The intermittent war between the United States and the Plains Indians that stretched across some three decades after the Civil War came to an end on December 29, 1890, at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The events leading up to its final act — the Wounded Knee Massacre — had been building since the late 1880s, when the son of a Paiute shaman named Wovoka had first introduced a series of new beliefs and practices to the Indian reservations of the West.
Fundamentally peaceful, Wovoka’s movement envisioned the coming of a new world populated solely by Indians living on the Great Plains where buffalo were again plentiful. Generation upon generation of Indians slain in combat would be reborn into this new world, and all — the living and the formerly dead — would live in bliss, peace and plenty. U.S. Indian authorities claimed that in the hands of the defeated and embittered leaders of the Teton Sioux — men like Short Bull, Kicking Bear and eventually Sitting Bull himself — Wovoka’s peaceful religion had taken on the militant overtones of a millennial uprising. Wovoka had created a ceremony called the Ghost Dance to invoke the spirits of the dead and facilitate their resurrection. The Sioux apostles of the Ghost Dance purportedly preached that it would bring about a day of deliverance — a day when they were strong enough again to wage all-out war against the whites. They had fashioned ‘ghost shirts, which they claimed white bullets could not penetrate. In any case, Ghost Dancing had quickly become the rage of the Western reservations such as Pine Ridge and Rosebud.
Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy, an anxious Pine Ridge Reservation agent, Daniel F. Royer, telegraphed Washington in November 1890. We need protection and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined at some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.
The Indian Bureau in Washington quickly branded the Ghost Dancers fomenters of disturbances and ordered the Army to arrest them. On November 20, cavalry and infantry reinforcements arrived at the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, but their arrival did not intimidate the Sioux followers of Short Bull and Kicking Bear. Quite the contrary, it seemed to galvanize their resolve. A former Indian agent, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, advised Washington to call off the troops: I should let the dance continue. The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians. If the Seventh-Day Adventists prepare their ascension robes for the second coming of the savior, the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should the Indians not have the same privilege? If the troops remain, trouble is sure to come.
About 3,000 Indians had assembled on a plateau at the northwest corner of Pine Ridge in a nearly impregnable area that came to be called the Stronghold. Brigadier General John R. Brooke, commander of the Pine Ridge area, quickly dispatched emissaries to talk with the hostiles. Brooke’s commanding officer, hard-nosed Civil War veteran and Indian fighter Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, did not approve of such parleys. He saw in them evidence of indecision, and, furthermore, believed the Indians would interpret talk as a sign of weakness. Miles decided to prosecute the campaign against the Ghost Dancers personally and transferred his headquarters to Rapid City, S.D.
While Miles was preparing this move, Sitting Bull — the most influential of all Sioux leaders — began actively celebrating the Ghost Dance and its doctrine at the Standing Rock Reservation that straddled the North and South Dakota border. The agent in charge there, James McLaughlin, weighed his options. He did not want to repeat the hysterical mistake of his colleague at Pine Ridge by telegraphing for soldiers. He decided instead to use reservation policemen — Indians — to effect the quiet arrest and removal of the old chief.
Unfortunately, General Miles would not accept it. For Miles, the arrest of Sitting Bull would be a momentous act in a great drama. It should not be left to Indians, and it should not be done secretively; if anything, it called for showmanship. Miles contacted the greatest showman the West had ever known: William Buffalo Bill Cody. As everybody in the country probably knew — Buffalo Bill had seen to that himself — he and Sitting Bull were friends, or, at least, Sitting Bull held Cody in high regard. Sitting Bull, after all, had been a star attraction in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. If any white man could convince Sitting Bull to step down, it would be Buffalo Bill.
Agent McLaughlin was aghast at the notion of carting in the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody to carry out what should be done quietly and without publicity. He was convinced that Buffalo Bill’s presence would only inflame tempers and transform the proceedings into a circus or something worse. Accordingly, when Cody arrived at Standing Rock on November 27, McLaughlin saw to it that the celebrity was glad-handed and subtly shanghaied by the commanding officer of nearby Fort Yates, Lt. Col. William F. Drum. Drum entertained Cody all night at the officers’ club while McLaughlin worked feverishly behind Miles’ back to have the showman’s authority rescinded. It was a desperate plan, and McLaughlin had missed one crucial fact: The man capable of drinking Buffalo Bill Cody under the table had yet to be born. Come morning, Cody was bright eyed and ready to set out for Sitting Bull’s camp. McLaughlin hastily arranged for additional delays — just long enough for the arrival of orders canceling Cody’s mission. The old entertainer seethed but boarded the next train back to Chicago. He had not set eyes on Sitting Bull.
But the situation at Pine Ridge Reservation was heating up. Word reached McLaughlin that Short Bull and Kicking Bear had formally invited Sitting Bull to leave Standing Rock and join them and their people at the Stronghold on the reservation. The time had come to act. McLaughlin dispatched 43 reservation policemen on December 15 to arrest Sitting Bull before he set out for Pine Ridge. Officers surrounded the old chief’s cabin as Lieutenant Bull Head, Sergeant Red Tomahawk and Sergeant Shave Head entered it.
The chief awoke from slumber, and, seeing the men, asked, What do you want here?
You are my prisoner, said Bull Head. You must go to the agency.
Sitting Bull asked for a moment to put his clothes on. By the time the reservation police officers emerged with their prisoner, a crowd had gathered. A warrior named Catch-the-Bear called out, Let us protect our chief! and he leveled his rifle at Bull Head. He fired, hitting him in the side. The wounded policeman spun around with the force of the impact. His own weapon discharged, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally. A round hit Sitting Bull, point blank, in the chest. Then policeman Red Tomahawk stepped into the fray and shot Sitting Bull in the back of the head.
McLaughlin had hoped to avoid a circus. As the reservation police officers scuffled with Sitting Bull’s followers, the slain chief’s horse — which Buffalo Bill had presented to him back when he was part of the Wild West Show — was apparently stimulated by the familiar noise of a crowd, and performed his repertoire of circus tricks.
Miles had not intended that Sitting Bull be killed, but it had happened, and the general accepted it as he would any casualty in the fog of war. Just now he had yet another Ghost Dancer to arrest, and that’s where he focused his attention. Chief Big Foot was leader of the Miniconjou Sioux, who lived on the Cheyenne River. Unknown to Miles, Big Foot had recently renounced the Ghost Dance religion, convinced that it offered nothing more than desperation and futility. Miles was also unaware that Chief Red Cloud, a Pine Ridge leader friendly to white authorities, had asked Big Foot to visit the reservation and use his influence to persuade the Stronghold party to surrender. All Miles knew — or thought he knew — was that Big Foot was on his way to the Stronghold, and it was up to the Army to prevent him from joining Short Bull, Kicking Bear and the others. Miles dispatched troops across the prairies and badlands to intercept any and all Miniconjous, especially Big Foot.
On December 28, 1890, a squadron of the 7th Cavalry located the chief and about 350 Miniconjous camped near a stream called Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot was in his wagon, huddled against the bitter winter. He was feverish, sick with pneumonia. During the night of the 28th, additional soldiers moved into the area, so that by daybreak on the 29th, 500 soldiers, all under the command of Colonel James W. Forsyth, surrounded Big Foot’s camp. Four Hotchkiss guns, small cannons capable of rapid fire, were aimed at the camp from the hills around it. The mission was to disarm the Indians and march them to the railroad, where a waiting train would remove them from the zone of military operations.
As the Indians set up their tepees on the night of the 28th, they saw the Hotchkiss guns on the ridge above them. That evening I noticed that they were erecting cannons up [there], one of the Indians recalled, also hauling up quite a lot of ammunition. The guns were ominously trained on the Indian camp. A bugle call woke up the Indians the next morning. The sky was clear and very blue as the soldiers entered the camp. Surrounded by bluecoats on horses, the Indians were ordered to assemble front and center. The soldiers demanded their weapons. Outraged, medicine man Yellow Bird began dancing, urging his people to don their sacred shirts. The bullets will not hurt you, he told them. Next, Black Coyote, whom another Miniconjou called a crazy man, a young man of very bad influence and in fact a nobody, raised his Winchester above his head as the troopers approached him to collect it. He began shouting that he had paid much money for the rifle, that it belonged to him and that nobody was going to take it. The soldiers, annoyed, crowded in on him and then began spinning him around and generally roughing him up.
A shot rang out. Instantly, troopers began firing indiscriminately at the Indians. There were only about a hundred warriors, Black Elk reported. And there were nearly five hundred soldiers. The warriors rushed to where they had piled their guns and knives. Hand-to-hand fights broke out, and some of the Indians started to run. Then the Indians heard the awful roar of the Hotchkiss guns. Shells rained down, almost a round a second, mowing down men, women and children — each shell carrying a two-pound charge, each exploding into thousands of fragments. The smoke was thick as fog; the Indians were running blind. Louise Weasel Bear said, We tried to run, but they shot us like we were buffalo. Yellow Bird’s son, just 4 years old at the time, saw his father shot through the head: My father ran and fell down and the blood came out of his mouth. Those who fled the camp were chased down by soldiers. Rough Feathers’ wife remembered: I saw some of the other Indians running up the coulee so I ran with them, but the soldiers kept shooting at us and the bullets flew all around us. My father, my grandfather, my older brother and my younger brother were all killed. My son who was two years old was shot in the mouth that later caused his death. Black Elk added: Dead and wounded women and children and little babies were scattered all along there where they had been trying to run away. The soldiers had followed them along the gulch, as they ran, and murdered them in there. In one of the gulches, two little boys who had found guns were lying in ambush, and they had been killing soldiers all by themselves.
An hour later the guns stopped. The place was silent. Trails of blood trickled along the ground heading out of camp toward the gulches. Hundreds of Indians lay dead or dying on the frosted earth alongside a score of soldiers, hit mostly by the fire of their own Hotchkisses. Clouds filled the sky, and soon a heavy snow began to fall. Three days later, New Year’s Day 1891, after the blizzard had passed, a burial party was sent to pull the frozen Indians from beneath the blanket of snow and dump them in a long ditch, piled one upon another like so much cordwood, until the pit was full. Many of the corpses were naked because soldiers had stripped the ghost shirts from the dead to take home as souvenirs.
General Miles scrambled to distance himself from what public outrage there was over the massacre at Wounded Knee. He relieved Forsyth of command and convened a court of inquiry, which exonerated the colonel. Miles protested, but his immediate superior, General John M. Schofield, together with Secretary of War Redfield Proctor, eventually reinstated Forsyth’s command.
In the meantime, the massacre at Wounded Knee caused hostile and friendly Sioux factions to unite. Even though Chief Red Cloud protested and repudiated his people’s participation, on December 30, Sioux under Kicking Bear attacked the 7th Cavalry near the Pine Ridge Agency along White Clay Creek. At first it looked like it might be another Custer debacle, but black troopers of the 9th Cavalry rode to the rescue and drove off the Indians.
General Miles acted quickly to assemble a force of 8,000 troops, deploying them to surround the Sioux, who had returned to the Stronghold. This time Miles was careful, acting slowly and deliberately to contract the ring — almost gently — around the Indians. As he did this, he urged them to surrender, and he pledged good treatment. Whether anyone believed Miles or not, it had become clear that what the Ghost Dance foretold was a hope forlorn. The Sioux laid down their arms on January 15, 1891, bringing decades of war to an end. While lives were lost on both sides at White Clay Creek and in other skirmishes here and there, the massacre at Wounded Knee is generally considered to be the last major engagement of the Indian wars.
This article was written by Charles Phillips and originally published in the December 2005 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!