Fanny Kelly eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

"Jumping Bear points to the moon and swears to Fanny Kelly that he will deliver her letter to the white chief at Fort Sully," an illustration from Kelly's narrative. When Kelly's message was received at Fort Sully, General Sully demanded her return, and after some negotiations, the Sioux handed Kelly over to U.S. troops. Published by Gale Cengage (© Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)
"The Attack and Capture of Our Train," an illustration from Fanny Kelly's narrative. Published by Gale Cengage (© Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

Excerpt from Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians

Originally published in 1872

Reprinted in In Their Own Words: Warriors and Pioneers

Edited by T. J. Stiles

Published in 1996

Although legend has it that wagon trains crossing the prairie were under constant attack from marauding bands of Indians, such attacks were relatively infrequent—except on a few trails such as the Bozeman Trail—and rarely led to death. Native Americans posed little real danger to the emigrants. Much of the contact between whites and Indians was peaceful, as Indians provided direction to emigrants passing through their lands, or as the emigrants traded their guns for Indian horses. Some of the native groups demanded that travelers pay a toll to cross their land. But there was also some open conflict between Native Americans and whites. Indians commonly slipped into camps at night and stole horses and other goods. In fact, the Pawnee gained a reputation for thievery. Other groups, such as the Crow and the Blackfeet, disliked the travelers crossing their tribal lands and raided the camps or caught and killed stragglers. In the end, though, few whites were killed by Indians on the Oregon-California Trail, the same trail on which Fanny Kelly traveled.

While Indians did not pose a grave danger to pioneers, life on the trail was certainly dangerous. Long days of traveling under a hot sun were difficult in themselves, and these problems were compounded by the sometimes back-breaking labor of fording streams and climbing steep mountain trails. Accidents cost many lives, especially those of children. It was not uncommon for a child to fall off a wagon and be crushed beneath the heavy wheels.

In addition, environmental catastrophes sometimes occurred, catching weary or unprepared travelers at a disadvantage. Many travelers of the Santa Fe Trail told harrowing tales of the horrors they encountered as they faced a shortage of water and severe dehydration. Equally daunting was the threat of prairie fires. Whether started by lightning or by a carelessly tended campfire, a prairie fire could sweep across the land with devastating speed, consuming everything in its path.

The most pressing danger to pioneers was disease. Pneumonia, whooping cough, measles, smallpox, and other sicknesses took many lives, but the biggest killer was cholera. An acute intestinal infection, cholera caused violent vomiting, fever, chills, and diarrhea. As the sickness swept through the camps it killed quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours. Those who survived were severely weakened. The disease was prevalent on the trail, especially in the 1840s. One pioneer described the road from Independence to Fort Laramie as a graveyard.

Despite these real dangers, many pioneers braved the unknown in hopes of building a better life. Fanny Kelly is one of many who traveled the overland trails. Her description of her capture by Indians as she traveled from Kansas across the Plains toward Idaho illustrates the real horror of the clash between Indian and white cultures as whites ventured onto the Plains. Her tale, which she wrote for publication aftef her release, describes the confusion of both cultures as they struggle to stake claims to the same land.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Fanny Kelly's narrative:

  • Fanny Kelly regarded the Indians as savages when she was captured.
  • General Sully's attack on the Oglala people was unprovoked.
  • Fanny Kelly and her adopted daughter, Mary, were taken prisoner, but Fanny dropped Mary from her horse one night while traveling to a Native American camp. Fanny never saw Mary again, and there is no record that the girl survived.
  • Fanny Kelly spent the majority of her captivity in Wyoming.

Excerpt from Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians

The years 1852 to 1856 witnessed, probably, the heaviest immigration the West has ever known in a corresponding length of time. Those who had gone before sent back to their friends such marvelous accounts of the fertility of the soil, the rapid development of the country, and the ease with which fortunes were made, the "Western fever" became almost epidemic. Whole towns in the old, Eastern States were almost depopulated. Old substantial farmers, surrounded apparently by all the comforts that the heart could wish, sacrificed the homes wherein their families had been reared for generations, and, with all their worldly possessions, turned their faces toward the setting sun. And with what high hopes! Alas! how few, comparatively, met their realization.

In 1856, my father, James Wiggins, joined a New York colony bound for Kansas. Being favorably impressed with the country and its people, they located the town of Geneva, and my father returned for his family. Reaching the Missouri River on our way to our new home, my father was attacked with cholera and died. In obedience to his dying instructions, my widowed mother, with her little family, continued on the way to our new home. But, oh! with what saddened hearts we entered into its possession....

Our family remained in this pleasant prairie home, where I was married to Josiah S. Kelly. My husband's health failing, he resolved upon a change of climate. Accordingly, on the 17th of May, 1864, a party of six persons, consisting of Mr. Gardner Wakefield, my husband, myself, our adopted daughter (my sister's child), and two colored servants [named Frank and Andy], started from Geneva, with high-wrought hopes and pleasant anticipations of a romantic and delightful journey across the plains, and a confident expectation of future prosperity among the golden hills of Idaho....

As a rule, the emigrants travel without tents, sleeping in and under wagons, without removing their clothing. Cooking among emigrants to the far West is a very primitive operation, a frying pan and perhaps a Dutch oven comprising the major part of the kitchen furniture. The scarcity of timber is a source of great inconvenience and discomfort, "buffalo chips" being the main substitute. At some of the stations, where opportunity offered, Mr. Kelly bought wood by the pound, as I had not yet been long enough inured to plains privations to relish food cooked over a fire made with "chips" of that kind. We crossed the Platte River by binding four wagon boxes together, then loaded the boat with goods, and were rowed across by about twenty men. We were several days in crossing. Our cattle and horses swam across. The air had been heavy and oppressively hot; now the sky began to darken suddenly, and just as we reached the opposite shore, a gleam of lightning, like a forked tongue of flame, shot out of the black clouds, blinding us by its flash, and followed by a frightful clash of thunder....


The day on which our doomed family were scattered and killed was the 12th of July, a warm and oppressive day. The burning sun poured forth its hottest rays upon the great Black Hills and the vast plains of Montana, and the great road was strewed with men, women, and children, and flocks of cattle, representing towns of adventurers....

We had no thought of danger or timid misgivings on the subject of savages, for our fears had been all dispersed by constantly received assurances of their friendliness. At the outposts and ranches, we heard nothing but ridicule of their pretensions to warfare, and at Fort Laramie, where information that should have been reliable was given us, we had renewed assurances of the safety of the road and friendliness of Indians.... We wended our way peacefully and cheerfully on, without a thought of the danger that was lying like a tiger in ambush in our path.

Without a sound of preparation or a word of warning, the bluffs before us were covered with a party of two hundred and fifty Indians, painted and equipped for war, who uttered the wild war-whoop and fired a signal volley of guns and revolvers into the air. This terrible and unexpected apparition came upon us with such startling swiftness that we had no time to think before the main body halted and sent out a part of their force, which circled us round at regular intervals, but some distance from our wagons. Recovering from the shock, our men instantly resolved on defense and corralled the wagons. My husband was looked upon as leader, as he was principal owner of the train. Without regard to the insignificance of our numbers, Mr. Kelly was ready to stand his ground; but, with all the power I could command, I entreated him to forbear and only attempt conciliation. "If you fire one shot," I said, "I feel sure you will seal our fate, as they seem to outnumber us ten to one, and will at once massacre all of us." . . .

My husband advanced to meet the chief and demand his intentions. The savage leader immediately came toward him, riding forward and uttering the words, "How! How!" which are understood to mean a friendly salutation. His name was Ottowa, and he was a war chief of the Oglala band of the Sioux nation. He struck himself on his breast, saying, "Good Indian, me," and pointing to those around him, he continued, "Heap good Indian, hunt buffalo and deer." He assured us of his utmost friendship for the white people; then he shook hands, and his band followed his example, crowding around our wagons, shaking us all by the hand over and over again, until our arms ached, and grinning and nodding with every demonstration of good will....

The chief at last intimated that he desired us to proceed on our way, promising that we should not be molested. We obeyed, without trusting them, and soon the train was again in motion, the Indians insisting on driving our herd, and growing ominously familiar. Soon my husband called a halt. He saw that we were approaching a rocky glen, in whose gloomy depths he anticipated a murderous attack, and from which escape would be utterly impossible. Our enemies urged us still forward, but we resolutely refused to stir, when they requested that we should prepare us supper, which they said they would share with us, and then go to the hills to sleep. The men of our party concluded it best to give them a feast. Mr. Kelly gave orders to our two colored servants to prepare at once to make a feast for the Indians....

Each man was busy preparing supper; Mr. Larimer and Frank were making the fire; Mr. Wakefield was getting provisions out of the wagon; Mr. Taylor was attending to his team; Mr. Kelly and Andy were out some distance gathering wood; Mr. Sharp was distributing sugar among the Indians; supper, that they asked for, was in rapid progress of preparation, when suddenly our terrible enemies threw off their masks and displayed their truly demonic natures. There was a simultaneous discharge of arms, and when the cloud of smoke cleared away, I could see the retreating form of Mr. Larimer and the slow motion of poor Mr. Wakefield, for he was mortally wounded.

Mr. Kelly and Andy made a miraculous escape with their lives. Mr. Sharp was killed within a few feet of me. Mr. Taylor—I never can forget his face as I saw him shot through the forehead with a rifle ball. He looked at me as he fell backward to the ground a corpse. I was the last object that met his dying gaze. Our poor faithful Frank fell at my feet pierced by many arrows. I recall the scene with a sickening horror. I could not see my husband anywhere, and did not know his fate, but feared and trembled. With a glance at my surroundings, my senses seemed gone for a time, but I could only live and endure.

I had but little time for thought, for the Indians quickly sprang into our wagons, tearing off covers, breaking, crushing, and smashing

all hindrances to plunder, breaking open locks, trunks, and boxes, and distributing or destroying our goods with great rapidity, using their tomahawks to pry open boxes, which they split up in savage recklessness.

Oh, what horrible sights met my view! Pen is powerless to portray the scenes occurring around me. They filled the air with the fearful war-whoops and hideous shouts. I endeavored to keep my fears quiet as possible, knowing that an indiscreet act on my part might result in jeopardizing our lives, though I felt certain that we two helpless women would share death by their hands; but with as much of an air of indifference as I could command, I kept still, hoping to prolong our lives, even if but a few moments. I was not allowed this quiet but a moment, when two of the most savage-looking of the party rushed up into my wagon, with tomahawks drawn in their right hands, and with their left seized me by both hands and pulled me violently to the ground, injuring my limbs very severely, almost breaking them, from the effects of which I afterward suffered a great deal. I turned to my little Mary, who, with outstretched hands, was standing in the wagon, took her in my arms and helped her to the ground. I then turned to the chief, put my hand upon his arm, and implored his protection for my fellow prisoner and our children. At first he gave me no hope, but seemed utterly indifferent to my prayers. Partly in words and partly by signs, he ordered me to remain quiet, placing his hand upon his revolver, that hung in a belt at his side, as an argument to enforce obedience....


Pioneers being attacked by Comanches, 1857, engraving by Schoolcraft. Although legend has it that wagon trains crossing the prairie were under constant attack from marauding bands of Indians, such attacks were relatively infrequent on most of the trails, Pioneers being attacked by Comanches, 1857, engraving by Schoolcraft. Although legend has it that wagon trains crossing the prairie were under constant attack from marauding bands of Indians, such attacks were relatively infrequent on most of the trails, and whites were rarely killed. Published by Gale Cengage (Bettmann. Reproduced by permission.)
I was led a short distance from the wagon, with Mary, and told to remain quiet, and tried to submit; but oh, what a yearning sprang up in my heart to escape, as I hoped my husband had done! But many watchful eyes were upon me, and enemies on every side, and I realized that any effort then at escape would result in failure, and probably cause the death of all the prisoners....

[Kelly was then taken to a Native American camp; one night along the way to the camp she let Mary down from her horse and told her to run, hoping Mary would be found by other pioneers in the area or by U.S. Army troops. Fanny never saw Mary again. When the Indians arrived at the camp Fanny was led into the chief's lodge.] Great crowds of curious Indians came flocking in to stare at me. The women brought their children. Some of them, whose fair complexion astonished me, I afterward learned were the offspring of fort marriages. One fair little boy, who with his mother had just returned from Fort Laramie, came close to me. Finding the squaw could speak a few words in English, I addressed her, and was told in reply to my questions that she had been the wife of a captain there, but that his white wife arriving from the East, his Indian wife was told to return to her people; she did so, taking her child with her....

I was just beginning to rejoice in the dawning kindness that seemed to soften their swarthy faces, when a messenger from the war chief arrived, accompanied by a small party of young warriors sent to conduct me to the chief's presence. I did not at first comprehend the summons, and, as every fresh announcement only awakened new fears, I dreaded to comply, yet dared not refuse. Seeing my hesitation, the senior wife allowed a little daughter of the chief's, whose name was Yellow Bird, to accompany me, and I was then conducted to several feasts, at each of which I was received with kindness and promised good will and protection. It was here that the chief himself first condescended to speak kindly to me, and this and the companionship of the child Yellow Bird, who seemed to approach me with a trusting grace and freedom unlike the scared shyness of Indian children generally, inspired hope.

The chief here told me that henceforth I could call Yellow Bird my own, to take the place of my little girl that had been killed. I did not at once comprehend all of his meaning, still it gave me some hope of security....

[Kelly was invited to take part in a lengthy ceremony or meeting of the chief and other important members of the group. There was a celebration afterward that Kelly also attended.] That night was spent in dancing. Wild and furious all seemed to me. I was led into the center of the circle, and assigned the painful duty of holding above my head human scalps fastened to a little pole. The dance was kept up until near morning, when all repaired to their respective lodges. The three kind sisters of the chief were there to convey me to mine.


The next morning the whole village was in motion. The warriors were going to battle against a white enemy, they said, and old men, women, and children were sent out in another direction to a place of safety, as designated by the chief. Everything was soon moving. With the rapidity of custom the tent poles were lowered and the tents rolled up. The cooking utensils were put together, and laid on cross-beams connecting the lower ends of the poles as they trail the ground from the horses' sides, to which they are attached. Dogs, too, are made useful in this exodus, and started off with smaller burdens dragging after them, in the same manner that horses are packed.

The whole village was in commotion, children screaming or laughing; dogs barking or growling under their heavy burdens; squaws running hither and thither, pulling down tepee poles, packing up everything, and leading horses and dogs with huge burdens.... The number and utility of these faithful dogs is sometimes astonishing, as they count hundreds, each bearing a portion of the general household goods....

This train was immensely large, nearly the whole Sioux nation having concentrated there for the purposes of war. The chief's sisters brought me a horse saddled, told me to mount, and accompany the already moving column that seemed to be spreading over the hills to the northward. We toiled on all day. Late in the afternoon we arrived at the ground of encampment, and rested for further orders from the warriors, who had gone to battle and would join us there.

I had no means of informing myself at that time with whom the war was raging, but afterward learned that General Sully's army was pursuing the Sioux, and that the engagement was with his men. In three days the Indians returned to camp, and entered on a course of feasting and rejoicing that caused me to believe that they had suffered very little loss in the affray. They passed their day of rest in this sort of entertainment; and here I first saw the scalp dance, which ceremonial did not increase my respect or confidence in the tender mercies of my captors. This performance is only gone through at night and by the light of torches, consequently its terrible characteristics are heightened by the fantastic gleams of the lighted brands. The women, too, took part in the dance, and I was forced to mingle in the fearful festivity, painted and dressed for the occasion, and holding a staff from the top of which hung several scalps....

The Indians felt that the proximity of the troops and their inroads through their best hunting-grounds would prove disastrous to them and their future hopes of prosperity, and soon again they were making preparations for battle; and again, on the 8th of August the warriors set forth on the warpath, and this time the action seemed to draw ominously near our encampment....

There seemed to be great commotion and great anxiety in the movements of the Indians, and presently I could hear the sound of battle; and the echoes, that came back to me from the reports of the guns in the distant hills, warned me of the near approach of my own people, and my heart became a prey to wildly conflicting emotions, as they hurried on in great desperation, and even forbid me turning my head and looking in the direction of battle.... Panting for rescue, yet fearing for its accomplishment, I passed the day. The smoke of action now rose over the hills beyond. The Indians now realized their danger, and hurried on in great consternation.

General Sully's soldiers appeared in close proximity, and I could see them charging on the Indians, who, according to their habits of warfare, skulked behind trees, sending their bullets and arrows vigorously forward into the enemy's ranks. I was kept in advance of the moving column of women and children, who were hurrying on, crying and famishing for water, trying to keep out of the line of firing....


As soon as we were safe, and General Sully pursued us no longer, the warriors returned home, and a scene of terrible mourning over the killed ensued among the women. Their cries are terribly wild and distressing on such occasions; and the near relations of the deceased indulge in frantic expressions of grief that cannot be described. Sometimes the practice of cutting the flesh is carried to a horrible and barbarous extent. They inflict gashes on their bodies and limbs an inch in length. Some cut off their hair, blacken their faces, and march through the village in procession, torturing their bodies to add vigor to their lamentations.

Hunger followed on the track of grief; all their food was gone, and there was no game in that portion of the country. In our flight they scattered everything, and the country through which we passed for the following two weeks did not yield enough to arrest starvation. The Indians were terribly enraged, and threatened me with death almost hourly, and in every form.

I had so hoped for liberty when my friends were near; but alas! all my fond hopes were blasted. The Indians told me that the army was going in another direction.

They seemed to have sustained a greater loss than I had been made aware of, which made them feel very revengeful toward me. The next morning I could see that something unusual was about to happen....

Soon they sent an Indian to me, who asked me if I was ready to die—to be burned at the stake. I told him whenever Wakon-Tonka (The Great Spirit) was ready, he would call for me, and then I would be ready and willing to go. He said that he had been sent from the council to warn me, that it had become necessary to put me to death, on account of my white brothers killing so many of their young men recently. He repeated that they were not cruel for the pleasure of being so; necessity is their first law, and he and the wise chiefs, faithful to their hatred for the white race, were in haste to satisfy their thirst for vengeance; and further, that the interest of their nation required it.

As soon as the chiefs were assembled around the council fire, the pipe-carrier entered the circle, holding in his hand the pipe already lighted. Bowing to the four cardinal points, he uttered a short prayer, or invocation, and then presented the pipe to the old chief, Ottowa, but retained the bowl in his hand. When all the chiefs and men had smoked, one after the other, the pipe-bearer emptied the ashes into the fire, saying, "Chiefs of the great Dakota nation, Wakon-Tonka gives you wisdom, so that whatever be your determination, it may be comfortable to justice." Then, after bowing respectfully, he retired.

....At length one of the most aged of the chiefs, whose body was furrowed with the scars of innumerable wounds and who enjoyed among his people a reputation for great wisdom, arose.

Said he, "The pale faces, our eternal persecutors, pursue and harass us without intermission, forcing us to abandon to them, one by one, our best hunting grounds, and we are compelled to seek a refuge in the depths of these Bad Lands, like timid deer. Many of them even dare to come into prairies which belong to us, to trap beaver, and hunt elk and buffalo, which are our property. These faithless creatures, the outcasts of their own people, rob and kill us when they can. Is it just that we should suffer these wrongs without complaining? Shall we allow ourselves to be slaughtered like timid Assiniboines, without seeking to avenge ourselves? Does not the law of the Dakotas say, Justice to our own nation, and death to all pale faces? Let my brothers say if that is just," pointing to the stake that was being prepared for me.

"Vengeance is allowable," sententiously remarked Mahpeah (the Sky).

Another chief, Ottawa, arose and said, "It is the undoubted right of the weak and oppressed; and yet it ought to be proportioned to the injury received. Then why should we put this young, innocent woman to death? Has she not always been kind to us, smiled upon us, and sang for us? Do not all our children love her as a tender sister? Why, then, should we put her to so cruel a death for the crimes of others, if they are of her nation? Why should we punish the innocent for the guilty?

I looked to Heaven for mercy and protection, offering up those earnest prayers that are never offered in vain; and oh! how thankful I was when I knew their decision was to spare my life.... [Stiles, pp. 55, 56, 57, 58-60, 63, 65, 66, 75, 76, 77]

What happened next . . .

Shortly after the Oglala decided that Kelly should live, they handed her over to the Hunkpapa people with whom she quickly gained respect and the Indian name "Real Woman." While Kelly was living with the Hunkpapa, General Sully learned of her captivity and demanded her release. The Hunkpapa perceived Kelly to be unhappy in captivity and arranged for chiefs of the Blackfoot tribe to deliver her to Fort Sully. Five months after her capture, Kelly was free.

Kelly had witnessed the early part of the war with the Plains Indians. Provoked by the opening of the Bozeman Trail, which cut through the Indians' hunting ground, and started by General Alfred Sully's attack on the Sioux in 1863, the war with the Plains Indians would last for another twelve years.

Soon after gaining her freedom, Kelly rejoined her husband, Josiah, and returned to Ellsworth, Kansas, where they opened a hotel. They had three children before Josiah died of cholera in 1867. In 1870, Kelly moved to Washington, where she married again in 1880. Her book was published in 1872. She died in 1904.

Did you know . . .

  • Of the 250,000 settlers who traveled the trails in the 1840s and 1850s, it is estimated that only 362 died at the hands of Indians.
  • Though accurate death rates are not available, it is estimated that at least 20,000 of the 350,000 people who ventured forth on the Oregon-California Trail died on the way from various causes including illness, accidents, and injuries. That means that 1 in 17 of the pioneers did not reach his or her destination and that there was an average of ten graves per mile of the trail.

Consider the following . . .

  • Did the Indians treat Fanny Kelly fairly?
  • How were the perspectives of the Native Americans different from the whites' perspective?

For More Information

Kelly, Fanny. Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians. Hartford, CT: Mutual Publishing Company, 1872.

Peters, Arthur King. Seven Trails West. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996.

Place, Marian T. Westward on the Oregon Trail. New York: American Heritage, 1962.

Roscoe, Gerald, and David Larkin. Westward: The Epic Crossing of the American Landscape. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995.

Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: Warriors and Pioneers. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1996.