A Real Western Heroine

I promised in my last blog I would talk about Fanny Kelly this week. She’s one of those great heroine stories.She was taken by the Indians in 1864 when she, her adopted daughter, her husband and six others formed a small wagon train to take them from Geneva, Kansas, to Idaho. Unaware of rising hostilities between Indians and settlers, the party chose to turn down the offer to join a larger train and continued west in their own company.
She was nineteen and mother to an adopted daughter, six-year-old Mary, who was her sister’s child. She’d just been married a few months before the family embarked on their journey to Idaho. Others traveling with the couple and child were two ex slaves who had been held captive by the Cherokees; a bachelor; an elderly Methodist minister, and a second couple with a seven-year-old son.   They were later joined by one other man.
They left May, 17th and traveled an established route through Nebraska into Wyoming where they were attacked. The first days of their trek were almost idyllic. “We then beheld the lovely valley of the prairies, intersecting the deepened green of graceful slopes, where waves of tall prairie grass, among which the wild flowers, grow.

“Over hundreds of acres these blossoms are scattered, yellow, purple, white, and blue, making the earth look like a rich carpet of variegated colors. Those blooming in spring are of tender, modest hue, while those of later summer and early autumn are clothed in gorgeous splendor. Solomon’s gold and purple could not outrival them.”

But the beauty disappeared two months after their journey commenced. On July 12, they were attacked by a war party of 250 Indians. The attack came apparently after the military killed some Sioux who had murdered an Army engineer. The army commander mounted their heads on poles near the camp as a warning. Feeling that they were to be exterminated, the Sioux turned hostile.

They attacked the small Kelly camp without warning. Three men were killed at the outset. Two were wounded. Fanny’s husband and one of the ex-slaves escaped. Fanny and her little Mary along another woman and her seven-year-old son were taken captive. Her husband was some distance away, and when he saw what happened and realized the futility of attacking, he decided to ride for help and try to ransom his wife and child.

Fanny tells her story in her “Narrative of My Captivity among the Sioux Indians.” About the initial capture, she wrote: “It was a pitiable sight to see the terrified looks of our helpless children who clung to us for the protection we could not give. Mrs. Larimer was unconscious of the death of any of our party. I did not tell her what my eyes had beheld because I feared that she simply could not endure it, but I strove to encourage and enliven her, lest her excitement would hasten her death or excite the anger of our captors.”


The chief apparently approved of her courage. “He presented me a wreath of gay feathers from his own head, which I took, regarding it merely as an ornament when in reality, as I afterward learned, it was a token of his favor and protection.”


But she didn’t know that, and she and Mrs Larimer feared that when the Indians prepared for departure, “we would be quickly disposed of by the scalping knife, or even should we escape for the time, we saw no prospect of release from bondage. Terror of the most appalling nature for the fate of the children possessed me, and the horrors of Indian captivity that we had ever heard crowded on our minds with a new and fearful meaning – the slow fires, the pitiless knife, the poisoned arrows, the torture of the famine and a thousand nameless phantoms of agony passed before our troubled souls filling us with fears so harrowing that the pangs of dissolution compared to them must have been relief.

“It may be thought almost impossible in such a chaos of dread to collect the soul in prayer, ‘When woe is come, the soul is dumb That Crieth not to God.’”

They were placed on horseback, young Mary clinging to her, and Fanny conceived a plan to save her daughter. The shadows had darkened as they rode, and she whispered into Mary’s ear that they were just a few miles from their camp. Fanny had dropped pieces of paper that she’d been able to grab from her wagon, and now she told her daughter to “drop gently down and lie on the ground for a little while. . . then retrace her steps to the camp.” Surely someone would be there.

The child agreed and the plan worked, at least at the moment. She later discovered Mary had been killed by Indians. But at that moment, Fanny’ knew of no other way to save her daughter.   Her feelings were conflicted. “The agony I suffered as indescribable. I was firmly convinced that my course was wise – that I had given her the only chance to escape within my power; yet the terrible uncertainty of what her fate might be in the way before her was almost unbearable.”

In my next blog, I’ll tell you more of Fanny’s seven months with the Indians and how she went from captured drudge to honored guest and finally celebrated heroine in Washington D.C.




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12 thoughts on “A Real Western Heroine”

  1. What an incredible blog, Pat. Fascinating. Of course I love reading about these real life events. Absolutely love it.

    Can’t wait to read the rest of it. Too bad that Fanny lost her daughter. Always best to stay together. One thing I’ve learned from history is that it’s most always best to stay together.

    Thanks Pat.

  2. It’s no wonder the first settlers were tough. The whole thing was a refining fire and you either got tough or died.
    I’m looking forward to the rest of Fanny’s story, Pat. Thanks for this.

  3. Oh wow! What an experience to go through. Especially having to decide the best course of action for your child when either way meant death or hardship. And how many pioneer women had to go through it that we’ve never heard about…

    Pat, I’d never heard of Fanny Kelly either and I thank your for telling her story. I’m looking forward to hearding the rest of it.

  4. Hi Pat,

    Oh, how sad about Mary. Fanny was so young herself, at nineteen. She’s a fascinating person to read about. What courage she showed in the light of what she was facing.

  5. The saddest part is that her daughter probably would have lived but then isn’t hindsight grand! Can’t wait to hear the rest.

  6. In those days, you were damned if you did and damned
    if you didn’t! How sad that it didn’t work out for Mary and Fanny!!

    Pat Cochran

  7. “The Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux was first published in the nineteenth Century and there has been at least eleven printings as of 1994. According to the cover, she was witness to the last of the free roaming way of life of he Plains Indians. She was really gifted with discription and her account of life with the Sioux is fascinating. The book also talks about the fate of other women and children captives of the Sioux. Apparently, it was the practice of the Plains Indians to kidnap women and children and hold them for ransom.

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