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The Prisoners of Court House Rock


Far out on the plains of western Nebraska is a towering formation of rock and clay which the early fur traders named Court House Rock because its shape reminded them of the first courthouse in St. Louis. In the years before the white men came, and before wind and rain eroded its shape, Court House Rock was much more difficult to climb or descend. On all sides except one the walls of this rock were smoothed and polished, offering no projecting points to serve as foot or hand holds. Only on one side could a climber reach the flat surface of the rock, and this could be done only by chopping steps into the hard clay with a hatchet or some other sharp tool.

One day during that long ago time a Pawnee hunting party was camped near Court House Rock. Suddenly a large war party of Sioux appeared and surrounded the Pawnees. The Sioux drove them back to the rock, and the Pawnees escaped with their lives by climbing to the top.

Although the Sioux dared not follow the Pawnees up the steep steps, they posted guards at the only place where the Pawnees could come down, and then the remainder of the warriors camped all around the base of the rock to starve the Pawnees into submission.

The Pawnees had little food and no water, and after two or three days they began to suffer terribly from hunger and still more from thirst. Spotted Horse, their leader, suffered most of all because he was responsible for the lives of all the warriors in the hunting party. He did not mind dying himself, but he knew that his memory would be disgraced if he lost the young men that he

Every night he went alone to the edge of the rock and prayed to Tirawa the Spirit Chief. One night while he was praying a voice spoke to him out of the darkness: "If you look hard enough you will find a place where you can escape from this rock, and so save all your men and yourself."

At first daylight, Spotted Horse searched all the ledges for a place where it might be possible to descend without the Sioux discovering them. At last he found near the edge of the cliff a knob of soft clay sticking up above the hard rock surface. Looking over the edge, Spotted Horse saw that just below the knob of clay was one of the smooth sides of the rock which had been left unguarded by the Sioux. With his knife he began cutting into the clay, and by nightfall he had carved an open hole as large around as a man's body.

Spotted Horse then called his warriors together and asked them to give him all their lariats. After tying the lariats end to end, he looped the first one around a projecting rock, and dropped down through the hole he had dug. As it was too dark to see whether or not the rope reached the ground, Spotted Horse slowly descended it until his feet touched the earth. All around him he could see the glimmering campfires of the besieging Sioux, and he could hear the distant voices of the guards who were watching the place where the Pawnees had climbed to the summit.

Pulling himself up hand over hand, Spotted Horse soon reached the top of the rock again. Cautioning his warriors to make no sounds during the descent or after they reached the ground, he started them down. He ordered the youngest to go first, then the next youngest, and so on, until last of all came his turn. Then he let himself down, and they all crept through the unsuspecting Sioux camp and escaped.

Spotted Horse and his Pawnee braves never knew for certain how long the Sioux remained in camp around Court House Rock, waiting for them to starve. Very likely the Sioux discovered the dangling lariats the very next morning, and realized that they had been outwitted by a worthy foe.


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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.