A Sioux Chief’s Arrest: The Death of Sitting Bull

The show of force that arrived at Sitting Bull’s cabin on the Standing Rock Reservation in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 15, 1890 should’ve been foreshadowing of the tragic events to follow.

Forty-three Indian Agency police officers came to arrest the Lakota Sioux leader over concerns he was fomenting trouble by promoting the Ghost Dance Movement. Sitting Bull’s followers arrived to prevent his arrest.

“The Battle in the Dark,” lasted about 30 minutes, but the spark of the incident occurred in its early moments as two Indian Agency officers were shot along with Sitting Bull. By the end of the brief firefight, 14 were dead, including Sitting Bull, 59.

A military leader and shaman for the Sioux, Sitting Bull wanted nothing to do with the United States government and eventually saw his people moved off their traditional lands into the poverty of reservation life where they were reliant on the white man for subsistence.

A Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 Third Model Russian revolver attributed as the gun that killed Sitting Bull, along with a holster rig, ammunition, factory letter, and documentation will be on offer in Rock Island Auction Company’s Dec. 9-11 Premier Auction.

ad-shotA Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 Third Model Russian revolver attributed as the gun that killed Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull will be available in Rock Island Auction Company’s Dec. 9-11 Premier Auction.

Ghost Dance Movement

The Ghost Dance Movement preached that through peaceful coexistence and a strong work ethic, white people would disappear from the earth while Native Americans would return from the dead. The movement took shape around 1870 in Nevada, California, and Oregon, but faded away as the prophecies appeared empty.

Earlier believers rejected a resurgence of the movement, but Ghost Dancing took hold among the plains tribes of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The Lakota Sioux believed Ghost Dance ceremonies would bring back the dead, protect from danger, return plentiful buffalo herds, and induce a natural disaster that would wipe out the white people to restore their way of life to a time from before the Europeans arrived. It was a hopeful message for people removed from their lands and shoehorned onto reservations.

Believers took to wearing “ghost shirts” decorated with a number of symbols that were believed to protect them from danger, including harm from bullets. Indian Agency officials considered the movement a threat.

S-W-facing-leftSitting Bull was a Lakota Sioux chief and shaman who resisted the U.S. government infringing on his people’s lands. He was killed during an arrest attempt that turned into a violent gunfight that left 14 dead and three injured.

Sitting Bull

The Sioux chief fought in Red Cloud’s War from 1866 to 1868 and his Hunkpapa band continued to attack settlers and railroad surveyors. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills prompted the United States government to push Indians off the land onto a large reservation where they were dependent on rations from the government.

By 1876, Sitting Bull was the leader of the Lakota Sioux. While many Sioux warriors moved onto the reservation, Sitting Bull refused. They moved to camp along the Little Bighorn River where a number of indigenous nations came together, creating a village of about 10,000 by the time Lt. Col. George Custer and the 7th Cavalry found them.

The victory over Custer’s cavalry made Sitting Bull and his warriors a target for the U.S. Army. Thousands more soldiers were assigned to Indian fighting. Some warriors and their leaders surrendered, but Sitting Bull’s band of family and close followers crossed into Canada’s Northwest Territories where they remained for four years.

Holster-for-S-W-1This “US” flap holster with a Watervliet Arsenal stamp on the back accompanies the Smith & Wesson Model 3 Third Issue Russian revolver that is attributed to the death of Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull and his band of 186 family and followers returned to the United States and surrendered in 1881. The group was moved to the Standing Rock reservation but kept away from others, fearing Sitting Bull might stir up trouble. They were moved again before returning permanently to Standing Rock in May 1883.

The following year, a show promoter asked the Standing Rock Indian Agency for permission to let Sitting Bull tour parts of Canada and the United States. It was on this tour Sitting Bull met Annie Oakley in Minnesota, paying $65 to have his photo taken with her. He gave Oakley her nickname, “Watanya Cicilla” that translated to “Little Sure Shot.”

Sitting Bull was recruited to Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show the following year. Little was asked of him as he rode in the opening procession, but he made $50 per week as well as being paid for autographs. He faced racism and anger, including being physically attacked in Pittsburg by the relative of a Little Bighorn casualty. He returned to Standing Rock at the end of the show’s first season.

Caroline Weldon

Caroline Weldon felt for the Sioux people and wanted to help. She arrived at the Standing Rock reservation in 1889 uninvited and approached Sitting Bull’s camp. She was a member of the National Indian Defense Organization that wanted to protect Native Americans through standing laws to uphold tribal sovereignty and their land rights.

She wanted to be Sitting Bull’s secretary and she painted his portrait four times while she was at the reservation. In the summer of 1890 she denounced the Ghost Dance Movement, saying it would give the government a reason to arrest him or worse. She left in November. In one newspaper article at the time of Sitting Bull’s death, it was reported that Weldon gave Sitting Bull a revolver. Supposedly, it was this revolver held by a police sergeant during the arrest who shot the Sioux chief with it.

Caroline-Weldon-and-Sitting-Bull-portraitCaroline Weldon, seen here on the left at age 70, wanted to help Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux. She may have given Sitting Bull a pistol before leaving the Standing Rock reservation shortly before Indian Agency police attempted to arrest him and he was fatally shot in December 1890. On the right is one of four portraits of Sitting Bull she painted.

Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull

Buffalo Bill Cody had just returned with his Wild West Show from Europe in November 1890 when he received a telegram from Gen. Nelson Miles, commander of the Military Division of the Missouri that oversaw the Lakota reservations, asking Cody to travel to the Dakotas to bring in Sitting Bull.

The shaman and the showman shared an unlikely friendship so Buffalo Bill enlisted three others to travel with him to convince Sitting Bull to surrender peacefully. The men arrived in the Dakota Territory on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 1890. The reservation’s Indian Agent, James McLaughlin, considered Sitting Bull the enemy and didn’t want Buffalo Bill’s assistance.

The men reached Fort Yates near the Standing Rock Reservation but a drunken Buffalo Bill couldn’t continue. He was given a few hours to rest, but in that time, Indian Agency police officers gave him more to drink so that the men wouldn’t be able to continue until the next day.

The next morning, a sober Buffalo Bill loaded a wagon with candy, knowing Sitting Bull enjoyed sweets, and his group — now including a handful of newspaper reporters — headed toward the Lakota chief’s cabin. They were stopped along the way by the Indian Agency’s interpreter who said Sitting Bull was headed to Fort Yates via a different route, detouring Buffalo Bill and his men. Later that day, the men learned that Gen. Miles’ order to bring in Sitting Bull was rescinded by President Benjamin Harrison so they returned to the train station.

Sitting-Bull-and-Buffalo-BillSitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody shared an unlikely friendship. The Lakota Sioux chief and the buffalo hunter and Indian fighter worked together on the first season of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show where he was often met with racism and anger.

Sitting Bull’s Arrest and Death

McLaughlin actually provided an account of Sitting Bull’s arrest and death, writing that he hoped to bring in the Sioux leader on a day when members of the tribe were away getting rations. Arrest plans were made and then canceled.

Sitting Bull, not trusting McLaughlin and the Indian Agency, was wary of arrest and kept a bodyguard with him. He said he was not afraid to die and wanted a fight. A date of Dec. 20 was planned, but an Indian police officer learned on Dec. 14 that Sitting Bull was planning to leave the reservation.

The arrest was to be made the next day by Indian police — called “metal breasts,” by their indigenous brothers because of their badges — with the 8th Cavalry in support.

The 43 officers, including one of Sitting Bull’s in-laws, arrived early on Dec. 15. Ten officers entered the house where Sitting Bull quietly got dressed though his son, Crowfoot berated him for accepting arrest, saying “You always called yourself a brave chief — now you are allowing yourself to be taken by the Metal Breasts!”

Capture-and-Death-of-Sitting-BullA contemporary lithograph shows “the Battle in the Dark” and the chaos that surrounded the attempt to arrest Sitting Bull on the Standing Rock reservation.

Crowfoot’s reaction changed Sitting Bull’s mind so that he refused to leave with the officers. Forced out of the house, the Indian police officers found themselves surrounded by Sitting Bull’s armed followers. The officers got them to back up, but one man charged through the crowd, firing, hitting the police lieutenant and police sergeant.

The lieutenant, Henry Bull Head, wheeled around and shot Sitting Bull who was hit several times in the gunfire between what McLaughlin described as between 43 police officers and 150 of Sitting Bull’s followers.

Women with knives and clubs joined the fight but were disarmed and held until cavalry troops arrived. The women were released. Lt. Bullhead, the police sergeant and four other police officers were killed and one wounded. Sitting Bull and seven followers were killed and three wounded. In the chaos Sitting Bull’s body was mutilated and most of his effects were looted.

McLaughlin found some good out of the tragic event, writing in his report:

“This conflict, which cost so many lives, is much to be regretted, yet the good resulting therefrom can scarcely be overestimated, as it has effectually eradicated all seeds of disaffection sown by the Messiah Craze among the Indians of this Agency, and has also demonstrated to the people of the country the fidelity and loyalty of the Indian police in maintaining law and order on the reservation,” he wrote.

On learning of Sitting Bull’s death, Annie Oakley thought differently, saying that if he were a white man, “someone would have hung for his murder.”

Wounded Knee Massacre

The tragedy of Sitting Bull’s death was followed by an even greater one just two weeks later. As the women were released from custody after the gun battle, they and others realizing they might be wanted by the law fled south to camp along the Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The fugitives were followed by the army and on Dec. 29, troops entered the camp to disarm the Lakota. One tribesman refused to give up his expensive rifle. A tussle ensued and the rifle discharged and the soldiers began shooting. The Lakota fought back but most had been disarmed.

Wounded-Knee-MassacreThe Opening of the fight at Wounded Knee was an engraving by American artist Frederic Remington that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1891.

When the shooting ended, more than 250 men, women, and children of the Lakota were dead and 51 wounded. Twenty-five soldiers were dead. Twenty soldiers would receive the Medal of Honor for the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Civilians hired to bury the dead Lakota following a blizzard found the bodies frozen. They were buried in a mass grave on a hill overlooking the encampment. Gen. Miles, who wasn’t present, relieved the commanding officer of duty. Miles wrote to his wife describing the killing as “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children.”

The Gun That Killed Sitting Bull: Smith & Wesson No. 3

A definitive picture of who and what gun killed sitting Bull is difficult to ascertain. Did Caroline Weldon give Sitting Bull a gun before leaving the previous month as mentioned in at least one period newspaper? Was that gun taken from Sitting Bull at his arrest? Did the Indian officer holding the gun use it when confronted by Sitting Bull’s supporters and shoot the Sioux chief?

Many of the facts are lost in the pandemonium and gun smoke on that cold December morning, but a least one news article puts forward that the Smith & Wesson No. 3 is the gun that killed Sitting Bull. The article ran in the La Crosse Tribune on Sept. 29, 1936 stating “A .44 caliber six-shooter, credited with being the weapon that ended the life of the recalcitrant Sitting Bull, last of the great Indian chieftains of the northwest, is among the treasured possessions of Mrs. John J. Tevlin. The serial number mentioned in the article matches the gun that is also marked “REISSUE JULY 25, 1871. The gun comes with a “US” flap holster with Watervliet Arsenal stamp on the back.

The Smith & Wesson was said to be given to Jane Tevlin’s father by an infantry captain before being discharged from the service. His discharge papers show he served from 1871 to 1884, being mustered out six years before the attempted arrest of the Sioux chief.

S-W-facing-rightA Smith & Wesson No. 3 Third Issue Russian revolver that is attributed to killing lakota chief Sitting Bull.

The nickel-plated Smith & Wesson No. 3 Third Model Russian revolver attributed to killing Sitting Bull has a lengthy provenance in the family that has owned it for more than 100 years. Along with the holster rig, the gun is accompanied by ammunition, a Smith & Wesson factory Letter, and documentation of the gun’s history. The pistol is an intriguing piece that serves as a reminder of the legend of Sitting Bull and the mistreatment of Native Americans as they were forced onto reservations and used ceremonies like the Ghost Dance to help them believe in better times ahead.


Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

An Account of Sitting Bull’s Death by James McLaughlin Indian Agent at Standing Rock Reservation, pbs.org

The Death of Sitting Bull

American Experience

The Unlikely Alliance between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, by Deanne Stillman, history.com

Caroline Weldon: A White Woman’s Doomed Effort to Save Sitting Bull, by Erin Blakemore, history.com

Rock Island Auction Company

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