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Kicking Bear, Fort Sheridan hostage, 1891

A proper appreciation of the full significance of Buffalo Billís momentous 1891-92 season in Germany, Belgium and Great Britain, requires that it first be set within the context of a complex and tortuous background unparalleled by any of his other tours. As a result of tensions arising out of the Ghost Dance cult, which took hold throughout the American West during 1890 but particularly affecting the Lakota (more popularly known as Sioux), hostilities erupted during November of that year on the Pine Ridge (Oglala), Rosebud (Brulť) and Standing Rock (Hunkpapa) reservations. These events provided a special immediacy and set the stamp of authenticity on Codyís Ďsavagesí as never before, or since.

The key figure in this drama, Kicking Bear, was born an Oglala but became a Minneconjou band chief by virtue of marriage to a niece of Chief Big Foot. A first cousin and former close associate of the great Crazy Horse, alongside whom he fought with great distinction at the Little Bighorn in 1876, Kicking Bear merits particular close attention as a historical figure. He, along with Short Bull, a Brulť medicine man, and several others, had travelled in the fall of 1889 as tribal delegates into the distant west, sent to investigate reports concerning the appearance of a Messiah. After meeting with Paiute mystic Wovoka at Walker Lake, Nevada, the delegation returned as converts and active proselytisers of the Messianic creed on the Lakota reservations.

 The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee 

The new religion was apparently peaceful in its intentions, enjoining its adherents to dance in a prescribed manner, in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah - the white manís Jesus Christ, now returning as the missionaries had long promised, but in the form of an Indian - at the head of an army of resurrected ancestors. However, in November 1890, responding to apprehensions that these observances were but the prelude to a general pan-tribal outbreak, the federal government ordered the military occupation of Pine Ridge and the Rosebud. Various Oglala and Brulť bands reacted to this ominous development by stampeding, next converging to establish a great Ghost Dance encampment on the Stronghold, a natural fortress in the Badlands, later depicted on the back cover of Buffalo Billís 1891-92 official programme.

Through an ineluctable coincidence, meanwhile, Buffalo Bill, general manager John M. Burke and the remaining Indians returned early from Europe, leaving Codyís business partner, Nate Salsbury, in charge of the main body of the Wild West in winter quarters in Benfield, Alsace-Lorraine. A scandal had been generated by certain Lakota performers returning sick and injured in mid-season, bearing accusations of systematic mistreatment. Nor had a simultaneous scandal, involving Doc Carverís Wild America, then creating havoc in Russia and Germany, done anything to alleviate the situation. Certainly, there had been an alarming number of fatalities, both as a result of disease and accidents in the arena, though probably no higher than the shameful pro capita mortality rate on the reservations over the same period. An immediate ban was therefore imposed on the recruitment of Indians for the purposes of Wild West shows and for a time it appeared that Buffalo Billís supply of Lakota performers had run out for good.

A rare colour version of Short Bullís Fort Sheridan mugshot

Two major violent events would follow in consequence of the military invasion of the reservations. The first was the assassination, on 15th December 1890, of Chief Sitting Bull, during a dawn raid by reservation police, at his cabin on Standing Rock reservation. The second was the massacre of Minneconjou men, women and children of Big Footís band at Wounded Knee, two weeks later, on the 29th.

In truth, Sitting Bull, never having fully committed to the Ghost Dance movement, was but a peripheral player but, just as fifteen year before, when he had attracted the blame for the defeat and massacre of Custerís men at the Little Bighorn, he emerged once again as the principal focus for the vindictive paranoia of the authorities and headed the list of perceived fomenters whom they sought to eliminate.

Big Foot was another designated target. When word of Sitting Bullís violent death broke at Cheyenne River, he and his followers fled. Fearing lest the fugitives proposed to reinforce the Stronghold faction, a detachment of the 7th Cavalry, Custerís old regiment, intercepted them, detaining them overnight at Wounded Knee. The following morning, as the soldiers tried to disarm the reluctant Indians, a shot was discharged - no one knows for sure by whom - and firing instantly became general. Some hand-to-hand fighting ensued but it seems hard to deny that the slaughter of fleeing non-combatants continued long after all military necessity had abated.

The massacre was the cue for the hitherto notional hostiles to erupt in a vengeful rampage on and in the vicinity of Pine Ridge Reservation, as the desultory skirmishing which had been the hallmark of the worst excesses of the Indian Wars during the 1860s and 70s burst into life once more.

The violence soon burnt itself out, as the soldiers, by sheer weight of numbers, surrounded the hostile faction, manoeuvering the Indians back in the direction of Pine Ridge Agency. On 15th January 1891, Kicking Bear led the inevitable surrender.

When General Nelson A. Miles boarded the east-bound train on 26th January, he took with him twenty-seven prisoners. Part of the peace settlement was that these were to be held at Fort Sheridan, near Chicago, as hostages for the good conduct of the tribe. Among them were five conspicuous figures from the recent outbreak, Kicking Bear, Short Bull, Lone Bull, Scatter and Revenge. Otherwise, the selection criteria are far from apparent. Three of them were women, the balance of the party made up of boys and old men. It is entirely probable that some at least were randomly chosen, possibly even voluntarily.

Kicking Bear and Short Bull had been the main Ghost Dance instigators and were strongly implicated in the ensuing violence. Almost incredibly, a chain of events had been set in motion, whereby, within months, they would find themselves being introduced to audiences of thousands the length and breadth of England and Wales; before the yearís end, they were fated to become familiar figures on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland.

There was a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Buffalo Bill, when it became apparent that a number of his returning Indians, such as Black Heart, No Neck and Yankton Charlie, otherwise known as Plenty Wolves, had played a disproportionate part in securing the desired outcome, without any repetition of the humanitarian catastrophe of Wounded Knee. Whether in the role of army scouts, reservation police or interpreters / intermediaries in the negotiations, they had been conspicuous in the cause of peace. There were of course a few exceptions, of whom Black Elk, a veteran of the English season of 1887-88 yet an enthusiastic promoter of the Ghost Dance, presents the most obvious example. However, the overwhelming majority of Lakota performers had come home from tours of duty in the eastern United States and Europe, acutely sensitised to the invulnerability and previously unimagined extent of the white manís domain. They consequently exerted a powerful influence upon their fellow tribesmen, steering them to a realisation of the futility of continued resistance. The Wild West had, paradoxically, proven indispensible in the cause of Ďcivilizationí and due official recognition of this simple fact followed when, on 6th March 1891, Secretary of the Interior John Noble, prompted by General Miles, though in the face of sustained objections from certain previously influential quarters, rescinded the ban upon the employment of reservation Indians as abruptly as it had first been imposed.

A similar line of reasoning manifested itself with regard to the Fort Sheridan hostages. By the middle of March, no one really knew what to do with them, or was even clear about the reasoning behind their detention in the first place. Were they prisoners of war, honoured guests or just white elephants? Again upon the personal initiative of General Miles, they were presented with the opportunity of travelling as performers in Buffalo Billís show, as an alternative to continued imprisonment. The proposition was accepted by twenty-three of the twenty-seven, among them Kicking Bear, Short Bull, Lone Bull, Scatter and Revenge. It must be emphasised, however, that this outcome was not in any sense a Ďsentenceí; no judicial proceedings were ever involved in the disposal of this affair.

Buffalo Bill had only ever once been permitted to engage the services of Sitting Bull, for four months in 1885, but almost certainly never gave up on the hope of repeating the exercise until the old chief was killed towards the end of 1890. Here, however, was the next best thing and Buffalo Bill had his stage villains of choice.

With the recent Ďrebellioní suppressed, it served the white authorities only too well to have the leading figures out of the way. It was too good an opportunity to be missed. The prospect of a further outbreak was very much diminished, with the added benefit that, in the light of past experience, the erstwhile Ďhostilesí would, on their eventual return to the reservations, probably prove far more amenable to engaging in the arts of peace.


On 30th March 1891, therefore, the twenty-three were released into the custody of Buffalo Billís representative, John M. Burke, and were escorted to Philadelphia, from whence, in company with around forty voluntary enlistments from Pine Ridge and other Wild West personnel, they set sail on Wednesday, 1st April 1891, on board the Switzerland, making landfall at Antwerp two weeks later, on the 15th. On the same day, Buffalo Bill and Treasurer Jule Keen undertook the same voyage, on board the Noordland.

On Thursday, 16th April, a special train conveyed the new arrivals to StraŖburg, from whence a further short journey brought them to the winter quarters at Benfeld, where they were introduced to those who had been left there the previous fall. A number of German and Belgian venues followed.

 Great Britain 

During the early hours of the morning following the final Belgian show at Antwerp on Wednesday, 17th June, the company was borne across the North Sea by the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway Co. steamship Lincoln, to the English sea port of Grimsby.

In Manchester, on the evening of Friday, 31st July, a performance was given for the benefit of local surviving Balaklava veterans, seventeen of whom were personally in attendance. Among several additions to the programme on that occasion, a detachment of 12th Lancers opened proceedings with a display of mounted drill, with lance and sword exercises. This was one of the very first occasions on which extraneous elements had been successfully imported and, in retrospect, must be considered an important milestone in the overall evolution of the show.

On the morning of the final day in Manchester, Saturday, 8th August, Black Heart and Calls the Name were married at St Brideís Church, Stretford, in the presence of the entire company.

On the second last day in Sheffield, Friday, 14th August, disaster struck when Paul Eagle Star met with an accident as he was riding out of the arena at the end of the processional review, sustaining a compound dislocation of the right ankle. He was admitted to Sheffield Infirmary, where the injury was not at first considered to be life-threatening.

On Sunday, 16th August, the day before the show opened at Stoke, the Wild West camp welcomed a special party of visitors, on the express invitation of Colonel Cody. They were ten Lakota who had disembarked on the previous day, Saturday 15th, after arriving at Liverpool on the Etruria, on their way to join Miss Viola Clemmonsís White Lily company, which would shortly commence a theatrical tour of England and Wales. The newly-weds, Black Heart and Calls the Name, were seconded to this party.

Meanwhile, Eagle Starís condition had deteriorated alarmingly, with the onset of lockjaw. An amputation was performed as the final hope of preventing the infection from spreading. This drastic measure brought no improvement and on Monday, 24th August, Paul Eagle Star died from the combined effects of lockjaw and the shock of the operation. That night, news of his passing was received with noisy outpourings of grief in the Wild West camp at Nottingham. The deceased was sent by train to London, where, on Tuesday, 25th, Paul Eagle Star became the third of the growing band of Indians to be interred in Brompton Cemetery.

On the afternoon of the final day in Nottingham, Saturday, 29th, Annie Oakley quite literally brought the house down when a section of the stand collapsed.

At Birmingham, a buffalo died suddenly and received the ministrations of Mr Spicer, a noted local taxidermist.

From Monday, 21st September, until Saturday, 26th, the Wild West made its first ever foray into Wales, fulfilling a single six-day engagement at Cardiff.

The final English performance of the 1891 tour took place at Croydon on the evening of Saturday, 24th October. On the following afternoon, Sunday, 25th, the bulk of the company headed north on two special trains, arriving at Bellgrove Station, in the Glasgow suburb of Dennistoun, on Monday 26th. Buffalo Bill, however, was not personally present. He had business to conclude in the capital and would follow in his own good time.

Programme Insert, 1891

Dates & Venues, 1891-92

Glasgow, 1891-92

Buffalo Billís Wild West in Great Britain