The Ransom of Fanny Kelly

Feb 20, 2018


One of the military figures who played key roles in the history of the Great Plains, but about whom we don’t like to talk much, is Brigadier General Alfred Sully.

For better or worse, Sully was the dominant federal commander during the Dakota War in Dakota Territory in the early 1860s. Later in that decade he was in Kansas, where he clashed with Colonel George A. Custer. Sully said that reports of Cheyenne Indian raids in Kansas were trumped up, and there was no reason for Custer to go into the Indian Territory and fight the Battle of the Washita in 1868.

Now, here is a letter Sully wrote on 30 December 1864. “I would beg leave to make the following statement in regard to the delivering up of the white woman Mrs. Fanny Kelly, a prisoner in the hands of the Unc-pa-pa [Hunkpapa] Sioux, and to request that my action and expenditures in the matter be approved.

“She was taken prisoner on the 12th of July 1864, about 20 miles west of Fort Laramie by a band of 200 Sioux. When the Unc-pa-pa determined to come in and make peace, her Indian captors and a part of their relatives separated from the main camp. The Indians were told when they came in that no peace would be made with them till their prisoner was given up.

“At this a Chief of the Unc-pa-pa called “One who drags himself” [actually a Sihasapa better known to whites as Crawler] started with four other Indians to hunt her up. . . . The party after traveling for sometime found the camp where the white woman was and took her away by force. As there was danger of a strife, to settle the matter they paid the Indians for the capture of Mrs. Kelly, three horses, this is what I had offered any Indians who would bring her in . . . and this has been paid back to the Indians.” There were some other transactions, the expense of which Sully wishes approved.

This woman, Fanny Kelly, was from Geneva, in Allen County, Kansas. In 1864 she and her husband, Josiah, and their adopted daughter Mary joined a small wagon train that traveled to Nebraska and west along the Platte River Road. They intended to make their way to Montana, the scene of recent gold discoveries.

As Sully recounts, Mrs. Kelly and her adopted daughter were taken by Oglala Lakota just west of Fort Laramie. The daughter was killed soon after. Kelly was transferred to a new family among the Hunkpapa, farther north, and through them went through the events of the Dakota War.

After being ransomed, Kelly wrote a captivity narrative, My Captivity among the Sioux Indians. It was popular with the public, but historians have dismissed it as unreliable.

I have a lovely paper about Kelly written by one of my fine students, Rebecca Maciej. She concludes that Kelly, in fact, told the story of the events in which she was involved rather well, as she observed them. Moreover, she showed a great deal of resilience and pluck. The reason the Hunkpapa were reluctant to give her back was because she was valued as a hard worker and as a person.

Following her captivity Kelly lived mainly back east, in Washington DC. Her husband passed away a few years after she was liberated, she remarried, and she lived a full life, often lecturing about her experiences on the plains.

~Tom Isern