This is the text of the speech I gave at the Douglas County Historical Society, August 12, 2012.
Remember those dot-to-dot puzzles we did before video games were invented? What if I gave you one, but the dots weren’t numbered, several were missing, and some were misleading or mistakenly linked. And then, once you’ve got the dots connected – hope they’re right! – you have to get out the crayons and make a picture. Now you know how it feels to write historical fiction.
In 2010, I signed a contract with Thomas Nelson to write two historical romances. The first, a mail-order bride story set in Dakota Territory, was complete – after all, I’d been working on it since 1991 – except for the editing, revisions, book cover, reading group guide, author acknowledgements, promotion, and book release party, of course.
The second was not written. It wasn’t started. Not even a glimmer of an idea. But I did have, for the first time in my writing life, a deadline. A deadline that said “Focus!” – no futzing around with research rabbit trails, no squinting at miles of microfilmed newspapers, no interlibrary-loaning every book remotely connected with the story, and no camping in North Dakota. The mosquitos would have to survive without me.
Researching Spring for Susannah had given me a good handle on the 1870s, so I decided to stick with that fascinating time period, but set the story in my home state of Nebraska, so I could research here at the Douglas County Historical Society. The most historically significant event in 1870s Omaha was Standing Bear vs. Crook, the court case which declared, in the eyes of the law, an Indian was a person. Now, how what could I write about that?
And hadn’t the last word on the Ponca removal been written? Joe Starita’s I am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice was selected for ‘One Book, One Nebraska”, a perfect choice for our state. But houldn’t the whole country, even the rest of the world, know what happened here in 1879?
I grew up in the Washington DC area. Dad taught junior high when the schools were integrated. Mom was on the board of the Black Heritage Museum. I attended the first integrated Vacation Bible School in Virginia. We were savvy on the civil rights movement, yet we didn’t know about the trial of Standing Bear. Few outside this state know about it. But a lot of people read romances. People who have never been to Nebraska, who might never pick up a non-fiction book. Maybe I could get the word out.
My research stalled almost immediately. First, too few dots. Standing Bear’s and White Eagle’s testimonies were the only Ponca accounts of the removal from their homeland. In the struggle for survival, many Ponca stories and traditions were lost – a horrible, tragic loss. Second, my contract said “historical romance”. A happy ending is required. Even with the verdict in Standing Bear’s favor, it would be years before the Poncas had a happy ending. I hope someday to read this incredible story of strength, courage, and perseverance from the Ponca’s point-of-view – perhaps a Ponca writer will be the one to tell it. But for this story, the main characters couldn’t be Ponca.
Who else had been up on the Niobrara? Ministers, government agents, and soldiers came and left with the speed of an Olympic sprinter – an indication of how bad conditions were.
Then I found an intriguing dot in the puzzle: In 1872, the Ponca Agency school was staffed by a Russian woman. Now that’s unusual. There were Russians on the Pacific coast. A decade later, Germans would move from Russia to the northern plains. Then in the 20th century Rose Blumkin arrived. But in the 1870s? Here’s another fascinating dot – around this time, a woman with the same name taught French at Vassar College, just up the Hudson River from New York City. The Russian court used French – could she have been a member of the nobility?
Let’s consider Vassar for a moment: the Tuileries Palace in Paris was the inspiration for their main building. When the College opened in 1861, it was the largest and most technically advanced structure in the United States. Central heating kept the temperature from dropping below 65 degrees. Piped gas provided lights throughout. Students and teachers benefitted from a library, chapel, art gallery, observatory, riding stable, gymnasium, museum, and an infirmary staffed by a physician. Three meals a day, laundry, and housekeeping were provided. Meanwhile out on the Ponca reservation, the agent reported the tribe was destitute and their buildings were dilapidated. The Poncas suffered from an ongoing nightmare which included unscrupulous agents, broken treaties, drunk interpreters, drought, floods, hail, blizzards, grasshoppers, starvation, and illness.
So why would someone leave what must have been one of the most comfortable jobs in the United States to become a missionary on a poorly-supplied Indian agency on the Dakota-Nebraska border? She would have been surrounded by people with a different skin color, different language, different culture. Their enormous needs must have overwhelmed her and their enormous faith humbled her. That sounded a lot like my experiences on mission trips to Jamaica. I knew I’d found my story’s heroine.
What about the hero? Staff at the agency included blacksmiths, farmers, and carpenters. They did their jobs but also taught their skills to the tribe – important work, but history doesn’t even record their names. My fictional carpenter Willoughby Dunn is a tribute to all the unsung heroes of this world.
The hero and heroine met in 1876, the Ponca’s last year on their homeland. Then I needed them in Omaha in 1879 for the trial. Here’s where the research stopped feeling like dot-to-dots and started feeling like a jigsaw puzzle. The mission was Episcopalian, so when the Ponca reservation closed, my heroine ended up teaching at an Episcopalian girls school at 16th and Jones, Brownell Hall. They already had one Vassar grad teaching there, why not give them a second? And one of their grads, Elizabeth Poppleton, attended Vassar. Poppleton – have you heard that name before? Bishop Clarkson lived next door to the school and the students worshiped at 18th and Capitol, in a small white frame church called Trinity. (They were saving up to build the cathedral.) One of the students at Brownell Hall was May Dundy, whose father, Judge Elmer Dundy presided over Standing Bear vs. Crook. Both of Standing Bear’s lawyers, John Webster and Andrew Poppleton, attended Trinity. Newspaperman Thomas Henry Tibbles broke the news of the Poncas to the world. While Tibbles was on a speaking tour after the trial, his first wife Amelia died and Bishop Clarkson preached her funeral at Trinity. General Crook, before his house here was finished, lived at 18th and Davenport, just a block from Trinity. Charles Birkett, who’d been the agent for the Poncas in 1873, also attended Trinity. Is anyone seeing a pattern here? These are just the connections I came across – who knows what I would have found if I’d really been digging. Did all these people know each other? Did they talk to each other, discuss the Ponca situation? Well, they didn’t have the Huskers to talk about. What I do know is: When your friends return from a trip, whether its a mission or a vacation, whether it’s international or Niobrara, Nebraska, it’s a great opportunity to expand your understanding of this world.
This I also know: The church hasn’t always been good to this country’s indigenous people, but Trinity deserves a “well done, faithful servant” for its role in the civil rights movement. It’s an important reminder for us today, that church can be more than the Sunday service, hymnals, and potlucks. In the Bible, God tells us, to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” One hundred thirty-three years ago, a small group of people in Omaha accomplished just that.