Confusion over orders to Buffalo Bill Cody may have cost the life of his friend Sitting Bull

Cody was asked to encourage Sitting Bill to report to the nearest commanding officer of U.S. troops. His group was intercepted by an interpreter who said Sitting Bull was not home and heading to Fort Yates on another trail.

Curt Eriksmoen online column signature
Photo by Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor. Artwork by Troy Becker.

FARGO — One of the most unusual friendships of the Old West had to be that of Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull and his Lakota warriors were given much credit for defeating Colonel Custer and his soldiers at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.  Cody was known as “a flamboyant cowboy who killed thousands of the buffalo treasured by Native Americans as a spiritual figure and a crucial food source.”

Sitting Bull was a Hunkpapa leader who refused to submit to the provisions of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie to live peacefully on the Great Sioux Reservation created by the treaty. In November 1875, President Grant ordered all Sioux bands to move onto the reservation, and when Sitting Bull and his followers refused that order, the military pursued the reluctant Native Americans resulting in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull and his followers then fled to Canada where they suffered from a lack of food and other provisions.

In 1881 Sitting Bull and his followers surrendered and, on May 10, 1883, he was allowed to rejoin his tribe at Standing Rock. In September 1884, Alvaren Allen, a Minnesota businessman, became "the highest bidder for the right to exhibit Sitting Bull" in a 15-city tour he had organized. In 1885, Sitting Bull joined Cody for four months as part of his cast in his Wild West presentations. Although Sitting Bull objected to aspects of the exhibits that depicted the Lakota as savages, he and Cody became good friends. When Sitting Bull left Cody to return to his people at Standing Rock, Cody gave him gifts that he highly valued, especially a trained dancing horse.

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody
Contributed / Library of Congress

In the past, Cody had ridden for the Pony Express, fought in the Civil War, and served as a scout for the Army during the Indian wars. Cody gained most of his reputation while working for railroad companies “to kill buffalo in order to feed railroad workers.” Between 1887 and 1888, it has been reported that Cody “shot dead 4,280 buffalo in just 18 months.” He was the winner in a contest with Bill Comstock, another noted buffalo slayer, to see who could kill the most buffalo in the shortest period of time.

This is the second of a three-part series examining the economic and cultural significance of the buffalo to certain tribes, with a focus on the Standing Rock Sioux. Read parts one and three.

Cody began his Wild West shows in 1883 and hired Sitting Bull to be one of his main attractions two years later. When Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock he was not only the acknowledged leader of many of the Lakota on the reservation, but he was also a celebrity. He, along with President Grant were guests of honor at the laying of the cornerstone of the new capitol in Bismarck. Even though there were no Indian attacks in the area, one person who remained suspicious and fearful of Sitting Bull was James McLaughlin, the Indian agent of the Standing Rock Reservation.


McLaughlin believed that his mission was to civilize Native Americans by forcing them to adopt the white way, and he considered Sitting Bull an obstacle in attaining that goal. In 1890 McLaughlin received reports that Sitting Bull was leading some of his followers in ghost dance rituals at his camp in Grand River, South Dakota, which was on the Standing Rock Reservation. “Ghost Dancers believed that an apocalyptic day was approaching when the buffalo would return, and their now-vanished world would be restored.”

On Nov. 17, McLaughlin, along with his interpreter, Louis Primeau, went to Grand River to observe a ghost dance in which they observed about 100 Indians dancing around a pole with another 100 Lakotas observing the dancers. There is no indication that Sitting Bull was involved. The next morning McLaughlin went to Sitting Bull’s cabin and told him to report to Fort Yates, the reservation headquarters, the next day to talk about the ghost dance. Suspecting that this was a trap to detain him, Sitting Bull never made the trip.

Word of the tense situation on the Standing Rock Reservation reached Gen. Nelson Miles, commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, which included all the military departments west of the Mississippi River. He was aware that Sitting Bull and Cody were friends and that Cody may be able to coax his friend to peacefully agree to go “to the nearest commanding officer of U.S. troops.” Unfortunately, Cody was still on tour in Europe with his Wild West show and would not arrive in the U.S. until Nov. 24. When Cody did arrive in New York, Miles telegraphed him to immediately go to the reservation and fulfill his request.

Cody contacted three friends, including an interpreter, to accompany him to Standing Rock. After telegraphing McLaughlin of their mission, Cody and his companions boarded a train and arrived in Mandan on the morning of Nov. 27, Thanksgiving Day. Because Cody had been drinking on the train, he needed a few hours to sober up, so his three friends left him in his hotel room to tend to other business. When they returned, he (Cody) was completely incapacitated, having spent the entire afternoon drinking.

Author/historian Stanley Vestal believed that a plot by McLaughlin and the military at Fort Yates were behind this. He wrote, “Since the military personnel all liked McLaughlin, they conspired to defeat the order of the Division Commander (Miles). The plan was to get Cody over to the Officers Club, drink him under the table, and keep him there until McLaughlin could get a wire through to the President and have the orders to Cody rescinded.” McLaughlin wanted the Indian police of the reservation to arrest Sitting Bull and resented any interference in this matter.

The next morning, after sobering up, Cody announced that he was on his way to see his friend. He believed that Sitting Bull would listen to his advice. Meanwhile, McLaughlin had a plan to keep Cody away from Sitting Bull. Cody’s party was headed off by Louis Primeau, McLaughlin’s interpreter. He told them that Sitting Bull was not at home and that he was heading to Fort Yates on another trail, sending Cody on a misinformed detour. That night, Cody received the news that President Benjamin Harrison had rescinded Miles’ order. The following day, Cody and his party boarded a train and left the reservation.

Late in the evening of Dec. 14, 1890, McLaughlin was informed that Sitting Bull was preparing to leave the reservation, which was something McLaughlin believed he could not allow. He sent Indian policeman Red Tomahawk with instructions to arrest Sitting Bull. Red Tomahawk rode to Lt. Bull Head's house, which was close to the home of Sitting Bull, and then rounded up the scattered detachments of the other Indian policemen.

When they got to Sitting Bull's house the next morning, Bull Head, Shave Head, and Red Tomahawk entered the home and told Sitting Bull that he was under arrest. Sitting Bull was slow in getting dressed in his proper attire. This delay in time allowed many of his supporters to gather outside the house. As the police and Sitting Bull exited the house, shots rang out that mortally wounded Bull Head, Shave Head, and other police officers. When Sitting Bull broke loose and started to run away, Red Tomahawk shot him twice, killing Sitting Bull. Red Tomahawk then took charge and gathered his men back inside the house where they held off the hostiles until the military arrived.


When the shooting stopped on the morning of Dec. 15, 14 Sioux, including Sitting Bull and several reservation policemen, were dead. The killing of Sitting Bull came dangerously close to provoking the uprising that his arrest was supposed to prevent. We will never know if Cody would have been successful in getting Sitting Bull to go with him and meet with a nearby commanding officer, which would have prevented this tragic incident. According to Cody, President Harrison “later expressed regret personally for sending the message that canceled General Miles’ order.”

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
What To Read Next
Get Local