When thousands of Sioux people from the Dakota territory escaped into Canada with the American army hot on their heels, an international crisis soon followed.
When thousands of Sioux people from the Dakota territory fled to Canada with the U.S. army hot on their heels, cross-border complications followed.
ON DECEMBER 17, 1876, TWELVE SIOUX CHIEFS, clad in buffalo robes, crowded into the cramped quarters of a log trading post on the eastern side of Wood Mountain in what is now southern Saskatchewan. After ensuring they were safe, they introduced themselves to Quebecborn trader Jean-Louis Légaré as American refugees. The next day they returned in larger numbers, seeking supplies and ammunition. Légaré sent word of their presence to the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) detachment at Fort Walsh, about 288 kilometres away.
It was just the beginning. Over the next few months, thousands of Sioux refugees would pour over the border, seeking to escape retribution from the United States Army after its defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn — also called the Battle of the Greasy Grass or Custer’s Last Stand. Légaré and Walsh tried to help them while officials on both sides of the border argued over how to resolve the situation.
The influx of refugees was not unexpected. In Ottawa, Canadian officials had been keeping a close eye on the activities of the United States Army and its treatment of the many American Indian tribes on the western plains. In February 1876, in clear violation of the 1868 Laramie treaty, America had declared war on a large number of Sioux, demanding that they surrender to reservation life.
It seemed likely that the Sioux would choose to escape into Canada. Hugh Richardson, deputy minister of justice in Ottawa, warned that they might use Canadian soil “as a base for predatory and hostile operations.” He even predicted with uncanny foresight where they would cross. On May 26, 1876, Richardson sent a warning to NWMP Assistant Commissioner A.C. Irvine at Fort Macleod (located in what is now southwestern Alberta) suggesting that “the place to which these escaping parties … would make, might be somewhere in the vicinity of Wood Mountain.”
The Wood Mountain uplands would not be a small target anywhere but on the vast western plains. It has many buttes and benches with deep, spring-fed coulees, and stretches some 160 kilometres from east to west, extending perhaps 30 kilometres north of the forty-ninth parallel. The uplands lie roughly 160 to 320 kilometres east of the Cypress Hills and the NWMP post at Fort Walsh.
What prompted the United States to turn against the Sioux and cause them to flee into Canada? In 1874, an army expedition under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer explored the Black Hills and reported the widespread presence of gold. There was no holding back the white prospectors, and they swarmed into the hills by the thousands.
The Black Hills belonged to the Sioux. Sioux ownership of the hills was first agreed upon in 1851. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie went further, requiring the American army to prevent white encroachment into the hills. It also provided that no sale of the hills would be valid without the written approval of three fourths of the adult males of the Sioux nation.
The American government tried to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux, but the tribal leaders refused. Then it tried to change the terms of the treaty by paying annual rent to the Sioux in exchange for safe passage for prospectors and settlers. This too was rejected by the chiefs. The editorialists of the newspaper Yankton Press & Dakotaian were among many who expressed frustration with the treaty and saw it as a barrier to development. “What shall be done with these Indian dogs in our manger? They will not dig gold or let others do it.”
Finally, in November 1875, in a secret meeting at the White House, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant instructed his military commanders to discontinue any further protection of the Black Hills. The following February, the American government illegally declared war on the Sioux — the army was ordered to attack any who were found off the reservation, even if they were on traditional lands to which they had hunting rights.
In June 1876, the army planned a three-pronged attack on a large gathering of Sioux and Cheyenne at the Greasy Grass River in the Bighorn Mountains in present-day Montana. Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, commanding the 7th Cavalry, jumped the gun, expecting the warriors and their families to scatter and run, but instead ran into a hornet’s nest of resistance. Custer and 265 members of his command were killed in what is popularly known as “Custer’s last stand.”
Americans, conveniently ignoring the fact that they had been the aggressors, reacted first with shock and then with fury directed against the Sioux and their chosen leader, Sitting Bull (Ta-tanka Yotanka). Sitting Bull is believed to have been forty-five years old at the time of Little Bighorn, an elder who took a lesser part in the engagement. Crazy Horse, Gall, and other chiefs were far more active, but the American army and public singled out Sitting Bull as the prime villain.
Sitting Bull certainly stood out as a strong leader. He was born to a family of respected Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux warriors and medicine men around 1831 (some sources say 1836). Sitting Bull emerged as a fearless warrior at a time when atrocities were being committed against his people.
Sitting Bull emerged as a fearless leader at a time when atrocities were being committed against his people.
“I hardly sustain myself beneath the weight of white men’s blood that I have shed,” Sitting Bull told Pierre-Jean De Smet, a sympathetic Jesuit priest, during negotiations leading to the Laramie treaty (which Sitting Bull refused to sign) on June 20, 1868. “The whites provoked the war; their injustices, their indignities to our families, the cruel, unheard of and wholly unprovoked massacre at Fort Lyon … shook all the veins which bind and support me. I rose, tomahawk in hand, and I have done all the hurt to the whites that I could.”
After Little Bighorn, the U.S. government was determined to have the Black Hills, and Congress directed that rations due under the Laramie Treaty were to be withheld from those Sioux who had surrendered to reservation life until they ceded ownership of the hills. Disregarding the three-quarters signature requirement of the Laramie treaty, just ten per cent of the Sioux men were rounded up and forced to sign. Among them was Red Cloud, the great Sioux leader whose success in the Powder River War of 1866–68 had caused the United States to agree to the Laramie treaty. Broken by starvation, upon signing over the Black Hills he plaintively asked: “When do we eat?”
In February 1877, Congress ratified the deal, and America had the Black Hills. The consideration for the hills was miniscule. In exchange for rations, the United States seized an immensely rich territory. Just one of its many mines, the Homestake, would recover some 1,245 tonnes of gold before shutting down in 2002.
A century later, the takeover of the Black Hills by the U.S. government was considered by the American courts in litigation brought by the Sioux nation. The Court of Claims was frankly critical when making a judgment on the case in 1975: “The duplicity of President Grant’s course and the duress practised on the starving Sioux, speak for themselves. A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history, which is not, taken as a whole, the disgrace it now pleases some persons to believe.”
Promptly after the first wave of Sioux refugees arrived in Canada, NWMP Inspector James Morrow Walsh rode out to Wood Mountain in response to Légaré’s call. Walsh, a bold personality who became somewhat of a legend in his own right, found nearly 3,000 men, women, and children crammed into 109 lodges (teepees), plus some 3,500 horses and 30 U.S. government mules. They were camped next to White Eagle’s band of Santee Sioux, who had escaped into Canada after the Minnesota Uprising of 1862 and had lived quietly on the Canadian plains ever since.
The new arrivals explained that they were in flight from the Long Knives, as they called the U.S. Cavalry, and wished only to live in peace. Walsh assured them of sanctuary but warned that slipping across the boundary to attack units of the American army would not be permitted and would forfeit their right to live in Canada. The inspector authorized Légaré to sell the desperate Sioux enough ammunition for hunting only and not enough for military use.
In early March, a second band of Sioux crossed the forty-ninth parallel into Canada. The group of fifty-seven lodges of Hunkpapa Lakota was led by Four Horns, a chief who was senior even to Sitting Bull. Walsh found them camped on the Frenchman River, 190
kilometres east of Fort Walsh. They had been so hard-pressed by the Long Knives that they were unable to hunt and had been forced to slaughter their horses.
Four Horns explained that they sought only peace and freedom from the Long Knives. He reminded Walsh that his people had sided with the British during the War of 1812. In recognition of their loyalty, they had been given George III medals and had been promised that they could choose at any time to live in Canada. Walsh repeated his earlier lecture about Canadian law, horse theft, and the total prohibition against crossing the border to do battle with the American army.
On May 16, 1877, Crazy Horse, the primary military leader at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, surrendered. That left Sitting Bull and his followers as the only holdouts still on the run from the American army. Later that week, Sitting Bull finally made his move. His band of about a thousand men, women, and children, crammed into 135 lodges, crossed into Canada and set up camp at Pinto Horse Butte on the northwestern flank of the Wood Mountain uplands, 225 kilometres east of Fort Walsh.
Once more Inspector Walsh saddled up and rode out to deliver his standard message on Canadian law. Like the Sioux refugees before him, Sitting Bull claimed his right to be in Canada through an early British connection and insisted he was interested only in peace.
At first, Walsh did not really believe Sitting Bull’s assurances of peace. The NWMP suspected that the Sioux planned to use Canada as a base for attacking their enemies across the border. But over time, and as Sitting Bull’s followers drifted away, the two became friends.
With Sitting Bull’s arrival, there were now some five thousand American Sioux camped from Wood Mountain to Cypress Hills, roughly one third as many as the Canadian bands the government was bringing under treaty. The refugees, traditional enemies of the Cree and Assiniboine, had settled on Treaty 4 lands, not far from the homeland of the Blackfoot, also a traditional enemy and not yet under treaty. The Metis buffalo hunters, also longstanding enemies of the Sioux, resented the competition provided by the intruders. As long as there were enough buffalo to go around, strife might be avoided, but already there were signs that the once-great herds were failing.
Also worrisome was an NWMP report from the previous fall that told of a meeting between the Sioux and the Blackfoot in Canada in August 1876. The Sioux had proposed joining forces to drive the white intruders from both the American and Canadian plains. The Blackfoot had refused the offer, but they were not yet under treaty and were known to be a fierce, warlike, and volatile nation.
With only three hundred members of the NWMP scattered from Fort Walsh to Fort Edmonton and North Battleford, plus a few militia at Fort Garry, rumours of an “Indian war” in the West were guaranteed to keep the government awake at night.
The presence of the American Sioux on the Canadian plains presented the government of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie with an explosive situation. Canada needed to have the United States recover its escapee Sioux, and quickly.
The government’s dilemma was complicated by the fact that Canada was still a colony of Great Britain, and its affairs were conducted by the Colonial Office in London. Thus, although Washington was only about 730 kilometres south, protocol demanded that all communications with the Americans pass through the office of Governor General Lord Dufferin, to the Colonial Office in London, then back to F.R. Plunkett, the British chargé d’affaires in Washington, a process that took several weeks.
Finally, a frustrated Prime Minister Mackenzie and Interior Minister David Mills decided on direct action of the sort appropriate to a frontier nation, made easier by Governor General Dufferin’s absence from Ottawa. Ignoring protocol, Mills headed for Washington. On August 8, 1877, Mills met with Plunkett, and the two men went on to meet with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz. After listening to Mills, Schurz took the two men to the White House and introduced them
to President Rutherford Hayes. There, a meeting was arranged for the next morning to include Schurz, Secretary of War George McCrary, and, again, the president.
However, a solution to the problem of the American Sioux now ensconced in Canada was difficult to identify. Schurz thought Canada was obliged to disarm the Sioux and send them back across the border. Mills did not explain that it might be beyond the capacity of the three hundred NWMP to disarm several thousand Sioux and force them out of the country.
Finding a solution was difficult. Schurz repeated his belief that Canada was obliged to disarm the Sioux and send them back across the border. Mills explained, as diplomatically as he could, that the Sioux homeland had been invaded and they had been attacked without justification. Perhaps the American government could make a generous offer that would induce the Sioux to willingly return and surrender, he suggested. The Americans made it clear that if the Sioux recrossed the border they would have to surrender their horses and rifles first — a demand that would certainly meet with refusal.
In the end, President Hayes proposed sending a commission into Canada to meet with Sitting Bull and to offer terms of surrender. At the least, they might learn what the Sioux would accept. It wasn’t much, but finally Mills had the Americans thinking about his problem, and hopefully thinking of it as theirs, too.
The Sitting Bull Commission, as it was called, was crippled from the start. The U.S. cabinet refused to fund it, and there were no volunteers willing to travel more than three thousand kilometres into the western wilderness and back without pay. The government was forced to appoint a man less than ideal for the job — General Alfred Terry. Terry had been Custer’s commander at Little Bighorn and was unlikely to be greeted warmly by Sitting Bull.
Also appointed to the commission were A.G. Lawrence, a former diplomat from Rhode Island, and H.C. Corbin, a brevet lieutenant colonel with the American army. In addition, a stenographer, an
Newspapers were filled with astonishing — and mostly untrue — claims about Sitting Bull, such as that he was a graduate of West Point.
interpreter, and two newspaper reporters with the New York Herald and the Chicago Times travelled with the commission.
In the United States, public interest in Sitting Bull was huge. Newspapers were filled with astonishing — and mostly untrue — claims about him, such as that he was a scholar and graduate of West Point, a Métis fluent in French, and an admirer of French General Napoleon Bonaparte. Others simply saw him as a cruel, bloodthirsty “savage.” The National Republican, which was almost a government organ, likely echoed the true feelings of the American administration when it stated, “In fact, it would be pleasing to this government if the proposition did not succeed, as Sitting Bull is not a denizen to be desired by any country.”
High drama was now building on the western plains, with three prominent players approaching Fort Walsh from widely different directions, each facing serious difficulties in making the proposed meeting.
NWMP Commissioner James Macleod had been instructed by Ottawa to do his utmost to make the Sitting Bull Commission a success and to get the Sioux leader and his people out of Canada. The problem was that the government had also appointed Macleod, together with North-West Territories Lieutenant-Governor David Laird, to negotiate a treaty with the Blackfoot nation in what is today Alberta. That meeting was scheduled to take place at Blackfoot Crossing on the Bow River, about 255 kilometres northwest of Fort Walsh, at about the same time the Sitting Bull Commission was expected in Canada. Macleod would do his best to take in both events but left the Americans to Inspector James Walsh if he was tied down at Blackfoot Crossing. Walsh was competent, but it would be unfortunate if the Commissioner of the NWMP could not be present at the meeting of the Sitting Bull Commission and the great Sioux leader.
Walsh’s responsibility to see that Sitting Bull made it to the meeting was not a simple task in view of the Sioux’s hatred and distrust of the American army, not to mention the fact that the Sioux leader was camped at Pinto Horse Butte, 225 kilometres east of Fort Walsh.
At Pinto Horse Butte, as expected, Inspector Walsh at first met with an outright refusal from Sitting Bull but finally managed to convince him that no harm could come from listening to the American offer. Slowly, and with much second thought, Sitting Bull and a party of some twenty prominent chiefs set out for Fort Walsh.
Sitting Bull and his fellow chiefs finally arrived at Fort Walsh on October 12. General Terry and his party did not make it through for another four days, and the meeting did not begin until midafternoon on October 17. The delay enabled Commissioner Macleod to make the gathering.
The meeting did not last long. Terry outlined President Hayes’ offer: surrender, amnesty for all offences, and the Sioux to give up their firearms and ammunition at the border but keep their horses until they reached their assigned reservation.
Sitting Bull completely rejected the offer: “You come to tell us stories and we do not want to hear them. I will not say any more; you can go back home…. I shake hands with these people; that part of the country we came from belonged to us, and you took it from us, now we live here.”
Terry had nothing more to say, and he and his group withdrew. There was, after all, little incentive for the Americans to invite the Sioux back into the United States. Before the Americans left Fort Walsh, the reporters travelling with the commission managed to obtain separate interviews with Sitting Bull. Their stories, filed and syndicated all over the United States, made Sitting Bull even more famous than he had become after the Battle of the Little Bighorn and fuelled his mystique. The correspondent for the Times noted Sitting Bull’s high status: “Sitting Bull is a ‘Medicine Man.’ He is the prophet and seer of his village. And being something more than an average savage has great influence among his people and is virtually their leader.”
The failure of the Sitting Bull commission caused no distress in Washington. The Americans believed that they had made a sincere effort, and now the Sioux were Canada’s problem.
The Sioux’s first year in Canada was not only peaceful but bountiful. The winter of 1877–78 was mild with little snow. Buffalo were plentiful. Lodges were repaired and replaced, food stores replenished, and robes prepared for trading. There was no sign that the buffalo would vanish. “God Almighty gave us lots of buffalo to live long. I wish there be lots of buffalo for a long time to come,” Sitting Bull had told Macleod when warned that they would disappear.
The buffalo range was in fact shrinking. Overhunting was killing off the herds in Canada well before those in the U.S. In the foothills of the Rockies the Blackfoot found few animals on their traditional hunting grounds. North to the valleys of the Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle rivers the Cree fared even more poorly.
In October 1878, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald returned to office and assumed responsibility for Indian Affairs and the NWMP. Macdonald’s officials advised him that the buffalo herds would likely last no more than five years, an impossibly optimistic estimate as it turned out. The Canadian herd was all but gone the next year. In the spring of 1879, newly appointed Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney toured the West and found starvation rampant, especially among the Blackfoot. Dewdney was supplied with food to be distributed among suffering people who were under treaty. But he was under explicit instructions that nothing be given to the Sioux.
Macdonald’s policy was firm: “Sitting Bull and his people, seeing that the buffalo is failing them in our territory, will go back to their own country, the only other alternative being starvation for themselves, their wives and families.” Macdonald’s heartless edict aptly described the future.
In 1878 and 1879, the herds in the Wood Mountain uplands shrank, making it necessary for the Sioux to follow the animals
across the border. The presence of Sitting Bull’s people made the Americans nervous — to them, a hunting party looked a lot like a war party. The shortage of buffalo worsened over the winter of 1879–80. Deep snow prohibited grazing, and most of the Sioux horses died, many from a plague of scabies (mange). Eating animals taken by scabies made people sick and caused many deaths.
Their suffering was hard on Walsh and the rest of the NWMP detachment at Wood Mountain. They saved table scraps and, in defiance of orders, raided their own stores in aid of the hungry. In spite of the bitter winter cold, many Sioux, ill-clad and on foot, hobbled away, across the border and over wind-hardened drifts down to Fort Peck and Fort Buford on the Missouri River. Surrender was better than certain death from starvation.
The situation was not much better for the people under treaty who were entitled to rations. Macdonald struggled to feed them at the lowest possible cost. At Fort Walsh, NWMP surgeon Dr. Norman Kittson thought the rations supplied were woefully inadequate: “Gaunt men and women with hungry eyes were seen everywhere seeking or begging for a mouthful of food — little children … fight over the tidbits. Morning and evening many of them would come to me and beg for the very bones left by the dogs in my yard.”
In July 1880 came another blow — Sitting Bull lost his one true friend in Canada. Walsh, whose brash, independent spirit rankled his superiors, was transferred away from Wood Mountain. It was Macdonald who engineered Walsh’s removal. The prime minister had come to believe that Walsh was contributing to Sitting Bull’s stubbornness in refusing to leave Canada. Macdonald had Walsh transferred to Fort Qu’Appelle and later that year pulled him back east on medical leave, as far away from Sitting Bull as possible.
Before leaving Wood Mountain, Walsh promised the worried Sitting Bull that he would speak directly to the U.S. president on his behalf, provided the Canadian government would approve. When he returned to eastern Canada, Walsh managed to secure an audience with Macdonald, who, of course, had no intention of allowing a junior officer to meddle in diplomatic affairs. In fact, he resolved to fire Walsh as soon as the Sioux question was resolved.
By the spring of 1881, time was running out for Sitting Bull and his shrinking band of followers (only forty-three lodges) and they became vagabonds for real. Driven from Wood Mountain by Walsh’s replacement, Inspector Leif Crozier, they moved over to Willow Bunch and threw themselves on the mercy of Jean-Louis Légaré, the trader they had met on their arrival in Canada. Légaré fed them at considerable personal cost. He also advised his uninvited guests that their only hope was to surrender to the American army.
To counter the Sioux’s distrust of the Americans, Légaré proposed a small inspection trip 208 kilometres south to Fort Buford, located in present-day North Dakota. This was done in April of 1881, but, confirming the Sioux suspicions, the American army arrested them on arrival. Only Légaré’s reputation for fair dealing and his insistence that he would not return without his charges saved the day.
Meanwhile, Sitting Bull and a few followers trekked up to Qu’Appelle. He harboured a futile hope that the Santee Dakota of the Standing Buffalo reserve at Qu’Appelle might take him in, but he was met with outright refusal. He also hoped to see Walsh. Instead, he met with Dewdney, who was very tough on the Sioux leader, refusing him even any food rations, much less a reserve for his people. Dewdney offered to provide an armed escort out of Canada, but Sitting Bull refused and, embittered, returned to Willow Bunch.
At Willow Bunch, Légaré had just returned from a second inspection trip to Fort Buford with a positive report. He convinced Sitting Bull’s followers to return to the United States and organized a caravan to carry them. Sitting Bull, still distrustful and fearful, was reluctant to accept his fate and made the journey difficult.
Finally, on July 19, 1881, Légaré led Sitting Bull and 188 bedraggled followers into Fort Buford and surrender. They turned over their few horses and firearms, but Sitting Bull withheld his Winchester rifle until the next day. Then he handed it to the Fort Buford commander, explaining: “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender his rifle.”
And with that, Sitting Bull was out of Canada. Macdonald could finally relax.
True to form, the American army reneged on its promise of amnesty and arrested Sitting Bull, placing him in open confinement at Fort Randall for two years before allowing him to join his people at Fort Yates on the Great Sioux Reservation (later called Standing Rock). He spent one season with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show in 1885. In the final years of his life, he became associated with the controversial ghost dance movement — which officials feared because they thought it would lead to a general uprising. On December 15, 1890, during a trumped-up arrest, Sitting Bull was shot and killed.
When news of his death reached his old friend James Walsh in Canada, Walsh — who had been forced to resign from the NWMP seven years earlier and had launched a career in business — remarked: “I am glad to learn that Bull is relieved of his miseries, even if it took the bullet to do it. A man who wields such power as Bull once did, that of a King, over a wild spirited people cannot endure abject poverty, slavery and beggary without suffering great mental pain and death is a relief.... Bull’s confidence and belief in the Great Spirit was stronger than I ever saw in any other man. He trusted to Him implicitly.... History does not tell us that a greater Indian than Bull ever lived, he was the Mohammed of his people, the law and King maker of the Sioux.”
Sitting Bull in 1885, as photographed by William Notman of Montreal.
NWMP Inspector James Morrow Walsh in his buckskin jacket. His superiors complained about his non-standard appearance.
NWMP officers at the site where a Sioux warrior mortally wounded at Little Bighorn received the honour of a traditional air burial at Eastend, North-West Territories. His horse was placed below him.
The King George medal was given to chiefs for their loyalty to the Crown.
The Buffalo Dance of the Sioux at Fort Qu’Appelle by Sydney Prior Hall, circa 1881. The Santee Dakota who settled in the Qu’Appelle area of present-day Saskatchewan were among a number of American Sioux bands who fled to Canada in the 1860s.
A New York Graphic engraving of the Sitting Bull Commission meeting with Lakota chiefs at Fort Walsh, North-West Territories, on October 17, 1877. Sitting Bull is depicted with his arm raised. Commission head General Alfred Terry stands facing him.
Sitting Bull, left, dedicates a sacred rock, representing a woman and child, at the Great Sioux Reservation, Dakota Territory, 1886.