Share This Article

Historians often cite mistakes and misunderstandings as the reason for the bloody clash that occurred on the morning of December 29, 1890, as soldiers disarmed a Sioux band on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Details vary as to what set off the mostly young and untrained bluecoats’ hail of bullets that cold morning. Some say a deaf Indian refused to turn over his gun because he could not hear the order to do so. Others say a young brave named Black Coyote did not want to surrender his brand new rifle, which went off during the ensuing struggle.

What happened next is clear. The 7th Cavalry’s four rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns and its 4-to-1 manpower advantage over the starving Sioux left no doubt as to the outcome. Within minutes the gunfire leveled some 150 (estimates range from 128 to 300-plus) Sioux men, women and children, some in their tepees, others gunned down up to two miles from their makeshift camp on Wounded Knee Creek. (The number of Indian warriors under Minneconjou Chief Big Foot appears in most accounts as 106 or 120.)

No matter who fired the first shot, the soldiers had the upper hand in numbers and weapons. Because of that, and because Big Foot (also known as Spotted Elk) was in bad health and not looking for a fight, the clash has most often been referred to as a massacre rather than a battle. Twenty-five soldiers died, and 37 were wounded, so some have argued it was not a one-sided affair. No matter what its label, it was a tragedy, undoubtedly one most of the participants did not want. Wounded Knee was also the last major fight between soldiers and Indians in the West.

Tensions had run high in the Dakotas during the fall of 1890. Certain Indian agents and white settlers felt threatened by the Ghost Dance, a religious movement that had blossomed at Pine Ridge and the other Sioux reservations. But there were additional sources of tension, including one overlooked by many historians—the American press. An examination of press coverage during the leadup to Wounded Knee reveals hysteria and calls for genocide by many South Dakota newspapers. Only a few showed any understanding of the Sioux position. One major out-of-state paper, The Chicago Daily Tribune, hearing about the Indians’ frustration with their treatment, ran a multi-deck headline on October 28, 1890, predicting a revenge attack:

To wipe out the whites
what the indians expect of the coming messiah
fears of an outbreak old sitting bull stirring up the excited redskins

Illustrated American correspondent Warren K. Moorhead, who was at the Pine Ridge Agency, condemned such hyperbole directed toward the Sioux. He later wrote, “There were a number of newspapermen in the little log hotel at Pine Ridge, and they sent many sensational accounts to the Eastern papers.” Could all that sensationalism have helped trigger the tragedy?

Of the 14 South Dakota news- papers published in 1890– 91 and available for research, only two publications wholly ignored the Indian situation at Wounded Knee in their news and editorial pages. The Dakota Farmers’ Leader, a Canton weekly published by A.E. Linn, did not mention Wounded Knee or any of its participants. Ironically, that paper’s long front-page motto read: “A Faithful LEADER in the Cause of Economy and Reform, the Defender of Truth and Justice, the Foe of Fraud and Corruption.” Conklins South Dakotan, pitched as “A Home Journal Devoted Editorially to Dakota Issues and Interests,” was a 16-page monthly from Watertown. Of three 1891 issues available, only the January edition made any mention of Indians. It reprinted a December 19 item from a Denver paper about a brief skirmish in the region.

Other papers criticized press coverage of the Sioux situation. On Christmas Day, the Marshall County Sentinel, published in Britton in the northeast corner of the state, cautioned readers with timely advice about the printed rumors concerning outbreaks between armed warriors and military troops:

The dispatches from the seat of war appearing in these columns are culled from the most reliable associated press and special telegrams. It is well known that all are not literally true, but a newspaper, in order to give the news of the day, must print those it deems most truthful and strive to cull out those dispatches that are merely sensational. The reader must also exercise his own judgment in accepting those for absolute truth which appear to be particularly sensational.

South Dakota’s Daily Huronite reprinted a bit of sarcasm on Pages 1 and 2 of its December 20 issue, five days after Indian police killed Sioux holy man Sitting Bull while trying to arrest him at his cabin on Standing Rock Reservation. One item reads: “An eastward paper questions the genuineness of the news of Sitting Bull’s death. Never mind the news. The death is genuine.” The second item reads:

“Give the bucks plenty to eat and take away their guns,” is the sensible advice given by the New York World. —Huron Herald Democrat If that is to be one of the planks in the democratic platform, explanation is needed as to why we should “give” the lusty Indian bucks “plenty to eat.”…Why not give the “bucks” plenty of chance to work or starve, and to be peaceable or get killed, just like white folks?

The third item in The Daily Huronite asks, “What shall we do with our Indians?” A Black Hills paper replies, “Ever try whiskey?”

Although the Huronite published jokes about making a “good” Indian, it did serve as a forum for the Indian point of view. On December 23 the paper ran verbatim on Page 1 a resolution introduced in the U.S. House to investigate Sitting Bull’s death. The next day, the paper challenged its readers: “What have the ‘hostiles’ done? It seems to be so far a white man’s war.” On December 26, the Huronite was even more explicit:

Haven’t the Indians good right in the Bad Lands? Are they off the reservation? Haven’t they a right to dance? Is there any law against their carrying guns? Haven’t they a right to look blue in these hard times? What is the whole United States army doing out in that section, anyway?

The Daily Huronite first made mention of the Wounded Knee fighting in a brief on Page 1 of its December 30 issue. Following a list of the dead and wounded soldiers was the unusually candid remark, “After the shooting began, Indians were shot down without discrimination.” While the Huronite’s approach to the Wounded Knee news story was hardly typical in South Dakota, its reporters were not alone in finding fault with the way soldiers handled things on December 29.

The Yankton Press and Dakotan published every evening except Sunday, was not quite as condemning of the military action, but it covered Wounded Knee as thoroughly as any paper in the state. Its December stories were rather sensational accounts of armed Indians seeking revenge. The paper reported Sitting Bull’s death and Chief Big Foot’s capture. Its December 30 top story was a long eyewitness account of the shootings. Part of it reads:

The correspondent says the Indians [at Wounded Knee] must have been mad to have attacked the number of soldiers who were gathered about them, there being only 120 bucks. The treacherous deed, coming at the time it did, was a surprise, and the [correspondent] doubts if any of the Indians will be left alive to tell the tale when the soldiers get through the day’s work.

Names of the dead and wounded soldiers followed, but the paper did not list Indian casualties. A related story on the same page related the “discovery” of Big Foot. If not for the serious nature of the saga, it would seem comical:

As they came forward, Big Foot extended his hand in token of peace. “I am sick. My people here want peace,” he said.

But Major [Samuel] Whiteside cut him short with: “I won’t, nor will I have any parlaying at all; it is either unconditional surrender or fight. What is your answer?”

“We surrender,” said the chief. “We would have done so before but we couldn’t find you and couldn’t find soldiers to surrender to.”

That newspaper’s coverage boosted tensions several days after the Wounded Knee confrontation. Two subheads for a January 2, 1891, front-page follow-up story read:


In truth, old Red Cloud, while once a formidable war leader, sought peace and never encouraged the Ghost Dance movement.

The Yankton Press and Dakotan published its first Wounded Knee editorial in the January 2, 1891, edition. Longer than average, it called for transfer of the Indians back East:

When the redskins are finally conquered, they will be disarmed as a matter of course, and judging from the past, a period of peace will follow; but it will take years to restore a feeling of security to the white settlers on the Nebraska and Dakota frontiers who have been alarmed by this outbreak, if the Indians are permitted to roam at will. One of the best things to do to secure a permanent peace and give the settlers a feeling of perfect security would be to remove the Indians from their reservation altogether. As far as practicable, select small reservations for them back in the older states, scattering them a few hundred at each place, breaking up their relations. In this way, the frontiers would be rendered secure, settlement would rapidly advance, and the terrors of pioneering would lose much of their actual danger….Remove them to the land of Penn and scatter them along the banks of the Ohio, where they will be convenient to those philanthropists who are anxious to lend them a helping hand.

The paper’s final coverage of the event comprised two front-page articles in the January 9 issue. One blamed the battle on missionaries and Indian protection societies. The other printed warnings about Indian reprisals, including William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s reported dire caution: “Buffalo Bill takes a gloomy view of the future and says…a big battle is almost sure to occur within a few days.” Although the Yankton Press and Dakotan certainly had done nothing to reduce tensions in South Dakota, another “big battle” did not follow.

The closest major city to Wounded Knee is Rapid City, South Dakota. In a December 16 front-page warning that trouble could soon break out on the reservation, The Rapid City Daily Journal boasted it had sent three reporters to the scene: “The party went well equipped and if called upon will no doubt render valuable services with gun as well as pen.” Two days after the lopsided December 29 fight, the Journal ran a lead editorial criticizing other publications that had doubted a serious confrontation might occur:

Many people and many papers have for a month past been ridiculing the belief that the Sioux meant to fight. It is noteworthy that those who have had the most experience with Indians have been anxious. They have not been inclined to believe fears of trouble groundless.

And for the first time during this major event, the paper expressed the Indian viewpoint. A Page 2 article on January 4, 1891, explained:

All the Indians in the hostile camp are well armed and mounted and claim that the soldiers took the arms away from Big Foot’s men and then massacred them, and they want them to come in and do the same with all the Indians in and around the agency.

Pierre, the state capital, published three newspapers that still are extant. The Pierre Daily Capital printed sensational accounts in mid-December, with such headlines as WAR BEACONS BLAZING and INDIAN SCARE NEWS. At the same time, it ran a December 17 front-page story on the innocence of the dreaded Ghost Dance, relating Army Chaplain Orville J. Nave’s speech back East, in which he said the dance was merely a religious ceremony, not a war dance.

The Daily Capital also covered Big Foot’s capture and the subsequent escape of some warriors. Headlined AT LAST A BATTLE, a December 31 article shared Wounded Knee details. The next day, a front-page headline declared PANIC REIGNS SUPREME:

Panic reigns supreme between here [Rapid City] and the camp of the government troops on Wounded Knee creek, the scene of Monday’s bloody battle with Big Foot’s treacherous band. Settlers are fleeing in all directions to escape the impending massacre, and the roads are crowded with terror-stricken women and children.

The Free Press Co. published both the Pierre Daily Free Press and the Pierre Weekly Free Press. The December 18 Weekly Free Press offered a matter-of-fact solution to the Indian problem:

The general impression among frontiersmen here seems to be that the best way to handle the difficulty now is for the government to insist on having the Indians obey orders, stay on their reservations and quit the ghost dances, and to kill as many as may be necessary in order to enforce discipline.

A December 19 editorial in the Daily Free Press concluded: “It is hoped that nothing serious will come of it, but if the troops are compelled to fight it would be better that every hostile is wiped out and thus teach the Indians that it is wisdom to steer clear of such things in the future.” Another Daily Free Press journalist in Pierre made a similar suggestion “to teach the savages a lesson which they won’t soon forget.” A December 23 editorial in the Daily predicted less action and fewer reporters with the onset of freezing weather:

When the mercury in the thermometer begins to settle down, there will be less heard from the seat of the Indian war, and the war correspondents sent out by the metropolitan sheets will wind up their reports in short order and go back. They can’t paint things rosy enough to warm up the atmosphere when Dakota winter weather gets on a frolic.

Once the fighting broke out, the Daily Free Press was late in giving details. On December 31, it noted: “At present writing no further news has been received from the battle. The presumption is that the small band of hostiles will be practically exterminated by the soldiers— who will be just as anxious now to make a good Indian as the ranchmen.”

A consolidation of the Argus the 1881), the Leader (founded in 1880) and Sioux Falls Argus- (established in Daily Leader covered Sitting Bull’s death and Big Foot’s flight. A December 26 editorial compared civil trouble in Ireland with the Sioux situation: “In the former case, the public sees a great deal of bad blood where it ought not to be, and in the latter, it sees little where some would doubtless have a salutary effect.”

The Argus-Leader ran battle coverage identical to dispatches printed in the Pierre Daily Capital. A December 31 story with a Rushville, Neb., dateline carried this startling subhead: THE MADDENED SOLDIERS SPARED NEITHER AGE NOR SEX. Near the end of the article was this sentence: “The soldiers of the 7th killed all the women and children in Big Foot’s band that they could get at.”

A lengthy editorial on January 5, 1891, explained the Argus-Leader was “not an Indian worshiper,” adding: “It recognizes the lazy, filthy, immoral and brutal habits of the Sioux. It believes that the rapid extinction of the Indians during the past century has been of great benefit to the American people, since it has removed an impediment to civilization….But it believes that justice is above all other ends, and particularly justice to the weak. A treaty should be sacred….It is a national disgrace that this is not true of the treaty between the U.S. and the Indians.”

One week later, another Argus-Leader editorial called for an end to the uprisings and took to task fellow publishers in South Dakota who had spewed hatred: “But the attitude of the press, particularly that of this state, is a much greater disgrace. The papers have been filled lately with bitter denunciations of the Indians, with bloodthirsty wishes for their massacre and with threats of confiscations and annihilation.”

A rather comical but telling portrayal of the scene prior to Wounded Knee appeared in the Aberdeen Daily News on December 28: “The news today indicated that the Indian troubles are about to be brought to a close….The whole body of braves, squaws and papooses… who have been enjoying several weeks’ outing at the famous terrace of wall camps in the Bad Lands killing and smoking beef, stealing horses and engaging in other healthful and exciting pastimes, are now en route to the hospitable agency at Pine Ridge.”

The weekly Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer printed a lengthy editorial after Sitting Bull’s December 15 death. Editor L. Frank Baum, who would later write The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, penned it:

The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies, inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull. With his fall, the nobility of the redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings and speak, in later ages of the glory, of these grand kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroise.

We cannot honestly regret their extermination, but we at least do justice to the manly characteristics possessed, according to their lights and education, by the early redskins of America.

Following the Wounded Knee clash, another Baum editorial dated January 3, 1891, included this call for action:

The PIONEER has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands.

Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.

Although extreme in his view, the man who would conjure up Oz by the end of the century hardly stood alone in the less-than-noble, one-sided word fight against the natives of the West.

Coverage of Indian defiance began in the Mitchell Daily Republican as early as December 18. The paper, published far from the scene, ran several front-page stories about the battle but printed no editorials.

The Marshall County Sentinel predicted trouble with its December 11 headline: WAR IS CERTAIN. It covered the battle, reprinting reports and telegrams sent from the state to Washington, D.C.

The Union County Courier bore the motto “Independent in All Things— Neutral in Nothing.” It lived up to that billing in its December 24 issue:

Red Cloud writes to Dr. Bland of the Indian Defense Association, making complaints against the government that the Indians are not receiving half rations, and that large numbers of the Indians are actually starving. If the government has contracted to feed these red whelps, it ought to give them enough to eat and not starve them, although they do not deserve a better fate.

The December 31 issue had no battle coverage. In its next issue, January 6, 1891, the Courier heralded its subjective slant on the news with the headline:


Watertown’s Public Opinion offered this December 19 editorial from editor L.D. Lyon: “Sitting Bull is now a good Indian and has gone to join the ghost dancers on the happy hunting grounds. He died several years too late.” Following the battle, the front page editorialized on January 2: “News from the Indian trouble causes a mingled feeling of joy and sadness—joy because 300 of the treacherous devils have been made to bite the dust; and sadness to think that so many brave soldiers were compelled to sacrifice their lives in the fight, lives more precious than the whole pack of copper-colored bucks who have gone on the warpath.”

The Brookings Register, near the Minnesota border, usually repeated stories appearing elsewhere. On December 26, the Register spread rumors of war. On January 2, under the headline MORE GOOD INDIANS, the paper made brief mention of the fighting.

Catherine Weldon, a friend of Sitting Bull, made the following observation regarding newspaper coverage of the Indian situation prior to Wounded Knee: “All papers print the most dangerous lies, and I blame [Standing Rock agent] Major [James] McLaughlin for allowing it. If he had not started these stories, they would not have been published, although he positively knows they are untrue.”

The unfounded rumors in South Dakota papers found credence among readers, who clamored for military protection. Warnings to readers by a few editors came too late; the rumors took on a life of their own. The December 17 Chicago Daily Tribune reported on a chiding it overheard Adjutant General John C. Kelton giving reporters: “We will get those bucks into a corral pretty soon, and then I guess the Indian war you newspaper men are waging will be over.”

Dr. Charles Eastman, an Indian doctor who tended to wounded Sioux after the fight, criticized the media in his memoir: “The press seized upon the opportunity to enlarge the strained situation and predict an ‘Indian uprising.’ The reporters were among us and managed to secure much ‘news’ that no one else ever heard of.”

Left unreported in state newspapers was the fact Indians had neither killed any noncombatants nor committed any depredations off the reservation in the months leading up to the winter battle. Nor had cavalry troops and the Sioux clashed prior to the massacre. Except for the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, South Dakota papers instead wrote or reprinted sensational stories, headlines and editorials to condemn the Indians and clamor for military action. Citizens statewide believed the printed rumors and sent anxious pleas for unwarranted Army protection. An overwhelming majority of editorial stances clamored for the making of “good” Indians—that is, good and dead.

Could all that sensationalism in print have helped trigger the tragedy? The archived facts certainly point in that direction. Unscrupulous journalists often want to make news rather than merely report it. Such seemed to be the case in December 1890. South Dakota journalists may not have fired guns at Wounded Knee—just words—but some of them could be charged with inciting that bloody showdown with the Sioux.

this article first appeared in wild west magazine

Wild West magazine on Facebook  Wild West magazine on Twitter