Facts, information and articles about Sitting Bull, a famous Native American Indian Chief
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December 15, 1890
Red Cloud’s War
The Great Sioux War of 1876
Battle of the Little Bighorn
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Sitting Bull summary: “I have killed, robbed, and injured too many white men to believe in a good peace.” Such were the fateful words of Hunkpapa Lakota Sitting Bull, born in 1831 near the shores of the Grand River located in the Dakota Territory. As a holy man and the tribal chief he led led several attacks on U.S. forts in the West, and he played a role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Still, after several years of exile in Canada he was offered a pardon, which he refused believing the offer be unreliable. But life for his people in Canada was difficult, and he was forced to surrender to U.S. Army Major David Brotherton on July 19, 1881. They were relocated to the Standing Rock Agency in the Dakota Territory.
By 1885, Buffalo Bill included him in his "Wild West" show, and Sitting Bull gained significant popularity. He befriended Annie Oakley (also in "Wild West") and made frequent public appearances. By 1890, he returned to the Agency reservation. Meanwhile, Wovoka (also known as Paiute prophet Jack Wilson) had initiated the Ghost Dance movement, which gained rapid popularity among Native Americans and made U.S. soldiers nervous, probably because they didn’t understand its intent.
U.S. Indian Agent James McLaughlin feared Sitting Bull would become involved in the movement and ordered his arrest on December 15, 1890. Sitting Bull refused to cooperate and a scuffle ensued. A nearby Lakota, Catch-the-Bear, shot the arresting officer, who fired back, killing Sitting Bull. Sixteen people were killed in the skirmish, including eight police officers, Sitting Bull, and seven other Sioux. Two weeks later the massacre at Wounded Knee would take place.
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Sitting Bull and the Mounties
The Canadian Mounties, originally called the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), were less than 3 years old when Sitting Bull’s Sioux killed or wounded more than half of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment near Montana Territory’s Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876. Sitting Bull had not played a significant role in the actual fighting—it was not his place to fight like one of the young braves, and chiefs did not direct the movements of warriors—but the defiant Hunkpapa chief was well-known as a wise and powerful leader who wanted to be free to roam and hunt buffalo. By the following summer, Sitting Bull was lodged in Canada, where the scarlet-clad lawmen would have a close and occasionally dangerous association with him for about four years.
On May 7, 1877, some 11 months after Custer’s bloody disaster, 34-year-old NWMP Major James M. Walsh, a sergeant and three troopers followed an Indian trail to the dun-colored hills and ravines of Pinto Horse Butte, some 280 miles north of the Little Bighorn. The trail led up from the Montana border, about 50 miles to the south. A good-sized band had passed over this ground. The Indians had crossed into Canada’s North-West Territories close to where the White Mud—or Frenchman’s—River flowed down into Montana. According to Walsh’s two Métis (mixed-blood) scouts, this was Sitting Bull’s trail. If so, the NWMP, especially the 90-odd men Walsh commanded at Fort Walsh, would have no small task preserving law and order in the border country south and east of the Cypress Hills, in what would become the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Even before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Walsh and the other Mounties had realized that the U.S. military operations against the Sioux and Cheyenne were likely to drive hostile Indians north across the border. It had only been a matter of time before Sitting Bull and his followers crossed into Canada. Still, it was one thing to expect their arrival but another to actually deal with them.
Around noon on the 7th, Walsh’s scouts spotted mounted Indians sitting motionless on hilltops, watching them—a sign that an Indian camp was nearby. As they rode on, they saw more and more Indians on the hills, until the small patrol was surrounded. None of the Indians, however, made any attempt to stop the scouts.
Moments later, Walsh and his men rounded a hill to find a large camp spread before them. Reining in, they sat in their saddles while a group of Indians rode toward them. Spotted Eagle, war chief of the Sans Arc Sioux, told them they were the first white men to dare approach Sitting Bull’s camp so unconcernedly. Walsh asked to meet Sitting Bull. Shortly, the Hunkpapa chief, at the head of a retinue of lesser chiefs, approached.
Walsh studied the chief, who was in his 40s (his exact birthdate in the 1830s is not certain), about 5 feet 10, with a muscular build. He had alert, crow-like eyes, a broad, pockmarked face, a prominent, hooked nose and a firm mouth; two long black braids hung down over his shoulders. He was bowlegged and walked with a limp.
Sitting Bull must have been just as curious about Walsh and his Mounties. Walsh, almost as tall as Sitting Bull, held himself straight as a lance. Wiry as a mountain lion, he had intense brown eyes set in a weathered face, a full mustache, whiskers below his bottom lip and wavy brown hair beneath a blue and gold cap.
Walsh and Sitting Bull shook hands. At first Sitting Bull treated the redcoats with cautious reserve, but he gradually warmed up to them. They all retired to the camp and sat down for a conference that lasted the remainder of the day. Walsh asked them why they had come to the White Mother’s (Queen Victoria’s) country. To find peace, they replied. The Sioux claimed they had suffered greatly at the hands of the blue-clad Long Knives, that they had been fighting on the defensive for years. They hoped the White Mother, or Grandmother (the term preferred by the Sioux), would give them sanctuary in her land. Spotted Eagle said they had been forced to cross the medicine line (the border—the Sioux also called it ‘the big road’) to protect their women and children from the Long Knives. John Peter Turner, historian for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (that name didn’t come until 1920), wrote in Volume 1 of The North-West Mounted Police 1873-1893: "Sitting Bull said, in effect, ‘Yesterday I was fleeing from white men, cursing them as I went. Today they erect their lodges by the side of mine and defy me. The White Forehead Chief (Walsh) walks to my lodge alone and unarmed. He gives me the hand of peace. Have I fallen? Am I at the end?’ ”
Walsh explained that the purpose of his visit was to find out their intentions and to tell the Sioux about the White Mother’s laws, which everyone, white men and red men alike, must obey. They must not make war against other tribes and must not steal horses or anything else. They must not kill or injure any other person. They must not use the White Mother’s country as a refuge from which to strike back across the border at the American soldiers. They could not remain in her country if they would not obey her laws, Walsh told them. Sitting Bull said he and his people would obey the laws, adding that he had ‘buried’ his weapons before crossing into the White Mother’s land.
Sitting Bull liked what Walsh told him about the White Mother’s laws, especially the principle of justice for all, regardless of race. He showed Walsh medals King George III had given his grandfather for service to the British Crown during the War of 1812. His grandfather had fought alongside the red-coated soldiers of the Shaganosh (British) king. They were good men, Sitting Bull’s grandfather had said, adding, "If you should ever wish to find peace, go north to the land of redcoats."
Sitting Bull asked for ammunition for his people to hunt buffalo. He said they had used up all their bullets fighting off the Long Knives. Walsh agreed to allow them enough bullets to hunt meat, but he warned that no bullets were to be used for warfare across the border. Walsh and his men spent the night in the Sioux camp. The next morning, May 8, they were preparing to leave when three Assiniboines from below the border rode into camp herding five horses. One of Walsh’s scouts recognized three of the horses as the property of a Roman Catholic priest who had been in the Cypress Hills a short time before. Walsh stepped over to White Dog, leader of the three Assiniboines, and arrested him for theft.
White Dog looked around at the Sioux warriors who had gathered about him, confident they wouldn’t allow these red-coated wasichus (white men) to take him. But Walsh was undeterred. The law had been broken. Dangling a pair of leg irons in front of White Dog, Walsh said, "Tell me where you got these horses, how you got them, and what you intend doing with them, or I’ll clap these irons on you and take you away."
Silence fell over the camp. All eyes were on the redcoat and White Dog. The Sioux were dumbfounded by the Mountie’s courage. Some were ready to fight for their Assiniboine brother, some stood confused, others waited to see if the redcoat would carry out his threat.
Seeing the hesitation on the surrounding Sioux faces, White Dog mumbled that when traveling across the prairie east of the Cypress Hills, he saw the horses wandering loose and took them. He added that he hadn’t known it was wrong to do so, as south of the medicine line it was customary to take any horses wandering loose and return them only if their owner called upon the Indians to do so. Walsh didn’t believe him, but he gave him the benefit of the doubt. The law was explicit, but in instances where ignorance of the law was a factor, the Mounties exercised leniency. Stealing horses was, as R.C. Macleod of the Department of History, University of Alberta, wrote in his book The North-West Mounted Police and Law Enforcement 1873-1905, "in the nature of a sport among the plains tribes. The police only gradually introduced the idea that it was a crime, preferring to return them [the horses] with a warning to the thieves rather than make arrests." Walsh released White Dog, but he seized the horses so he could return them on his way back to Fort Walsh, 110 miles to the west. He then gave White Dog a lecture on obeying the law in the White Mother’s country.
Sitting Bull and the Sioux, or Lakotas, had witnessed an example of the enforcement of Canadian law. It was the sort of example Walsh wanted to set. He had not backed down. That was the way the 300 Mounties enforced the law among their own Indians–two or three scarlet-coated men riding calmly into large camps of armed Indians and making arrests or letting offenders off with stern warnings. Not backing down and never showing fear was perhaps the reason they—a mere handful of resolute men—were so successful in their dealings with the Indians. The Indians admired courage, perhaps above all else. Walsh had given Sitting Bull something to think about.
Sitting Bull and his 1,000 or so followers were not the only Sioux to have crossed into Canada. The previous December, Black Moon, a Hunkpapa chief and cousin of Sitting Bull, had arrived with 52 lodges and settled with many other Hunkpapas, Minneconjous, Ogalalas, Sans Arcs and Two Kettles. In March 1877, Sitting Bull’s uncle Chief Four Horns had led another large band across the medicine line. Now, in May, with the arrival of Sitting Bull’s band, the Sioux in Canada numbered about 4,000. The Sioux all promised to obey Canadian law, but no one knew whether they really meant it. Ottawa wasn’t taking any chances; the Canadian government wanted the Sioux out of its territory.
At Ottawa’s request, in August 1877, some three months after Sitting Bull’s arrival up north, the U.S. government appointed a peace commission to meet with the Sioux. The commission’s mission supposedly was to persuade the Indians to return to the United States and surrender to the Army in exchange for a full pardon. Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, commander of the military force that had marched on the Sioux at the Little Bighorn the previous year, headed the commission. At first Sitting Bull refused to meet with Terry, but Walsh convinced the chief to journey from the Sioux village near Pine Horse Butte to Fort Walsh and hear out the Americans. The meeting took place October 17, with predictable results. Sitting Bull did not trust Terry, the man who had sent Custer, and the Sioux refused to go back. Sitting Bull biographer Robert Utley has suggested that the United States did not really want Sitting Bull back, and that it put pressure on Canada to adopt Sitting Bull and his people as ‘Canadian Indians.’
Sitting Bull’s distrust was intensified by his awareness that Colonel Nelson A. ‘Bear Coat’ Miles was hovering just below the border, having defeated Chief Joseph and other Nez Perces at Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains two weeks earlier. One of the Nez Perce chiefs, White Bird, and 98 Nez Perce men, 50 women and about 50 children had escaped Miles’ forces at the Bear Paws and reached Sitting Bull’s camp on October 8.
Even before the U.S. peace commission meeting at Fort Walsh, newspapers on both sides of the border warned their readers of troubles to come from the Sioux, as detailed by Canadian historian Grant MacEwan in his 1973 book Sitting Bull: The Years in Canada. The Montreal Witness of August 16, 1877, reported that Sitting Bull had asked his hereditary enemies the Canadian Blackfeet "to join him in the conflict with the hated American Government, after which he would help them with any conflict they might have with the Canadian Government." The Fort Benton Record (Montana) ran a story headlined ‘Sitting Bull Preparing For Spring Campaign’ that said the Assiniboines, Gros Ventres, Crows and Piegans would join the Sioux chief. The Toronto Globe of September 25, 1877, warned its readers that Wood Mountain, a Métis settlement near Pinto Horse Butte, "could erupt at any time." The Globe said a report from Helena, Mont., alleged that Sitting Bull was on the verge of leading all the northern tribes against the U.S. forces, adding that "Sitting Bull is amply supplied with ammunition."
The stories persisted, especially after the failure of the peace commission meeting in October. The Fort Benton Record of April 5, 1878, reported that Bloods, Northern Blackfeet, Crees, North Assiniboines, Piegans, Kootenais, Sarcees (all Canadian tribes) and Gros Ventres had been approached by Sitting Bull, who was "sparing no effort to form a league among these congregated tribes….He appeared with 30 of his best warriors dressed in the clothing of soldiers killed in the Custer Massacre, and called upon assembled Indians to witness how he had treated the soldiers and how easy [it would be] to clean out all the whites and have the country among ourselves….Mr. Thomas O’Halloran, in charge of Fort Belknap [on the Milk River in northern Montana, near the Bear Paw Mountains], considers the situation critical."
Two weeks later, on April 19, the Fort Benton Record reported that residents of the Canadian settlement of Battleford, on the North Saskatchewan River, were "greatly excited" over an account that Sitting Bull had formed an alliance of Sioux, Blackfoot and Stoney tribes and had made overtures to the Cree. The alliance’s apparent intentions were to carry out widespread raiding. "A camp of seven hundred lodges of Sioux at the Sand Hills, sixty-five miles from Fort Walsh, [was] growing with new arrivals hourly…four wagon loads of cartridges arrived at camp [in one day]….The Nez Perce [and] the Blackfeet have all formed a treaty with Sitting Bull [and] the Blackfeet are on the Belly River [near Fort Macleod] in force….It is supposed that the attack is to be made on the Cypress Hills [Fort Walsh] and Fort Macleod."
The Mounties investigated these stories but found they had little real substance. Powerful Blackfoot Chief Crow Foot confirmed that Sitting Bull had made overtures to him. Crow Foot said that in the spring of 1876, before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull had asked him to join the Sioux in a mighty war against the Americans, but he had refused. Sitting Bull had been in contact with him again in the summer of 1877, when they met during a buffalo hunt, but the subject of an alliance had not been mentioned.
When Walsh traveled to and from Ottawa by rail via the northern United States in early 1878 and in the latter part of May (Canada’s nation-spanning railroad—the Canadian Pacific—wasn’t completed until November 1885), he often was questioned by journalists. The man the American press dubbed ‘Sitting Bull’s Boss’ dismissed rumors of a grand alliance under Sitting Bull. He stated emphatically that Sitting Bull’s Sioux—now numbering about 5,000, including some of the followers of Oglala Sioux Chief Crazy Horse, who had been killed by a soldier’s bayonet on September 5, 1877—were not part of any such plan. In his opinion, traders often passed on such stories to Army scouts hungry for news to report to their superiors. When, in May 1878, Walsh was asked by a journalist of the Chicago Times about the possibility of a confederation of all the tribes north of the border, he answered, "It is not natural to suppose that the Sioux and the Blackfoot could become allies." As for stories of the Sioux having ample supplies of ammunition, Walsh pointed out that his men rigidly enforced government restrictions allowing the Sioux only enough bullets for hunting. He added that the Mounties regularly patrolled all smugglers’ routes into the country occupied by the Sioux.
Rumors that Louis Riel, exiled leader of a Métis insurrection in Manitoba in 1869-70, was attempting to form an Indian-Métis alliance were, however, another matter. Riel, living in Montana, tried throughout 1878 to form an alliance of all the "Indian blood…between the Saskatchewan and the Missouri" to rise up against the whites and reclaim the prairies, which he maintained rightly belonged to them. His actual objectives were vaguely stated. He was capitalizing on Indian unrest over their changing way of life, especially the growing shortage of buffalo, but he was really more concerned with seizing control of Canada’s North-West Territories than he was with the American side of the border, as was evidenced by his part in the abortive North-West Rebellion of Métis and some Indians in 1885.
The Assiniboines of northern Montana were the first to join Riel. As soon as Walsh learned of Riel’s activities, he rode down to Wolf Point, along the Missouri River, where the Assiniboine camp was located, and talked them out of Riel’s alliance. Then he rode back north across the border and into the camps of Sitting Bull and the other Sioux chiefs, reminding them of their promises to obey the Queen’s law and to keep the peace. Walsh placed great store in a man’s word, as did Sitting Bull and the Sioux. He sent word to the Indian agents in Montana on whose agencies Riel and his Métis agitators and allies camped. The agents, in turn, informed the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Army was ordered to take action. Before winter snows swept across the northern Plains in 1878, soldiers, U.S. marshals and customs officers swooped onto the reserves and dispersed the Métis, seizing their weapons and ammunition, moving those who admitted to being Canadian back across the border and the others to more southerly regions of Montana. This action effectively broke up Riel’s alliance.
In the fall of 1878, Sitting Bull warned Walsh of the impending arrival of a group of Cheyennes in Canada. He had similarly warned Walsh of the coming of the Nez Perce the previous year. But this time he was wrong; the U.S. Army stopped the Cheyennes from getting that far north. Although Sitting Bull might well have dreamed of welding the Cheyennes and other northern tribes into a mighty confederation and striking back at the Americans, he constantly expressed hope that the White Mother would give him a reservation in Canada, as she had given the Sioux who fled north following the Minnesota Uprising in 1862.
The presence of 5,000 Sioux in Canada was making drastic inroads into the numbers of buffalo–the Plains Indians’ principal food source–and each year there were fewer and fewer of them. In 1876, the Canadian government had estimated that there were enough buffalo to feed its western Indians for at least another five years. But since the arrival of the Sioux, the government had had to drastically revise that estimate. The Canadian tribes realized the buffalo were becoming fewer, and they blamed the Sioux. The danger of inter-tribal conflicts grew, calling for greater vigilance by the North-West Mounted Police. The government did not want to burden itself with the cost of feeding the Sioux. Canada’s fundamental policy remained unchanged. The Sioux would have to eventually go back to their own country. Some of Sitting Bull’s young warriors became restive. If no food or reserve were forthcoming, they would simply take what they wanted. Inhabitants of the Wood Mountain region–the Métis–began to lose horses. That Sioux indulgence in one of the Plains tribes’ most cherished activities tried the patience of Walsh and his men. It caused them no end of additional police work, patrolling and hours in the saddle.
Early in the summer of 1879, a party of young Sioux warriors ran off 50 or more horses belonging to a Métis named Poitras, who went to their camp and demanded them back. The Sioux laughed at him. He was perhaps fortunate they did nothing more than laugh. He then rode to the NWMP post at the Métis settlement at Wood Mountain, where Walsh had relocated his headquarters to be closer to the Sioux camps, and complained. Walsh, one of his men and a Métis scout set out with Poitras to look for the horses. Unsuccessful, Walsh called on Sitting Bull, bluntly telling him he wanted the horses, that if he didn’t get them he’d invite Nelson Miles–for whom he had a great admiration–to cross the border and force the Sioux back to their own country. Sitting Bull bristled, but the bluff worked. He felt the stakes were too high to allow defiance by his young men. The horses were turned over.
"A few weeks later," wrote John Peter Turner, "Sitting Bull returned to [the Wood Mountain settlement] with a big retinue, including the chiefs Four Horns and Black Moon." Buffalo hunting hadn’t been very good, and they were feeling the pangs of hunger. They rode up in front of Walsh’s quarters, one of several log cabins comprising the Mounted Police post. Sliding down from their ponies, they stepped into the cabin and shook hands solemnly with the Mountie officer. Walsh sent for his Métis interpreter, Cajou Morin. After talking with them, Morin turned to Walsh: "They want provisions, Major, especially tea and tobacco." Sitting Bull had more to say. He complained about the White Mother’s lack of compassion for the Sioux, the Canadian government’s niggardly attitude toward providing food, even though the Mounties often gave them food from their own supplies. Walsh listened to Sitting Bull’s thinly veiled threats of what would happen if provisions were not forthcoming.
This was too much for Walsh, who was well known for his blunt language. "Who do you think you are? Have you forgotten that you’re American Indians? You haven’t any right to be in Canada. You’ve caused us police any amount of trouble. You’ve stolen horses. You’ve been a goddamn nuisance. You seem to think all white men are afraid of you. Well, you’re wrong. Get your goddamn provisions at the trading post. If you keep on making trouble, I’ll put the whole damn lot of you in jail!"
"Be careful, Wahonkeza [Walsh’s Sioux name]," Sitting Bull replied. "You’re talking to the head of the mighty Sioux Nation."
"I know who I’m talking to. What I said still stands. And if there’s any more horse stealing, I’ll put irons on you, too!"
Sitting Bull fumed. Shaking a finger at Walsh, he said, "No man can talk to me like that!" He reached for a revolver on his belt, but Walsh grabbed him and threw him out of the cabin. Sitting Bull landed on the ground. When he tried to get up, Walsh kicked him in the buttocks.
Furious, Sitting Bull climbed to his feet, again reaching for his revolver, but one of the other chiefs grabbed and restrained him. After a struggle, Sitting Bull tired and slumped to the ground, and the other chief released him. A moment later the Hunkpapa chief got up and stalked away.
Walsh ran over to the adjacent barracks. "Get ready, men," he shouted. "There may be trouble." Mounties tumbled out of the barracks, holding their rifles at the ready, and formed themselves into a line behind him. Up the street, the Indians gathered in a noisy mob in front of the trading post. A few minutes later they headed toward the Mounted Police post, Sitting Bull leading them on his cream-colored pony. Walsh ordered Morin to pull out two long poles from the hay corral and lay them on the ground out in front of the post. "Tell them not to cross those poles. The first one who does will be sorry." When the oncoming Sioux got closer, Morin shouted Walsh’s warning to them.
Sitting Bull’s smoldering eyes were locked onto Walsh as he rode toward him. Walsh stood in front of his men, staring back at the Sioux chief. Then, just before he reached the poles on the ground, Sitting Bull yanked on his pony’s reins. The pony stopped suddenly. Sitting Bull’s Sioux bunched up behind him. Walsh and Sitting Bull continued staring back at each other. Finally, Sitting Bull wheeled his pony and rode off. In small bunches the others did the same, heading toward their camp.
Sitting Bull had been poised to stab his dagger into the hearts of the White Mother’s redcoats, but in the end he could not do it. Walsh was the only white man to stand before him—practically alone—and defy him, but Walsh was also the only white man he could trust, the only white man he could rely on.
The Sioux slipped back across the border from time to time, not to make war on the Americans but to hunt buffalo. On July 17, 1879, a hunting party that included Sitting Bull ventured south of the Milk River and exchanged shots with Bear Coat Miles’ soldiers and Crow scouts. Sitting Bull was said to have bested Magpie, one of the Crows, after being challenged to personal combat during the battle. Miles’ howitzers eventually forced the Sioux to withdraw to defensive positions north of the border. This skirmish near the Milk River strengthened Sitting Bull’s resolve not to surrender to the Army. He was convinced they were waiting for him to do so and would then punish him for what had happened at the Little Bighorn. But empty bellies rumbled loudly, and many Sioux eyes turned southward. In early August, Sitting Bull told Walsh that he would take his warriors back across the line to meet Miles’ soldiers in battle, adding that none of his soldiers would live to tell the tale. Walsh took this to be a mere boast, but he told Sitting Bull that such an action would be unwise, for eventually he must return to his own country, that the Americans would not forgive any more casualties among their soldiers.
Continuing slaughter of the buffalo herds in the United States by both Indians and whites had reduced their numbers to such an extent by 1878 that the large herds were no longer migrating north; only small scattered herds crossed the border. Not only the Sioux but also Canadian Indians were close to starving. The Canadian government was obliged by various treaties to feed its own Indians, but it had no such obligation to the Sioux. Despite the reluctance of most Sioux to put themselves at the mercy of the American government, the thought that food might be more readily obtainable drove small bands of them (about 200 to 300 lodges) back over the medicine line in July 1879 to surrender to military authorities at Fort Keogh, at the mouth of the Tongue River on the Yellowstone. In November, 25 more lodges returned. Others watched from the safety of Canadian soil and followed when they were assured their brothers were being treated reasonably. By the summer of 1880, an estimated 3,700 Sioux had returned to their own country. Sitting Bull, though, was a holdout, still refusing to trust the Americans.
Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who had launched the Mounted Police in 1873 and played a major role in the development of the Canadian West, had become convinced that Walsh was being too sympathetic to Sitting Bull, that his sympathy was encouraging the Sioux chief to remain in Canada. According to R.C. Macleod, Macdonald believed "Walsh was deliberately keeping the Sioux in Canada because he enjoyed the publicity his association with Sitting Bull brought him. In November 1879, Macdonald confided his suspicion to the Governor General." The following year, Macdonald had Walsh transferred from Wood Mountain to Fort Qu’Appelle, a longtime Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and a growing farming community 160 trail miles northeast. Sitting Bull was devastated when he learned that Walsh would be leaving. The chief presented him with his eagle feather war bonnet, telling him: "Take this, my friend. I hope I never need it again. Every feather symbolizes a deed of courage when the Lakota were strong." Walsh was deeply touched. He and Sitting Bull had had a few differences, but, despite these, a deep friendship existed between them.
Before Walsh left Wood Mountain in July 1880, Sitting Bull asked him if he would plead with the White Mother to give him and his people a reserve in Canada. Walsh replied that it would be useless for him to do this, that "Bull" and his people would have to eventually return to the United States. Sitting Bull then asked Walsh if he would go to Washington to speak to the White House on his behalf. Walsh had some leave coming, and he told Sitting Bull that if the prime minister permitted him, he would go to Washington. Sitting Bull wanted to be assured that he and his people would be treated fairly if they went back, that they would not be singled out for punishment for their victory over Custer.
After taking command of the enlarged Mountie post at Fort Qu’Appelle, Walsh went on leave to Ontario via Winnipeg, St. Paul and Chicago. After reaching his hometown of Brockville, Ontario, not far from Ottawa, he obtained an interview with Prime Minister Macdonald. They discussed the Sitting Bull matter, but Macdonald refused to give Walsh permission to go to Washington.
Walsh’s successor at Wood Mountain was Inspector Lief N.F. (‘Paddy’) Crozier, whose instructions were to persuade Sitting Bull and the remaining Sioux to return to their own country. Although an experienced and capable officer, Crozier had an officious manner, and he was unable to gain Sitting Bull’s confidence. Besides, Sitting Bull still had his mind set on obtaining a reservation in Canada, and he hoped that his old friend might still be able to do something for him. At the end of April 1881, Sitting Bull took the remnants of his band—about 200 to 400 people—and went to Fort Qu’Appelle looking for Walsh. Macdonald, foreseeing the possibility of something like this, had given Walsh extra leave to keep him in Ontario.
Although Macdonald had forbidden Walsh to go to Washington, the prime minister apparently hadn’t said anything about Chicago. Walsh had a senior Indian Bureau friend there who was familiar with the Sioux situation. Walsh went to see him, and his friend promised he would contact influential friends in cabinet positions in Washington who would intercede on Sitting Bull’s behalf.
"Walsh resolved to send a message to [Sitting Bull]," wrote Grant MacEwan. "He wanted to avoid official channels." Walsh sent word to Sitting Bull through a trusted Métis, Louis Daniels, who had served as a scout under him. "Daniels carried out his instructions faithfully,’ MacEwan added. "Sitting Bull had heard similar assurances from other people but was not convinced. If Walsh said it, however, it was all the Sioux leader needed. He would take his remaining followers to Fort Buford [Dakota Territory]."
Jean Louis Legaré, a French-Canadian trader who operated a trading store at Wood Mountain, had befriended many Sioux in Canada. He had already assisted some Sioux with provisions and accompanied them to Fort Buford—at the mouth of the Yellowstone River on the Missouri—where they had surrendered. He decided to do the same for Sitting Bull. Accompanied by Legaré and Inspector Alexander A. Macdonnell of the Mounted Police, Sitting Bull and his followers surrendered to military authorities at Fort Buford on July 19, 1881 (a formal surrender was held the next day). Sitting Bull became a prisoner of war and was held at Fort Randall, Dakota Territory. In May 1883, he was transferred to the Standing Rock Agency, near Fort Yates on the Missouri River (present-day North Dakota). The next year he took up residence along the Grand River (present-day South Dakota). The famous chief was killed there in a fight with tribal police on December 15, 1890.
According to Grant MacEwan, Major Walsh wrote of Sitting Bull the day after the chief’s death: "I am glad to hear that Bull is relieved of his miseries, even if it took the bullet to do it. A man who wielded such power as Bull once did, that of a King, and over a wild spirited people, cannot endure abject poverty…without suffering great mental pain, and death is a relief. I regret now that I had not gone to Standing Rock and seen him. Bull had been misrepresented. He was not the bloodthirsty man reports made him out to be. He asked for nothing but justice. He was not a cruel man. He was kind of heart. He was not dishonest. He was truthful. He loved his people and was glad to give his hand in friendship to any man who was honest with him."
As for James Walsh, his service with the NWMP did not last much longer. "By 1881, Macdonald had convinced himself that Walsh was wholly responsible for the Canadian government’s embarrassment over Sitting Bull," R.C. Macleod wrote. "Walsh was given extended leave to remove him from the scene…Macdonald had found a scapegoat and Walsh…was forced to resign in 1883." Upon leaving the North-West Mounted Police, Walsh established the Dominion Coal, Coke and Transportation Company and helped open coal mining in the Souris District of Manitoba. He died at Brockville, Ontario, July 25, 1905, at age 62.
This article was written by Ian Anderson and originally appeared in the February 1998 issue of Wild West.
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