Gateway to the Classics: Boy's Book of Indian Warriors by Edwin L. Sabin
Boy's Book of Indian Warriors by  Edwin L. Sabin

Sitting Bull the War Maker (1876–1881)

An Unconquered Leader

The treaty that Chief Red Cloud at last signed in the fall of 1868 was half white and half red. The white part made the Sioux agree to a reservation which covered all of present South Dakota west of the Missouri River. Here they were to live and be fed. The red part, put in by Red Cloud, said that the whole country west of the reservation to the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming, and north of the North Platte River, should be Indian country. Here the Sioux and their Indian friends were to hunt as they pleased.

This closed the road, and gave the Powder River region to the Sioux. They might chase the buffalo, from central Wyoming up across Montana clear to Canada, and no white man could interfere. It was their own game reserve—and the best game reserve in the United States.

The Sioux numbered thirty thousand. Many of them preferred living in their hunting grounds instead of upon the reservation. That was their natural life—to hunt and to war. Besides, they found out that the United States was not doing as had been promised. There were to be cows, seeds, farm tools, teachers, and so forth, for the reservation Indians—and scarcely a third of these things was supplied.

The Indians upon the reservation did not live nearly so comfortably as those who did as they pleased, in the hunting grounds.

So the treaty did not work out well. The hunting ground Indians were perfectly free. They had guests from other tribes; and in the passing back and forth, white men were attacked. The Crows of western Montana complained that the Sioux invaded them, and that they might as well go to war, themselves, as try to stay at home.

The Government had intended that the Sioux should settle upon the big reservation, and from there take their hunting trips. Speedily, or in 1869, General Sherman, head of the army, declared that the Indians found outside of the reservation might be treated as hostiles, and brought back.

Nevertheless, by the terms of the Red Cloud treaty, the Sioux had a right to be in this country, which was all theirs, if they behaved themselves.

Among the leaders of the hunting-ground Sioux, Sitting Bull ranked with the foremost. He was a Hunk-papa Sioux, of the Teton division—in which Spotted Tail was leader of the Brutes and Red Cloud of the Oglalas.

But Sitting Bull was no chief. By his own count he laid claim to being a great warrior; by the Sioux count he had powerful medicine—he could tell of events to come. And this was his strong hold upon the Sioux. They feared him.

He had been born in 1834, in present South Dakota. The name given him as a boy was Jumping Badger. His father's name was Four Horns, and also Ta-tan-ka Yo-tan-ka or Sitting Buffalo-bull. When Jumping Badger was only fourteen years old he went with his father on the war trail against the Crows. A Crow was killed, and little Jumping Badger touched the body first, and counted a coup, or stroke.

To be the first to count coup on a. fallen enemy was high honor. Frequently a wounded warrior only pretended to be dead, and when his foe approached him close, he shot.

Upon their return home, old Sitting Bull gave a feast, and distributed many horses, and transferred his own name to Jumping Badger.

After this, although young Sitting Bull counted many coups, he practiced making medicine until he gained much reputation as a future-teller. He openly hated the whites. His hate was as deep as that of O-pe-chan-can-ough, the Pamunkey.

He grew to be a burly, stout man, with light brown hair and complexion, a grim heavy face pitted by small-pox, and two shrewd, blood-shot eyes. He limped, from a wound.

His band was small; but his camp was the favorite gathering place for the reservation Indians, on hunting trips. They took presents to him, that he might bring the buffalo.

Thus matters went on, broken with complaints. It was hard to tell which were reservation Indians and which were wild Indians. When the Sitting Bull people and other bands came in to the reservation, and drew rations of flour, they emptied the flour on the prairie and used the sacks as clothing. This helped to make the reservation Indians ill content. The wild Indians evidently were living very well indeed.


Sitting Bull

Along in 1871 the Northern Pacific Railroad wished to build westward. The route would take them through the country given to the Sioux, and the Sioux said no. Their treaty protected them against the white man's roads. They attacked a surveying party escorted by soldiers, and killed two. This was in 1872.

It was a brutal killing. Rain-in-the-face was arrested for this, on the reservation; but he escaped and vowed vengeance. He went to Sitting Bull, and was safe.

In 1874 the United States began to ask for the Pah-sap-pa, or Black Hills, in South Dakota. To the Sioux and the Cheyennes, Pah-sap-pa was medicine ground. Spirits dwelt there; it was the home of the Thunder Bird and other magic creatures; it contained much game, and quantities of tent poles, for lodges.

Spotted Tail of the BrulÚs went in. He hung around the white men's mining camps, and found out that the white men were crazy for the gold.

The United States had been accustomed to buying Indian land cheap, and getting rich out of it. Now it offered to buy the Black Hills for six millions of dollars, or to rent them for four hundred thousand dollars a year.

Coached by Spotted Tail and by Red Cloud, the Sioux laughed, and asked sixty millions of dollars. So the deal did not go through, this time. However, the Sioux lost Pah-sap-pa, just the same.

The United States Government was unable to keep the gold-seekers out. They dodged through the troops. There were fights with the Sioux, and the Sioux became angered in earnest.

They saw their Black Hills invaded by a thousand white men. Other white men, guarded by soldiers, were planning to run a railroad right through the Powder River country. On the Great Sioux reservation Spotted Tail and Red Cloud were the head chiefs; but out on the hunting grounds the Sitting Bull people stayed and prepared to make war and hold the Sioux lands.

The Sioux on the reservations began to leave, and join Sitting Bull. They felt that Red Cloud's heart was with them. He had notified the United States that it must keep the white men out of Sioux country.

The United States also was alarmed. The Sioux seemed to be using the reservation as a sort of supply depot; they got provisions and clothing there, and took them to the hunting grounds.

General Alfred H. Terry, who commanded the Military Department of Dakota, sent scouts to inform Sitting Bull that unless he came in, with all his people, out of the Big Horn Valley and the Powder River country, before a certain time, troops would bring him out. There would be war.

Sitting Bull answered:

"When you come for the you need bring no guides. You will easily find me. I shall be right here. I shall not run away."

In February, this 1876, the United States started to go after him, but the cold weather delayed the plans. Then, in May, matters were all arranged. There were to be three columns, to surround the unruly Sitting Bull.

General George Crook, the famous Indian fighter, was to march into the Big Horn country from the south with thirteen hundred men; Colonel John Gibbon was to march in from the west with four hundred men; General Terry's infantry, and General George A. Custer's Seventh Cavalry, one thousand men, were to march in from the east.

They were to meet at the Powder River, and capture Sitting Bull.

A great many Indians had rallied to Sitting Bull and his comrade chief Crazy Horse—an Oglala who commanded the Cheyennes. Sitting Bull was making medicine. He told the warriors that in a short time there would be a big fight with the soldiers on the Big Horn, and that the soldiers would be defeated.

Crazy Horse struck the enemy first. He met General Crook's column and stopped it. Then he joined Sitting Bull again.

Now in June the Sitting Bull camp upon the Little Big Horn River in the Big Horn Valley of southern Montana was three miles long and contained ten thousand people. It had twenty-five hundred good fighters. It was not afraid, but its people were here to hunt and dance and have a good time. Although they listened to the prophecy of Sitting Bull, they really did not expect that the soldiers would find them.

Chief Gall, a fine man, of the Hunkpapas, was head war chief; his aide was Crow King. Crazy Horse commanded the Northern Cheyennes. The head of the Miniconjou Sioux was Lame Deer. Big Road commanded the Oglalas. There were other Sioux also—some BrulÚs, and some Without Bows; and a few Blackfeet and Arapahos.

General Custer, whose regular rank was lieutenant-colonel, found the village with his Seventh Cavalry. He had left General Terry, in order to scout across country; and when his scouts told him that the Sioux camp was before him, he rode on to the attack.

About noon of June 25th he divided his troops into three columns, to attack from different directions. The largest column, of five companies, he led himself.

Not until that morning did the Sitting Bull people know that the soldiers were near. There was much excitement. The ponies were saddled, and the women began to pack their household stuff; but the warriors did not intend to run away.

Sitting Bull was certain that the white men would be defeated. The night before, his medicine had been very strong. An eagle had promised a great victory. Now he said that during the fight he would stay in the village and make more medicine. So Chief Gall it was who commanded.

But Sitting Bull did not stay in the village. When the bullets of the soldiers pelted into the lodges he lost faith in his own prophecy. Taking his two wives and whatever else he might gather, he bolted for a safer place. He missed one of his twin boys, but he did not stop to look for him.

He was ten miles out, when he received news of the victory. And a terrible victory that had been: of the five companies of General Custer, the Long Hair, only one man had escaped—although the Sioux did not know of that escape. He was Curly, a Crow scout. At any rate, the Long Hair's warriors, to the number of two hundred and twelve, had been killed in an hour.

The other soldiers were penned up, and could be killed, too.

So Sitting Bull rode back again, with his family. He said that he had not intended to run away. He had been out in the hills, making his medicine; and the bodies of the soldiers would prove it.

That certainly seemed true. The Indians had lost only twenty, and had killed more than two hundred.

Sitting Bull was greater than ever. Never before had such a victory been won at such little cost. This night the village danced and sang, and Sitting Bull kept by himself, and accepted the present given to him.

Chief Gall had thought to starve out the soldiers who were penned up, and were being watched by warriors. These were the two other columns, of the Seventh Cavalry. But the next day, General Terry and Colonel Gibbon approached, in order (they had planned) to meet the Custer detachment When Chief Gall heard that the "walking soldiers" were nearing, he decided that there had been fighting enough.

So he ordered the village to he broken, and the warriors to come in; they all left before dark, depending upon the medicine of Sitting Bull to lead them to new hunting grounds.

Soon Crazy Horse took his band and branched off for himself. He was a nephew of Chief Spotted Tail, but fierce against the whites. The rest followed Chief Sitting Bull and Chief Gall.

For a while they saw no more soldiers. Now and then other Indians from the reservation joined them, bringing supplies; and now and then parties left, to scout by themselves. Sitting Bull and Gall and all knew this country very well; it was Sioux country. They knew it far better than the soldiers did. There were many hiding places.

When the weather began to grow cold, in the fall, the Sitting Bull people commenced to think of winter. They received word that the soldiers were stopping everybody from leaving the reservation. This cut down the supplies:

The Gray Fox, who was General Crook, struck several bands in the midst of the hunting grounds. He had wiped out American Horse and had pressed Crazy Horse very hard. More soldiers were pouring in.

The Sitting Bull band numbered three thousand. They used lots of meat. The buffalo were being frightened by so much travel of soldiers, and for the band to stay long in one spot was dangerous. Some of the women and men got faint-hearted, and deserted. They carried word to the soldiers, and asked to be sent to the reservation. Sitting Bull's medicine did not prevent them from running away.

He and Gall planned to march farther northward, across the Yellowstone River, to a better buffalo country, and make camp for a big hunt. A store of meat ought to be laid in, before winter.

A new fort was being located on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Tongue River, southeastern Montana. They marched to cross the Yellowstone below this fort; and while near the Yellowstone they drove back a soldiers' wagon-train that was trying to reach the fort.

The wagons tried again, five days later, and there was another fight. Sitting Bull sent a note to the white chief.


I want to know what you are doing traveling by this road. You scare all the buffalo away. I want to hunt in this place. I want you to turn back from here. If you don't, I will fight you again. I want you to leave what you have got here and turn back from here.

I am your friend.

This was a "feeler," to see what kind of a man the white chief was. The white chief, whose name was Lieutenant-Colonel E. S. Otis, of the Twenty-second Infantry, answered at once.

To Sitting Bull:

I intend to take this train through to Tongue River, and. will be pleased to accommodate you with a fight at any time.

Sitting Bull and his chiefs held council. If they might make a peace, they could stay out all winter with their families, and when the grass greened in the spring they could travel as they pleased. The white soldiers had the advantage, in the winter.

So two Indians were sent forward with a flag of truce, to say that the Sitting Bull people were hungry and tired, and to propose a peace talk. The white chief said that there was a higher chief at the mouth of the Tongue River, with whom they must talk, but he sent them some bread and bacon.

Sitting Bull and Chief Gall, Low Neck, Pretty Bull and the others did not go to find the white commanding chief; they continued on, and in a few days the American commander caught up with them, himself, north of the Yellowstone.

He agreed to meet Sitting Bull between the lines, for a talk. They each took six men. The white chief was Colonel Nelson A. Miles. He had only about four hundred soldiers, and one cannon. Sitting Bull had one thousand warriors, and was not afraid.

"What are all these soldiers doing in this country?" he demanded. "Why don't they stay in their forts, where they belong? It is time they went there, for the winter."

"The soldiers are in this country to bring you and your men out and put them on the reservation," replied Colonel Miles. "We do not wish. war. But if you insist on war, then you will be shut up. You cannot roam about over the country, and cause trouble."

"This country belongs to the Indian and not to the white man," retorted Sitting Bull. "We want nothing to do with the white man. We want the white man to go away, and leave us alone. No white man ever lived who loved an Indian, and no true Indian ever lived that did not hate the white man. God Almighty made me an Indian. He did not make me an agency Indian, and I'll fight and die fighting before any white man can make me an agency Indian. How did you know where I was to be found?"

"I not only knew where you were, but I know where you came from and where you're going," asserted Colonel Miles.

"Where am I going?"

"You intend to remain here three days, and then move to the Big Dry and hunt buffalo."

This showed Sitting Bull that he had been betrayed by spies. He flared into a rage, and his words were hot. He hated the whites; he had a thousand warriors at his back, and his power was great.

He would make peace, but only if all the white men got out of the country. There must be no forts or roads or towns. He wanted no presents of food or clothing from the United States. If the United States would leave a few trading posts, he would trade for powder and flour, but he would live free, to do as he chose.

So this talk and other talks amounted to nothing new. The white chief told him to prepare for war, and there was a battle. At one moment, the Sitting Bull warriors had the soldiers surrounded; but the cannon shells were too much to face, the walking soldiers stood stanch, and finally the Sioux had to retreat with their families.

The white chief, Miles, proved to be a stubborn fighter. He pursued and captured almost all the camp supplies. This broke the hearts of the Sitting Bull band. His medicine had grown weak. Five chiefs, with two thousand of the warriors and women and children, surrendered, so as to be kept warm and to be sure of food. But Sitting Bull and Gall went on, leading four hundred northward.

The weather got very cold and snowy. They stayed for a time near the Missouri River in northern Montana. Sitting Bull's medicine failed entirely. The soldiers marched upon them right through the blizzards, and no place seemed safe.

The other bands were being captured. The walking soldiers and the big-guns-that-shot-twice were everywhere, to south, east and west. The Crazy Horse Cheyennes and Oglalas were taken. They agreed to go upon the reservation.

When Sitting Bull heard of this, he resolved to get out of reach of the Americans altogether. He and Gall headed north again, and crossed into Canada.

This was Sioux country, too. The Sioux never had had any dispute with the Great White Mother; she seemed better than the Great White Father. Accordingly Sitting Bull plumped himself and his band down upon Canada ground, and defied the United States to meddle with him.

Other runaways joined him. It was now spring. Some of the runaways were from the reservation. They reported that they had almost starved, there, during the winter.

So when the United States sent up after Sitting Bull, he laughed. General Terry, his old enemy, was in the American party, and did the talking.

The President invited the Sioux to come back into the United States, and give up their arms and their horses, in exchange for cows. Sitting Bull replied scornfully.

"For sixty-four years you have kept me and my people, and treated us bad. What have we done that you should wish us to stop? We have done nothing. It is all the people on your side who have started us to do as we did. We could not go anywhere else, so we came here. I would like to know why you come here? I did not give you that country; but you followed me about, so I had to leave and come over to this country. You have got ears, and eyes to see with, and you see how I live with these people. You see me. Here I am. If you think I am a fool, you are a bigger fool than I am. You come here to tell us lies, but we don't want to hear them. I don't wish any such language used to me. This country is mine, and I intend to stay here and raise this country full of grown people. That is enough, so no more. The part of the country you gave me, you ran me out of. I don't want to hear two more words. I wish you to go back, and to take it easy going back. Tell them in Washington if they have one man who speaks the truth to send him to me and I will listen. I don't believe in a Government that has made fifty-two treaties with the Sioux and has kept none of them."

Back went the commission, to report that they could do nothing at all with Sitting Bull.

Other parties from the American side of the line crossed over to talk with Sitting Bull. He laid down the law to them.

"If the Great Father gives me a reservation I don't want to be held on any part of it. I will keep on the reservation, but I want to go where I please. I don't want a white man over me. I don't want an agent. I want to have a white man with me, but not to be my chief. I can't trust any one else to trade with my people or talk to them. I want interpreters, but I want it to be seen and known that I have my rights. I don't want to give up game as long as there is any game. I will be half white until the game is gone. Then I will be all white."

"Did you lead in the Custer fight?"

"There was a Great Spirit who guided and controlled that battle. I could do nothing. I was supported by the Great Mysterious One. I am not afraid to talk about that. It all happened—it is past and gone. I do not lie. Low Dog says I can't fight until some one lends me a heart. Gall says my heart is no bigger than a finger-nail. We have all fought hard. We did not know Custer. When we saw him we threw up our hands, and I cried, 'Follow me and do as I do.'

We whipped each other's horses, and it was all over."

By this it is seen that Sitting Bull was a poser, and had lost the respect of the Sioux. Chief Gall despised him. The camp was getting unhappy. The life in Canada was not an easy life. The Great White Mother let the red children stay, because it was Indian country, but she refused to feed them, or help them against the United States.

There were no buffalo near. When the Sioux raided into the United States, the soldiers and the Crow scouts were waiting. Their old hunting grounds were closed tight.

Rain-in-the-face and other chiefs surrendered, to go to the reservation. Chief Gall defied Sitting Bull, and took two thirds of the remaining Indians and surrendered, also.

Sitting Bull now had only forty-five men and one hundred and forty women and children. They all were starving. A white scout visited them, with promise of pardon by the United States. So in July, of 1881, after he had stayed away four years, he surrendered, at Fort Buford at the mouth of the Yellowstone River.

He came in sullen and sour and unconquered, but not as a conqueror. They all were dirty and shabby and hungry. With Sitting Bull there rode on ponies his old father, Four Horns, and his elder children. In a wagon piled high with camp goods rode his two wives, one of whom was named Pretty Plume, and his small children.

A long train of other wagons and carts followed.

There was no glory in this return.

At the Standing Rock Sioux agency he found that Chief Gall was the real ruler. The people there now thought little of Sitting Bull. His medicine had proved weak. He tried to make it strong, and he was laughed at.

Soon the Government deemed best to remove him and his main band, and shut them up for a while. Sitting Bull was kept a prisoner of war for two years. After that he took a trip through the East, but he was hissed. He rode in the Buffalo Bill Wild West show for a short time. But the White people never forgot the Custer battle, and looked upon Sitting Bull as a thoroughly bad Indian.

He assumed to settle down, at peace, upon the Standing Rock reservation, in a cabin not far from the place where he had been born. But as he had said, he was not "an agency Indian," and did not want to be an. agency Indian.

There is another chapter to be written about Sitting Bull.

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