Blackbird Hill

It was 171 years ago today that John James Audubon, Edward Harris, Isaac Sprague, John Bell, Lewis Squires, and their crew tied their boat on the Iowa side of the Missouri River, across from the “famed bluff” known as Blackbird Hill.

Audubon’s bird list from the immediate area is more or less identical to what one might tally on a good morning’s birding today: Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, bank swallows, Blackburnian and golden-winged warblers, yellow-headed blackbirds, and Lincoln’s sparrows were all seen or shot by the party — apparently all on the east bank of the river — between Wood’s Hill and Blackbird, landmarks on the Nebraska shore in what is now Burt County.

When I was in the fourth grade, I had a teacher named Edith Newton. Mrs. Newton had gone to school with my maternal grandmother and taught my mother, and then, in the early 1970s, she was my teacher for science and “social studies.” Only now do I realize, more and more with each passing year, how richly Mrs. Newton combined (and sometimes conflated) her academic subjects — and how much of an influence her fusing of science and history had on even a seven-year-old me.

Mrs. Newton was the first birder I knew. She taught us grade schoolers our first scientific names (can you imagine that today?), and introduced us — in the classroom — to the common birds and the early scientists and explorers who had studied them, including Audubon, who spent the night of May 9, 1843, in our town.

She also told us the story of Blackbird — the romantic version, of course. And she did not leave out the macabre tale of George Catlin’s grave robbing, whereby in 1832, with “a little pains” and the help of a pocket gopher, he stole the head of the Omaha and “secreted it” with the other skulls he gathered on his travels.

I don’t know whether Blackbird’s remains — one of more than 4,000 native skulls once held by the Smithsonian — have been returned to the Omaha yet.

Looking back from nearly two centuries’ distance, it’s obvious that that struggle was essentially over by the time Audubon and his friends ascended the Missouri in May 1843. Where Lewis and Clark had raised a flag in tribute to “the deceased king,” Catlin took a shovel to his grave; where Catlin had seen great herds of buffalo on the prairies, Audubon’s boat dodged bloated cattle floating downstream from the new settlements in Dakota. The Omaha, Audubon said, “looked as destitute and as hungry as if they had not eaten for a week.” They probably hadn’t.

Blackbird died in 1800. Audubon died in 1851. Edith Newton must have been born just about exactly halfway between Audubon’s death and my own birth, now more than half a century ago (how’d that happen, anyhow?). Books and stories and anecdotes and, yes, lies passed down from age to age still make me feel a part of it all.

But I’m sad that nowadays Catlin’s scurrilous “collecting” seems to have tainted the entire history of Blackbird, his life and his burial. Elementary school students in Nebraska don’t learn about Blackbird Hill anymore, depriving them of an opportunity to talk about biological warfare and economic co-optation in the ultimately one-sided struggle for the Great Plains.