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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 26: The Great West and the Agricultural Revolution, 1865 - 1896


Sitting Bull (1834 - 1890)

Sitting Bull was the Sioux chief and shaman (medicine man) who organized the Indian coalition that defeated Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

His Indian name was Ta-tan-ka I-yo-ta-ke, which translates literally as Sitting Bull. As a young warrior he had led the Sioux against their traditional enemies, the Crow. He was friendly for a time with Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, a Catholic priest who tried unsuccessfully to convert him to give up warfare.

Sitting Bull brought together over four thousand Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and others in a single encampment before Little Big Horn. He did not fight in the battle himself because his job as shaman was to create the good medicine that would bring Indian victory.

After his return from Canada and surrender, he remained extremely hostile to whites. He participated in the Ghost Dance revival and agitation on a Sioux reservation and was shot by Indian police sent to arrest him.

Quote: I dont want a white man over me. I dont want an agent.I want to do right by my people, and cannot trust anyone else to trade with them or talk with them. (1882)

REFERENCE: Robert Utley, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (1993).


Chief Joseph (1840 - 1904)

Chief Joseph was the Nez PercÚ leader whose campaign against the U.S. Army in 1877 is considered a military classic.

Josephs Indian name was Hinmaton-Yalaktit, meaning Thunder-Coming-Across-the-Water-onto-Land. He had maintained peaceful relations with whites for years, but when some white civilians killed some Nez PercÚ, a group of young braves retaliated by killing whites, and the army under Gen. O. O. Howard (former head of the Freedmens Bureau) was sent after Chief Joseph.

His maneuvers in defeating and eluding the army for over fifteen hundred miles were carried out with women and children in tow. He compelled his warriors to fight only against soldiers and not to kill or steal from white civilians. General Howard and other military personnel who met him after his surrender were all impressed by his intelligence and humanity.

His tribe was first moved to Oklahoma, where many of its members died, and then to the Colville reservation in Washington.

Quote: I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed.It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death.From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever. (Statement of surrender, 1877)

REFERENCE: Merrill D. Beal, I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez PercÚ War (1963).


Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 - 1885)

Jackson was the writer and advocate of Indian rights whose book A Century of Dishonor was one of the first to advocate more humane policies toward Native Americans.

A vivacious, intelligent, charming New Englander, Jackson turned to writing after her first husband was killed and her two young sons died. She became a very popular poet and novelist. Her novel Mercy Philbricks Choice was based partly on the life of her schoolmate and friend Emily Dickinson.

She became interested in Indians after moving to Colorado with her second husband. Although Jackson did a good deal of research for A Century of Dishonor, she really understood little of Indian culture. Her subsequent novel about California Indians, Ramona, was a greater popular success. She also carried on a public controversy over Indian policy with Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz.

Quote: [This Congress] could cover itself with the lustre of glory as the first to cut short our nations record of cruelties and perjuriesthe first to attempt to redeem the United States from the shame of a century of dishonor! (A Century of Dishonor, 1881)

REFERENCE: Siobhan Senier, Voices of Indian Assimilation and Resistance: Helen Hunt Jackson, Sarah Winnemucca, and Victoria Howard (2001).


Mark Hanna (1837 - 1904)

Hanna was the Cleveland businessman who engineered McKinleys election in 1896 and later became a prominent Republican senator.

He came from a strong antislavery Quaker background, which jeopardized his marriage to his first wife because she was an equally strong Democrat. Hanna made his fortune in coal and iron but focused much of his energy on forging an alliance between business and politics.

McKinleys political fortunes had declined for a time, until Hanna became interested in his ideas and began to promote McKinley for Ohio governor. He also got other business leaders to substantially aid McKinleys personal finances. Hanna was later elected senator by a very narrow margin amid charges of bribery of state legislators.

Hanna was genial and popular with both businesspeople and politicians, whom he liked to bring together. Although a staunch conservative on most issues, he favored labor unions and was so generous to workers that his own companies never had a strike.

Quote: I am glad that there is one member of the Convention who has the intelligence to ascertain how this nomination was made. By the people. What feeble efforts I have contributed to the result, I am here to lay at the feet of my party. (Statement after McKinleys nomination, 1896)

REFERENCE: Wayne Morgan, William McKinley and His America (1963).


Eugene V. Debs (1855 - 1926)

Debs was a railway union leader who became the top socialist in the United States and the frequent presidential candidate of the Socialist party.

Debss parents were French immigrants who settled in Indiana. During one period he worked three full-time jobsas a grocery clerk, as a city clerk, and as secretary-treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen.

When Debs was released from jail after the Pullman strike, there was a huge celebration in Chicago. He was always much-loved in his home town of Terre Haute, even by most people who disliked his socialism. A heavy drinker, Debs often had to be pulled away from his liquor by fellow socialists.

He was passionate, warmhearted, eloquent, and simple. Workers everywhere loved him and thronged to watch him jab his bony finger in the air and denounce capitalism, even if they did not vote for him.

Quote: While there is a lower class I am in it.While there is a soul in prison I am not free.

REFERENCE: Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (1982).


William Jennings Bryan (1860 - 1925)

Bryan was the eloquent three-time-losing presidential candidate who later became Wilsons secretary of state and the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes evolution trial.

He began his career as a small-town Nebraska lawyer and journalist and retained a small-town outlook throughout his career. When not campaigning for president, he traveled widely as a Chautauqua lecturer. Two of his most popular lectures on religion were The Prince of Peace and The Value of an Ideal. His voice was a remarkable instrument, which could carry with perfect clarity to the back of a crowd of thousands.

Although he became secretary of state, Bryan knew almost nothing about foreign policy or the world beyond the United States. On a visit to Turkey, he once asked the foreign-service officers, Where are the Balkans?

Bryan had long been an active crusader in Fundamentalist causes before becoming involved in the Scopes trial. He was deeply humiliated by Darrow in the trial and died shortly afterward.

Quote: The poor man who takes property by force is called a thief but the creditor who can by legislation make the debtor pay a dollar twice as large as he borrowed it is lauded as the friend of sound currency. The man who wants the people to destroy the government is an anarchist but the man who wants government to destroy the people is a patriot. (Congressional speech, 1893)

REFERENCE: Paolo Coletta, William Jennings Bryan (3 Vols., 1964 - 1969).


John Peter Altgeld (1847 - 1902)

Altgeld was the Illinois governor whose pardon of the Haymarket anarchists and support for organized labor made him a hero to reformers and a hated figure among conservatives and businessmen.

Altgeld was born in Germany, and spent most of his youth as a poverty-stricken farm laborer in Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest. He essentially educated himself by reading, especially in the law, and began a career as a prosecuting attorney and judge in Missouri and Illinois.

In 1892 Altgeld was elected the first Democratic governor of Illinois since the Civil War. The case of the Haymarket anarchists came to him for review shortly afterward, and his thorough study of the trial and the evidence convinced him that justice had not been done. The political furor set off by his pardon of three of the convicted men escalated when he protested President Clevelands use of federal troops in the 1894 Pullman strike as unnecessary and unconstitutional. Aroused Republicans mounted a strong campaign against him in 1896, and his political career was ended by his defeat.

Quote: There is no situation in Illinois which warrants the sending of federal troops. It is not soldiers that the railroads need so much as it is men to operate trains. (Statement, 1894)

REFERENCES: Harry Barnard, Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld (1938); Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (1984).



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