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Sitting Bull

The Oxford Companion to United States History
Robert M. UtleyRobert M. Utley

Sitting Bull 

(1831–1890), Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief.

One of the most significant of all Indian leaders, Sitting Bull achieved distinction not only as a war leader but also as a political chief and holy man. His record in war with enemy tribes was exemplary even before he came to the notice of whites in the 1860s. He led the fighting against the armies of Generals Henry H. Sibley, Alfred Sully, and Patrick E. Connor, who headed strong columns into Sioux ranges of Dakota and Montana in 1863–1865.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 divided the Lakota tribes into factions, one accommodating to white authority, the other resisting. The former settled on the Great Sioux Reservation in western Dakota and accepted government rations. The latter remained in the “unceded” Indian territory to the west, the buffalo ranges of the Powder River country. Sitting Bull was the leading chief of the “nontreaty” Lakotas, whom government officials labeled “hostiles.”

A staunch foe of all government programs, Sitting Bull disdained treaties, agents, rations, or any course that interfered with the Indians’ traditional way of life. For eight years he held together an alliance of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes that pursued their old free existence.

The construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the discovery of gold in the Black Hills destabilized this already precarious situation and brought on the Sioux War of 1876. As three armies converged on the Sioux country, Sitting Bull reached the zenith of his power and leadership. He was present at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 25–26 June 1876, when Sioux and Cheyenne warriors wiped out General George A. Custer and part of his command. As an “old-man” chief, however, Sitting Bull did not play a conspicuous part. His true significance lay in holding together and imbuing with his spirit of resistance the tribal alliance that defeated Custer.

After the Little Bighorn, the Indian coalition fell apart under military pressure. In 1877, Sitting Bull and a small following sought refuge in Canada. Dwindling buffalo forced his surrender in July 1881.

On the Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota, Sitting Bull feuded with the government agent and assumed a prominent role in the Ghost Dance movement, which swept the Sioux reservations in 1889–1891, promising a return of the old way of life. He was one of several perceived “troublemakers” whom authorities determined to remove. On 15 December 1890, while attempting his arrest, Indian policemen shot and killed him.

See also Gold Rushes; Indian History and Culture: From 1800 to 1900; Indian Wars; Railroads; Wounded Knee Tragedy.


Stanley Vestal, Sitting Bull, Champion of the Sioux, 1957.Find this resource:

    Robert M. Utley, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull, 1993.Find this resource:

      Robert M. Utley