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James W. Forsyth papers

Call Number: WA MSS S-1404

Scope and Contents

The James W. Forsyth Papers document the career of a nineteenth-century military officer in the American West and, in particular, his service in the Wounded Knee campaign. The collection spans the dates 1865-1932, but the bulk of the material falls in the period 1870-98.

The collection is arranged in six series with oversize material housed at the end. Series I, Correspondence, contains letters to and from Forsyth arranged chronologically with two letterpress copybooks of similar material. Series II, Wounded Knee Papers, consists of printed papers and manuscripts documenting the actions taken on December 29 and 30, 1891. Series III, Military Papers, contains documents by and about James W. Forsyth, his son-in-law, son, and other military officers. Carte-de-visites and cabinet photographs collected by Forsyth can be found in Series IV, Photographs. Series V, Forsyth Family Papers, consists of a few items belonging to Forsyth's two daughters as well as personal papers of James W. Forsyth. Series VI, Dennison Family Papers, contains financial receipts of Governor William Dennison's family (James W. Forsyth's in-laws) and a book belonging to the governor.

Series I, Correspondence (Boxes 1-2), consists of letters to Forsyth as well as some copies of Forsyth's outgoing letters documenting the Wounded Knee affair, its aftermath, and Forsyth's command of the Department of California. Two letterpress copybooks contain copies of Forsyth's correspondence for 1877-85, the period Forsyth acted as secretary and inspector for the Department of the Missouri.

Series I begins with two letters from the 1860s: an 1866 official notification of Forsyth's commission of brevet brigadier general and an 1868 letter from General P. H. Sheridan discussing politics and the army. A letter dated September 9, 1870 from Forsyth to General James H. Wilson describes Forsyth's European trip and contains his observations of the Franco-Prussian War.

The two letterpress copybooks (Box 1, folders 4-5) document Forsyth's work as military secretary to General Sheridan between 1866 and 1870 and as inspector in the Department of the Missouri between 1877 and 1885. Most of Forsyth's letters for 1877 are replies on behalf of General Sheridan to correspondents who sought the general's political endorsement. The general routinely refused such requests. There is a series of letters dating from the summer of 1877 in which Forsyth reports to Sheridan his investigation of Indian affairs in northeastern Montana. His reports describe military posts and Indian agencies, such as Fort Peck, Fort Browning, Fort Belknap, Wolf Point Agency, and Fort Shaw, and possible locations for a new agency. Forsyth includes notes on the Assiniboine, Yankton, Santee, and Atsina Indians, often with details on specific bands and chiefs. The letterpress copybook also contains reports and documents from the Office of Indian Affairs regarding trading posts.

A journal of a trip spanning June 2-5, 1875, in the midst of the routine business letters for 1878, describes the topography of Big Horn and Yellowstone Rivers. Letters dated 1878 document Forsyth's command of the 1st Cavalry in the Bannock War. There are no letters for 1879 and those for 1880 concern the Warren Court of Inquiry of the Battle of Dinwiddie on March 31, 1865, for which Forsyth submitted testimony.

Most of Forsyth's letters for 1881-85 report inspections of cavalry units in the Department of the Missouri, as well as the Departments of Texas, Dakota, and the Platte. The second letterpress copybook, containing letters for 1885, includes copies of letters to Forsyth, in command at Fort Maginnis, from officers in the field, from commanders of other forts, and from Indian agents. There are also copies of his replies. The letters report on the Crow, Atsina, and Piegan Indians.

The next letters date from the beginning of 1891, just days after the Battle of Wounded Knee Creek. A copy of a January 4 letter from General Miles's aide to Forsyth relieves him of command. Attached to this letter is a special order beginning the military's investigation. There are several letters from Guy V. Henry to Forsyth commenting on events. Forsyth also receives letters from George B. Davis at the War Department in Washington, D.C., informing him on reactions in the capital. Copies of letters and notes by Forsyth to Lieutenant J. Franklin Bell and other officers record Forsyth's own investigation of events.

There are only two letters for 1892 and 1893: one from Forsyth's lawyer concerning his will and a flyer from the Geographical Society of the Pacific (similar flyers for the succeeding institution, Geographical Society of California, can be found in correspondence for 1894).

Letters for 1894-96 document Forsyth's command of the Department of the Pacific, but the majority of letters concern patronage: requests by civilians and officers for Forsyth's help in gaining employment or promotion. Included in this category are letters from military widows seeking help. There are letters recording the management of the military department, especially the Presidio in San Francisco and the activities of its commander, William Montrose Graham (see 1894-95, Boxes 1-2, folders 9-22). Throughout this period there are letters to and from J. Franklin Bell, Forsyth's aide. Also common is correspondence with various railroads from which army officers procured passes, whether complimentary or purchased is unclear.

In 1895 and 1896 there is a resurgence of the Wounded Knee affair. In response to General Miles's description of events in his 1891 annual report (Box 3, folder 58), Forsyth formally requests a new investigation. Letters in 1895 and 1896 document his attempt to gather more eyewitness accounts and to spur Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont to begin a formal review. Many officers who where at the massacre, including Forsyth's son-in-law Dallas Bache, send him their accounts. Letters of this period also document Forsyth's attempts to get a West Point appointment for his son, William Dennison Forsyth.

Many of the letters for 1897 focus on Forsyth's attempt to win promotion to major general. W. H. Rossington writes in support of Forsyth and there are several letters to and from Secretary of War R. A. Algers. A. E. Bates writes Forsyth long letters discussing the army and old colleagues.

Series II, Wounded Knee Papers (Box 3), contains information on the events surrounding the battle and ensuing military investigation of Forsyth's command. "Field return of Seventh Cavalry" (Box 10, folder 171) consists of data on the companies commanded by Forsyth in the Wounded Knee campaign. The document includes a brief description of events as well as an accounting of dead and wounded soldiers. The collection also contains a printed order by 1st Lieutenant Henry L. Harris to his command (the 1st Artillery) reporting recommendations for officers of the 1st and 2nd Artillery who took part in the Wounded Knee affair (Box 3, folder 50).

There are copies of Colonel E. M. Heyl's report to the assistant adjutant general of the Department of the Missouri on the events of December 30th, the day after Battle of Wounded Knee Creek (Box 3, folder 51). When smoke was sighted coming from the Drexel Mission, Forsyth set out to investigate and a fight ensued. Heyl's report is a compilation of testimonies by General John R. Brooke, Major Guy V. Henry, Lieutenant Guy Preston, Father John Jutz, Reverend Charles Cook, interpreter John Shangrau, interpreter and scout Louie Shangrau, hostile Ogalala Indian Little Horse, and Forsyth. The collection also contains separate copies of testimonies of Forsyth, Major Henry, military doctor John Van R. Hoff, and Major S. M. Whitside (Box 3, folders 52-56).

There are copies of the messages sent by General Brooke to Forsyth on December 30th and Forsyth's report to the acting assistant adjutant general for the Department of the Platte dated December 31st (Box 3, folder 57). Along with these first reports is General Miles's assessment in his annual report on the Department of the Missouri. In the copy given to Forsyth by General Miles, Forsyth heavily annotated the section concerning the events of December 30th (Box 3, folder 58). Other reactions to the battle can be found in clippings from Chicago newspapers dating from the first few months of 1891 (Box 10, folders 172-73). The articles document how public opinion aligned with either Miles or Forsyth. Series II contains printed and manuscript maps of the Wounded Knee campaign, particularly of the massacre on December 29th (Box 11, folders 191-95).

Series III, Military Papers (Box 4), consists mostly of newspaper articles about military officers collected by Forsyth. The majority of the material is about Forsyth himself. There is a newspaper scrapbook with articles from 1888-1906 about Fort Riley, Wounded Knee and the investigation, Philip Henry Sheridan, Sitting Bull, Indian conflicts of the 1890s, and reactions to General Miles's treatment of Forsyth (Box 10, folders 177-83). This series also contains printed material documenting Forsyth's military career (Box 4, folder 59, Box 10, folder 176, Box 11, folder 196-97). Other figures represented in this series are Dallas Bache, Henry C. Corbin, William D. Forsyth, Guy V. Henry, Nelson A. Miles, Anson Mills, Michael V. Sheridan, and Philip H. Sheridan.

Series IV, Photographs (Box 5), contains images of Forsyth's friends and family as well as pictures of American and foreign figures (mostly military). Collected by Forsyth in America and Europe, most of these are nineteenth century carte-de-visites, a popular format at the time. The photographs are organized into topical groupings and divided by format and studio location. There is a list of photographers and studios in Appendix I. The majority of the photographs are unidentified; however, the likenesses of the following American military figures can be found in the collection: William T. Sherman (folder 65-66); group of General Andrew Porter's staff in 1862 (folder 66); Ambrose E. Burnside (folder 69); D. Clarence Woodrow (USN) (folder 69, 78); General Samuel P. Heintzelman and staff in 1867 (folder 71); Rufus King Jr. (USN) (folder 74); Gordon Granger (folder 74); Benjamin E. Butler (folder 74); Elmer E. Ellsworth (folder 74, 78); Ulysses S. Grant (folder 78); Dr. Benjamin Howard (folder 78); John G. Parker (folder 78); Daniel Sickles (folder 78); and James B. Steedman (folder 78).

Series V, Forsyth Family Papers (Box 6), contains a few items belonging to Forsyth's daughters and Forsyth. Forsyth's receipts document personal purchases made in San Francisco in 1894-97 (Box 6, folders 113-23). There is also a legal document relating to Washington real estate Forsyth bought into (Box 6, folder 124).

Series VI, Dennison Family Papers (Boxes 7-9), consists of receipts documenting the expenses of Governor William Dennison's family in the 1880s and 1890s. The Dennison family were Forsyth's in-laws. Most of the purchases were made in Columbus, Ohio. The receipts were originally mounted in a scrapbook. There is also a copy of A Trip to the Yellowstone National Park in July, August, and September, 1875 (Washington, 1876) with "William Dennison" inscribed on the fly-leaf (Box 9, folder 170.1).

Oversize (Boxes 10-11) contains material from Series II, III, and V. The arrangement, based on the size of the material, parallels the order of the collection.


  • 1865 - 1932
  • Majority of material found within 1870 - 1898


Physical Description

Other Storage Formats: oversize

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The James W. Forsyth Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The James W. Forsyth Papers were purchased with the William Robertson Coe Western Americana Fund in 1967 from Hickory Lodge Books.


8.17 Linear Feet (12 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers record the career of a nineteenth century military officer in the American West and, in particular, his service in the Wounded Knee campaign. Forsyth's correspondence documents his service as military secretary to General Sheridan and as an inspector for the military Department of the Missouri during the 1870s. The letters also trace his command in the Bannock War of 1878, his part in the Wounded Knee campaign and subsequent investigation, and his command of the Department of California. The collection contains military reports on the Wounded Knee affair, as well as printed and manuscript maps of the campaign. Forsyth's papers also contain documents relating to other nineteenth century military officers and some photographic portraits. There are some papers, mostly financial receipts, regarding his family and his in-laws, the Dennisons.

JAMES W. FORSYTH (1836-1906)

James William Forsyth, born in Ohio, attended West Point from 1851-56 and received a commission as second lieutenant in the 9th U.S. Infantry. After serving in Washington Territory at Fort Bellingham and Camp Pickett, Suan Juan Island, Forsyth was promoted to first lieutenant in 1861 and returned to the East to command Union forces in the Civil War. From 1862-63 he served with the Army of the Potomac and in 1864 became Chief of Staff for Major General Philip H. Sheridan.

Forsyth continued on Sheridan's staff after the war and served as acting inspector general in the Military Division of the Gulf. Forsyth moved with Sheridan when the latter became commander of the Department of the Missouri in 1866. Forsyth served first as the department's secretary and then as an inspector, with an appointment in the cavalry. He took part in military campaigns against the Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa Indians in 1868-69. Forsyth went to Europe in 1870 as an official observer of the Franco-Prussian War.

During the late 1870s Forsyth spent much of his time inspecting Indian agencies and reporting on the relations with Indians on and off reservations in the military department of the Missouri, roughly Montana and the Dakotas. Forsyth commanded cavalry units in the 1878 Bannock campaign, and in succeeding years, spent most of his time inspecting cavalry units throughout the West.

In 1885 Forsyth was in command of Fort Maginnis, Montana, where the army was monitoring the Crow, Cree, and the Gros Ventres (Atsina) Indians. He was promoted to colonel in 1886 and placed in command of the 7th Cavalry stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. In December 1890, Forsyth led his troops to the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. Sioux Indians had left the agency and many were involved in the Ghost Dance religion. On December 29, in the midst of mounting tension, Forsyth's attempt to disarm the Indians turned into a fight, later known as the Wounded Knee massacre. On the following day, Forsyth again engaged the Indians at Drexel Mission. Forsyth's actions were investigated at General Miles's instigation, and although he was cleared of any wrongdoing, Forsyth resented Miles's accusations.

Forsyth was commissioned brigadier general in December 1894 and appointed commander of the Department of California. He served in this position until his promotion to Major General in May 1897 when he retired from the military.

In 1867 James Forsyth married the daughter of the governor of Ohio, William Dennison. She died around 1888. By 1877, the couple had four children: a son, William Dennison Forsyth, who also entered the military, Marion, Betsy, who married Dallas Bache, a career military officer, and a fourth child. On retirement, Forsyth moved back to his native Ohio. He died in Columbus on October 24, 1906.

Appendix I. List of Photographic Studios Represented in the Collection

(Key: # of prints Name / Studio Place)

1 / Churchill & Denison / Albany, N.Y.

2 / Case & Getchell, Photographic Artists / Boston, Mass.

1 / Warren / Cambridgeport, Mass.

4 / S. M. Fassett / Chicago, Ill.

1 / H. Rocher, Photographer / Chicago, Ill.

1 / Steffens, Photographic Art Studio / Chicago, Ill.

2 / Gentile Photographer / Chicago, Ill

1 / E. L. Brand & Co. / Chicago, Ill.

1 / W. Shaw's Photograph Parlor / Chicago, Ill.

2 / Ball & Thomas' Photographic Art Gallery / Cincinnati, Ohio

2 / Porter's Gallery / Cincinnati, Ohio

3 / Hoag & Quick's Art Palace / Cincinnati, Ohio

1 / Leon Van Loo / Cincinnati, Ohio

4 / J. F. Ryder Photographist / Cleveland, Ohio

1 / E. Decker / Cleveland, Ohio

1 / Griswold & Howard / Columbus, Ohio

1 / Griswold & Smith, Photographers / Columbus, Ohio

2 / Elliott & Armstead / Columbus, Ohio

6 / J. M. Elliott / Columbus, Ohio

2 / M. Witt's Photograph Gallery / Columbus, Ohio

1 / A. F. Smith's Premium Gallery / Columbus, Ohio

1 / Art Parlors. Baker / Columbus, Ohio

1 / L. M. Baker / Columbus, Ohio

1 / G. W. Davis, Photographer / Columbus, Ohio

# of prints Name / Studio Place

4 / Abdullah Freres Photographes De S.M.I.Le Sultan Pera De Constantinople / Constantinople, Turkey

1 / Etablissemen El Chark P. Sebah Photographe / Constantinople, Turkey

1 / Angell / East Saginaw, Michigan

2 / W. A. Elwell / Gloucester, Mass.

1 / G. R. Curtiss / Madison, Wis.

1 / A. S. Morse, Photographer / Nashville, Tenn.

1 / Bogardus, Photographer / New York, N.Y.

1 / Geo. G. Rockwood, Photographer / New York, N.Y.

1 / Rockwood Photographer / New York, N.Y.

1 / Gurney / New York, N.Y.

2 / J. Gurney & Son, Photographic Artists / New York, N.Y.

1 / William Klauser, Photographer / New York, N.Y.

1 / Johnson Bros. / New York, N.Y.

1 / London Stereoscopic & Photographic Co. / New York, N.Y.

5 / E. & H. T. Anthony / New York, N.Y.

1 / Charles D. Fredricks & Co. / New York, N.Y.

1 / Fredricks & Co. / New York, N.Y.

1 / Joshua A. Williams / Newport, R.I.

1 / E. L. Eaton, Photographer / Omaha, Neb.

2 / M. Berthaud / Paris, France

1 / A. Liebert, Photographie Americaine / Paris, France

1 / Photographie Franck / Paris, France

2 / Le Jeune, Photographe Brevete / Paris, France

# of prints Name / Studio Place

1 / Ex Operateur De Me Le Comte Aguado E. Flamant Photographe / Paris, France

1 / Disderi Photo / Paris, France

1 / Broadbent Phillips / Philadelphia, Penns.

1 / Atelier Faedo Temporel Succ / Plainpalais, Geneve

1 / Gorham & Co. / Providence, R.I.

1 / W. C. North, Photographer / Utica, N.Y.

1 / S. A. Spencer / Victoria, B.C.

2 / Henry Ulke / Washington, D.C.

2 / R. W. Addis, Photographer McClees Gallery / Washington, D.C.

4 / M. B. Brady & Co. National Photographic Portrait Galleries / Washington, D.C.

2 / Gardner, Photographer Philip & Solomons / Washington, D.C.

1 / Brady's Album Gallery

1 / Junction City Gallery of Art, S. Meixsell, Proprietor

Guide to the James W. Forsyth Papers
Under Revision
by Susie R. Bock
1992 December
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

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