A Tragic Chapter in Our History

On February 5, 1891, exactly 125 years ago, Frances Glessner noted in her journal a visit to Fort Sheridan to see “Indians” who had recently been brought there from South Dakota.  Who were the indigenous people she saw and why were they there?  The events in South Dakota that precipitated their relocation to the Fort, and their subsequent treatment are dark chapters in our history, but chapters that need to be told as cautious reminders that all too similar incidents are still taking place all over the world.

THE WOUNDED KNEE MASSACRE

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was established in southwest South Dakota in 1889, the same year that South Dakota was granted statehood.  It was occupied in large part by the Lakota, an indigenous people of present day North and South Dakota, who were part of a confederation of seven Sioux tribes.

In late December 1890, a mixed band of Lakota sought refuge at Pine Ridge after fleeing the Standing Rock Agency, where Sitting Bull had been killed on December 15th.  On December 29th, the families were intercepted by a heavily armed detachment of the Seventh Cavalry.  Nearly 300 Lakota were killed, including more than 200 women and children.  The massacre was the result of a misunderstanding that took place when a deaf Lakota did not understand the order to surrender his gun.  It accidentally discharged, and the battle began.  Ironically, the 25 American soldiers that were killed were mostly victims of friendly fire, as few of the Lakota were armed. 

General Nelson A. Miles (1839-1925) played a major role in nearly all of the Army’s campaigns against the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains and was brought back into the field in early 1890 after his promotion to major general, during the last major resistance of the Sioux on the Lakota reservations, known as the Ghost Dance War (it ended in January 1891 with the surrender by Sioux leader Kicking Bear).  Although he believed that the United States should have authority over the Lakota and other tribes, he was outraged at the massacre at Wounded Knee and was highly critical of the commanding officers, Colonel James W. Forsyth.  A few days after the incident, Miles wrote to his wife regarding Wounded Knee, calling it “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children.”  He later fought for compensation payments to the survivors of the massacre.  (Note: He is also remembered in Chicago as commanding the troops that were mobilized to put down the Pullman strike riots in 1894).

SURVIVORS SENT TO FORT SHERIDAN

On January 26, 1891, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clark Corbin, stationed at Chicago, received a telegram from General Miles which read 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.”

The specific reason for bringing the survivors to Fort Sheridan was the source of some speculation, as noted in the Chicago Tribune on January 27th:

“The announcement that the Indians are to be rounded up at Fort Sheridan will cause considerable surprise, as it had been generally believed that they would be taken on to Washington to have a pow-wow with the Great Father.  The Indians themselves, without doubt, share this belief, otherwise it would have been no easy matter to prevail on them to leave Pine Ridge Agency and come East.  The purpose of the War Department in the matter is not fully understood.

“It is said that it is 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 wars which may break out in the future.”

On January 28th, the Chicago Tribune reported that the “delegation of Indian chiefs” had arrived in Chicago.

“On the train were forty-four Indians, and of these thirty are to be quartered at Fort Sheridan.  Those who are to be left so close to Chicago are all Brules, headed by Kicking Bear and Short Bull.  When the train reached the Northwestern Depot at 8:45 last night there was a crowd of sight-seers waiting to catch a glimpse of the Indians. . . Capt. McKibben and Lieut. Maxwell of Fort Sheridan were at the depot with a detail of four non-commissioned officers and six privates to guard the Brules on their way to their new home.”

The remaining fourteen continued on to Washington, D. C. The illustration above, showing the chiefs in the railroad car after pulling into the station, was drawn the Chicago Tribune’s chief cartoonist, Harold R. Heaton. 

Newspaper reports indicated that all remained peaceful at the Fort other than the large number of curious visitors.  On January 29th, the Chicago Tribune reported that:

“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 he had in keeping the red man in.  The truth of the matter is that the Indians are in no sense prisoners.  Every member of the guard that was mounted at Fort Sheridan yesterday morning had strict orders to allow the Indians to do as they choose. . . The reds, in short, are to have every liberty, provided they go it alone.”

MRS. CORBIN ARRANGES A VISIT

Frances Corbin, the wife of Lieutenant Colonel Corbin, organized an outing for young people to see the “visitors” to the Fort.  In a note to Frances Glessner dated February 3rd, she stated:

“Col. Corbin and I would like to have Mr. Glessner and yourself assist us in caring for a party of young people we are taking out to see the Indians at Ft. Sheridan Thursday afternoon Feb. 5th at two o’clock.”

Frances Glessner responded that she would attend, and was invited to bring along the wife of Charles Eliot, President of Harvard, who was her house guest at the time.  Frances Glessner noted that visit in her journal:

“We had a special train with two Pullman coaches.  Genl. Miles, Captain Maus, and other members of the staff were in the party.  Some ambulances drawn by mules met us at the station at Fort Sheridan – we went up to where the Indians are in camp.  Genl. Miles had them dress in their native costumes, war paint and feathers, and line up for us to look at them.  We shook hands, said ‘how,’ and gave them cigarettes.  We went then in the ambulances to the guard house where there was a huge fire of blazing logs.  Then we drove about the place down to the lake etc. – back to the guard house where we watched the young people dance – then home.”

The visit was covered in detail by the Chicago Tribune the next morning.  It would be the first of many public displays the prisoners would be subject to during their stay at Fort Sheridan.  

THE PRISONERS ON DISPLAY

On February 14th, fifteen of them were sent to the Y.M.C.A. in Evanston to watch a gymnastics demonstration after which they were taken to the Evanston Club for sandwiches and coffee.  But the real purpose of the outing appears to have been the performance they were summoned to give:

“Afterwards the reds gave a regulation ghost dance, in which there was nothing lacking except the ghost shirts and the antelope-hoof necklaces.  They danced around the banquet hall of the Evanston Club for the pleasure of about 500 invited guests and for the delectation of hundreds of uninvited boys and girls, who peeped through the many windows.”

On February 28th, ten prisoners were taken to the Grand Opera-House to see a minstrel show provided by a visiting troupe from Cleveland.  One wonders whether the other members of the audience felt the “real show” was on stage or in the private boxes, where the delegation was seated.

BUFFALO BILL’S WILD WEST SHOW

On March 14th, the Chicago Tribune announced the fate of the 27 Oglala and Brule braves and the three squaws:

“They will go abroad to hobnob with the nobility of Europe.  This unexpected change of affairs was brought about by Col. W. F. Cody, better known as ‘Buffalo Bill.’  The Colonel, desiring to secure more red men for his European tour this summer, first obtained the consent of Secretary Blaine and the Department of the Interior and then went to Fort Sheridan to learn how the Indians felt about the matter. . . The Indians did not need much persuasion, and readily accepted ‘Buffalo Bill’s’ offer to accompany him across the ‘great river.’”

That announcement was met with disdain by those who were fighting for the rights of the prisoners, including Miss Mary C. Collins, who had served as a Congregational missionary among the Sioux Indians for sixteen years.  The Chicago Tribune noted her speech before the Congregational Club on March 16th:

“I understand that Buffalo Bill has arranged to take a band of the prisoners out here at Fort Sheridan around with his show this season.  It is an outrage to our Christian civilization.  If they are guilty, let them be punished, and if not, send them back to the reservation.  I appeal to you gentlemen here tonight whether you will let them be sent out as curiosities. 

“Continuing, she told how she had gone out to Fort Sheridan, and how the Indians had said they would be hung when they were sent back to the reservation unless they went with Buffalo Bill to Europe.  And the authorities at the fort allowed the prisoners to be taken out to neighboring towns and put on exhibition.”

Before adjourning for the evening, the club passed a resolution which was to be communicated to the President of the United States, which stated, in part:

“Whereas, Such treatment of these prisoners of war is a travesty of justice, and would result in the demoralization to the whole Indian people as far as known, and particularly to the Dakota tribes to which they are related; and

“Whereas, This treatment of these or any Indians is utterly opposed to the judgment of our missionaries, who are laboring for this race, and is repugnant to the higher instincts of the Christian people of the land.  Therefore be it

“Resolved, That it is the sense of the Congregational Club that the order granting this permission should be countermanded and our country saved this disgrace.”

The well-intentioned resolution had no effect.  A special dispatch from Washington D.C. on March 19th noted that the Secretary of War gave his approval for the prisoners at Fort Sheridan to join the Wild West show.