Dakota Datebook

McLaughlin and the Ghost Dance

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


In mid November of 1890, settlers in western North and South Dakota were closely watching unfolding events – mostly on the reservations inhabited by the Sioux. An Indian Messiah was soon to appear to drive off the White man and restore the lands and buffalo to the Indian peoples. The ritual was known as the Ghost Dance.


James McLaughlin, US Indian Agent at Standing Rock, decided to witness the ritual for himself. Accompanied by Louis Primeau, an agency guide, he traveled to Sitting Bull’s camp on the Grand River. Upon arriving he found approximately forty-five men, twenty-five women and thirty-five boys and girls reaching the climatic point of the dance. There were over two hundred spectators. Due to their crazed condition, he decided it best not to stop the dance. He returned the following day to talk to Sitting Bull and his followers.


McLaughlin explained to Sitting Bull that the US Government had granted he and his people amnesty for all past offenses prior to 1881, but they could not allow the Ghost Dance to continue. Not only would there be swift retribution for any atrocities, but he was worried because the children had left the agency Day School, turning their backs on what he felt were the skills needed to become self sufficient.


In return, Sitting Bull said he knew McLaughlin did not like him, but he would make him a proposition to prove the truth of the new doctrine. McLaughlin was to accompany Sitting Bull to retrace the path leading to the origin of the revelation, at which point they would witness the Messiah and the dead Indians who had returned to inhabit the land. If found, they would be permitted to continue; if not, all practices of the Ghost Dance would cease. McLaughlin refused the offer, and on this date he tried to convince Sitting Bull and his followers come to the agency.


McLaughlin’s plan was simple. He would cut off annuities to any participants in the Ghost Dance and move the others closer to the agency until the Ghost Dance lost its excitement. With cold weather imminent, he felt this would allow the belief in the Messiah to quickly fade away, but when Sitting Bull made plans to leave the reservation and meet the Messiah at Pine Ridge, he was forced to order his arrest with devastating results. With the death of Sitting Bull at the hands of the Indian Police, and the terrible tragedy at Wounded Knee, the Ghost Dance came to an end.


Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis




The James McLaughlin Manuscript Collection, Series 10313, Roll 20 Letterbooks 1886 to 1890


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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