Printer Friendly

THE SIOUX OF SALFORD; EXCLUSIVE American Indian Charging Thunder came to England with Buffalo Bill and settled in the Wild North West, where his descendants still live.

Byline: By ADAM LUCK

THE closest Rita Parr has ever got to the Wild West is Disneyland - but that hasn't stopped the Manchester granny laying claim to her own tribe: the Salford Sioux.

Rita and cousin Gary Williams are the sole surviving grandchildren of Native American chief Charging Thunder, who brought a taste of the Wild West to the North West more than 100 years ago.

The then 26-year-old Lakota Sioux warrior set up camp close to Old Trafford in 1903 as part of Buffalo Bill's legendary Wild West Circus.

But when the show left town, he and his American wife Josephine stayed behind in Salford.

Before long, he'd swapped his ceremonial headdress for a cloth cap and changed his name to the very British George Edward Williams.

This extraordinary tale only came to light when local historian Steve Coen saw some intriguing sepia pictures of the troupe in Salford.

His public appeal for relatives brought forward Rita and Gary, and they revealed why their grandparents had decided to stay.

Rita, 66, says: "Their first child Bessie - my aunt - caught diphtheria and she was confined to a sanatorium so they had to stay behind when the circus moved on. But they never left.

"For some reason they moved to Darwen in Lancashire and set up home there."

The American couple had two more children: Gladys, Rita's mother, and Gary's father George. Eventually the couple moved to Gorton, Manchester and stayed there for the rest of their lives.

Charging Thunder became a well-known and respected figure in the community, working as a handyman at Belle Vue Circus and a local engineering firm and as a doorman at the local cinema.

Rita, who still lives in Gorton, says: "He was the thrower-outer at the picture house and he became well known in the local community.

"They called him Darkie, affectionately, and he did not mind it in the slightest. Everybody respected him and the family.

"If there was a problem everyone would say 'Go and ask Darkie.'"

THERE are plenty of stories about him still doing the rounds.

"There was a famous elephant at the circus called Nellie and when my grandfather got drunk he went to sleep in Nellie's stall.

"The elephant would stand guard over him. No-one could go near him until he was sober or ready to move."

The Wild West Circus first came to the UK in 1887 when it spent six months at Earls Court, staging several Royal Command Performances for Queen Victoria.

It moved to Salford, where tepees were erected on the banks of the River Irwell. It played to packed audiences for five months.

Lakota Sioux warriors were among the 97 Native Americans who enchanted locals with trick riding and death-defying stunts.

Many had good reason to make the trip to Europe. Gary, 65, says: "Many were wanted by the US government for their involvement in The Battle of Little Bighorn, where General Custer was killed."

The show returned to Salford in 1903, this time bringing with them Charging Thunder and Josephine, a white American horse trainer.

Gary says: "My grandmother would stand in the middle with the whip making the horses rear up and my grandfather rode the horses bareback doing handstands and jumping from horse to horse."

Charging Thunder's first job here also saw him work with animals.

Rita says: "He used to carry a large snake around during the circus parade while dressed in his Indian regalia with headdress and beads.

"Once, the snake tightened its grip around him. He tried to resist it but he was soon having trouble breathing so he took out his large knife and cut its head off.

"The circus boss said 'Why on earth did you do that? Do you know how much a snake costs?' My grandfather said 'You can always buy a new snake but you cannot buy a new Charging Thunder.' He was fired!"

Both Rita and Gary believe that their grandfather was happy in Manchester. Rita says: "I never heard stories about him wanting to go back but he did have illnesses with the damp cold. Sadly, he caught pneumonia and died before I was born in 1929 aged 52."

Gary, a retired lecturer who lives in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, never met his grandfather either but visited Belle Vue Circus often as a child.

He says: "My father was a baker but he maintained links with Belle Vue. He knew Sabu the elephant trainer, a close friend of my grandfather's who would let me have a free ride on the elephant."

The father-of-one still remembers his grandfather's Indian regalia.

He says: "My aunt Bessie had some artefacts: a feather bonnet, tomahawks and beads, but they were getting a bit battered by then. Eventually they were lost. What happened to them I just don't know."

For Gary, his ethnic roots have always been a source of pride and something he has never been allowed to forget.

He says: "We were on holiday in Arizona a few years ago when we visited this Native American tourist centre and I was approached by one of the locals who asked me: 'What tribe are you from?'

"I was amazed but clearly they saw the similarity. I have always been proud of being from a warrior nation and so was my father. I am interested in the military and so is my son, so there must be something in the genes."

DESPITE visits to the US, Gary has never ventured to South Dakota.

He says' "I was told there is suspicion about unknown whites so I have never managed to visit.

"They are still being given a rough deal by the American government to this day. They have never been forgiven for being the last Indian tribe to surrender to the whites."

To Rita and Gary's astonishment, historian Steve discovered after a visit to the US last year that they have a cousin in South Dakota called Mike Her Many Horses.

Rita says: "I am really grateful to Steve - to discover we have a cousin out there is incredible. We have not spoken yet but I am sure we will."

And if Gary and Rita are unlikely to venture to South Dakota, Steve has decided the best solution is to bring the Lakota Sioux to Salford.

He says: "Salford Council have been very supportive and are keen to develop this link.

"I hope we can bring around 30 Sioux over for a ceremony at the Salford Quays this year.

"What is important for me is that this is not just about history but also the present and the future. I want to see these links developed to help both communities."

Mike Her Many Horses, talking from South Dakota, told the Daily Mirror: "We knew some of our people stayed in Europe but I was not aware of this link with the UK.

"To find out I have cousins in England is fantastic. The idea of some of us coming over for a reunion or reconnection is great.

"Certainly I cannot remember anyone looking for my family."

Such has been the reaction to the extraordinary story that Coen is being offered book and movie deals. But for him there there remains some unfinished business.

As well as finding out about Charging Thunder, he discovered that a Lakota girl called Frances Victoria Alexander was born in Salford. He believes at least five Sioux warriors were left stranded in 1888 when the circus left town.

He said: "What happened to them? These were young men in their prime and it is not difficult to imagine that they fraternised with the local women. It would be great to track down their descendants as well."

With Gary, however, his pride at finding a new family can't conceal one area of uncertainty about his identity.

Gary says: "I always get confused when I have to fill in forms where they ask you to declare your race.

"They never have 'Native American' do they? I always wonder what I should put down!"

Are you descended from native Americans who came to Britain. Email


NORTH STAR: Thunder in his full regalia' KIN: Proud Gary and Rita' GOING NATIVE: After becoming George (top right, above) and (left) the tour in Manchester' TOUR: The Buffalo Bill show
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 25, 2006
Previous Article:3am: SURVEILLANCE; DOUBLE TAKE.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters