Family Story

The Northern Cheyenne men traded, sold, and gifted their ledgers to various people. One was Sallie Straughn. We know that her husband John Straughn served as the prison warden of Dodge City during the time the Cheyenne men were imprisoned. Inevitably, Sallie would have come in contact with these Cheyenne men. It was not likely that Mrs. Straughn had much time to be out and about, since she had four small children (Cassie, thirteen; Louis, seven; Franklin, five; and Carl, two months old). With such a big family to care for it makes sense that Sallie Straughn was listed as “keeping house” in the census. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Sallie was tied to her house with her two-month-old child that she valued the Cheyenne ledger. Or maybe the colorful ledger with the numerous depictions of mother animals with their young ones reminded her of her own relationship to her children. Many of the animal scenes would have symbolically shown her relationship to her young son Carl at the time. The Cheyenne courting scenes might have spoken to her, too. They could have reminded her of herself when she was younger and fell in love with John. Perhaps the ledger made her remember the time when John served in the Union army in Indiana. Just as the Cheyenne men of the ledger were dressed for combat, she could picture John in his Union uniform. While the ledger stayed true to Northern Cheyenne traditions, its rich and suggestive images were able to cross cultural boundaries and strike sympathy with Sallie. The Cheyenne artists probably purposefully constructed this emotional appeal so that the ledger could function as an eloquent claim for the Cheyenne’s innocence and humanity.

 Several scenarios seem likely as to how Sallie Straughn obtained the indigenous artwork. She could have been visiting John at the prison, or perhaps she wanted to see the Northern Cheyenne men for herself. Another possibility was that the Cheyenne men gave her the ledger upon seeing her children. The Cheyenne men, we know, had families of their own. Or Sallie may have tried bartering with them, which was something she was very familiar with. As the story goes, a family friend named John H. Mathias discovered a “prospect hole” in Colorado and named it the Sarah Ellen after Sallie Straughn. Mathias even wanted her to have it. All he asked in return was “a good six shooter, scabbard and belt,” which she delivered by sending Mathias a “magnificent pistol” (“Mineral Wealth”).  Mathias was a family friend of the Straughns, and the Dodge City Times states, “old timers here remember him as a successful buffalo hunter.” Maybe Mathias was one of the men who helped decimate and kill the buffalo from the Plains, forcing the Cheyenne onto reservations. Perhaps he even was instrumental in leading these seven Cheyenne men into bartering with Sallie. Whatever the scenario, what we know for sure is that Sallie cherished and held onto this ledger for a long time. In the end, the charges against the Cheyenne men were dropped due to legal complications. The imprisoned Cheyenne were sent to the reservation to join the survivors of their tribe.

Even though the ledger was created in a relatively short period of time, the ledger as a complex work of art reflects the Northern Cheyenne’s larger and complex history and disenfranchisement. In the face of aggressive nineteenth-century racism, the Cheyenne remained true to themselves. Their drawings recreate their cultural values and might have even bridged the gap between European settlers and indigenous cultures. Clearly the ledger spoke to Sallie Straughn, who probably shared the Cheyenne artifact with other women and men in town, revealing to the white settlers of Dodge City that the Cheyenne were a peaceful and artful people who celebrated their way of life in colorful ledger drawings

Family Story