RCMP Quarterly Vol. 42, No. 3 Summer 1977 p. 41 – 45
When Sitting Bull Left Canada
By Dr. George Shepherd
When Dr. Shepherd received his Fall 1976, Quarterly, one of the first things he noticed was the re-print of his article, “When Sitting Bull Came to Canada.” In a letter to the Quarterly, he told us he had written another article which concluded the story of Sitting Bull’s visit. At our request he very kindly submitted “When Sitting Bull Left Canada.”
The late 1870’s, when Sitting Bull and his Sioux sojourned at Wood Mountain in Saskatchewan after the Custer Massacre of 1876, could be likened to a cold-war period of modern times. Hot warfare was liable to break out at any minutes. If this had happened, the whole American and Canadian Northwest would have been set aflame.
It was an embarrassing situation for the American government. The Custer Massacre had been heralded around of world. Equally well-known was the fact that about five thousand Sioux had crossed the Medicine Line into Canada, and were living peaceably under the control of a mere handful of the North West Mounted Police. This was the epic story of the famous Force.
The Canadian government was also in an embarrassing situation. Two years after Confederation they were faced with an urgent, but delicate international problem. Thousands of miles from Ottawa, with the frailest communication system, the thin red line of police carried on, despite hardship and danger, in the best of their tradition to “Maintain the Right.”
For a while, the Sioux were still able to live by the hunt, but the buffalo were fast disappearing. Everyone recognized it would be beyond the Dominion’s ability to feed and care for so many Indians.
Both governments knew the Sioux must eventually return to reservations in the U.S.A. The problem was how to get them there. At last, Washington sent a Commission to ask them to return. The Mounted Police officers learned with amazement and dismay that this so-called peace commission was to be headed by General Terry, the man who had directed the campaign against the Sioux, and who had been fighting them the previous summer.
The United States government had asked for the negotiations, later to become known as the Sitting Bull-Terry Conference, to be held at Fort Walsh. They further requested that Sitting Bull and some of his head men be brought there for the purpose of inducing the Sioux to return to the U.S. In early June of 1877, Assistant Commissioner A.G. Irvine, with Major Walsh and Adjutant Dalrymple Clark, went down to Wood Mountain to see what could be done about such a meeting.
As the police officers rode into the Sioux camp, a long line of large and muscular Indians greeted them enthusiastically. When they shook hands with the police, the Indians almost pulled them off their horses. That evening Col. Irvine walked around the Sioux camp, the rows of lodges laid out in long lines just like streets. Irvine watched the little Indian boys playing sham war games, generally riding two to a horse.
But there was a sadder touch to Irvine’s stroll. Though most of the Indians had small ponies, some of the larger horses were those captured in the Custer battle. Col. Irvine saw one old grey horse with E7 branded on the hip, indicating that he was from E troop of the 7th U.S. cavalry. A great many of the Sioux carried American carbines and belts of carbine ammunition taken from the 7th cavalry – Custer’s regiment. A story had it that an Indian
named White Clay Tracks was credited with having actually killed Custer.
That night, Irvine and Dalrymple Clark slept in a small Hudson’s Bay tent in the Indian encampment, and were almost asleep when an Indian poked his head through the flap. Clark was astonished to see it was Sitting Bull. The old Chief was invited in and quietly seated himself at the foot of Irvine’s bed, while the police interpreter was sent for and Irvine questioned Sitting Bull about the Custer fight.
Sitting Bull said he knew the soldiers were coming twelve days before Custer arrived at his camp. He said Custer rode arrogantly into the attack, with trumpets blowing and flags flying. Sitting Bull did not see Custer himself. Toward the last, U.S. cavalrymen were fighting with the butts of their rifles and revolvers. In many cases the breeches of the rifles were stuck and they were unable to reload their carbines. They had no swords, which Irvine thought was a grave mistake. The Indians pulled the cavalrymen off their horses and killed a great many of them with coup sticks.
It was after one in the morning when Sitting Bull left the officer’s tent. The Sioux wouldn’t even consider going to Fort Walsh to treat with Terry.
The report had circulated around the Sioux camp that if the Sioux leaders ever left Wood Mountain, they would be handed over to the United States authorities as prisoners as soon as they arrived at Fort Walsh. This, Walsh declared to be utterly false, and he gave his word the Sioux would have safe conduct to return to their camp.
His trump card was that if the Sioux refused to come to Fort Walsh on the direct invitation of the Police, they would be the first Indians to ever refuse. Even though Walsh thought the conference was foredoomed to fail, he felt the meeting should be arranged and carried out according to schedule. It was a motley cavalcade that left Wood Mountain; red-coated Mounted Police and befeathered Indian chiefs and guides in slouch hats and buckskin jackets. With many smokes along the way, the Sioux were still uneasy about what awaited them at the distant Cypress Hills and Fort Walsh. The journey was made through the most desolate country, a distance of about 160 miles, and at times both wood and water had to be carried. A winter trip from Fort Walsh to Wood Mountain was often a gruelling four-day experience.
Meanwhile, the Terry Commission, headed by Brigadier-General A.H. Terry, and the Hon. W. G. Lawrence and other officials, held left St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 14, 1877, for the far west. Travelling by the Union Pacific to the Great Salt Lake, Utah, they were destined to make the overland journey to Fort Walsh by wagon, carriages and horse back. By October 10, the Commission left Fort Benton on the Missouri for Fort Walsh, which lay over the treeless plains 180 miles to the north.
It was an impressive start. Included with the personnel were high ranking American officers, three companies of U.S. cavalry, one infantry company and two war correspondents. These were Jerome B. Stillson of the New York Herald and Charles Dehill of the Chicago Times. It was hoped the conference would be the grand finale to the long drawn-out warfare which was holding up settlement of the plains area of the United States.
This small army was met at the U.S. – Canada border by an escort of Mounted Police, headed by Col. J. F. Macleod. In his report to the New York Herald, Stillson made note of leaving the border in the vicinity of Wild Horse Lake, and the contrasting colors of the red-coated Mounted Police with their red and white pennons fluttering from their lance tips, and the blue uniforms of the United States cavalry. He also mentioned his first sight of Fort Walsh, nestling in the Battle Creek Valley with its twelve-foot high log stockade, enclosing the white-washed log buildings of the fort, all under the protection of an unfurled Union Jack. Added to
the military scene he could hear bugles blowing at sunrise and sunset.
The Terry Commission camped east of the Fort Walsh stockade. The Sioux were camped to the north of the main gates of the fort. Sitting Bull had declined to enter the stockade, saying he had never been inside a white man’s stockade before, and he did not desire to camp in one now.
The actual conference took place during the afternoon of October 17, 1877, in the officers’ mess room at Fort Walsh. The officials of the Terry Commission were seated at a small table, while the officers of the Mounted Police, in dress uniforms were seated nearby. The American war correspondents were given every facility to observe the hearings. Sitting Bull entered the conference room and was seated on buffalo robes directly in front of Terry. He was accompanied by Spotted Eagle of the Sans Arcs of the No Bows, who, in the days before guns, hunted with the spear and knife. With them were Short Neck and Black Bull of the Uncapappas, a most formidable array of savage war lords. To add insult to the white man’s conference, the squaw of chief The-Bear-that-Scatters was included in the group, an unheard of proceeding for an Indian War Council. From the very start of the talks it appeared as though the conference was doomed to failure. The Sioux had entered the room and shook hands cordially with the police officers, totally ignoring the Terry Commission.
General Terry opened proceedings by giving a glowing, if somewhat overdrawn, account of life on Indian reservations. The Sioux listened in stony silence until Sitting Bull rose and, in angry sentences, tore Terry’s offer to pieces. He asked why the White men would come speaking with forked tongues and with blood on their hands, while still killing his people. He cried that in Montana the grass was stained with the Indians’ blood, while in the country of the Great White Mother there was peace. Other Sioux chiefs said in effect, “I don’t like you” and “You have come here to tell lies.” The squaw of “The Bear,” let loose a torrent of invectives. When Terry asked the interpreter what she was saying, he turned quietly to Terry and, in a low voice, said “She says, General, that you don’t even give her time to breed.”
The conference broke up almost in disorder. As the Sioux stalked from the room they shook hands effusively with the Police Officers, casting disdainful scowls at the Americans. The whole affair was a complete failure.
Healy’s Great Ride
The New York Herald reported that a famous scout, Johnny J. Healy, who had crossed the Line with the General Terry contingent, had vowed to shoot Sitting Bull if the conference failed. The newspaper correspondents with the Commission told Healy he would be hanged if he shot the old chief. The story goes that Healy replied, “Give me ten minutes’ start and all the Mounted Police in Canada won’t catch me.” It had been arranged that Healy would deliver the news of the conference for the New York Herald. When he was asked how long it would take him to get the despatches for the Herald through to Helena, some 340 miles away, which was the nearest telegraph office in Montana, he replied, “Forty-eight hours.” “You can’t do it in three days,” said General Terry. “I will, and will take the news of Sitting Bull’s death too,” said Healy.
Healy had his thoroughbred horse picketed outside the fort, and waited with his rifle in hand, until he could find Sitting Bull alone, he finally found the old chieftain standing by his teepee, an easy mark for a good shot. But fate was kind to the old warrior that night, and perhaps to Healy too. Healy ran back to get his despatches and to take a quick check of his horse. He found his saddle horse entangled in its picket rope, and useless for a long ride. However, the despatches still had to go through. After some delay an army officer’s horse was found, and Healy, forgetting about shooting Sitting
Bull, was soon flying away over the bench lands that lay south of Fort Walsh with his exclusive news of the failure of the conference.
It was dark when he left, but by pushing on all night, Healy had covered close to one hundred miles and was at Milk River by morning. Here he found a freighting outfit camped, and he obtained the loan of a mountain bred cayuse. After a hurried breakfast by the camp fire, he was away again. The trail over the plain was good but it was hard riding in the coulees. By mid-afternoon Healy began to feel a wrenching pain in his back. He stopped only long enough for water, eating hard tack and venison as he rode along. At Twenty-Eight Mile springs he was able to make another horse change with a ranch man. From there to the Manas, he sped along as fast as his tough little ranch pony would carry him. His legs had become stiffened and seemed set in the saddle like a vise. The sand from the plain burned in his eyes until his vision became partly distorted. In twenty-four hours from the time he left, he was climbing over the hill into Fort Benton. As Healy dismounted at his own house, the horse he had ridden staggered, rolled over and fell to the ground.
After a hot bath and a bite to eat, Healy was off again. This time he had a finely-bred horse to make the run to Helena on the old stage road. He slept in the saddle, leaning over the horse’s neck. Another horse was found at the end of sixty miles and the ride down Prickly Pear Canyon was made on schedule. The change of horses and a different gait was a great relief to his aching muscles. The last thirty miles were the most difficult. A good horse was found at the stage station and Healy, as he was so sore that he could hardly move, was lifted into the saddles. His head grew dizzy as he struck the Prickly Pear Valley, but his heart lifted when he saw the lights of Helena twinkling in the far distance. He braced himself for the last effort and, within an hour, the plucky horse and still pluckier rider were flying down the old diggings road. They came around the corner of towering Mount Helena, and down again over the sharp foothills that mark the sides of the gulch, and then into Main Street. The sleepy telegraph operator heard a shout outside and opened a window. “Well,” he asked. “War news for the New York Herald,” yelled a voice and a bundle was tossed through the open window. The next morning the Herald had an exclusive report on the Terry Council meeting, three days after it had taken place. Healy had carried his despatches the 340 miles from Fort Walsh to Helena in forty-three hours, and the Herald had “scooped” the news of the failure of the Treaty Conference.
The balance of the story of the Sioux stay at Wood Mountain is one of dogged determination by the totally inadequate force of policemen. The highest degree of courage, patience and tact, were required often with split-second timing. The task of the police remained the same, to prevent bloodshed and open warfare at all costs. By quiet, but persistent, representations to the lesser chiefs, Walsh was successful in starting small groups of the Sioux back south. The situation was complicated by some of the remaining Sioux venturing over the Line into the U.S.A. to hunt. This brought sharp repercussions from Washington and a reprimand for Walsh from Ottawa – for allowing starving Indians to hunt buffalo south of the Line.
Soon the Sioux were reduced to eating their horses, even dead ones. So pitiable was their plight that police personnel shared what they could of their own scanty rations. In July of 1880, Walsh was informed that Broad Tail, Dull Knife, Stone Dog and Little Hawk were taking their people to American posts on the Milk River. A year later, in May, 1881, Sitting Bull and the starving remnants of his once mighty people surrendered to Lieutenant Brotherford at Fort Buford. His surrender ended this epic story in Mounted Police history, which deserves to be far more widely known than it is. That this was accomplished, without the loss of a single
life on either side, is one of the marvels and miracles of our early West. So high was the old chieftain’s regard for the Mounted Police under Major Walsh that he said they were not men but devils. In return the police dubbed themselves Sitting Bull’s Angels.
The end of the famed old warrior of the plains was as stormy and as violent as his life. He had been making some trouble, assigned, or one might say banished to the Standing Rock Agency, and the army finally decided to place him under arrest. Buffalo Bill (Col. W. F. Cody), in whose Wild West Show Sitting Bull had starred for one summer, thought this an opportunity to gain a little more prestige, since both of them had got along well together, and asked to be allowed to make the arrest. Cody, however, was sent off on a false journey and some Sioux Indian police were assigned to make the arrest.
Early in the morning of December 15, 1890, the Sioux police, under a Lieut. Bullhead, entered Sitting Bull’s log cabin and dragged the old chief from his bed. “Catch the Bear,” leader of Sitting Bull’s bodyguard, hated Lieut. Bullhead, and as soon as he could discern him in the dim light, he shot him down. As Bullhead fell he fired at Sitting Bull. At the same moment Red Tomahawk shot the chief in the back of the head. Sitting Bull was dead before he struck the ground. A hand-to-hand struggle then ensued and, in a few moments, twelve were dead and three were wounded. So ended the career of this mighty chief of the plains, a victim of the onward march of white settlement. But his has been dealt with so many times before that it is unnecessary to do so here. We can leave the old chief to the verdict of history, and history will be good to him.
Dr. Shepherd has been associated with the RCMP for many years, and worked closely with Commissioner Stuart Taylor Wood in the purchase of the site for Fort Walsh. In fact, it was Commissioner Wood who encouraged Dr. Shepherd to write the story of Sitting Bull, and gave him access to some of the history of the Force to enable him to do it.
Dr. Shepherd is Curator of the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, and is considered to be one of the leading experts in Western Canadian history. At 88, he is still writing and his expertise is frequently sought (most recently by Reader’s Digest), to verify the authenticity of historical articles. He had published two books dealing with the homesteading day of Saskatchewan, “West of Yesterday” and “Brave Heritage.” Ed.