According to her account in “Narrative of My Captivity,” Fanny said that reading to themy “inspired them with a degree of respect and veneration for me when engaged in the task. It was by this means they discovered my usefulness in writing letters and reading for them.” She found them apt pupils, willing to learn, and “they learned easily and rapidly. Their memory is very retentive – unusually good.”
The days, though, were mixed with tedium and terror. One day an Indian rode up and on his saddle was a child’s scalp of long, fair hair. As her own daughter had blond hair, she fell in deep despair.
But above all, Fanny was a survivor. The Sioux were involved with several battles with soldiers and it was discovered she had a skill in dressing wounds and she was called to “the relief of the wounded brought into camp.” She also saved the chief’s life and from then on no member of the band dared to her harm.
In addition to reading aloud and bandaging wounds, she was given another chore. She was tasked with preparing the bark of a red willow as a substitute for tobacco. Furthermore, the Sioux discovered she could sing, and groups of idle warriors would gather around her, urging her to sing as she worked. “A dreary task! Chanting to please my savage companions while I rubbed and prepared the bark of willow, my heart ready to burst with grief.”
She discovered that many in the camp went in and out of U. S. Army forts. They were thought friendly and were often given supplies. When she asked whether they were ever suspected as hostiles, an Indian woman replied: “Our prisoners don’t escaped to tell tales. Dead people don’t talk. We claim friendship and they cannot prove that we don’t feel it.”
Fanny didn’t give up, but she was safer than she had been. She’d become the exclusive property of Ottawa, the head chief, whose power over the band was absolute despite the fact he was more than seventy-five years old. When he received a severe wound, her services in caring for him were so appreciated, it was dangerous for others to harm her. It was, she thought, the only thing that saved her from death or rape.
When the Sioux asked her to write a letter to the captain of an army patrol telling them – falsely – that the Sioux were ready to surrender, she wrote instead that the Sioux planned an ambush. The chief counted the number of words on paper to insure she was writing exactly as told, and she ran together some words so they would match what he had told her. She saved the patrol, but hopes of immediate rescue were gone.
Now the army knew where she was, attempts were made to ransom her but the Sioux said she could not be purchased at any price. Other travails occurred: a forest fire that almost trapped her and the Sioux, the onslaught of grasshoppers and continued massacres of white passengers on flatboats traveling the Yellowstone River.
Her rescue came when soldiers at Fort Sully asked a group of Blackfeet to ransom her. The Blackfeet had no intention of following through on the arrangement, but they and the Sioux decided to set a trap. They would bring Fanny in and, in doing so, attack an unsuspecting fort. Fanny would then be returned to the Sioux.
She convinced a would-be Indian suitor to deliver a letter to the fort. She assured the carrier that the letter contained nothing that would harm him or his people; that she had written about him and his kindness and goodwill.
When handing it to the carrier, she didn’t know whether it would “seal my fate for weal or woe.”
They rode two hundred miles to the fort. Upon the approach, the Blackfeet had divided into groups of fifty, some to remain in the hills to kill anyone escaping the fort. Others were to ride in with her, then take the fort.
The captain, though, had received her letter and was prepared. He ordered the gates closed immediately after she entered with eight chiefs.
She saw the U. S. Flag. “My eyes caught the glad sight and my heart gave a wild bound of joy; something seemed to rise in my throat and choked my breathing. Everything was changed; the torture of suspense, the agony of fear, and dread of evil to come, all seemed to melt away like mist before the morning sunshine, when I beheld the precious emblem of liberty.”
One of her observations about her survival: Indian wives were unhappy (they certainly had reason to be so) and quarrelsome. Fanny strove never to complain and always to be cheerful, no matter how deep the hurt inside and out. That quality apparently endeared her to them.
Upon her rescue, Fanny was united with her husband who had been trying deperately to get her back. She heard that little Mary had been found, her body pierced by arrows and scalped.
The tragedy did not end. Her husband died of cholera on July 28, 1867, and just a few days later Fanny gave birth to a son. She married again in 1880 and became well known for her work in private charities. She met with President Grant, and in 1888 Congress appropriated five thousand dollars to her for her help in saving Fort Sully from capture by the Indians.
For more on Fanny Kelly and her adventures, you can look for “Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians,” published by Longmeadow Press. The ISBN number is 0-681-00458-4.
And now for some shameless promotion. “Behind the Shadows,” my romantic suspense with Berkley Books, will be in the bookstores and grocery racks next week. It’s also been selected by Book of the Month, Literary Guild, Mystery Guild, Rhapsody and Doubleday Book Clubs as a featured alternate so, hopefully, you might find it there as well.