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    Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull Play Cowboys and Indians in Toronto Wild West show

    SOCIAL HISTORY CLIPPINGS: stories of life and times in Canada past

    THE BILL AND BULL SHOW
    Chief of The Sioux Who “Massacred” Custer and His Men at The Battle of The Little Big Horn is Seen as a Tragic Hero

    Sitting Bull and William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill), Montreal, 1885.


    For three days in August 1885, Buffalo Bill and Chief Sitting Bull played cowboys and Indians at Toronto’s Woodbine park and racetrack in what was said by the Globe to be the biggest, wildest, most exciting outdoor show the city had ever seen.

    As in countless movies, the Indians were the bad guys in this show, blood-thirsty savages out to murder and scalp innocent settlers, until the valiant cowboys galloped to the rescue. That’s not quite the way the Indians viewed the wars that swept across the Western United States like prairie fires in the nineteenth century. In the Indian view, the wars were a response to genocide.

    In the Indian wars, no warriors were more feared than the Sioux and no Sioux leader was more feared than Sitting Bull at the peak of his power.

    It had been 10 years since the Battle of the Little Big Horn in which Sitting Bull and his warriors slaughtered General Custer and 265 soldiers of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. The Sioux fled to Canada and five years of hardship sanctuary in the hills of southern Saskatchewan.

    Now Sitting Bull’s role in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was simply to be on display, riding at the head of his Sioux in the big parade through the streets of Toronto, standing on the stage with Buffalo Bill, talking to reporters.

    Interviewed after the show, Buffalo Bill—a.k.a. William Frederick Cody, who earned his nom de guerre by supplying 4,000 buffalo carcasses to feed railway workers—allowed as how he had always regretted it every time he had killed an Indian.

    Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Exhibition was the spectacle of the year in Toronto. As reported in the Globe on August 24, the outfit chugged into town aboard a train of 18 cars that carried 150 cowboys, Indians and Mexicans, 80 horses, 19 buffalo, two elk, numerous “wild steers,” donkeys and mules, and “the famous old Deadwood coach, which has been baptised many and many a time with fire and blood.” Annie Oakley, the sharpshooter celebrated a century later in the stage and movie musical “Annie Get Your Gun” was among the leading performers.

    After the big parade to the Woodbine Park, the show opened on Saturday afternoon, August 22, followed by two more afternoon performances on Monday and Tuesday. In Toronto the Good, there could be no wild west show on Sunday.

    The opening day crowd, said the Globe, was the largest that had ever assembled at Woodbine, including workers given Saturday afternoon off from their normal six-day work week of 10 to 12 hours a day.

    They were not disappointed. “The general verdict of those present was that the show was far and away the best open air exhibition they had ever witnessed,” said the Globe.

    The afternoon events started with the grand procession of all the cowboys, Indians, Mexicans and tamed and wild animals, followed by Indian dances; horse, mule and donkey races and a foot race by an Indian against a mounted pony (the Indian won); roping and riding wild steers, bucking broncos and an angry elk; shotgun, rifle and revolver shooting by Annie Oakley and others while Buffalo Bill, racing on his mare, blasted balls tossed in the air, all with a skill said to be “something marvelous;” a buffalo hunt; a mortal hand-to-hand fight, and Indian attacks on the Deadwood Coach and a settler’s cabin.

    In a “wonderfully realistic representation of the duel fought between Buffalo Bill and the famous chief Yellow Hand,” menacing groups of Indians and cowboys approached. “As soon as they were within range, Buffalo Bill opened fire, which was answered by the Indians in the most realistic style.” The ponies sprang forward, “wheeling suddenly, and turning around each other with the activity of kittens. At length the men closed and after a short struggle dismounted, the fight being continued on foot, Yellow Hand using his spear and Buffalo Bill a knife. After considerable fencing and dodging they closed, and the next instant the supposed scalp of Yellow Hand was triumphantly exhibited by the invincible scout of the plains. This was the signal for a charge by the Indians, and the liveliest kind of engagement ensued between the Indians and the cowboys, the Indians eventually getting the worst of it and making off, closely pursued by the victors.”

    “The robbery of the Deadwood Coach was another very realistic picture,” the Globe reported

    Bill and Bull talk
    After the Saturday performance, the Globe reporter interviewed Cody and Sitting Bull. Cody said:

    “I never shot an Indian but I regretted it afterwards. In nine cases out of ten, when there is trouble between white men and Indians it will be found that the white man is responsible for the dispute through breaking faith with them. When an Indian gives you his word that he will do anything he is sure to keep that word, but it is different with white people. The white men were responsible for the Sitting Bull war, which was really caused by miners invading the Sioux reservation [in the Black Hills] in search of gold.”

    Sitting Bull talked about the Northwest Rebellion, in which just five months earlier Louis Riel and his Metis had been defeated. Sitting Bull had declined appeals to join the uprising. Things might have turned out far differently if he and his warriors had once more taken up arms. He talked about his friend Major James Walsh of the Northwest Mounted Police who had supervised the Sioux during all but the final few months of their stay in Canada, and about their new home in the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota.

    On his reservation at Standing Rock, Bull said his family of 16 received rations once a week but they were usually gone in two days. A U.S. government agent who had accompanied the Sioux on the Wild West show tour interjected that this was only because Bull “invariably fed all the hungry members of his tribe who swarmed into his house whenever he had rations.” The Chief said he was “too old to adopt the ways of the white man. His children might be taught economy and frugality but for his part, as long as he had anything to eat he would live as he always lived, and feed anybody and everybody who came to his door hungry whether they were white men or Indians.”

    Bull saves a missionary
    “An incident was related by the government agent who is in charge of the famous chief. As far back as 1869, Father De Smet arrived in the Black Hills country with a little black-covered wagon with a white cross on the top. He was the first missionary to visit that region. He had been known by Sitting Bull before his visit to the Uncahappa camp. When he arrived there, however, Gull, then chief of the band, and now second in authority to Sitting Bull only, raised his rifle with the intention of making short work of the good missionary. Sitting Bull sprang forward, and placing himself before the missionary, defied Gull and the whole tribe to attack him. Gull’s rifle was pointed at the breast of Father De Smet’s gallant defender, but, with that tact and cleverness that had served him so often in moments of danger, Sitting Bull managed by some means to distract Gull’s attention long enough to bring his own rifle to bear on his would be assailant. Finding that Sitting Bull had the drop on him, Gull for a moment lowered his rifle, and Sitting Bull quietly remarked— ‘Stir hand or foot and I will shoot you down;’ and to the tribe, ‘You can attack me if you will, but I will kill some of you, and no one can die better than in defending this good man.”

    Trouble returns
    The five years of the Sioux in Canada were tough times, despite the chief’s friendship with Major Walsh, according to Sitting Bull’s biographer, Grant MacEwan in “Sitting Bull: The Years in Canada.” The conditions of their asylum were clear. They must obey Canadian law. They must not launch raids into the United States from Canadian territory. They would be given no land. They must supply their own food—although they were sometimes given a few rations when conditions were truly desperate.

    The problem was the diminishing supply of their main source of food. The buffalo were being slaughtered in tens of thousands by men like that scout of the plains, William F. Cody. The bellies of the Sioux in the camps at Wood Mountain were filled with hunger and starvation loomed like an approaching prairie thunder cloud. Slowly the Sioux began trekking south to accept American assurance of food and security at the Standing Rock reservation. Sitting Bull, with the last 187 refugees from Canada—including his two wives, children, sisters, his aged father and five other chiefs— surrendered at Fort Buford, July 29, 1881 for the journey down the Missouri River to their new home on another reservation.

    That pretty much marked the end of the Indian wars in the American west, but not the end of trouble for Sitting Bull and his Sioux. In the years that followed the tour with the Wild West show, many Sioux were gripped by a messianic vision of a warrior in a white buffalo robe who had come to rescue them from their oppressors. Sitting Bull shared the vision. To make matters worse, the Americans now sought back some of the land that had been granted the Sioux and wanted to negotiate a different agreement. To the Sioux, this seemed like a replay of the troubled days in the Black Hills. They became frenzied. The Americans became worried.

    On a winter’s day at six in the morning, a force of Indian Police backed by infantry arrived at the reservation to arrest Sitting Bull. Angry Sioux rallied to rescue their chief. Fighting broke out. Several Indians and police were shot. Sitting Bull was shot twice but continued to fight until a soldier grabbed his rifle and hit him over the head. He died almost instantly. It was December 15, 1890.

    The following day, Walsh would write:

    “Bull has been misrepresented. He was not the bloodthirsty man reports made him out to be. He asked for nothing but justice… He was not a cruel man. He was kind of heart. He was not dishonest. He was truthful. He loved his people and was glad to give his hand in friendship to any man who was honest with him… Bull experienced so much treachery that he did not know who to trust.”

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