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Essie's Story


Today is the birthday of Esther Burnett Horne, who is featured in “Essie’s Story: The Life and Legacy of a Shoshone Teacher.” Essie was born in 1909, and the book, which she co-authored with Sally McBeth, was published in 1998, a year before Horne died.

In 1871, a Scotch-Irishman named Finn Burnett was assigned agricultural agent for the newly created Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. His job was to help the Shoshone tribe become farmers. Burnett enjoyed the job and valued the relationships he formed with tribal members. One day Burnett came upon a Shoshone girl walking on the reservation road to her home. Her name was Mildred Large – ironically, she was only 5’2”. Her hair was so long it almost reached her ankles. Burnett knew Millie’s family and offered her a ride. As he drove, he said, “Millie, I hope that you’re not going to marry one of these young bucks on the reservation but that you’ll get an education and eventually marry somebody who can really give you a good life.”

Burnett didn’t realize that his blue-eyed son, Finn Jr., was to be that man. It wasn’t an easy situation for Finn and Millie when they fell in love; Finn would be looked down upon for marrying an Indian woman, and Mildred would lose the respect of her people for marrying a white man. They finally eloped. Their parents tried to block the mountain passes, but Finn and Millie got through, got married and made their home in Idaho near a town aptly named Eden.

Finn was fourteen years older than his petite teenaged bride and was an able provider. They had a successful fruit farm in a largely non-Indian community where Finn was popular and involved. He refused to be in any group that discriminated against his wife.

Essie was their first child, and she grew up hearing the Shoshone language only when her parents didn’t want her to understand what they were saying. Ironically, Finn spoke it better than Millie, because her elders thought she wouldn’t reach her full potential unless she spoke English.

Finn and Millie raised their growing family in a large two-story house with a wraparound porch surrounded by roses; Essie used the petals from those roses as caps for her dolls. She also recalled Bing cherry trees, square dances, large gardens of vegetables and flowers, horseback riding, going to baseball games and listening to her father play the piano.

When Essie was somewhere between 6 and 10, one of Finn’s friends embezzled a sizable amount of money from him, and the family had to start over by homesteading. In the flu pandemic of 1918, the whole family was infected, except for Finn, who tended his wife and children around the clock. Essie slipped into a coma for several days, but mercifully, they all survived.

Sadly, Finn died of a brain tumor four years later. Millie was devastated. She had four children under the age of 13, as well as an 18-month old baby, and another one on the way. There was a small life insurance policy, and Finn’s brother invested it in oil reserves for her. Unfortunately, the entire amount was lost in the Teapot Dome scandal.

Millie moved her children back to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. She got a job as a hotel chambermaid, but the stress of holding her family together was very hard on her. Things went from bad to worse, and out of desperation, she finally decided to let her three oldest children be taken to an Indian boarding school in Kansas. Tune in tomorrow for the rest of Essie’s story, including her later experience as a teacher at the Wahpeton Indian School.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm