Civilized and Wild: Native American memories

Sarah Bales, described in the Journal as “the oldest inhabitant of Kansas City,” died in May, 1893, age 85. SheSarah Bales had arrived as a girl with her father’s family in 1825, soon after the area was first opened to white settlement: “The country was wild,” reported the Journal, “and Indians were quite thick in this neighborhood.”[1] In 1825, Kansas was “Indian territory,” and a repository for Native Americans driven west by the expansion of European settlement.  By 1893, however, few Native Americans remained in the Kansas City region: most had migrated to the Indian Territory that would become part of Oklahoma in 1907.

Two stories related to the “vanishing red man” appeared in Kansas City papers in 1893: the death of the “last of the Wyandottes,” and the dedication of a monument at Fort Riley, Kansas, to soldiers killed at the battle of Wounded Knee in 1890.

The “last Wyandotte” was Hiram Northrup, an early settler and prominent Kansas City banker who had married a Wyandotte and been adopted into the tribe before it departed for the Indian Territory, the last among many forced moves of the Wyandottes from their origins in the upper Ohio River valley.

In 1843 they were removed to Kansas. The Huron Cemetery was established at the heart of what would become the city of Wyandotte, subsequently Kansas City, Kansas, when many of those who had died during the forced trek were taken there for burial.  Northrup and another white adoptee of the Wyandottes, “Aunt Lucy Armstrong,” were “the watchers left by the tribe to guard its sacred possessions,” in the words of a Journal story on the cemetery.

Huron cemeteryNorthrup was buried in the Huron cemetery. A few months after his death, the Journal story recalled nostalgically the story of the vanishing Wyandottes, as developers were lobbying – unsuccessfully – to remove remains from the cemetery and develop for commercial use an area “so dear and sacred to the Wyandottes… the last place where Wyandotte sentiment lingered…. No spot naturally more beautiful could be found. On the brow of a hill, 150 feet above the mouth of the Kaw… the civilized red man chose the home of his beloved dead.”[2]

The Wyandottes were considered “civilized” because many had become American citizens in 1855, dissolving their affiliation to the Wynandotte nation. Those who had not become citizens were removed in 1867 to Indian Territory in Oklahoma,[3] an area with a reputation for lawlessness. Soon, suggested the Times, which actively promoted commercial ties with Oklahoma, even that region will be tamed “when the shackles of ancient barbarism are broken by a white American civilization.” [4]

The common view was that Native Americans would be “Americanized” and the reservation system abandoned; said Thomas J. Morgan, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in1893, “The anomalous position heretofore occupied by the Indians in this country can not much longer be maintained. The reservation system belongs to a ‘vanishing state of things’ and must soon cease to exist. The logic of events demands the absorption of the Indians into our national life, not as Indians, but as American citizens.”[5]

The image of Native Americans as fundamentally wild and “uncivilized” remained as powerful, however, as the image of the noble Red Man fated to assimilate into “white American civilization.” It appears, for example, in a story titled “Jim and his Indian” in the Journal, about a Native American employee of James A. Finlay, formerly a trader, hotel owner and postmaster on the Pine Ridge Reservation . Finlay, reported the paper, “has an Indian… Jim’s Indian is fresh from the airy Pine Ridge country, and, like all wild animals, is a great coward when away from his native haunts.”

The story doesn’t specify the nature of Finlay’s relationship to Nowater, said to be “the lineal descendant of the famous chief of that name who has given so much trouble to the soldiers on the Pine Ridge reservation.” Thomas No Water Whether or not a member of the No Water family, Finlay’s employee clearly had reasons for what the paper calls cowardice: he is described as “much afraid of colored men, or, as he calls them, ‘Wasechi sapa,’” a fear that probably developed, the paper speculates, “from the fact that nearly all of the soldiers he has seen were colored,”[6] the “Buffalo Soldiers” who had fought in the Pine Ridge campaign of 1890-1891.

It was that campaign which was commemorated by the erection of a monument at Fort Riley, Kansas, to the soldiers who died at the battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, considered the last battle between Native Americans and regular troops of the Indian wars. The Times, in its article on the monument’s dedication in July, 1893, represented the four century history of “massacres, long wars, assassinations, bloody butcheries” as a story of “the advance of modern civilization against the aborigine.”

The Times depicts the battle as the culmination of an “extended disturbance among the Indians,” after Sitting Bull, “the wily chief,” broke his promise to be “a good Indian” and threatened to leave the agency. He was killed by “Indian police” attempting to capture him, causing a “war spirit” among the Sioux, who attacked the Drexel Catholic mission: “The Seventh Cavalry arrived in time to engage the Indians,” the paper recounts, “and a terrific encounter ensued. Between seventy-five and one hundred of the redskins were killed, and twenty-four United States soldiers….”

Fort Riley monumentThe Fort Riley monument commemorated only the latter, of course, “these brave men, whose battle cry was ‘Remember Custer’….The Indians of the United States are generally peaceful now,” concludes the article, “and there is little chance for another outbreak. The march of civilization was never so rapid as at this moment.”[7]

The Times later ran an article on some of the members of the Seventh Cavalry who had died at Wounded Knee, commenting on the “unequaled record” of the regiment in warfare against Native Americans: “twenty-five engagements with Indians. It has lost nineteen officers and 293 enlisted men....”  The article reviews the history of the regiment from its first engagement at the Washita River “under the leadership of that gallant soldier, Lieutenant George A. Custer.”

In the Times account, the Washita attack was part of a campaign aimed to show the Cheyenne that “even a winter would not give them rest, that their villages and stock could be destroyed, and the only security they could have would be when the laws of peace and humanity were obeyed.” With peace and humanity in mind, Custer had arranged his men around the sleeping encampment on the Washita and attacked at dawn, burning the village, killing 103 warriors and capturing “53 squaws and children.” It was an engagement that that even at the time was referred to by some as a massacre.[8]

The second Times account offers a more detailed account of the events leading to the Wounded Knee battle, as a band under Big Foot, an ally of Sitting Bull, surrendered and was told “kindly, but firmly” by an army officer that “they must give up their arms, that they need have no fear and that they would be kindly and considerately treated.” Big Foot, “the old rascal,” says the Times -- no doubt suspicious of such assurances -- said his people had no arms, having turned them in previously to the army.

While a search of Big Foot’s men was being conducted, a shot was fired “by a young buck directly at the soldiers,” at which point others of his men “poured a volley into the troops and their own village, following it up with their repeating rifles as rapidly as possible, at the same time breaking for their tepees. The fire was murderous and knocked over many brave fellows.”

Troops returned fire; the battle continued outside the village “where the Indians, many of them wounded, secreted in stump-holes and in inaccessible ravines, killed and wounded many soldiers…. There were many acts of bravery and courage,” says the Times, referring only to the troopers, “but every man showed himself to be a soldier, gallant and brave, with the nerve born of disciplined courage.” 146 Indians were “buried on the field.” There was evidence bodies had been removed from the field by the Lakota.[9] 

So went the Kansas City Times’ story on events at Wounded Knee, yet even at the time, there were questions about the true nature and causes of the battle. James A. Finlay, postmaster at the Pine Ridge agency in 1890, told a Times reporter that in the conflicts leading up to and including the Wounded Knee battle, the Indians were outraged and hundreds of innocent people killed because of “the stupidity or subbornness [sic] of Indian Commissioner Morgan and the incompetency and cowardice of Agent D.F. Royer.”

Commissioner Morgan, in Finlay’s account, had dismissed reports from the Indian agent at Pine Ridge that the Lakota people were being cheated in their rations: “The Indians are getting all they deserved,” he responded, and he fired the agent, replacing him with a man who was, according to Finlay, “incompetent for the place; he was not versed in Indian affairs, and worse than all, he was a coward. An Indian will stand it to be starved as long as a brave man is over him. Indians respect nerve, but they despise above all things a coward.”

The frightened agent prevailed on the military to send troops, telling them an uprising was imminent. It was, suggests Finlay, a combination of the two factors, unrest caused by the ration shortage and the behavior of the cowardly Indian agent, that led to the climactic battle of Wounded Knee.

One cannot dismiss the possibility that Finlay’s views had a political slant; he was a Republican and the Journal a Republican paper. Finlay refuses to blame the soldiers for the massacre of 300 Lakota Sioux, many of them women and children: “Many people say it was a butchery,” he told the Times reporter, “but I maintain that the soldiers were in no wise to blame for the result. They simply obeyed orders. The blame for it all rests on the shoulders of two men, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Morgan and Indian Agent Royer.” Yet contemporary accounts described the soldiers as being out of their officers’ control, pursuing fleeing Lakota for miles and shooting them down, reportedly saying "Remember Custer!" as they did so.[10]

The two Democratic newspapers in town offered no explanation for the behavior of the Lakota. The Star wrote of “treacherous savages,” remarking that the dedication of the monument was one of the few occasions when “the deeds of our regular army have been formally commemorated…. It is doubtful if in the annals of war and peace a force of officers and soldiers no larger than that which has always constituted our regular army, ever, in a century, performed so much and such varied services and received so little of outward and visible reward….” [11]


[1]Mrs. Sarah Bales Dead.” Daily Journal, May 13, 1893, p. 3.

[2] “The Silent Wyandottes.” Daily Journal, November 26, 1893, p. 7.

[3] The Huron Indian Cemetery.

[4] Editorial, Kansas City Times, January 20, 1893, p. 4.

[5] Extract for Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.” October 1, 1889.

[6] “Jim and his Indian.” Daily Journal, May 10, 1893, p. 3.

[7]The Battle of Wounded Knee.” Kansas City Times, July 19, 1893, p. 4.


[9] “To honor its dead heroes.” Kansas City Times, July 23, 1893, p. 12.

[10] Wounded Knee Massacre. and_ensuing_massacre

[11] “The Monument at Fort Riley.” Kansas City Star, July 22, 1893,  p. 4.