This story was originally published in the July 22, 2016 edition of the Capital Journal.
A group of Lakota Indians risked their lives on a mission to save the lives of a group of white women and children, knowing that there would be no reward in it. Not only that, but because of their efforts, they would be hated by both sides.
These 11 warriors came to be known as The Fool Soldiers.
Their heroic action — perhaps foolhardy — came in 1862, and the story of the rescue didn’t get told until about 40 years later. It stands as a remarkable example of moral courage in a time of great adversity.
Doane Robinson, state historian for South Dakota, told the story in an article in the August 1903 edition of McClure’s Magazine. In “A Side Light on the Sioux,” he told the story of what happened, starting with “that awful day of 1862.”
About a dozen homesteaders had settled along Lake Shetek (sometimes spelled as Shetak) in Minnesota, not far from the borders of Dakota Territory. This was the westernmost settlement and the most vulnerable in Minnesota, and on Aug. 20, the Santee Sioux killed the men and took the women and children captive.
They were “Mrs. John Wright and two children, a boy of six and an infant in arms; and Mrs. William J. Duly and two girls, the eldest of whom was 12 years of age, Lilly Everett, a girl of 8 years and two other little girls, daughters of Thomas Ireland.” They became the captives of White Lodge, described in Robinson’s narrative as “a subsidiary chief of the Santees,” and about 180 of his men.
Robinson said the tribe did not want to “incur the vengeance of the soldiers by being found with white captives.” Immediately after the attack, the women and children were taken into the Dakota Territory, with only a brief foray into what is now North Dakota. Eventually, they had settled near the confluence of the Grand and Missouri Rivers, in what is now Mobridge.
Word gets out
They were there by Nov. 1, when a band of white miners, returning from the headwaters of the Missouri, encountered them. An undated article in the possession of the South Dakota Historical Society tells the tale.
“Major Charles E. Galpin, coming down the river with a party of miners from Idaho, discovered them there. Major Galpin was also accompanied by his Dakota wife, a very intelligent woman.”
The Santee Sioux encouraged the boating party to land. Despite Mrs. Galpin’s suspicions, her husband landed the boat and tied it to a tree.
“While he was talking Mrs. Galpin discovered armed Indians skulking in ambush about them and she called to her husband, who leaped into the boat and Mrs. Galpin cut the rope with a hatchet which she happened to have in her hand, and all hands threw themselves flat in the bottom of the boat which drifted out into the stream. ... While they were still in hearing a white woman ran down the shore and shouted that a party of white women were held captive in the camp,” the article states.
Maj. Galpin traveled to Fort Pierre and told the story of the captives. By this time it was Nov. 15.
A rescue party
At this point, the Teton tribe were living near Fort Pierre. They had long before decided to remain neutral in the conflict between whites and other tribes. Some of the younger tribal members asked to help the whites, but they were overruled, Robinson wrote.
That didn’t sit well with Martin Charger, said to be grandson of Merriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Also affected was Kills and Comes — other sources give his name as Kills Game and Comes Home.
“Martin Charger and Kills and Comes, a few days later sat down on the bank of the river, and, after a long discussion of the situation, decided to organize the young men of the tribe into an association for the purpose of rendering the whites such assistance as lay in their power, without involving their people in war with the Santees,” Robinson wrote.
They gathered nine others — Four Bear, Mad Bear, Pretty Bear, Sitting Bear, Swift Bird, One Rib, Strikes Fire, Red Dog, and Charging Dog. These 11 called themselves a name best translated as “The Young Men’s Association,” but their own people called them the “Crazy Band,” a name which Robinson said “clings to them to this day.”
Others, including a Watertown Herald article dated Nov. 7, 1907, translate the name as “The Fool Soldiers.”
However, Sam Charger, son of Martin Charger, stated that the society came together as early as 1860, as he wrote in “The Biography of Martin Charger.”
When these men heard the story of the white captives, they “knew the time had come to put their professions into practice,” Robinson wrote.
The Fool Soldiers gathered up whatever they had and took their goods to Primeau’s trading house, trading for food, “especially sugar and delicacies which they conceived would be grateful to the Santee palate,” Robinson wrote.
The Fool Soldiers made their way north along the river to Mobridge, where they had a conference with White Lodge on Nov. 19. Robinson described what the fool soldiers said.
“You see us here. We are only young boys. Our people call us crazy, but we want to do something good. If a man owns anything he likes it and he will not part with it for nothing. We have come to buy the white captives and give them back to their friends. We will give the horses for them; all the horses we have. That proves that we want the captives very much, for our hearts are good and we want to do a good thing,” Robinson reported.
Each of the 11 Fool Soldiers repeated the exact same speech, “with that dreary monotony which only an Indian could tolerate,” Robinson wrote.
White Cloud was not impressed. He boasted of making the sky red with the homes he burned down, and making the ground red with the settlers’ blood. He also vowed to keep on fighting for the rest of his life.
Not even a feast prepared by the Fool Soldiers would move the Santee, stated the Watertown Herald article.
“They became even more insulting to the rescuing party, evidently wanting to provoke a fight. Great excitement prevailed among the young fellows,” the article stated.
The rescuers tried again, Robinson stated.
“Charger spoke: ‘White Lodge, you talk very brave. You kill white men who have no guns, and you steal women and children and run away with them where there are no soldiers. If you are brave, why did you not stay and fight the soldiers who had guns? … If you make us trouble the soldiers will come against you from the east, and our people, the Tetons, will come against you from the west, and we shall then see how brave you are,’” Robinson reported.
Black Hawk, the eldest son of White Lodge, had been moved by the Tetons’ honesty and kindness, and at this point jumped in. Black Hawk said that he, unlike his father, knew some of the Teton Sioux and that he was grateful for the feast.
“We are starving and it is winter. I have one white child which I will give up. Let the others do as I have done and give up their captives,” Robinson reported Black Hawk as saying.
The Fool Soldiers got to meet with the captives, who were by now in a pitiable state. At some point, Mrs. Wright’s baby “had been wantonly murdered by a young savage,” Robinson wrote.
The negotiations were difficult. Each captive was claimed as the property of a different person, making it impossible to trade for all of the captives in one wholesale deal.
“Each captive was claimed by an Indian as his personal chattel, and each was bent on driving the best possible bargain,” the Watertown article stated.
The youngest child was traded first, for a horse and some additional property. Then the next child, and so on, until the Fool Soldiers had almost nothing left.
“The boys had traded themselves out all their property, except one horse and four guns, and Mrs. Wright, whom White Lodge claimed, was still to be secured,” Robinson wrote.
White Lodge refused to part with her, on any terms. After much further negotiation, his sons, Black Hawk and Chased by the Ree, took the woman from their father and exchanged the woman for the last horse, Robinson stated.
With the ransom completed, the rescue party moved their camp several miles down river before night fell. But the danger was not over.
“They were utterly destitute of provisions, and there was a horse left, and one gun was their sole possession,” the Watertown article stated.
“They started on their long journey back to the fort. Shortly after darkness set in, a terrible blizzard came up to add to their hapless condition. Mrs. Wright could hardly walk, owing to a shotgun wound in her foot, which was occasioned by a jealous squaw.
“The women and children were given the few blankets, and the boys marched around all night to keep from freezing to death,” the Watertown article stated.
Plus, there was the constant threat that White Lodge would change his mind and come after the rescue party and the captives.
The following morning, a friendly Yanktonaise appeared on horseback. The Fool Soldiers traded two of their remaining guns for the horse and hastily rigged up a sled.
“(They) placed five of the children on it. Pretty Bear carried the youngest child on his back, and the women walked. Mrs. Duly had no moccasins and Charger gave her his own, himself going barefoot throughout the day until the Yanktonaise camp was reached at LeBeau,” Robinson wrote.
“Early on that day, the expected happened. White Lodge appeared, accompanied by five warriors, and demanded the return of Mrs. Wright, but the boys bluffed him out and he gave up the pursuit,” Robinson wrote.
The Fool Soldiers were able to get additional supplies from the Yanktonaise and they continued on their way.
The journey to Fort Pierre took six days. The river was slightly frozen, making the crossing into Fort Pierre hazardous. But they had help from Primeau and two others named Dupree and LaPlant.
“Primeau clothed the captives as best he could from his stock, and Dupree took them to his home, where they rested for three days, when they were taken to Fort Randall in wagons by Dupree and LaPlant,” Robinson wrote.
They arrived at Fort Randall on Nov. 29. All the captives were eventually restored to their families.
There was one sad footnote to this. According to an account by Mildred Fielder, Mrs. Duly’s health and spirit were broken by her ordeal. Three weeks after being restored to her husband, she lost her sanity and become a “harmless imbecile.”
The Rev. Jim Ketcham, writing in November 2003, called it a “remarkable story.” But it’s no surprise that this tale isn’t more well known.
“This event has been all but lost to history because in the 30 years of plains warfare that followed, whites did not want to hear a story about a “good” Indian and the Fool Soldiers’ actions remain controversial among the Lakota to this day.”
It was the 1903 article by Robinson that helped turn the tide. In 1906, Sen. R. J. Gamble called for payment of $200 for each Fool Soldier, but they never got reimbursed for their efforts.
The Fool Soldiers themselves never sought reimbursement, saying they had acted on their own initiative, according to Fielder.
Money was obtained for a stone marker to honor the rescue of the Lake Shetek captives, and in 1909, it was put up at the site where the women and children were rescued. That marker had to be moved after the Missouri River was dammed, flooding the original site.
The stone memorial now stands in City Park, just north of Main Street in the downtown area. A separate marker, a metal highway sign, was put up in 1973; it can be viewed in front of the Klein Museum in Mobridge. The sign describes the rescue in detail, concluding that what the Fool Soldiers did was a “Christian act of mercy.”
Marcella LeBeau, who lives on the Cheyenne River Reservation, is the granddaughter of Four Bear, one of the Fool Soldiers. She is 96 years old.
As a child, she was sent to a boarding school and not taught anything about her heritage. She didn’t even know about the Fool Soldiers until she was an adult, and the story came to her in bits and pieces.
One thing she knows is that the Fool Soldiers did not get much in the way of thanks. Their own people looked down on them.
“They weren’t very well treated by their own people because of what they did. And some called them, they were betraying their own people,” LeBeau said.
That controversy exists to this day, she said.
The Fool Soldiers didn’t get much gratitude from the whites, either. She cites her own history, saying that Four Bear had to sign a treaty with the whites in 1868.
“He had to live on the northeast corner of our reservation, where they gave him land. They built him a house — a frame house. And he had to live there. And if he left the reservation, he would have been shot as a hostile if he didn’t have a paper giving him permission to come and go,” she said.
LeBeau has a small collection of memorabilia covering the history of the Fool Soldiers. And she got to be a part of that history herself when she, a descendant of one of the rescuers, got to meet with a descendant of one of the captives.
Dr. Paul Carpenter, of Sioux Falls, is related to Lillian Everett, one of the little girls. He met with Harry Charger, the son of Sam Charger, and also met with LeBeau.
“He got my name and called me. And he wanted to come up here and have a giveaway, like the Indian people do and say thank you,” she said.
The event was held July 27, 1996, on the Cheyenne River Reservation. There was a banquet and a re-enactment of the rescue 134 years earlier. Carpenter was given a quilt, and both Carpenter and LeBeau were given eagle feathers, she said.
LeBeau described what it must have took for the Fool Soldiers to do what they did.
“It took a lot of courage. A lot of courage,” she said.