Susanna Faesch (Caroline Weldon)
Dec. 4, 1844 – March 15, 1921
Photo courtesy of Greenwood Cemetary
The Industrial Revolution brought significant cultural, geographical, and technological change to the United States in the latter half of the 19th Century. At the same time, the discovery of gold in California pushed white settlement across the vast, Native, continent.
While some benefitted greatly from both these situations, minorities of gender and race would be denied the respect of equal treatment under the law for decades, if not more than a century, to come.
It was this very cultural premise that was the catalyst for the choices that would shape Caroline Weldon’s life. Susanna Fasch (who would later changer her name to Caroline Weldon)was born in Switzerland in 1844 and would immigrate to the United States with her mother a few years later. The two settled in Brooklyn, New York, where her mother married a doctor. In the years to come, Susanna, too, would also marry a doctor. Her marriage, however, was unhappy and short-lived. After Susanna “ran away” with a married man, Susanna’s husband divorced her. To compound a problematic situation, Susanna became pregnant and bore her lover a son named Christie. After the child’s birth, however, the lover went back to his wife, leaving Susanna to raise the child alone.
At this time in history, for Susanna to bear the dual societal labels of “divorcee” and “single mother” made her a social outcast. Laws of time, forbade her the right to re-marry, a power her ex-husband retained and which also prevented her from obtaining any support in raising the child. During this time, Susanna combined her talent as a painter, with her interest in the recent political movements regarding the Lakota-Sioux Tribe.
As white westward migration progressed, a social debate ensued about the rights of Native Americans. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 had created and pushed Native Americans onto government-controlled lands. The country became split in their support of this action; some believed it to be a threat to the U.S. to allow these tribes to maintain their culture and traditions. In opposition to this belief, the National Indian Defense Organization (NIDO) was founded. The foundation of the group was to protect and uphold the tribes’ sovereignty through U.S. law.
photo courtesy of history.com
In 1887, the Dawes Act was passed into law. This Act divided native lands into individual plots which were then given to individual indigenous families. In exchange for the land, the individuals/families had to register on the Dawes Rolls and allow their children to be assimilated into white culture and educational systems. That same year, settlers living in the Dakota Territory sought to enact a similar law. Seeing the devastation it had wrought upon the Cherokee Tribe, and by then herself a member of the NIDO, Susanna contacted Sitting Bull, Chief of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux Tribe. Through a series of back and forth communications, Susanna sent the Chief letters and maps explaining the Sioux Bill proposal and the effects it would have upon the tribe.
After two years of communicating with Sitting Bull, Susanna and her son boarded a train bound for South Dakota. The Chief was sick when she arrived, now bearing the name Caroline Weldon. Ever gracious; however, he left his sick bed to meet her. Throughout the following years, she became his assistant, tribal representative, advisor, and interpreter. Though they were never romantically involved, she and Sitting Bull became quite close. During her time on the reservation, she painted four portraits of the leader, two of which still exist today. Her work with the tribe and active opposition to the Sioux Bill gained her many enemies within the U.S. Government. Local government officials vilified her in the press. She had become as much an outcast among white settlers in South Dakota as she had been in New York.
Tensions between the government and the tribe were at an all-time high when a religious movement called Ghost Dance swept through the area. It was purported that the songs and dances of Ghost Dance would make the white men disappear. Suspicious, Caroline (Susanna) warned Sitting Bull that in allowing the tribe to do the Dance, they would become considered agitators in open defiance of the U.S. and would, therefore, would become targets of aggression. The two disagreed and Sitting Bull allowed the Dance to continue. Caroline and her son left the reservation in a painful farewell. Within a year, Caroline’s foretellings came true when the government attacked the tribe in the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Sitting Bull was arrested and killed. Around the same time, Caroline’s son, Christie died in a riverboat accident in South Dakota.
Alone, she returned to Brooklyn, where her social acceptance had not improved, and thus she fell into obscurity. The Sioux Bill passed, and the tribe was devastated. Through it all, Susanna risked her life to do what was right for others despite the effects it had on her own life. She spoke out for those whose voices were, at the time, seen as negligible.
Her life’s work has been written about in poems and plays, as well as a movie, Woman Walks Ahead, released in 2018. The North Dakota Historical Society holds one of her surviving Sitting Bull paintings, while in Little Rock, AR, the Historic Arkansas Museum, holds the second.
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