American Indians, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

The Beauty and Meaning of Ghost Dance Shirts

Many of the American Indian tribes that participated in the Ghost Dances in the late 1800s created special shirts and dresses for that purpose and infused them with meaning and power.

In “Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses,” Colleen Cutschall wrote:

“Both buckskin and cloth Ghost Dance dresses were painted with highly charged symbols of nature and the elements and emblems of feminine identity.”


Those symbols include the thunderbird and new moon — which “speak to a hoped-for reversal of desperate conditions and the beginning of a new life” — the sacred pipe, holy cedar tree, morning star and turtle, which represents protection of women and long life.

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s website notes that the symbols on shirts and dresses include messengers to the heavens in the form of crows, eagles and magpies.

According to Cutschall:

“Through painted signs of power, the universe was being called upon to rescue [the Indians] from cultural genocide. When this new movement was unable to fulfill the promise of restored land, animals and deceased relatives, it dissolved. Dressmakers returned to time-honored quill and bead decoration. The short-lived explosion of new painted dress designs ended, never to be revived.”

But Peter Nabokov in “The Native Americans: An Illustrated History” wrote that revitalization movements like the Ghost Dance still survive. And others say the dance was performed during the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, to honor the ancestors who had died there.

southern-arapaho-ghost-dance-shirt_buffalo-bill-centerThe Denver Art Museum’s website says a pair of painted and beaded moccasins in its collection were created by a Southern Cheyenne artist for use in the Ghost Dance and later embellished by a Kiowa artist, who added beads:

“The Kiowa also danced the Ghost Dance during the same two-year span [1889-1890], but later brought it back in a different form and danced a revised version from 1894 to 1916.”

The Ghost Dance movement among the Plains Indian tribes was not the first of its kind. Twenty years earlier, tribes in north-central California were seeing their way of life destroyed by the influx of white settlers, who brought mining, ranching and deadly diseases. American Indian spiritual leaders “began preaching apocalyptic messages of redemption,” Nabokov wrote.

Around the same time, Smohalla, a Wanapum spiritual leader in Washington Territory, founded the Dreamer religion and advocated a spiritual uprising based on the rejection of farming and white man’s wares.


And in 1881, Apache medicine man Noch-ay-del-klinne held dances and promised better days for his people. His message was much the same as the Plains Indians’ Ghost Dance religion: Whites would disappear and slain chiefs would rise from the dead. When the Army tried to arrest him for being a troublemaker, fighting broke out between the soldiers and his followers, with the Army’s Apache scouts siding with their tribesmen. Noch-ay-del-klinne was killed in the crossfire.

Many of the beautiful Ghost Dance shirts and dresses were scattered in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee. In “The West: An Illustrated History,” a nurse who tended to the survivors was quoted as saying:

“A young girl…who had a ghost shirt on underneath her clothes [said,] ‘They told me if I put this on the bullets would not go through and I believed them. Now see where we are.’”

The girl asked the nurse to get rid of the shirt.

According to an article by Mark Hirsch, on the battlefield:

“Looters quickly stripped the bodies of Ghost Dance shirts and other possessions, which were sold to collectors and museums. Photographers canvassed the corpse-ridden fields, and sold their photos as postcards. Advertisements said they were ‘just the thing to send to your friends back east.’”


Twenty-seven Ghost Dance leaders were initially imprisoned “then released into the custody of Buffalo Bill Cody, who featured them in his Wild West show. By agreeing to go on tour, the Ghost Dancers were spared lengthy prison terms,” Hirsch wrote.

However, in some respects, the power of Ghost Dance clothing never waned. In 1892, a museum in Glasgow, Scotland, acquired a Ghost Dance shirt from a member of Buffalo Bill’s show. More than 100 years later, in 1999, the shirt was returned to the Lakota tribe in a special ceremony. At the time, Marcella LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, said, “This will bring about a sense of closure to a sad and horrible event. Now healing can begin.”

Footnote: I read a book as a child about the Ghost Dance and Indian agent James McLaughlin’s efforts to stifle it. The book was geared toward young readers and spared them none of the tragedy of the situation. It made an indelible impression on me, and I still remember puzzling over how to pronounce McLaughlin’s unfamiliar name — it had “laugh” in it, yet there was no humor or lightness to the story or the man. (I think the book might have been Barbara Bonham’s “The Battle of Wounded Knee: The Ghost Dance Uprising,” published in 1970.)

Photos are of Ghost Dance shirts and dresses at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

American Indians, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Plains Indians and the Tragic Lure of the Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance movement that swept through the western Indian tribes in the late 1800s formed a tragic trajectory from Sitting Bull’s death to the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890.

After the U.S. government corralled Indians onto reservations, Congress promptly cut appropriations, drastically reducing rations for Indians at a time when crops were failing. A wave of epidemics followed, and Indians watched helplessly as their children starved or died of disease.

In explaining the appeal of the Ghost Dance shortly after the Wounded Knee massacre, Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud said: “We were faint with hunger and maddened by despair.”

The Paiute medicine man Wovoka started the Ghost Dance movement with a vision of a paradise on Earth.

In 1889, the Paiute shaman Wovoka began preaching about a great renewal that was coming in the spring of 1891. Mixing elements of Christianity and Indian beliefs, he promised tribes that Indians who had died at the hands of white men or their diseases would return, along with the buffalo that had nearly been exterminated by whites as part of their effort to subdue the Indians. And the white men would disappear.

Until then, Indians could visit that paradise by participating in what curious whites dubbed Ghost Dancing. But first they had to undergo purification and could not engage in fighting, drinking alcohol, lying, stealing or cruelty. Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs” describes it this way:

“The ritual dance was the essence of simplicity: the worshippers—each of them painted with a sacred red pigment—shuffled counterclockwise in a circle, moving slowly at first but then picking up tempo while singing songs acclaiming the resurrection. Many participants succeeded in their quest for a trance and awoke to tell marvelous tales of meeting with dead kinsmen and seeing the hosts of the past marching into the present.”

Wovoka’s vision was spread through letters written by boarding-school trained Indians and personal pilgrimages, like the one undertaken by Kicking Bear and several other Lakota who traveled to Nevada to hear Wovoka preach. Kicking Bear came to Sitting Bull in the fall of 1890 with news of the Ghost Dance. Sitting Bull tried the dance but experienced no vision and remained skeptical, saying dead men don’t come back to life. But he did not discourage interested Lakota from dancing.

Kicking Bear, a key proponent of the Ghost Dance among the Lakota, said special ghost shirts would protect dancers from the white man’s bullets.

In a move that would prove disastrous, Kicking Bear added his own touch, saying special ghost shirts would make the dancers impervious to bullets and hinting that the Lakota might hasten the prophecy about the whites vanishing from the Earth.

People began to dance at all the Lakota agencies (the forerunners of today’s reservations). An unnamed Pine Ridge pupil quoted in “The West: An Illustrated History” said, “To think I should see my dead mother, grandmother, brothers, and sisters again!” He traveled 30 miles with his classmates to join thousands of Lakota Ghost Dancers at Porcupine Creek:

“Occasionally, someone…fell unconscious into the center and lay there ‘dead.’ After a while, many lay about in that condition. They were now ‘dead’ and seeing their dear ones. As each one came to, she, or he, slowly sat up and looked about, bewildered, and then began wailing inconsolably.”

All that activity, in particular the wearing of “bulletproof” shirts, made whites nervous. The politically appointed agent at Pine Ridge, Daniel Royer, pleaded with the government to send troops to take the Ghost Dancers to a military prison. (Royer was so easily alarmed that the Lakota called him Young Man Afraid of Indians.)

In the photo above, hundreds of Indians in Oklahoma Territory perform the Ghost Dance ritual in the hopes of bringing back their old way of life.

The Army obliged by sending troops, prompting the dancers to flee from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud agencies to a plateau surrounded by cliffs that whites began calling “the Stronghold.”

Former agent Valentine McGillycuddy argued that the government was overreacting and issued a prescient warning:

“If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare the ascension robes for the Second Coming of the Savior, the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege? If the troops remain, trouble is sure to come.”

Sitting Bull, who had come to value the dancing because it represented a return to the old ways, sent word to Indian agent James McLaughlin seeking permission to travel from Standing Rock to join the Indians at the Stronghold near Pine Ridge.

Instead, McLaughlin sent 43 Indian policemen, backed by two troops of cavalry, to arrest Sitting Bull. Things quickly went awry. Indian policeman Lt. Bull Head was shot and, firing his pistol as he fell, struck Sitting Bull in the chest. In the same moment, another policeman named Red Tomahawk shot the chief in the head, killing him.

After Sitting Bull’s death, Chief Big Foot, who had lost faith in the Ghost Dance, began leading his band of 120 men and 230 women and children toward Pine Ridge seeking rations and protection from Chief Red Cloud. But the Army misinterpreted the action and intercepted them.

The next day, at Wounded Knee Creek, the soldiers began taking guns, knives and any kind of weapon they could find from Big Foot’s people. Troops surrounded the camp, and cannons were trained on the increasingly nervous Indians. Charles W. Allen, a Nebraska newspaperman who was at the scene, wrote that a medicine man began dancing and telling the Lakota that their ghost shirts would protect them:

“He was an orator of the first water. I remarked to some troopers nearby that if the man were an ordained minister of some Christian church he would convert the world.”

Allen said the medicine man threw a handful of dirt in the air, raised his arms to heaven and implored the Great Spirit to scatter the soldiers like the dirt. At the same time, the soldiers struggled with an Indian who initially refused to give up his gun. Someone fired a shot, and all hell broke loose. When it was over, some 300 Indians were dead.

Afterward, the last 4,000 Ghost Dancers came together in one village, which the Army surrounded. Finally, on January 15, 1891, the dancers surrendered. Kicking Bear was reportedly one of the last to turn in his rifle. It was the end of the Plains Indians’ armed resistance in the West.

According to Dee Brown in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” when the shots were fired that killed Sitting Bull:

“The old show horse that Buffalo Bill had presented to Sitting Bull began to go through his tricks. He sat upright, raised one hoof, and it seemed to those who watched that he was performing the Dance of the Ghosts.”

American Indians, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Remembering the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D.

It’s a bit overwhelming to write a post about Wounded Knee, both because of the complexity of the events leading up to the massacre and the enormity of the heartbreak, but I wanted to note the date—126 years ago today.

What was originally called a battle and now widely acknowledged as a massacre happened two weeks after Sitting Bull was killed. Wounded Knee marked the end of the Indian wars by crushing the last vestige of the Plains Indians’ resistance. It still resonates as a shocking tale of cruelty and wanton disregard for life.

In the immediate aftermath of Sitting Bull’s death during a botched arrest, bands of Sioux panicked and fled. Some joined up with Miniconjou Lakota Chief Big Foot and his people, who were on their way to procure rations at the Indian agency near Fort Bennett in South Dakota. They were intercepted by the 8th Cavalry, which had orders to arrest Big Foot because U.S. authorities believed he was a troublemaker. The Indians went with the soldiers toward Camp Cheyenne, but when they got close to their village, they refused to go any further. During the night, amid reports of more troops coming from the east, the Indians fled toward the Badlands.

Another cavalry unit caught up with them on December 28 and demanded that they surrender, which the Indians did, being in no condition to fight the Army. The troops hurried them to Wounded Knee Creek, where the Indians set up camp as the soldiers took up positions around them.

More soldiers arrived in the morning, bringing the military escort to 470 for some 350 hungry, tired Indian men, women and children led by a chief who was suffering from pneumonia.

On the morning of December 29, Col. James Forsyth sought to disarm the Indians first voluntarily then by force. Soldiers tore through the tipis in the hunt for weapons then tried to search the warriors themselves. In the confusion, a young Indian fired wildly. “Instantly, the soldiers retaliated with a point-blank volley which cut down nearly half the warriors,” according to Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs.” “The rest of them drew concealed weapons and charged the soldiers.”

The Army’s rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns shredded the tipis and set them on fire, mowing down women and children as they and a few warriors fled into a ravine. The soldiers repositioned the Hotchkiss guns to “sweep the ravine and cut down anything that moved.”

Chief Big Foot’s frozen body lays in the snow at Wounded Knee.

Big Foot was shot and killed as he tried to rise from his sickbed. Some of the wounded managed to run two miles from the camp before being killed by cavalry members who rode after them, while other soldiers finished off the wounded in the camp, including children coaxed from their hiding places.

The Army suffered 25 killed and 39 wounded. But because the Indians had few guns and the troops were firing from all sides at once, the soldiers likely caused many of their own casualties. To add insult to injury, 20 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions.

burial_party_wounded_knee-640Some 300 dead Indians were left where they fell for three days as a blizzard swept through. On New Year’s Day 1891, a burial party was sent to retrieve the bodies. Civilians were paid $2 per body to drag the Indians from under the snow and dump them into a mass grave.

According to Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs”:

“Four babies were discovered still alive, wrapped in their dead mothers’ shawls. Most of the other children were dead. ‘It was a thing to melt the heart of a man, if it was of stone,’ said one member of the burial party, ‘to see those little children, with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into the pit.’”

In “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Dee Brown writes that only four Indian men and 47 women and children survived the massacre. Soldiers loaded them onto wagons and took them to the Pine Ridge Indian agency.

The last words of Brown’s book fittingly belong to Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota leader born in 1863:

“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”


American Indians, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Where is Sitting Bull Buried?

You’d think the answer would be simple, but the question sent me down one rabbit hole of research after another.

sitting-bullSitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota leader, was killed on December 15, 1890, at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota during a botched arrest. He had surrendered to federal authorities several years earlier, but when the Ghost Dance movement swept across Indian Country in the late 1800s, Indian agent James McLaughlin feared Sitting Bull’s influence and ordered his arrest.

According to

“The Indian police rousted the naked chief from his bed at 6:00 in the morning, hoping to spirit him away before his guards and neighbors knew what had happened. When the fifty-nine-year-old chief refused to go quietly, a crowd gathered and a few hotheaded young men threatened the Indian police. Someone fired a shot that hit one of the Indian police; they retaliated by shooting Sitting Bull in the chest and head. The great chief was killed instantly. Before the ensuing gunfight ended, twelve other Indians were dead and three were wounded.”

Sitting Bull was buried at the Fort Yates Military Cemetery, but he has not rested in peace.

The Army abandoned Fort Yates in 1903, and all the graves were moved, except for Sitting Bull’s. By the 1950s, according to Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, “One of the most significant Native American leaders ever had almost simply returned to Mother Earth with not much more than a concrete slab and a pile of rocks to mark his passing.”

That’s when a group of businessmen from Mobridge, South Dakota, received permission through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to move Sitting Bull’s remains from the neglected grave in Fort Yates to Mobridge—in an effort to attract tourists to their town.

Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski’s memorial to Sitting Bull in Mobridge, South Dakota.

Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski agreed to create a memorial to Sitting Bull on the site of the relocated remains “only after a heated argument over the exploitation of Native Americans, the consent to the project of Sitting Bull’s heirs, and a commitment not to exploit the monument as a tourist site,” states. However, he ended up boycotting the monument’s dedication ceremony because he believed the South Dakota governor was using it for political gain.

Ziolkowski’s statue of Sitting Bull still overlooks the Missouri River but has unfortunately been the victim of neglect and vandalism. Another monument at Fort Yates is now under the management of the Standing Rock Reservation.

In 2007, Sitting Bull’s four surviving great-grandchildren launched a movement to have their ancestor’s remains moved to Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, where he played a key role in the defeat of Gen. George Custer and the U.S. Army. The New York Times also ran an article about it, but as near as I can tell, that effort failed.

And then there are those who say Sitting Bull is in Manitoba, Canada. In a 2007 interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, Sioux historian and elder Gordon Wasteste claimed “Sitting Bull’s remains were secretly spirited across the border at Turtle Mountain and buried on Canadian soil…over a century ago.”

Wasteste said Sitting Bull’s body was moved from the grave in Fort Yates long before the Mobridge businessmen dug it up in the 1950s. The tribe was motivated by concerns that Americans or Europeans would make a wax effigy of the great leader’s body from his bones, a not uncommon practice at the time.

So where is Sitting Bull buried? I have no idea, but judging by his enduring fame, it doesn’t matter where his body lies. His spirit remains indomitable.

Footnote: Incidentally, Fort Yates was renamed from Standing Rock Cantonment to honor Capt. George Yates, who was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After the Army left, the fort’s buildings came under the control of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Blacks in the Old West, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Bulldogger Bill Pickett and Blacks in the Old West


In the course of doing some research, I stumbled on a fascinating item about rodeo star Bill Pickett. He invented bulldogging, the only standard rodeo event that can be traced to a single individual. “The End and the Myth” describes it this way:

“He could throw a steer without using his hands, forcing the beast to the ground with his teeth—sunk, bulldog-fashion, into the animal’s lip.”

I didn’t expect to find a photo, but god bless the Internet—there’s a video on YouTube of Pickett doing just that in 1921. Audiences loved the stunt, and steer wrestling became a popular event, “although few cowboys were willing to copy Pickett’s lip-biting method, which was replaced by other techniques,” according to

Pickett was born in Texas in 1870. His father was a former slave, and Pickett was of African-American and Cherokee heritage. Later, he was often barred from competing in rodeos because he was black, so he would claim to be Comanche. In fact, “The End and the Myth” features a large photo of Ku Klux Klansmen in full regalia at a rodeo in San Antonio in 1924, taking advantage of the sport’s growing popularity to push their cause among the crowds.

Artist Lisa Perry’s statue honoring W.M. “Bill” Pickett in the Stockyards District of Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith via Library of Congress.

Pickett and his four brothers formed the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Association. (The 1994 U.S. postage stamp that was meant to honor Bill Pickett mistakenly featured a long-mislabeled photo of his brother Ben, forcing the recall of 5 million stamp panes from post offices around the country.)

Bill Pickett started out performing at local country fairs and ended up touring the world and appearing in movies. He died in 1932, after being kicked in the head by a horse.

Pickett became famous again 40 years after his death, when he was the first black man inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame. But the authors of “The End and the Myth,” published in 1979 as part of the stellar Time-Life series on the Old West, point out that although early books and movies in the Western genre generally maligned Mexicans, Chinese and Indians, blacks were largely ignored, despite their prevalence on the frontier:

“On the great cattle drives, about one cowboy in six was black. Two of the 10 U.S. Cavalry regiments on the Indian frontier were all black. There were black scouts, sodbusters, prospectors and townsmen (as well as black cardsharps and cattle rustlers). But when the real Old West ended, the white mythmakers who were to carry its legend into the 20th century simply left the blacks out.”

It is heartening to see Pickett’s legend living on via the internet.

American Civil War, American Indians, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Standing Rock Sioux and the Whitestone Massacre of 1863

The effort by the Standing Rock Sioux to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is the largest gathering of Indian tribes in decades. As Mark Sundeen so eloquently put it on Outside Online: “Two of our country’s biggest issues, racism and climate change, have collided on a North Dakota reservation.”

It’s also about history. Police attacked Indian water protectors with dogs in early September, on the anniversary of the Whitestone massacre, in which the U.S. Army slaughtered more than 300 members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in 1863. I was surprised I hadn’t read about the historical event in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which made me wonder how many other massacres Dee Brown had to leave out of that litany of heartbreak and devastation. I couldn’t even find a reference to Whitestone in the comprehensive Time-Life Books series on the Old West.

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Standing Rock Sioux tribal historian

But the story is far from forgotten. Tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who helped found the Sacred Stone Camp on her land to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, gives a heart-wrenching account of the massacre through her great-great-grandmother’s experience.

In 1863, the Army was fighting the Dakota Wars against the Sioux and found 4,000 peaceful Indians, mostly Yanktonais and Hunkpatina, gathered at Whitestone for harvest time and to prepare buffalo meat for the winter. When the soldiers arrived led by Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, the Indians sent their chiefs to meet with them, including Brave Bull Allard’s great-great-great grandfather, the medicine man Brave Buffalo.

The Indians had never fought with the whites, but the soldiers took the leaders prisoner, and the women reacted as they had been taught to do in the presence of an enemy:

“People were starting to tear down their lodges. People were trying to move in the chaos. So the first thing the women did is they tied the babies to the dogs, they tied the children to the horses, and they shooed the dogs and the horses out of the camp. And then they gathered what they could, and they started running.”

They ran into a ravine, and the Army soldiers shot at the women and children from the ridge. Brave Bull Allards’s great-great-grandmother Grey Hand Woman, who was nine years old, was shot in the leg and spent the night crying for her mother. “Everywhere, she could hear the crying and screams, the songs of people dying,” Brave Bull Allard said. In the morning, soldiers threw her in the back of a buckboard wagon, sparing her life for some unknown reason (they did not spare many, and the survivors were taken to a prisoner-of-war camp, which was hardly a gesture of mercy).

“She laid in the buckboard as she watched the soldiers come and start killing the dogs and the babies, killing the horses, killing the wounded. They gathered up all of our property—the tents, the meat, the hides, everything we own. And we had one section of soldiers sitting down there poking holes in the bottom of our pots. And they gathered all that, and they started this great big fire, burning all our food, our homes, everything. They said that there was so much buffalo meat that they burned, that tallow ran down like rivers out into the creeks. And the people ran. For three to four days they ran, as the soldiers continued to chase and kill them.”

More than 300 members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe were killed in the attack; it was the deadliest conflict in North Dakota. Samuel Brown, an interpreter during the 1863 expedition, wrote:

“I hope you will not believe all that is said of ‘Sully’s Successful Expedition’ against the Sioux. I don’t think he ought to brag of it at all because it was what no decent man would have done. He pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them…and the worse of it, they had no hostile intention whatever. The Nebraska 2nd pitched into them without orders, while the Iowa 6th were shaking hands with them on one side. They even shot their own men.”

The surviving prisoners were released in 1870 and returned to the east side of the Missouri River, then the Army moved them to the west side in 1873. But the Sioux kept starting over, and “my grandma told me that in the 1940s we were self-sufficient. We planted our own gardens. We owned our own cattle. Everybody and every community, we owned our own homes.”

This memorial to the Sioux Indian victims at Whitestone Hill in 1863 was dedicated on July 4, 1942. Basil Two Bears, grandson of the Yanktonai chief at the conflict in 1863, accepted the plaque in the name of five Sioux tribes present. His granddaughter, Alberta Two Bears, unveiled the memorial and is shown standing near it.

Until 1948 when the Army Corps of Engineers “decided to build a dam above us and build a dam below us. So Oahe Dam is below us, Sakakawea Dam is above us. And they designated us as a reservoir. And so they came, and they moved our people out of their homes. They took our homes.”

The Army Corps of Engineers flooded the forests and gardens and businesses and displaced entire communities, moving them to higher ground with clay-based soil that’s not good for growing trees or food. And they lost their infrastructure.

So when the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted from Bismarck to pass within 500 feet of the reservation on a map that doesn’t even acknowledge that the reservation exists (let that sink in), the Standing Rock Sioux had had enough. A rupture in the pipeline would hit schoolchildren and a major water intake. It threatens the lives and health of the people and the river. After all, the Army Corps rerouted the pipeline because it could contaminate the drinking water in Bismarck, whose population is 92 percent white.

Brave Bull Allard said that every year, “we go four days without drinking water, so that it reminds us how important this water is. And I ask everybody: Do you go four days without water? What happens to your body on that third day? Your body starts shutting down. So, we remind ourselves every day how important [water is]. We say mni wiconi, water of life.”

The transcript of her account can be found here and a YouTube video is here.

For more insight, read Paul VanDevelder’s excellent “Reckoning at Standing Rock,” which delves into the history of American Indian sovereignty, all the way back to the Founding Fathers.

Researching Historical Fiction

‘Bad Air’ and Undertakers: Yellow Fever in 19th-Century America

I’ve been reading about the yellow fever outbreak in Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo and thinking about how deadly the disease used to be in the U.S. Fortunately, there is a vaccine now, although it is in short supply. A century and a half ago, people didn’t even understand how the disease spread.

Arch_Street_Ferry Philadelphia 1793
A yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 killed 5,000 people, about 10 percent of the city’s population. Among the thousands who fled was an infected Alexander Hamilton.

Deadly yellow fever outbreaks struck the U.S. beginning in the 1700s. In the 19th century, it was deemed one of the most dangerous infectious diseases.

In 1873, Shreveport, Louisiana, lost almost one-quarter of its population to yellow fever. A local newspaper printed a “List of the Dead” that numbered almost 800.

The worst outbreak was in 1878 in the Mississippi River Valley. About 20,000 people died—a staggering number, especially at the time. Memphis, Tennessee, was particularly hard hit. It was the fifth of six major yellow fever epidemics in the city.

The disease is carried by mosquitoes and likely came to this country via ships. But people didn’t know that at the time. After a woman in Memphis got sick and died, about half the town—25,000 people—fled within a week, leaving behind mostly poor people and blacks.

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American Indians, Researching Historical Fiction

Revolutionary War in My Own Backyard

Moving to New England has shifted my awareness of history back a century or two. As a result, I’ve been trying to refresh my knowledge of the Revolutionary War and realizing that my early education in mercantilism and the House of Burgesses and Colonial Virginia is woefully inadequate (and, unfortunately, mostly forgettable).

The Fort at No. 4’s perimeter fence consisted of stockade poles that were too tall to climb over, too close together for a man to squeeze through but too far apart to offer cover from the men shooting from the roofs of the buildings inside.
The Fort at No. 4’s perimeter fence consisted of stockade poles that were too tall to climb over, too close together for a man to squeeze through but too far apart to offer cover from the men shooting from the roofs of the buildings inside.

So I jumped at the chance to see a battle reenactment at the Fort at No. 4, which had been the northernmost British settlement along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire until after the French and Indian War.

The original fort fell into disrepair after the Revolutionary War and was reconstructed in the 1960s as a living history museum. The modern builders did a very convincing job. And the reenactors also took their jobs seriously. Everything from the canvas tents to the uniforms and wire-rimmed spectacles looked authentic and lived in.

Fortunately for me, the battle was narrated by a man who stood in the watch tower and kept up a running commentary on the activities on the field, the war in general and the history of the fort.

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American Civil War, Famous People of the Old West, Photography and History, Researching Historical Fiction

Historical Icons in Living Color

Photo of Ulysses Grant, colorized by Mads Madsen
A photo of Ulysses Grant colorized by Mads Madsen

The spring issue of the Civil War Trust’s Hallowed Ground magazine had photos of Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee that I’d seen before, but this time I did a doubletake. The photos were in color.

I was baffled for a moment. There was no color photography during the Civil War. Where had the photos come from, and why had I never seen them before?

I was delighted by the richness and depth. The men looked real—dare I say alive?—in a way they never had before.

According to the credit line, the Library of Congress images had been colorized by Mads Madsen of Colorized History in Denmark. And they were masterfully done.

By an odd coincidence, right around that time, a friend sent me a link to a series of colorized historical photos. They cover a range of time periods and subjects, and they are fascinating.

A photo of Butch Cassidy colorized by Mads Madsen
A photo of Butch Cassidy colorized by Mads Madsen

We often have complex emotional reactions to photographs. But when we look at faded black-and-white images, they can seem stale and as though the people in them were not quite real. Similarly, when we visit historical sites and see the furnishings worn and dulled by age, it’s easy to forget that they were once vibrant and new.

Of course, many amateur and professional photographers take stunning photos in black and white (Ansel Adams leaps to mind), and I wouldn’t want to change that. But a generation of people have now grown up with color photography at their fingertips and though purists might disagree, I say a colorized photograph, done right, can breathe life into a historical image—and make history even more accessible to a whole new generation of history buffs.

American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction, Writing/Rewriting

A Portrait of Rural Life after the Civil War


In Jeffrey Lent’s new novel “A Slant of Light,” Union soldier Malcolm Hopeton comes home to his farm in western New York to discover that his wife has run off with his hired hand. What he does in a fit of rage propels him to flee — and sets in motion a somewhat unconventional narrative.

The book didn’t go where I expected it to (no modern-style courtroom drama), and it didn’t end where I expected it to either. Lent often writes in incomplete sentences, in fragments and impressions, and the dialogue was sometimes a mix of old-fashioned formal and more modern (to my ear at least).

But somehow it all worked. When I got to the end, I realized the book was really three interlocking stories of men and women struggling to understand and be understood by each other — to reach beyond the conventions of the times, which had very proscribed roles for women and men despite the close quarters in which they often lived and worked.

The book is also a loving, detailed portrait of farm life in the late 1800s. I went to a local bookstore to hear Lent read from and discuss the book, and his own story is fascinating. He grew up in Vermont and New York, where his father farmed with horse-drawn equipment well past the time everyone else had switched to gas-powered machinery.

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American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction, Resources and Events for Writers

Ford’s Theatre After Lincoln’s Assassination

After President Lincoln was killed, the government shut down Ford’s Theatre and imprisoned owner John T. Ford for over a month. By the time he was released, arsonists had tried at least twice to burn the building down. When Ford announced plans to reopen the theater, he received so many threats that the government took over again, in the name of public safety, and decreed that it would never be a playhouse again.

Ford's Theatre in April 1865, after Lincoln's assassination. Note the guards at the entrance and the crepe draped from the windows.
Ford’s Theatre in April 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination. Note the guards at the entrance and the crepe draped from the windows.

The building was gutted on the government’s orders and all the furnishings carted away. James L. Swanson, in “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” wrote:

By late November 1865, a little more than seven months after the assassination, the once beautiful theater had been defaced beyond recognition and relegated to a drab, three-floor office building.

Swanson said the government finally bought the theater from Ford, and in true bureaucratic fashion, “the excessive load of tons of documents and office equipment caused all the floors to collapse [in June 1893], crushing twenty-two clerks to death and crippling or injuring sixty-eight more.”

Ford’s Theatre was restored in the 1960s and is a working playhouse again—and a museum to both the assassination and the assassin. It’s well worth a trip if you’re ever in Washington.

Researching Historical Fiction, Resources and Events for Writers

Science and the Afterlife


I’ve experienced a series of losses this year, which have me thinking about what happens to our loved ones when they die and will I ever see them again? Greg Taylor’s “Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife” is an attempt to examine the scientific evidence that consciousness survives death, and it’s a refreshing approach that is free of religion. I had no idea that so many researchers have been tackling this topic for years.

Taylor cites examples of death-bed visions of a beautiful afterlife, near-death experiences in which people formed memories of what was going on around them despite the absence of brain function, and out-of-body experiences — and researchers’ attempts to verify them by placing objects on top of furniture where only floating spirits would see them. Those were the most convincing chapters in the book.

He also spends a great deal of time on spiritual mediums and the efforts of the Society of Psychical Research around the turn of the 20th century to prove (or disprove) that mediums were genuinely communicating with dead people. I was more skeptical of this “evidence.” Although some of it is quite compelling, I found myself not wanting to be taken in by mere parlor tricks. (And part of me thinks that if such communication is possible, why can’t I get a message to, say, Mattie Blaylock or Wyatt Earp — to say nothing of my friends and family members who have died?)

By the end, I think I was right back where I started — still wondering and hoping. When a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with a terminal lung condition, she told me she had a vision in which her dead husband and friends told her not to be afraid and a beautiful life awaited her on the other side. It gave her a great sense of peace. She also had hallucinations later (when she was on morphine) of adorable animals clambering around on the furniture, and she knew they weren’t real. Still, she said, “I wish you could see them.”

In the words of Fox Mulder, I want to believe. But I suppose I won’t be certain until it happens to me.