Plains Folk

Artifacts from Whitestone Hill


In recent weeks I’ve been talking about Whitestone Hill State Historic Site, the place where troops under General Alfred Sully attacked an encampment of Dakota, mainly Yanktonai, on 3 September 1863. This is an evocative site that should inspire remembrance in all of us.

I was alerted by Aaron Barth, a historical researcher who now has entered the PhD program at North Dakota State University, of the existence of a fascinating collection of artifacts associated with Whitestone Hill in the collections of the Smithsonian. This set me to digging, and the results are really pretty exciting.

One of the officers with Sully on his expedition was Col. Robert W. Furnas, who commanded a detachment of the 2nd Nebraska Cavalry. Furnas was a talented fellow who had come to Nebraska Territory in 1856 to publish a newspaper. He served in the territorial legislature, and then, on outbreak of the Civil War, the territorial militia. From this he moved into command of a brigade of Indians from the Indian Territory who were loyal to the Union and had been driven out of the Indian Territory, Oklahoma, by the Confederates. Under his leadership the loyalist Indians struck back and captured Chief John Ross, who had been leading the Confederate Cherokees.

This resulted in Furnas being placed in command of a new regiment, the 2nd Nebraska, and the service of him and his men on Sully’s Indian campaign in the Dakota Territory. At Whitestone Hill Furnas’s command initiated the engagement and bore the brunt of it on the army side.

Following the fight, Furnas picked up some trophies of war, objects left in camp by the Indians who had fled. These objects from Whitestone Hill he carried back home to Nebraska. In 1885, when the state of Nebraska prepared its exhibit for the New Orleans Exposition, Furnas was serving as governor. He sent his collection of Dakota artifacts to be exhibited in New Orleans. Afterwards, rather than having them shipped back to Nebraska, he had them sent on to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

The original, hand-written accession cards of the Smithsonian are available online, providing brief descriptions of the Whitestone Hill artifacts. They include the following:

• A bow, not described
• A second bow, which evidently cannot be located
• 2 arrows tipped with iron
• 8 more arrows in a quiver
• A short lance
• A war club
• A lariat
• A pipe, not described, and another pipe of stone with a wooden stem
• Two additional pipe stems
• A carved wooden spoon
• A rattle
• A flageolet, which is to say, a wooden flute

The quiver and one of the arrows have been depicted with line drawings in Smithsonian reports. They are splendid pieces of workmanship and art, precise and colorful. The Smithsonian has placed online, too, a color photograph of the short lance, which is exquisite.

Wouldn’t it be splendid to bring these treasures back to North Dakota for the public to see how fine they are, and for the descendants of the people who made them to reconnect with their ancestors through them? Objects have the power to connect us with persons of the past. Encountering these fine artifacts, we cannot just recount blithely the events that transpired at Whitestone Hill. They say to us, fine people lived and died here. Think about them.

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