Six Sioux Indian Chiefs in the Jail Yard
Part Nine: The Kansas Valley Fair
When George Y. Johnson had an idea, he shared it with everyone. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his friends found it difficult not to jump on the bandwagon with him. On the morning of July 29, 1879, the Lawrence Daily Journal printed his latest idea on the front page of the newspaper. In a letter to the editor, Mr. Johnson proposed that the Indian prisoners exhibit their equestrian and archery skills at the upcoming county fair.
A week later, The Kansas Daily Tribune, another of Lawrence’s daily newspapers, printed a different letter to the editor. Anonymous, except for the initials C.H.T., the author expressed concern for Mr. Johnson’s idea, citing that allowing the Indian prisoners to perform at the fair would be inappropriate since the men were being held pending trial on first degree murder charges. He felt as though they should be treated as anyone else under the same circumstances.
Having Wild Hog, Porcupine, Tangle Hair, Blacksmith, Noisy Walker, and Strong Left Hand as long-term residents of the Douglas County Jail was not an uncontroversial issue.
The Kansas Valley Fair
The Kansas Valley Fair Association had spent months raising money for, and building a permanent exhibition building on the County Fairgrounds at Bismarck Grove in North Lawrence. The fair was scheduled for the first week of September, and the massive building received its finishing touches on August 14—fewer than three weeks before opening day.
The new permanent fair building stretched eighty feet in four directions. Each thirty-six-foot wide wing sported handsome gables and a shingled roof. When the doors were open, it looked a little like a bit tent—breezy, but sturdy. At the center was a large, cedar pole around which circular tables showcased the fair’s abundant floral display. Forty large picture windows provided ample light and expansive views to the grounds outside.
The Kansas Valley Fair Association had done a fine job of recruiting exhibits and vendors from around the state. From agricultural and horticultural displays to household goods and mechanical exhibitions, the 1879 Fair was scheduled to have something that everyone would be able to enjoy.
In yet another let to the editor, Mrs. Celia C. Short, widow of Capt. O. F. Short, requested that her perspective of the Indians be considered and printed. (Apparently, Lawrence newspapers in the 1870s were often the platform for airing grievances and arguing with opponents. Almost like a 19th century primitive Twitter.) Mrs. Short’s unique perspective gave pause for thought on the matter of the Cheyenne.
Mrs. O.F. Short’s Story
Around August 15, 1874, a family of settlers traveling to Colorado encountered a tribe of Southern Cheyenne led by Chief Medicine Water. John German, his pregnant wife, Lydia, and three of their children were violently murdered, and their bodies and belongings burned. Four of their daughters were taken captive. The two older daughters were raped, tortured, and traded among tribes.
For more than eighteen years, Civil War veteran Captain Oliver F. Short had worked as a government surveyor, and had always had friendly interactions with various Plains Indian tribes. Unbeknownst to Captain Short and his surveying party, they were in the same part of Kansas as Medicine Water and the German family. On August 24, Capt. Short, his 14-year old son Truman, and four men were ambushed, murdered, scalped, and left for dead on the prairie.
Captain Short’s murder left his widow with four children to support. Four years later, Mrs Short was on the brink of poverty. Her government depredations application had been denied—the government didn’t pay out claims for loss of life, only loss of property. Mrs Fannie Kelly, a woman who had been a Sioux captive, had campaigned on Mrs. Short’s behalf and secured a settlement for her.
When Mr Johnson’s letter was printed, Mrs. Short had just received her first depredations payment (it had been four years since her husband and son had been murdered while on a job for the US government). Understandably, she was upset. The idea that anyone charged with murdering innocent people were now being asked to perform the exact skills and activities utilized in her husband’s and son’s murders was appalling to her. She asked how Massacre survivors would feel if an accused member of William Quantrill’s gang was invited to show off his marksmanship as entertainment at the fair. She reiterated that didn’t want to see innocent men—regardless of race—punished for crimes for which they were innocent. She only wanted justice. Justice for the victims, and justice in the form of due process of law for the Indians sitting in the jail.
Regardless of how moving Mrs. Short’s letter may have been, her words fell on deaf ears. The Indians were scheduled to appear on horseback in their native “costume” to show off their horsemanship and archery skills at the Kansas Valley Fair.
Back to the Fair
The fair’s first three days boasted high attendance numbers, exciting races, impressive produce, cutting edge farm equipment, jellies, jams, baked goods, honey, pickles, children’s clothes, shoes, toys, dolls, taxidermy, sewing machines, stoves, quilts, and more. Livestock shows and sales and deals were as brisk as the races around the brand new race track.
On the fourth day of the fair, Wild Hog, Porcupine, Tangle Hair, Blacksmith, Noisy Walker, and Strong Left Hand made their appearance. Mounted on horses borrowed from local liveries, they rode into the Grove dressed in their native clothing.
As they began their exhibition, one of the ponies jumped and ran, bucking his rider off of his back into a tree. The Lawrence County Journal named the man as “Run Fast” (probably Noisy Walker). At first, spectators thought he might have been killed, but he’d just badly hurt his knee. He got back onto his pony and was able to ride to the dining hall for dinner, but immediately afterwards, he left the grounds with the doctor and returned to the jail. The others continued with an archery and riding show.
Billy Hughes, a local Lawrence man who declared himself to be an Indian scout, offered a prize of one dollar to the Indian who could catch him and bring his hat to the sheriff—kind of a mock scalping. Billy excitedly whooped and hollered as he sprinted in and out among the Indians on his horse. After a few minutes, a gust of wind blew Billy’s hat off of his head and across the track. In the spirit of the game, Wild Hog caught up to Billy, lifted him off his saddle by the seat of his pants, trotted him over to the sheriff, and dropped Billy Hughes on the track at the sheriff’s feet. The crowd roared with laughter, and Sheriff Clarke awarded Wild Hog a shiny new silver dollar. Other than Run Fast’s injury, the Indians were said to have enjoyed the festivities.
The next day, rumors circulated that Run Fast was hurt worse than was initially thought. He was in a significant amount of pain and spent the remainder of his time in Lawrence walking with a limp.
Once the Kansas Valley Fair ended, the Northern Cheyenne prisoners only had 39 days to go until their trial date. The previous summer’s details were released to the media, and everyone was horrified. Horrified at the treatment of the Northern Cheyenne by the American government, and horrified by the actions taken by some of the Northern Cheyenne on their way home. No one knew quite what to think. Sentiments were more divided than ever.
Prosecutor Mike Sutton and defense attorney J.G. Mohler continued to prepare their cases. Subpoenas were issued to more than 50 witnesses, and the prisoners’ families prepared to make the journey to Lawrence. Whatever the outcome, it would all be over soon.
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