The traditional views of the origins of Thanksgiving involve Indians and Pilgrims sharing a meal to celebrate peaceful coexistence and the Fall harvest. In reality, the Indigenous people probably saved the colonial settlers from starvation and later interactions were hardly peaceful. In contrast, our homesteading great-grandparents and grandparents had a completely different experience along the Kanaranzi Creek in the early 1870s.
Our family lived in a shelter dug into the side of a hill for several years before moving into the farmhouse. This “dugout” was located along the Creek very near the lone cottonwood tree that gave the farm its name. In those early years, it was fairly common for family groups of Dakota (a.k.a. “Sioux”) people to travel along the Creek valley using it as a corridor through the tall grass prairie. The encounters between our homesteading family and the traveling Dakota families were very friendly and amiable. One of our family stories tells about a Dakota man who stopped at the dugout and asked Great-grandma Hattie to sharpen his knife on the grindstone. I don’t know if this is the exact grindstone, but it’s an old one that that’s been around the farm for more than a hundred years. Another family story says that the Dakota people would have Great-grandpa John buy supplies so the traders wouldn’t cheat them.
But it wasn’t just Native Americans who used the Creek valley as a travel corridor. Early white trappers and homesteaders tended to follow stream valleys as well. The yellow lines on this map show trails used by white people around the time of the Civil War. One is an overland mail route, but the north-south trail follows the Rock River and eventually a railroad and later a federal highway followed that same route. Lone Tree Farm is designated with a red star and there’s no trail shown along Kanaranzi Creek. But after the Civil War, homesteaders (including veterans marked by yellow boxes) tended to settle along the drainages first. The colored dots document the pattern of early homesteads concentrated along drainages: red dots are parcels filed in the 1870s, blue dots are the 1880s, and green dots are the 1890s. For some unknown reason, Grandpa John didn’t formally file his claim until the 1880s, so there’s a blue dot inside the red star. But, the 1870s red dots are clearly clustered along the corridors provided by streams including the Kanaranzi Creek.
This club is literally from Grandma Daisy’s attic. The family tradition was that it’s some sort of souvenir, maybe from one of the “Wild West’ shows that were such a big deal in the early 1900s. In any case it’s not an authentic Native American trophy because when I showed it to Dakota-speaking friends, they pointed out that stone head should be more tightly bound to the handle. It’s a fake, just like the Hollywood stereotypes of marauding warriors terrorizing the white settlers. Our reality along the Kanaranzi Creek corridor was that most of the interactions with the traveling Dakota families involved children. One of our family stories tells about a Dakota woman who was really impressed with the fair, light-colored hair of the Shurr kids. Another story says that the homestead kids would routinely visit the camps of the Dakota traveling through the valley. But, sometimes they apparently over-stayed their welcome. A white trapper who was part of one of the Native American groups told the kids to go back home or they’d end up in the cooking pot!
This painting of the Lone Tree was done by Great-grandma Hattie. The view is across the Creek to the south from the flat part of the floodplain where the Dakota families used to set up their camp. The smaller trees in the right side of the picture are probably plum trees; there’s still an extensive thicket of wild plums near this location. So this is what the tree looked like when the homestead kids visited the travelers. And, this is the view that the Native Americans and the homesteaders shared when they got together for a visit and for a meal. We’re pretty certain that the two groups enjoyed food together because there’s a quote that our family tradition relates to these exchanges: “Dig deep. The meat is on the bottom of the kettle.” Cooking kettles and families and harmony were all hallmarks of the movement of people along the Kanaranzi Creek corridor. Happy Thanksgiving.