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Eriksmoen: After months of Lakota captivity, Fanny Kelly's freedom was secured by Sitting Bull

In today's "Did You Know That" column, Curt starts the story of a woman who was captured and held captive in 1864.

Fanny Kelly. State Historical Society of North Dakota photo 0020-6x8-00308 / Special to The Forum

In 1864, Fanny Kelly, a white woman, was captured by Lakota Indians and held captive for five months. However, two members of this tribe played significant roles in her safety and release.

Jumping Bear, later Anglicized to John Grass, saved her life and protected her, and Sitting Bull secured her release. Fanny spent her time of captivity in Wyoming Territory, southern Dakota Territory and at Indian villages in what are now Dunn and Bowman counties in North Dakota.

Fanny Wiggins was born in Orillia, in central Ontario, Canada, on Nov. 15, 1845, to James and Margaret Wiggins. In 1861, James, a farmer, decided to relocate to Geneva, Kan., at a “New York abolitionist colony.” While traveling by wagon through the barren region of central North America, the Wiggins were forced to find water wherever they could, sometimes in stagnant ponds. As a result, James contracted cholera and died.

When Fanny, her mother, sister and two brothers reached the colony, they acquired 159 acres of land near Geneva on April 1, 1861, and began farming. Two days after her 18th birthday, Fanny married Josiah Kelly, a local farmer who was 15 years her senior.

Josiah had served briefly in the Union Army during the start of the Civil War, but was discharged because of poor health and he returned to Geneva. “Josiah hoped that a change of climate would aid his failing health, so he, Fanny, and her 7-year-old adopted daughter, Mary Hurley (daughter of Fanny’s sister), set out on May 17, 1864, for the region that is now Idaho.” Also traveling with them were Franklin and Andy, two African-American servants, and Gardner Wakefield, a 28-year-old neighbor.


After a few days, the Rev. Sharp, a Methodist minister, joined the wagon train. A couple of weeks later, they were joined by William and Sarah Larimer, their 8-year-old son, Frank, and their covered wagon driver, Noah Taylor. The wagon train proceeded westward down the Oregon Trail, and on July 12, soon after crossing the Little Box Elder Creek, in what is now Wyoming, they encountered about 250 Miniconjou, Hunkpapa and Oglala Lakota Indians, “painted and equipped for war.”

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The Native Americans, under the command of Oglala Chief Ottawa, “demanded a horse, clothing, sugar cookies, and flour.” To placate them, the wagon train party prepared a meal for them. While they were eating, a Lakota messenger arrived and reported that U.S. soldiers had killed some of their relatives near the Missouri River and that the soldiers had put the Indian’s heads on poles.

Many of the Lakota became enraged and shot and killed Sharp, Taylor and Franklin. William Larimer suffered an arrow wound to the arm, and Wakefield was seriously wounded with three arrows in him, but both men got away. Josiah Kelly and Andy were away from the camp gathering wood at the time the violence occurred, and when they got close enough to observe the carnage, they realized that there was nothing they could do.

The warriors looted the five wagons and made the two women and two children their captives. While Fanny, Sarah, Mary and Frank were being led to the camp, Fanny devised a plan to help Mary escape. When no one was looking, Mary was to “jump off the horse and lay down in the grass until everybody was out of sight.” Fanny told her to then return to the location of the wagons and try to find any of the surviving members of the wagon train.

Soon, the Native Americans realized that Mary was missing and sent scouts back to find her. They believed that Fanny enabled Mary to get away, and she wrote that she was beaten. Fanny’s hope was that Mary had escaped to safety. Unfortunately, she did not.

Josiah and Andy made their way to the protection of a large wagon train some miles away, and they later found William Larimer and Wakefield, who had both been wounded. “After a couple of days, the party made its way to Deer Creek Station,” an overland mail and pony express station located just east of present-day Glenrock, Wyo., where there were Army troops stationed at a military post.

Sarah Larimer and her son, Frank, made their escape from captivity on July 14 and also found their way to Deer Creek Station.


At first, life in the Lakota village as a captive was very stressful for Fanny. She did not know the Siouan language or the customs of the local tribe, and she was worried about the fate of Mary. One very tense moment happened when she accidentally broke a chief’s pipe and was only able to dispel his wrath by offering him money.

The most serious incident happened when she innocently “accepted a gift of stockings from the brother-in-law of the old chief, inadvertently committing a social blunder.” (I am not aware of the breach of etiquette of this action.)

Angered, the chief killed one of the horses belonging to his brother-in-law. “The brother-in-law sought to retaliate by aiming an arrow at Fanny, but a young Blackfeet named Jumping Bear snatched his bow away, aborting the immediate danger to her. The quarrel ended with the chief giving his brother-in-law another horse in return for the one killed.”

The “old chief” presumably was Ottawa, also known as Silver Horn. “Jumping Bear” is best known by white historians as John Grass, a member of the Sihasapa (Blackfeet) band of Lakota people, and he later became a chief of this band.

Jumping Bear had been educated at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and spoke English, and he took an interest in Fanny’s welfare and safety. He was also a good friend of Sitting Bull and urged the powerful medicine man to help secure Fanny’s release from captivity.

Sitting Bull circa 1885 David F. Barry Library of Congress.jpg
Sitting Bull as photographed by David F. Barry, circa 1885. Library of Congress photo / Special to The Forum

Fanny became the property and servant of Chief Ottawa and lived with his family. Some have written that she became one of his wives, but a number of historians disagree with that claim.


While living with her captors, Fanny learned the Siouan language and “took on the role as the chief’s medicine woman,” using what medical knowledge she had learned previous to her captivity to care for the sick and ailing Indians in the camp.

Josiah and a group of soldiers from Deer Creek Station went looking for Fanny, but were unable to find her. However, they did find Mary’s arrow-pierced body, and they buried her. Josiah and his brothers later put up a reward of seven horses for any Native American who could find Fanny and bring her to safety.

Chief Ottawa traded Fanny to a Hunkpapa named Brings Plenty, who brought her to his tribe in the Killdeer Mountains. At the time, his people were engaged in several battles with the Union troops, under the command of Gen. Sully.

We will continue the story of Fanny Kelly next week.

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“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

Curt Eriksmoen, 'Did You Know That?' columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist

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