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Fanny Kelly, Prisoner


On May 17th, 1864, a party of six people began journeying from southeastern Kansas to the promising gold fields of Idaho. Among them was a young bachelor, named Gardner Wakefield, and the Kelly family, which included Josiah, his wife, Fanny, and Fanny’s young niece, Mary, who the couple had adopted. Also with them were two black servants, Andy and Franklin. A Methodist preacher joined them few days later, and a few weeks after that, William Larimer, his wife Sarah and their young son joined the train, which now had five wagons. Also joining them was Noah Taylor, who left his wife and 8 children behind on their homestead.

The little group was both part of the problem and part of an approaching tragedy. It was a time of great anger and frustration among the Plains Indians. As a result of the Minnesota Uprising two years earlier, Generals Alfred Sully and Henry Sibley had been searching northern Dakota to punish some Santees who had revolted and killed hundreds of white settlers in Minnesota. With revenge fueling both sides, violence had been spiraling out of control. In fact, Sully’s retaliatory attack on hundreds of mostly Yanktonais – not Santees – at Whitestone Hill had taken place less than 9 months before the Kellys began their overland journey.

There was another issue, as well. With gold having been found in several western regions, whites were encroaching more and more on land set aside for plains tribes under the Laramie Treaty. As the situation became more threatening to the Indians, skirmishes and raids on wagon trains escalated – especially if the groups were small, like the one in which Fanny Kelly was traveling.

Fanny was no stranger to hardship. Her father died while he was moving the family from Ontario to Kansas; in accordance with his wishes, the family finished the journey without him. Eleven-year-old Fanny, her widowed mother and her siblings had settled in Geneva, Kansas, where they learned to cope with the harsh conditions of homesteading.

Fanny’s current move to Idaho had a much different tone – more like an adventurous vacation. “The hours of noon and evening rest,” she wrote, “were spent in preparing our frugal meals, gathering flowers with our children, picking berries, hunting curiosities, or gazing in rapt wonder and admiration at the beauties of this strange, bewildering country.”

After several weeks, the little wagon train had made it across Nebraska to southeastern Wyoming. They had foregone opportunities to join larger wagon trains, because they could make better time traveling by themselves. Not that they hadn’t considered the danger – Fanny wrote, “...at Fort Laramie, where information that should have been reliable was given us, we had renewed assurances of the safety of the road and friendliness of the Indians. At Horseshoe Creek, which we had just left, and where there was a telegraph station, our inquiries had elicited similar assurances...”

It was at sunset, on this date in 1864, that everything changed for Fanny and her 10 companions. Suddenly, Fanny wrote, “the bluffs before us were covered with a party of about two hundred and fifty Indians, painted and equipped for war...” The group allowed the war party to take whatever they wanted, but the situation soon fell apart. Five men were killed, two escaped, and Fanny, Sarah Larimer, and their two children were taken prisoner.

The Kelly-Larimer party didn’t know that horrifying news had reached the Hunkpapas. Two weeks earlier, it’s alleged that one of General Sully’s men was killed by three Indians, who then fled. Sully’s men chased them down, then decapitated them and mounted their heads on poles near their camp. This atrocity just further ignited hatred toward whites.

Fanny Kelly was to witness Sully clash with the Sioux again at Killdeer Mountain. She would also be the guest of Sitting Bull and his wife – but these are stories for another day.

Source: Kelly, Fanny. Narrative of my Captivity among the Sioux Indians, ed. by Clark & Mary Lee Spence. New York, 1994.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm