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)

See the Deadwood Stagecoach in Cody Wyoming

Many people familiar with the old west would say that the most famous stagecoach to have plied the trails of the frontier west was the Deadwood Stagecoach. This is Deadwood as in Deadwood South Dakota and the Black Hills. Deadwood South Dakota could easily have been called the capitol of the Black Hills.The photo below is of Deadwood circa 1877.

deadwood south dakota

This is where people from all walks of life hastened to as soon as gold was discovered in the nearby hills. The fact is that Deadwood was, in a way, founded by none other than George Armstrong Custer. It was Custer who led an expedition into the Black Hills which was at the time a very sacred area of the country to the Sioux Indians. The Sioux in fact had ownership of the Black Hills per a treaty with the federal government. When Custer filed a report of his expedition to the Black Hills, whose purpose was to ascertain if gold was truly there,  he emphasized that gold was there in abundance. Somehow, at about the same time Custer filed his report, the startling information also found it’s way to the eastern newspapers.

concord stagecoachThe national economy was in a slump at the time and this only added fuel to the fire and what appeared to be another California Gold Rush, this time in the Black Hills, was in the making. Beginning in April of 1877 the first stagecoaches started rolling between Bismark South Dakota and Deadwood. The Northern Pacific Railroad had a terminal in Bismark and this offered the fastest way to Deadwood from the east. Three time a week service began in May and it didn’t take long for the stages to make the trip daily. Deadwood South Dakota was booming and people were trying to get there fast. The coach of choice was none other than the Concord coaches which were built well for the rough western trails.The first Concord stagecoach was built in 1827 by the Abbot Downing Company. The innovation that made these coaches so popular lay in the construction of their suspension. Traditional stagecoaches employed metal springs which gave the coach a very bouncy ride when the trail got rough. Concord coaches instead used leather braces which gave the coach a gentle swinging motion, prompting Mark Twain to refer to the Concord as the “cradle on wheels.” Freight and passenger revenue was doing very well and in addition to that the stage company received the coveted U.S. Mail contract. During the stage lines heyday it was reported that they employed about 175 men. This was quite a large operation in 1877.

sam bassAnytime there was a flourishing stagecoach route, and the route to the Black Hills was one of them, there were stagecoach robbers. In that era they were often referred to as “highwaymen”. People handy with firearms such as Wyatt Earp were hired to sit beside the driver with a shotgun to protect passengers and gold from the highwaymen. There was a lot of criminal activity in the area. The infamous Sam Bass, pictured above, and his gang reportedly robbed the stage four times in two months. In fact, the Sam bass gang was credited with the largest Union Pacific train robbery that took place in Nebraska. The amount and value of gold dust being shipped via stagecoach was such that precautions were taken that included a special coach to protect the gold. The treasure box was bolted securely to the floor, the coach was even lined in lead, and there were two portholes guards could use to fire back at the robbers.

The transportation boom ended suddenly when the railroad reached Pierre, South Dakota. In 1880 the company moved the majority of its coaches and livestock to Pierre and opened an alternate line. After that the service on the Bismarck line was cut to tri-weekly trips and was soon after abandoned.

To illustrate how popular Buffalo Bill’s Deadwood Stagecoach was in his Wild West performances, while performing in England the highlight of one of the shows came when several monarchs, including the Prince of Wales and the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium, and Saxony, climbed aboard the Deadwood Stage with Buffalo Bill in the driver’s seat and rode around the arena while the Indians engaged in a mock attack. It doesn’t get much more real than that for the visiting monarchs. Obviously this was a show business first and gained wide publicity for the Wild West.

Today, you can see the original Deadwood Stagecoach which played a big part in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances. The stagecoach is on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming. The Cody Historical Center began as a log cabin tribute to William  F. Cody, founder and namesake of Cody Wyoming, and has materialized into  a seven-acre building which houses five museums and a research center. The museum is located at 720 Sheridan Ave. and features everything about Buffalo Bill Cody, his Wild West and the old west in general. They have done an excellent job with this museum and I would recommend anyone traveling on a Wyoming vacation to make a visit there. It is the largest repository of William Cody artifacts in the west.