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Woman Walking Ahead

Susanna Carolina Faesch, daughter of a Glarner woman, was Sitting Bull's confidant and assistant for years and even received a marriage proposal from him.

Susanna Carolina Faesch has often been present in the media in the last two years. Especially because of the novel "Susanna" by Alex Capus. The Swiss writer has taken a lot of poetic liberties. He is free to do so. But that leaves Faesch's real life in the dark. Thomas Brunnschweiler spent years researching for his biographical novel "Die Zwischengängerin" to shed some light on this life of a Swiss pioneer. This was not easy because possible records of Caroline Weldon were destroyed in the fire of her Brooklyn apartment in 1921.

In the middle of the 17th century, the Faesch family was one of the richest families in Basel. Lucas Faesch, Carolina's father, came from a mercenary dynasty and, after serving in the French army, worked as a forester on the little river Wiese outside the city walls of Kleinbasel. Lucas' wife Barbara, a née Marti was originally from the canton of Glarus. In 1848 - Carolina, the nestling, was just four years old - the Dortmund doctor and revolutionary Karl Valentiny appeared on the scene. The parents' marriage was already unhappy at that time, and the situation was not to get any better. The acquaintance with Karl Valentiny, which becomes a love affair, moves Barbara Faesch née Marti to separate from her husband. After eighteen years of marriage, she left her house, husband and two older children in May. An unusual step for the time. Barbara settles in Alsace, working as a cook at Biederthal Castle. Caroline is a barely five. She is eight when she arrives in New York with her mother in 1852, already awaited there by Karl Valentiny, who had opened a surgical practice there. The two marry, and Karl adopts Carolina.

So now she is in the new world. She learns English, can soon attend school. The family moves several times, the apartments get bigger and better.

This is not the first time that Caroline comes into contact with the Indians and the Indian question. She knows them from a book that Karl had given her while still in Biederthal. Karl, as a revolutionary of 1848, is in favor of the abolition of slavery, but he considers the Indians to be "lazy and unpredictable". Caroline reads intensively into the subject, makes her own picture, is more and more fascinated by the culture of the natives of the continent.

After an apprenticeship as a tailor, she is forced into marriage with the Swiss doctor Bernhard Claudius Schlatter (1840-1910). This does not last long. In 1877, the courageous woman had a son by a lover, but she kept him a secret. She divorces in 1883 and lives with Grete, a Sioux Indian woman whom Caroline Weldon met in 1895 during a visit to The Standing Rock settlement. Grete had lost her family in the struggle to defend their land against whites. She eventually became an important advisor and friend to Weldon, helping her gain a better understanding of Lakota culture. She also helped her counter the white invaders. The two women not only raise the child together, they share a deep love for each other, a relationship in which both also find erotic fulfillment. Both earn their own money, live independently of men or family. In 1902, Grete died at the age of 30.

Single parent, divorced, courageous

When Christie, Carolina's son, finished school, she took another significant step: she moved to Dakota to the Hunkpapa camp. Meanwhile, Caroline Weldon - as she now called herself - had become a member of the National Indian Defense Association (Nida). Why she became so involved is not known, but Weldon's interest in the Indians was primarily a political one. She wanted to protect Lakota rights and act as a go-between between the Standing Rock Reservation and the Nida in Washington. In the years 1888 to 1890, such an undertaking was extraordinary and courageous for a divorced and single woman. Information on this period, the best-documented in Caroline Weldon's life, is found mainly in valid biographies of Sitting Bull and in local newspaper accounts.

Sitting Bull (1831-1890) by no means lived in seclusion, but was in constant contact with Western civilization, the Indian agent and white visitors in his camp on the Grand River. As the legendary victor of Little Bighorn, he received many letters from all over the world. Caroline Weldon, with her language skills, was an important help to the chief and medicine man. Sitting Bull gave her the Lakota name "Tokaheya máni win" (woman walking ahead), a name that testifies to high esteem.

As far as the Lakota cause was concerned, however, Caroline Weldon was unable to make any difference in the Hunkpapa camp except for material and non-material support. She also remained a stranger, although she learned Lakota and was fascinated by the Indian way of life. She even turned down a marriage proposal from Sitting Bull. A note from the chief's cabin reveals something about her self-confidence: "I believe I am as important as Sitting Bull, and my clan was even more important."

Reverend Bernhard Strassmaier, in a 1929 letter, recounts a meeting with Sitting Bull and Caroline Weldon at the home of fellow brother Bernard Prange at Fort Yates. He writes: "Mrs. Welten had a sinister spirit, but it seemed very strange to me that a lady of her education could make so much fuss about him - she, an educated woman, and he, a consummate heathen with a dubious moral reputation." Unlike the missionaries or teachers of the boarding schools, Caroline Weldon lived in the camp of the Hunkpapa, a Lakota tribe. The fact that she did not keep a "decent distance" from the "savages" made her a target of the local press, which labeled her a "white squaw." With her commitment to the self-determination of the Sioux in the environment of Sitting Bull, she represents a new type among his contacts.

When the Ghost Dance movement spread like wildfire across western Indian reservations in the summer of 1890, she warned Sitting Bull that the U.S. government might use it as an excuse to arrest him and destroy the Lakota Nation with military intervention.

Sitting Bull turned his back on her, and because her son Christy became dangerously ill with sepsis, she decided to move away in November of that year. Sitting Bull's attempted arrest in December, which ended with his murder, and the resulting Wounded Knee massacre later that month confirmed her premonitions and also gave her a sense of helplessness and failure. Her son Christy died as a result of his blood poisoning on November 19, 1890, near Pierre, South Dakota, on the river steamer Chaska, while en route to her new home in Kansas City, Missouri. She lived there for a short time in the household of her nephew, teacher Frederick William Schleicher, and later moved back to Brooklyn, New York. Weldon disappeared from public consciousness shortly thereafter. Weldon died in her modest apartment, alone and forgotten on March 15, 1921. Cause of death was third-degree burns to her face and body. She was buried in the Valentiny family plot in Green Wood Cemetery in New York.

Gravestone with wrong first name

Carolina Faesch's political commitment to the Sioux, coupled with her lived solidarity, is remarkable. From a historical as well as a feminist point of view, it is a clear desideratum to include Carolina Faesch in the list of important Swiss women. In fact, an entry in the "Historical Dictionary of Switzerland" is planned. In early 2023, a grave marker was finally placed for Caroline Weldon next to her parents' grave in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn; unfortunately, still with the wrong first name that appeared early in the secondary literature: "Catherine (Caroline) Weldon, 1844-1921, Native American Rights Advocate, Secretary to Lakota Chief Sitting Bull."


Susanna Carolina Feasch was born on December 4, 1844 in Kleinhüningen near Basel, the daughter of Johann Lucas Faesch (1799-1868) and Anna Maria Barbara Marti (1807-1887). The mother Anna Maria Barbara was also born in Basel, but originally came from Engi. Her father Johann Christof Marti (1775-1834) settled in Basel shortly before the turn of the century in 1800 and married Barbara Erni (ca. 1776-1849) who came from Weisslingen in Baselland. Johann Christof Marti's ancestors came from Engi and can be vouched for there far into the 16th century.


New article by Thomas Brunnschweiler appeared in German in the NZZ am Sonntag on May 28, 2023.


Thomas Bunnschweiler, Die Zwischengängerin - Das abenteuerliche Leben der Susanna Carolina Faesch, Münster Verlag, 2023 (German)

Alex Capus, Susanna, Carl Hanser Verlag, 2022 (German)

Eileen Pollack, Woman Walking Ahead - In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull, 2021

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