Native Americans,  Tales of the Ranch

The Old Cottonwood Reflection

The summer of 2022 is winding down and soon the fall leaves will be floating by in the breeze. The end of a season is a natural time of reflection. It always goes by so fast – in the spring it seems the summer months will be long enough for so many plans. At the end of every summer I lament what didn’t come to pass, but this summer did start with a lovely day showing my sister and two of her girls a special place with a significant history.

As you enter the Yellowstone – Missouri Confluence Center, a majestic cottonwood now over 200 years old, stands guard at the front of the walkway. I noticed it as we went by in the spring of 2022, but had yet to learn of its significance and place in history. 

There was a gentle breeze rustling though the cottonwood trees as I walked toward the river. The waters of the Yellowstone and Missouri made their own quiet music while the birds chirped, the insects buzzed and other critters scurried in the brush all adding their notes during the few moments I stood by myself looking out over the water. As I often do, I wondered what it was like when the first people were here; the Native Americans that originally encountered the area’s beauty, the trappers who discovered it’s abundance, and the waves of settlers that would come west searching for a better life and change everything. 

The Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled by this very spot.  They passed the lovely old cottonwood tree when it was just a sapling. So much history passed by this tree as it grew. The facts of history get written in the history books, but what of the lives and thoughts of the people behind those facts? 

Just a half mile away sits Fort Buford. If you are lucky you will be there on a day when Gabe Yellowbird is working as a docent. If you want, when you enter the actual room where Sitting Bull surrendered,  he will tell you a story of that old cottonwood tree. 

“ The history of that tree dates back as far as when Lewis and Clark were in the area. The tree was a sapling during their time through the Missouri-Yellowstone confluence  in 1805. Sitting Bull, 76 years later in 1881, sat underneath that cottonwood in front of the present day Confluence Center, knowing his ways as a Lakota were dying.  He had fought long and hard for his peoples way of life. His surrender would be the end of their traditional ways. He was hesitant to give away his rifle for  that reason.” 

Can you imagine the thoughts and emotions that would have gone through his very being ? Even though he could not see the future, certainly the significance of what he was there to do was not lost on him. He just needed those few last moments under the protection of that  cottonwood tree to reflect and compose himself. 

“The story of the cottonwood is oral history, but most historians  and people who know of the story believe it to be true”, adds Gabe. 

I know I do. 


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