Friday, July 3, 2009

The Many Lives of Fort Robinson, Nebraska

July 1, 2009

We thought we ought to pay a visit to Fort Robinson, just to see the infamous site where Crazy Horse was killed, before we headed into the Black Hills, the area where his Sioux people once lived, and where today Crazy Horse's image is being carved into a mountain on a scale intended to dwarf Mt. Rushmore.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. We came to Fort Robinson for Crazy Horse, but found that the fort had at least nine lives, and Crazy Horse was only a part of its first, and lost his life in the second. (The photo is of a Crazy Horse memorial in the foreground, and the Post Headquarters in the background.)

The Nine Lives of Fort Robinson:

  1. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 guaranteed the Sioux, and other tribes, food and supplies in return for land they ceded to the U.S. Fort Robinson, which began as a tent camp in 1874, was intended to be an Agency to hold up the U.S. end of the bargain, supplying the tribes.

  2. Crazy Horse was killed by a soldier's bayonet in 1877, while trying to escape Fort Robinson (although the Army claimed he was killed by his own knife in a scuffle with another Native American trying to stop him from threatening the Army personnel attempting to detain him). At the time Crazy Horse was in custody, he had surrendered, along with 889 members of his tribe, to escape further government persecution. By this time, gold miners had been trespassing on the Sioux reservation for two years, with no Army intervention, on President Grant's orders. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ordered the Sioux to stay on their reservation and not wander off it to hunt, and then Government troops surrounded Indian camps, and took their weapons. While disarming the Red Cloud Camp, which was supposed to be under the Agency of Fort Robinson, they drove off the Sioux horses, and later sold them in the East. This chapter in the life of Fort Robinson was its most shameful.

  3. The Buffalo Soldiers, the renowned Black cavalry, were stationed at Fort Robinson.

  4. Fort Robinson served as a testing site for field use of high-wheeled bicycles. Predictably, bicycles were found to be unfeasible for this purpose (but it must have been pretty hilarious to observe the tests).

  5. The Fort became the nation's largest training, care, and breeding center for Army horses and mules in 1919, and held this distinction through 1943, when it quartered 12,000 horses and 10,000 pack mules. With all those horses, the base became the site of frequent foxhunts, steeplechases, polo matches, and trail rides (note, no rodeos). This earned it the reputation of "The Army's Country Club."

  6. The U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team trained at the fort in 1935-39, and went on to win medals.

  7. The Fort became the largest K-9 Corps training facility in the country in 1942-46. There were 2,000 dogs on the base at once, which led to complaints from neighbors that could hear them three miles away. It was not a coincidence that the dog training facility was located at the same place as the horse training facility—"surplus" horses and mules were used for dog rations.

  8. The base became a German POW camp in 1943. In addition to doing farming work in the area to fill in for the local men who were off fighting the war, the 3,000 Germans here had a theatre troop and an orchestra. To see all the information about the POW camp at the museum, you would think that these Germans lucked out by being caught and brought here to eat well and enjoy a little vacation in the country.

  9. The USDA turned the camp into a beef cattle research station (1949-71).

Actually, I guess the fort has ten lives, because it lives on as a historic site with a museum, many of its historic buildings, and lots of historic markers--the sources of all the information we learned above. And, it is part of a big state park that offers tons of activities and amusements for visitors to choose from every day—hay rides, horseback riding, a pool, tennis courts, kids' crafts, campfires . . . kind of in the tradition of its "Army Country Club" era.

After we watched a movie about the fort's history and toured its museum, we hopped on our bicycles to complete a tour around the base, stopping to read all the historic markers we could find. Then we rode a packed gravel trail built on an old rail bed stretching from the fort to the nearby town of Crawford. We had an eight-mile round-trip through grasslands with scenic buttes rising in the distance, and little forest oases. We pedaled faster and faster on our return trip, as the clouds were building ominously. We made it back to our car just as the skies opened.

Our plans for an open air picnic washed out, but Dick got permission for us to enjoy our lunch on the porch of one of the old officer's quarters. Today, visitors can stay in the historic quarters, which are quite generous in size, we observed, as we wandered around inside (guests had recently vacated, leaving the door unlocked—we couldn't resist a peek). Two families of six could all have beds, not even using the futon in the living room.

We suspect that most people who come to Fort Robinson State Park don't visit the history museum, because there are so many other fun things to do in the park. But, once we toured the museum, and knew the secrets of the fort's history, it was hard to look at our peaceful surroundings without thinking about the tragic events that had happened here.

No comments:

Post a Comment