Gertrude Brown Henderson was a curator at the Sioux City Public Museum, but more than that, she was a historian and writer of early Sioux City history. Her stories about the first decades of the region’s history surely inspired many future amateur historians to further their own studies in Sioux City’s past.
Gertrude was born on 25 August 1883 in Indianola, Iowa to Oswell Chase and Jennie Hamilton Brown. Because her father was an early pioneer of Indianola, he likely inspired her to pursue history. Gertrude’s love of knowledge took her Simpson College where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science degree in 1904.
Gertrude moved to Sioux City in 1914 and eventually became the community’s unofficial local historian. In 1921 she married Ralph A. Henderson, a First World War veteran, in Des Moines. Over the next thirty years, both she and Ralph became important figures in Sioux City.
Gertrude’s fondness for Sioux City history is proven by her string of employers. Though Gertrude worked at several places in Sioux City, her first position was at the Sioux City Journal. There she workedas local history authority and was a special writer for the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary edition of the Journal. She was also active at the Sioux City Museum, which in the 1930s was located in the Sioux City Public Library Building at Sixth and Jackson Streets. At the Museum she served as curator and helped grow the facility’s biological and archival collections.
While working for the Sioux City Public Museum, she was appointed to the Advisory Committee of the Iowa Historical Records Survey. Through this Records Survey Henderson was able to help collect and preserve archival collections in Sioux City. The survey was funded through the Works Progress Administration, which allowed Henderson to type, bind, and catalog valuable historic documents.
Henderson not only helped preserve these old Sioux City pioneer documents, she became an enthusiastic writer of the City’s history herself. Though she had written historical articles and pieces for the Journal decades earlier, her work with the Museum’s collections spawned a new era of writing. She wrote numerous local history manuscripts and articles on a wide variety of topics. She also compiled information from the community for scrapbooks.
Henderson’s historical writing is very descriptive and often seemed more like fiction than fact. The following passage is typical of her narratives:
It was in 1854, before there was anything here except a few scattered mud and thatched cabins of French fur traders; before there was any store or any need for one; or street, or sidewalk, or building; when Joe Leonais' cornfield occupied the business district; while but a little east the buffalo had made a wallow; while under the trees at the Big Sioux the Yankton Sioux made their camp.
On a day in December, 1854, there was a stir among the tepees. From one fire to another the strange news ran: a paleface woman and her two paleface papooses were at Joe Leonais’ cabin on the Perry. The Indians were used to paleface men, very used, indeed. For thirty summers paleface men had traded with them for furs, and had lived among them. There was Bruguier, who had married their Chief War Eagle’s daughters, there was Joe Leonais and Lamereaux, there were many paleface men, but very few of the Yanktons had ever caught the glimpse of a paleface woman, and certainly none had ever touched her foot to the ground in this territory. So it was no wonder that the strange news created excitement at the campfires.
Henderson was writing about the first white children in Sioux City. This piece, like most of her work, focused on the earliest years of Sioux City history. Her historical writing, however, did describe events up to about 1900. Her stories were all very short, most only about two or three pages, but they make up one of the most complete records of the city’s early settlers and Native Americans.
Henderson helped start the Sioux City Pioneer Club. She, with other historians, Albert Holman, C.R. Marks, and O.B. Talley started the organization in 1925. The group acted as an informal club for exchanging information on historic Sioux City people and events. Many members of the club were the direct ancestors of the earliest Sioux City citizens. The group’s first major project was the removal of Theophile Bruguier’s remains from Salix, Iowa to War Eagle Park.
Gertrude took leadership roles outside of Sioux City as well, in state and national organizations. She served six years as chairperson of the Iowa Historic Sites committee of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She was appointed to be the chairperson of the Committee for Preservation of Historic Sites for the Iowa Territorial Centennial Committee by Governor Clyde Herring. She was a member of the Board of Curators of the State Historical Society appointed by Governor Daniel Turner.
Gertrude’s husband Ralph Henderson was also an important Sioux City figure. For most of his life, after the First World War, he was a businessman and worked for the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company, and McManus and Green. In 1947 he opened his own real estate company. He also served as manager for the Monahan Post Band and was instrumental in the construction of the Grandview Park Band Shell. In addition, he served Sioux City as mayor from 1952 to 1953 before the city changed to a Council/Manager system.
The Henderson’s impact on Sioux City was significant. Ralph served as mayor and built the Band Shell. Gertrude helped preserve Sioux City’s earliest history through her work at the Museum and in her many clubs and organizations. Sioux City lost an important person and part of Sioux City when Gertrude Henderson died in 1954.
Gertrude Henderson Papers. Sioux City Public Museum SC30
Henderson, Gertrude. The Coming of the First White Children to Sioux City. Sioux City Public Museum SC17 HR10
Ralph and Gertrude Henderson Biography File. Sioux City Public Museum SC56