He Fought At Little Big Horn And A Cincinnati Artist Made His Face Famous

Chief Ogallala Fire, known to some as Indian Joe, was immortalized as a war hero by a local Cincinnati artist.
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Chief Ogallala Fire, known as “Indian Joe” in Cincinnati, was picked up so often by the local constabulary that artist Henry Farny made a personal complaint to the police court and fired off a testy letter to the mayor. // IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM MICROFILM BY GREG HAND

In Cincinnati, everybody called him Joe, mostly. Or Indian Joe if they needed to distinguish him from all the other Joes wandering around the Queen City. He wasn’t young when he arrived in town, at least 70 years old, though he stood straight and tall. He was muscular enough to wrestle a bear onstage at the Kohl & Middleton Dime Museum on Vine Street.

That’s where Henry Farny found him. Farny was a famous artist, renowned for his paintings depicting life among the Native American tribes of the Old West. He sold canvases as fast as he could turn them out and might have been wealthy if he hadn’t been so focused on giving away his money. A memorial after Farny’s death [Enquirer 31 December 1916] summed up the artist’s well-known generosity:

“Anybody down and out had a friend in Farny. It was always the under dog, the one whose strength and fortune were less happy than others, that Farny’s broad mind and heart would give assistance to.”

Farny had made several trips out west, capturing the last fading echoes of the life surrendered by Native Americans under the onslaught of European expansion. His friends claimed Farny was fluent in the Sioux language, but he was at least proficient enough to understand simple conversations. One evening, Farny and fellow artist Martin Rettig attended a show at a local theater. On stage, a family of Sioux performed traditional dances and demonstrated their skill at various crafts. When the father of the family stood to give a speech, Farny leaped out of his seat in outrage. Farny gathered that the Sioux family had a complaint against the government and the unscrupulous manager assured them he would see that they got an audience with the U.S. President. In preparation for the presidential visit, the manager told the family they needed to attend several “receptions” at a series of vaudeville theaters along the way. Farny heard the Father say he was tired of these receptions and would he ever see the President? On Farny’s insistence, the family was given passage home and their “manager” split town.

When Farny saw Indian Joe wrestling that bear for another shady impresario, he got Joe out of that contract and into a job as janitor at the Cincinnati Art Club on Fourth Street. In those days, a janitor was not only a custodian and cleaner, but also what we would call a building superintendent today. The Art Club offered generous flextime and Joe could take off for weeks at a time if a decent vaudeville gig came around.

Farny also learned Joe’s real name, or at least the English translation of it. He was Chief Ogallala Fire, and there hangs a tale. Ogallala Fire was born sometime around 1826 and spent most of his life fighting white settlers encroaching on Sioux lands. According to the Chicago Tribune [3 January 1916]:

“In the days of Indian warfare, Chief Ogallala Fire was known as one of the bravest warriors of the Sioux. History relates that he led his warriors in many raids on white settlements in Wyoming and once defied a detachment of United States soldiers who trapped him in the mountains for two months [until he] finally escaped.”

Ogallala Fire was almost 50 when General George Armstrong Custer led an army against the Sioux in 1876. The expedition ended with Custer and his entire battalion slaughtered at Little Big Horn. Ogallala Fire spent the rest of his life not only claiming participation in that battle, but that he himself had killed Custer in hand-to-hand combat. He certainly had battle scars consistent with a life as a warrior. According to the Chicago Tribune:

“In ‘Custer’s Last Fight’ Chief Ogallala Fire received two bullets, was slashed across the head with a saber in the hands of an officer, and was pinned to the ground from a bayonet thrust through his shoulder by a soldier.”

After that battle, Chief Ogallala Fire resigned himself to life on a reservation and might have stayed there the rest of his life had not show business come calling. Charles A. Eastman, an American Indian physician known as Ohiyesa among the Dakota Sioux, recalled meeting Ogallala Fire:

“In 1892, I scarcely believed that he would ever leave the reservation, but in his latter days he was caught by the white man’s vices, the love of money and the desire for ‘fire-water,’ coupled with the old habit of wandering. He traveled in this country and abroad with Buffalo Bill.”

After a triumphal engagement at the Chicago World’s Fair, Ogallala Fire hit the road with Buffalo Bill and other Wild West shows, eventually settling into the bear-wrestling act that brought him to Cincinnati. Whether his thirst for liquor was any stronger than the average Cincinnatian is a matter of dispute, but Ogallala Fire was occasionally arrested for public drunkenness here. He was also arrested frequently just because the police were looking for someone who looked like an Indian and he fit the bill. This harassment repeated so often that Farny, weary of getting his innocent friend released, fired off a testy note to the mayor.

One day, when Ogallala Fire had been on the road with one of the Wild West shows, Farny hosted several friends in his studio. They heard some strange chanting rising from the nearby stairwell. According to the Enquirer [31 December 1916]:

Ogallala Fire was 87 years old when he posed for this photo, to be sold as a souvenir postcard. // IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM MICROFILM BY GREG HAND

“Farny, after listening for a few seconds, with sparkling eyes, grabbed a tom-tom, and, beckoning his friends to follow him, began to dance in true Sioux fashion around the large studio, all the time beating the tom-tom. The music outside grew stronger and stronger until the door was swung wide open and an Indian appeared beautifully garbed. He leaped into the room and dancing like mad with occasional shrieks of joy thus expressed his delight over his reception. It was Joe, as the tribe called him, ‘Ogallala Fire,’ the old favorite Sioux model of Farny’s whom he had not seen then for a long time. Farny was indeed glad to have him again, a fact accentuated by the gold piece he bestowed upon him immediately.”

Farny painted multiple portraits of Ogallala Fire and incorporated his likeness into dozens of other paintings. Other Cincinnati artists including John Hauser also employed him as a model. As the Wild West shows faded in popularity, Ogallala Fire found work in the nascent motion picture industry, appearing in several early silent films.

It was the Chicago Feature Film Company, shooting an “oater’ with b-list actress Lily Branscomb that brought Ogallala Fire to Chicago around 1914. He ended up staying there at the home of a granddaughter. One day, after a long illness, he asked for a razor and sliced his throat. Despite medical intervention Ogallala Fire died, aged 90, a week later. The old chief once told Charles A. Eastman/Ohiyesa:

“Friend, I have engaged in more than 100 battles, but never have I been bewildered except when I entered a city of the white man. There my spirit is lonesome, as it never was on the uninhabited prairie. The people seem to me more like bears and wolves.”

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