An otherwise innocuous parcel of land carries historical significance locally. It was the village site of hundreds of Osage warriors and their families.
"Disclaimer: I tend to drive this places where it’s not supposed to go,” J.J. Edwards maniacally grinned as he shifted the Polaris ATV into four-wheel drive and gunned it up the steep muddy embankment.
The door handle was stuck from the inside, basically trapping me, so there was nothing to do but hang on, pretending to study my books and maps, as we climbed what felt like an almost 90-degree ascent.
We were on the hunt for the location of an Osage village that was rumored to be on land once owned by J.J.’s father, Donnie, where the native people had camped during the latter years of the Civil War.
The group of about 1,000 people was composed of 600 warriors, many of whom had brought along their wives and children, after being hired by the U.S. government to protect settlers who’d been moving into the area.
The politics of the tribe seems to have been complicated, with some people having ties to the Confederacy.
As J.J. and I stood on what at one time had been the south bank of Turkey Creek (as opposed to a small lake built in 1974), feeling the wind and sunlight die in the summer evening, I dreamed them there, imagining the laughter of children, the men leaning against rifles, murmuring, the women perched over fires around teepees.
Few stories of the village remain, unfortunately, save tired tales of “thieving Indians” who couldn’t help but steal ropes, saddles and someone’s kitchen stove; and another wherein a white fellow had “gone native” because he liked having an Osage wife do all his work.
One genuinely fascinating detail that remains from their daily lives, however, is the story of a young Osage boy who’d been fiercely — and perhaps mortally — kicked upside the head by a horse.
A woman who lived nearby named Elizabeth Miller had traveled to the camp with fresh milk and a resolve to heal him, though her daughter Eliza J. left no mention of whether or not he survived.
In the 1970s, though, local historian Lester Harding mentioned how he and others had watched the opening of a grave at the site belonging to a small native child.
The ground being on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills, and “hard like concrete,” as J.J. had put it, the grave had been rather shallow, capped with a piece of flat native limestone and covered with only meager earth.
Whether it was the same boy cared for by Miller, Harding did not speculate.
He’d only suggested that the exhumation was prompted by a farmer who’d wanted to convert the ground for agricultural use.
AS FOR most land in the area, however, given its harsh and rocky nature, it’s far more suited for cattle than crops.
A few of J.J.’s own cows had just escaped that afternoon, and so as we bounced across the prairie in the ATV, we kept our eyes peeled.
“The old thistle’s getting high! Damn!,” he shouted over the grumbling engine as the grasses were ground beneath the hungry treads.
We had decided to check out remnants of the post office known as “Juse,” christened in 1884 by Jesse Pickering, following the pet name he’d given his daughter Jerusha.
Along the way, though, J.J., a former high school biology teacher, paused to give me a quick lesson in botany.
After jumping out — once I had extricated myself from the ATV’s door — we leaned down and he showed me a clump of sericea lespedeza, an invasive plant with stubbornly deep roots that secretes toxic chemicals into the surrounding soil, making it a real headache for ranchers.
Spray it and it sometimes comes back. Burn it and it often returns with a vengeance.
Yet despite his frustration, J.J. seemed to regard the sericea with a kind of begrudging respect, the kind of honor a soldier reserves for an enemy.
J.J. is a former Marine, after all, someone indigenous men from the Osage village may have at one time recruited to ride south into Indian Territory on a foraging trip.
As we neared the post office, we passed a tall red silo on the old Holmquest farm, which has somehow managed to remain standing after almost a century.
J.J. pinched a wad of Grizzly chewing tobacco between his cheek and gum, then sighed as he noticed the pasture gate beside the Juse site was open.
“It’s not supposed to be like that,” he said, shaking his head, then directed me to where the historical marker also should have been before being ripped to shreds by some piece of heavy equipment belonging to county road crews who’d gotten a little too close to the fenceline.
After fixing the gate, J.J. and I wandered over the sandstone foundations of the post office, which he showed me were made of stones that had been carefully cut, despite having been worn away over the course of the century.
I then dreamed Jesse Pickering there, in the small building with many drawers, filing away letters and other correspondence.
His prize-winning prototype miniature windmill was standing just outside, which he hoped would one day make him rich.
Over the years the post office changed hands and locations multiple times, as nineteenth century prairie post offices are wont to do, passing from Pickering to John Pace to Wilson Goreham to George Farnum, who moved its location to another nearby ghost town called Keck.
One tale vividly recalls Farnum carefully cutting out enormous blocks of ice from nearby ponds and creeks, then packing them in sawdust so as to save them for the following year.
The Juse-Keck area is still a bit of a wind-swept badlands to this day, so it’s not hard to see why Farnum would go to all the trouble.
EVENTUALLY J.J. and I returned to the Osage village site, this time on opposite banks, and I was taken in by the melancholy thought that all that remains now of the Osages’ stay are their undiscovered artifacts to compliment the many that have been unearthed there over the years.
That, and the indigenous burial ground west of the primary campsite, full of graves all unmarked with the exception of a particular chief.
The burial site had long predated the mobile village, and when J.J. and I had stood on the high hill where we believed it to be located, it was as if the world slowed down, making what is sometimes called by photographers “the golden hour” stretch out into a life-age.
Eliza J. had told the tale that the Osage chief who was buried there, despite the tribe being poor, had enjoyed a fairly elaborate funeral, with accompanying fancy dress.
She remembered him being a big man wizened with age, which perhaps made him difficult to carry on a litter up the steep incline to the cemetery.
After he died, she said he’d been bedecked with rings on his fingers and tiny bells on his toes.
A wide copper headband was wrapped about his temples, and accompanying him to the grave were an iron kettle, colorful beads, flint arrowheads and several other items.
By contrast, his final resting place was marked with only a small modest sandstone.
Intriguingly, it seems he chose to adopt the funeral practices of either the white Christian people he’d come in contact with, or perhaps that had been handed down to him as a member of one of the five “civilized” tribes.
When J.J. showed me a single plain flat stone atop the hill that may have been the same mentioned by Eliza J. and belonging to the chief, I couldn’t help but reach out and smooth its surface with my hand, wondering if it rock itself might contain some memory of the truth.
I’ve written before about the question as to how and whether a life leaves its mark on a place, as well as harrowing events, especially those fraught with trauma and excitement and death.
Yet a house or other place does not feel truly haunted unless one has access to its story.
And I have been nothing but saddened by the fact that when something terrible has happened to someone or something I’ve loved, I could not sense it from afar.
We carry our ghosts with us…