The First and Last Indian Campaigns in the Dakotas






Chief Bears Arm shaking hands with Lt. Col. Welch (“Charging Bear”). Drags Wolf in center.









The last Indian war in the United States

 There is nothing to be added to what has already been threshed over and over from one point of view or another and by hundreds of writers, regarding the advance of civilization west of the Mississippi.  Hundreds of fights or more or less importance have taken place between the representatives at Washington and the western Indians.  Thousands of lives have been taken, both white and red.  Helpless women and children have been murdered and their scalps have been danced in a thousand Indian ceremonies, and isolated Indian camps have been burned and old and sick and children have been killed by the hard boiled soldiers of the western forces whose creed was that “the only good Indian was a dead one.”  Solitary trappers, groups of hunters, wagon trains with heavy guards, frontier towns and trader” forts alike, have felt the merciless hands of worthy red-skinned fighters in retaliation.  The picture many of us have is that of a skulking, snaky foeman with plenty of nerve in the face of a weak enemy, but this is not a true picture, but one originating within the egotistical brain of white men.  

No other aboriginal people have so tenaciously and stubbornly resisted the encroachments of others they did not want, than has the North American Indian, especially those west of the Mississippi.  Hundreds of volumes have been written about the campaigns in that territory, especially west of the Missouri River.  Some of these are very unworthy of a historian and others do not indicate or concede any right or worthy motive to either the white soldier or the red warrior.  Pitched battles were not common, because the open warfare education of the plains Indian is to strike and retire and scatter until another opportunity presents itself for combined action.

In our own country – Chiefs Gall, Crazy Horse, Black Moon, Two Bears, Red Cloud and a dozen other Indian leaders were never crushed or even badly defeated; the stories of Captain Fetterman’s defeat; the fight at Slim Buttes; the scattered graves of Terry’s column under Custer, all bear witness to heavy and definite army defeats, and Generals Miles, Crook and Terry in the north could tell tales of how the fall of a gracious night saved them from annihilation at various places between the Yellowstone and the Missouri.

The establishment of a line of army posts along the Missouri from Fort Randall to Buford, costly and most dearly paid for, indicates the fibre of the foe in what is now the two Dakotas.  Sully at Whitestone and Killdeer and Fort Rice; Sibley at Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake and Apple Creek; Terry along the Yellowstone; Custer at fort Abraham Lincoln, the Black Hills and the Yellowstone; Gibbons in his Montana wanderings; General Miles who commanded the column which pursued Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce, in his masterful rear guard retirement into what he thought was Canada – all of these officers learned to respect the fighting ability of the plains warriors, and Custer was the only one of them all who thought that his unit could walk through the entire Sioux Nation, and for that rash idea he paid the bitter price on the hills of the Little Big Horn that hot day of June, 1876.  Within thirty minutes of the first shot, the Sioux warriors swept over him with an impetuosity which could not be denied.

I might deviate here for just a moment.  The Big Horn debacle has been argued about for over 50 years.  Before any of you come to a conclusion regarding the mooted question of whether or not the Lt. Col. Commanding the 7th Cavalry did nor did not obey orders – please bear in mind that courtesy of phraseology in an order takes nothing from the force of the order itself.  The definite purpose of the Commanding Office issuing an order being known, nothing save the most dire necessity will justify the subordinate in departing in any way from his instructions.  Even when some discretion and latitude of action is given to the subordinate to meet unanticipated events, in his own way and according to the circumstances which might arise, he still is responsible that his action at such times is in entire accord with the “spirit” of his instructions and as nearly as may be possible, with the expressed will and desire of the commander.  In the courteous custom of the service, the words “he desires” – “he thinks” have all the force that can be expressed by the words “he orders,” because those phrases clearly define the commander’s will.

While I am loath to mention my own opinions regarding these western tragedies of warfare, I am of the mind that many of these bloody affairs might have been averted.  You ask “how?”  In the second part of this paper I have recounted the experiences of the first punitive expedition into this part of the country.  In that, Col. Leavenworth included a force of 750 Sioux warriors, and this force was anxious to serve against their ancient enemies, the Arikara. However, this entire body became disgusted with the spiritless attack of Leavenworth’s men at a time when they had the fate of the Arikara within the hollow of their hands. The Sioux withdrew because Leavenworth stated that he did not trust them to be loyal to him, and thus he lost the finest opportunity ever presented, to make friends with the great fighting Nation of Indians and to bind them to the cause of the U. S. Army for future operations in the west.  That one episode caused a nation of native people to become a force who hated the white man because of mistrust, and a feeling of superiority grew among them right down the years until the white man and the Indians fought side by side along the Marne, the trampled wheat fields of Soissons, and the sot-up forests of the Argonne along the Meuse.  Then, and never until then, did they sing in honor of a dead American soldier.

And now we come to the year 1890, which experienced the last important clash of arms between the Indians and the whites.  This episode took place in what is now North and Dakota as the principal characters lived upon the Standing Rock Reservation within an hour’s drive of this place (ed. note: Fort Abraham Lincoln).  A series of circumstances, coupled with a bad hang-over from events which had taken place during the previous fifteen years, was responsible for the outbreak.

This trouble centered about the irreconcilable Sitting Bull, the Sioux Medicine Man leader.  This influential Indian had been brought back in 1883 to the Standing Rock following his surrender in Canada on July 10, 1881 and appearance at Fort Buford July 19, 1881.  On July 29, 1881 he and his haggard followers boarded the steamboat “General Sherman” and three days after that, landed at Bismarck, N.D., on their way to Standing Rock. However Sitting Bull was taken on down and kept at Fort Randall, S.D. until May 10, 1883 when he was also turned loose at Fort Yates on the Standing Rock in North Dakota.

He built a log house on the left bank of the Grand River, about 75 or 80 miles south of Mandan, where many of his former wild adherents of past war experiences joined him.

Then the Ghost Dance Craze broke out and Sitting Bull nominated himself to be the proper person to spread disturbing teaching of that religious frenzy to his superstitious followers.

During the fall of 1890, Bismarck, Mandan and other principal settlements along the N. P. Rwy. Were crowded with settlers and families of pioneers, fleeing to places of safety from the expected Indian outbreak and attendant horrors.

Major McLaughlin was Agent at Fort Yates and Lt. Col. W. E. Drum was the Army officer in command of the troops at that army post.  Major McLaughlin received orders to bring in the person of Sitting Bull, with the co-operation of the military forces available.  He decided to use his U. S. Indian Police to that end and on December 14, 1890 he issued the following order for the arrest of Sitting Bull.

Col. Drum ordered Captain E. G. Fechet with Troops “F” and “G” Eighth Cavalry (including 1 Gatling Gun, 1 Horchkiss Gun, 1 4-horse wagon and 1 Red Cross Ambulance) to proceed under the guidance of Louis Primeau to a point within reasonable supporting of the camp of Sitting Bull.

The police were to gather at the camp of Lieutenant Bull Head (sometimes called Afraid of Bear) on the Grand River a few miles west of Sitting Bull’s camp, and to make the arrest before daybreak the next morning, Dec.15, 1890.

The police expected a fight and prepared for death with songs and supplications to Wakantonka. They rode in a close body with a screen of several men ahead until they were close to the camp of several hundred Messiah-crazed hostiles.  They stayed there quietly until the dancers had gone to their lodges then, in a close mass they charged among the tipis and a picked detail of six or seven police dismounted at the log shack of Sitting Bull; quickly gained entrance; lit a match to located Sitting Bull; blew it out and secured him.

The hostiles were quickly astir but as yet no shot had been fired.  However, when they allowed him to put on some clothes (he slept in the raw) and took him out as some police saddled the grey horse which Wm. Cody (Buffalo Bill) had presented to him – a hostile, Catch the Bear, shot Bull Head the Lieut. of Police, and the fight was on.

Within a very few minutes, in this hand to hand fight, Lieut. Bull Head, First Seargent Shave Head, policeman Broken Arm, Little Eagle, Warriors Fear Him and Hawk Man were killed and policeman Middle was severely wounded.

Of the hostiles, Sitting Bull, his son Crow Foot, Black Bear, Catch the Bear, Little Assiniboine, Chief Spotted Horn Bull, Brave Thunder, and another Chief were killed and many others wounded but taken away by their friends.

The command of the force of 42 police and 3 volunteers fell upon First Duty Sergeant Red Tomahawk, sent through a horseman to inform the troops under Fechet, then gathered his forces within the log house and successfully stood off the hostiles until relief arrived.


The hostiles fled up the Grand River under the leadership of Si-Tanka (Big Foot).  The bodies of the dead policemen and Sitting Bull were then placed in an army wagon and delivered to the authorities at Fort Yates, where the police were given military honors at burial and the body of Sitting Bull was buried in a corner of the Military Cemetery, where it still is – a place of much interest.

The dead hostiles were buried sometime later, by Missionary T. L. Riggs, at the place where they fell.

The hostiles were rounded up within a short time in the southern part of South Dakota and the attempt to disarm them met with disaster; a fight was precipitated and about 300 Indians and several soldiers were killed.  This was at Wounded Knee.  The least said about this fight, the better.  It is not a particularly bright page of army history.

With the death of Sitting Bull quickly followed by the Wounded Knee affair, the backbone of Indian resistance was broken in the northwest and no cause for unrest nor danger of a border was has since then been experienced, and “All is quiet on the Western Front.”