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Looking back on Sitting Bull's two visits to St. Paul in 1884

11December 2021

On his first trip east of Dakota in March 1884, Sitting Bull rode an elevator in a St. Paul wholesale grocery store — selling autographs on the street for $1.50 a pop to onlookers who came to gawk at the famous Lakota leader.

Revered as a holy man by tribal traditionalists and feared by government officials as the mastermind behind Lt. Col. George Custer’s last stand in 1876, Sitting Bull ranked with Geronimo and Crazy Horse among the top American Indian leaders who clashed with settlers and soldiers flooding west.

By then in his 50s, Sitting Bull made two trips to St. Paul in 1884 — whirlwind tours that were punctuated with press briefings, demonstrations of cigar-rolling and a new device called a telephone, ballet and theater performances, even an aborted assassination attempt.

Federal agents hoped the trips to St. Paul would impress Sitting Bull so he’d adopt the white man’s ways. The Lakota leader, meanwhile, used his visit to lobby for more food for his starving people back on the Dakota plains.

Details of the two trips are chronicled and collected in a 2003 Ramsey County History article by Mark Diedrich and Paul D. Nelson (https://tinyurl.com/SittingBull2003) and a2018 GenealogyBank.com blog post (https://tinyurl.com/SittingBullblog).

For me, one moment captures the sad undercurrent of the visits by Sitting Bull, who would be killed in 1890 during his arrest at his cabin in South Dakota amid a crackdown of the sacred Ghost Dance at the Standing Rock Reservation.

“One bitter cold day as we were passing along the streets of St. Paul, Minn., a beggar woman, with a worn, wistful face and pleading eyes, stood in a supplicating attitude, her thin, blue hands outstretched for alms,” Maj. John Burke recalled in 1894.

Wearing a red mackinaw blanket to blunt the chilly wind, Sitting Bull plucked out at least $10 of silver — worth about $280 today — and handed it to the woman.

Burke admonished him for giving away his money, possibly earned from those autograph sales. Sitting Bull simply pointed out how the opulence of St. Paul’s tall buildings contrasted with the hungry woman’s plight.

Minneapolis leaders were less enthused to entertain Sitting Bull than St. Paul’s honchos, who took him to a shoe factory, two fire stations and Sunday mass at Assumption Catholic Church, the only place he visited that still stands.

Sitting Bull spent less than three hours in Minneapolis, taking a train across the river for a visit with lumber baron Thomas Walker, namesake of the future art center. Always diplomatic in his comments to reporters — at least according to the filters of white language translators — Sitting Bull insisted he liked the people of Minneapolis and St. Paul equally.

Nevertheless, a Minneapolis journalist criticized the junket and accused Sitting Bill of murdering white families and “hideous butchery on the green slopes of the Little Big Horn,” even though he didn’t participate directly in Custer’s defeat.One St. Cloud reporter commended Minneapolis leaders who “declined to follow the example of St. Paul in making a fool of itself over the butcherer of Custer and his soldiers.”

The possible assassination attempt came on Sitting Bull’s second trip to St. Paul in September 1884, after he attended a play called “My Partner” at the Grand Opera House. A witness told the St. Paul Globe that the Lakota leader’s entourage was filing out of the theater when a man wearing a soft-brimmed hat pulled a revolver from his pocket and pointed it at Sitting Bull.

The would-be assassin’s companion wrestled him for the gun, and no shot was fired. By then Sitting Bull’s party had jumped into a carriage and headed back to the Merchants Hotel. When a reporter tried to interview Sitting Bull about the close call, he was told the Lakota chief didn’t know what had happened and that officials did not want to scare him.

In the end, the U.S. Indian agent who had invited Sitting Bull to travel with him to St. Paul, James McLaughlin, admitted the trips failed to convince theLakota leader to abandon his traditional beliefs — saying he remained an “unreconstructed Indian.”

From St. Paul that September, Sitting Bull went on to visit New York. He toured the United States and Canada with Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West” shows in 1885, but refused to join Cody’s trek to England in 1886 so he could remain at home and resist U.S. government attempts to break up the Standing Rock Reservation.

In 1888, four years after his journeys to St. Paul, Sitting Bull remained defiant. He told a missionary he wanted his people to learn to read and write, but insisted “the white people are wicked.” His people, he said, must never “become white people in their ways. … I would rather die an Indian than live a white man.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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