My paternal grandmother was Jennie Viola (Coffin) Fleagle. She and her sisters Luella, Grace and Nelle and their brothers Robert, Horace and Ralph were the children of Margaret Foster and Joseph Russell Coffin, a man we always refer to as Pawnee Joe.¹ Pawnee Joe was descended from that same bunch of Coffins who settled on Nantucket with the Macys and the Starbucks and the Colemans (his mother was a Coleman) and the Gardners, and whose name echoes in the 1851 novel Moby Dick, and who were victims of one of the calamities that inspired Melville to write it — the sinking of the whaleship Essex by an angry sperm whale in 1820.
Joseph was born in New York but after age 7 or 8 was brought up in Genoa, Nebraska, where he befriended the Pawnee Indians and learned their ways and language. As a boy he rode his pony to accompany them south on their long trek to a new reservation in Oklahoma. I thought I read or was told that later, as an adult, he was instrumental in a program the government implemented that attempted to inspire the Pawnees around Genoa to husband the earth through agriculture, but I don’t understand how there could still be Indians in Genoa if they had all been moved to Oklahoma. There’s more to learn here, obviously. In any case Joe seems to have had an unusual relationship with the Pawnees and had true boyhood and lifelong friends among them.
Joe worked and homesteaded in various places around Nebraska before marrying Margaret Foster and settling back in Genoa with her. It was there that my grandmother, whom we called Granny, was born. Granny always told us that if the family had taken any longer in getting to Genoa she’d have been born in a Conestoga wagon. This is one of those family barnstormers that gets repeated often and eventually goes unquestioned, and yet I don’t understand how this played out chronologically, since Jennie’s older sister Luella (Allena Luella) was supposedly born in Genoa ahead of her, which would mean the family was already back in Genoa long before Jennie was born. But I didn’t make the story up. Hearing that one’s grandmother was almost born in a prairie schooner is not something a child of the space age forgets.
Granny remembered the Indians being part of the larger community of Genoa. She saw them here and there, though I believe they did not live in the town but rather outside it on some remnant of their old reservation, or maybe individual farms. (Again, I can’t reconcile this information with the fact that the Pawnees had long since been transferred to a new reservation in Oklahoma.) Family lore holds that one warm night when she was a small child she awoke to see a Pawnee man crawling in through her bedroom window, or else he was already in the room standing quietly. She heard angry voices in the street outside. Some local Indian men were arguing about something, and tempers were hot. The man in her room said something to her like “Do not be afraid, little white princess. This does not concern you, and no harm will come to you.” While this sends shivers up my spine, apparently she understood him to mean that he had stationed himself there to watch over her while whatever was about to happen outside unfolded. Nothing happened in the end, and the man left through the window again after the ruckus subsided.²
On another occasion, Jennie was peeling potatoes on the porch when a local Pawnee man passed by and saw her and came up the front walk and asked her if he could have the potatoes. She gave them all to him, possibly because she was intimidated, or maybe out of a child’s unaccounting generosity. When her father came home and learned what had happened, and knowing where the man lived, he went and got the potatoes back.
Joseph amassed a large collection of Indian artifacts over time — things like beaded moccasins and belts, and ceremonial pipes, which are now in the possession of the Nebraska State Historical Society (NSHS). In 1942 these items were on display at the University of Nebraska (I believe this would have been in Lincoln). This exhibit was a big enough deal that the family gathered themselves together and made a day of visiting the collection. These two photos commemorate their visit to the campus. My Aunt Miriam says that her father, Granny’s husband James Ezra Fleagle, went and fetched sister Luella from somewhere south and east, maybe Oklahoma, just for the occasion. Or maybe that was my Uncle Earl Stake, who was Nelle’s husband. That would make more sense, since Earl is seen to be present on the trip but James Ezra does does not appear in either photo.
I don’t know how often Pawnee Joe’s collection was on display, or whether it was always all in one place. Seems to me we visited a small city museum in Lincoln when I was a kid that permanently exhibited some of it, but this memory is an old and muddled one. Joseph died in 1914, almost 30 years before the Coffin sisters made this visit, and there is another photo of him sitting in front of the exhibit holding up a spear. I bought a digital copy of it (and the right to publish it on this blog) from the NSHS. It is one of the only photographs of my great grandfather that I recall ever seeing.
For an even higher resolution version of this last photo, click here. Download and print this version on archival paper for your own family use.
Turning our attention to 1942 again, there is a man pictured sitting in the second image above whose identity I failed to capture when Miriam was telling me about these photos. Perhaps he belongs to the woman she identified as Lydia Cochran, who is also unknown to me, but it’s just now occurring to me that it could simply be my “Uncle Freddie” Linker, my Aunt Miriam’s husband, so young that I just hadn’t recognized him. Miriam did not say anything about being present on the trip and she’s not in either photo. But after all, their young daughter is right there next to the man, and he’s extending a steadying fatherish hand behind her. This would also explain why Miriam didn’t see a need to say who he was. She wouldn’t have seen the young stranger I saw; to her, he just looked like he always had. – mdf
¹Robert and Grace died as children. Robert lived a year and a half. Grace lived less than a day.
²Just after writing this post, I came across an account penned by my own late father Willard Fleagle in which it is not young Jennie, but her father Joseph as a boy, who receives this nighttime visit. Same details almost to the phrase — even “little white man”, just an entirely different generation and person. However, several family members I’ve consulted confirm that they’ve always understood that this story was about Jennie, not her father. Let the mystery have its place in the tale.
Image archive IDs:
Top image: 20141206-021_jennie_nell_luella
Middle image: 20141206-018_univ_nebraska
About the physical photographs:
Written on back:
Top photo: Mim supplied info and mdf wrote:
“Jennie, Nellie & Luella Coffin 1942
University of Nebraska”
Middle photo: Mim supplied info, mdf wrote:
“Jennie, Luella, Earl?, Nellie, Lydia Cochran
Don Stake, in middle
Rebecca Linker, Bob Stake
University of Nebraska where Grandpa Joseph Coffin’s Indian relics were being exhibited. 1942”