Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

Gathering up the dead at the Battle of Wounded Knee, S. D., 1890

View larger


On December 29, 1890, on Wounded Knee Creek in southwestern South Dakota, a tangle of events resulted in the deaths of more than 250, and possibly as many as 300, Native Americans. These people were guilty of no crime and were not engaged in combat. A substantial number were women and children. Most of the victims were members of the Miniconjou band of the Lakota Sioux who had been intercepted by military forces after they fled their reservation in South Dakota for refuge in the Badlands.

The story begins in October 1890, when Daniel F. Royer arrived at Pine Ridge Agency, home of the Oglala Lakotas, to assume responsibility as agent. His selection as agent could not have been worse: he knew nothing about Native Americans and was irrationally fearful of them, and from the time of his arrival the dispatches he sent back to Washington were peppered with warnings of an outbreak similar to the one in Minnesota in 1862 in which hundreds of settlers were killed by Santee Sioux. Royer's appointment was also ill timed. In 1890 drought replaced the bountiful rainfall of the 1880s, resulting in crop failures and economic depression. On their reservations, Native Americans were forced into dependence on the federal government for food and clothing. When Royer took over as agent, there was widespread anxiety among the Oglalas regarding the adequacy of government provisions.

A year earlier, the Ghost Dance had appeared on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Born from the vision of a Paiute named Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson), the Ghost Dance blended the messianic account of Christianity with traditional Native beliefs. This new religion told of the return of the Messiah to relieve the suffering of Native Americans and promised that if they would live righteous lives and perform the Ghost Dance in the prescribed manner, the European American invaders would vanish, the bison would return, and the living and the dead would be reunited in an Edenic world. But in Royer's paranoid mind the Ghost Dance was a war dance that threatened imminent bloodshed. His dispatches to Washington urged that troops be sent to protect citizens from war.

In mid-November 1890 President Benjamin Harrison responded to the fears of an Indian outbreak by ordering troops into the area. Regular troops were sent from Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and on November 18, 1890, the Second Nebraska Infantry left Fort Omaha in two special trains. On the train was also a cadre of newspaper reporters. From that point on, the crisis at Pine Ridge was a significant news item in newspapers across the country and around the world.

The trains unloaded their travelers at Rushville, Nebraska, on November 20, 1890, and from there the troops and reporters made their way to Pine Ridge Agency, where they all soon discovered that there was no crisis to be found. Soon a regular fare of rumors and lies began to appear in the national press, fed by merchants who wanted to keep the reporters, and their expense accounts, engaged in the economically strained communities south of the Pine Ridge Reservation. These fantastic stories fed a growing national anxiety about impending war. They also appeared on the reservations, where Lakotas who had been educated in the nation's Indian schools read the reports of troop activities and the rumors of outbreak to other members of their community. In this manner, the press became an important factor in stoking the anxiety both on and off the reservation.

By mid-December 1890 the combination of news reports, governmental reports (particularly those of the panic-stricken Royer), and Ghost Dancing had every nerve in the region on edge. The Lakotas polarized into political camps commonly referred to in the press as "hostiles" and "friendlies," a distinction between those who were opposed and those who were reconciled to reservation life. The Ghost Dancers were generally assigned to the "hostiles" camp. On December 15, 1890, the Hunkpapa holy man and Ghost Dance leader, Sitting Bull, was killed at Standing Rock Agency. Sitting Bull's death was seen by many as the fate that awaited all who failed to accept reservation life. To the south, at Cheyenne River Agency, the Miniconjou Lakotas grew nervous. Their leader, Big Foot, was also engaged in the Ghost Dance, and though not considered a major threat, he was under close observation by the military. In an attempt to quiet the Miniconjous, the military asked a local squatter named John Dunn to persuade them to acquiesce to the military's wishes that they stay in their own village on the reservation. Dunn's tactics are inexplicable: he is reported to have told the Miniconjous that the military planned to take their men prisoner and deport them to an island in the Atlantic Ocean. He apparently advised them to take sanctuary on Pine Ridge Reservation.

On December 23, the Miniconjous left their village in the dead of night and fled south toward the Badlands. Big Foot soon contracted pneumonia, which slowed the escape. Nonetheless, the tribe managed to avoid the military pursuit for five days. But on December 28, the Seventh Cavalry intercepted the ailing Big Foot and his people and ordered them into confinement on Wounded Knee Creek. On the morning of December 29, Col. James W. Forsyth convened a council with the Miniconjous. He demanded that they surrender all their firearms and told them that they would be relocated to a new camp. The order to a new camp was interpreted by the Miniconjous as exile, probably to Indian Territory, a prospect that they found intolerable.

While these discussions proceeded in the Lakota camp, a number of Indians began singing Ghost Dance songs, with some rising to throw handfuls of dirt in the air. The troops who surrounded them perceived the singing and dirt throwing as signals to attack, and at this tense moment the fuse was lit. A man named Black Coyote (sometimes called Black Fox) refused to surrender his rifle to a soldier. The two began wrestling over the gun, and in the struggle it discharged. Immediately the nervous troops began firing, while the Miniconjous retrieved their weapons and returned fire. The military's rifle fire was complemented with cannon rounds from Hotchkiss guns, whose accuracy and exploding shells were formidable. The outnumbered and outgunned Lakotas fled, and for several hours intermittent gunfire continued, with the military in pursuit. Bodies were found as far away as three miles from the camp. Firing ceased, and by midafternoon the troops had gathered up their dead and wounded, as well as Lakota wounded, and returned to Pine Ridge Agency. The fear of a reprisal attack kept troops and civilians entrenched at the agency until January 3, 1891, when a military-escorted civilian burial party proceeded to the site of the massacre. There they buried 146 Lakotas in a single mass grave. Other dead were accounted for later, bringing the total to more than 250 Lakotas; the Seventh Cavalry lost twenty-five men.

Photographers accompanied the burial detail and made a total of sixteen photographs. A snowstorm that occurred shortly after the massacre added a cold and grim edge to the scene of carnage. The photographs sold well and, together with news stories, carried the story of the massacre at Wounded Knee worldwide. Soon the event developed a meaning that transcended the reality of the tragic loss of life, and Wounded Knee became, and remains, the symbol of the inhumanity of U.S. government policy toward Native Americans.

See also NATIVE AMERICANS: Sitting Bull / RELIGION: Ghost Dance.

John E. Carter Nebraska State Historical Society

Jensen, Richard E., R. Eli Paul, and John E. Carter. Eyewitness at Wounded Knee. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Mooney, James. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1896.

Utley, Robert. The Last Days of the Sioux Nation. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1963.

Previous: World War II | Contents | Next:

XML: egp.war.056.xml