Don’t Sully my Name

What’s in a name?  That’s an old cliche, but there is a lot to say about names. Take last names, for instance. My deadbeat dad never got to pass on his last name to me. My mom always figured that if she was the one to raise me (all by herself), then I ought to have her last name. Usually, much like Y chromosomes, last names pass on (mostly unchanged) from fathers to sons over hundreds of years. My mom broke that chain for my dad. She had gotten her last name from her father, of course, and he had gotten his last name from a long line of Irishmen. I have my maternal grandfather’s last name, but not his Y chromosome. So, in a way, my grandfather has been able to get a couple of freebies with me and my brother, who get to pass on his last name now. 

Men get to have a sense of immortality this way. It’s not fair that most women become forgotten through time because of this unfair advantage. Many women have become forgotten, never even having passed on a name. However, I was recently able to discover the story of my half-breed Sioux ancestor, Mary Sully, and realized she was able to pass on more than just a name. She was able to pass on a fortune in indian lands to her descendants, which my white family still has today.

Mary Sully’s story involves no less than her ‘taking on the United States Government’ and winning! Mary Sully, as a half blooded American Indian, won a victory that solidified the rights of her mother’s people and other mixed bloods across the US. I can find no history written about her except for what was sensationalized in the newspapers of her time. I was lucky to have inherited the genealogical research of my grandfather, and with the help of a DNA test and a deep dive into every record I could find, I would like to tell her story.

Mary Sully circa 1900

Back in the 1980s, when I was a small boy, my mom would send me to my grandparents during the summers. My grandfather was like a lot of Irish-American men of his time: he went to Notre Dame college, served his country during War World II as a sailor in the US Navy, and beat his children mercilessly with fists or a belt. I guess it depended on whether he could find a belt. I know for a fact that he beat my mom pretty badly more than a few times. I mean, if you hit someone so hard they fly across the room, crashing into one of the walls, to then lie in heap at your feet, then I guess you’re probably swinging for the fences in the Abusive Dad of the Year contest. But that was my grandpa. I know all those horrible stories about him, but to me he was the guy who always bought me a pair of shoes whenever my mom was too poor to afford them. Don’t get me wrong, I have my own trauma from the guy. I wish I could forget how he used to eat bananas with his mouth open, humming some kind of “Num Num” sounding kind of song through the whole 5 minute ordeal. If you don’t think that’s traumatic, then you don’t know what it was like! That motherfucker loved bananas. Though it just serves to remind us that some family stories are best to forget. Anyways.

I can remember a certain summer visit when I noticed a framed check on my grandfather’s wall for something like $1.87. That’s how I first heard that we had rights to indian lands. At the time, the story was a bit confused, but we just knew the US government had taken the lands from us, but would send my grandfather a check from time to time for the use of the lands. Some years, there would be no check, but the years he would get one, it would only be for a couple of dollars. He would frame the checks as a kind of reverse “fuck you” to the US government. I mean, those checks from the US seemed to say “fuck you” to my grandfather. Right?

To be white in America and have a family story about a long lost Native American ancestor is pretty common, I would say. And the Irish/Native American mix isn’t uncommon either. The two races both benefited from the cross marriages back in the late 19th century. The Irish men would marry into Native families to have access to their lands, and Native families would accept the Irish into their families, because the Irish were hardworking and could give them whiter kids. This is what happened in my family tree. And I’ll be completely transparent: I only have 1% native DNA. If I had any less, I would be Elizabeth Warren. To make it even clearer, I am in no way claiming membership in any Sioux tribe. I’m just saying I am descended from some.

Not to be topical all of a sudden but, in a way, I get the argument that modern native peoples are trying to make when they shout their frustrations at white families for their “stories” of a long lost Native ancestor. It’s not just cultural appropriation, but shitty stuff, that white people with a small amount of Native DNA (from a test) will do to get past federal protections, which were meant for tribal people, in order to enrich themselves. This post is not about any of that. I’m just telling a story.

Not to keep at it, but I really do get the awkwardness about mixed bloods and who has the right to say they are a certain race or not. Yes I’m white, but it’s not my fault that native women in my family consistently married white men. The Potato Famine sent a steady stream of Irishmen for the women in my family to marry (and get to farm their lands). I have my own experiences with Native Americans excluding me. You think powwows should be for everyone, but they’re not. In fact, in my experience, natives have shown me more hatred because of my proclaimed heritage than they would a white person who claimed none. Despite those experiences, I have a deep respect for tribal culture and rights. I’m proud to know that I am directly descended from a half blooded native woman who did more for the rights of her mother’s people than most full bloods ever do.

But let’s get back to names. I was lucky to find the name of my 5th great grandfather! Like a lot of people who have watched movies like “Dances with Wolves” I hoped my native ancestor would have a cool name like “Wind in his Hair” , “Looks Twice” , or “Red Cloud”. You know. Just like the hurtful stereotypes of native people that I had built up in my head over the years. Based on my ancestor’s name, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a brave. In fact, based on other research I’ve done, I’m pretty sure, while other men in his tribes were clamoring to fight the whites (and literally started what would be called the Sioux Wars that spanned decades) my great grandfather was chilling with his wife near an old trading post, making friends with white people.  My 5th great grandfather was named “Scares at His Shadow” and while I picture a twitchy, paranoid guy in my head, I fully realize that I am not one to judge him for the atrocities he had to go through in his time. Scares at his Shadow was a full blooded Yankton Sioux, born just before 1800 and his wife (Witsu) was either a full blooded Yankton or Crow Creek Sioux. The reason I know this is because Mary Sully (their half-breed granddaughter) listed them when filing her contested land case against the US government in 1902.

Scares at his Shadow and Witsu (pumkin seed) had only one child: a daughter they named Ishte Washte in 1834. In order to receive rations from indian agencies they renamed her Mary Goodline and settled near old Ft. Pierre in South Dakota at the beginning of the Sioux Wars. Mary Goodline was 14 years old when she got pregnant from a wayward Frenchman. He left well before their halfbreed daughter was born on Christmas day in 1851, near the fort. Mary Goodline would marry another French trapper after giving birth to my ancestor, Mary (Sully). His name was Narcissus Drapeau and Goodline would have more half breed children with him. Even though he was Mary Sully’s stepfather, Drapeau would go on to officially file the land claim against the US on her behalf. You can imagine he had to, since she was not white or a man. My half blood ancestor had many last names in her life, but for the sake of simplicity I call her Mary Sully, for that is how she was made famous in her day.

Mary Sully got her last name from her 3rd husband Jack Sully, though he had made his last name up (people claimed he was from a well-to-do family back east and had changed his name for mysterious reasons). I descend from Mary Sully’s 1st husband though, Henry Brindell. He was an employee at the Whetstone Indian Agency who died of a fever before my grandfather’s grandmother was born. After his sudden death, Mary married a man named John Kincaid and had 4 more children with Kincaid before he died of a cancer, it was said. This was around the time Custer found gold in the Black Hills. About 5 years later she married Jack Sully and he would go on to be called the “King of the Cattle Rustlers” as a national sensation. Mary would go on to have another 8 children with Jack Sully before he was gunned down by a federal marshal in 1904. In the suit against the US government, Mary Sully names all of her descendants (not just herself) so they could all receive land too.

Today in 2021, if you do any online research for Mary Sully, you won’t find anything written about her. On the flip side, Jack Sully has a couple of books and a Wikipedia page that tells the story of a “robin hood” like outlaw who headed a mixed blood gang of cattle thieves, who stuck it to the oppressive livestock syndicates of the time. In further study, I have a suspicion that Mary Sully was more than just a squaw to Jack, as she was described by some. The mixed blood gang of Jack Sully stretched over state borders and up into Canada. Who knows if Mary Sully had any role of power in his gang, but it would be hard to imagine that she didn’t. Furthermore, in reading stories about Jack, I realized that the lands my family would eventually inherit was the stronghold that Jack Sully built for his family and gang. A newspaper article printed after the death of Jack Sully points this out:

If it wasn’t for Jack Sully and his notoriety, Mary Sully’s case might never have gotten as much attention as it finally did. Although, in all honesty, the case had also garnered national attention because it would have sweeping implications for many other mixed blood peoples who had made claims to lands granted to their native parents. It was curious to also find that Jack Sully had only recently returned to the Rosebud Reservation when he was killed in 1904. For a time he had fled to Canada to evade lawmen, and it was while he was away in 1902 that Mary Sully filed her suit. It wasn’t until 1908, a few years after his death, that her case started to receive national attention and Jack’s name was always peppered in the stories.

The case that Mary Sully put forth was partly challenging because she was only half Yankton Sioux and laws back then were just beginning to form about the rights of half-bloods. However, her biggest challenge lay in the fact that she was from Yankton Sioux lineage, while the lands disputed were on territory given to the Brule Sioux.  Even though she had previously been allotted the lands on the Rosebud Reservation, a man named Scrivner, from one of the main indian agencies, was threatening to reallot the lands, because he had found out about her Yankton heritage. White people of the time couldn’t understand that her family had passed from tribe to tribe among the Sioux by merely being accepted by the local chiefs. Mary Sully’s family had gone from Yankton, to Lower Brule, and were eventually adopted into the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Agent Scrivener said that Mary Sully only had rights to land on the Yankton Reservation, even though all the allotments on that res had already been made. Cutting through all the bullshit, let me just say that her case was primarily to keep Scrivner from giving the lands she already owned to white settlers.

Beginning in 1908, you can begin to see newspaper stories all over the US talking about her case. At first, the 10,000 acres are valued at $125,000 but the amount fluctuates to as much as $300,000 when the case is finally decided in 1912. The papers also liked to talk about the fact that she didn’t speak English and that, even with a translator, she evaded questions about Jack Sully’s crimes. However, the main sentiment of the newspapers back then was that no one could believe a half-blooded indian woman could potentially receive so much wealth! Mary Sully challenged all manner of white people back then. Even after her case was won, she still had to fight a white asshole. Joe Kirby is listed as the attorney presenting Mary Sully’s case against the United States, and it’s only a few years later that we find Mr. Kirby bringing multiple suits against Mary Sully, against her family, and even against the county the land was in! I’m not sure if Mr. Kirby was trying to receive payment for his services in representing Mary Sully, but all of his cases were eventually dismissed as baseless.

There was so much sensationalism because of the amount of money involved as well as the notoriety of her being the widow of Jack Sully. It even brought to bear a fraudulent claim from a woman in Ft. Worth, Texas who avowed she was a long lost daughter of Jack Sully and might have claim to Mary Sully’s fortune. The papers named this lost daughter “Trixie Sully” and were quick to point out that she was married to a rich chinaman. The newspapers had their fun in speculating that Trixie could upend Mary Sully’s whole case. As far as I can tell, this Trixie person was not connected in any way to Jack Sully, and it was just a scam that went nowhere.

From 1908-1912 Mary Sully was safe in knowing that her lands would not be re-alloted by (a corrupt) agent Scrivner. A Judge Carland wrote a temporary injunction which ordered agent Scrivner to hold off on granting the lands to white settlers. Carland also appointed a special investigator, named William Wallace, to investigate and gather testimony. When Wallace concluded his work a few years later, there were almost 900 typewritten pages as well as other supporting documents that vindicated Mary Sully’s claims. My ancestor won her suit against the United States of America and got to keep her lands until she died in 1937. By the time my mother was a little girl (a mere 20 years later) the story of Mary Sully was either forgotten or too confused to make sense in my family. I think too many women in our family were named Mary to make it easy to keep track of who was who. My mom’s name is Mary, by the way.

So Mary Sully won her land in 1912! However, years later, when my grandfather died, our family’s land claim seemed to die with him. I’m not exactly sure, but my mother told me that some of my uncles had gotten a lawyer and were able to get the land passed down to their generation. In the last few years, my mom would occasionally get a check for her portion of land, just like my grandfather, but now it was a lot more. Not a lot, but a little more. My mother waited until the mineral rights to her portion of the lands were included in her paperwork, before she sold her stake back to the Rosebud Tribe. A part of me wishes she would have asked me or my brother before doing that, but another part of me would expect nothing less from a Baby Boomer. And so it ends. I got my grandfather’s last name, but not his Y chromosome, or his land. However, I did bring his great grandmother’s story back to my family though. Mary Sully’s story is worth more to me than any piece of property anyway.

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