Life in the Old West

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How Buffalo Bill Cody almost saved Sitting Bull’s life

If everything had worked according to Buffalo Bill’s plans, he may have saved the life of his friend, Lakotah Warrior Sitting Bull. However, since things rarely work out according to plans in real-life, the story has some odd twists to it — and, sadly, an unhappy ending.

Probably no one during the history of the Old West lived as many true-life adventures — nor spun as many showy tall tales! — as William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Sitting Bull. What many people don’t know is that the two men became friends during Sitting Bull’s last years, thanks to his short stint as a member of Cody’s “Wild West” traveling roadshow in 1885. (Although he was given star billing almost as prominent as Cody’s billing, Sitting Bull only performed with the “Wild West” for one season or about four months.)

In his 2000 biography of Cody, “Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend,” historian Robert A. Carter discusses the warm feelings and respect the old scout had for Sitting Bull. Carter includes this statement that Cody made in his “Life Story” autobiography: “Of all the Indians I encountered in my years on the Plains,” Cody wrote there, “the most resourceful and intelligent … were the Sioux …. The greatest of all the Sioux in my time, or any time for that matter, was that wonderful old fighting man, Sitting Bull.”

There is no verified record of Sitting Bull telling anyone how he felt about Buffalo Bill, although most who knew them believed he respected Cody and thought of him as a friend. A well-known biography of Cody from 1960, Don Russell’s “The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill,” sheds some light on Sitting Bull’s feelings if the story he uncovered is true.
According to Russell, Cody gave Sitting Bull a performing pony the old warrior had become fond of when Sitting Bull left the “Wild West” show and returned to his home on the reservation. Along with the horse, Cody gave Sitting Bull a fancy Mexican sombrero. Russell says Sitting Bull valued both pony and hat and became angry when one of his relatives wore the sombrero. Russell quotes Sitting Bull’s comment to his relative (taken by Russell from a 1935 biography of the warrior): “My friend Long Hair gave me this hat. I value it very highly, for the hand that placed it upon my head had a friendly feeling for me.” That isn’t a ringing endorsement of Cody, but it speaks of Sitting Bull’s regard and respect for the man.

Almost exactly five years after Sitting Bull left Cody’s “Wild West,” in the autumn of 1890, General Nelson A. Miles called on Buffalo Bill to go to the Standing Rock Reservation and meet with Sitting Bull. There was trouble brewing throughout the western reservations as white people, government officials, and white Indian agents everywhere were confronting the infamous “Ghost Dance” religion that swept through Indian cultures from the Southwest to the Plains. Most government officials and white people living near the reservations totally misunderstood the new messianic visions and rituals — and became convinced they would lead to renewed Indian uprisings and Indian wars reminiscent of the 1860s and 1870s.

Miles may have wanted to take advantage of Cody’s general popularity with most Indians and his relationship with Sitting Bull in particular to “scout out” the whole situation and evaluate the potential for violence. As an important side note to these events, the Indian Agent James McLaughlin who ran Standing Rock Agency was very much opposed to Sitting Bull’s leadership and power among the Lakotah people of Standing Rock and had been working to undermine the old warrior’s popularity. Right or wrong, McLaughlin has generally been portrayed as the “bad guy” in the events surrounding Cody’s trip and Sitting Bull’s demise.

Miles’s orders to Cody were pretty short and quite clear. He was “to secure the person of Sitting Bull … and deliver him to the nearest com’g [sic] officer of U.S. Troops, taking a receipt and reporting your action.” Those commissioned officers would have been at Fort Yates. (Mile’s message to Cody is quoted in both Russell’s and Carter’s biographies.)

Fearing the worst, Miles’ aides and other governmental and military officials urged Cody to take a military escort onto the Standing Rock Reservation. Cody’s confidence in his own ability and his friendship with Sitting Bull won the day. Buffalo Bill and his traveling party “armed” themselves only with a wagon full of gift treats for Sitting Bull and his people — mostly, according to reports cited in Carter’s biography, candy and pastries. Apparently the old Lakotah warrior had a real sweet tooth! In Cody’s words to an old friend he took time to visit along the way: “Why, I’ve got a hundred dollars worth of stuff in that wagon for every pound old Bull weighs.”

Cody’s mission soon became known to the public, with small town newspapers throughout the Plains chronicling his party’s journey across the Dakotas to the Standing Rock Reservation. Indeed, as papers picked up the story it became a great adventure in the minds of Buffalo Bill’s fans worldwide.

At one point, McLaughlin conspired with officers at Fort Yates to stall Cody while McLaughlin tried frantically to reach up the bureaucracy in Washington to have Cody’s mission to “capture” Sitting Bull stopped. McLaughlin and the Army officers decided they would get Cody into a friendly drinking match, getting him so drunk he would be delayed a day or two in leaving the fort to head for Sitting Bull’s camp a couple of day’s wagon travel away.

They badly underestimated the old scout’s prodigious, legendary ability to hold his liquor. Accounts claim Cody drank them all “under the table” and departed in good spirits the next morning.

And that’s where Buffalo Bill’s effort to save his old friend began to falter.

Always the showman, and loaded with a wagon full of gifts, Cody couldn’t be rushed. He stopped repeatedly to meet with groups of admiring fans, old acquaintances from his days as a military scout on the Plains, old sidekicks of every sort from his lifetime of tales and tall-tales. And, sadly, before Cody could complete his mission and reach Sitting Bull, McLaughlin successfully got the President’s “ear.” Only a day or two out from Sitting Bull’s camp, word came to Cody via military courier that President Benjamin Harrison was personally ordering him to step down from General Miles’ assignment to capture Sitting Bull. He turned around and left the old warrior to his fate.

In later years, according to Carter’s biography, Cody’s foster son Johnny Baker said that if officials had only left Cody alone, he would have captured Sitting Bull with a candy sucker — making reference to the gifts and treats in Cody’s wagon.

Instead, on December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull and his closest friends died in what turned into a bloody massacre led by Standing Rock tribal police who had been sent to arrest him. Accounts of the killing vary, but generally historians feel McLaughlin bungled a legitimate effort to arrest Sitting Bull by sending tribal police (resented by most Lakotah citizens of Standing Rock for varied reasons) led by a lieutenant who had strong personal grudges against Sitting Bull’s inner circle of friends.

In a poignant moment during that awful debacle, the show pony Cody had given Sitting Bull years earlier heard the gunfire and took it as a signal to prance through his old routines from the “Wild West” show days. (Carter’s biography of Cody adds that the pony was rescued and later returned to Cody. The pony was ridden by the standard-bearer who opened Cody’s “Wild West” when they performed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.)

More than one historian of the Old West has asked the famous “what if” question about Buffalo Bill Cody and Lakota Warrior Sitting Bull: “What if Cody had reached Sitting Bull’s camp and persuaded him to surrender to officials at Fort Yates?” Like all of history’s “what if’s,” such speculation is intriguing but pointless. Perhaps if Sitting Bull had lived only a few more days, he could have deflected the fears and misunderstandings that led to the Battle of Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 — just two weeks after his death. Perhaps Sitting Bull continuing alive would have led to a dampening of the “Ghost Dance” religion and their followers. Perhaps if Sitting Bull had lived, he would have found a way to help white residents and government officials throughout the Plains see that there was no longer a threat of violence from the Lakotah people.

But like all such “what if’s” of history, we will never know how life in the latter days of the Old West might have been different, even better, had Buffalo Bill managed to save Sitting Bull’s life.

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