Alice Cunningham Fletcher, Living With Native Americans

Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Alice Cunningham Fletcher was born March 15,1838 in Havana, Cuba. Her father was Thomas Gilman Fletcher, a New York Lawyer, and her mother was a Boston socialite by the name of Lucia Jenks Fletcher. At the time of Alice’s birth, her parents were residing in Cuba due to the failing health of Thomas. Mrs. Fletcher moved to Brooklyn with Alice after the death of Thomas, less than two years later.

Mrs. Fletcher remarried, and Alice went to fine schools, traveled in Europe, and retained employment as a governess for a short period of time. She began her study of archaeology in 1880 at Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Her early studies were in Florida and Massachusetts, where she studied Indian remains.

Alice Fletcher developed a keen interest in Indian life, and in September 1881 decided to live among and study an authentic Indian tribe. She camped and lived among the Omaha tribe. On September 16, 1881, she began her journey.

Alice Fletcher
Alice Fletcher

Journey to Sitting Bull and the Sioux Indians

Alice Fletcher left Omaha City at 9:45 am September 16, 1881, with carriage driver Mr. Baker; travel companions Mr. Tibbles; his daughter , Suzette Tibbles; and Mrs.Tibbles, Sr. The travelers made it to the town of Florence, Nebraska the first evening and found lodging approximately three miles out of town in the home of the Smith family. They were fed an evening meal of eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, applesauce, pie, bread, butter, and coffee. The group reached Fort Calhoun on the second evening where the only available lodging was a house which was filled with a strong unpleasant odor. The evening meal consisted of bread and milk.

On September 18, 1881, the group camped approximately three miles out of the town of Blair, Nebraska. Blair is only 30 miles out of Omaha and the trip took the travelers all day to get there. This is certainly a different concept for modern travelers since this can be achieved in 15 minutes or less in this time period. Here they purchased steak and watermelon for their dinner and oats for the horses.

The meal fare was certainly a poor standard of what modern Americans consume. September 17, 1881, found the group in Tekama, Nebraska, miserable, with bland food and dirty sheets. The next day the band entered the Omaha Reserve, which divides the white boundary and Indian boundary line. It was here that the first Indian was seen.

Alice Fletcher with Chief Joseph and interpeter
Alice Fletcher with Chief Joseph and interpeter

An Omaha Indian by the name of Wajapa (called Ezra Freemont) caught up with the group at this location. Wajapa built a fire for the group and gave the travelers a lesson in building fires. The Indians build fires by placing long sticks or logs coming to the center like spokes on a wheel. As the logs burn they are pushed into the center of the fire, which produces a longer burning fire. The fire will generally last all night when built in this manner. The Indians claim to be able to discern if a dead fire was built by an Indian or a white man by the ash that is left. White men placed their logs oblong where the Indian used the circular pattern.

The group traveled 18 miles in 4 ½ hours and reached the Winnebago Indian Reserve where they were able to purchase watermelon, grapes, beef steak, and feed for the horses.

On leaving the Winnebago village the group noted an old Omaha village where the dead were buried. There were old mud huts and bodies were laid out on their backs. The hill is now known as Grave Hill. This was the hunting and battle ground of the Omaha and the Sioux. The battles resulted in the Omaha relocating to what is now known as Bellevue, Nebraska.

The group passed a Winnebago Indian campground. The Winnebago tents were made of sticks placed in a circle and bent together at the top, in the shape of a half globe. Mats were then placed on top. The mats were infested with fleas so the travelers refused to make their camp and traveled a couple of miles farther to a location which they named Mosquito Camp due to the huge number of mosquitoes in residence. The evening meal consisted of bacon and coffee. Breakfast was flapjacks and bacon. They camped at Ponca City with only boiled potatoes for dinner.

Alice came from a wealthy family and she was use to dinners which lasted two hours and many courses. Many times she longed for the food and the comfort of her bed while living among the Native Americans.

Wajapa (Ezra Freemont)
Wajapa (Ezra Freemont)

The following night was spent in an Indian tent, where the group became acquainted with Indian manners, which were the reverse of ours. Indians did not speak to the person by name when present. No word of courtesy, no good morning or good night, only silence. Their custom was to come quietly and go quietly.

The wife’s place was by the door on the left hand of the tent after entering. The husband was next, and the guest place was at the rear, opposite the door. Other family members’ place was on the right. The group was served soup and coffee and the whole group slept in the same tent. Surprisingly the Indians ate their meat very well done. Along the way the group saw horses that had been stolen from the Omahas but were told that Indians had no formal redress under the law, so they could not reclaim their processions.

Omaha Tent
Omaha Tent
Mounted Omaha Warrior
Mounted Omaha Warrior

They next night they stopped at a house that belonged to a woman , who originally came from New York state, along with her four children. Her name was Hugho. She taught Alice how to cleanse the water by making lye out of wood ashes by boiling. Then the lye is placed in the hard water, and it is ready to use.

The woman stated that they had to travel 20 miles for wood. Many people had to travel 50 miles for wood, so they often burned corn cobs and such, instead. The woman sold them a watermelon and served them fried potatoes, hard boiled eggs, black coffee, and biscuits. Rain and thunder caused the group to make camp by placing a tent between the wagon and a fence. Dinner was again boiled eggs, coffee, and biscuits.

September 25, 1881, the group reached the reservation of the Sante Sioux. The Sioux were considered a fine looking race. The women stooped and bound their shawls around their shoulders. Some had tattooing above their foreheads. There was a mission located on the reservation which served to attempt to educate the Indians.  The effort was difficult since the Indians themselves had no written language.

Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull

Alice then visited Standing Bear, whose wife took her around to visit numerous large Indian families. The men often had more than one wife in residence. The women wore many rings, bangle-like bracelets, and beads tied where the hair was gathered for married women, and at the ends for single women. The men wore bear skin around their front hair braided or twisted at the side.

The Ponca  women had red painted in the part of their hair. Dinner was served in Standing Bear’s tent by his wife, consisting of roast pork, stewed beef, soup, and bread.  Alice noted the pet dog present had no hair. After dinner a council was held,  Alice Fletcher was welcomed, and the pipe was smoked. Whenever the Indians carried food to the mouth, the elbow was crooked out.  The Sioux tents were put up by the women. Three poles were securely tied together a few feet from the top and set up as a tripod. The forks and other poles are laid, and their ends were forced into the ground. The tent cover was circular and opened to one side, where the flap is cut that forms the chimney. At the back a rope is tied to a pole. The pole was set opposite the entrance, and the tent cover wrapped around on either side and was pinned with sticks through holes. The entrance was approximately three feet high. Gutters were dug around the outside of the tent in order to keep out water from the ground .  Hay was used to cover the dirt floor. 

The average tent took twenty buffalo skins. The more impressive ones had thirty and the poor members had to make do with ten. The group traveled on and spent the night at a government fort. They were assigned a scout. On October 11, 1881, the group reached Spotted Tail. They were placed as guests in a 30-foot tent belonging to Asanpi, the chief of the Ogallala. They slept on hay and were served dried buffalo, bread, and sweetened coffee. The group was notified that Spotted Tail had been killed. October 17, 1881, they party went to view the government’s distributing beef to the Indians. This was a day of great celebration among the Indians. Indians came from every direction dressed in full costume, paint, feathers, gay blankets, and on ponies, carrying rifles.

The women rode painted ponies and adorned themselves with shell earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and painted hair. On October 20,1881, the party left for Turtle Creek. The group was feeling ill at this point, and there was no game in the area. A dinner of heated soup was consumed. The following day a blizzard set in. The tent was pitched in the rain and wind, and a miserable night ensued. The group set out the next morning but had to strike camp due to rain and hail. October 24, 1881, saw ice and snow.

Standing Bear
Standing Bear

Wajapa located stored artichokes in a squirrel nest as available food was scarce. October 25, 1881, the party reached Fort Randall (winter camp of Sitting Bull). October 27, 1881, the party visited Sitting Bull’s camp. There were 168 persons - men, women and children.  Sitting Bull asked for sympthy for his women and children.  Alice found him very interesting .  He expressed a desire to leave the old ways behind and make his way toward civilzation.  Alice gave him her address and promised help.  He gave her his autograph.  October 30, 1881, Alice took the stage back to the mission farm. She was glad to see the mission ahead. She continued her work with the American Indian and supported their cause. Alice Fletcher died in Washington DC April 6, 1923, at the age of 85. She was the first woman Indian agent, first woman to become a fellow at Harvard University, and the first woman President of the American Folklore Society.



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Comments 29 comments

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

Cool! Interesting hub, and I love the pics! Rated up.

mocrow profile image

mocrow 6 years ago from Georgia

Wow. She must have been really committed! I enjoyed the read.

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

A truly fascinating story. I am one quarter American Indian so this resonated with me. Thank you for the good read.

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks James, My great great grandmother was American Indian so I am fasinated with Indian culture. Another relative settled Georgia with Oglethorpe and resided at Fort Augusta. He was a fur trader and represented the Crow Indians in a treaty with Georgia; but that's another story. LOL :)

Jean Bakula profile image

Jean Bakula 5 years ago from New Jersey

What a great story! One favorite souvenir I own is a scaled statue of the Crazy Horse monument, which is continuing to be built in South Dakota, by the next generation of the family who began the project.

ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Hi Beth, what a wonderful learning experience for Alice! Indian culture is indeed interesting esp. when one gets a deeper insight to it all.

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. Yes, your hub is found in the Education and Science category. This link will take you there right now: Read the details carefully and vote, vote, vote!

marshacanada profile image

marshacanada 5 years ago from Vancouver BC

Thanks Beth Goodwin for your very informative hub with great photos.I am facinated by the many rich Native cultures in North America.My great grandfather ran a store in a Native American community near Vancouver Washington in the mid to late 1800's. My grandfather was made an honorary chief of this band. Wish I could learn the name of the community.

Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia

Congratulations for the nomination, baby! Now I have to listen to you brag because I was never considered for the honor! Thanks for yet another snub, HubPages! LOL!

Seriously, you deserve it!

Hubber Hubby

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks Jean, That would be a real treasure for any collection. Crazy Horse was a very interesting Chief. Thanks for reading. :)

wheelinallover 5 years ago

Having had a great grandmother who walked the trail of tears as a child and a grandfather who was one fourth Mohawk and being raised more Indian than white I am always interested to see what the world has to say. I must say this woman ate better than I did most of the time as a child. Our pups not only didn't have hair they didn't have lives as they were part of our diet. Congratulations on your nomination. Voted up this hub.

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks Ripplemaker! I was not even aware I had been nominated till I saw your comment. I am surprised, but very pleased for the honor. Thanks so much for the comment. :)

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks marshacanada. You can try "access," they have an extensive Native American data base for Washington, as well as other areas. Perhaps you can find information on your relative. Thanks for reading. :)

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks Babe, I think there was a compliment in there somewhere. LOL You know I am your biggest fan! :)

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks Wheelinallover. I appreciate your sharing your experience. The Native Americans really got a raw deal! I'm always interested in learning about real life experiences. Thanks for reading. :)

Vanne Way 5 years ago

This article is one I would like to print and use in my reading class. It is a perfect non fiction article filled with interesting facts and pictures. A most excellent work! Outstanding job!

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks Vanne, I really appreciate your positive comments. I am excited you want to use it as a reading tool in your class. Thanks for reading and posting your comment. :)

elayne001 profile image

elayne001 5 years ago from Rocky Mountains

Very interesting. I have a bit of Cherokee blood in me and my ancestors had some run ins with different Indian tribes as they were trying to make new homes in America. Thanks for sharing and congrats on your nomination.

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks elayne001. I appreciate your sharing your comment about your ancestors. I have enjoyed reading the comments that have been posted on this article and learning about personal history from other hubbers. Thanks Again. :)

Cagsil profile image

Cagsil 5 years ago from USA or America

That was definitely a fascinating story. I have very little memory of history class from school and never even heard of Alice Cunningham Fletcher, up to this point. I'll agree with Habee, I enjoyed the pictures and they complimented the hub well. Much appreciated. I always like learning something new. :)

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks Cagsil. I appreciate your input. I found Alice Cunningham Fletcher interesting and hoped others would as well. I don't remember her ever being mentioned at school. lol Thanks for reading and commenting. :)

reversecharles profile image

reversecharles 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

This is a FASCINATING hub! I can't imagine what life with the Native Americans must have been like for her. Voted up!

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks reversecharles. I agree. Certainly not what she was accustomed to. Thanks for reading. :)

elf_cash profile image

elf_cash 5 years ago

It seems that many of us have largely ignored the rich NA culture of America's past. Thanks for reminding us with this excellent account.

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks elf_cash. I appreciate the positive comment. Glad you enjoyed the info. :) Thanks again!

Mrs. J. B. profile image

Mrs. J. B. 5 years ago from Southern California

WOW... My ancestor is George Custis

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 5 years ago Author

Thanks Mrs. J.B. That is very interesting. I read about George Custis in regard to Robert E. Lee. That means you are related to George Washington by marriage. How cool! :)

Hudson Pierce profile image

Hudson Pierce 5 years ago from United States

Boy, the food was certainly scarce. Rough traveling. Very interesting.Great story!

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klarawieck 4 years ago

So out of all your hubs, I went straight to read about my home girl, the adventurous Cuban! What an amazing woman she was! The guts she had to leave all the comforts behind in order to learn the truth about what the natives were experiencing at a time like this. I guess she wouldn't have felt comfortable hanging out with the Cuban indians. The heat makes it all more feasible to go topless, isn't that right?

By the way, didn't they relocate Mosquito Camp to South Florida?

Thanks for this well-written and interesting bio.

Beth Godwin profile image

Beth Godwin 4 years ago Author

She was adventurous and amazing. Not many women ,especially during that period of time, would have dared to venture out of their comfort zone. I have a good friend who was born in Cuba. She didn't know she wasn't an American citizen until she tried to get a passport. She was so young when her parents came to the US. The state park is still there. There are places called Mosquito Camp all over the US. Georgia has quite a few mosquitos as well :) Thanks for the positive comments. Beth

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