Fetterman Massacre

The Frontier Cavalry

One of the most significant battles of the U.S. frontier army in the 1860’s was the Fetterman Fight which is often referred to as the Fetterman Massacre. This battle among the U.S. Cavalry and Sioux Indians occurred in Wyoming a decade before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There’s been a tremendous amount written  about Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn. Much less has been written about a conflict which happened in Wyoming, about 25 miles south of the present day city of Sheridan.

Diagram of Fort Phil Kearny, 1866

The Bozeman Trail

Back in the mid to latter part of the 1800’s many areas of the western U.S. where immigrant traffic was significant. One place in particular was the area of northern Wyoming. During the 1860’s, army forts were built along an emigrant path called the Bozeman Trail. This trail was a cutoff from the heavily traveled east/west Platte Road and Oregon Trail which was the main overland trail used by people moving to the west from the area of western Missouri. The Bozeman Trail ran northwest from the Platte Road beginning near Fort Laramie, WY. This trail ran to Montana where gold mining at that time was booming. Fort Laramie as well as Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.S. Smith to the north were built along the Bozeman Trail to help protect wagon trains from Indian attack. Much of the trails traffic at that time were from miners heading to the gold fields. There are many side stories that go along with the history of this area but one, the Fetterman Fight, in particular, is of historical interest.

The Settlers and Miners Flood the Area

Fort Phil Kearny which was directly on the Bozeman Trail north of Fort Laramie was under constant assault from several Indian tribes, most notably the Lakota Sioux. The issue from the Native American perspective was simply that they had occupied this land for centuries and were understandably not happy to give it up. The massive flow of settlers were a steady reminder to them that things were changing fast. The gold boom in Montana worsened the situation from the perspective of the Indians. In addition, the emigration from the east disturbed the buffalo hunting grounds which were the main source of sustenance for the plains tribes. In a situation like this conflict is inevitable.

Colonel Henry B. Carrington, Commander of Fort Phil Kearney

The Fetterman Massacre

There were many skirmishes between the U.S.cavalry and Indian during this period and  many books have been published on the topic.Many moves as well have been produced on the subject of the Indian Wars. Regarding the area of Wyoming and Montana there was one conflict in the 1860’s which stood out among all others.This was called the Fetterman Massacre. In essence, an entire command of cavalry and infantry soldiers (81 in all) commanded by a Captain William J. Fetterman stationed at Fort Phil Kearny were annihilated by a surprise grouping of some 1500-2000 or more Indians on Dec 21st, 1866. The battle itself lasted only about thirty minutes. There are many reasons why this occurred and who may or may not have been to blame. Most accounts appear to place the blame on an overly eager cavalry officer who reportedly disobeyed direct orders from the fort commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington.

Test your knowledge with our short twenty-five question history quiz

History Quiz

On the same day of this massacre, the Indians had attacked another site just outside Fort Phil Kearny and Captain Fetterman was sent out with his troops to give chase. A small group of Indians made themselves known to the soldiers not far from the fort and near a rise in the terrain. Captain Fetterman, in pursuit, led his troops over this small rise. This was only about one mile from the fort itself.

Modern day Bozeman Trail Historical Marker

Unknown to Fetterman was the fact that the Indians had hid in gulleys and behind rocks just over the crest ready to spring the trap. After ascending the rise, the troopers were greatly overwhelmed by the attacking Indians. The rise was in eyesight of the fort but not the battle site just over the rise.

The Aftermath and Conclusions

The Fetterman Fight in 1866 stood as the U.S. Cavalry’s worst defeat up to that date. George Armstrong Custer’s  battle was still 10 years into the future. That historic battle would take the place of the Fetterman Massacre as the worst cavalry defeat during the Indian Wars.

 

Site of the Fetterman Massacre

The obvious fact that the troops in this instance were vastly outnumbered certainly contributed to the defeat.  In addition, the soldiers were using outdated weaponry such as the single shot muzzle loading Springfield Civil War era rifle. This was before the use of repeating rifles which changed the odds greatly.  A contributing factor was that the soldiers in this battle were not considered experienced Indian fighters and did not display the horsemanship of the average Indian warrior. Although taking place very near the fort, the battle field could not be seen from Fort Phil Kearney and this delayed the sending of reinforcements in any timely manner.

Also, you’ll enjoy our photo article regarding the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon Texas during the Red River War.

Much was made of the fact that Captain Fetterman went against the orders of his commander, Colonel Carrington. The question of why Fetterman led his troops over the rise will never be answered for certain.

As a side note, there are many stories connected with this particular battle, the fort itself, the commanding officer of Fort Phil Kearny, a Congressional inquiry and the army’s response. A decade later the Battle of the Little Bighorn was actually a continuance of the unrest in the Wyoming/Montana region. There are some very interesting books available on the subject and you’ll probably find information at your local library that cover these topics from both the governments perspective and that of the Indian. Only the Battle of the Little Bighorn stands as a larger defeat for the frontier U.S. Cavalry.

Fetterman Battlefield Site Plaque

What the visitor to this site in Wyoming will see is a monument dedicated in 1908 at the very sight of the battle (the top of Lodgepole Ridge). Fort Phil Kearny itself was burned down by the Indians shortly after the army vacated the fort some two years later supposedly because the expanding railroad was making the trail obsolete and as part of an agreement to end Red Cloud’s War of which the Fetterman Massacre was a part. Red Cloud’s War, led by Chief Red Cloud, is often referred to as the one Indian War lost by the U.S.

Visiting the Site

There is a monument (shown above) at the site of the battle which is accessible to visitors. As mentioned above, the monument was erected during a ceremony on July 3, 1908. The site is in Johnson County Wyoming, about 25 miles south of Sheridan Wyoming and just west of Interstate-90. For the history minded traveler, this site would be a great addition to a western U.S. trip planner.

(Photos and images from the public domain)

The Mountain Howitzer

 

Mountain Howitzer at Sutter's Fort, Sacramento California

The Mountain Howitzer was one of the most effective weapons employed by the U.S. Army Cavalry during the latter part of the 1800’s. The Mountain Howitzer was essentially a compact cannon that could easily be taken along by cavalry units on the field. Ironically, it was the Mountain Howitzer that was not taken along by George Armstrong Custer during the Sioux War of 1876. If he had not declined bringing along this weapon the history books may have been written differently. The Mountain Howitzer’s compact size and portability was ideal for such cavalry expeditions.

The Mountain Howitzer was built in several styles, with the 12 pound gun probably the most used in the frontier west. Being first designed in Sweden during the latter 17th century, the practical utility of this weapon goes back to Europe and the Peninsular War when the Spaniards used these weapons against Napoleon. That war began in 1808 and ened with Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

You’ll also enjoy our article and photos of Military Cannons used at our old west coast forts.

Mountain Howitzer at Fort Union New Mexico

In America, the Mountain Howitzer saw action in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and during the various western Indian wars. The Mountain Howitzer got it’s name because the original cannons were taken apart for transport into the mountains and then reassembled when needed. The weapons were designed to be portable. The twelve pound designation means that the cannon shot a twelve pound cannon ball.The Mountain Howitzers were often referred to as “Bull Pups”. The barrel was 38 inches long with a 4.62 bore. These small yet powerful cannons had a range of from about 900 to 1,000 yards.The first models were made in bronze. The later models of the howitzer were affixed to small carriages and these could be pulled along by horse or mule with little trouble.

An interesting story comes from the two Mountain Howitzers on display in Old Town Albuquerque’s plaza. The howitzer’s made there way to Albuquerque during the Civil War when the confederates made a push north into New Mexico. At one time, the Confederates occupied Albuquerque on their way further north. Their advance was stopped at the historic Battle of Glorieta Pass just to the east of Santa Fe. There are two Mountain Howitzers located on the plaza in Old Town Albuquerque just a few miles west of the modern downtown location. These are exact replicas of the cannons that were in place there during the Confederate occupation in 1862.

Mountain Howitzer exact replicas in Old Town Albuquerque

The Howitzer barrels were buried when the Confederates retreated. In 1889 all eight barrels that were buried were unearthed when an officer returned to the site and showed where they had been buried. Because of the great historical value of these eight barrels they were eventually place in the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History which is located only three blocks northeast of the Old Town plaza. The museum is a great addition to a trip planner for anyone visiting or vacationing in Albuquerque. The exact replica Mountain Howitzers on the plaza today are mounted on “Prairie” gun carriages which were thought to be the type utilized by the Confederate troops.

You may be interested in these related articles…The California State Military Museum and a Tour of Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.

When you travel around the United States you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see these historic Mountain Howitzer cannons at many locations. In addition to the cannons located on the Albuquerque Old Town plaza is an authentic Mountain Howitzer on the grounds of the Fort Union National Monument in northern New Mexico between Raton and Las Vegas. You’ll also see a Mountain Howitzer on display at the Fort George G. Meade Museum in Maryland, Sutters Fort in Sacramento California, Fort Sill Oklahoma, the Sheldon Prairie Museum in Sheldon Iowa, Fort Laramie in Wyoming, Fort Concho in San Angelo Texas and at many other historic sites and old military forts.

When General John Pershing Chased Poncho Villa

poncho villa

Poncho Villa

When the United States launched a military expedition against Mexico’s Francisco Poncho Villa on March 14, 1916, the U.S. Army undertook one of the most historic manhunts in all of history. The roots of the expedition grew from the ongoing Mexican Revolution.

The match that lit the fire and forced President Woodrow Wilson to order General John Pershing into northern Mexico was the night time invasion of Columbus New Mexico, just north of the Mexican border. The invader was Poncho Villa and his Villistas.

There are two theories among historians for Villa’s invasion into the United States. One reason offered is that the United States appeared, or at least appeared to Villa, to be backing one of his foes. There were many factions during the revolution. The second reason proffered is that Villa had purchased and paid for supplies in Columbus New Mexico and hadn’t received them. Both have their merits but the first reason seems more probable. There is even another more probable reason explained later in this story.

As to what Poncho and his troops hoped to achieve with the invasion is more murky. If he was looking for attention, he certainly got it. Pershing’s orders were reportedly to catch Poncho Villa dead or alive and to make certain no further incursion on American soil would take place.

The Chain of Events

The trouble in Mexico began in 1913 when General Huerta seized the reins of the Mexican government. The United States refused to recognize the new government and ceased to have any diplomatic relations with Mexico. At the same time John Pershing returned to the U.S. from the Phillepines in December of 1913 and was ordered to report to the San Francisco brigade. At the time this was due to the increasing hostilities with the new Mexican army dictator. For whatever reason, the San Francisco brigade was designated as the first to be up in combat. Tragedy struck when Pershing’s wife and three daughters died in a fire at the Presidio in San Francisco. Only Pershing’s son survived. He and his son then moved to Fort Bliss Texas where Pershing was commanding officer.

On March 9, 1916, five hundred of Poncho Villa’s troops including three of his officers invaded the U.S. border town of Columbus NM. New Mexico history would forever change. At the time, the 13th U.S. Cavalry regiment was camped at Columbus. Villa’s troops raided the village in the middle of the night. The village was attacked by surprise. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to react. On March 14, 1916, Brigadier General John J. Pershing, on orders from President Woodrow Wilson, was sent into Mexico with what would eventually be a 10,000 man force with orders to capture Poncho Villa dead or alive.

The biggest problem Pershing faced at the start was a lack of adequate supplies. Some historians found this a shock since relations between the U.S. and Mexico had been on a downtrend for a few years and certainly adequate supplies should have been placed near the border with Mexico in case of trouble. The possibility of hostile action had been on the table since 1913. For General Pershing, the supply situation was critical since his troops penetrated some 300 miles into Mexico in search of Villa.

A Unique Conflict

john pershing

John J. Pershing, 1901 as an Army Captain

On a historical note, this expedition was the first to introduce an aircraft into a combat zone. During this expedition, anything immediately south of the Mexican border was a combat zone. The aircraft flown was a Curtiss Jenny. Jenny stood for the JN designation that Curtiss used for the first series of aircraft produced. Eight Curtiss JN-3 aircraft were deployed to Pershing’s Mexican campaign during 1916-17 with most being used for observation. The JN-3’s were newly produced aircraft taking the place of the discontinued JN-2″s.

To give you an idea of how military campaigns changed at the turn of the century, the Curtiss Jenny deployments to Mexico occurred forty years after George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Another first when it came to military expeditions was the media involvement. The media during the last half of the 1800’s regularly accompanied army expeditions in the west. Most were reporters from eastern newspapers and magazines. Some were from the midwest used as stringers for the eastern press. In fact, one reporter lost his life during Custer’s defeat. Technology changed a lot from about 1890 to 1916.

The use of the Curtiss Jenny during the Mexican campaign was not the only first. The attack on Columbus New Mexico was the first time that a U.S. settlement in North America was attacked by a foreign force. Another unique element regarding the reporting of the Pershing’s expedition was the use of film footage. Never before had that been done and this type of video would also chronicle much of World War One which was only a few years later. Pictures of Poncho Villa were printed all over the U.S. Yet, another first in the Mexican Expedition was the use of three Dodge armored cars by the U.S. The armored attack was led by then Lt. George Patton.

Historians will notice that there were conspiracy theorists opining about why the U.S. went to war with Mexico. Pershing’s expedition was really not a war with Mexico. It was designated officially as a punitive action targeted against Poncho Villa and his troops. Villa had been a Mexican officer in the northern part of Mexico and was a faction among several during the Mexican Revolution. I have read accounts where some have speculated that it was an action by the U.S. government to help prepare their troops for possible deployment to the conflicts brewing in Europe. I think that is highly doubtful. The battles in Mexico while Pershing’s troops were searching for Poncho Villa would hardly be a dress rehearsal for what was to come in Europe.

The conflicts in Mexico were essentially hit and run episodes with no defined fronts. What is a much more plausible theory, although not entirely proven, was that Villa raided into the United States at the urging of Germany which wanted to keep the U.S. occupied on their own soil thus keeping them out of the European conflict. There are books written about an intercepted cable from Germany to Mexico implying such a scenario.

See our Trips Into History articles on the links below…

The Paul Revere House in Boston MA

Crossing the Atlantic With Marconi’s Wireless

Engagements During the Mexican Expedition

columbus new mexico raid

Columbus New Mexico clock with Villista bullet hole

General John J. Pershing and his troops never were successful in flushing out Poncho Villa. There were several conflicts with Villistas in northern Mexico. The first confrontation occurred on March 29, 1916 near the town of Guerrero. The U.S. force of 375 men killed seventy-five of Villa’s troops with no fatalities to the Americans. The second engagement was on April 12, 1916 when the American troops were outnumbered some five to one. The Americans were able to retreat to a nearby village. It was reported that two Americans were killed along with more than a dozen Villista losses. Another was a skirmish on April 22nd between the Villistas and members of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. Killed were two Americans with estimates of over thirty Villista killed. The fight broke off at sunset.

The clock shown above is on display at the New Mexico History Museum. This clock has a bullet hole as a result of the Villista invasion of Columbus New Mexico.

Two other towns in the United States came under attack during the Mexican Expedition. The towns of Glen Springs and Boquillas Texas were attacked by Villia”s men while the U.S. Eleventh Cavalry was engaged in another battle nearby, the Mexicans won a small battle at Glen Springs against a squad of nine Fourteenth Cavalry soldiers and at Boquillas they ransacked the town and took two captives. Again, it’s hard to determine what these small raids on Texas border towns would accomplish.

poncho villa pistol

Villista Revolver from the raid on Columbus New Mexico

The revolver pictured at right is on display at the New Mexico History Museum. This revolver was recovered after the villista raid on Columbus New Mexico. The revolver was originally shipped to the Mexican Army but somehow ended up with the Villistas.

The last battle during the Mexican Expedition occurred on June 22, 1916 between the U.S. Seventh Cavalry along with the African-American Tenth Cavalry against troops from the new president Carranza of Mexico. Both sides suffered losses with over 40 U.S. troops taken captive.There were eleven U.S. losses and 24 Mexicans killed and about 40 wounded. The Mexican troops retreated to the town of Chihuahua. Pershing wanted to go after the Chihuahua garrison and was denied approval from President Wilson. Wilson feared that another battle against Carranza’s troops would ignite a full scale war.

The Results of the Expedition

As mentioned above, the United States never was able to capture Poncho Villa. During the campaign, the U.S. troops were able to kill two of Villa’s generals and about 160 of his men. Poncho Villa was never able to cob together another fighting force after the U.S. departure from Mexico in January of 1917. Pershing believed that the expedition was a success but privately blames President Woodrow Wilson for putting too many restrictions on how he and his forces would operate within Mexico. In other words, political considerations from Washington tied his hands. He was probably correct.

As for General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, he would go on in a very short time to lead the American Expeditionary Forces in World War One. As for Poncho Villa, he would become a Mexican folk hero to some but his influence was on the decline. He was given a considerable amount of acreage at his retirement. Many of his loyal troops stayed along on Villa’s hacienda and some served as personal bodyguards. Poncho Villa and two of his bodyguards were killed by a group of riflemen on July 20, 1923 in the town of Parral Mexico. There were two basic theories about Villa’s assassination. The first was that it was revenge from the family of one of Villa’s generals who was killed during the conflict with the U.S. The other theory is that Villa was killed for political reasons after he reportedly boasted about running for president of Mexico. The exact reason I’m sure will never be known for certain. The action of the Pershing Expedition and the attack on Columbus New Mexico by the troops of Poncho Villa will always be a fascinating part of North American history.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos of Poncho Villa and John J. Pershing are from the public domain. Photos of Columbus New Mexico clock and Villista revolver are from author’s private collection)

 

 

The California State Military Museum and the State’s Volunteer Union Company

The California State Military Museum is a gem of a military museum. This venue is the official state of California museum for everything military. California has a very extensive military history. From the early Spaniard colonization, to the Mexican rule during the early 1800’s, to the occupation of United States troops in 1848. Because of this centuries old era of European occupation, California has in it’s possession countless artifacts of each era. One of these collections involves Civil War firearms, uniforms and flags. If you are traveling to the Sacramento California area, this is a military museum not to miss.

california state military museumCalifornia became a state in 1850 during the frenzy of the great California Gold Rush. When the American Civil War broke out, California was in a very remote region in regards to the fighting. In fact, there were no official battles fought on California soil. The Blue and the Gray did not meet in California. All the same, California was quite involved if only on a undercover basis. Regular army troops were largely called back to the eastern battlefields. This was the case throughout the west. The first California Volunteers were formed to guard against a potential Confederate takeover. Battles were fought in both Arizona and New Mexico. One of the most reported on was the Confederate defeat at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico not far east of Santa Fe. The outcome of the Battle of Glorieta stopped the Confederate advance into Colorado and the southern plains. During the Civil War the southern section of New Mexico Territory actually seceded from the Union when the Confederates set up in Tucson.A significant battle there was the Battle of Picacho Pass. The defeat for the Confederacy at Picacho stopped their western advance. This battle is often referred to as the westernmost battle of the Civil War involving regular Confederate forces.

california volunteer sergeants uniform

California Volunteer Sergeants Uniform

California, aside from being geographically remote from the rest of the U.S., was inhabited by a large variety of people, mostly due to all of the different people the Gold Rush attracted. People from the midwest had settled in California as well as people from the south. Democrats were a majority in the state, but southern Democrats a minority. Regardless, in 1861, a group of southern Democrats made an attempt to get California and Oregon to secede from the Union. That attempt met with failure. The largest threat was in the southern part of California. Many southern Democrats, sympathizers, and discontented Californios posed the real problem and it was in that part of the state that southern sympathetic volunteers organized militia units. The term Californio is a Spanish term for a Californian. This distinguished a Californian from the Native Indian population. That southern threat was eventually put down by Union forces still in the region. The southern question had reared it’s head back at the time of original statehood in 1850. From the outset California had declared itself as a non slavery territory. When the issue of granting statehood reached Congress there was opposition from southern lawmakers. The northerners in Congress obviously were able to overcome this largely because of the vast gold wealth in California and because of it’s enormously increasing population. There were several attempts by many southern Californians to push for secession from the Union during the 1850’s, and one measure actually reached Congress. After Lincoln’s presidential win in 1860 that measure was quickly set aside and died. The war of secession in California went nowhere.

civil war california cavalry hat

California 100 Cavalry hat

While President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to join the Union side and imposed a draft, he didn’t apply this executive order to California. A state like California was asked to form a volunteer force to take over the responsibilities of the regular army. These duties were essentially to protect wagon trains, stagecoaches and to try to keep the Indians in check. Many volunteers in the case of California much preferred to fight the war in the east as imposed to local service. While patriotism influenced the volunteers who wished to fight the Confederacy on the eastern battlefields, the volunteers who stayed in the west to replace the withdrawn regular troops no doubt were also making a large contribution. It’s a well known fact that after the regular troops were sent east, Indian depredations increased. While many may have thought that service in the far west was not quite as glamorous, if war could be considered glamorous, as serving in the east, there is no question that the California volunteers who stayed in the west were providing a very necessary service to the Union. They also were on hand if thoughts again rose for a war of secession in that state.

A group contacted the governor and offered to raise a company of 100 volunteers to go east. Californians had been well aware of the war going on thousands of miles away and many wanted to enter the conflict. The governor accepted the offer and the California unit was formed as a separate company of a cavalry regiment from Massachusetts. Officially they became Company “A” of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, but they were more popularly known as the “California Hundred’. This Civil War regiment would ultimately travel to Boston by ship through the Panama Isthmus. Their passage was paid by the bounty they received for joining the Union Army. Everything worked out so well with this first company from California that another 400 men went east in 1863 again via ship through Panama. The second contingent of volunteers were referred to as the California Battalion. There was also a group known as the California Battalion that served during the Mexican American War of 1848.

civil war rifles

Civil Wat era vintage rifles

The three vintage Civil War rifles on display at the California State Military Museum pictured right are a 1863 Springfield Percussion Musket .58 Caliber. Below it is a 1860 Springfield .52 caliber short barrel and on the bottom is a 1855 Springfield Percussion .58 caliber rifle. The Springfield rifles were heavily used during the Civil War.

The Californians formed Company A in the Massachusetts regiment that was headquartered in Boston. The entire Massachusetts regiment was then sent south to the Baltimore area and then into Virginia. For about a year between 1863 and 1864, the Califonia 100 saw a lot of action against John S. Mosby’s Confederate Rangers. Sending troops back east from California was only one of the state’s contribution to the Union war effort. Much needed gold was shipped back east. Troops from southern California entered what is today the state of Arizona via Yuma to confront Confederate forces who had taken over much of the southern part of the New Mexico Territory. The most significant action was at Picacho Pass in April 1862.

During the Civil War, the California company’s casualty total were eight officers and eighty-two enlisted men killed. Another one-hundred and forty-one were lost to disease. Many more were lost to sickness as opposed to deaths during battle.

spanish spurs

Spanish or Californio style spurs

Many artifacts of this era are on display at the California State Military Museum. In 1993, Civil War artifacts, on display at in the State Capitol were moved to the California Citizen-Soldier Museum to exhibit, maintain, and preserve. In 1994 the California Citizen-Soldier Museum was made the official military museum for the state. In 1995 the museum was renamed the California State Military Museum. The museum today boasts over 33,000 military artifacts. These include weapons, uniforms, unit records, battle flags, photographs, personal letters, newspaper articles and medals.

In addition to California Civil War artifacts are large displays of Spanish and Mexican era artifacts as well as exhibits pertaining to World War Two. The California State Military Museum is located in Old Town Sacramento California. As military museums go, this is one you’ll want to visit during your next California vacation or western road trip.

 

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody

The story about the great Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody were two life stories as dissimilar as can be imagined while at the same time had some interesting traits in common.

sitting bull

Sitting Bull

There was probably no other Indian leader who resisted the United States takeover of Sioux native lands as much as Sitting Bull did. Sitting Bull was believed to have been born in 1831 near the Standing Rock Agency which was in the Dakota Territory. To be sure, Sitting was a warrior during his younger years. He was very involved in leading war parties during Red Cloud’s War which lasted from 1865 to 1868 and resulted in the abandonment of three army forts along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana. Sitting Bull went on to become the central figure in the Sioux War of 1876 which resulted in the Battle of the Little Bighorn debacle. Following that battle, Sitting Bull along with a few hundred of his people fled to Canada in 1877. His stay in Canada was quite an ordeal for both he and his people. The winter weather was severe and food was in short supply. Finally, in July of 1881 Sitting Bull crossed back into the United States and surrendered himself to the army.

Shortly after the Sioux War of 1876-77, the Native Americans of the Montana and Wyoming area began returning to reservations. Some held out longer than others such as Crazy Horse, but in the end they all gave themselves up and were transported to various reservations. Steamboats were even used by the government to transport some of the Sioux. In fact, as a bit of irony, the steamboat Far West, which was used to transport many of the wounded soldiers from the Sioux battle of June 1876 back to Fort Abraham Lincoln, was also employed by the army to transport surrendering Sioux back downriver towards their reservations months later. This occurred all during the years of Sitting Bull’s self-imposed Canadian exile.

buffalo bill cody

William "Buffalo Bill" Cody

When Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881 he was moved down to the Standing Rock Agency which today is very near the North and South Dakota border. He and his people were kept separate from the others fearing that his presence night reignite trouble. At one point in 1881 Sitting Bull and his band were sent to Fort Randall in the southern part of the territory as prisoners of war but were moved back once again to the Standing Rock Agency in 1883. While Sitting Bull was totally aware that the struggle against the white man was over, he still resisted adopting a new way of life. In a way it was peaceful resistance. At the same time, the U.S. military was aware of Sitting Bull’s influence among his people.

What’s interesting to the historian of the Indian Wars and the old west in general is how Sitting Bull’s return happened about the same time that William Cody was organizing his Wild West. Cody was born in 1846 and went on to be a soldier, a buffalo hunter and finally one of the United States’ most successful show promoters. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West began in 1883 in North Platte Nebraska. This would have been the same year that Sitting Bull was relocated to the Standing Rock Agency.

Although Cody served as an army scout, he fully respected the rights of native Americans. Buffalo Bill was quite outspoken in his belief that the Indian troubles were a direct result of broken treaties on the part of the U.S. government. He went out of his way in calling the Native Americans our “former” foes who are now our friends. This was not necessarily an opinion held by many and it did set buffalo Bill apart from others. The former bison hunter also pressed for limits on hide hunting and the establishment of hunting seasons.

William Cody was known for his employment of Native Americans as part of his Wild West productions. In answer to criticism from some quarters, Cody simply pointed out that he was giving useful work to unemployed Indians. The one thing that could be said about the Wild West was that audiences were seeing the real thing. Native Americans performed as warriors attacking stagecoaches and wagon trains. They and their families were also encouraged to set up camps while traveling with the show similar to the camps they would have set up on their native land. Cody’s use of the native Americans as performers was one of the reasons for the Wild West’s enormous success.

sitting bull and buffalo bill cody

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody

In regards to Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill Cody held no grudges. Sitting Bull was as entrenched in his beliefs as Cody was with his. Sitting Bull was asked by Buffalo Bill to join his show as a performer. Sitting Bull was given permission by the army to leave the reservation to join the Wild West. The great Sioux chief received about $50 a week for riding once around the arena, where he was a popular attraction. Not bad money at all in 1884.  A story was started that Sitting Bull cursed his white audiences as he rode his horse in the arena but historians could find no proof that this really occurred. It was said that Sitting Bull did give out autographs for about one dollar each before and after performances. The Chief reportedly gave this money back to his people who were quite poor. Sitting Bull was also known to have given speeches promoting education for Native Americans and for all parties, Indian and white, to reconcile relations. Sitting Bull spent merely four months with Cody’s Wild West and afterward returned to the Standing Rock Agency. Sitting Bull was ultimately killed while being taken into custody in 1890 during what was called the Ghost Dance movement. The story of the Ghost Dance and Sitting Bull can be found on our link Ghost Dance..

Another related article that’s quite interesting is the story of Pawnee Bill and his Wild West show.

When you look at both Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody, it’s not too hard to see how both men came together in the Wild West shows. The early 1880’s were a time of transition for both. The Indian Wars were winding down, Sitting Bull was being held on the reservation and Buffalo Bill was preparing to showcase an entire era of American history to the world. If anything, Sitting Bull’s participation in Cody’s Wild West gave him a platform to press for aid for his people. Where at one time Sitting Bull was considered an enemy, he was now acting as a delegate for Native Americans everywhere. It’s also fitting that someone with the respect for Native American rights that Buffalo Bill Cody surely had, would also be in a position to help the Indian by offering a public platform for one of their most famous Chiefs.

(Photos are in public domain)