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The Death of Captain John Feilner
Captain John Feilner died on a hot, dry summer day in Dakota Territory. When he stopped to get some water, he was shot by three young Teton Dakotas who were intent on stealing horses. Feilner’s death led to events that further fueled the war that was breaking out on the northern Great Plains.
Feilner was born in Germany in 1830. He trained as a mapmaker before he immigrated to the United States. He joined the Army in 1856 for five years of service and became an Army topographer, or mapmaker. Feilner re-enlisted in 1860 in California and a year later was commissioned a lieutenant. He was becoming well known as a mapmaker and a careful observer of natural surroundings including plants, animals, and rocks. In the course of his career, he met and befriended several important people, including General Alfred Sully.
In April 1864, General John Pope assigned Feilner to accompany Sully on his campaign into northern Dakota Territory. Feilner’s assignment, to map the region and collect specimens of plants and rocks, meant that he often had to ride away from the main columns of the cavalry. Sully often told him to take care, to remember that they were in hostile territory, and to take some soldiers with him in case of attack. Feilner usually laughed away these cautions. He usually took just two or three soldiers with him on his excursions.
On June 28, 1864, Sully’s troops broke camp and resumed their march northward. Feilner set out to locate Medicine Rock, a large boulder with markings of human hands and feet and bear tracks. It was said to be a sacred rock for the Dakotas and Arikaras. After viewing the rock and making notes, Feilner and the two soldiers went to Little Cheyenne River to get water and wait for the rest of the command. Three Dakotas waited for them. When the Dakotas attacked, Feilner was mortally wounded.
Company A of the Dakota Cavalry soon arrived and set out in pursuit of the Indians. They found the young Dakotas hiding in a buffalo wallow and killed them. As the men of Company A returned to the column, Sully was informed of their success. The General was pleased with the performance of the Dakota Cavalry and their eagerness to engage in a fight.
Then, Sully ordered an officer to find the bodies of the Dakotas and to remove their heads. The heads were brought back to camp in a gunny sack.
On June 29, Captain Feilner’s body was placed on a steamboat in order to return his remains to his family. The same day, Sully ordered the severed heads placed on poles set up at the camp. The heads remained there as a gruesome warning to other Dakotas that the Army was intent on success in its campaign against the Teton Dakotas. To the Dakotas, this disrespect for the dead was an atrocity they could not forget. Word of the deed spread ahead of Sully’s troops.
One month later, the Dakotas met Sully in battle at Killdeer Mountain. When a Dakota warrior removed a letter from the pocket of a soldier he had killed, he took it to the captive Fanny Kelly and asked her to read it. The soldier wrote of the death of Captain Feilner and the placing of the heads of the Dakotas on posts. Though the letter was never sent to the soldier’s family, Fanny Kelly wrote of the event in her memoir.
Feilner’s assistant, Siegmund Rothhammer, wrote about the Captain’s death in his diary. Feilner, he wrote, was a “brave, efficient, & accomplished Officer, . . . a gentleman who . . . commanded the Respect of All, who knew Him.” Feilner’s death gave Sully a chance to goad the Dakotas into war by his disrespect of the Dakotas’ bodies.