By Major Edmund G. Fechet, Sixth Cavalry, U.S.A.
More than five years have passed since the most famous Indian warrior of his time lost his life while resisting arrest by lawful authority, and as yet the general public has never been given the true story of the events which led up to and culminated in the death of Sitting Bull and some of his most devoted adherents. Many accounts have been written, few of which had more than a faint color of truth. The different versions were many, and nearly all simply absurdities.
During the Sioux outbreak of 1890-91, the writer, then a captain of the Eighth Cavalry, was stationed at Fort Yates, North Dakota. The post was commanded by Lieut. Col. William F. Drum, Twelfth Infantry. The garrison consisted of two companies of the Twelfth Infantry and two troops of the Eighth Cavalry. The Standing Rock agency is on the north side of the post and only a few hundred yards away. Maj. James McLaughlin was the agent, and had held the position during the eight or nine previous years. During the summer of 1890, it became apparent that the Indians of the agency were becoming imersed with the Messiah craze. Major McLaughlin, aided by his wife, and seconded by the well-known warrior, Gall, and other loyally disposed chiefs, used his utmost efforts to stem the tide of fanaticism. Sitting Bull, who had proclaimed himself "High Priest," was thus in direct opposition to his agent. The exertions of the latter confined the "disease to the settlements on the Upper Grand river, which were largely composed of Sitting Bull's old followers.
In a letter to Mr. Herbert Welsh, of Philadelphia, Major McLaughlin says: "Sitting Bull always exerted a baneful influence over his followers, and in this craze they fell easy victims to his subtlety, believing blindly in the absurdities he preached of the Indian millennium. He promised them the return of their dead ancestors and restoration of their old Indian life, together with the removal of the white race; that the white man's gunpowder should not throw a bullet with sufficient force in future to injure true believers; and even if Indians should be killed while obeying this call of the Messiah, they would only be the sooner united with their dead relatives, who were now all upon earth (having returned from the clouds), as the living and the dead would be united in the flesh next spring." Those whom Sitting Bull had converted to his views gave up all industrial pursuits, abandoned their homes, gathered around him, and raised their tepees near his house, was on the Upper Grand river, and about forty-two miles from Fort Yates.
Here they passed the time in dancing the ghost-dance and in purification baths. Rations were issued at the agency every second Saturday. Previous to October, Sitting Bull seldom failed to come in person and draw his share. From that time on he sent some member of his family to procure his rations, and no inducement of the agent could tempt him to appear at the agency. This determination of Sitting Bull frustrated one of the schemes to get him into safe keeping. In the event of his coining in, Colonel Drum had intended quietly to surround the agency with the troops. Each company and troop had its position designated, and on signal were to move up quickly. Sitting Bull, by remaining at home, declined to walk into the trap laid for him.
On the 14th of November, 1890, Major McLaughlin was advised by telegram, "that the President had directed the Secretary of War to assume a military responsibility for the suppression of any treatened outbreak among the Sioux Indians," and on December 1, 1890, he was instructed, "that as to all operations intended to suppress any outbreak by force, the agent should cooperate with and obey the orders of the military officers commanding on the reservation." These orders practically placed the whole conduct Of affairs in the hands of Colonel Drum, and he and Major McLaughlin were at all times in perfect accord. Throughout the entire civil and military services, two men better fitted for the trying and delicate duty to come could not have been found.
As each day passed, it became more and more apparent that the sooner Sitting Bull could be removed from among the Indians of the Standing Rock agency, fewer hostiles there would be to encounter, when the "outbreak by force" came. In the meantime, everything had been put in shape for a sharp and quick movement of the cavalry squadron, the troopers and horses designated for duty (fifty from each troop), gun detachments for the Gatling and Hotchkiss guns told off and drilled, one day's supply of rations and grain, buffalo overcoats and horse-covers, extra ammunition, all packed ready to be loaded. The transportation selected was one spring escort wagon, drawn by four horses, and one red cross ambulance.
Meanwhile Major McLaughlin had quietly sent his company of Indian police by small parties to points on the Grand River, above and below Sitting Bull's house. They were scattered for some miles, ostensibly cutting timber, but as a matter of fact keeping close watch on the actions of Sitting Bull and his partisans.
With the coming of December, McLaughlin was all anxiety to have the arrest made without delay, and arranged with Colonel Drum that the event should take place on the 6th. McLaughlin selected that date as it was the next issue day, and as the greater number of his Indians would be in at the agency, he believed that the arrest could be affected with the least trouble and alarm. As the 6th drew near, McLaughlin became doubtful of his authority to make the arrest, inasmuch as it might be in conflict with the instructions from Washington, referred to before as received on November 14 and December 1, 1890. To settle his doubts, he referred the flatter by telegraph to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, receiving a reply on the evening of the 5th to the effect that no arrest whatever should be made, except on orders from the military, or order of the Secretary of the Interior. Colonel Drum not having orders from "higher authority," felt that he could not take the responsibility of ordering the arrest; consequently no movement was made. Both Drum and McLaughlin chafed under the delay, as they felt that each day of waiting only added to the difficulties of the situation. Their anxiety was quieted by the receipt of the following telegram on the afternoon of the 12th. It will be recollected that Gen. Nelson A. Miles was at this time division commander:
"HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF DAKOTA.
"ST. PAUL, MINN., Dec. 12, 1890.
To Commanding Officer, Fort Yates, North Dakota: The Division Commander has directed that you make it your especial duty to secure the person of Sitting Bull. Call on the Indian agent to cooperate and render such assistance as will best promote the purpose in view. Acknowledge receipt, and if not perfectly clear, report back.
"By command of General Ruger.
(Signed) "M. BARBER,
Assistant Adjutant General."
Assistant Adjutant General."
After consulting with Major McLaughlin, who adhered to his idea that it was best to make the arrest on an issue day, Colonel Drum consented to wait until the 10th, which was the next ration-drawing. Early on the morning of the 13th, Colonel Drum imparted to me his orders and plans for their execution. As I was to command the force intended to cooperate with the Indian police, he directed me to make the necessary preparations quietly in order not to attract attention, as he felt confident that Sitting Bull had his spies watching both post and agency. There was but little to do, everything having been previously attended to.
But an event came which caused us to act before the 20th, as the sequel will show. On the 14th, about 6 P.m., as we were enjoying the usual after - dinner cigars beside our comfortable firesides, "officers’ call" rang out loud and shrill on the clear, frosty air. In a few minutes all of the officers of the post were assembled in Colonel Drum's office. He informed us briefly that the attempt to arrest Sitting Bull would be made that night; then turning, he said that charge of the troops going out would be given to me, that my orders would be made out in a short time, and that my command would move at midnight.
Orders were at once given to load the wagon. A hot supper was served to the men at eleven o'clock. Then, after seeing that my orders were in process of execution, I went over to Colonel Drum's house for final instructions and to ascertain the cause of the change of program. With Colonel Drum I found Major McLaughlin, and learned that Henry Bull Head, the lieutenant of police, in charge of a company on Grand river, had written to the agent that Sitting Bull was evidently making preparations to leave the reservation, as "he had fitted his horses for a long and bard ride." Couriers had started at 6 P.M., with orders to Lieutenant Bull Head to concentrate his men near Sitting Bull's house, to arrest him at daybreak, place him in a light wagon, move with all speed to Oak Creek, where my force would be found, and transfer the prisoner to my custody. The lieutenant of police had been instructed to send a courier to await my arrival at Oak Creek, to let me know that the police had received their orders, and to give me any other information that might be for my interest to know. By this time my written order had been handed to me. I found it directed me to proceed to Oak Creek, and there await the arrival of the Indian police with Sitting Bull. This seemed faulty to me, as Oak Creek was eighteen miles from Grand River, and my force would not he within supporting distance of the police if there should be a fight. Moreover, if he should succeed in escaping from the police, it was the intention to pursue him to the utmost, and in the race for the Bad Lands which would ensue, he would have a start of at least thirty miles.
After some discussion with Colonel Drum and Major McLaughlin, it was agreed that I should go some ten or twelve miles beyond Oak Creek, toward Grand river.
The squadron moved out promptly at midnight. When I was bidding Colonel Drum goodbye, he said to me: "Captain, after you leave here use your own discretion. You know the object of the movement; do your best to make it a success."
The command consisted of Troop “F” Eighth Cavalry, Lieutenants S. L. H. Slocum, M. F. Steele, and forty-eight enlisted men; Troop “G" Eighth Cavalry, Capt. E. G. Fechet, Lieutenants E. H. Crowder, E. C. Brooks, and fifty-one enlisted men, Capt. A. R. Chapin, medical officer, and hospital steward August Nickel, two Indian scouts, Smell-the-Bear and Iron Dog, and Louis Primeau, guide and interpreter. The artillery, consisting of one Gatling gun with “G" Troop, and one Hotchkiss breech-loading steel rifle with "F" Troop, was under the immediate command of Lieutenant Brooks. Transportation, one four-horse spring-wagon and one red-cross ambulance.
For the first four miles the squadron moved at a quick walk; a halt was then made, and the men were told to fix their saddles and arms securely, as I intended to make a rapid ride to Oak Creek.
The ride to Oak Creek was taken at a brisk trot; two or three short halts were made in order to tighten girths and to change the troop leading the column. On reaching the creek at about 4:30 A.M., I was greatly surprised and concerned to find that the scout whom Bull Head had been directed to send to meet me at that point, had not arrived. Although bewildered by this event, I realized that there was but one thing to be done, to push my command to Grand River as rapidly as possible, and act according to the situation found. The gallop was the gait from this time on. I was pushing the animals, but still not too fast to impair pursuit beyond Grand River, should I find that Sitting Bull had escaped.
Just in the gray of the dawn a mounted man was discovered approaching rapidly. He proved to be one of the police, who reported that all the other police had been killed. I forwarded to Colonel Drum the substance of his report, with the additional statement that I would move in rapidly and endeavor to relieve any of the police who might be alive. This courier (Hawkman), by the way, was mounted on the famous white horse given to Sitting Bull by Buffalo Bill.
The men at once prepared for action by removing and stowing away their overcoats and fur gloves. While they were doing this, I rode along the line, taking a good look at, each man. Their bearing was such as to inspire me with the fullest confidence that they would do their duty. The squadron was now advanced in two columns, the artillery between the heads, ready for deployment. The line had just commenced the forward movement when another of the police came in and reported that Sitting Bull's people had a number of the police penned up in his house; that they were nearly out of ammunition, and could not hold out much longer. At this time we could hear some firing. In a few minutes we were in position on the highlands overlooking the valley of Grand river, with Sitting Bull's house, surrounded by the camp of the ghost-dancers, immediately in front and some twelve hundred yards distant. The firing continued, and seemed to be from three different and widely separated points: from the house, from a clump of timber beyond the house, and from a party, apparently forty or fifty, on our right front, and some eight or nine hundred yards away. At first there was nothing to indicate the position of the police. Our approach had apparently not been noticed by either party, so intent were they upon the business on hand. The prearranged signal (a white flag) was displayed, but was not answered. I then ordered Brooks to drop a shell between the house and the clump of timber just beyond. It may be as well to state here that the Hotchkiss gun would not have been up on the line at this time but for the courage and presence of mind of Hospital Steward Nickel. In going into position over some very rough ground, the gun was overturned and the harness broken, so that the animal drawing it became detached. Steward Nickel, a man of exceptional physical strength, coming up with his red-cross ambulance, seeing the plight the gun was in, seated himself on the bottom of the ambulance, bracing his feet against the tail-gate, took a good grip with his hands on the shafts told his driver to go ahead, and in his way dragged the gun up to the line.
The shell from the gun had the desired effect, and a white flag was seen displayed from the house. Slocum and Steele, with their men dismounted, advanced directly on the house; Crowder with "G" Troop was ordered to move along the crest and protect the right flank of the dismounted line. Brooks threw a few shells into the timber, also against the party which had been on our right front, but was now moving rapidly into the valley. As Slocum's line approached the house, the police came out and joined it. The line was pushed into the timber, dislodging the few hostiles who remained. I now caused the dismounted line to fall back to the vicinity of the house, pickets being left at the farthest point gained by the advance. All the hostiles having disappeared, Crowder was recalled. I had moved with the dismounted line, and in passing the house had noticed Sitting Bull's body lying on the ground. On returning, when the advance fell back, I saw the evidences of a most desperate encounter. In front of the house, and within a radius of fifty yards, were the bodies of eight dead Indians, including that of Sitting Bull, and two dead horses. In the house were four dead policemen and three wounded, two mortally. To add to the horror of the scene, the squaws of Sitting Bull, who were in a small house nearby, kept up a great wailing. I at once proceeded to investigate the causes which brought about the tragedy. The inquiry showed that the police entered the house about 5:50 A.M., and arrested Sitting Bull. He occupied considerable time in dressing, and at first accepted his arrest quietly; but while dressing, his son, Crowfoot, commenced upbraiding him for agreeing to go with the police. On this, Sitting Bull became obstinate and refused to go. After some parleying, the police removed him from the house and found themselves and prisoner in the midst of the whole crowd of ghost-dancers frenzied with rage. As to the occurrences outside the house, I will again quote from Major McLaughlin's letter, the details of which are more complete than my notes, and were distinctly corroborated by investigations on the spot, made within three hours after the fight:
"The policemen reasoned with the crowd, gradually forcing them back, thus increasing the open circle considerably; but Sitting Bull kept calling upon his followers to rescue him from the police; that if the two principal men, Bull Head and Shave Head, were killed, the others would run away; and he finally called out for them to commence the attack, where upon Catch-the-Bear and Strike-the-Kettle, two of Sitting Bull's men, dashed through the crowd and fired. Lieutenant Bull Head was standing on one side of Sitting Bull and Sergeant Shave Head on the other, with Sergeant Red Tomahawk behind, to prevent his escaping. Catch-the-Bear's shot struck Bull Head on the right side, and he instantly wheeled and shot Sitting Bull, hitting him in the left side, between the tenth and eleventh ribs, and Strike-the-Kettle's shot having passed through Shave Head's abdomen, all three fell together. Catch-the-Bear, who fired the first shot, was immediately shot down by Private Lone Man."
The fight now became general. The police gaining possession of the house and stables, drove the ghost-dancers to cover in the timber nearby. From these positions the fight was kept up until the arrival of my command.
While engaged in the investigation, breakfast had been prepared for the men, and grain given to the horses. Going to the coon-fire for a cup of coffee, which I had just raised to my lips, I was startled by the exclamations of the police, and on looking up the road to where they pointed saw one of the ghost-dancers in full war array, including the ghost-shirt, on his horse, not to exceed eighty yards away. In a flash the police opened fire on him; at this he turned his horse and in an instant was out of sight in the willows. Coming in view again some four hundred yards farther on, another volley was sent after him. Still further on he passed between two of my picket posts, both of which fired on him. From all this fire he escaped unharmed, only to fail at Wounded Knee two weeks afterward.
It was ascertained that this Indian had deliberately ridden up to our line to draw the fire, to test the invulnerability of the ghost-shirt, as he had been told by Sitting Bull that the ghost-shirt worn in battle would be a perfect shield against the bullets of the white man. He, with some others of the most fanatical of the party, fled south, joining Big Foot's band. He was one of the most impetuous of those urging that chief not to surrender to Colonel Sumner, but to go south and unite with the Indians in the Bad Lands, backing up his arguments by the story of the trial of his shirt. Who can tell but that the sanguinary conflict at Wounded Knee, December 28th, would have been averted if the Indian police had been better marksmen and had brought down that daring Indian; and that Captain Wallace and his gallant comrades of the Seventh Cavalry, who gave up their lives that day, would be still among us?
The excitement over the bold act of the ghost-dancer had hardly died away, when another commotion was raised by the discovery of two young boys concealed in the house where the squaws were. They were found under a pile of buffalo robes and blankets, on which several squaws were seated. These boys were taken to the agency and turned over to Major McLaughlin, not murdered before the eyes of the women, as one newspaper account stated.
About I P.M., the squadron commenced the return march. Before leaving, the bodies of the hostiles were laid away in one of the houses and the squaws of Sitting Bull released, they having been under guard during our stay. Well knowing that they would communicate with their friends on the withdrawal of the troops, I sent a message to the hostiles to the effect that if they would return and stay peaceably in their homes they would not be molested.
The dead and wounded Indian police and the remains of Sitting Bull were taken with the command to the post. On arriving at Oak Creek about 5 P.M., a courier was met with a message front Colonel Drum to the effect that he would join me some time in the night with the infantry. About midnight Colonel Drum, with the companies of Captains Craigie and Haskell, marched in, bringing with them food, forage, and tents, all of which we needed sadly. The cold was intense and fuel so scarce that only very small fires could be made. Our stomachs were in a state of collapse, as we had had but one light meal since leaving the post twenty-four hours before, during the first seventeen of which the entire command had ridden over sixty miles, and part of it nearly seventy miles. Supper was cooked in short order, and the infantry generously sharing their blankets with us, the balance of the night was passed comfortably.
After a long and anxious conference with Colonel Drum as to further operations, it was decided that pursuit might possibly do much harm by causing many Indians to flee into the Bad Lands. Accordingly, Colonel Drum ordered the command to Fort Yates, the movement to continence at daylight. Subsequent events proved the wisdom of Colonel Drum's decision, as, in response to the messages sent by Major McLaughlin by runners to those who had left the reservation, one hundred and sixty returned in a few days, and, two weeks later, eighty-eight more were added to the one hundred and sixty. Of those that held their way to the south, one hundred and sixty-eight men, women, and children surrendered to Lieut. Harry E. Hale, Twelfth Infantry, on the 21st, near the mouth of Cherry Creek, a tributary of the Cheyenne River. Only about thirty-eight men, women, and children went to Big Foot's camp. Had pursuit been made, all the Indians of Sitting Bull's faction would undoubtedly have been forced into the band of Big Foot, thus swelling the force which met Colonel Forsyth at Wounded Knee.
The dead policemen were buried with military honors in the agency cemetery. The Indian police and their friends objected so strenuously to the interment of Sitting Bull among their dead that he was buried in the cemetery of the post.
In this account of the events which led up to and resulted in the death of Sitting Bull, I have in some cases merely alluded to incidents which were actually important, and which I would have preferred to describe in greater detail. The principal of these is the courage and devotion to duty manifested by the Indian police while attempting to make the arrest; and I am forced to express all the admiration which I feel for these well-nigh unknown heroes. The service which they rendered was of the highest value and importance, and it has not, in my opinion, met with adequate appreciation. Liberal pensions are paid to the widows and orphans of those who lost their lives or were disabled in the Civil war. I trust a similar liberality will be shown to the widows and orphans of Bull Head, Shave Head, Little Eagle, Afraid-of-Soldiers, John Armstrong, Hawktuan, and Middle.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. March 1896.