Stealing the land of the ancestors

Bressner Pasture in Woodson County carries a history of violence, but you'd never know it today. The field was once home to the Osage, and also served as part of K-State University's range research unit.



May 18, 2021 - 9:34 AM

Downstream of the waterfall, one finds a tranquil scene filled with native plants. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

The afternoon sky was cloudy and dark as I knelt down near the base of the Bressner Pasture waterfall in Woodson County.

A gurgle of bubbles bounced from the tangle of sandstone boulders, and a meadowlark was calling from the field nearby.

Although the scene was one of radiant stillness and peace, I couldn’t chase away the nagging thought that this was also a scene of violence.

For not only was I attuned to the rhythm of those native people who once drank from this same pool; it was as if their blood had begun to flow from it.

The site of Bressner Pasture in Woodson County was once land belonging to the Osage people.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

Indeed, several patches of Woodson County prairie carry a history of violence, though you’d never know it today.

Bressner Pasture, named for donor Willie Bressner, provides a concrete example of how, not terribly long ago, native people had their lands nefariously seized and repurposed.

For a time, the field was part of K-State University’s range research unit, where experiments were conducted on everything from grazing to burning.

And as Extension agent Dale Lanham explained, the goal is to “save the farmers a lot of money.”

Of course, it’s the Osage people who lived on this land for generations that primarily concerns us, how they galloped through the tall bluestem grass on painted ponies, bounding in an intricate movement forever linking them to the land.

After inhabiting “Kansas” since the seventeenth century, on June 2, 1825, the Osage signed a treaty saying that they ceded and relinquished all claim to their lands south of the Kansas River and west of “Missouri.”

The steep, rocky waterfall in Bressner Pasture was once a constant draw to picnicking pioneers.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

They retained the right to continue living on the land as well, but would not remain for much longer.

When “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” writer Washington Irving was traveling the prairies around the same time, he marvelled at the Osage people, calling them “stately fellows; stern and simple in garb and aspect.”

He mentioned that they wore leggings and moccasins, but little-to-no jewelry; and he remarked on how the men wore their hair in long scalp-locks (that he compared to a kind of helmet).

Irving also added that “they had fine Roman countenances, and broad deep chests … [such that] they looked like noble bronze figures.”

Other accounts describe the Osage people wearing tattoos consisting of irregular blue lines or face paints, and carrying bright blankets of white, blue, green and red.