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The natives called him ‘Young Man Afraid of Indians’

In late November 1890, Daniel F. Royer, Indian agent at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, received a letter that precipitated the Wounded Knee Massacre and destroyed his own attempt to save the Sioux from what other whites hoped would be extermination. Lakota Chief Little Wound wrote the letter through John M. Sweeney, the teacher at No. 8 Day School:

Little Wound understands the soldiers are coming on the reservation. What are they coming for? We have done nothing. Our dance is a religious dance, so we are going to dance until spring; if we find then that Christ does not appear, we will stop, but not in the meantime, troops or no troops. We shall start a dance on this creek [Medicine Root, 50 miles north of Pine Ridge] in the morning.

I also understood that I was not to be recognized as a chief any longer. All that I have to say is that [neither] you nor the white people made me chief, and you cannot throw me away as you please; but let me tell you, Dr. Royer, that by them [my people] I will be recognized as long as I live.

I have also been told that you intended to stop our rations and annuities.Well, for my part, I don’t care. The little rations we get do not amount to anything, but, Dr. Royer, if such is the case, please send me word so that me and my people will be saved the trouble of going to the agency.

Sweeney, the teacher, appended his own description:

Dr. Royer, Little Wound and a number of people from Yellow Bear Camp have commenced dancing on this creek this morning, November 20, and if I am allowed to express my opinion, I think that he will continue to dance until he is stopped by force. He is a very obstinate man…of ungovernable temper, and he is carried away with the dance craze, seeming to believe firmly the absurd doctrines which are preached at these dances.… The dancers are those that did not sign the Indian bill [to cede part of the Great Sioux Reservation], and in fact they seem to be always in some trouble. They are continually finding fault with the agent, the government and everything pertaining to civilization, and I think that this has become more noticeable since the Sioux Commission successfully accomplished their object in passing the Sioux bill.

It is a positive fact that the Indian dancers are well armed and have plenty of ammunition, and my opinion is that they have been preparing for trouble some time. Indians whom I have talked to have told me that they would all fight if it became necessary, and they seemed to think that the Great Spirit will assist them so that they can easily overcome the whites.

Royer himself had requested troops in no uncertain terms in a November 18 telegram to the commissioner of Indian Affairs: “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. I have fully informed you that employees and government property at this agency have no protection and are at the mercy of these dancers. Why delay by further investigation? We need protection, and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined in some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.” Sweeney’s letter did nothing to restore Royer’s calm and kept the agent agitating for government protection. Within a week, half the U.S. Army was converging on the Sioux reservations.

Royer had been a newspaper publisher in the Dakotas when the following editorial had appeared earlier in 1890:

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.

The author of the editorial, however, was not Daniel F. Royer but newspaperman L. Frank Baum, who later wrote The Wizard of Oz. While Baum was thumping for extermination (see related feature, P. 28), Royer was serving as a founding member and head trustee of the Methodist Episcopal church in Alpena, Dakota Territory, where Sunday school was taught by Dr. Charles Eastman—three-quarters Santee Sioux and, like Royer, an advocate of Indian survival through cultural exchange. Royer didn’t become the instigator of Wounded Knee because he lacked compassion or because he personally hated Indians. His failure stemmed from fear and a lack of insight. The half-starved but truculent Sioux prompted Royer’s panic by nonviolent defiance he took to be threatening. The Sioux may have been asserting their manhood or teasing him by calling him “Young Man Afraid of Indians.”

Born in 1851 in the Cumberland Valley town of Waynesboro, Pa., Royer was 39 during the lead-up to Wounded Knee— hardly a “young man.” He had graduated from Carlisle College, earned certification as a teacher at the State Normal School and then studied medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Royer was also a trained pharmacist, but success eluded him. When he moved to Dakota Territory in 1884, he worked as a pension examiner and served two terms in the Dakota Territorial Legislature just before statehood was declared in 1889.

The 1888 presidential election brought him what ultimately proved a poisonous political plum. The Republicans backing Benjamin Harrison defeated the Democrats backing Grover Cleveland, and Indian Affairs took a turn for the worse. Cleveland had rebuffed the first attempt to parcel out the Great Sioux Reservation into allotments and open the extra land to settlers, as the number of Indian signatories was insufficient. Harrison had no such scruples. And Daniel F. Royer, failed physician, pharmacist, teacher and editor, became Indian agent at Pine Ridge by dint of federal patronage.

When Royer arrived at the reservation in October 1890, he tried to stop Buffalo Bill Cody from recruiting Lakotas for his Wild West, because he wanted the warriors to learn new ways. Royer also tried to have his Indian Police stop the Ghost Dancing. They failed. At one point, Royer brought his nephew, a farm boy named Lewis McIlvaine, from Huron, S.D., to teach baseball to the Indians. McIlvaine reported that by this time his uncle was terrified of Indians, kept a loaded rifle in his buckboard and once pointed it at a Lakota man he had ordered to stop dancing. The old warrior tore open his shirt to reveal a chest harrowed by the scars from the Sun Dance. Royer backed down. Later he panicked and fired at some dry weeds blowing over the roadway. His nephew left the reservation. Royer essentially barricaded himself in his office—and kept sending telegrams.

Royer’s telegrams were the catalyst that brought the troops, but agent James McLaughlin at Standing Rock—a bolder man than Royer—actually lit the fuse when he ordered his Indian Police to arrest his personal bugbear, Sitting Bull, who was not a Ghost Dance leader. Sitting Bull was killed when a gunfight broke out between his followers and the police. Then Big Foot’s band fled.When soldiers closed in and tried to disarm his warriors at Wounded Knee Creek, a bigger gunfight and slaughter followed.

Royer’s timidity made him the culprit of Wounded Knee in the eyes of the Army, which issued 25 Medals of Honor for a “battle” in which friendly fire struck perhaps half the troops and innocents were slain. The blame stuck. Later historians labeled him “tremendously incompetent” and “contemptible,” but Robert Utley probably found the right adjective: “mediocre.” For Royer himself was the victim rather than the villain of a plum system that handed incapable people precarious jobs after they had failed at everything else. He had no business meddling in Indian Affairs.

The panic that led to the tragedy at Wounded Knee slowly destroyed Royer as well. He moved to Los Angeles in 1896 and acquired real estate that kept him afloat financially, married a widow and raised a daughter of his own and two stepdaughters, but he ultimately succumbed to alcoholism and narcotics abuse. Perhaps he was haunted by what his own cowardice had helped cause and by what reform-minded writer Helen Hunt Jackson termed “A Century of Dishonor.” Before he died in the 1920s, Dr. Royer had lost both his physician’s license and his pharmacist’s certificate. He may have been the last casualty of the “battle” of Wounded Knee.


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here