Fanny Kelly was taken captive by the Oglala band of Lakota Indians on July 12, 1864, and for the next four months, numerous attempts by her husband and military officers were made to secure her release. During this time, her safety was in danger, and living in an environment where the language and culture were foreign, made life very difficult.
However, because the weather was warm and food was plentiful, Fanny was able to survive. Soon, things began to change dramatically. After killing many of the Lakota at Killdeer Mountain on July 28, Gen. Alfred Sully destroyed much of the Native Americans' provisions and hunger became a major issue. By November, because of the lack of food, along with the temperature getting much colder, frustration and maybe even some desperation began to set in for Fanny, especially since none of the efforts to free her had succeeded.
Soon after her capture, Fanny’s husband, Josiah Kelly, had contacted the military at Fort Laramie about his wife’s plight, and Capts. Levi Marshall and Jacob Shuman led soldiers of the 11th Ohio Cavalry to secure her release, but the attempt did not work. Marshall then communicated with a Lakota named Porcupine, offering a reward of horses and money in exchange for Fanny. Porcupine presented the offer to the Oglala holding Fanny, but the offer was rejected.
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Fanny was later traded to Brings Plenty, a Hunkpapa Lakota who brought her to his camp near Killdeer Mountain. When Gen. Sully was informed that she was being held nearby, he also tried to broker a deal to secure her release, but that attempt also failed.
In early September, Brings Plenty brought Fanny to a Hunkpapa camp in what is now Bowman County, N.D., and the Native Americans there attacked part of a wagon train, led by Capt. James L. Fisk, that had been left behind to try to get an overturned wagon back on its wheels. When the Hunkpapa realized that they would not be able to defeat the men defending the wagon train, a truce was called and a trade was discussed that involved Fanny’s release. Negotiations broke down when the Hunkpapa insisted that guns and ammunition be included in the exchange.
In the meantime, Josiah was negotiating with a Lakota warrior and headman named Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses, who knew the whereabouts of Fanny. From this point on, until Fanny’s release in December, things became very murky and confusing as to who really held Fanny captive. Records and accounts vary, so I will do my best, using various sources, to attempt to piece together Fanny’s captivity status.
After receiving several gifts from Josiah, Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses told him that he no longer knew of Fanny’s whereabouts. That may have been because neither the Oglala nor the Hunkpapa Lakota held Fanny as their captive. Fanny wrote that, “the Sihasapa [Blackfeet Lakota] proceeded to take her away without Oglala permission.” She also stated that, “the Sihasapa became weary of the fighting and offered peace” with the white soldiers, but the Indians soon realized that there could be no peace as long as Fanny remained a captive.
While she was in possession of the Blackfeet, Jumping Bear, aka John Grass, paid Fanny a visit. Early in her captivity, Grass had saved Fanny’s life when an angry Oglala Indian tried to kill her. After renewing their friendship, Fanny implored Grass to deliver a letter she had written to the military commander at Fort Sully. In the letter, Fanny indicated that she believed the Lakota were willing to negotiate for her release, but she also warned the military to not allow a large contingent of Native Americans traveling with her into the fort because the warriors may attempt to attack the soldiers once they were inside.
A sticking point to the trade negotiation between the Blackfeet and the military at Fort Sully was that Brings Plenty still considered Fanny to be his property, and he wanted to keep her because he found Fanny much more compliant than the Native American women. “Brings Plenty would not negotiate until Sitting Bull intervened.”
Since Sitting Bull wielded considerable power and was held in high esteem within the different bands of the Lakota tribe, he was able to convince Brings Plenty that his ownership of Fanny needed to be turned over to the Blackfeet.
Grass took Fanny’s letter to Fort Sully and handed it to Maj. Alfred E. House, commander of the fort. A trade arrangement was negotiated, and Sitting Bull was notified to bring Fanny to the fort. On Dec. 12, Fanny arrived at the fort “under Sitting Bull’s protection,” and following them was a large contingent of Lakota Indians.
When they arrived at Fort Sully, “the gate opened and once she [Fanny] crossed the threshold, the gate slammed behind her. ‘Am I free, indeed free?’ she asked.” House assured her that “indeed, she was free.”
Because of her condition, Fanny was “confined to the fort hospital for two months,” and her husband, Josiah, was notified at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. As soon as she was well enough, Fanny and Josiah returned to their old home in Geneva, Kan., to visit relatives. They then moved to the rapidly growing town of Ellsworth, Kan., and opened a rooming house.
On July 28, 1867, Josiah died of cholera, and less than a week later, Fanny gave birth to Josiah Kelly Jr.
Fanny had reestablished contact with William and Sarah Larimer, the other married couple who accompanied the Kellys on their fateful wagon trip to Idaho. The Larimers were now living in Cheyenne, Wyo., and they invited Fanny to share a house with them.
Sarah and Fanny thought it would be a good idea to co-author a book about their joint experience of being captured by the Oglala, Sarah’s escape and Fanny’s five months of captivity. After completing most of it, Fanny traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Grant to “make a claim against the government for restitution of her losses, for her service in saving the Fisk Train and for warning the soldiers at Fort Sully” about a possible attack within the fort. Grant “extended his sympathies” and promised to present her claim to Congress.
Fanny discovered that while she was in Washington, D.C., Sarah had taken their manuscript to Philadelphia, where she was having it published under her own name. In April 1870, Fanny was delighted to find out that Congress was awarding her $5,000 restitution in her claim against the government, but in October, she was dismayed about needing to file a lawsuit against Sarah for “plagiarizing” her material in the book.
At the trial, Fanny was awarded $5,000 to be paid by Sarah, but on appeal the amount was reduced to $265.80. Fanny published her own version, "My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians," in 1871, and then moved to Washington, D.C., where she was employed at the U.S. Patent Office.
In 1880, she married William F. Gordon, publisher of the Oklahoma War Chief newspaper. Fanny Wiggins Kelly Gordon died on Nov. 15, 1904.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.