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The Fargo Forum,
Fargo ND
Sunday April 12, 1953 Pages 14-16
 
 
 
 
 
 

MOST OF SITTING BULL'S BONES STILL IN NORTH DAKOTA

S.D. Raiders Failed to Get Entire Body

If North Dakotans are sincere in their concern over preservation of the grave of Sitting Bull there is nothing to stop them from going ahead with the establishment of a shrine at the historic spot.

Most of his skeleton and other mortal remains still lie at the famed leader's grave at Ft. Yates despite the 'snatch' by South Dakotans last week.

Not over 25 bones of the 207 making up the human skeleton were found by the Mobridge, SD, residents who opened the grave and took what they could find to a new burial spot, conveniently near a trunk highway near Mobridge.

Natural decay and disintegration had mingled the unembalmed body and most of the bones with North Dakota soil, where they will undoubtedly remain as long as the earth exists.

The South Dakotans would have had to cart away yards of earth if they would retrieve all of the famed Indian's remains.

All the disinterment party got was a few of the 25 odd pounds of bones making up the skeletal parts of an average adult.

Al Miles, retired mortician now a Mobridge hotel clerk, who had charge of removing the bones, gave the Fargo Forum a list of them by telephone.

They included both femurs (hip to knee bones), a pelvic bone, a few vertebra and ribs, one humerus (upper arm bone), two tibia fibula (the lower arm bones), a few teeth, a small portion of the skull and a few smaller bones, mostly finger and foot joints.

Miles maintained he had "the biggest part of the skeleton," in that he had large bones, but actually his tabulation contains only a small portion of the skeletal remains.

He also found in the grave, he said, "some very small pieces of leather, probably from a buckskin garment, and a few buttons, of a composition material."

There were only a few small pieces of rotten wood to show that the body had been in a pine coffin, and there was no trace of the canvas in which the body was sewed before burial.

The excavation of Sitting Bull's body provided answers of at least tentative nature to several questions which long have plagued modern historical researchers.

The questions were these:

1.  Were caustic chemicals poured into Sitting Bull's coffin at the time of the burial?

2.  Were Sitting Bull's remains disinterred years ago and taken away?

3.  Did Frank B. Fiske of Fort Yates actually dig into the grave in about the year 1897 or 1898 and take out one
     of Sitting Bull's bones?

The answer to the first two questions, on the basis of Mile's findings, is "no", and to the third question, "probably Yes."

The story of the chemicals has been in circulation for many years.

One of the chief sources of the tale was John F. Waggoner, who served in the cavalry at Ft. Yates.  He said he not only built Sitting Bull's coffin but that he stood at the graveside, watched the chemical poured into it and poured in some himself.

Waggoner's story was as follows"

"There in the northwest corner of the military cemetery we placed him in the grave dug by prisoners from among the enlisted personnel.

Upon removing the cover, I climbed out again and preparations were made for final disposition of the remains.  Acting under instructions of Lt. Wood (Lt. P.G. Wood, 12th Infantry), Johnny Hughes poured one gallon of muriatic acid and I another five gallons of chloride of lime into the casket.

When this was done, I got down into the grave again, put the lid in position and got out.  Then two soldiers from the guardhouse filled up the grave."

Mortician Miles said there was not the slightest indication there ever had been acid on the remains.

While the skull had disintegrated, it is well known that after Sitting Bull was slain by bullets of Indian police, he was struck a crushing blow over the head with a heavy object by a relative of one of the police slain in the fray.

A Fargo physician said this would have resulted in exposure of the inner porous portions of the skull in the grave and bring fairly quick disintegration.

Fiske, who was recognized as a North Dakota authority on Sitting Bull, and wrote the book, "Life and Death of Sitting Bull," always scouted the story of the acid.

Describing how he and a companion dug into the grave in about 1905, he said:

"It has been said that quicklime and muriatic acid was poured over the body of Sitting Bull after it was placed in the coffin.

There was no evidence of its action on the bones we found, and I cannot believe that this was done.  The army men who prepared the body for burial were not concerned in its destruction."

Army officers and men like Maj. James McLaughlin, Indian agent who supervised the burial, made no mention of the use of acid.

There was another clamiant to the honor of constructing the coffin in which Sitting Bull was buried.  He was former 1st Sgt. Edward Forte of Troop D, Seventh Cavalry, a civilian carpenter at Ft. Yates in 1890.

He wrote Fiske from his home in Johnson City, Tenn, Nov 7, 1932, as follows:

"The body of Sitting Bull was buried in the military grounds in a pine coffin made by me. I being the agency carpenter.  I made the coffin, regardless of what anybody says about it.

I not only made the coffin but I still have the Henry Disston hand saw with which the work was done.  I refer you to James Yellow Fat and George Pleets, who were apprentices in the carpenter shop at the time."

A furor arose throughout the country late in Dec. 1890, about two weeks after Sitting Bull's killing, by a rumor which sent the National Indian Defense Association into action.

The rumor was to the effect that his body had been taken into a dissecting room in the post hospital, that a plot was afoot to sell his bones for exhibition purposes and that a Bismarck merchant had offered $1,000 for his skin, probably intending to tan it and sell bits of it as souvenirs.

This led to an inquiry by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the issuance of the following statement by the Ft. yates Post Surgeon:

"Ft. Yates, N.D. Jan 23, 1891.

I received the body of Sitting Bull about 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 16, 1890, and it was in my custody until it was buried on the 17th.

During that time it was not mutilated or disfigured in any manner.

I saw the body sewed up in a canvas, put in a coffin and the lid screwed down and afterwards buried in the Northwest corner of the post cemetery in a grave about eight feet deep, in the presence of Capt. A.R. Chapin, assistant surgeon, U.S.A., Lt. P.G. Wood, 12th Infantry, Post Quartermaster, and myself.

H. M Deeble, Acting Assistant Surgeon, U.S.A., Post Surgeon."

McLaughlin's report, dated Ft. Yates, Jan 27, 1891, says in part:
"I saw Sitting Bull's remains upon arrival at the agency and was present in the afternoon of Dec 17, 1890, in the military cemetery and saw his grave, which had been partly filled in with soil before I got there, and I feel confident that he was neither dissected, nor scalped before burial and also quite confidence that his grave has not been disturbed since."
Col. M.F. Steele of Fargo, who died recently, participated in a skirmish in connection with the chief's death and told of attending his burial.  Steele never mentioned any acid-pouring incident.

Mortician Miles said he was convinced from his examination of the bones he saw that acid had never taken effect on them, and added that the condition of the grave and the amount of material he found proved the body was never spirited away.

Miles' discovery that one of the humerus bones was missing tends to establish the likelihood that Fiske actually took it away.

Fiske described the latter incident as follows:

"Several years after Ft. Yates was abandoned (the military abandoned the fort Sept 13, 1895) a dance was going on in the agency hall on a certain night late in October.

While the gay couples circled about to the music of a violin and piano, my friend James E. Davies and I slipped out of the hall.

We had a sinister purpose in view and told no one, not even our ladies being aware of it, which rather complicated matters.

They assumed we were following the example of some of the cowboys, who were in the habit of stepping out for something to pep them up, such as might be afforded by certain medicines of high alcoholic content.

From the hall we walked briskly to the home of the chief of police, Thomas J. Reedy, in the west part of the agency, where we procured a pick and shove.  From there we struck due south, in the same brisk manner, to the grave of Sitting Bull.

It was a quiet night, bright with a full moon, and there were plenty of Indian policemen around the agency, who usually allowed nothing to escape their watchful eye.  But on this night their attention was concentrated on and about the dance hall.

As one of us dug, the other watched, for we did not care to be taken before the Indian agent for an explanation of our actions.

Soon we had a hole large enough and deep enough to allow one of us to push in a portion of the decayed wooden coffin that contained all that was mortal of the great Sioux chief.

We pulled out pieces of rotten canvas, which proved that part of the story of the burial was correct.

(Fiske was a boy of seven at the time of Sitting Bull's killing. He was let out of school with other children and watched the arrival of the cortege of wagons, bringing the dead leader and others slain in the incident, into the fort confines.  Fisk's father, a former soldier, was a wagonmaster at Fort Yates)
In fact, we had already found two things correct, that a coffin was used and that the body was wrapped in canvas.

Then we took the bones.  I took out a nice large thigh bone.  Then Jimmie got down and felt around until he found a rib.  These were took for relics, and what relics they were!

Really, Sitting Bull's remains were still there, which disproved all the stories about his body having been taken away, either by white men or Indians.

We filled the hole.  Our curiosity was satisfied for our main object was to see if the old chief was there. We smoothed down the dirt and replaced the sod.

We figured we hadn't time to take the pick and shovel back to the house and so we hastened to the dance hall and hid them, together with my bone.

But the dance was over and our ladies had gone home, quite discontented with our rude desertion of their charming company."

Fiske's account of this incident given in 1933, added that several years after invading the grave he stole back and buried the bone.  But in 1949 he showed it to this writer.

An anthropologist who also saw the bone at about that time, told the writer it was not a thigh bone but rather a humerus, or upper arm bone, such as Miles reported was missing when he looked over the remains last week.

Sitting Bull was unusually shortlegged and stocky, according to Fiske and others. His childhood name was Hunkesi, meaning "slow' his short legs handicapping him.

Frank Fiske's widow, asked about the bone by this writer over long distance, said she would rather not speak about it.  But she did not deny it was in her possession.

She commented that she has been advised that Sitting Bull's bones were found "to the side rather than directly under the concrete slab that lay over the grave."

She was inclined to believe however, that the bones found were the ones sought.  The theory is that when the slab was placed some years after the burial, that it was not located properly.

Mrs. Fiske looks upon the 'snatch' as 'commercial in nature' but had no criticism of the Indian, Clarence Grey Eagle of Bullhead, S.D. who led the party.

She felt that as a distant relative of Sitting Bull, he was within his rights, particulary inasmuch as he represented three granddaughters of the leader.

Since the death of her husband, Mrs. Fiske has continued in Ft. Yates, where she teaches piano to a small class.

(Part Two Continues next section)