Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull, the son of Four Horn, and a member of the Sioux tribe, was born on Grand River South Dakota, in March, 1834. He hunted at a young age and at 14 took part in a raid on the Crows.

A highly successful warrior, Sitting Bull led a war party against Fort Buford on 24th December, 1866. As well as attacking army patrols Sitting Bull's warriors waged war against the Crow and Shoshone.

In December, 1875 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs directed all Sioux bands to enter reservations by the end of January 1876. Sitting Bull, now a medicine man and spiritual leader of his people, refused to leave his hunting grounds. Crazy Horse agreed and led his warriors north to join up with Sitting Bull.

In June 1876 Sitting Bull subjected himself to a sun dance. This ritual included fasting and self-torture. During the sun dance Sitting Bull saw a vision of a large number of white soldiers falling from the sky upside down. As a result of this vision he predicted that his people were about to enjoy a great victory.

On 17th June 1876, General George Crook and about 1,000 troops, supported by 300 Crow and Shoshone, fought against 1,500 members of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. The battle at Rosebud Creek lasted for over six hours. This was the first time that Native Americans had united together to fight in such large numbers.

General George A. Custer and 655 men were sent out to locate the villages of the Sioux and Cheyenne involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek. An encampment was discovered on the 25th June. It was estimated that it contained about 10,000 men, women and children. Custer assumed the numbers were much less than that and instead of waiting for the main army under General Alfred Terry to arrive, he decided to attack the encampment straight away.

Custer divided his men into three groups. Captain Frederick Benteen was ordered to explore a range of hills five miles from the village. Major Marcus Reno was to attack the encampment from the upper end whereas Custer decided to strike further downstream.

Reno soon discovered he was outnumbered and retreated to the river. He was later joined by Benteen and his men. Custer continued his attack but was easily defeated by about 4,000 warriors. At the battle of the Little Bighorn Custer and all his 264 men were killed. The soldiers under Reno and Benteen were also attacked and 47 of them were killed before they were rescued by the arrival of General Alfred Terry and his army.

The U.S. army now responded by increasing the number of the soldiers in the area. As a result Sitting Bull and his men fled to Canada, whereas Crazy Horse and his followers surrendered to General George Crook at the Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska. Crazy Horse was later killed while being held in custody at Fort Robinson.

Sitting Bull was offered an amnesty by the American authorities and in 1881 he agreed to return to Fort Randall, South Dakota, but continued to reject the proposal to sell Sioux lands to the United States government.

In June 1885, Sitting Bull agreed to appear with the Wild West Show run by Buffalo Bill Cody. He was paid $50 a week and also received money for selling signed photographs of himself.

In 1888 Sitting Bull rejected a new offer to sell Sioux land. The American government became increasingly frustrated by Sitting Bull's refusal to negotiate a deal and orders were given for his arrest. On 15th December, 1890, Sitting Bull was killed while being arrested. His son Crow Foot and other followers also lost their lives during this operation.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Frances Roe, letter (October, 1878)

That old villain Sitting Bull, chief of the Sioux Indians, made an official complaint to the "Great Father" that the half-breeds were on land that belonged to his people, and were killing buffalo that were theirs also. So the companies have

been sent up to arrest the half-breeds and conduct them to Fort Belknap, and to break up their villages and burn their cabins. The officers disliked the prospect of doing all this very much, for there must be many women and little children among them. Just how long it will take no one can tell, but probably three or four weeks.

(2) Nelson Miles, Personal Recollections and Observations (1896)

Sitting Bull, of the Uncapapas, was an older man; had made his reputation in the same way as the leader of the hostile element and by his intense hatred of the white race. He had kept aloof from the agencies, except to trade. He visited the white settlements only to raid and plunder. He was the embodiment of everything hostile to civilization, a perfect type of the savage Indian, a natural bom leader of men, cunning and courageous. He always advocated war upon the white race. Though not an hereditary chief, when any great war council was held, he was the central figure and the head of the war element. He had the power of drawing, molding, and wielding large bodies of his race and inspiring their hearts' emotions until they were prepared to act and move as one. He had runners going back and forth to all the Indian tribes in the Northwest and Canada. He became the natural and able leader of the largest, strongest, and best armed confederation of Indians ever created on this continent. In the spring of 1876 their warriors numbered several thousand. They had congregated principally in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming and Montana.

(3) W. Fletcher Johnson, Red Record of the Sioux (1891)

Sitting Bull has read French history carefully, and he is especially enamored of the career of Napoleon, and endeavors to model his campaigns after those of the Man of Destiny.

(4) James McLaughlin, Indian Agent at Standing Rock Reservation, letter to Herbert Welsh (19th January, 1891)

This was the status of the Messiah craze here on November 16th, when I made a trip to Sitting Bull's camp, which is forty miles south-west of Agency, to try and get Sitting Bull to see the evils that a continuation of the Ghost dance would lead to, and the misery that it would bring to his people. I remained over night in the settlement and visited him early next morning before they commenced the dance, and had a long and apparently satisfactory talk with him, and made some impression upon a number of his followers who were listeners, but I failed in getting him to come into the Agency, where I hoped to convince him by long argument. Through chiefs Gall, Flying-By and Gray Eagle, I succeeded in getting a few to quit the dance, but the more we got to leave it the more aggressive Sitting Bull became so that the peaceable and well-disposed Indians were obliged to leave the settlement and could not pass through it without being subjected to insult and threats.The "Ghost Dancers" had given up industrial pursuits and abandoned their houses, and all moved into camp in the immediate neighborhood of Sitting Bull's house, where they consumed their whole time in the dance and the purification vapor baths preparing for same, except on every second Saturday, when they came to the Agency for their bi-weekly rations.

(5) Nelson Miles, Personal Recollections and Observations (1896)

With Lieutenant Bailey and five soldiers, I went out to meet Sitting Bull, the regiment and artillery occupying a commanding position in the rear. Sitting Bull spread a large robe on the ground and prepared to talk with much formality. He was a man of powerful physique, with a large, broad head, strong features, and few words, which were uttered with great deliberation; a man evidently of decision and positive convictions. I used every effort to create in him and those with him a friendly disposition. I explained to them that all Indian wars had resulted in the Indians becoming loyal to our government; that it was useless for the Indians to contend against the government or the power and numbers of the white race; that if they would discontinue their warlike attitude and depredations and go upon a reservation I could assure them of the good will of the government and my earnest efforts in their behalf. But all this was fruitless; they scorned the friendly proposition and scoffed at the idea of any power being able to subdue the Sioux warriors. Sitting Bull said that Almighty God had made him an Indian, but not an Agency Indian, and he did not intend to be one. He said there never was a white man who did not hate the Indian and there never was an Indian who did not hate the white man. They were at that time flushed with victory. They believed the Sioux warriors superior to any body of white troops in that country.

(6) James McLaughlin, Indian Agent at Standing Rock Reservation, letter to Herbert Welsh (19th January, 1891)

Sitting Bull did not come into the Agency for rations after October 25th, but sent members of his family, and kept a bodyguard when he remained behind while the greater portion of his people were away from the camp; this he did to guard against surprise in case an attempt to arrest him was made. He frequently boasted to Indians, who reported the same to me, that he was not afraid to die and wanted to fight, but I considered that mere idle talk and always believed that when the time for his arrest came and the police appeared in force in his camp, with men at their head whom he knew to be determined, that he would quietly accept the arrest and accompany them to the Agency, but the result of the arrest proved the contrary. Since the Sioux Commission of 1889 (the Foster, Crook and Warner Commission) Sitting Bull has behaved very badly, growing more aggressive steadily, and the Messiah doctrine, which united so many Indians in common cause, was just what he needed to assert himself as "high priest," and thus regain prestige and former popularity among the Sioux by posing as the leader of disaffection.

He being in open rebellion against constituted authority, was defying the Government, and encouraging disaffection, made it necessary that he be arrested and removed from the reservation, and arrangements were perfected for his arrest on December 6th, and everything seemed favorable for its accomplishment without trouble or bloodshed at that time; but the question arose as to whether I had authority to make the arrest or not, being subject to the military, to settle which I telegraphed to the Commissioner of Indian Aflairs on December 4th, and on the 5th received a reply which directed me to make no arrests whatever, except under orders of the military, or upon an order from the Secretary of the Interior. My reason for desiring to make the arrest on December 6th, was that it could be done then with the greater assurance of success and without alarming the Indians to any great extent, as the major portion of them would have been in for rations at the Agency, forty miles distant from where the arrest would have been made, and I also foresaw, from the movements of the military, that the order for his arrest would soon be issued, and that another ration day (two weeks more) would have to elapse before it could be so easily accomplished.

Everything was arranged for the arrest to be made on December 20th; but on December 14th, at 4 P.M., a policeman arrived at the Agency from Grand River, who brought me a letter from Lieutenant of Police Henry Bull Head, the officer in charge of the force on Grand River, stating that Sitting Bull was making preparations to leave the reservation; that he had fitted his horses for a long and hard ride, and that if he got the start of them, he being well mounted, the police would be unable to overtake him, and he, therefore, wanted permission to make the arrest at once. I had just finished reading Lieut. Bull Head's letter, and commenced questioning the courier who brought it, when Col. Drum, the Post Commander, came into my office to ascertain if I had received any news from Grand River. I handed him the letter which I had just received, and after reading it, he said that the arrest could not be deferred longer, but must be made without further delay; and immediate action was then decided upon, the plan being for the police to make the arrest at break of day the following morning, and two troops of the 8th Cavalry to leave the post at midnight, with orders to proceed on the road to Grand River until they met the police with their prisoner, whom they were to escort back to the post; they would thus be within supporting distance of the police, if necessary, and prevent any attempted rescue of Sitting Bull by his followers. I desired to have the police make the arrest, fully believing that they could do so without bloodshed, while, in the crazed condition of the Ghost Dancers, the military could not; furthermore, the police accomplishing the arrest would have a salutary effect upon all the Indians, and allay much of the then existing uneasiness among the whites. I, therefore, sent a courier to Lieut. Bull Head, advising him of the disposition to be made of the cavalry command which was to cooperate with him, and directed him to make the arrest at daylight the following morning.

Acting under these orders, a force of thirty-nine policemen and four volunteers (one of whom was Sitting Bull's brother-in-law, "Gray Eagle") entered the camp at daybreak on December 16th, proceeding direct to Sitting Bull's house, which ten of them entered, and Lieut. Bull Head announced to him the object of their mission. Sitting Bull accepted his arrest quietly at first, and commenced dressing for the journey to the Agency, during which ceremony (which consumed considerable time) his son, "Crow Foot," who was in the house, commenced berating his father for accepting the arrest and consenting to go with the police; whereupon he (Sitting Bull) got stubborn and refused to accompany them.

By this time he was fully dressed, and the policemen took him out of the house; but, upon getting outside, they found themselves completely surrounded by Sitting Bull's followers, all armed and excited. 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, whereupon "Catch the Bear" and "Strike the Kettle," two of Sitting Bull's men, dashed through the crowd and fired. Lieut. "Bull Head" was standing on one side of Sitting Bull and 1st Sergt. "Shave Head" on the other, with 2d Sergt. "Red Tomahawk" behind, to prevent his escaping; "Catch the Bear's " shot struck Bull Head in 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 of police "Lone Man," and the fight then became general&emdash;in fact, a hand-to-hand conflict &emdash;forty-three policemen and volunteers against about one hundred and fifiy crazed Ghost Dancers.

The fight lasted about half an hour, but all the casualties, except that of Special Policeman John Armstrong, occurred in the first few minutes. The police soon drove the Indians from around the adjacent buildings, and then charged and drove them into the adjoining woods, about forty rods distant, and it was in this charge that John Armstrong was killed by an Indian secreted in a clump of brush. During the fight women attacked the police with knives and clubs, but in every instance they simply disarmed them and placed them under guard in the houses near by until the troops arrived, after which they were given their freedom. Had the women and children been brought into the Agency there would have been no stampede of the Grand River people; but the men, realizing the enormity of the offence they had committed by attacking the police, as soon as their families joined them, fled up Grand River, and then turned south to the Morian and Cheyenne Rivers.

(7) Captain E. G. Fechet, official report on the death of Sitting Bull (December, 1889)

I cannot too strongly commend the splendid courage and ability which characterised the conduct of the Indian police commanded by Bull Head and Shave Head throughout the encounter. The attempt to arrest Sitting Bull was so managed as to place the responsibility for the fight that ensued upon Sitting Bull's band, which began the firing. Red Tomahawk assumed command of the police after both Bull Head and Shave Head had been wounded, and it was he who, under circumstances requiring personal courage to the highest degree, assisted Hawk Man to escape with a message to the troops. After the fight, no demoralization seemed to exist among them, and they were ready and willing to cooperate with the troops to any extent desired.

(8) Nelson Miles, Personal Recollections and Observations (1896)

Major Fechet moved his command at night some thirty miles to the close proximity of Sitting Bull's camp, and sent his Indian police forward to arrest the great war chief. They proceeded to Sitting Bull's lodge and, entering it, informed him that he was a prisoner, and that he must go with them. He protested, but to no avail. They had proceeded but a few steps when he raised the war cry which aroused his followers, who rushed to his rescue. Then occurred a short, desperate Indian combat, in which Sitting Bull and quite a number of his immediate followers were killed, as well as five of the principal friendly Indian police who had made the arrest. The remainder, however, held their position until the prompt arrival of the troops, who dispersed the hostile Indians in every direction. It is a little singular that the last real encounter of this greatest of Indian chieftains should have been a tragedy in which he was to fall by the hands of men of his own race. He was the strongest type of the hostile Indian that this country has produced. His reputation had been made by courage, energy, and intense hostility to the white race in his early days. He had gradually risen to leadership until he became the great organizing or controlling spirit of the hostile element. None of the other Indians possessed such power to draw and mold the hearts of his people to one purpose, and his fall appeared to be the death-knell of the Indian supremacy in that western country.