James McLaughlin (left, image courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota) was an Indian agent at Standing Rock starting in 1881. Sitting Bull (right) came to Standing Rock in 1883.

This Date in History: Indian Agent Involved in Death of Sitting Bull Dies


He’s become known as the man inadvertently responsible for the death of Sitting Bull, he was a prominent Indian agent by the name of James McLaughlin. And on this day in 1923 he died in Washington, D.C.

Though McLaughlin was known for actually liking and respecting the Indians in his care—his wife was Sioux and she taught him her language—he still thought his mission was to “civilize” them. This meant stripping Natives of their culture and forcing them to adopt white ways.

He saw things like the Sun Dance and buffalo hunting as obstacles to the assimilation of Natives into his white society. He arrived at Standing Rock, South Dakota in 1881, just two years before Sitting Bull. When Sitting Bull arrived, McLaughlin was worried because Sitting Bull was one of the last Lakota to accept being confined to a reservation and he was popular for his role in the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

McLaughlin even made Sitting Bull work in the fields. When offered a chance to leave the reservation, Sitting Bull took it to be in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But he could only tolerate white society for four months before he returned to the reservation.

Sitting Bull and McLaughlin lived in relative harmony until 1890 when McLaughlin thought arresting Sitting Bull would quell the Ghost Dance Movement. It was believed that an apocalypse was coming that would wipe out all whites, return the buffalo and return Indians to their traditional ways of life.

When McLaughlin’s Indian police went to arrest Sitting Bull in December 1890, a fight broke out and when the dust settled Sitting Bull had been shot by McLaughlin’s men. This event contributed to the Wounded Knee Massacre that would occur later that month.

But McLaughlin lived on. He moved to Washington, D.C. and became an inspector for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He even wrote a memoir in 1910 called My Friend the Indian. He died in 1923 at the age of 81 and was buried in the South Dakota reservation town that bears his name.

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