Note: Friends President Robert Luppi provides a brief biography of how a young Arapaho Indian was adopted by an officer who was wounded in the Battle of Big Hole.
Sherman Coolidge was born in 1862 near Goose Creek in the Wind River area of Wyoming. He was an Arapaho Indian and son to Banasda (Big Heart) and Ba-ahnoce (Turtle Woman). His given name was Runs-on-Top and he was later renamed Sherman Coolidge.
Tragedy struck Runs-on-Top early in life, as when he was age 7, his father was killed by a war party of Bannocks intent on stealing horses. The Bannocks and Arapahos at the time were adversaries, often at war with each other. Runs-on-Top and his younger brother, Little One-Who-Dies-and-Lives-Again, along with their mother, escaped from the Bannocks’ attack by hiding under a tipi cover and brush until the fight ended.
In the spring of 1870, the Arapahos were attacked by a large contingent of Shoshones and Bannocks near the present site of Lander, Wyoming. At the time, Runs-on-Top and his brother, were taken captive, but their mother was able to escape. Eventually, the boys were given to American troops and adopted by separate white families. Runs-on-Top was adopted later in 1870 by Lt. Charles A. Coolidge, a career solider with the 7th U.S. Infantry and he was renamed William Tecumseh Sherman in honor of a Union General. William Sherman then became Sherman Coolidge. Frank P. Rogan, the son of First Sergeant Patrick Rogan, who served with Lt. Coolidge in the 7th Infantry, has said that his father was instrumental in the pairing of young Sherman with his new foster father and mother, the young officer and his wife, Sophie, who were childless at the time.
Under the guidance and tutelage of his new parents, Sherman Coolidge rapidly assimilated into the new world in which he was placed, which included an emphasis on education and the assumption of white ways, habits, and manners. At the age of nine, Sherman Coolidge was baptized by an Episcopal bishop and was enrolled at the Shattuck Military School in Faribault, Minnesota where, as an exemplary student, he consistently ranked in the upper quarter of his class.
As Sherman grew, his foster parents continued to encourage him to perform to the best of his abilities and to continue on with his education. In 1876, while accompanying his adoptive father in the latter’s journey with the Montana Column in the campaign against the Sioux, Coolidge began to consider becoming a missionary among the western tribes. This goal was furthered when his parents later enrolled him in the Seabury Divinity School near Chicago, where in 1884, he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree. That same year, he was ordained as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. Soon thereafter, Sherman Coolidge traveled to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to engage in his first church assignment. At Wind River, Sherman was reunited with his birth mother, Ba-ahnoce, who had learned of his impending return. Eventually he persuaded her to convert to Christianity. During his early years at the reservation, Coolidge also served as a mediator between the tribal factions of the Arapahos and Shoshones who shared the reservation.
In 1887, Coolidge left the reservation to enroll at Hobart College in Geneva, New York to continue his theological studies, and after he completed his courses in 1889, he was ordained into the priesthood. He then returned to the Wind River Agency and ministered to the needs of Indians and whites alike and also served the outlining communities. While undertaking his church work, he met Grace Wetherbee, the daughter of an affluent New York City couple. While sharing an interest and efforts in the ministry, the couple grew to know each other and this would eventually culminate in their marriage in October, 1902. The bond was reached notwithstanding the advice of others disapproving of the mixed-race marriage.
Sherman and Grace worked together as they ministered to the needs of the Wind River community. Sherman worked diligently on behalf of American Indians and in 1911, he became one of the founding members of the Society of American Indians. The Society was the first prominent Indian-controlled rights organization in the country and Sherman remained an influential figure in the group for a number of years. Grace Coolidge wrote extensively about her experiences working amongst the Indians and many of her works were published in Collier’s Weekly and the Outlook. A collection of her works led to the publication of “Teepee Neighbors” in 1917, which comprised a series of touching brief stories of life on the Wind River Reservation in the early 20th Century.
The Coolidge's raised two daughters and adopted a number of Indian children. In the 1920s, Sherman transferred to Colorado Springs, Colorado and he and Grace served in churches in that state. Sherman died on January 24, 1932 and Grace died five years later, in 1937. At the closing of our last century, Sherman Coolidge was nominated as a candidate for Wyoming Citizen of the Century, among others who distinguished themselves in their life by their character, contributions, and accomplishments as Wyoming citizens during the 20th Century.
As further mention should be made of Sherman’s adoptive father, Lt. Charles A. Coolidge, he continued to serve in the military for 33 years after his and his wife’s adoption of Sherman. Lt. Coolidge fought and was wounded at the Battle of the Big Hole against the Nez Perce on August 9, 1877 and eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General in 1903, at which time he retired after 40 years service with the U.S. Infantry. General Coolidge died on January 1, 1926 at Detroit, Michigan at age 81. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. His wife, Sophie, died on January 26, 1934 at Washington, D.C.
Sources: Story by Professor George L. Cornell of Michigan State University, found in Encyclopedia of North American Indians; Story of Sherman Coolidge found at the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming; Cullen, Thomas P., Rock Springs: A Look Back, Portland, Oregon, 1991; Military records of General Coolidge; Estate records of Sophie Coolidge.
2008 Copyright Robert Luppi