Six Sioux Indian Chiefs in the Jail Yard
Part Eight: The Select Committee of the Senate
on the Removal of the Northern Cheyenne
In the summer of 1879, the Select Committee of the Senate on the Removal of the Northern Cheyenne was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes and began their investigation. They wanted to know why the Northern Cheyenne had left the Darlington Agency. The events at Fort Robinson had not made the government look good, and the President expected an explanation.
In mid-August, Committee Chairman Senator Samuel J. Kirkwood of Iowa, and Senators John T. Morgan of Alabama, Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, and Preston B. Plumb of Kansas, arrived in Lawrence, Kansas to interview Wild Hog and Tangle Hair. Major Ben Clarke, an interpreter from Ft Reno, and a staff of secretaries accompanied them. Mrs Kirkwood, Senator Dawes’ son, and Senator Morgan’s daughter also came along for some sightseeing. The family members were treated to tours of the Lawrence area while the senators were engaged in government business.
Defense attorney Captain Jeremiah G Mohler traveled from Salina to supervise his clients’ testimonies. The Senators only wanted details surrounding the tribes’ decision to leave Oklahoma and details surrounding the incident at Fort Robinson. The depredations in Kansas were barely mentioned during the interviews. That portion of the Indians’ history and fate was not to be considered by the committee, only their reasons for leaving Oklahoma and the details surrounding their outbreak at Fort Robinson were in question during these hearings.
While in Lawrence, local reporters interviewed Captain Mohler. They were desperate for some insight to the Indians’ perspective and into Mohler’s choice to represent them. He explained that his decision had been a matter of principle. As a veteran, Capt Mohler saw their military incarceration and subsequent transfer to civil authority as illegal—just as it would’ve been if a southern state had individually charged and jailed him following the Civil War. As a human being, he saw a group of men with no money, no political connections, and with no chance of winning. He was sympathetic and felt they deserved a fair chance.
The meetings took place at the Ludington House, one of Lawrence’s nicest and oldest hotels. On August 14, 1879, the Kansas Daily Tribune reported that the six members of the “distinguished firm of Wild Hog & Co” appeared before the Senatorial Committee the previous Tuesday to give their statements. Although the article appears be respectful to the prisoners, the subtext was rife with condescension. Commenting that the men didn’t seem to be intimidated by the fancy furnishings and carpeted parlor of the Ludington House, environs they surely hadn’t been exposed to heretofore, showed a snobbery that was indicative of the general opinion of the Indian at the time.
Both Wild Hog and Tangle Hair were interviewed by the Committee on the evening of August 12, 1879. They were sworn in—the Committee Chairman making sure that the men understood the importance of honesty in their testimonies. Senator Kirkwood questioned whether Indians understood the meaning of an oath and if they acknowledged its sanctity and binding force. Interpreter Ben Clarke explained to the Committee that the Cheyenne fully comprehended the concept of an oath, but regarded it as meaningless. They believed that everything they said out loud was heard by the Great Spirit, therefore, they never spoke untruths. In the case at hand, they felt it was especially important to be honest.
Wild Hog and Tangle Hair were asked questions regarding their personal experiences at the Darlington Agency. They were questioned about what they’d expected before they went to Oklahoma, what they experienced once they’d arrived, how they were treated at the Agency, if they’d made their displeasure known to authorities, their reasons for leaving, and their perspective of what had happened at Fort Robinson. They were asked about food, rations, clothing, medical care, housing, and overall treatment.
The hearings were closed to the public and to the media, so the newspapers were left to speculate as to what was said and how the senators reacted. Those involved were only permitted to comment that the case would be evaluated on the evidence produced in the investigation, just as it would be in the investigation of any white man.
When they were finished with their interviews in Lawrence, the committee journeyed to Oklahoma to visit the Darlington Agency and tour the reservation in person. In Oklahoma, they interviewed Agent John Miles, Agency employees and contractors, Fort Reno Army officers, and members of the Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian tribes. Already released from prosecution in the civil case, Old Crow had been returned to Oklahoma, so he was interviewed there.
The Committee also traveled to Fort Robinson in Nebraska where they toured the barracks where the Indians had been housed and interviewed everyone involved. Once back in Washington DC, they questioned Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ezra Hayt and Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz. The evasiveness of the Washington cabinet members showed significant hostility and/or ambivalence to the Indian issues.
Everyone pointed fingers away from themselves. Government officials pointed to vague treaty terms, insufficient budgetary restrictions, or bureaucracy. Agency officials blamed supply issues, tribal hierarchy preferences in ration distribution, and to a small, stubborn group who refused to do their part in assimilation. They also blamed the Indians for refusing to learn to farm the land allotted to them at the reservation. Army officials at Fort Robinson claimed they were simply following the orders given to them by their superiors. The Indians insisted that they had been misled, lied to, starved, mistreated, and forced into one horrible situation after another.
Once the Committee was finished with their investigation, Committee Chairman Senator Samuel J Kirkwood of Iowa submitted Report No. 708 to the 2nd Session of the 46th Congress of the United States. In the 327-page report, the Select Senatorial Committee did the best they could to look beyond Miles’ and Schurz’s denials of mistreatment and the Army’s misconduct at Fort Robinson to try to understand that the root of the problem. They believed that it lay in the cultural differences between the indigenous people and those who were encroaching on their native environments. The committee understood that the Northern Cheyenne needed a place of their own that they would love, but one that the white people would never want. They called the whole reservation system into question, but came to no solid conclusion of what to do going forward.
Regardless of the Committee’s findings, the Northern Cheyenne who remained up north were returned to the Darlington Agency in Oklahoma. The committee called for the establishment of a cattle-herd at the reservation and funds allocated to maintain it. They called for increased employment opportunities on the reservation, and farmers employed on the reservation to teach the Indians how to farm the land.
Nowhere in the report does the committee address the fact that the Northern Cheyenne simply wanted to live up north on the land they loved. Nowhere does it admit that there had been an epic misunderstanding. Nowhere did it call for the Northern Cheyenne to be given a home of their own.
The Northern Cheyenne Reservation
Several years passed before the Northern Cheyenne people realized their dream. On November 16, 1884, President Chester A. Arthur issued an Executive Order establishing a 371,200-acre reservation for the Northern Cheyenne on the Tongue River in Montana. On March 19, 1900, an Executive Order by President William McKinley increased the Tongue River Reservation to 444,157 acres. Most of the men, women, and children who fought for the right to make their homes on this land didn’t live to see either Executive Order, but many of their descendants did.
Images: Rutherford B Hayes by Matthew Brady (I just LOVE Matthew Brady’s portraits!), Library of Congress; Samuel J Kirkwood, Library of Congress; Jeremiah G Mohler, Pinterest (original source unknown); The Ludington House, from the Lawrence Journal World; Fort Robinson, Pinterest (origin unknown); The Northern Cheyenne Reservation at Tongue River, Montana, from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe Department of Environmental Protection and Resources webpage; Reservation Sign, Pinterest (origin unknown).
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