Black Bob: tormenting the palefaces

BlackBob parkIn a few places in Olathe, Kansas -- an elementary school, a park, a municipal swimming pool, a road –the name “Black Bob” survives, sounding as if some pirate must once have swashbuckled through this middle class suburb of Kansas City.  But Black Bob wasn’t a pirate, he was a Shawnee Indian chief whose legacy remains largely unremembered, if not deliberately forgotten.

Though he had died thirty years earlier, Black Bob was remembered in 1893 Kansas City for the unresolved land case associated with his name; it had remained unresolved “to torment his pale-faced successors in the courts to the end of time,” the Star reckoned,  due to one leader’s unyielding resistance to the plans of white Americans for his people.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Shawnee had been repeatedly displaced from their original lands in the east by white settlement and attacks from tribal confederacies seeking to monopolize trade with the Europeans. In 1825 they were forced further west into Kansas territory, where in exchange for lands they’d previously occupied in eastern Missouri they were given 1,600,000 acres of land in Kansas, comprising all of present day Johnson, Douglas, Miami, Franklin, and Lyon counties.

Reduced to a few thousand, mainly by the effects of diseases that arrived with Europeans, the once powerful Shawnee were forced in an 1854 treaty to cede most of this land to the U.S. government, asTecumseh white settlers entered Kansas and demanded Indians be removed.

Of the 200,000 acres left to the Shawnee, Black Bob’s people received about 15 per cent, or 30,000 acres, of which each family was to alotted 200 acres. Black Bob had resisted leaving the Missouri lands and now he resisted the intention of whites to continue his people’s dispossession by insisting that their lands be held in common rather than separately. By 1869, an article in the New York Herald reported, most of the Shawnee from other bands who’d held individual “patents” of ownership had by some combination of coercion and trickery been parted from their lands “for far less than their value […] and the former Indian owners are now poor and homeless, illustrating the superior wisdom of Black Bob’s band, which elected to hold their lands in common.” 

During the Civil War, Black Bob’s people, along with most of the Shawnees, left Kansas for the Indian Territory to escape the violence of the border wars, without any intention of abandoning their land rights in Kansas. As soon as the war was over, however, white squatters began occupying Shawnee lands, hoping the federal government would eventually give them ownership.

But the settlers were stymied by an unscrupulous cabal of speculators, led by J.B. Abbott, who had been the Indian Agent for the Shawnee. Abbot took advantage of his position to attempt to secure control of the Black Bob lands, Black Bob himself having died during the war. The Emporia Weekly News in August, 1870, printed a lengthy report on what it called the “Black Bob Fraud,” by U.S. Senator E.G. Ross of Missouri. Ross showed how Abbott and his successor as Indian Agent, H.L. Taylor, in collaboration with Missouri Congressman Sidney Clarke, had contrived to create sixty-nine fraudulent land patents for presentation to the Department of Indian Affairs, claiming they had acquired them fairly from Black Bob’s people. Under the 1854 treaty, only the Department could approve the individual sale of lands held  in common.

Sidney ClarleClarke, Taylor, and Abbot were, said Scott, “withholding the patents from the Indians, even keeping them in ignorance of their existence, and refusing to deliver them to the Indians or return them to the Department, while they were procuring the execution of deeds under them, for the conveyance of the lands to themselves or others.” The “others” were not necessarily the settlers who’d been occupying and improving the land for years, so the ownership of Black Bob land was in contention between the government, the Black Bob Shawnee, land speculators, squatters and  wealthy, influential investors.

An Indian Affairs investigation found that undue influence had been exerted upon the Shawnee to get them to make individual “selections” of land to sell, and adequate compensation had not been paid. Scott called the evidence of fraud “clear, pointed and convincing in a striking degree. […]” The speculators were defrauding not only the Indians, by paying them far less than the price agreed on, which was itself much lower than the market price, but defrauding also the settlers out of the improvements they had put into the land. By 1870, according to Ross, there remained only sixty-six members of Black Bob’s band, yet the speculators had produced sixty-nine patents and had applications for sixty-five, even while fifty-seven of the sixty-six had had protested the partition of their lands. It was apparent, Scott wrote, “that the intention of the schemers is to find names enough to take up the entire number of the one hundred and sixty-seven 200 acre tracts.” It was equally apparent that  Black Bob's successors wanted to continue holding the land in common.

In the same year, 1870, Sidney Clarke, who had built his political constituency on support for the claims of the settlers, had a celebration of his triumph in federal elections disrupted by a crowd of Olathe settlers frustrated that they were no closer to having their land claims recognized. The “Bobbers,” as a story in the Daily Kansas Tribune called them, were convinced their congressman was in league with the speculators. Clarke was the first in a succession of congressmen from the district who would lose their seats over the Black Bob lands.

A quarter century later, in 1893, the issue still hadn’t been entirely settled. In 1884 the title to about 20,000 acres of the land had gone to settlers, by suit in United States Circuit Court, with all parties – Shawnee, settlers, and speculators present. The court ruled that the speculators had title – apparently regardless of the fraudulent way in which it had been acquired. The speculators in turn sold the land to settlers for $10 an acre, a “reduced price,” reported the Olathe Mirror, but for the speculators a handsome profit over what they had paid Black Bob’s band. In 1890 another suit came before the court covering the remaining 10,000 or so acres. Not surprisingly, the Mirror truckled to its readers by disputing the implication of a Topeka paper that the Black Bob squatters were “criminals and law breakers. [They] are as good citizens as our county contains.”

In 1893 the suit finally appeared in court, dealing now with about 8,000 acres, though they were among the best farming acres in Kansas, much of them titled to a judge, W.R. Wagstaff, and to Thomas Carney, a former Kansas governor, although the government claimed that Carney had not paid the Shawnee enough for the land.

The Kansas City Star reminded readers of the time twenty years earlier when the Black Bob lands “had much to do with the elevation of one set of politicians and the downfall of another,” and still remained a legal issue.  Commented the editors, with scant sympathy:

The poor Indian, driven from his hunting grounds and the graves of his fathers by the rapacity of the white man, has furnished material for many a pathetic portrayal in prose and verse, but no orator or versifier has ever noted that the poor Indian is also avenged. His ‘original title’ remains behind to torment his pale-faced successors in the courts to the end of time.

It would be another fifteen years before claims to Black Bob’s lands were finally settled after the widow of a man who’d sold 22,000 acres to settlers failed to prove in court in 1908 that her signature on the deeds was not a forgery.Black Bob & 119th

From an issue of defending Shawnee culture against encroaching Europeans, to a political issue which determined the careers of politicians, to a legal matter of fraud, forgery, and coercion, it had taken half a century for Black Bob lands to fall finally into the hands of white farmers and, in due time, to a new breed of speculators: the builders of housing developments and shopping malls.

For the Kansas City Times, in a 1969 story about the expansion of Johnson County, Black Bob and his people had “carelessly lost about 200,000 acres of lush Kansas prairie land […] between 1854 and 1868.” It was a carelessly inaccurate statement: the band had never controlled 200,000 acres, and it took a lot longer than fifteen years for the land to be finally “lost, ” if it ever was.  Even today some original Shawnee land remains in Shawnee hands. The Times insisted on degrading the power of the determination of Black Bob’s people, telling of “One thirsty brave [who] signed his over for a jug of whiskey. Some got nothing at all.” Nothing is said about the “69 patents” and the fraudulence of their acquisition.

Chief Black Bob was anything but “careless” with his people’s land, nor did he lack “land sense,” as the paper suggests. Years after his death his people were still standing up for the principle of communal land ownership. As Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud is quoted as saying:

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land and they took it. It was not hard to see that the white people coveted every inch of land on which we lived. […]  It was land - it has ever been land - for which the White man oppresses the Indian and to gain possession of which he commits any crime. Treaties that have been made are vain attempts to save a little of the fatherland, treaties holy to us by the smoke of the pipe - but nothing is holy to the white man. Little by little, with greed and cruelty unsurpassed by the animal, he has taken all. The loaf is gone and now the white man wants the crumbs.