Contested Village on the Republican River

With an estimated population of over 12,000 in the 1800s, the Pawnee historically were one of the most powerful Native American tribes on the Great Plains. The Southern Pawnee were divided into three bands—the Kitkehahki (Republican), the Pitahawiratas (Tappage), and the Chauis (Grand), who were often in conflict the Skidi (Wolf) band of Northern Pawnee. These semi-sedentary people practiced maize horticulture, hunted bison, lived in earthlodges, and shared complex religious views. Thanks in part to the numerous ethnohistories on the Pawnee, their unique traditions and subsequent evolution of those traditions have been well documented by 19th and 20th century explorers, missionaries, and historians. The Pike-Pawnee Village Site in south central Nebraska on the Republican River, is one of the largest Pawnee villages in the region and amply reflects these attributes.
Painted portrait of a white man wearing black and red.
Portrait of Zebulon M. Pike.

Photo courtesy of Independence National Historical Park.

The Pike-Pawnee Village Site, also known as the Hill Farm site (25WT1) and the Republican Pawnee Village, covers 276 acres. It was occupied from about 1775 to 1830 and consisted of at least 102 recorded earthlodges, five burial mounds, two ball courts, and a council house. The site is best known as the Pawnee village visited by 26-year-old Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and an army of 22 men in 1806. Pike’s exploratory mission was meant to secure an alliance with the Pawnee and acquire supplies and interpreters to then secure a subsequent alliance with the Comanche. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, the Pike-Pawnee Village Site is important as one of the most documented Republican Pawnee village sites in the region.

Only days before Pike’s arrival, the village was visited by the impressive Spanish Lieutenant Facundo Melgares (who would later serve as the last Spanish governor of New Mexico) and over 300 soldiers. During the early 19th century, Spaniards and Americans were both seeking to map and control lands west of the Mississippi, and establishing positive relations with the Native American tribes was seen as a necessity. When Pike saw the gifts left by the Spaniards, including a Spanish flag, he set up camp next to the village in hopes of reversing the emerging Spanish influence on the Pawnee. Pike and his men spent a week at the village, attempting to gain the trust of the Pawnee Chief Characterish. He presented gifts to the Pawnee at a council and persuaded the chief to replace the Spanish flag with an American flag if only temporarily. Pike’s journal was published in 1810 and proved to be a valuable account in regards to recording the Pawnee villages on the Plains. Pike later wrote in his extensive reports that the Pawnee region in central Nebraska could support, “a limited population” for prospective settlers.

Archeology conducted at the Pike-Pawnee Village demonstrates the extensive trade that occurred between the Pawnee and the Spanish, British, French, and American partners, as well as the profound effects of that trade. The various field investigations carried out by Asa Thomas Hill in the 1920s, the Works Progress Administration in 1941, and the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1987 revealed an overwhelming presence of exotic trade goods versus traditional Pawnee items, indicating the rapid pace of cultural change that was occurring among the Pawnee following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Excavations uncovered over 20,000 artifacts, with 47% being of Euro-American origin. Most of the non-native artifacts were tools, such as knives and iron arrowheads. Artifacts considered important symbols of wealth and status, such as European clothing, beads, buttons, coins, peace medals, and other types of jewelry, were mainly found in the burials excavated by early investigators.

The initial archeological investigation of the site was also significant in resolving a long-standing dispute, which some have termed “the war between Nebraska and Kansas,” over the true location of the village that Pike and his men visited in 1806. Around the end of the 19th century, differing opinions had arisen between historians in Nebraska and Kansas as to the site’s location. The Kansas historians claimed that the village Pike visited was represented by a site discovered in the 1870s near the city of Republic in Kansas. The state even erected a monument there in 1901 and held several days of ceremonial observances in 1906 for the 100th anniversary of the flag incident. Authorities in Nebraska, however, were certain that the actual village site lay north of the Kansas-Nebraska border.

Archeologist Asa Thomas Hill, who had attended the 1906 celebrations in Kansas, was one of many people not satisfied with recognizing the Republic, Kansas site as the location visited by Pike in 1806. Hill eventually focused attention on what would come to be known as the Hill Farm site, located near the town of Guide Rock in Webster County, Nebraska, some 25 miles farther up the Republican River, and his excavations in the 1920s ultimately confirmed his theory to the satisfaction of all. While Pike-Pawnee Village is the site historically associated with Zebulon Pike, in recent years substantial archeological research has been conducted at the Pawnee village site in Kansas, now commonly called the Kansas Monument site (14RP1). Indeed, given the fact that investigations there doubtless would help further illuminate the Pawnee tribe, that site may merit consideration for NHL status based on its potential research significance.

While a few earth lodge depressions appear as the only visible remains today, the Pike-Pawnee Village site contains preserved archeological deposits that can enhance our understanding of Pawnee life on the Plains, as well as Pawnee relations with Euro-American explorers. Further, the Pike-Pawnee Village Site has the potential to yield nationally significant information related to the relatively obscure cultural evolution of the Pawnee tribes.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 7, 2012, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Holly Staggs.

Last updated: June 21, 2018