November 15, 2005 07:00 PM EST Cincinnati


The Letters that Led Directly to the Death of Sitting Bull,

lot of three historically important letters relating directly to the death of the famed Hunkpapa chief, Sitting Bull.

From it's origins with the Paiute prophet Wavoka in the late 1880s, by the fall of 1890, the messianic movement known as the Ghost Dance had swept the reservations of virtually all of the Plains tribes. Kicking Bear and a handful of others from the Standing Rock Agency had visited Wavoka early in the summer of 1890, and when they returned, delivered the messianic message to Sitting Bull: By the spring of the following year, the earth would be blanketed with a new layer of soil burying all white men. New, sweet grass, running water, and vast herds of buffalo and wild horses would return. While the earth was being completed, all Indians would be suspended in the clouds, returning along with the sprits of their departed ancestors when the world was new again. There would be no white men. Sitting Bull was apparently not convinced, but allowed Kicking Bear to teach the dance at Standing Rock.

The response of the United States Government was at first one of nervous apprehension. Indian Agents feared that the movement would incite the tribes to violence. By December 1890, Big Foot's band at Pine Ridge vowed to dance until they dropped from exhaustion. They reported to Sitting Bull that the Messiah himself would appear, and hoped that he would travel from Standing Rock to Pine Ridge. After of weeks of letters to officials in Washington expressing his concerns over Sitting Bull's involvement in the Ghost Dance, Standing Rock Reservation Indian Agent James McLaughlin was finally authorized to arrest Sitting Bull. Early on the morning of December 14th, the Indian Agent received an alarming letter from J.W. Carignan the local school teacher at Grand River: Sitting Bull, along with his Ghost Dancers was preparing to leave the reservation.

The next morning, on December 15, a party of Indian Police sent by McLaughlin approached Sitting Bull's cabin. About 42 Indian Police, under the command of Lieutenants Bull Head and Shave Head were to make the arrest, with a detachment of U.S. Cavalry to be held in abeyance about three miles from Sitting Bull's camp in case things got out of hand.

Entering Sitting Bull's cabin just before dawn, Bull Head woke the old man, who agreed to dress and come with the police. In the meantime, a large group of Ghost Dancers angrily assembled outside the cabin. In the confusion that followed, a rifle shot rang out and Bull Head was hit in the side. Attempting to fire back at his assailant, Bull Head accidentally shot Sitting Bull. A melee ensued, and Sitting Bull was shot in the head and killed by First Sergeant Red Tomahawk. These historically important letters are witness to the tragic events in the weeks before Wounded Knee.

In the first of these, a two-page hand-written letter dated Grand River, Dec. 14, 1890. 12:50 AM Carignan writes McLaughlin :

Dear Sir -- "Bull Head" wishes to report what occured at S.B.'s Camp at Council yesterday. It seems that Sit Bull has received a letter from the Pine Ridge outfit, asking him to come over there, as God was to appear to them. S.B.'s people want him to go, but he has sent a letter to you asking your permission, and if you do not give it, he is going to anyway, he has been fitting up his horses, to stand on a long ride and will go on horseback in case he is pursued. Bull Head would like to arrest him at once before he has the chance of giving them the slip....He also says something about "Shave Head" coming down here but as I am not good enough interpreter to understand everything he has said you can use your own thing I understand thoroughly, and that is, that the poor man is eat out of house and home, he says that what with councils and couriers coming to his place, that even the hay he had is very near all gone...Yours respectfully, John M Carignan"
The letter is written on a single sheet of ruled paper, folded and integrally addressed, with the notation that it is being couriered by "Hawk Man."

When Hawk Man arrived several hours later, McLaughlin wasted little time, and immediately wrote a letter on Indian Service stationary authorizing the arrest. In the 4:30 AM letter, addressed to Lieutenant Bull Head or Shave Bull he wrote:

From report brought in by scout "Hawk Man" I believe that the time has arrived for the arrest of Sitting Bull and that it can be made by the Indian Police without much risk. I therefore want you to make the arrest before daylight tomorrow morning or as soon after as possible. The cavalry will leave here tonight and will reach the Sitting Bull road crossing of Oak Creek before daylight tomorrow (Monday) morning where they will remain until they hear from you. Louis Primeau will go with the cavalry command as guide and I want you to send a messenger to the cavalry command as soon as you can after you arrest him so that they may be able to know how to act in aiding you or preventing any attempt at his rescue.

I have ordered all the police at Oak Creek to proceed to Carignans school to await your orders. This gives you a force of 42 Policemen for to use in the arrest. Very Respectfull, James McLaughlin, U.S. Ind. Agent.

P.S. You must not let him escape under any circumstances.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, McLaughin wrote a duplicate of the letter, this time in the Lakota language, placing both letters in an envelope addressed to "Bull Head or Shave Head Lieutenant Indian Police" inserting as an afterthought "Or "1st Sergeant" and on the margin "This letter to be opened by Bull Head, Shave Head or J.M. Carignan."

Included with the lot is a newspaper clipping from the Mandan Daily Pioneer dated October 15, 1925, headlined "WELCH HAS ORIGINAL ORDERS FOR ARREST OF SITTING BULL." and an original clipping from the Mineapolis Sunday Tribune from June 20, 1926, in which the entire letter is reproduced. Welch acquired these letters directly from McLaughlin's son, Charlie, who was still residing in the area after the Agent's death in 1923.

Provenance:EX Colonel Alfred Burton Welch Collection

Condition:Carignan's letter with folds and a short 1.5" tear at the top; McLaughlin's letter in English with folds, and separated neatly along the center; the letter in Lakota is excellent; envelope neatly separated and reinforced with paper tape.

Estimate: $5,000 - $7,000


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