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Chief Standing Bear and Grandpa

My neighbor JB was born in 1924 in my valley down by the Clark’s Fork.  His parents’ homestead is in a unique and beautiful hollow below the main road.  From this hidden depression, you can look out over the meadow where their horses graze and view Bald Ridge directly on.The flats above the gorge of the Clarks Fork

Bald Ridge

Yesterday it was snowing so I went to visit JB.  He told me this story:

My grandfather was born in Nebraska.  When he was just nine years old, he was playing and broke his leg.  His father was a hard man and beat him for that.  My grandpa swore to himself that when he got better he was going to run away and he did, at 10 years old.  He and a friend were catching rides on freighters going down river, going West.  They hitched a ride on a wagon that was attacked by Indians.  The Indians killed everyone in that wagon train, including his friend, but my grandpa hid in a flour drum.  The flour was in 55 gallon drums and he hid behind one.   The Indian Chief and his wife found the boy and the Chief’s wife took pity on him.  They took him back to the tribe and raised him with their own child, which I think was a girl.  That Chief was Standing Bear.  My Grandpa lived with them for 5 years. Chief Standing Bear--I think its this one.

The Indians liked to gamble and compete.  There was one boy the same age as my grandfather who didn’t get along with him at all.  When my grandpa was 15, this boy challenged my grandfather to a horse race.  Grandfather was an excellent horseman and he was winning.  The Indian boy was mad and pulled out a knife.  Grandpa knocked that boy down, off his horse, and I think he killed him.  Or hurt him badly.  No, I think he killed him, but it was kill or be killed.

The whole tribe had a meeting.  Since my grandfather was white, they banished him.  Chief Standing Bear and his wife took my grandpa in the middle of the night, on horseback, and told him he should leave and go far away; far enough away so no one in the tribe would come after him.  The chief told him that he would always love him and think of him as a son, strong, brave and worthy to become a chief, but that now he must go.

Photo of Chief and family from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Photo of Chief and family from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Grandpa came out to this country and spent time here with the Shoshone as well.  He was working at Pahaska Teepee taking people into the Park when Buffalo Bill came out here.

It is true he had a wooden leg.  He was logging and in an accident.  His leg broke, a clean break right here (points to below his knee).  He knew how to set bones and had set many breaks on other people. But they took him to a doctor who cut off his leg at the knee.  That shouldn’t have been.  He’d wear lots and lots of socks over that peg to cushion it against his knee.  But he could do anything he wanted with that leg.

He lived near the mouth of the Clarks Fork.  One time us kids were down there visiting.  My sister was taking a nap in the house and all of us other kids were down at the river swimming and fishing.  Grandpa was working in his shop nearby.  In those days there was lots of sheet lightening in this country.   My sister had just gotten up from her nap and was coming down to the river, when lightening struck the house.  You couldn’t do nothing.  In an instant, the entire house was in flames.  My grandpa thought my little sister was still in the house.  You should’ve seen him run with that peg leg!

I went to live with my grandpa when I was about 12.  I had a hard time finishing up those last two years of school between the 6th and 8th grades.  I did graduate though.  I only went till 8th grade.  Sometimes I was on the other side of the mountain going to school there.  They had a better teacher.  Sometimes I had to come back home and go to school here.  There were only 3 students here and all that teacher was interested in was the ranch hands. All that back and forth on foot and horseback over Dead Indian.  There wasn’t a real good road in those days, all dirt.  The old road went straight down the mountain.  From Cody it took four stout horses to pull an empty wagon up the hill most of the day. When you got to the top of Dead Indian, a man put a roughlock shoe on his hind wheels which kept them from turning.  Then he cut a tree, left all the branches on it, and chained it behind the load.  Then he headed straight down the hill, praying that his leaders would outrun his wheelers.Atop Dead Indian.  Strap a log behind the wagon to go downhill

Grandpa had really strong hands, all his life.  It was because he had spent so much time driving teams of horses.  You have to hold those reins between each finger and use your hands to hold back the horses.  He drove hay and other goods for a living.  I think he had done just about everything.  He was an excellent blacksmith and made all his tools.

It was a good story for a snowy day.  I thought about how I was just one hair’s breath away from Chief Standing Bear.  How less than a hundred years ago men knew how to do everything in order to survive–how to set a bone, fire and hammer out their tools, drive a team of horses.  I thought how our lives had become so quickly removed from those generations– so flaccid with the advent of electricity, large machinery, computers, phones–and wondered how much lore and skills have already been buried forever.

When I talk story with JB, I can feel him reaching back in his mind.  He has an impeccable memory for details. His stories contain names and dates.  He might have only an 8th grade education, but his powers of observation far surpass many I’ve met with college degrees.  I get him to tell me stories.  I write them down.  I listen.  They need to be re-told.

12 Responses

  1. That’s an incredible story, and if it hasn’t already been collected and published, it needs to be. As you say, we walk a place where many, many generations have come before us. Hopefully, we’ll take care of it, and many many will come after.


  2. hello, im from england.what a beautiful story, i could sit all day with native americans, or people who can tel u these wonderful stories, photos are sooooo peaceful..so thank you for this story, whom ever you may be…cheif standing bear an incrediable man and a heart to take a white child with him, as in the days of 1800:s it was forbidden..may god bess you…


    • hello, just reading your story again, natives inspirie me..marvollous story….cheif standing bear an incredible man…..


  3. Thanks, glad you’ve enjoyed it.


  4. Hey, my name is Misti Brafford. Cheif standing bear is one of my grandpas. Way down the line somewhere haha. but i just wanna tell you that my grandpa is Guy brafford if you know him. he is a great man.


    • hello misty..you must be very proud to have a grandfather named “cheif standing bear…..what a courgeous man…i believe your grandfather loved the mother earth and animals…very brave man….take care…


  5. are they part of shoshone tribe
    is that thare real name


    • Pretty sure this Chief Standing Bear was Lakota. There is another Standing Bear who was Ponca. My neighbors grandpa was a white boy. The photo of the Chief and his family was taken at the Buffalo Bill Historical Museum in Cody where it hangs. Its hard to really discern which Chief it was. These are old stories told by old ones and the imprints left by the memories fade a bit.


  6. hi from iowa thats an incredible story and indeed it should be passed down for ages good story(:


  7. hello..cheif standing bear was lakota, he had 2 girls, but has we can see by the photo…what i love about this story, has im english and white..i love the fact a native indian helped a white boy in those days as you all would today, it was the “white eyes” who wanted native land al for what, the gold probably, it was white eyes that were not nice, cheif standing bear has a pure heart and soul to help and raise the child ….very nice indeed…..


    • He had three daughters actually. And the picture was taking at his home in Manderson, SD. I am his great grandson and actually stayed in the home that is pictured when I was 15 with his daughter Tinnie.


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