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The Captivity of Fanny Kelly

The story of Fanny Kelly, the woman ransomed from the Hunkpapa by Sihasapa (Blackfeet Lakota) emissaries and turned over to General Alfred Sully at Fort Pierre in late 1864, remains cloudy and confused. This is due partly to the fragmentary nature of sources and partly to the reluctance of people in her time to take her own narrative of events seriously.


By “her own narrative” I refer to Mrs. Kelly’s book, Narrative of My Captivity among the Sioux Indians, with a Brief Account of General Sully’s Indian Expedition in 1864, Bearing upon Events Occurring in My Captivity. Notice how the author, Kelly, works the word “captivity” into both the title and the subtitle of her work.


The captivity narrative is a known genre in American literature. Early American captivity narratives often developed religious themes leading toward salvation. By the late nineteenth century, Fanny Kelly’s time, the narratives coming from the Great Plains were beginning to partake of lurid dime-novel themes and rhetoric. The horrors of captivity sold books. Years after her captivity, Kelly the author was still touring the country giving lectures about her experience.


From military figures in her time to historians in ours, commentators have taken a condescending attitude toward Mrs. Kelly. They say she was confused, she was not a good observer, even that she made things up. I came to a better understanding of her situation through the writing of one of my fine students, Rebecca Maciej. Now I suspect that writers have dismissed Kelly as unreliable because she was a woman whose narrative sometimes contradicted accounts by male figures of authority.

Kelly figures prominently in an extended episode of the Dakota War--the attack on the Fisk wagon train, in present-day Slope County, and the ensuing siege at Fort Dilts. By “fort” I refer to the rude but effective sod fortification erected ad hoc by the teamsters and their cavalry escort when they realized they could not defend the wagon train in open country.

Kelly was with the Hunkpapa warriors who were on the attack. During the siege they used her to open communications with the defenders. She wrote notes to them using the point of a lead bullet. She was supposed to be taking dictation from her captors, but in fact she slipped information about her plight into the messages, trying to get Captain Fisk to rescue or ransom her.

This Fisk never accomplished. Naturally, Kelly thought he should have tried harder. It appears to me that he was willing to negotiate, but he did not want to pay too much for Kelly’s release. Kelly’s story put Fisk, a rather vainglorious man, in a bad light--and was, I think, the beginning of a negative, blame-the-victim attitude toward her.

After Kelly wrote a book about her experience, her manuscript was stolen, and it appears another woman published her experience before she could, causing some messy intellectual-property litigation before Kelly could get her own narrative out.

There was another complicated episode, too, when the Oglala Red Cloud came to Washington on treaty business in 1870. The two of them entered into a lobbying alliance, each testifying to the other’s good conduct. As a result, Congress paid Kelly $5000 in damages for her pain and suffering.

This woman knew how to take care of herself. And I take her narrative seriously.
~Tom Isern

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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