Hansen: 'Little chunk of history' comes alive in pages of family diary - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 8:42 pm
136 years ago this week
Hansen: 'Little chunk of history' comes alive in pages of family diary

In a nowhere town east of Boise, 136 years ago this week, a Cornhusker cattleman named Alexander Rhoden took a bullet to the back.

Now, this itself isn't much of a story. Rhoden, the great-great-great-uncle of a Millard resident named Adam McGraw, sold and delivered cattle in the western United States circa 1877. I reckon it's not so shocking that he came home to Nebraska in a covered wagon to be buried with his boots on in a Cass County cemetery. There was a reason it wasn't called the Tame West.

No, the day Alexander Rhoden died becomes a story only because his great-great-great-nephew Adam McGraw started to leaf through a dusty old diary last year. It becomes a story because that diary connects the cattleman's death to an event you can learn about in museums and textbooks.

It's a story because of what happened next: Alexander Rhoden's murder started a war.

That's a story, cowboy. That's why you should take your Stetson off, prop your feet up next to the campfire and listen.

“It's a little chunk of history,” says Adam McGraw, a 39-year-old parole officer. “And as it turns out, my family is a part of it.”

Let's set the scene: Picture little Ross Fork, Idaho, in 1877.

Do this by picturing Ross Fork, Idaho, now, except without the state highway. Also picture thousands of Native Americans of the related Bannock and Shoshone Tribes living in the area, having been forced onto a new reservation by the U.S. government in 1869.

It is a tragic tale you can find throughout the American West: East Coast people moving onto land that had long been the universe for a group of Native Americans, breaking treaties in the process. Those Native Americans struggling to adapt, struggling to keep the ways of their ancestors going even as their land disappeared and their people fell ill with strange illnesses and starved because strangers overhunted the buffalo they relied on for survival.

By the fall of 1877, it was a powder keg. But there's no way to know if Rhoden realized that as he rode onto the reservation.

Some histories — including those that appeared in the early 20th century editions of The World-Herald — claim that Rhoden had actually taken a job on the reservation. Others — and the ancient diary McGraw received when a relative died — suggest that Rhoden traveled around the West delivering cattle bought by the U.S. government.

Either way, this much seems clear: Rhoden was parallel parking his horse in a stable when a Bannock named Nampe-yo-­go — the newspapers at the time called him Tambiago — shot him dead.

The killer's motives are as murky as a boom town's drinking water. Nampe-yo-go was infuriated by the U.S. government's hunt for another Bannock suspected of murder, some accounts say. Or he was angered by the U.S. government's arrest of his own brother, others say.

Everyone agrees on this: He didn't know Alexander Rhoden from Adam the day he shot him dead.

“It would seem that (Rhoden) was simply a white man in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says John Heaton, a history professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the author of a book on the history of the Bannocks.

Members of the Rhoden family retrieved his body in Idaho and buried him in the Eight Mile Grove Cemetery just west of Plattsmouth, Neb. But while family members — Adam McGraw's grandparents, and then his parents, and then Adam — continued to tend that grave every Memorial Day, the story of what happened next gradually disappeared from family lore.

Disappeared until 2012, when Adam first started reading that old diary, the one written by the father of Alexander Rhoden.

Disappeared until he started Googling and realized that Rhoden's story didn't end when he died.

The U.S. government arrested Nampe-yo-go and imprisoned him at the Idaho Territorial Prison. On June 28, 1878, he was hanged — the first man to die by capital punishment in what became the Idaho penitentiary system.

The Bannocks didn't like this arrest one bit, viewing it as yet another U.S. government encroachment on their independence. They were further angered by Western settlers who grazed livestock and decimated the Camus Prairie, where the tribe had long lived and harvested a root that was a staple in their diet.

So in the summer of 1878, Chief Buffalo Horn and hundreds of his warriors left the reservation, killed several settlers and almost immediately came in contact with government forces seeking to push them back.

The result: The Bannock War, a four-month-long series of running battles between the tribe and the U.S. Army that terrified the residents of what is modern-day Idaho. The Army killed Chief Buffalo Horn and, after enlisting the help of another tribe, eventually forced the warriors to scatter into smaller groups.

On Sept. 5, 1878, the U.S. Army attacked a Bannock settlement just across the border in Wyoming, killing more than 100 men, women and children. Those who survived retreated to the reservation. The war ended. More than a dozen American soldiers and hundreds of Bannocks died before it did.

And all the military movements, all that death — it weirdly connected right back to a Nebraska man who had simply been stabling his horse at the wrong time.

Adam McGraw, the Omaha parole officer, happened to have a mandatory presentation for work around the time he was researching this.

He brought in the diary of A.Z. Rhoden, Alexander's father. He showed them the cracked leather book and AZ's pencil scratches.

He told his fellow parole officers the story of his great-great-great-uncle and his connection to a long-ago war.

A weird thing happened while he was talking, McGraw says. The years disappeared, and for a moment he could almost hear the horses in the stable, smell the gunpowder, sense the desperation and the fear.

“After I was done, one of the parole officers said you could feel Alexander's spirit in the room,” his great-great-great-nephew says.

That's a story, cowpoke. That is 136 years ago this week.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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