From July 12 to Dec. 12, 1864, Fanny Kelly was held captive by the Lakota Indians in the Upper Great Plains.

During that time, her 7-year-old adoptive daughter was killed, and her life was in frequent peril, yet she took action in a couple of situations that undoubtedly saved the lives of scores of white settlers and soldiers. For this action, Congress later awarded her a payment of $5,000, which would be worth $82,516.24 today.

On May 17, 1864, Fanny, her husband, Josiah Kelly, their adoptive daughter, Mary, and three other people left Geneva, Kan., in three covered wagons and headed west to Idaho Territory. Five people in two more wagons joined them along the way and on July 12, shortly after entering Wyoming Territory, they encountered about 250 Lakota Indians who demanded a horse and some of their provisions.

While the Native Americans were eating a meal that the wagon train party had prepared for them, a Lakota messenger arrived and told them that many of their relatives had been killed by U.S. soldiers near the Missouri River in northern Dakota Territory. Some of the warriors became enraged and shot and killed three of the men from the wagon train, wounded two others and took the two women and two children captive. Josiah and another man were not involved because they were away gathering wood at the time of the attack.

The Lakota then put their four captives on horseback to take them back to their camp. On the way, Fanny instructed 7-year-old Mary to jump off the horse when no one was looking, hide in the tall grass until everybody was out of sight and then return to the location of the wagons to hopefully find survivors who could help her escape to safety. Tragically, she was found by an Oglala search party and killed.

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After one night in captivity, the other woman and her son escaped, leaving Fanny as the sole captive, and she became the property of the Oglala Lakota chief. While in the camp, Fanny tended to the Lakota who were sick and also entertained the children by singing and drawing pictures. Later, she was traded to a Hunkpapa Lakota named Brings Plenty and brought to his tribe in the Killdeer Mountains, near the Missouri River.

“Fanny was with the other Hunkpapa Indian women when General Sully launched [an] attack on the Indians on July 28, known as the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, killing about 100 Indians, scattering the village, and destroying their supplies. The Indians almost starved during the next few weeks, and some Indians wanted to take revenge on Fanny.”

A council meeting was held to decide whether or not Fanny should be executed, and she must have had some very tense moments while they decided her fate. Finally, one of the elders reportedly got up and spoke these words: “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?”

The decision was then made that her life should be spared.

Meanwhile, Sully had learned that Fanny was being held by the Lakota Indians, and attempts were made to try to negotiate with a couple of different Native American leaders to reach an exchange agreement for her return. However, none of these attempts came to fruition.

By early September, the Hunkpapa group that was holding Fanny captive had moved their camp to a place near present-day Marmarth, and they soon saw an opportunity for retribution for the actions of the soldiers under the command of Gen. Sully. One of the wagons of an 88-wagon train containing 200 emigrants led by Captain James L. Fisk had overturned. Fisk left nine soldiers and two other wagons at the scene while repairs were made, and the rest of the wagon train proceeded on.

Soon, those working on the overturned wagon were attacked by about 100 Hunkpapa, led by Sitting Bull. Fisk heard gunfire and hurried back with about 50 soldiers, and the Indians were forced to retreat. The next day the Hunkpapa renewed their attack, and they were again repulsed. These daily attacks “lasted more than two weeks,” and since the siege appeared to have reached a stalemate, the Hunkpapa felt compelled to try a different tactic.

Some of the Hunkpapa were familiar with the English language, but none of them could write it. According to a historian, “The Hunkpapa forced Fanny to negotiate for them, making her write a note that demanded supplies in exchange for Fanny and freedom [for the wagon train] to pass through the territory.” Fanny was suspicious that a secret plot may be involved, so she carefully worded the note, warning of “possible treachery.”

Fisk responded, “offering three horses, flour, sugar and coffee for her release, but the Hunkpapa wanted 40 head of cattle and four wagons.” Since a compromise could not be reached, the Indians rode away, and Gen. Sully dispatched 900 soldiers to safely escort the wagon train to Fort Rice.

Fanny remained a captive of the Hunkpapa, and with colder weather beginning to set in, the thought of spending a winter on the open prairie made her more desperate. However, the upcoming winter with few provisions also lessened the resolve of her captors. “By October the Lakota had not driven the army out of their territory, and it would be a cold, dangerous winter with so many soldiers nearby. The Indians suddenly became more conciliatory.”

On Oct. 23, about 200 Hunkpapa and Blackfeet Sioux, led by Bear’s Rib, negotiated with Capt. John H. Pell at Fort Sully. “Pell pressed his advantage and said that the soldiers would not stop fighting until the white woman was released.”

However, there was one major problem for the Lakota in negotiating her release. Fanny was the property of Brings Plenty, the Hunkpapa who had purchased Fanny from the Oglala. Brings Plenty was “so pleased with her... he named her ‘Real Woman,’ and he would not give her up.”

We will conclude the story of Fanny Kelly next week.

“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