That the Ponca and Omaha were formerly a single tribe is accepted without question, and that the separation took place long after they crossed the Mississippi from their ancient habitat is established by the traditions of the two tribes. Probably the two tribes in later years, after the separation, continued to resemble one another to such a degree that the, villages of one could not have been distinguished from those of the other.
A deserted village of the Ponca was discovered by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804, and according to the narrative of the expedition on September 5 they arrived at the “river Poncara,” which entered the Missouri from the south, and at its mouth was 30 yards in width. “Two men whom we dispatched to the village of the same name, returned with information that they had found it on the lower side of the creek: but as this is the hunting season, the town was so completely deserted that they had killed a buffalo in the village itself.” 1 The “river Poncara,” later to be known as Ponca Creek, enters the right bank of the Missouri in the western part of the present Knox County, Nebraska. Here they continued to live for some years, and during the spring of 1833 Maximilian said they “dwell on both sides of Running-water River, and on Ponca Creek, which Lewis and Clark call Poncara. “Running-water River was the earlier name of the Niobrara. “The band of them, which we met with here, has set up eight or nine leather tents, at the mouth of Basil Creek, on a fine forest.” On May 12, 1833, appears this note in the narrative Arrived “opposite the huts of the Punca Indians. They lay in the shade of a forest, like white cones, and, in front of them, a sand bank extended into the river, which was separated from the land by a narrow channel. The whole troop was assembled on the edge of the bank, and it was amusing to see how the motley group crowded together, wrapped in brown buffalo skins, white and red blankets some naked, of a deep brown color.” 2 A sketch made at that time by Bodmer and reproduced by Maximilian is here shown in plate 29. It bears the legend “Punka Indians Encamped on the Banks of the Missouri.”
Although at that time living in the typical skin tipi, Maximilian stated 3 , “They formerly lived, like the Omaha, in clay huts at the mouth of the river, but their powerful enemies, the Sioux and the Pawnees, destroyed their villages, and they have since adopted the mode of life of the former, living more generally in tents made of skins, and changing their place from time to time.” The village visited by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, September 5, 1804, when they “killed a buffalo in the village itself,” was probably composed of earth-covered lodges.
When discovering a trail, or rather tracks made by a number of Indians crossing the prairie, it was often possible to determine the nature of the party. The Ponca, who often moved from place to place, setting up their tipis in various localities during the course of the year, could have been held in mind by Gregg when he wrote: “These lodges are always pitched or set up by the squaws, and with such expedition, that, upon the stopping of an itinerant band, a town springs up in a desert valley in a few minutes as if by enchantment. The lodge-poles are often neatly prepared, and carried along from camp to camp. In conveying them one end frequently drags on the ground, whereby the trail is known to be that of a band with families, as war parties never carry lodge-poles.” 4 The rapidity and skill with which the squaws set up and arranged the tipis, when the site of the camp had been selected, was commented on by many writers, and what an interesting and animated scene it must have been.
- Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., 1, pp. 66-67.
- Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, pp. 137-139.
- Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, p. 137
- Gregg, Josiah, Commerce of the Prairies. New York, 1844. 2 vols., II, pp. 286-288.