Six Sioux Chiefs in the Jail Yard

Those who know me and my creative process know that sometimes, one tiny detail can send me into a research frenzy—something that renders me completely useless until I can come to some sort of a satisfactory resting place. Thanks to this quirky obsession with details and fact verification, I found a personal connection with an obscure little piece of American history.

After a serious case of writer’s block, I decided to pick a leaf from my Beautiful Tree and just start working. My great grand uncle, Theodore Starrett, seemed like the perfect person to help me out of my dry spell, so I went about setting up a timeline for Theodore. It was in this process that I veered off into Indian Territory.

What resulted was not a piece on Theodore, but something entirely different altogether. The Starrett family may not have been directly involved in the events I learned about, but they were a huge part of the America in which the family lived. As Kansas residents, the family would’ve known about a lot of the things that happened because they were among the main topics of front page news, social conversation, and whispered gossip for the better part of a year.

Paul’s Book, from my bookshelf

My great grand uncle Paul, Theodore’s younger brother, published his autobiography, Changing the Skyline, in 1932 when he was 72 years old. In the first chapter of CTS, Paul recollects the family’s early years in Lawrence, Kansas.

           My brothers and sisters and I were all born in Lawrence. Our early life was lived in an America now completely gone. Through the vista of the years I look back to prairies which the Indians, with their squaws and papooses, were still crossing on their single-file trails. I remember standing one morning with a group of scared children in the city jail yard, where the six Sioux chiefs captured after the Custer massacre were incarcerated. As clearly as I see the aeroplane overhead today, I can see the long trains loaded with buffalo hides going through to the East.
           In my youth the old West was already vanishing. Its passing was, in fact, already under way.

Exactly who were these “six Sioux chiefs” who had been “captured after the Custer massacre,” and why were they in the Lawrence, Kansas jail yard with scared children gawking at them? What happened to them? Were there any photographs? I needed to know these things. And really, how hard could this be to verify? The Custer Massacre (Battle of Little Big Horn) happened in June of 1876, and the Starretts left Kansas in February of 1880. This window is relatively small, and it seemed to me that the incarceration of “six Sioux chiefs” would be pretty big news. This would be a slam dunk.

Unless it wasn’t.

So, what exactly DID happen?

This question was more difficult to answer than I imagined because it’s one of those questions that American history itself hasn’t been able to definitively answer—one that historians on all sides have grappled with for over a century. Since I’m not an expert in Native American history, I’ve attempted to tell the story from a neutral standpoint. The answer of who the individuals were only took a few hours to figure out. The answer as to why they were in Lawrence was a much more difficult, enlightening, and time consuming process.

So, what happened?

As with all chapters in human history, there are multiple versions of the truth—the reality lies in the mind and heart of the storyteller, and no amount of research can give an unbiased and historically perfect account of events. Without a doubt, a neutral account of events on the Plains during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is nearly impossible to attain.

In his book The Fighting Cheyennes, George Bird Grinnell writes that the hostilities between Indians and whites was racial. To most white people, an Indian was an Indian, and if he or white people had been wronged by an Indian, revenge must be exacted on an Indian. To the same extent, to most Indians, white people were white people, and if he or his people had been wronged by a white person, revenge must be exacted on a white person. Distinctions between tribes or settlers was irrelevant, and revenge was often exacted on innocent parties of all ethnicities. The guilty rarely suffered, and distrust, fear, and hatred mounted.

One commonality in the shared history of these two cultures is the propensity to omit unflattering details of one’s own people. This is glaringly obvious during the Western migration. Neither the Americans or the Indians detailed their own war crimes, so accounts are scarce. But, they’re there if you look hard enough.

The story I found isn’t one that’s included in most history books because it’s ugly. Both sides did horrible things, and neither side bragged about their misdeeds and war crimes. The story I found isn’t in the mainstream annals of history because it made everyone look bad, and no one likes a story without a hero.

But I’m going to tell it anyway.

But, before I get to the “six Sioux chiefs in the jail yard,” it’s necessary to understand a little about the history of the incidents that led up to what Paul referred to in his book. Why? Not because I was dying to read a handful of books about Native American history so I could give a big lecture on Indian-American relations, but because without a basic understanding of the history leading up to Paul’s memory, the entire thing makes even less sense.

Additionally, when I tell a story about an historical event, I try really hard to tell it from a neutral perspective. In other words, I’m trying to tell this story without the filter of modern-day politics and values. Since feelings between Indian-American relations have changed over the last century, this is not an easy task! But, it’s important to try to see things from a neutral standpoint, without cultural bias or influence, in order to understand how things unfolded.

So, here’s my crash-course. (Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on this stuff! For further reading, I’ll attach a list of sources at the end of the series in case this sparks an interest for you.)

Part One

Cheyenne Indians, Pinterest

In the very early days of the American Western expansion, interaction between the Plains Indians and the settlers was friendly. For the most part, they stayed out of each others’ way. According to some sources, the period before the Civil War continued along these lines. But as large numbers of settlers began to migrate westward, the American government became more eager to negotiate terms that would make migration safer and easier for both populations.

Unfortunately, vast cultural differences between the two people were wider than they anticipated. The Indians were not unified any more than the Europeans were, and negotiating a treaty with Commanches meant no more to the Cheyenne than a treaty with England would mean to Hungary. The same could also be said for members of different bands within a large tribe. The Southern and Northern Cheyenne differed as greatly as southern Californians and New Yorkers. A “one size fits all” approach was naïve and overly optimistic.

Wagon Train on the Oregon Train, Pinterest

This migration coincided with agricultural and ecological events that were permanently changing the landscape. Drought, insect infestation, bovine and equine overgrazing, disease, and increased agriculture reduced and altered the buffalo grazing and migration patterns. The surge in the Indian and settler populations resulted in a dramatic food shortage. A reduction in the bison population threatened the Indians’ livelihood. In an attempt to create peace between the Indians and the settlers, the government proposed that they set aside lands for the Indians where they could live without the intrusion of settlers. But, the government required that the Indians allow wagon trains and railroads to safely pass through the territory. The Indians refused.

A-31-117-Fort-Laramie-1870_2 US Signal Corps NPS
Fort Laramie, Wyoming, National Archives (via Pinterest)

Hostilities mounted, and the US began building forts to help protect the wagon trains along the way. In 1851, a treaty at Ft Laramie was intended to help create a more peaceful environment, but it was only temporary. The tribes often battled each other and sometimes turned against the settlers and the wagon trains—especially those who ventured off the well-traveled trails. The treaty allowed for safe passage, but the tribes that hadn’t signed attacked every transgression they encountered. After disagreements over the details of the Fr Laramie Treaty mounted, the Sioux and Cheyenne began to attack every white settlement, stagecoach, wagon train, and individual they saw. Bands of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers took to attacking farms and kidnapping women and children. In response, the US beefed up their military presence.

Illustration of the Medicine Lodge Council from Harper’s Weekly, 1867

In 1867, the Southern Cheyenne struck a treaty at the Medicine Lodge council in Kansas that gave them rights to lands in Oklahoma. But, the treaty was flawed from the start. The Cheyenne understood that they’d settle on a reservation when the buffalo were gone. What they didn’t understand is that the buffalo would be gone much sooner than they ever could’ve imagined was possible—and they didn’t realize that the government would be allowing buffalo to be slaughtered en masse so as to force tribes onto the reservations. And, since the Cheyenne weren’t a unified people, the Northern Cheyenne and Dog Soldiers had not agreed to the treaty’s terms.

Bison Herd Montana
American Bison Herd, Montana State University Archives (via Pinterest)

The Sioux and Cheyenne Connection 

Like the Lakota Sioux, one of the cultural foundations of the Cheyenne is their relationship with the land. For generations, they’d lived nomadically on the northern Plains, following the buffalo grazing cycles. Since both the Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne shared many cultural similarities, they gradually formed a close alliance, ultimately intermarrying and traveling together.

In 1868, the Sioux struck a new treaty at Ft Laramie, creating the Great Sioux Reservation, and the US withdrew troops from the Black Hills. The American government hoped the Sioux would stay on the reservation and fighting between them and the settlers would stop. But the nomadic Sioux didn’t agree. They didn’t think they were required to stay on the reservation all the time. They were under the impression that they could come and go as they pleased.

Rather than enter into more talks with the government, many Sioux and Cheyenne tribes began violently raiding farms and homesteads in areas they traveled but that were not within the official boundaries of their reservation. For about ten years, reports of murder, rape, and kidnapping were reported and sensationalized. Fear of the Indians was, to many, a reality. Whether exaggerated or not, the stories of many murders, women “outraged,” and raids of innocent settlers’ farms circulated and depredations were filed.

And then—Gold.  Gold in the Black Hills.

Chicago Inter Ocean Front Page 09121874
Chicago Inter Ocean, Front Page, Thursday Morning, August 27, 1874


© Julie Dirkes Phelps; Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller. © Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask me. I try to make sure to attribute all images to the appropriate sources, but sometimes I inadvertently post an image from an incorrect source (or the image is incorrectly cited from my source), get images mixed up, or accidentally leave something out. Please email me at with any corrections or concerns. Thanks.