Where Nebraska Begins
Indian Cave State ParkPhotos and text by Jon Farrar
Two hundred years ago, bluffs along the Missouri River in southeastern Nebraska were scantily wooded. With the control of wildfires and little logging, woodlands lining these bluffs are now the westernmost edge of the eastern deciduous forest.
Before the Missouri River was wrestled into submission in the 20th century, it ranged freely between its bluffs across a
The writings and paintings of early explorers describe a landscape along the brawling, muddy river different than what we see today. Two hundred years ago there were no fields of corn, no tidy farmsteads and no bustling communities on land bordering the Missouri River in present-day southeastern Nebraska. More surprising is that the wild land found along the river today is not at all that like the wild land found there 200 years ago.
"The forests within the valley are of small extent, interspersed with wide meadows," wrote Edwin James while traveling up the Missouri River with the Stephen H. Long expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819. And, "the bluffs on each side are more elevated and abrupt, and being absolutely naked [of timber],
Written accounts by explorers such as James and Clark, and early-day paintings of the Missouri River country by Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, portray a broad floodplain blanketed in lush meadows and woodland groves; of rugged, grass-covered bluffs with patches of woodlands in ravines protected from wildfires; and of prairie from bluff tops westward for as far as the eye could see, the eastern edge of the Great Plains - a grassland of unimaginable extent.
Turn the calendar forward 200 years from the time of Lewis and Clark. From the town of Nemaha travel south on Nebraska Highway 67, then turn east on Nebraska Highway 64E and drive the five miles to Indian Cave State Park. The undulating asphalt road passes through manicured fields, an aging barn here, a new house there, land tidily divided into parcels by barbed wire fences held by thick Osage orange posts. On the horizon, as if it were the end of the Earth, as if there were nothing beyond, a dense forest looms on the Missouri River bluffs, bluffs once cloaked in shoulder-high native grasses. Drive past the park entrance and turn down the narrow road winding through a deep cut in ancient, wind-blown loess soils to the river bottom, through a shadowy woodland of oaks, hickories, pawpaws and blackberry brambles, down to the cottonwood and sycamore bottomland.
In 1804, the Missouri River channel ran at the foot of the bluffs in what is today the northern end of Indian Cave State Park, then turned southeasterly onto the floodplain. Today, the river runs at the foot of the bluffs along most of the park. Channelization of the river by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, suppression of wildfires, and man's cultivation of the land has brought great changes to the Missouri River corridor. Among those changes has been the advance of the eastern deciduous forest from the wildfire-protected ravines and onto the bluff tops and beyond. As pioneer trees established, they created microenvironments for plants previously found only in more humid regions to the south and east.
Today, a linear forest traces the bluff on the Nebraska side of the river. Woodland animals that were once uncommon or not present have made the deciduous forest home. In many ways, Indian Cave today is as if a piece of Missouri Ozarks has been carved out of the earth and moved to southeastern Nebraska.
As one travels from southeastern to northeastern Nebraska, the forest community found in the Missouri River bluffs becomes less complex as eastern and southern species reach the limits of their range. Black, white, blackjack and Chinquapin oak, shellbark and bitternut hickory, sycamore, black cherry, redbud, pawpaw, bladdernut, prickly ash, June-berry and high-bush blackberry are found at Indian Cave, some trees towering 80 feet tall and forming a dense canopy, which by June sunlight cannot penetrate.
Travel north and by the time you reach Omaha, many of these species have vanished. Eastern woodland forbs such as maidenhair fern, ginseng, showy orchid and yellow lady's slipper are only found in southeastern Nebraska. Some woodland species carry on to the north - red and bur oak, basswood, black walnut, hackberry, green ash, Kentucky coffee tree, American hazelnut, hop-hornbeam, columbine, bloodroot, May-apple, Dutchman's breeches and blue phlox.
Just as the composition of woodland plants become less complex, the variety and abundance of eastern woodland bird species decline from south to north along the Missouri Valley. Few sites in Nebraska rival Indian Cave in the number of bird species reported, especially when only terrestrial species are considered. It is not uncommon for experienced birders to see or hear more than a hundred species in one day during spring migration.
University of Nebraska ornithologist Paul Johnsgard estimated there are 138 to 140 breeding species of birds in the Missouri River Valley south of Omaha, the largest number for any region in Nebraska. Species with affinities to deciduous woodlands in states south and east of Nebraska and found at Indian Cave include the red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, chuck-will's-widow, white-eyed vireo, Carolina wren, summer tanager, Louisiana waterthrush, northern parula, and cerulean, prothonotary, Kentucky and yellow-throated warblers. Pileated woodpeckers have returned in recent years and again hammer out territorial calls and nest. During the spring breeding season the woodlands are awash with the calls of songbirds, from riverside willow thickets to gnarly bur oaks pioneering westward from the bluffs.
Woodland birds are the most diverse and abundant of the conspicuous southeastern fauna found at Indian Cave but look, too, for gray squirrels, the eastern cousin of the fox squirrel. Unlike the larger and widespread fox squirrel, gray squirrels are found only in mature oak-hickory forests along Missouri River counties south of Omaha. Less likely to be seen are the diminutive southern flying squirrels, which have even more restricted range in Nebraska than gray squirrels and are nocturnal in habit. Equally unlikely to be seen and representative of eastern deciduous forest are the woodland vole, the eastern chipmunk and the eastern pipistrelle bat.
When Chadron State Park was established in 1921 as Nebraska's first state park, the legislature's goal was to provide residents with public land where they could immerse themselves in nature. Indian Cave offers an enormous sweep of nature to immerse oneself. When the first tract of land was acquired for Indian Cave State Park in 1962, it was nearly as large as the state's other four state parks at that time (Chadron, Arbor Lodge, Victoria Springs and Ponca state parks) combined. It was named for the jutting sandstone ledge in the southern area of the park. Since that time, additional land acquisitions have brought the park to over 3,399 acres, of which 2,386 are wooded. Until the introduction of a state park
While natural history is the principal attraction at Indian Cave State Park, visitors do not want for a taste of the region's human history. The Missouri River was once the most important travel lane into the Great Plains and by the mid-1800s trading posts and small towns were springing up along its meandering course to capitalize on the blooming commerce.
In 1830, much of present-day Nemaha and Richardson counties were designated the Nemaha Half-Breed Reservation, a 138,000-acre tract for the homeless offspring of trappers and native people, including Omaha, Iowa, Oto, Yankton Sioux and Santee Sioux, as well as orphaned Indians. The tract was not operated as other reservations with an Indian agent and land held in common, rather was simply land set aside, divided into 640-acre allotments that those qualifying could claim. Among those receiving allotments of land were Joseph and John Deroin, offspring of French Canadian Amable De Rouins, who had traded along the Missouri River for several decades, and his Oto wife. At some point during the early-1800s the spelling of the family name was changed to Deroin.
By the late-1830s, members of the Deroin family had settled at the foot of the river bluffs at the northern edge of present-day Indian Cave State Park. A trading post was already located at the site during the time of Lewis and Clark's passage in the summer of 1804. In the 1840s Joseph Deroin began operating a trading post in a small log house. The settlement became known as St. Deroin, the "saint" added to boost the town's potential by linking it to the prospering downstream towns of St. Joseph and St. Louis. The location was an advantageous ferry site.
In 1856, white settlers laid out a town site at St. Deroin. Pleas to have the white squatters removed were generally ignored by the federal government. Joseph Deroin was shot and killed in 1858 while trying to collect a debt from a white settler. He was reported to have been buried astride his horse. By 1860, about 40 to 60 people resided at St. Deroin, nearly all of them white. The Half-Breed Tract vanished as a legal entity by 1861.
The Civil War brought a temporary end to Missouri River commerce and held the growth of St. Deroin hostage, just when new businesses were springing to life. The town prospered in the 1870s, probably St. Deroin's high point, boasting nearly 20 businesses, two physicians and a population of almost 200. By 1880 only 90 people resided in the little river
From the Lewis and Clark interpretive lookout over the Missouri River, to the old St. Deroin schoolhouse, to the delicate woodland wildflowers and songbirds, Indian Cave offers visitors much to do. There are miles of quiet roads, even more secluded hiking trails and modern camping facilities making it easier than ever imagined in 1921 to immerse oneself in nature.Indian Cave Accommodations
Straddling the border of Nemaha and Richardson counties on the Missouri River, Indian Cave State Park is located 10 miles south of the junction of U.S. Highway 136 and Nebraska Highway 67 west of Brownville, then five miles east on Nebraska Spur 64E.