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THE TRUE STORY OF THE DEATH OF SITTING BULL.
By Major E. G. Fechet, Sixth Cavalry, U. S. A. Read before the Society, January
15, 1896; printed in the Cosmopolitan, XX, 493-501, March, 1896.
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 which 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 were becoming imbued 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, which 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 coming 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 threatened 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 co-operate with and obey the orders of the military officers com
manding 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, the 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 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 effected 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 referred to before as received on November 14, and December 1, 1890. To settle doubts he referred the matter 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 the waiting only added to the difficulties of the situation. Their anxiety was quieted by the receipt of the following telegram on the afternoop of the 12th. It will be remembered that Gen. Nelson A. Miles was at this time division commander:
“HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF DAKOTA,
"ST. PAUL, MIN., Dec. 12, 1890. "To the 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 co-operate and render such assistance as will best pro mote the purpose in view. Acknowledge receipt, and if not perfectly clear, report back.
“By command of General Ruger.
After consulting 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 20th, 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 co-operate with the Indian police, he directed me to make the necessary preparations quietly, in order not to attract attention, as he felt conti dent 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 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 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 11 o'clock. Then, after seeing that my orders were in process of execution, I went over to the colonel'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 hard 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 be 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.