As Buffalo Bill Cody debarked at New York harbor on November 24, 1890, he received a telegram from General Nelson A. Miles, commander of the U.S. Army troops in South Dakota. Miles asked Cody to proceed immediately to Standing Rock, a reservation in Dakota Territory, where a tense situation was unfolding. Miles further authorized Cody “to secure the person of Sitting Bull, and deliver him to the nearest Commanding Officer of US Troops.” It was the general’s hope that Cody could convince the Lakota leader to surrender—for the last time.

Buffalo Bill, who rode for the Pony Express, fought in the American Civil War, and served as a scout for the Army, also created a Wild West show that toured the United States and Europe. Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull was part of the cast for four months in 1885, and since then, they had created a strange friendship.

They say that timing is everything, and in this case, one of history’s biggest near-misses involves the moment in which Buffalo Bill almost got to Sitting Bull’s cabin shortly before his old friend was killed by tribal police. Would Cody have been able to head off this disaster? Would he have gotten into a fight? Or would he have been killed himself? Of course, we cannot answer these questions, but here’s some of what we do know.

Major McLaughlin—the agent in charge of Standing Rock—had long wanted to get rid of his old nemesis, Sitting Bull, and he knew that fear could aid his mission. McLaughlin believed that his mission was to “civilize” Native Americans by forcing them to adopt white ways, and Sitting Bull was infamous for his role in the defeat of Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 and his fierce advocacy for his people.

In the days following Sitting Bull’s return to Grand River, McLaughlin began laying the groundwork for his arrest, telling reporters and others that the chief was the instigator of the troublesome practice of ghost dancing (a religious movement that had swept the tribes of the Great Plains). Ghost Dancers believed that an apocalyptic day was approaching when the buffalo would return, and their now-vanished world would be restored.

The Ghost Dance. (Credit: Library of Congress)
The Ghost Dance. (Credit: Library of Congress)

On November 17, Major McLaughlin and his interpreter, Louis Primeau, headed to Grand River to gauge the ghost dancing’s fever. When they arrived, there were about one-hundred people circling around a pole, crooning and swooning, as another hundred looked on. A woman fainted and was carried into Sitting Bull’s tent. Deciding that it was a bad time to intervene, McLaughlin and Primeau spent the night at the nearby home of Bull Head, a lieutenant in the Indian police and enemy of Sitting Bull. At dawn, McLaughlin returned to Sitting Bull’s camp as the chief was stepping out of a sweat bath.

Sitting Bull looked “very thin and more subdued than I had ever seen him,” McLaughlin later wrote. He wrapped himself in a blanket and shivered in the morning chill as McLaughlin made one more attempt to stop the ghost dance. Sitting Bull made a counter offer, that together they should visit men who had spiritual awakenings through ghost dancing and see that it was nothing to fear. McLaughlin told him that would be a waste of time, and instructed Sitting Bull to head to Fort Yates, reservation headquarters, on the following morning to continue the conversation.

Suspecting that this was a trap to detain him, Sitting Bull never made that trip, sending his friends instead. Twenty other men from Sitting Bull’s encampment sent their wives to collect their government-controlled rations. McLaughlin immediately issued an order stating that no family could receive supplies unless a male head of the household came to get them. So now, with conditions at Sitting Bull’s camp already deteriorating, he and his followers were being starved.

From then on, there followed a strange series of crossed wires and near misses. Some of the dancers had fled to a remote place in the badlands known as the Stronghold, Sitting Bull wanted to join them—not to participate, but to talk to them. He needed permission to leave the reservation, and sent McLaughlin a poorly translated and badly spelled note, in which he seemed to threaten the major, allegedly saying, “I will let you know something…the Policeman told me you going to take all our Poneys, gund, too…I want answer back soon.”

McLaughlin had read many such notes from Native Americans over the years; given that they rarely had access to good translators, the messages were often inaccurate. But this one indicated that Sitting Bull planned to leave Grand River and head to Pine Ridge in search of his compatriots. McLaughlin sent a letter ordering him to remain at his cabin. In other words, he was under arrest.

Sitting Bull. (Credit: Cowan’s Auctions)
Sitting Bull. (Credit: Cowan’s Auctions)

Meanwhile, Sitting Bull’s old friend Buffalo Bill Cody was being enlisted to head off a possible confrontation. Cody had just returned from a European tour of his Wild West show. He was scheduled to testify before Congress, which wanted to shut down his Wild West show. Indian rights advocates wanted to hold Cody accountable for the fact that several members of the Wild West cast had gotten sick and died while abroad. During this time, Cody received the fateful telegram from General Miles.

Cody contacted three friends, Dr. Frank Powell (aka White Beaver, a member of his show), “Pony Bob” Haslam (another cast member), and Lieutenant G.W. Chadwick. On Thanksgiving Day, November 27, they arrived by train at Mandan, North Dakota, announcing via telegram to McLaughlin that they would be checking in at Standing Rock the following day. Meanwhile, his associate Arizona John Burke and a contingent of Indians were heading for Pine Ridge as part of a two-pronged peace mission.

But when Cody reached Fort Yates, he was not able to continue any farther. Apparently he was drunk, and according to Dr. Powell, needed to rest for a few hours before continuing. His friends left, and when they returned, he was completely incapacitated, having spent the entire afternoon drinking. Later, Powell and Pony Bob learned that McLaughlin’s officers had plied him with liquor to prevent him from heading to Sitting Bull’s cabin.

Buffalo Bill. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Buffalo Bill. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Early the next morning, he sobered up and announced that he was on his way to see his friend. Unable to prevent his departure, the officers provided him with a wagon and he loaded it up with sweets from the supply store, knowing that Sitting Bull liked candy. In addition to his three friends, he was now accompanied by five newspaper reporters.

“I was sure,” he wrote later, “that my old enemy and later friend would listen to my advice.” But he confessed to also being concerned; he was going to “a hostile camp of Indians, risking all on the card of friendship and man-to-man respect.”

Meanwhile, McLaughlin was still trying to prevent Cody’s intervention. En route, 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, at his camp along Four Mile Creek, he received the news that President Benjamin Harrison had rescinded General Mile’s order for him to bring in his old friend Sitting Bull. The following day, Cody and his party returned to Fort Yates and soon left for the railroad station at Mandan.

But sometime during the chaotic forty-eight hours of his mission, Sitting Bull had gotten word that Buffalo Bill was looking for him. “Is it true?” he asked. What meaning did this have for the medicine man as things were careening towards a conclusion? We can imagine that perhaps it strengthened him. Perhaps it gave him heart, or affirmed his friendship with Cody when most needed.

Hearing that his old friend had been nearby, he may have wondered if he sought his return to the Wild West show. Or maybe it was another kind of lifeline. Somebody wanted something, that was for sure. The man who told him about Buffalo Bill asked him to surrender; everyone knew that the end game was underway. Sitting Bull declined. He knew all too well that doing so would lead to his arrest—or murder while in custody.

The death of Sitting Bull makes the paper. (Credit: Library of Congress)
The death of Sitting Bull makes the paper. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In the end, no one could head off the inevitable. Buffalo Bill was successfully blocked from reaching his greatest co-star, and the fear of ghost dancing could not be subdued. After years of fierce advocacy for his people and even trying to serve as an ambassador for them while traveling with Cody, on December 15, 1890, the Lakota leader was killed by Indian police at the Standing Rock reservation on the Great Plains.

It is said that the horse that Buffalo Bill had given to Sitting Bull upon his departure from the show was outside his cabin when the shooting began. He recognized the sound, having heard it many times in performance, and perhaps even in other battles. In fact, the horse was trained to dance at the eruption of gunfire. Legend has it, that when Sitting Bull was being assassinated, the horse began to dance once more.

Adapted from Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill by Deanne Stillman.