Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fort Sheridan and the Oglala Lakota -- January 29, 1891

The Guardhouse at Fort Sheridan . . . Many people assert that Native
Americans were imprisoned here in 1891.  No such record exists.  (JWB Photo)
On December 29,1890 federal troops of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, led by Colonel James W. Forsyth, rode into an encampment of Lakota Sioux near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.  Accounts of what happened on that morning differ, but by the end of the day 200 men, women, and children of the Sioux nation were dead and another 47 wounded.  Twenty-five United States cavalry troopers also died and 39 were wounded. 

By the end of January various survivors of the encampment were rounded up and transported to Fort Sheridan.  A telegram from General Nelson Miles, commander of United States troops in South Dakota, was received on January 26, 1891, reading as follows:   “I expect to reach Chicago some time tomorrow night with Taming Bear, Short Bull, Two Strike, and others, thirty in all.  I desire that preparations be made to remove them to Fort Sheridan immediately.”

Colonel Henry Clark Corbin in Chicago, who would eventually become a Brigadier General and the Adjutant General of the Army, received General Miles’s telegram and said, “Only a small escort will be needed.  They are all unarmed and one man could take them.  They couldn’t do anything here.”

Even today it is difficult to ferret out exactly what General Miles’s intentions were.  The Tribune speculated, “It is said the intention of Gen. Miles to enlist the Indians in the regular army, subject them to the same discipline as other recruits so as to have them ready for service against hostile Indians in Indian war which may break out in the future . . . The question is whether rigid discipline can be enforced on men who have led such wild lives on the plains.”  [Chicago Tribune, January 27, 1891]

Short Bull
On this date in 1891, January 29, The Tribune printed an article with the headline Are Not Held As Prisoners of War – The Indian Braves at Fort Sheridan Can Do About as They Please.  The piece began, “Short Bull, the Brute, sat in his Sibley tepee at Fort Sheridan yesterday and chopped army plug tobacco into fine-cut.  He was in a strange country, but genuine tobacco pleased him so much more than the red willow bark that he had been forced to smoke when in the Bad Lands that he looked as nearly contented as a savage who imagines he has a grievance can.”  [Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1891]

Sentinels walked off their paces at the encampment in order to keep curiosity seekers at bay.  “Every village boy in Fort Sheridan and about two hundred from Highland Park formed a cordon around the tepees of the Indians, and the sentinel had more trouble in keeping the white man out than in keeping the red man in.” The Tribune reported.

The paper took particular pains to report that the 30 tribal members were not prisoners and that “Every member of the guard that was mounted at Fort Sheridan yesterday morning had strict orders to allow the Indians to do as they chose.” 

“With blanket additions the Brutes and Ogalalas at the fort will be happier than they have been for years, for the simple reason that they are under army control and are assured of good treatment and sixteen ounces to the pound in their rations,” the report continued.

Kicking Bear
The guests at the garrison were still “painted and still [wore] feathers and blankets.”  Chief among them were Kicking Bear and Short Bull.  Both men were followers of the Northern Paiute religious leader, Wovoka, who had a prophetic vision in 1889 that all the Paiute dead would be resurrected and the white man removed if his people would live righteously and undertake a series of five-day ceremonies, known today as the Ghost Dance.  The Ghost Dance would figure prominently in events that were yet to transpire.

Despite what the paper wrote on this day in 1891 the Native Americans that were transported to Fort Sheridan were certainly not free to walk to the train station and head for the bars on Clark Street.  But they weren’t exactly prisoners, either.  And this is just the beginning of what would become a strange saga that spanned two continents and several years.

I'll be reporting on those developments in the coming months.

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