Great Chief in the Big City

Sitting Bull in Philadelphia: a hot ticket and some stone cold racism. 

This is the story of how Sitting Bull came to visit our city.

His journey begins in September 1883, only seven years after he’d inspired Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors to victory over Custer and the US Cavalry at the Little Bighorn. The great chief was an unwilling “guest” of the U.S. government at Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota, overseen by Major James McLaughlin.

Sitting Bull was given a garden hoe and left to plant crops for sustenance, but occasionally Major McLaughlin would trot him out for civic ceremonies, such saying some blessings when a new capitol building was being built in one of the growing US territories. On one of these jaunts through the Dakotas, Sitting Bull asked to visit St. Paul, Minnesota, because he wished to learn more about the white man’s lifestyle.

The Major happily obliged. During his 7-day stay, Sitting Bull visited mills, factories and shops, and also a bank, a school, and a firehouse where he especially enjoyed sounding the alarm. He sent a telegram to his son and was thrilled by a telephone demonstration, exclaiming aloud, “Wakan!” (“Oh my God!”) when he recognized the voice through the receiver.

Vast crowds followed him everywhere he went – the town hadn’t seen anything like it since heavyweight bareknuckle champion John L. Sullivan‘s bouts the year before, and this was even bigger! All this hubbub did not miss the attention of the owner of the hotel where Sitting Bull stayed. He happened to be friends with McLaughlin (small world!) and together they jumped on the opportunity to cash in, planning a 15-city publicity tour of the eastern states to begin September, 1884.

McLaughlin knew just how to pitch it, too: he’d appeal to Sitting Bull’s sense of duty and responsibility for his people. He described the tour as an opportunity to advocate for his people, and use his popularity to help white people better understand Native American culture. And the money they raised could help their community!

The best part was, when they visited Washington DC, Sitting Bull would get the chance to appeal directly to “the Great Father” – the president of the United States – who he’d always very much wanted to meet and have a word with. This prospect really sealed the deal! Unfortunately, it was a total lie.

McLaughlin had never talked to President Chester A. Arthur; he didn’t even know him. But Sitting Bull took him at his word, and soon tickets for “The Sitting Bull Combination” were selling like hotcakes. The show featured the chief along with one of his wives, plus a troupe of other esteemed guests: Spotted Horn Bull, Gray Eagle, Crow, Long Dog, Flying By, Good Standing Iron, and even two women, Pretty White Buffalo and Princess Winona Red Spear.

Different members of the troupe would demonstrate Lakota dances and songs, and then for the finale Sitting Bull would appear and give a heartfelt speech. A white journalist (and self-proclaimed “Indian expert”) opened each show with a monologue and continued as Master of Ceremonies, introducing each act and explaining stuff for the audience.

Publicity photo featuring some troupe members with interpreter

Sitting Bull and his entourage played to packed houses, everywhere they went. The press breathlessly reported engagements with a mix of awe, patronization, and racism. NY Times coverage of his first meal in the Big Apple mocked his confusion over certain customs, utensils, and local foods like olives (which he mistook for unripe plums).

He wasn’t treated much better when he came to Philadelphia in October, 1884. Here’s how the Philadelphia Times welcomed him to the City of Brotherly Love:

“Sitting Bull has left his scalping knife at home, and having escaped the hangman’s noose, as many other red-handed murderers have done, has taken to the stage.”

The next morning, the paper referred to the Indians as “walking tobacco signs” and quoted a local man who called them a “band of scalpers,” quipping that he was glad for once to be bald. The article mentioned his “strong but undefinable odor”, comparing it to the smell of old buffalo robes. 😧

It wasn’t all bigotry and xenophobia. The Camden Morning Post dared to push back, insisting that Sitting Bull was a brave leader who righteously defended his people from certain death at the hands of Custer and the United States, who had refused peace offers and declared war on them at Little Bighorn. They wrote:

“Had the Indians been worsted, it would have been a brilliant battle. As they were not, it was a ‘massacre.’ We doubt the propriety of exhibiting the Indians but hope that the good and bad people of the Quaker City will not prove themselves to be less civilized than the ‘savages’ they execrate.”

They went on to allow that Sitting Bull was no saint, but he was a courageous Chief and, regardless, “as a prisoner on parole, he has a right to go about unmolested.” Fat chance. One morning after breakfast, Sitting Bull’s city tour was interrupted by a group of boys who followed behind him, hurling insults and climbing on his carriage at the intersection of Broad & Spring Garden. “Hey savage!” one called, “Do you want a glass of blood?!” They finally bolted when the chief stared them down and bared his teeth.

At one Philadelphia show, a sixteen year old Lakota boy named Luther Standing Bear was in the audience. Luther was a product of the Carlisle Indian School who was working as a student intern at John Wanamaker’s. Aside from the interpreters and other Indians, he was likely the only person there who could understand what Sitting Bull was saying in his closing speech.

Sitting Bull spoke of friendship, mutual respect, and trust between the white man and his people. He expressed cultural pride as well as personal satisfaction that his children were learning the modern ways. He shared how much he was looking forward to shaking President Arthur’s hand.

When the Master of Ceremonies translated his words into English, however, Luther was shocked to hear a lurid and sensationalized account of the Battle of Little Bighorn and Custer’s violent death, including much exaggeration and some outright fiction. The teen could only shake his head and smile weakly at the white man’s duplicity.

Though Sitting Bull was not Catholic, his brother-in-law Gray Eagle (a member of the troupe) had been baptized in the Church, so one day they attended mass together in the front pew at St. John the Evangelist at 13th and Ludlow. The next day, they visited Archbishop Patrick Ryan at his residence on 18th street, then popped by 40 Hours Devotion at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The Sisters of Charity were there with a large group of orphans, and Sitting Bull insisted on taking each one kindly by the hand.

As the newspapers derided him for making money signing autographs, they failed to point out that he gave most of it away to needy children begging for food on the streets of NYC and Philly. Indeed, Sitting Bull was deeply disturbed at how the white race did not take better care of their poor, and was appalled at how even young children were forced into hard and dangerous labor.

“That would never happen in his camp,” he would say. The chief believed children should play, not work. He looked down on wealth for personal gain, insisting instead that good fortune should be shared for the benefit of the whole community. “The white man knows how to make everything,” he’d say, “But he does not know how to distribute it.”

Near the end of his two-week run in Philadelphia, Sitting Bull finally asked his managers when he would meet the Great Father in the nation’s capital. Not only were his hopes dashed, but they tried to make him think he had misunderstood all along. Sitting Bull didn’t buy it, though – he knew that once again, the white man had lied. Still, he insisted on honoring his contract, and continuing with the tour (which suddenly ended in the next city, anyway, at the federal government’s demand).

The chief would finally get his wish to visit the White House a year later, on a new tour with Buffalo Bill. Recently-elected president Grover Cleveland agreed to meet with him but then pretty much blew him off with just a quick handshake. Things went downhill from there. After returning to Standing Rock, he was forced to capitulate over time to a constant onslaught of bad faith and genocidal policies from the US government, culminating in Sitting Bull’s murder and the slaughter at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Almost a century later, in June 1980, the US Supreme Court awarded the Sioux Nation $105 million for illegally stolen land that had been guaranteed them by Gen. William Sherman in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Including interest, this amounts to more than $1 billion today! The money sits unclaimed, though, as the Sioux refuse to settle for anything less than the return of their ancestral acres in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota.

There’s so much more to this story! Bob McNulty’s original article details the last days of Native American freedom in America, when Sitting Bull united his people against the aggression and encroachment of Manifest Destiny. From his electrifying visions to the famous Sun and Ghost dances that terrorized white imaginations at the time.

Click over to Bob’s full article here, originally published July 15, 2020 and featured in August 2023’s Local paper.

Read Bob’s last Local column HERE.  Don’t miss the next great tale from local history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook. 

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About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 22 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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