Christmas tree and decorations, the young boys that are at the stage of life between child and adult, the little girl that reaps the attention of all, MY little girls that even though grown, will always be little girls to me, the excitement of unknown treasures wrapped in bright paper. It was a GRAND Christmas in 1990.

We left Scottsbluff, Nebraska and drove north through the panhandle. It was a sunny, bright, cold crisp day as we traveled the lonesome highway through the ranch lands of Western Nebraska. For me it is a great escape to get into the open country where I can see so far. The solitude feels good, renews my spirit, and makes it possible for me to handle "civilization" for a bit longer.

After arriving at Hot Springs, South Dakota and arranging our lodging, we decided to drive around the town and see what adventure may pop up. I wanted to see the State Veterans Home because my great-great grandparents lived their last days there in the 1930's. I got directions to the home and off we went! What we discovered as we drove up the snow covered road, was an old, but, beautiful facility tucked into the pines of the Black Hills. Perhaps some new buildings since the 1930's, but, for the most part, probably the same as it looked when Eugene and Jencene Casey first saw it. My mother remembers that they were happy, proud, and pleased with their "apartment" at the Old Soldiers Home, as it was called in those days.

There is a National Cemetery at Hot Springs and I had a feeling that I might find that the Casey's were buried there --- or at least that Eugene would be. Since this was a regular business day at the Home, John suggested that I go in and inquire about any records or information available.

I climbed the wooden steps to the administration building and walked across the large front porch that spans the width of the building. As I opened the large, heavy door I stepped into an earlier time of our century. The Home was opened in 1890 (the same year as Wounded Knee), so this main building was probably built around 1900. It had the typical high ceilings, long and narrow windows, and creaking wooden floors that reminded me of other old buildings that I've been in. Buildings like court houses, schools and hospitals. Buildings that shout, "I'm an institution" from every corner. I like these kinds of buildings because they look like what they are --- they aren't prettied up to fool or confuse anyone. They are from a simpler, or perhaps a more honest time than now.

I asked a man where the records office was and he eagerly escorted me up the stairs to the second floor. The young woman in charge of records was very pleasant and didn't seem at all flustered when I requested information about people that had died prior to 1937. Perhaps when you work with records everyday it's not unusual, but for me, I thought it a miracle that she knew exactly where to go to look! At any rate, she found a card for Jencene, but none for Eugene. This card indicated that Jencene was buried at the Home's cemetery. Another record book revealed that Eugene was buried next to her. Plots 14 & 15 in Row 5 were their final resting place.

As I was talking to the record clerk, the Home's administrator entered the office. He took me down the hall and showed me the road to the cemetery. He assured me that it was permissible to drive to the cemetery on the back part of the property. He also gave me a detailed history of the Home and proudly explained the many photos that were displayed in the hallway. I was elated as I left the building and excitedly told John what I had learned. This was more success than I expected when I first went in.

We drove behind the Home and started climbing up the snow packed road. We passed the outbuildings and dairy barn that were used a long time ago when the Home produced most of it's food. After a few sharp turns in the road and perhaps a quarter of a mile of slow climbing, we entered the cemetery area. It's located in a beautiful setting surrounded by a dense forest of pines. There was a soft blanket of snow covering the ground and it was extremely quiet and peaceful. As we approached the entrance, we saw that there was a padlock on the gate. John said that we weren't going to be this close and turn away, so ----- we climbed over the fence. After searching the entire cemetery we finally found Row 5. Later we discovered row markers, but the snow had completely covered them making them invisible.

At last we found the markers for Eugene and Jencene Casey. Over fifty years have passed since they died and I wondered as I stood there if any other descendants have ever been here. For some reason I doubted it. I felt at peace and happy as we left the cemetery. I have inherited pictures of these ancestors, so I have an image of them in my mind. Eugene Casey, Civil War veteran, proud of his many medals that adorned his suit. Jencene Casey, born in 1851 in Den- mark, married very young to her soldier husband and mother of a large family. Now I know where they are eternally resting and it completes the picture for me.

This adventure alone warranted the stamp "SUCCESS" for the trip. Everything to come would be an extra dividend as far as I was concerned. For the next two days we did the conventional tourist type of things. We swam at Evans Plunge, visited Crazy Horse Mountain, visited Rapid City, and thoroughly enjoyed the Black Hills without the hustle and bustle of the tourist season.

At Crazy Horse Mountain we received very special attention from the young Indian boy that was the guide on duty. Actually, we were the only customers he had and he seemed lonely. The weather was bitterly cold and added it's own personality to our travels. It was hard to beat the ecstasy of getting back in to the truck after being out in the cold wind and blowing snow.

After returning to Hot Springs on Thursday evening, we decided to make our pilgrimage to Wounded Knee on Friday, December 28th. This was one day earlier than our plans, but we had a feeling that the 29th would have too many people there and that wasn't what we came to see.

Friday, the 28th of December was as cold as the days before had been. The wind swept plains looked formidable as we turned south and then east toward Pine Ridge. The sky was cloudy and dark as snow flurries whipped across the lonely highway. The weather was co-operating completely in setting the stage as it had been in 1890.

As we came to the reservation town of Oglala we turned off the highway. We drove through the little town and came to a dead end. As I turned in to a yard to make a u-turn, two little round faces appeared in the window of the shabby little house. They were curious but sad little faces, just as the town looked. The poverty that we saw there will remain in our memories for a long time. I'm an advocate of people being able to live as they choose, but I didn't come away with the feeling that these people chose this life style.

The town of Pine Ridge came into view as we traveled east. It definitely is the reservation's main city. As we dropped into the valley, the influences of civilization were apparent. A nice, modern hospital sits on a hill above the town. The buildings that house the services that the government doles out are located at the main intersection. We turned there and drove to the south edge of town where the reservation school is. Many of the houses surrounding the school are boarded up now. Reminders of a day when the teachers lived on the school grounds, just as the soldiers lived at the forts.

Across the street from the government offices is a new, modern Conoco station that is one of those combination deli, eating area and, in this case, a social gathering place. We parked as close to the door as possible because of the bitterly cold wind, but even a few feet was almost unbearable. The atmosphere inside was definitely influenced by the weather. People of all ages and sizes were bundled up for the cold and the look on people's faces was that strained look
that extreme cold causes. The place was a buzz of excitement and many little conversations were going on at each table. Some non-natives were gathered at a table near us. It wasn't hard to figure out that they were not from this State, or even from this part of the country. They were smartly groomed and dressed in stylish "cold weather" clothes. Their conversation was about where to position cameras for the most effect, CNN, NBC and other terms that announced
that they were here for a news story. I don't know how the Sioux felt about them, but for myself, I rather resented them being here. For some unknown reason I didn't want to share Wounded Knee with these people. John and I decided to get started for Wounded Knee before these people.

We continued east on Highway 18 for about ten miles, driving in the blowing snow until we reached the turn off to Wounded Knee. It was another fourteen miles north. The wind covered the hills with a light dusting of snow and my imagination was creating an image of how this country would have looked one hundred years ago. Not that much different than today, except for the narrow paved road that carried us to Wounded Knee.

As the memorial site and cemetery came in to view, it was clear that we were going to have to share the area with many other people. Much different than our visit six years ago at this same time of year. On that December day in 1984 there wasn't a living soul within many, many miles of the place. Today the parking lot below the cemetery was filled with cars, pickups, campers and busses. Most of the vehicles were running and were filled with people trying to keep warm. We found a place to park, put on all of the warm clothing we had, grabbed the camera and started up the hill to the mass grave. A few people looked at us with curiosity, but for the most part no one paid too much attention to us.

The climb up the hill was so miserable in the cold, 20 below zero wind, that we walked with our backs to it temporarily to be able to catch our breath. Finally we reached the arch that forms the entrance to the cemetery. We stood at the edge of the mass grave and paid our respect to the spirits that live there. This was our main purpose for making the trip here this year. It was a quiet, solitary, and private moment for each of us.

We walked around the rest of the cemetery before we started back down the hill. Indian cemeteries are always an interesting sight. Even on this blustery, cold, dreary day it looked bright and colorful with it's many plastic flowers scattered around. We first noticed this a few years ago when we drove to the cemetery in the Wind River Reservation at Fort Washakie, Wyoming. This is where Sacajawea is buried. During that trip, we drove along the country road leading to the Indian cemetery when we suddenly saw something bright on the hillside to our left. There it was, alight with vivid colors that climbed the hillside like a field of wildflowers. Indian cemeteries definitely have a unique look that perhaps reflects their outlook on death as an event to celebrate.

We couldn't spend too much time in that bitter wind, so we hurried down the hill to the truck. What a welcome shelter that was as we sat there letting the heater warm us. Little wonder that the corpses from one hundred years ago could be stacked like wood into the wagons that came from Chadron to help clear the area after the "battle". The weather in 1890 during the "Moon Of Trees Popping", was almost exactly as it was on this day one hundred years later.

As a last minute whim, we decided to follow the road north to the next town. We passed the spot where Chief Big Foot had surrendered to the Army on December 28, 1890. It was a pretty little valley with pine trees scattered through it. As we traveled on we passed a large group of Indian people walking on the highway. There were many cars, trucks and campers following to provide aid to the participants. It was a moving and symbolic sight.

We reached the next little reservation town named Porcupine. There were many cars and horse trailers lining up on the highway. We didn't know until later that there were two hundred people riding horses over the exact route that Big Foot's tribe had traveled in the days before December 29th. Porcupine was apparently their last stop before starting the final part of their ride.

At any rate, we headed back from Porcupine, passed the marchers again, passed the memorial site, and finally reached the highway that leaves the reservation behind.

We were quiet for some time after our visit to Wounded Knee. It was something we had planned and dreamed of doing --- and we did it! It was what I call a "SOUL TRIP".

Unexpected things had been found along the way and this made it a completely successful adventure. Although unrelated in time and history, we had found "Warriors and Heroes"!

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