DescriptionSitting Bull: The Original 1885 Contract for him to Appear in Buffalo Bill's Wild West, Signed by the Great Sioux Chief. Sitting Bull (c. 1831-1890) was the most famous Indian leader of his day. He represented all that Americans feared most and admired most about the native peoples. He was thought to have led the triumph of the allied northern plains tribes over Custer and the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn, and he symbolized continued Indian resistance to the government's reservation policies even after the conquest of the Sioux and Cheyenne by the U.S. Army.
After Little Bighorn in 1876 he led his followers to Canada where they lived in self-imposed exile until near-starvation forced them to return and surrender to U.S. authorities in Dakota Territory in 1881. For two years Sitting Bull languished as a prisoner of war before he was allowed to make a home among his people at the Standing Rock Agency along the Missouri River in what is now southern North Dakota. There he came under the thumb of the domineering agent, James McLaughlin. McLaughlin was condescending toward and scornful of the great chief, but at the same time he was aware of Sitting Bull's great power among his own people. He also was fearful that Sitting Bull would use his influence to stir up resistance. Though McLaughlin thought of Sitting Bull as an obstructionist, the chief was, on the contrary, a progressive thinker, intellectually curious about the modern world and concerned first and foremost for the well-being of his people and the future of the Lakota. In fact, Sitting Bull welcomed the opportunity in 1885 to travel with Buffalo Bill's Wild West, hoping not only to learn more about the white man's world but to be able to plead the Indian cause to a wider audience. More on that below.
When the pan-Indian Ghost Dance revival reached the Dakotas in 1890, McLaughlin was convinced that Sitting Bull was using it to foment rebellion, and he appealed to Washington to order his arrest. General of the Army Nelson Miles instead dispatched Buffalo Bill Cody to persuade Sitting Bull to come in for talks. McLaughlin was incensed. He delayed Cody long enough to get a telegram from President Benjamin Harrison countermanding Miles's order, then he turned the arrest mission over to the Standing Rock Indian Police. During a deadly scuffle with some of Sitting Bull's followers, two of the Indian policemen shot and killed Sitting Bull. Because of the manner of his death, he assumed -- and still occupies -- an even greater place in the national conscience. As historians learn more about his life and actions, his stature continues to grow in America's memory.
With Buffalo Bill: After his release from detention, Sitting Bull finally arrived at Standing Rock Agency on May 10, 1883. In one of those wonderful quirks of time and place that make reading American history so much fun, at that very moment Buffalo Bill was rehearsing the cast of his Wild West for its inaugural performance at Omaha, Nebraska, 500 miles down the Missouri River, on May 19, 1883. Immediately recognizing the Sioux leader's star power, Cody began campaigning to sign Sitting Bull up for his show, getting letters of support from such luminaries as the Army's Commanding General William Tecumseh Sherman.
McLaughlin had his own scheme. With his help, an impresario from St. Paul, Minnesota, "Colonel" Alvaren Allen, put together "The Sitting Bull Combination" consisting of a few of Sitting Bull's friends and their wives, McLaughlin's son and daughter-in-law, and interpreter Joseph Primeau. They appeared in several cities, including St. Paul where Sitting Bull saw Butler and Oakley perform. He was so impressed with her shooting that he arranged to meet her. They charmed each other, and Sitting Bull adopted her according to Lakota custom and dubbed her "Little Sure Shot." She took it seriously enough to write across the bottom of her cabinet card portrait of him, "Adopted father of Annie Oakley."
As part of the performance, Sitting Bull was allowed to make a speech in which he talked of the needs of his people for education and material assistance. The interpreter then "translated" Sitting Bull's remarks for the audience. A young Oglala from Carlisle Indian School who would himself one day join Buffalo Bill's Wild West, Luther Standing Bear, saw a performance. In his memoir My People the Sioux, he told how the interpreter actually gave a lurid "first person" account of the slaying of Custer and his troops at Little Bighorn. Standing Bear claimed to be much amused at the lies.
The Secretary of the Interior was not amused. An embarrassed and chagrined McLaughlin was forced to disband the "Sitting Bull Combination," and he agreed to let Sitting Bull go with Buffalo Bill.
The Contract: On June 6, 1885, John M. Burke (for Buffalo Bill and his partner Nate Salsbury) and Sitting Bull signed this contract, witnessed by James McLaughlin and Joseph Primeau. Cody could not have chosen better than Burke to represent him. A large, affable man, a friend to all and afraid of none, Burke had served Cody as press agent, personnel manager, and confidant -- an all-round Man Friday -- since 1873. His admiration and respect for Sitting Bull undoubtedly made for amicable negotiations. And the money didn't hurt. The $50 per week guaranteed him ("to be paid weekly every Saturday night") made Sitting Bull the highest paid performer in the show.
The contract provided for "Sitting Bull and party consisting of ten people" -- "Five (5) Indians at Twenty five ($25) Dollars per month each, paid monthly; Three Indian women at Fifteen ($15) Dollars per month each, to be paid monthly; and William Halsey Interpreter to be paid Sixty ($60) Dollars per month, also to be paid monthly." One of the five that Sitting Bull chose to accompany him was his oldest friend, Crow Eagle. Three of the men's wives also made up part of the company. Sitting Bull was also given $125 "as a gift," a sort of signing bonus, and two weeks' salary in advance. Burke also guaranteed to pay all of the expenses for the party to travel to and from Standing Rock.
An interesting postscript was added to the contract below the signature block and signed by Burke. During his exile in Canada, Sitting Bull had been shown how to write his name (in its English translation, of course) and had become quite at ease with a pencil. The addendum? "P.S. Sitting Bull is to have sole rights to sell his own Photographs and Autographs." It was a concession which proved lucrative. Sitting Bull would return home with a bankroll of hundreds of dollars which, as was his custom, he would spend not on himself but on necessities for his people.
Burke and Sitting Bull and his party then traveled by wagon and railroad to Buffalo, New York, where the Wild West was appearing. A reporter for the Buffalo Courier met their train and interviewed Sitting Bull as they were driven to the show grounds. "He had no wish for blood in his heart," he wrote. "He was sorry the white man was not as honest as he was full of brain power... He recognized the inevitable supremacy of the white man, but hoped that the red man had enough self-respect and the white man enough honesty left to make the end of the controversy a peaceful one." When Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill were introduced to each other, they "vigorously grasped hands, and both seemed to say to the other, 'I can trust you.'"
Sitting Bull appeared with the show for four months as it toured the Northeast and nearby Canada. He was introduced simply as himself, the great chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, and he held court at his tent in the showgrounds, selling autographs and trinkets -- beaded bags, bows and arrows, and other souvenirs that he had learned were made precious because of their association with him. Cody had promised him that he would meet the "White Father" in Washington, and at the end of June he was introduced at the White House to President Cleveland to whom he presented a signed letter -- on Buffalo Bill's Wild West letterhead -- outlining his people's grievances and their hopes for help from the government.
The Wild West's show program substituted respect for sensationalism in its profile "History of Sitting Bull," probably written by John Burke. "In early life he was noted as a hunter and warrior, and in early middle age he gained prestige as a Medicine Man (the Sioux order of priesthood) and Counselor," it said. "By shrewdness, diplomacy and force of character he gained a lasting influence among his people, and became by common consent the consulting head of his nation... He still retains his popularity among his people, who recognize the sacrifices he has made, and the suffering he has endured to secure their rights." It is no wonder that at the close of the season Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock with such satisfaction and such warm feelings of friendship for Cody and his crew. Only the iron opposition of James McLaughlin prevented him from renewing the association the next year.
The Courier reporter had concluded his story by saying, "Taken all in all the meeting of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull at the driving park yesterday was an event of historical significance." That the contract between Sitting Bull and the Wild West, the document sealing that occasion, survives and is offered here is also an event of historical significance. The contract itself was copied out by a clerk with a clear, professional hand. Burke himself would not have used the title "Buffalo Bill Wild West Show" but also would never quibble after the long struggle to sign the great chief. "He is ours. I have captured him," Burke said. "He is Buffalo Bill's guest. But I've had a tough time in getting him here."
The contract measures 8" x 12.25" and is in excellent condition. There are three small, old tape reinforcements on the cover sheet (bearing the docket: "Agreement between John M. Burke Genl. Manager Buffalo Bill's Wild Wes Show and Sitting Bull"). However, the actual contract itself is completely clean and in a truly remarkable state of preservation. While its earlier provenance is unclear, a 1943 South Dakota newspaper article which accompanies the lot states that at that time the contract was in the possession of North Dakota Congressman Usher L. Burdick. For the past twelve years it has been in the hands of a Florida collector.
Sitting Bull signed hundreds of autographs, but he famously never put his name on a treaty. There is no other Sitting Bull contract. And as for Wild West paper of significance, there is nothing in private hands that quite compares. The original script prepared by Nate Salsbury and W. F. Cody? It was submitted for copyright and resides in the Library of Congress. The original papers of incorporation and Buffalo Bill's Wild West stock certificate number 1 are in the collections of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Annie Oakley's contract? She and Cody never wrote one. "His handshake was as good as a contract," she said.
This is the real thing.
For more information about Paul Fees, who researched and described this lot, please click here.
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