After visiting Ashfall Fossil Beds, we headed north, back towards the Missouri River and another great Nebraska state park. Niobrara State Park lies at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, once the homeland of the Ponca Indians. A sweeping hilly landscape looks exactly like a George Catlin painting. You keep expecting to see a buffalo herd in every valley.
Lewis and Clark had few dealings with the Ponca, who were out hunting buffalo at the time of their visit. Like most Native American tribes, the Poncas had a tragic history. They were relatively recent to the Niobrara area, having been forced to relocate there from Lake Winnipeg by the expansionist Sioux. The 1850s and 1860s saw the Poncas fall victim to unfair treaties. Ultimately their homeland was given to the Sioux in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the Poncas were forced onto desolate reservations in Oklahoma.
After his son died, Chief Standing Bear became one of the heroes in the history of his people. He insisted on taking his son’s body back to Nebraska, but was arrested when he tried to leave the reservation. His case was taken up by two Omaha attorneys and eventually argued all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Indians were in the right. The struggle left the tribe divided and exhausted. About half of the Poncas returned to Nebraska while the others remained in Oklahoma.
We did a short driving loop through the park and stopped to view some beautiful vistas. Although the day was cloudy with the threat of rain, the river still sparkled with sandbars and wheeling birds. We took a short hike to the river and the location (approximate) where Lewis and Clark camped on September 4, 1804. You could almost imagine the keelboat and pirogues pulled up on a sandbar. The hike was fun and we met an adorable Yorkie and caught a glimpse of a young deer!
Next time, it would be fun to stay here in a park cabin. But after our hike we pressed on to Calumet Bluffs, where a nice visitor center overlooks Lewis & Clark Lake and the Gavins Point Dam (built 1957). Though it’s hard to visualize it now, Lewis and Clark held a four-day council and feast with the Sioux here in 1804. We took in some interesting exhibits about flood control and how the dam was constructed. The highlight, though, was meeting three beautiful live raptors–an osprey, a red-tailed hawk, and a great horned owl–that were being displayed by park rangers.
We beat it back to Crofton, a true small Nebraska town, just ahead of a big rainstorm! We stayed in a cute room at the unique Argo Hotel, a restored 1912 building with many past lives. The current owners have given it something of the feel of the Long Branch Saloon. We had a nice supper in their great dining room (especially good salads, and chai latte for dessert!), and their lounge rocked with laughter and old-timey music well into the night. We sat next to a family out celebrating the birthdays of two old ladies, ages 97 and 101!