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24 September 2014

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Tracking the Salford Sioux

It's hard to imagine 100 native Americans living in 19th century Salford. But it happened when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show came to town. So what did they do here? And could you be a distant relation? One man is on the trail of the Salford Sioux:

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Salford
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Salford

To the people of Manchester and Salford in Victorian Britain, it must have seemed the Greatest Show on Earth: Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World Show (to give it its full name) was exotic, exciting and entertainment on a vast scale.

Led by the legendary American army scout Buffalo Bill, a 200-strong travelling company comprising 97 native Americans, 180 broncos and 18 buffalo set up camp on the freezing banks of the River Irwell in November 1887. 

Black Elk
Black Elk: he was left behind

And performing nightly to packed crowds in what was the biggest indoor arena ever constructed in Western Europe, Sioux warriors and their cowboy counterparts would recreate classic gunslinging scenes from the Wild West, or performing daring acts of horsemanship.

It all took place in what is now Salford Quays - two years before the canals were even built! - and was so popular the show stayed for five whole months before rolling out of town on its European tour.

The warriors were Lakota (northern) Indians from the Oglala tribe of the Sioux Nation - who counted Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse among their numbers. (It was Oglala Sioux Indians who were depicted in the 1990 film Dances With Wolves.)

One of Manchester's Sioux visitors was the Oglala medicine man Black Elk who spoke of his stay in a book called 'Black Elk Speaks'.

teepees in Salford
The Indian village on Salford Quays

Black Elk also talks about how he was left behind - a story which has fascinated Steve Coen from Higher Broughton, a trade unionist who works for Whitbread.

"I remember reading how Black Elk and some others got lost in Manchester and had to find their own way back home to South Dakota. Basically, the show left town without them. And it got me thinking: what were five Lakota Indians doing in Manchester on their own wandering the streets?"

He also believes that there may be people living in Salford today who can claim a distant Sioux ancestry: "It's very possible there are descendants here today, as they were here for such a long time, and they were certainly friendly with the locals!"

If you have an old family story of the Sioux in Salford - or believe you may have distant Sioux ancestry: email:

Steve has unearthed many interesting stories and facts including:

  • Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was held on the exact site of the Lowry Centre!
  • A 6ft 7in warrior called Surrounded (his surname was 'Bytheenemy!') died of a chest infection in his teepee on Salford Quays. His body was taken to Hope Hospital, where it vanished.
  • Many of the Sioux were veterans of the Battle of Little Big Horn - Custer's last stand - and joined the show in Europe while on the run from the US Cavalry.
  • One small Sioux girl was baptised at St Clement's church before slipping out of the history books
  • The Salford-Sioux connection lives on in street names such as Buffalo Court and Dakota Avenue
Steve Coen
On the trail: Steve Coen

Steve is now making final preparations for a visit to the home of the Oglala tribe in America where he hopes to meet descendants of the warriors who came to Manchester and set up an exchange scheme for Sioux and Salford youngsters.

After exchanging e-mails with Garvard Goodplume, one of the 'head men' of the Oglala tribe, Steve has been invited to a huge annual 'Powwow and Rodeo' on the Pine Lodge reservation in South Dakota which is attended by dozens of tribes including Aztecs from Central America.

Steve says he'll be staying in a teepee - and it's even possible he may be asked to sit in a 'sweat lodge' - a steam filled teepee with intoxicating herbs placed on hot stones.

"It's not just a sauna with blokes talking about football. It's a religious ceremony and you have to be invited by the spiritual leader who decides if you can take part."

So on Sunday July 31, he will fly to Chicago bearing gifts from Salford Council (commemorative plaques and mugs), Manchester City Council (T-shirts and baseball caps) and 28 Manchester United shirts from the Old Trafford club.

"Apparently, it's also good custom and practice to give tobacco to the head men. So I'll be taking cigarettes. Oh yes and some tea bags too - a taste of Salford like!"

last updated: 23/08/05
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