Although overshadowed by tribesman Dull Knife, this Northern Cheyenne leader brought his people home to Montana —and not even a controversial killing can detract from his legacy.
Just off Route 212 in Lame Deer, Montana, is an unpretentious cemetery surrounded by a wooden fence. Often the air is rich with the scent of sage and ripening buffalo grass. Almost unnoticed are two headstones with brass name plaques. One might find bundles of sweetgrass and other offerings beside the graves, placed there by Indian families. These are the final resting places of two American heroes who happen to be Northern Cheyennes—Ohcumgache or Ohkomhakit (“Little Wolf,” more accurately translated as “Little Coyote”), born circa 1820; and Vooheheve (“Morning Star”), better known as Tamilapesni (“Dull Knife”), born circa 1810. In 1917 ethnologist George Bird Grinnell had their remains brought to this place from burial sites in the mountains over the objections of Little Wolf ’s daughter Pretty Walker so that all passing that way might honor them.
Dull Knife has received more publicity through the years, especially for his desperate escape from Nebraska’s Fort Robinson in January 1879. But Little Wolf, the Sweet Medicine chief, who unlike Dull Knife survived into the 20th century and had to live for 24 years with the killing of a fellow tribesman, was at least as significant in the Cheyenne world and in the history of the Wild West. This is Little Wolf’s story.
In 1877, shortly after the surrender of the Northern Cheyenne bands that had participated in the Great Sioux War, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to punish these Ohmeseheso (true Northern Cheyennes), as they called themselves, by concentrating them with their southern kinsmen on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian Reservation at the Darlington Agency in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), under the protection of nearby Fort Reno. Originally the Cheyennes had been unified as the Tsitsistas (“the people”). By 1800 they had made their home near the Black Hills and the sacred mountain, Noahavose (Bear Butte), near present-day Sturgis, S.D., where, according to Cheyenne history, their prophet Sweet Medicine had instructed them and given to them the symbols of their two spiritual covenants—Maahotse (the sacred arrows), which kept the people prosperous and brought new people into the tribe; and Esevone or Issiwun (the sacred buffalo hat), which kept the people virtuous.
Around 1820 Cheyenne bands migrated south to the Arkansas River in present-day Colorado and Kansas, attracted by the continental horse trade. By 1833 they were trading hides and furs with whites at Bent’s Fort. Others remained up north, but the northern and southern bands often would gather for sacred ceremonies. With the capture of Maahotse by Pawnees in the 1830s and the subsequent desecration of Esevone by a disgruntled Cheyenne woman, the Cheyenne world began to fall apart. The southern people suffered the most during the 1860s in wars with the advancing white civilization on the central/southern plains. The Northern Cheyennes, in choosing to ally with the Lakotas, suffered the ravages of the Great Sioux War of 1876–77.
Shortly after their forced exile to the humid climate of Indian Territory, the northerners began to sicken. Malarial diseases and other infections unknown to them on Montana Territory’s high plains took a toll. Of the nearly 1,000 Northern Cheyennes registered at Darlington Agency, almost two-thirds became ill within two months of their arrival. Most lodges held at least one sick person. Forty-one died of disease during the winter of 1877–78.
Medical supplies did not arrive until the middle of winter, and beef ration allotments were insufficient to meet the needs of the increased population at the agency. By 1877 hide hunters had all but exterminated buffalo on the central and southern Plains. Hunger augmented disease that cold winter. By the spring of 1878 many Northern Cheyennes found their new lives in Indian Territory intolerable. Sick and dying, they formally requested to return to the lands they called home in Montana Territory, Dakota Territory and Nebraska.
Sometime around the Fourth of July, Little Wolf asked agent John D. Miles that he be allowed to take his people home. Miles and his superiors refused his plea. So during the late hours of September 9, 1878, a group of men, women and children, including the families of Little Wolf, Dull Knife and Wild Hog, slipped away from the hated Darlington Agency. Of the 353 Cheyennes who left the agency that day only about 60 or 70 were fighting men.
Immediately the Army marshaled the technological resources of a modern nation against them. The result was one of the most epic odysseys in American history as well as one of the most important episodes in Cheyenne memory. The 1,500-mile journey northward from Indian Territory in the fall and winter of 1878–79 brought the Cheyennes through Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota Territory and eventually Montana Territory. Only the more widely publicized exodus of Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce equaled the Cheyenne trek. But unlike Joseph’s 1877 flight through deep sheltering mountain wilderness in the Northwest, the Cheyennes traversed open plains and settled country in recently organized counties of Kansas. They had to cross the Santa Fe, Kansas Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, where converging troops and resources from two federal military departments quickly amassed against them. When troops finally did catch up with them, the Indians stopped and fought and suffered and then continued their march north.
After crossing the Platte River, the band separated. Little Wolf continued north toward Montana Territory, where troops under Lieutenant W.P. Clark halted his band near the mouth of the Powder River. Dull Knife’s group of about 150 headed for the site of the old Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska, not knowing that during their time spent on the southern reservation the Indians at Red Cloud had been relocated to the newer Pine Ridge Agency and the old agency grounds closed. Troops from Fort Robinson cut them off and captured them.
Dull Knife’s band has received far more attention in the literature on Plains Indians and the Indian wars. Dull Knife and his followers made a dramatic escape from Fort Robinson in the January 1879 snow and then made a determined effort to sell their lives or gain their freedom in the grim fighting above the Hat Creek breaks that culminated in a bloody last stand at Antelope Creek on January 22, 1879. For this reason earlier historians falsely anointed Dull Knife overall leader of the Northern Cheyennes throughout the entire northern odyssey. In fact, it was the younger Little Wolf who led the people north from Indian Territory. Were it not for Little Wolf’s leadership and determination, the Northern Cheyennes likely would never have realized their dream of remaining in their beloved Montana hills after 1879.
Little Wolf was about 58 at the time of the exodus north. He had a long record of fighting the Vehoe (“spiders”), the Cheyenne name for their white enemies. The renowned mixed-blood Lakota physician Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman) knew the Cheyenne leader well in his later years. In his memoirs, Eastman told of Little Wolf’s lifelong compassion, which gave him the qualities to become a chief. One of his stories related how Little Wolf, when only a small boy, was promised a piece of meat by his mother in return for good behavior. But it was meager times, and a dog ran off with the meat. When his mother went to punish the dog, Little Wolf intervened. “Don’t hurt him, mother!” the son cried. “He took the meat because he was hungrier than I am.” As a young warrior he saved the life of another man when his hunting party was caught in a blizzard. Little Wolf gave the man his buffalo robe while he “took the other’s thin blanket.”
Little Wolf rose to become a headman, or “little chief,” of the Elkhorn Scraper military society. About 1864 the Cheyenne Council of Forty-four chose Little Wolf one of the four Old Man chiefs of the tribe. Because of Little Wolf’s ability as an organizer and military tactician, the council at the same time elected him Sweet Medicine chief of all Cheyennes, bearer of the chiefs’ bundle, which contained the holy presence, the very incarnation of Sweet Medicine, the great Cheyenne prophet. As such Little Wolf was expected to be above anger and to think only of his people and not himself, as Sweet Medicine had taught the Cheyennes from the instructions of Ma’heo’o, the creator. Little Wolf now sat at the head of the Council of Forty-four in their deliberations, the seat of highest honor. “Only danger that threatens the people can anger me now,” Little Wolf pledged as he took the oath. “If a dog lifts his leg to my lodge, I will not see it.”
After the northern bands established themselves in the Powder and Tongue river country at the time of Red Cloud’s War (1866–68), Little Wolf’s people allied with the Lakotas in the struggle to resist white encroachment on their homelands east of the Bozeman Trail. Little Wolf led the Cheyennes into battle. He participated in the Fetterman Fight in 1866, losing his brother Big Nose in the engagement. Little Wolf and his warriors eventually burned Fort Phil Kearny following government abandonment of the post in 1868.
Little Wolf at first opposed the war with the whites that came in 1876. But in the spring he and a small band of followers moved to join their non-treaty Lakota brethren in Montana Territory. Although he did not participate in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, some accounts say that soldiers of the 7th U.S. Cavalry dispersed members of Little Wolf’s band on their way to Sitting Bull’s village on June 25, 1876. That encounter helped persuade Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer to attack the great village on the Greasy Grass River (Little Bighorn River) on the 25th, rather than strike at dawn on the 26th. Some Cheyennes criticized LittleWolf for not reaching the fighting in time. Lame White Man instead led the Elkhorn Scrapers in the battle and was killed in action. But Little Wolf resolved to never again let his people down. He, along with Dull Knife, was in the fugitive Cheyennes’ winter village in the Bighorn Mountains in November 1876 when Colonel Ranald Mackenzie’s troops attacked (see “Cheyenne Fall: The Battle of Red Fork” in the October 2011 Wild West). Although Little Wolf suffered multiple wounds and was believed dead by the soldiers, he directed the successful withdrawal of women and children from the besieged village.
By late summer 1878, following his people’s exile to Indian Territory in 1877, Little Wolf decided to escape the disease and hunger of Darlington. His words on September 9, 1878, to agent John Miles are widely quoted: “Now listen to what I say to you. I am going to leave here; I am going north to my own country.” During the late hours of the 9th, Little Wolf and Dull Knife left the agency with 92 men, 120 women, 69 boys and 72 girls. Half of them would perish by the following spring.
Although slowed down by the elderly and the young, Little Wolf ’s people made their way through two-thirds of western Kansas in less than three weeks after departing the hated reservation. The Cheyennes fought four pitched battles with the U.S. Army and armed civilians, engaging them from tactically advantageous fortified positions and repelling mostly dismounted troops skirmishing in textbook formations. Pursuing troops never took their camps by surprise. Indeed, the military engagements of the Cheyenne trek through Indian Territory and Kansas during September 1878 were anomalies in the record of soldier-Indian warfare on the Plains. The clashes were vastly divergent from the Army’s surprise offensive strikes against Indian villages from the 1850s through the 1870s, and the Cheyennes’ familiar style of individualized warfare seems to have given way to the collective protection of women and children, thanks to the disciplined leadership of Little Wolf, who organized lines of concentrated gunfire on the attacking troops.
In southwest Kansas that September the Cheyennes also inflicted a larger number of casualties on soldiers and civilians than the whites inflicted upon them. By early October military authorities nationwide justifiably began criticizing the largely fruitless operations against the mobile Cheyennes conducted by troops from the Department of the Missouri.
At the September 13 Battle of Turkey Springs, in Indian Territory, Little Wolf soundly whipped a larger command of the 4th U.S. Cavalry under Captain Joseph Rendlebrock from Fort Reno. Detecting Rendlebrock’s approach, Little Wolf doubled back on his line of flight to secure familiar defensible ground. Outnumbered, Little Wolf still controlled the field. He commanded the high ground and the water, cutting off the soldiers from that vital resource and eventually forcing the cavalrymen to abandon their position. He then got in their rear, harassed their line of retreat and inflicted an embarrassing defeat upon them in a running fight. At Turkey Springs the Cheyennes won not by superior numbers but through Little Wolf’s superior tactical leadership.
Less than a week later, on September 18, the warriors of Little Wolf and Dull Knife held off an element of the 4th Cavalry in a one-hour fight known as the Bluff Creek skirmish; one trooper was wounded, while the Cheyennes had no casualties. The parties clashed again September 21–22 at Sand Creek, and while neither side reported casualties, Rendlebrock enhanced his unenviable reputation as a master of retreat. The Army later court-martialed the captain and dismissed him from the service.
At the September 27 Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork, near Scott City, Kan., Little Wolf drew a larger force of cavalry under Colonel William H. Lewis into a small box canyon and finally defeated them in a fierce fight that resulted in Lewis’ death. Little Wolf directed his men from their defensive positions on the heights above the stream. “Little Wolf,” the warrior Tangle Hair recalled years later, “did not seem like a human being; he seemed like an animal—a bear. He seemed without fear.” But the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork also proved the Achilles’ heel of the Northern Cheyennes. During the battle Army scouts discovered a remuda of Indian ponies concealed in a side canyon and destroyed 85 of them, along with most of the Cheyennes’ food and provisions.
As the Indians continued their northward trek, they ran into the fringes of the advancing agricultural frontier in northwest Kansas. Desperate for fresh mounts and provisions to replace those lost at Punished Woman’s Fork, and determined to stay ahead of the pursuing troops, Cheyenne foragers, mostly young warriors, raided homesteads in Decatur and Rawlins counties. By the time the Indians had exited Kansas into Nebraska in early October, they had killed about 40 civilians. Although many of these settlers defended their property, and although Little Wolf and Dull Knife strongly condemned the killing of civilians by the young warriors, the Kansas raids temporarily turned public opinion in the East against the Northern Cheyennes. The press renewed its sympathy for the Cheyenne cause following the outbreak of Dull Knife’s contingent from Fort Robinson in January 1879. The Kansas raids may have prompted Little Wolf and Dull Knife to divide their people while in Nebraska, so that if one contingent befell disaster, the other might continue north. Although Dull Knife’s followers surrendered on Chadron Creek and later suffered the consequences at Fort Robinson, Little Wolf’s maneuvers during the winter months of 1878–79 are less known.
During that fall and winter Little Wolf and about 100 followers backtracked into the rugged Sand Hills of Neraska, remaining there until February, subsisting on wild game and stolen cattle. In late February, with a break in the weather, Little Wolf’s people headed northwest toward the Black Hills. When they left Nebraska, they entered the Military Department of Dakota. Despite newspaper reports that Little Wolf, like Chief Joseph the previous year, was headed for Canada, the Cheyenne chief probably never entertained serious thoughts of joining Sitting Bull and his Lakotas in the north. Given their line of march, Little Wolf and his followers were by late winter 1879 headed toward the Tongue River Cantonment on the Yellowstone River just west of Miles City, Montana Territory. There Little Wolf had scouted briefly for the Army.
And Two Moon’s Cheyennes still lived there. Undoubtedly, Little Wolf figured he could talk the government into allowing his people to stay if he and his warriors rejoined the Indian scouts. Little Wolf did not know the Army had upgraded the status of the Tongue River Cantonment on November 8, 1878, to Fort Keogh.
When word spread that Little Wolf’s people had broken out of the Sand Hills and were traveling northwest, the Department of Dakota mobilized. On February 22, 1879, Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry ordered Lieutenant William P. “Philo” Clark with elements of the 2nd Cavalry to intercept the Northern Cheyennes. Clark had organized a company of Indian scouts in 1877, and he knew and respected Little Wolf from the time they spent together at Fort Robinson before the removal south. The Cheyennes also respected Clark, whom they called “White Hat.”
Picking up a hot trail near O’Fallon’s Bluff, Clark and the 2nd Cavalry shadowed Little Wolf down the Yellowstone. By early March, Clark had brought in Lakota scouts as well as Cheyennes of Two Moon’s band still living at Fort Keogh to persuade Little Wolf to give up. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, Young Two Moon finally persuaded Little Wolf to surrender on the Yellowstone on March 25.
During the last of two meetings with Clark at his final camp on the Yellowstone, Little Wolf made his surrender speech to the lieutenant:
You are the only one who has offered to talk before fighting, and it looks as though the wind, which has made our hearts flutter for so long, would now go down. I am very glad we did not fight and that none of my people or yours have been killed. My young men are brave and would be glad to go with you to fight the [Sitting Bull] Sioux.
Of the 353 Northern Cheyennes who had started out from Darlington Agency the previous September, 114 (33 men, 43 women and 38 children) surrendered with Little Wolf. When Clark rode into the fort, the “troops were all out,” wrote one reporter, “the cannon thundered, the band played ‘Hail to the Chief ’ and men, women, and children crowded around him with their hearty congratulations.” Only 58 remained of Dull Knife’s band, and the Interior Department allowed most of them to go to Pine Ridge in Dakota Territory. But the Army returned 20 from Fort Robinson to Kansas, where seven would stand trial for murdering civilians. The Kansas courts acquitted all of them when the prosecution failed to provide witnesses.
Following Little Wolf’s surrender, the chief’s greatest ally became his captor, Lieutenant Clark. Kansas officials argued for Little Wolf’s extradition to stand trial for atrocities committed in their state, and others urged the Indians be returned to Darlington Agency as an object lesson, But Clark maintained the right of the Ohmeseheso to a home in the north. “They are weary with constant fighting and watching,” Clark asserted. “They want peace, rest and a home somewhere in this country where they were born and reared.”
The federal government heard Clark’s arguments only because he made them at an opportune time. By the spring of 1879, after eight months of pursuing the Indians 1,200 miles through three military departments, the Army was embarrassed and weary of the Cheyenne war. So was the Eastern public, some of whom barely a year before had cheered for Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce to escape into Canada. Terry, the departmental commander, endorsed Clark’s report and that of Clark’s commanding officer, Major George Gibson. Terry advised Washington: “I think that, for the present at least, these Cheyenne prisoners should be left at Fort Keogh. I have no doubt that we shall be able to make great use of them in case active hostilities with the Sioux should be renewed.”
The Army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs concurred, and shortly thereafter Little Wolf enlisted as a sergeant in Clark’s Indian scouts. They became good friends, and Little Wolf helped gather information for the lieutenant’s book on sign language. Shortly after the surrender a reporter wrote, “Little Wolf is happier at [Fort] Keogh than he has been in a long time.” Although Little Wolf knew the arrangement made with the whites that spring was only temporary, never again would his followers be pressured to return to Indian Territory. Public opinion was shifting once again in the Army, in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and, most important, in the estimation of Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz toward letting the Northern Cheyennes remain in their homelands.
Little Wolf ’s people stayed at Fort Keogh until 1884, when Congress approved a small reservation along the Tongue River and Rosebud Creek. From there the tribe endeavored to expand their lands and win approval for all Northern Cheyennes who wished to do so to come north. The survivors at Fort Robinson who did not wish to remain with the Lakotas at Pine Ridge soon joined the Tongue River band. By 1900 the newly renamed Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation had expanded and welcomed many more northerners from Indian Territory who had not made the trek in 1878.
But for many of the old Cheyenne families the new life on the reservation brought only alienation and despair. Tragedy and alcohol marred Little Wolf’s later life. In 1880 he became furious at fellow Cheyenne Starving Elk for showing improper attention to his daughter Pretty Walker and, in a drunken rage, shot and killed Starving Elk. For the next 24 years Little Wolf banished himself in the wilds along Rosebud Creek.
Little Wolf died in relative obscurity in 1904, coincidentally the same year as Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-latkekt) of the Nez Perce. White historians never accorded Little Wolf as much acclaim as Chief Joseph for the other great odyssey of Indian peoples in the 1870s. But Joseph died at Colville, Wash., not in his homeland of the Wallowa Valley. Little Wolf died in his beloved Tongue River country. Unlike Joseph, the Cheyenne chief had led his people directly both in council and battle against the whites during his long trek— and he had brought his people home.
For years into the 20th century, however, many Cheyennes, mostly the younger generations that did not remember the great odyssey of 1878–79, did not hold Little Wolf in high regard. The name of Dull Knife, whose band suffered so at Fort Robinson, ubiquitously found its way into the early literature of the Cheyenne journey home, while Little Wolf remained a shadowy figure due to his murder of Starving Elk. In Little Wolf’s later years the interest generated by only a few whites over his life sustained his reputation as an important chief. Much of the credit must be given to naturalist George Bird Grinnell. Little Wolf and Grinnell met often, smoked together and shared stories. Grinnell selected Little Wolf as a key source for his writings on the Cheyennes, and Grinnell, more than any contemporary, made Americans aware that Little Wolf, not Dull Knife, was the principal leader of the Northern Cheyennes on the trek north. Ultimately, Little Wolf is a tragic hero, the brilliant story of his leadership abilities juxtaposed against societal alienation, depression and murder.
In a letter to a friend in 1925 Grinnell paid Little Wolf an ultimate tribute: “I knew old Little Wolf almost intimately,” he wrote. “Toward the end of his life… I disregarded the tribal feeling about him and used to pass him my pipe to smoke. I consider him the greatest Indian I have ever known.”
John H.Monnett,who teaches Western and American Indian history at Metropolitan State University of Denver, wrote about the Fetterman Fight in the December 2010 Wild West. Suggested for further reading are his Tell Them We are Going Home:The Odyssey of the Northern Cheyennes; The Fighting Cheyennes, by George Bird Grinnell; and The Northern Cheyenne Exodus, by James N. Leiker and Ramon Powers.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.