Note from Cottonwood Corners

A Sioux Falls, July 10 story was printed in The Madison Daily Leader on July 11, 1908 with this headline:  “JACK SULLY — His Widow and Descendants Claim Large Block of Government Land.”  This was the first time that the public learned of the lawsuit which Mary Sully had filed against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal officials in federal court in Sioux Falls.

She had earlier, in 1906, almost two years after Jack was killed, filed for a pension from the government because her husband had served in the Union Army before arriving at Fort Yankton in 1862.  This news item did not seem to create even some mild interest among the public.  The name, Jack Sully, was of greater interest and significance to the public than the widow’s filing for a pension.

That was not true regarding the report of Mary’s lawsuit which appeared in the South Dakota and regional newspapers two years later.  At least eight different news stories, some of them being detailed and long, appeared in South Dakota papers between July 11 and 17 of 1908.  There would be many more newspapers in South Dakota, the immediate region, and some far beyond our region which recognized this as a story that attracted readers.  There would be plenty of stories which their readers eagerly waited to read.

Mrs. Sully, as a Sioux Indian, had filed a claim for herself and children for government land under the allotting act of 1887.  For her and the heirs, the bitter and personal struggle for the land continued four years.  This case was not decided until the United States Supreme Court made a decision in 1912.

The application which Mary Sully and her heirs made for the government land had been rejected by John Scriven, the allotting agent, because he declined to recognize her and the other plaintiffs as Indians.  His decision was supported by the local B. I. A. officials as well as those in Washington.

Two lawyers from Dallas, which was founded on April 30, 1907, George Jeffers and Joe Kirby represented Mrs. Sully during her long battle with federal officials.  Because of his involvement in the case, Mr. Jeffers became the most knowledgeable person on Indian land allotting in the nation.  He was frequently called back to Washington to advise congressmen and other officials while this case was being heard in Sioux Falls.  This was definitely to Mrs. Sully’s advantage.

The Pierre Weekly Free Press of July 16, 1908 reported:

“Whether Mary Sully relinquished her claims as a Sioux Indian when she married and went to live with Jack Sully, law defier and cattle thief, is one of the questions which Judge Carland has to decide in the federal court.  The pleas in the case were heard, Attorneys Jeffers and Kirby for the complaints and District Attorney E. E. Wagner for the United States.”

In late July of 1908, the plaintiffs were granted a temporary injunction which forbid Scriven from allotting any of the land involved in this suit to anyone other than the petitioners before the case was resolved.  Mrs. Sully had won the first battle; however, there would be many more to follow.

Mr. Wallace had been appointed special examiner by Judge Carland, with authority to take the testimony of the interested person in this case.  In the performance of his duties, he visited the Rosebud Indian Agency and other places in South Dakota as was necessary.  He was frequently seen riding the train or sitting behind a horse in a buggy as he gathered the necessary testimony for the judge to read.

On March 30, 1909, The Madison Daily Leader reported:

“Though the government has taken all of its direct evidence, it is probable the plaintiffs will submit proof in rebuttal and the government may have further evidence when the plaintiffs have finished.  Commissioner Wallace has already transcribed (typewritten and single spaced) about a thousand pages (two reams of paper) of testimony and the records will be voluminous, therefore the final submission of the case will be necessarily delayed for some time.”

In October of 1909, Mrs. Sully gave testimony before Commissioner Wallace in the federal court room in Sioux Falls.  She was asking for a permanent injunction against the U. S. government from allotting fifty-six quarter sections of land on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, which she and her heirs own.

Finally, The Norfolk Weekly News-Journal of December 22, 1911 reported:

“A decision in the famous Sully land case may be expected within thirty days, Mr. Jeffers said.  He is counsel for the Sully’s — heirs of notorious Jack Sully.  It is claimed that the Sully lands ought to be in the Yankton reservation instead of the Rosebud.  The Sully’s claim they have made the Rosebud their home and are entitled to land there.  Land worth several hundred dollars is involved.”

At last, The Madison Daily Leader of March 1, 1912 reported:

“Sioux Falls, March 1 — Holding that Mrs. Sully, her children and grandchildren and Narcissus Drapeau and his children are entitled to allotments on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.  Judge Elliott yesterday decided against the government in the most important case — from amount involved — that has ever been brought in the federal court in South Dakota.”

The case involved fifty-six quarter sections of land, or 8,960 acres of the choicest land on the Rosebud.  The land was estimated to be worth about $400,000. That would be $12.4 million today!


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on April 12, 2023