|Photo taken shortly after the massacre/battle, showing defeated Sioux chiefs guarded by a cavalry soldier.
Links to prior posts in this series:
What happened on the snow-crusted plain near Wounded Knee Creek at day-break, December 29, 1890, has been described variously as a battle, a massacre, or a one-sided rout. In truth, both sides fired gunshots and took casualties — but it was hardly even.
Numbers tell the story. Of the 500 US cavalry engaged that day, 23 died in the encounter, dozens were wounded, and twenty received the Army’s Medal of Honor (more than the number given to all the South Dakotans who served in World War II). Of some 350 Sioux Indians, over 150 were killed, including 44 women and 18 children, and another 50 were wounded. Some estimates put the Indian deaths closer to 200. For the next century, arguments would rage over why it happened at all.
Why the Fight
Some basic facts are clear. The day before, soldiers of the US Seventh Cavalry under Major Samuel M. Whitside, a veteran officer who had served in the Civil War, were patrolling the Dakota Badlands area and came across a large band of Sioux under a chief named Spotted Elk. (also known as “Big Foot”). The army had issued orders that all nomadic Indians must be brought to the nearby Pine Ridge reservation, and Major Whitside, following these orders, decided to escort the Indians in that direction. They camped along the way by Wounded Knee Creek.
|Artist Frederick Remington captures opening gunfire at Wounded Knee.
But rather than disarm the Indians immediately, which could start a fight, Whitside had decided to wait for reinforements, which came later that night with a heavily armed column under Colonel James W. Forsyth, another veteran officer with both Indian and Civil War experience. Forsyth’s and Whitside’s combined force now totalled some 500 men, and included four Hotchkiss guns (similar to Gattling machine guns) that they mounted around the Indian encampment.
At this point, in late 1890, feelings against Indians in America had boiled over. General Philip Sheridan, famous for his quip “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” served as Lieutanant General of the Army. The public still fumed over the killing of General Custer and his soldiers at the Little Bighorn in 1876. The original reservation granted the Sioux under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie had been sharply cut to barely a quarter its original size, stripped of the Black Huills and other choice land. In 1879, when General George Crook — a well known Indian fighter — negotiated a surrender of Apaches in the southwest, Washington immediately dismissed him from his command for being too lenient.
Nowhere did anger against the Sioux over Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn still linger more strongly than among the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old command, that lost almost 300 dead that day.
And so on the morning of December 29, 1890, at daybreak, Colonel Forsyth ordered his Seventh Cavalry troops to gather the Indians in their camp, separating men from women, and demand they surrender their guns. Both sides seemed itching for a fight. By one account, a Sioux medicine men named Yellow Bird began to perform the Ghost Dance — a mystical ritual that many Sioux believed made them bulletproof. Forsyth demanded he step, but the medicine man refused.
Then another Indian named Black Cayote, known to be deaf, apparently failed to hear the order to disarm. When soldiers approached him, he grew agitated and pulled out his rifle. Two soldiers grabbed him from behind. In the struggle, his gun went off. At that moment, dust flew in the air — parhaps part of the Ghost Dance — and a handful of Sioux pulled rifles they had concealed inside blankets. They began firing at the soldiers. [Click here for a detailed account by Colonel Forsyth’s Indian interpreter that day: ]
|A photo of Indian survivors after the Wounded Knee massacre.
Once it started, the soldiers immediately raised weapons and returned fire full force at close range. Dozens of Indian men fell in the first volleys, including Chief Spotted Elk. The Indian gunfire quickly ceased, but the soldiers kept shooting (and many soldiers ended up falling to friendly fire). The Sioux women and children, originally separated from the men, ran from the camp toward some nearby ravines for safety. In the confusion and excitement, several cavalry soldiers jumped on horses, chased them down and shot them. The Hodgkiss machine guns joined the melee by raining bullets into the Indian tents.
The whole affair ended in barely a few minutes. The chasing and killing of those who ran off to nearby ravines, mostly women and children, lasted perhaps another hour. When it was over, the land was covered with bodies. Four Sioux infants were discovered still alive in the arms of dying or dead mothers.
Back east, in cities like New York and Philadelphia, newspapers quickly told the story about a great battle in the Dakotas. Public sentiment stood solidly behind the soldiers, reflecting both support for US troops in the field and continuing bitterness at hostile Indians threatening settlers.
The only apparent strong objection at the time — outside the Indians themselves — came from within the Army. General Nelson Miles, another longtime Indian fighter and Civil War veteran who’d won the Medal of Honor for his role in the 1863 Battle at Chancellorville, had recently been named Major General and senior officer for the Dakota Territory. Miles loudly complained that Forsyth had allowed his soldiers at Wounded Knee to break discipline and commit an unneeded massacre. He relieved Forsyth of his command and convened an Army Court of Inquiry into the matter.
Americans at that point, howver, were in no mood to second-guess the soldiers. The Court of Inquiry criticized Forsyth, but it exonerated him of any wrongdoing. The Secretary of War — at that point a former Pennsylavania congressman named Alexander Ramsey — ultimately bent to public demands and reinstated Forsyth to his command, promoting him to Major General.
|Map showing carveup of the original 1868 Sioux
reservation by later treaties.
The December 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee (along with a fight the next day at nearby Drexel Mission) marked the last major encounter of the great Plains Indians Wars of the 1800s. The Sioux give up any organized resistance and, for the next 83 years, would stay on their reservations. Later treaties would strip away more lands as poverty and social conditions continued to deteriorate. It would take decedes for the US government to grant the Sioux basic elements of citizenship, decades more for basic constitutional civil liberties, and still more for the right to vote in elections.
Large sums of money promised to the tribe members under treaties vanished in the bureaucracy of the US Bureau of Indian Afffairs and inefficient or corrupt local leaders.
Americans would tend to forget about the Sioux and other Indians after the 1890s — at least the real life ones — except as colorful villains in western movies, novels, and TV shows.
Until the next major act of the drama — the Wounded Knee uprising of 1973.