My Captivity Among the Sioux
They Told Us the Indians Were Friendly—They Were So Wrong
BY FANNY KELLY
The summer of 1864 marked a period of unusual peril to the daring pioneers seeking homes in the far West. Following upon the horrible massacres in Minnesota in 1862, and the subsequent chastisements inflicted by the expeditions under Generals Sully and Sibley in 1863, whereby the Indians were driven from the then western borders of civilization, in Iowa, Minnesota, and the white settlements of Dakota, in the Missouri Valley, the great emigrant trails to Idaho and Montana became the scene of fresh outrages; and, from the wild almost inaccessible nature of the country, pursuit and punishment were impossible.
I was a member of a small company of emigrants, who were attacked by an overwhelming force of hostile Sioux, which resulted in the death of a large proportion of the party, in my own capture, and a horrible captivity of five months' duration.
[Having been forced to travel with the Sioux, for several days after the massacre, not knowing the fate of my husband and child, we finally reached their village consisting of thousands of Indians.]
The next morning the whole village was in motion. The warriors were going to battle against a white enemy, they said, and old men, women, and children were sent out in another direction to a place of safety, as designated by the chief. Everything was soon moving. With the rapidity of custom the tent-poles were lowered and the tents rolled up. The cooking utensils were put together, and laid on cross-beams connecting the lower ends of the poles as they trail the ground from the horses' sides, to which they are attached. Dogs, too, are made useful in this exodus, and started off, with smaller burdens dragging after them, in the same manner that horses are packed. The whole village was in commotion, children screaming or laughing; dogs barking or growling under their heavy burdens; squaws running hither and thither, pulling down tipi-poles, packing up every thing, and leading horses and dogs with huge burdens. The small children are placed in sacks of buffalo skin and hung upon saddles or their mothers' backs. The wrapped up lodges, which are secured by thongs, are fastened to the poles on the horses' backs, together with sundry other articles of domestic use, and upon these are seated women and children. To guide the horse a woman goes before, holding the bridle, carrying on her back a load nearly as large as the horse carries. Women and children are sometimes mounted upon horses, holding in their arms every variety of plunder, sometimes little dogs and other forlorn and hungry looking pets. In this unsightly manner, sometimes two or three thousand families are transported many miles at the same migration, and, all being in motion at the same time, the cavalcade extends for a great distance. The men and boys are not so unsightly in their appearance, being mounted upon good horses and the best Indian ponies, riding in groups, leaving the women and children to trudge along with the burdened horses and dogs. The number and utility of these faithful dogs is sometimes astonishing, as they count hundreds, each bearing a portion of the general household goods. Two poles, about ten or twelve feet long, are attached to the shoulders of a dog, leaving one end of each dragging upon the ground. On these poles a small burden is carried, and with it the faithful canine jogs along, looking neither to the right nor to the left, but apparently intent upon reaching the end of his journey. These faithful creatures are under the charge of women and children, and their pace is occasionally encouraged with admonitions in the form of vigorous and zealous use of whips applied to their limbs and sides. It was quite painful to me to see these poor animals, thus taken from their natural avocation, and forced to a slavish life of labor, and compelled to travel along with their burdens; yet, when this change has been made, they become worthless as hunters, or watchers, and even for the purpose of barking, being reduced, instead, to beasts of burden. It was not uncommon to see a great wolfish-looking dog moodily jogging along with a lot of cooking utensils on one side, and on the other a crying papoose for a balance, while his sulking companion toils on, supporting upon his back a quarter of antelope or elk, and is followed by an old woman, or some children, who keep at bay all refractory dogs who run loose, occasionally showing their superiority by snapping and snarling at their more unfortunate companions. This train was immensely large, nearly the whole Sioux nation having concentrated there for the purpose of war. The chief's sisters brought me a horse saddled, told me to mount, and accompany the already moving column, that seemed to be spreading far over the hills to the northward. We toiled on all day. Late in the afternoon we arrived at the ground of encampment, and rested for further orders from the warriors, who had gone to battle and would join us there. I had no means of informing myself at that time with whom the war was raging, but afterward learned that General Sully's army was pursuing the Sioux, and that the engagement was with his men. In three days the Indians returned to camp, and entered on a course of feasting and rejoicing, that caused me to believe that they had suffered very little loss in the affray. They passed their day of rest in this sort of entertainment; and here I first saw the scalp dance, which ceremonial did not increase my respect or confidence in the tender mercies of my captors. This performance is only gone through at night and by the light of torches, consequently its terrible characteristics are heightened by the fantastic gleams of the lighted brands. The women, too, took part in the dance, and I was forced to mingle in the fearful festivity, painted and dressed for the occasion, and holding a staff from the top of which hung several scalps. The braves came vauntingly forth, with the most extravagant boasts of their wonderful prowess and courage in war, at the same time brandishing weapons in their hands with the most fearful contortions and threatenings. A number of young women came with them, carrying the trophies of their friends, which they hold aloft, while the warriors jump around in a circle, brandishing their weapons, and whooping and yelling the fearful war-cry in a most frightful manner, all jumping upon both feet at the same time, with simultaneous stamping and motions with their weapons, keeping exact time. Their gestures impress one as if they were actually cutting and carving each other to pieces as they utter their fearful, sharp yell. They become furious as they grow more excited, until their faces are distorted to the utmost; their glaring eyes protrude with a fiendish, indescribable appearance, while they grind their teeth, and try to imitate the hissing, gurgling sound of death in battle. Furious and faster grows the stamping, until the sight is more like a picture of fiends in a carnival of battle than any thing else to which the war-dance can be compared. No description can fully convey the terrible sight in all its fearful barbarity, as the bloody trophies of their victory are brandished aloft in the light of the flickering blaze, and their distorted forms were half concealed by darkness. The object for which the scalp is taken is exultation and proof of valor and success. My pen is powerless to portray my feelings during this terrible scene.
This country seemed scarred by countless trails, where the Indian ponies have dragged lodge-poles, in their change of habitations or hunting. The antipathy of the Indian to its occupation or invasion by the white man is very intense and bitter. The felling of timber, or killing of buffalo, or traveling of a train, or any signs of permanent possession by the white man excites deadly hostility. It is their last hope; if they yield and give up this, they will have to die or ever after be governed by the white man's laws; consequently they lose no opportunity to kill or steal from and harass the whites when they can do so. The game still clings to its favorite haunts, and the Indian must press upon the steps of the white man or lose all hope of indepen-dence. Herds of elk proudly stand with erect antlers, as if charmed by music, or as if curious to understand this strange inroad upon their long-secluded parks of pleasure; the mountain sheep look down from belting crags that skirt the perpendicular northern face of the mountains, and yield no rival of their charms or excellence for food. The black and white-tail deer and antelope are ever present, while the hare and the rabbit, the sage hen, and the prairiechicken are nearly trodden down before they yield to the intrusion of the stranger. Brants, wild geese, and ducks multiply and people the waters of beautiful lakes, and are found in many of the streams. The grizzly and cinnamon bears are often killed and give up their rich material for the hunter's profit; and the buffalo, in numberless herds, with tens of thousands in a herd, sweep back and forth, filling the valley as far as the eye can reach, and adding their value to the red man both for food, habitation, fuel, and clothing. The Big Horn River, and mountains and streams beyond, are plentifully supplied with various kinds of fish. The country seems to be filled with wolves, which pierce the night air with their howls, but, like the beavers whose dams encumber all the smaller streams, and the otter, are forced to yield their nice coats for the Indian as well as white man's luxury.
The Indians felt that the proximity of the troops and their inroads through their best hunting-grounds would prove disastrous to them and their future hopes of prosperity, and soon again they were making preparations for battle; and again, on the 8th of August, the warriors set forth on the war-path, and this time the action seemed to draw ominously near our encampment. An Indian boy died the night before, and was buried rather hastily in the morning. The body was wrapped in some window curtains that once draped my windows at Geneva. There was also a red blanket and many beads and trinkets deposited on an elevated platform, with the moldering remains, and the bereaved mother and relatives left the lonely spot with loud lamentations. There seemed to be great commotion and great anxiety in the movements of the Indians, and presently I could hear the sound of battle; and the echoes, that came back to me from the reports of the guns in the distant hills, warned me of the near approach of my own people, and my heart became a prey to wildly conflicting emotions, as they hurried on in great desperation, and even forbid me turning my head and looking in the direction of the battle. Once I broke the rule and was severely punished for it. They kept their eyes upon me, and were very cross and unkind. Panting for rescue, yet fearing for its accom-plishment, I passed the day.
The smoke of action now rose over the hills beyond. The Indians now realized their danger, and hurried on in great consternation. General Sully's soldiers appeared in close proximity, and I could see them charging on the Indians, who, according to their habits of warfare, skulked behind trees, sending their bullets and arrows vigorously forward into the enemy's ranks. I was kept in advance of the moving column of women and children, who were hurrying on, crying and famishing for water, trying to keep out of the line of firing. It was late at night before we stopped our pace, when at length we reached the lofty banks of a noble river, but it was some time before they could find a break in the rocky shores which enabled us to reach the water and enjoy the delicious draught, in which luxury the panting horses gladly participated. We had traveled far and fast all day long, without cessation, through clouds of smoke and dust, parched by a scorching sun. My face was blistered from the burning rays, as I had been compelled to go with my head uncovered, after the fashion of all Indian women. Had not had a drop of water during the whole day. Reluctant to leave the long-desired acquisition, they all lay down under the tall willows, close to the stream, and slept the sleep of the weary. The horses lingered near, nipping the tender blades of grass that sparsely bordered the stream. It was not until next morning that I thought of how they should cross the river, which I suppose to have been the Missouri. It was not very wide, but confined between steep banks; it seemed to be deep and quite rapid; they did not risk swimming at that place, to my joy, but went further down and all plunged in and swam across, leading my horse. I was very much frightened, and cried to Heaven for mercy. On that morning we entered a gorge, a perfect mass of huge fragments which had fallen from the mountains above; they led my horse and followed each other closely, and with as much speed as possible, as we were still pursued by the troops. During the day some two or three warriors were brought in wounded. I was called to see them, and assist in dressing their wounds. This being my first experience of the kind, I was at some loss to know what was best to do; but, seeing in it a good opportunity to raise in their estimation, I endeavored to impress them with an air of my superior knowledge of surgery, and as nurse, or medicine woman. I felt now, from their motions and meaning glances, that my life was not safe, since we were so closely pursued over this terrible barren country. My feelings, all this time, can not be described, when I could hear the sound of the big guns, as the Indians term cannon. I felt that the soldiers had surely come for me and would overtake us, and my heart bounded with joy at the very thought of deliverance, but sunk proportionately when they came to me, bearing their trophies, reeking scalps, soldiers' uniforms, covered with blood, which told its sad story to my aching heart. One day I might be cheered by strong hope of approaching relief, then again would have such assurance of my enemies' success as would sink me correspondingly low in despair. For some reason deception seemed to be their peculiar delight; whether they did it to gratify an insatiable thirst for revenge in themselves, or to keep me more reconciled, more willing and patient to abide, was something I could not determine. The feelings occasioned by my disappointment in their success can be better imagined than described, but imagination, even in her most extravagant flights, can but poorly picture the horrors that met my view during these running flights. My constant experience was hope deferred that maketh the heart sick. It was most tantalizing and painful to my spirit to be so near our forces and the flag of liberty, and yet a prisoner and helpless. On, and still on, we were forced to fly to a place known among them as the Bad Lands, a section of country so wildly desolate and barren as to induce the belief that its present appearance is the effect of volcanic action. Great bowlders of blasted rock are piled scattering round, and hard, dry sand interspersed among the crevices. Every thing has a ruined look, as if vegetation and life had formerly existed there, but had been suddenly interrupted by some violent commotion of nature. A terrible blight, like the fulfilling of an ancient curse, darkens the surface of the gloomy landscape, and the desolate, ruinous scene might well represent the entrance to the infernal shades described by classic writers. A choking wind, with sand, blows continually, and fills the air with dry and blinding dust. The water is sluggish and dark, and apparently life-destroying in its action, since all that lies around its moistened limits has assumed the form of petrifaction. Rocks though they now seemed, they had formerly held life, both animal and vegetable, and their change will furnish a subject of interesting speculation to enterprising men of science, who penetrate those mournful shades to discover toads, snakes, birds, and a variety of insects, together with plants, trees, and many curiosities, all petrified and having the appearance of stone. I was startled by the strange and wonderful sights. The terrible scarcity of water and grass urged us forward, and General Sully's army in the rear gave us no rest. The following day or two we were driven so far northward, and became so imminently imperiled by the pursuing forces, that they were obliged to leave all their earthly effects behind them, and swim the Yellow Stone River for life. By this time the ponies were completely famished for want of food and water, so jaded that it was with great difficulty and hard blows that we could urge them on at all. When Indians are pursued closely, they evince a desperate and reckless desire to save themselves, without regard to property or provisions. They throw away every thing that will impede flight, and all natural instinct seems lost in fear. We had left, in our compulsory haste, immense quantities of plunder, even lodges standing, which proved immediate help, but in the end a terrible loss. General Sully with his whole troop stopped to destroy the property, thus giving us an opportunity to escape, which saved us from falling into his hands, as otherwise we inevitably would have done.
One day was consumed in collecting and burning the Indian lodges, blankets, provisions, etc., and that day was used advantageously in getting beyond his reach. They travel constantly in time of war, ranging over vast tracts of country, and prosecuting their battles, or skirmishes, with a quiet determin-ation unknown to the whites. A few days' pursuit after Indians is generally enough to wear and tire out the ardor of the white man, as it is almost impossible to pursue them through their own country with wagons and supplies for the army, and it is very difficult for American horses to traverse the barren, rugged mountain passes, the Indians having every advantage in their own country, and using their own mode of warfare. The weary soldiers return disheartened by often losing dear comrades, and leaving them in a lonely grave on the plain, dissatisfied with only scattering their red foes. But the weary savages rest during these intervals, often sending the friendly Indians, as they are called and believed to be, who are received in that character in the forts, and change it for a hostile one, as soon as they reach the hills, to get supplies of ammunition and food with which they refresh themselves and prosecute the war. After the attack of General Sully was over, an Indian came to me with a letter to read, which he had taken from a soldier who was killed by him, and the letter had been found in his pocket. The letter stated that the topographical engineer was killed, and that General Sully's men had caught the red devils and cut their heads off, and stuck them up on poles. The soldier had written a friendly and kind letter to his people, but, ere it was mailed, he was numbered with the dead.
As soon as we were safe, and General Sully pursued us no longer, the warriors returned home, and a scene of terrible mourning over the killed ensued among the women. Their cries are terribly wild and distressing, on such occasions; and the near relations of the deceased indulge in frantic expressions of grief that can not be described. Sometimes the practice of cutting the flesh is carried to a horrible and barbarous extent. They inflict gashes on their bodies and limbs an inch in length. Some cut off their hair, blacken their faces, and march through the village in procession, torturing their bodies to add vigor to their lamentations. Hunger followed on the track of grief; all their food was gone, and there was no game in that portion of the country. In our flight they scattered every thing, and the country through which we passed for the following two weeks did not yield enough to arrest starvation. The Indians were terribly enraged, and threatened me with death almost hourly, and in every form. I had so hoped for liberty when my friends were near; but alas! all my fond hopes were blasted. The Indians told me that the army was going in another direction. They seemed to have sustained a greater loss than I had been made aware of, which made them feel very revengeful toward me. The next morning I could see that something unusual was about to happen. Notwith-standing the early hour, the sun scarcely appearing above the hori-zon, the principal chiefs and warriors were assembled in council, where, judging from the grave and reflective expression of their countenances, they were about to discuss some serious question. I had reason for apprehension, from their unfriendly manner toward me, and feared for the penalty I might soon have to pay. Soon they sent an Indian to me, who asked me if I was ready to die-to be burned at the stake. I told him whenever Wakon-Tonka (the Great Spirit) was ready, he would call for me, and then I would be ready and willing to go. He said that he had been sent from the council to warn me, that it had become necessary to put me to death, on account of my white brothers killing so many of their young men recently. He repeated that they were not cruel for the pleasure of being so; necessity is their first law, and he and the wise chiefs, faithful to their hatred for the white race, were in haste to satisfy their thirst for vengeance; and, further, that the interest of their nation required it.
As soon as the chiefs were assembled around the council fire, the pipe-carrier entered the circle, holding in his hand the pipe ready lighted. Bowing to the four cardinal points, he uttered a short prayer, or invocation, and then presented the pipe to the old chief, Ottawa, but retained the bowl in his hand. When all the chiefs and men had smoked, one after the other, the pipe-bearer emptied the ashes into the fire, saying, "Chiefs of the great Dakota nation, Wakon-Tonka give you wisdom, so that whatever be your determination, it may be conformable to justice." Then, after bowing respectfully, he retired. A moment of silence followed, in which every one seemed to be meditating seriously upon the words that had just been spoken. At length one of the most aged of the chiefs, whose body was furrowed with the scars of innumerable wounds, and who enjoyed among his people a reputation for great wisdom, arose. Said he, "The pale faces, our eternal persecutors, pursue and harass us without intermission, forcing us to abandon to them, one by one, our best hunting grounds, and we are compelled to seek a refuge in the depths of these Bad Lands, like timid deer. Many of them even dare to come into prairies which belong to us, to trap beaver, and hunt elk and buffalo, which are our property. These faithless creatures, the outcasts of their own people, rob and kill us when they can. Is it just that we should suffer these wrongs without complaining? Shall we allow ourselves to be slaughtered like timid Assinneboines, without ˚seeking to avenge ourselves? Does not the law of the Dakotas say, Justice to our own nation, and death to all pale faces? Let my brothers say if that is just," pointing to the stake that was being prepared for me. " Vengeance is allowable," sententiously remarked Mahpeah (The Sky). Another old chief, Ottawa, arose and said, "It is the undoubted right of the weak and oppressed; and yet it ought to be proportioned to the injury received. Then why should we put this young, innocent woman to death? Has she not always been kind to us, smiled upon us, and sang for us? Do not all our children love her as a tender sister? Why, then, should we put her to so cruel a death for the crimes of others, if they are of her nation? Why should we punish the innocent for the guilty ?"
I looked to Heaven for mercy and protection, offering up those earnest prayers that are never offered in vain ; and oh ! how thankful I was when I knew their decision was to spare my life. Though terrible were my surroundings, life always became sweet to me, when I felt that I was about to part with it.
From Narrative of My Captivity Among The Sioux Indians, by Fanny Kelly, 1872.