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Fool Soldiers…anonymous Plummer interview

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August 1, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

In the summer of 1972, Stephen Plummer conducted interviews with Sioux tribal members as part of the American Indian (oral history) Research Project. These interviews were transcribed and are now part of the collection at the University of South Dakota Oral History Center. A number of them include references to the Fool Soldiers. I thought I’d spend a bit of time diving deeper into them.

Because interviewees did not speak English or were not reliant on it as their primary language, Plummer utilized interpreters. Therefore, translations may have altered original responses. Plummer often did not record the interviews directly, since subjects were wary of being recording. Instead, he made field notes which he later used to record his recollection of the conversation. This further filtered the original responses.

By 1972, the Fool Soldiers were no longer living. The interviews were conducted with their children, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren, for the most part. Over the years, stories evolved. Each generation, of course, added their own “spin” and often highlighted their relative at the center of events. Each is a bit different, some contradict one another. Some are supported by the larger historical record; others are not. Within each, there is important new information on events, participants, and perspective.

Still, the recordings serve as valuable recollections of family remembrances. Taken together, they provide information left out of the history recorded by Whites and some of the discrepancies created by the filtering of information can be reconciled by comparing with other accounts (Sioux and White both). 

This week, I’ll talk about stories handed down by Joseph Swift Bird. I’ll discuss the others in the order they were recorded.

On June 5, 1972, a female member of the Crow Creek Tribe was interviewed. Her name and exact relationship to those in the Fool Soldiers band remain restricted, per her wishes at the time and instructions of her family today. She spoke to Plummer through an interpreter and refused to be recorded. She was born in 1882 and heard the stories about the Fool Soldiers from Joseph Swift Bird, one of the Fool Soldiers, who moved from Fort Thompson to the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1863 because he feared for his life. She said three or four other Fool Soldiers moved for the same reason.

She told Plummer that Joseph Swift Bird had horses stolen and Fort Thompson and actions were taken against his family members because he had helped ransom the White captives. Plummer noted that even in 1972, there was a stigma attached to the Fool Soldiers and most family members did not reveal that part of family history. Plummer indicated this was the second interview where the topic had been discussed and that he’d already observed subtle differences in the telling of the story and felt that had she been willing to be tape-recorded, he might have uncovered more detail.

The woman said members of the Two Kettles Band were very opposed to the Whites in the early 1860s because soldiers from Fort Randall had come to tell them all treaties were ended (would no longer be honored). She said Joseph Swift Bird related that many younger members of the band wanted to attack the forts along the Missouri River but the elders restrained them. She was certain this had been in 1860. She insisted it was before word came the Eastern Sioux were attacking the Whites in Minnesota.

Her ordering of events is confusing in that it would make more sense that the soldiers would have relayed news about voided treaties after the U.S.-Dakota War began (August 1862). This is a case where 110 years of “telling” might have changed details of the timeline. Or, it may be a misinterpretation about the delayed annuities delivery: the delay being relayed as the treaties not being honored. There were problems with annuity delivery for several years prior to 1862. As well, there had been a new treaty signed in 1858 which reduced Sioux lands in Minnesota. Any of this may have been related to her telling and it is impossible to identify exactly what she meant or whether her recollection of the date is exact.

At any rate, she stated Joseph Swift Bird was among those who initially wanted to go east to join the fighting. Before he left, however, White trappers from Sioux Falls arrived in the area and told of the many soldiers fighting the Sioux. He decided not to go and all summer heard stories about the war in the east. He heard the stories into the fall and still sometimes thought of joining the war. Then winter came and Santee Sioux from the east came to Crow Creek (she thought this was probably December) and wanted supplies.  The Two Kettles Band held a council to decide whether to help them. The Santee revealed they had six captive White women.

Here again, there are details that differ from White accounts and the historical record. Since the captives were rescued in November, the timeline is off here, too. It is likely possible that winter came early that year and it was not December. However, her recollection of SIX captive women is significant. Only TWO white women were with band that held the captives and recorded in the report made by the commanding officer of Fort Randall. However, a report made by a supply officer and a recollection by a trader indicated there were mixed-blood captive women. This oral history lends support to that. Those mixed-blood captives’ stories have been otherwise lost.

Again, the Two Kettles Band was divided. The younger men favored becoming involved in the conflict while the elders voiced restraint. Two young men, Martin Charger and Strikes Fire disagreed with their peers. They said the women should be taken from the Santee who held them captive. Martin Charger was also upset that the Santee had been killing buffalo that the Teton depended upon. Joseph Swift Bird was talked into joining their cause, along with six or seven others. The woman who gave the interview said this was to punish the Santee.  She also said Martin Charger was part White, the grandson of Meriwether Lewis (Lewis and Clark), and that many in the tribe said “part White” was White.

By this time, the young men were being called Fool Soldiers because their cause was foolish and they were going against the ways of the Sioux to attack their own. The woman said they started for the Grand River, where they heard the Santee were camped but stopped near the settlement of LeBeau to build three cabins so they would have a place to stay on the return trip and leave supplies. (LeBeau had a trading post along the Missouri River). In White accounts, it was LeBeau and his men who extending hospitality to the Fool Soldiers—this may have been what the captives reported to the soldiers at Fort Randall; the captives would not have known who built the cabins or furnished the supplies.

The story continues that Martin Charger and Strikes Fire went to the Santee with the intent to scout their numbers and better prepare for a fight then decided to offer horses as a ransom for the captives. The Santee demanded their supplies as well. Martin Charger and Strikes Fire were not in agreement but finally gave up horses and most of the supplies. Once the captives were released, the Santee followed the group and they battled near the mouth of the Moreau River. They were able to fight off the Santee with the few guns they had kept.

The woman related that they reached LeBeau around May. (In reality, it was in November). That discrepancy in dates may be due to interpreter issues or changes to the story over time. Another of the interviews relates the time as “when the snow stopped” which may relate to a blizzard of several days that is referred to in yet another interview (see how one must look at the whole of them?).  She goes on to say that there was another bad snowstorm and supplies ran low. She says Strikes Fire wanted to leave the six captives and return without them and that Martin Charger convinced him to stay. They went on to Fort Pierre. They got supplies and continued on to Fort Thompson. She refers again to snows and says it was still winter, lending support to a language barrier in the interview. It may be possible the woman never said “May” at all. They turned the captives over to the soldiers at Fort Randall.  (Reports from the commanding officer of Fort Randall indicate the captive exchange did not happen at the fort itself but north of there where troops on their way to ransom the captives met the Fool Soldiers).

At this point in Plummer’s recording, he strays away from the woman’s story and goes into his own observations. He first notes the timeline issues and says she veered away from the Fool Soldiers story when he probed with questions to pinpoint the year things began. Plummer says she mentioned President Lincoln and his order to execute Indians at Fort Randall for a massacre. There is no record of this in military orders—the closest reference would be imprisonment of those in the area who stated they’d been involved in Minnesota. Lincoln was not inaugurated until 1861 and almost immediately became involved in the Civil War. The only record of a Lincoln order to execute would have been the December 1862 order to execute 38 Sioux at Fort Snelling. This is a case of probable alterations over time or recall issues.

Plummer also discusses that the woman said the Santee were led by White Lodge not by Little Crow. This makes sense in that it was White Lodge who held the hostages involved and it was unlikely she’d recall the larger picture of Little Crow leading the war in Minnesota. It’s a non-issue related to Plummer’s apparent lack of knowledge about White Lodge. Another situation in which Plummer is unaware is a reference to “Waneta,” who was discussed by another woman in an interview as being the leader of the Fool Soldiers and grandson of Meriwether Lewis—a person this interviewee does not know. Martin Charger’s Lakota name was “Wa-ana-tan”. The name was likely corrupted over time and neither interviewee knew both names. He also spends time discussing other dating errors (such as mention of miners in the Black Hills) that can likely be explained by story corruption over time.    

This woman’s recollections of Joseph Swift Bird provide clues to unravelling details about the Fool Soldiers but historians must remember that Plummer and the interpreter both filtered information and that the woman was 90 years old at the time she was interviewed. As well, Joseph Swift Bird would have colored the details as a result of his own opinions and experiences.

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As I count down to my January 2021 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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