Death of Lakota Leader Sitting Bull 

U.S. #2183 from the Great Americans Series.

On December 15, 1890, Indian agency police on the Standing Rock Reservation killed Sitting Bull.

The Hunkpapa Lakota leader known as Sitting Bull was born in 1831 near the Grand River in present-day South Dakota. At birth he was named Jumping Badger, but also received the nickname Slow, because he didn’t rush through anything. After showing great courage in a battle against the Crow Indians at age 14, he was given the name “Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down,” which was later shortened to “Sitting Bull.”

Sitting Bull had little contact with whites until the Santee Sioux uprising in 1862. When U.S. Army soldiers attacked his village during the Civil War, Sitting Bull led the defense. He also led an attack on a deserted military wagon party. Though he was shot in that altercation, his wounds weren’t serious.

U.S. #2183 FDC – Sitting Bull Silk Cachet First Day Cover.

In the coming years, Sitting Bull joined in Red Cloud’s War. Red Cloud sought to maintain control of the Powder River Country in Montana. During this time, Sitting Bull led attacks on several forts including Berthold, Stevenson, and Buford. In 1868, the U.S. government agreed to Red Cloud’s demands that they leave Forts Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith. Several other Native American leaders signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, but Sitting Bull refused, stating, “I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part of part of my country.”

For several years, Sitting Bull continued to attack American forts and migrating parties. In the early 1870s, surveyors for the Northern Pacific Railroad came to the area to explore a possible route through Hunkpapa lands. Sitting Bull and his followers put up a stiff resistance and forced the surveyors to flee. The surveyors continued to return to the area in the coming years, with increased military support, but were turned away each time. The panic of 1873 then bankrupted most of the railroad’s backers, halting their efforts.

Item #121048 – Commemorative cover honoring Siting Bull.

Also in the 1870s there was great interest to open the Black Hills for gold mining and settlement. Though the Treaty of Fort Laramie had promised to protect the Sioux and their land, the government sought a way around this. So in 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered that all Sioux in the area move onto the Great Sioux Reservation. An order by the Interior Department then certified all bands living off the reservation as hostile, and gave the military permission to pursue them.

During this time, Sitting Bull emerged as a major leader in his tribe. While many other bands had followed the government’s orders to move to the reservation, many didn’t, and took refuge at Sitting Bull’s camp. He even sent his men out to the reservations to recruit warriors. By June 1876, Sitting Bull’s camp had more than 10,000 people in it.

Item #20025 – Commemorative cover marking George Custer’s 145th birthday.

Then on June 25, 1876, American Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer discovered the camp, though he underestimated the number of people there. He then launched an attack at the camp, along the Little Big Horn River. Though Sitting Bull didn’t fight, he’d previously had a vision of U.S. soldiers being killed as they entered the camp. His followers trusted his vision and fought back. Custer’s men were overwhelmed and retreated, but the tribes then launched a counter-attack and wiped out the attacking American force.

Sitting Bull’s follower’s believed his vision had brought them victory and celebrated. However, the American public was shocked and outraged over Custer’s death and the government’s knowledge of the Sioux living outside the reservation. So the government then flooded the area with thousands more soldiers. But Sitting Bull refused to surrender. In May 1877, he led his followers into Canada, where he remained in exile for four years. He was even offered a pardon and a chance to return, but refused.

While in Canada, Sitting Bull befriended the mounted police as well as Crowfoot, the leader of the Blackfeet, a long-time enemy of his tribe. However, his presence in Canada increased tensions between that nation and the U.S. Additionally, there were fewer buffalo to hunt, so his people were starving. Eventually Sitting Bull was desperate for his people, so he and 186 of his followers returned to America and surrendered on July 19, 1881. He proclaimed, “I, Takanka Iyotanka, wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.”

U.S. #2869d from the Legends of the West sheet.

Sitting Bull and his followers then spent 20 months at Fort Randall as prisoners of war, before returning north to live on the Standing Rock Reservation. In 1884, Sitting Bull was invited to tour Canada and the northern U.S. in a show called the “Sitting Bull Connection.” During this tour, he met and befriended Annie Oakley. He was impressed with her shooting ability and symbolically adopted her as his daughter. He called her “Little Sure Shot,” a name she used throughout her career.

The following year, Sitting Bull was again invited to travel, this time as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. He received $50 a week to ride around the arena. He also gave speeches urging education for children and improving relations between the Sioux and whites.

U.S. #2177 from the Great Americans series.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, the Ghost Dance Movement took root. The movement sought a return to tradition and called on tribes to dance and chant for their deceased relatives to rise up and bring back the buffalo. While Sitting Bull didn’t appear to participate in the movement, he allowed the dancers to come to his camp. The Indian Agents at Standing Rock Reservation believed he was going to leave the reservation with the dancers and ordered his arrest.

The arrest was planned for 5:30 a.m. on December 15, 1890. That morning, 39 police officers and four volunteers surrounded and entered Sitting Bull’s house. They told him he was under arrest and had to mount a horse to meet with the Indian Affairs agent. Sitting Bull refused and the officers used force. This enraged his followers, leading to an all-out fight in which Sitting Bull was shot twice. He died that afternoon. Three years later, his cabin on the Grand River was moved to Chicago to be placed on exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

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  1. A sad and tragic end to the 400 year old war against native Americans. Actually it wasn’t the end, because the massacre at wounded occurred that same year, 1890. The confinement on remote reservations with isolation, little hope, and unemployment has continued until this day.

  2. As I understand it the police were actually Indians. One has to wonder why the situation went out of control. Did the police have an axe to grind against the chief? We probably will never know what really took place and why.

  3. LtCol Custer was aiming to run for President of the USA. Rather than waiting for other and larger commands, Custer’s ego from quick promotions during the Civil War as well as his underestimating the courage and strength of the combined Native American forces was the reason he attacked. Not all soldiers under his command were wiped out – Major Benteen, after trying to go to Custer’s aid and being driven back, fought and held out until the larger command arrived, and the Native Americans withdrew in order to protect their large number of women & children. The USA broke every Treaty ever made with the Native Americans across the growing USA. Our Country should be doing everything possible to help these descendants become prosperous.

  4. Great story and I learn many things that I did not know. I have visited must of this area and wish I
    known this story. Standing Rock is be news today. Thank You Mystic Stamp

  5. Anybody who thinks this attitude of Indian “integration” is real should visit a reservation today.
    My wife is a midwife on the Hopi reservation. The conditions on these “sanctuaries” are nothing less than ethnic cleansing. As the government says “they are a defeated nation” and we are doing everything we can to carry that on. Someday these reservations will be the only natural areas left and the indians will rule once again.

  6. Sitting Bull is my great-great-great uncle as he married Taoyateduta’s (His Red Nation, aka Little Crow, my greatX3 grandfather) sister. Another spelling considered correct for Siting Bull’s name is Tatanka Iyatake. I believe this is the first time I have seen a correct translation of his name (Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down) and would further note that it was white men who shortened his ‘name’ to the ‘popular’ version.

  7. Custer was a baby killer and he got exactly what he deserved.

    How offended whites are about violence against a church but this was
    the exact same thing when they Murdered all those people over the Ghost Dance!

  8. Great story; thank you for the information. This is a part of our history that I wish had not happened; but it needs to be told; challenged if necessary, researched, and changed if appropriate. I hope we have learned from out mistakes, but I doubt it. Whenever you put soldiers (young people) in situations where they use deadly force, bad things are bound to happen; just take a look at Kent State and the Mei Lai incident during Viet Nam. I’m not sure what the answer is for the American Indian today; it’s not an easy fix. I’m sure there is blame to affix to both sides (Indians and non-Indians), but with a 20 Trillion dollar debt and half the U.S. on government assistance; there are no easy answers. Thanks for the story.

  9. The suppression of Native Americans by the US government continues to this day, the darkest chapter in American history; continue to watch the current events in Standing Rock! I have absolutely no empathy for war criminals like Custer and his ilk; they deserved what they got in the hands of Chief Sitting Bull and his warriors! Justice for Native Americans will eventually prevail in order to fully restore their sovereignty in the eyes of the world community.

  10. Thank you those that mention the suppression of Native Americans. As I have mentioned before. When the extermination of fellow human beings takes place outside the US, it’s considered a crime against humanity. When it happens within the US border as it does to this day, it seems to be just part of the legal system exercising its principles on certain peoples based on their ethnicity and perhaps more importantly, their economic level.

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