The Unwanted Female Reporter at Wounded Knee | HistoryNet

The Unwanted Female Reporter at Wounded Knee

By Nancy Peterson
10/5/2017 • Wild West Magazine

In South Dakota to report on the aftermath of the December 1890 battle, Teresa Dean met hostility—not from the Sioux but from male correspondents.

Reporter Teresa Howard Dean dismounted and joined U.S. Army Captain Frank Baldwin, an interpreter and a few Sioux scouts where they stood looking down a ridge a few miles from the Wounded Knee battleground. The detail had ridden all through the cold January morning since leaving the beleaguered town of Pine Ridge, on the Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, ridden in search of the bodies they now saw crumpled in the snow below. One was a woman. Three were children.

The battle had raged briefly nearly three weeks prior, erupting when the Army attempted to disarm Chief Big Foot’s surrendering band of Sioux. But these four had reportedly been shot sometime subsequent to that fight. Who had decided to add to the Indian death toll of some 150? Could it have been a rage-filled trooper? A Cheyenne hostile to the Sioux? Probably no one would ever know.

Dean did not think it mattered to the Sioux policeman who led them down the drifted slope. Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles’ men had told Dean the man’s name was Red Hawk, and he was looking for his family. The reporter watched closely as the man knelt and gently turned over the bodies. One by one he brushed the snow from four faces. The woman was his sister, the children his nieces and nephew.

Moved, Dean pondered the dreary, snow-covered scene, the 50 blue-coated troops lining the ridge, the Sioux scouts and policemen standing near her in sorrow. Were any of the troopers better, truer men than these Indians on the reservation, she wondered?

As Dean passed Red Hawk, she said, “I am sorry.”

The policeman looked at her with an expression “that was unmistakable agony,” Dean later wrote, “and his lips quivered. For the first time I realized that the soul of a Sioux might possibly in its primitive state have started out on the same road as the soul of a white man.”

Three weeks earlier such a thought would never have entered Dean’s mind. The writer and recently divorced mother of one had never given much thought to the “Indian problem,” which had vaulted into the headlines after the December 29, 1890, fight at Wounded Knee. Her interests were her new book on beauty advice and her entertaining, bylined editorial page column, “Snap Shots,” which had debuted only the previous August.

She was in her mid-30s, with only 15 months’ experience as a reporter, and she had been astounded when Chicago Herald editor Jimmy Scot asked if she had the nerve to go west and “tell what you think about the Indians.” She was on the next train out of Chicago. The date was January 12, 1891, and she was headed for the epicenter of the conflict at Pine Ridge via the small western Nebraska town of Rushville.

Back at her desk in Chicago, whenever reports of something called the Ghost Dance had surfaced, Dean had berated the Indians for their seeming lack of initiative. Were they not so indolent, she had written, as to be taking advantage of what civilization had bestowed on them? Once Dean’s train clanked into still-panicky Rushville, and she began interviewing residents, their answers did nothing to change her opinion. The locals, by now used to fielding questions from the 20-some reporters who had funneled through to Pine Ridge since the rumored outbreak in November, were quick to answer her queries. To them the Sioux, the same people Eastern newspapers described as noble and abused, were the only people a rattlesnake would not bite for fear of contamination, “beggars most supreme,” whose noble pride did not keep them from taking what they were not given.

But the storied Ghost Dance, Dean inferred from descriptions, was “a very tame affair.” She marveled that all of this trouble and bloodshed stemmed from a ceremony in which the Indians worshipped their messiah with prayers, religious chants and visions—not much different from a Chicago revival meeting. And she ignored the warning from a fellow Herald reporter, already in Pine Ridge, that it was too dangerous for her to come farther.

Next morning the attractive, stylishly dressed blonde had no trouble talking her way onto a mule-driven Army transport to cover the remaining 28 miles to the village of Pine Ridge. Her driver, she wrote, kept her entertained with horror stories about the Indians, but she did note that the land “civilization” had bestowed on the “indolent” Indians was barren beyond imagining. Even in January it was obvious to her this was not good farmland.

The transport passed a camp Dean estimated to hold 1,000 tepees, and she thought them picturesque, colored by cooking-fire smoke, unaware the flimsy fabric coverings were a poor substitute for the thick, warm buffalo hides of the past. Farther on a score of unpainted agency buildings, a church, a mission and a 21⁄2-story school fenced off by barbed wire spread around a flat, wind-scoured plaza. Nearby, dozens of square white tents evinced the military’s presence.

When the transport dropped Dean at what she termed the “Chicago Herald shack,” she received a warm greeting from showman William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his general manager, Major John Burke. Cody’s Wild West employed a number of Sioux, and the Army thought their association might be helpful. Then, in quick succession, she met three quite different men: Turning Bear, Rocky Bear and Crow Dog, leaders of the hostile Sioux. Miles had summoned them to his headquarters for a council, and the media savvy Indians were giving the press their side of the story. She was both repelled and impressed at their totally hairless faces and elaborate war paint.

Dean listened carefully as a Captain Robinson explained to the trio that the troopers loved Indian children and had killed and wounded them only in the confusion of battle, as the soldiers could not distinguish the blanket-wrapped Sioux figures. Dean could discern no reaction in the Indian faces.

The interview completed, the dozenplus male reporters turned on their new colleague. They had never imagined finding a female in their midst. What was her editor thinking? Where would she stay? How would she care for herself?

Dean’s editor had given her a small pistol for protection, and now she reached to pull it from her handbag. Her hand came up empty. She had left the gun in her traveling bag. The reporters, well supplied with arms, laughed and jeered. One Herald reporter told her he wasn’t about to share the newspaper’s press shack with a woman. She’d better turn around and head straight back to Chicago, he said, before she lost her pretty blonde curls.

The correspondents’ spitefulness may well have been sharpened by their collective failure to cover the only real action that had happened since the Ghost Dance affair began. They had hurried out West in the fall of 1890 to report a war, and when the reservation remained quiet day after day, they invented their own news, filling their dispatches with half-truths, rumors, gossip and fabrications that further stoked panic in the countryside (see “Pressing the Issue at Wounded Knee,” by Randy Hines, in the December 2010 issue). While their copy warned wildly of rampaging Indians on the brink of war, they whiled away their days contributing chapters to a dime novel and creating the Badlands Budget, a faux newspaper “dedicated to rumor.”

Only three correspondents had been with Colonel James W. Forsyth when the fighting erupted on December 29, 1890. As Forsyth tried to disarm Big Foot’s surrendering band of Minneconjous, a sudden rifle shot set off a morning of carnage that left 25 troopers and some 150 Indians—many of them women and children—dead. Scores more were wounded.

One of the reporters was a businessoffice employee the Lincoln-based Nebraska State Journal had pressed into service. The neophyte’s battle account was the first to hit the telegraph wire. Humiliated, the rest of the newsmen had been playing catch-up ever since. They needed no more competition, especially from a woman.

Steaming at the rebuff, Teresa was mollified to learn there was one place she was wanted: Miles’ headquarters. The general knew through a mutual friend that Dean’s father was an Army man; perhaps Miles also admired her courage and appreciated the single mother’s desire to make good in the newspaper world. He introduced her to three Sioux leaders, and she listened intently as Miles told Kicking Bear: “I don’t know who started this trouble; I know who will end it. Yourself and others must do as I tell you, or you will be made to do it.”

Miles put forward his plan. To keep the peace, the Army would send the worst troublemakers to Fort Sheridan, in Chicago. Meanwhile, a Sioux delegation would travel to Washington, D.C., to present their grievances to the president. That was the only choice. Dean was impressed with the way Miles brought the situation under control.

She endured the hostility of the press shack long enough to write a dispatch, dated January 16, that described the hatred in Rushville. She also struck back at the reporters who sneered at her ability to do her job. They were, she wrote frankly and fearlessly, “the only people at the reservation who seemed to be at all conscious of danger.” She charged them with heaping threat on threat, fear on fear, nearly all emphasizing any “weird violent, lurid detail” they could discover or invent.

Dean explained that many Sioux, having learned English in Indian schools, read the Eastern papers that arrived at the post within days of publication. The Indians passed around the hurtful, hateful words, and tension mounted. Miles confessed to Dean that such sensational reports were among the hardest factors he had to deal with. Never one to “go along to get along,” Dean denounced those guilty in print, adding her voice to the few others distressed at the rampant fearmongering.

Back in Chicago her editor, reluctant to precipitate a civil war in the newspaper industry, held Dean’s incendiary copy until she returned safely home. (Publish it he would, on February 5, signed as usual with her name.)

Until then Dean solved her housing problem at Pine Ridge by bunking with a teacher at the reservation boarding school, where three teachers, a matron and an assistant instructed, in Dean’s words, some 200 “dusky scholars.” Indian police guarded the fence, as the school held the children of both hostiles and friendlies, and Dean learned the tension remained high enough that administrators kept every door, inside and out, locked. She was convinced the teachers loved their pupils but uncertain whether that love was reciprocal.

In her second column, published January 20, Dean described the Sioux women’s high wailing at a warrior’s burial and wondered if such strange cries could really come from their hearts. She also pondered soldiers’ graves, noting their seeming pointlessness in a battle that raged even as a flag of truce waved from Big Foot’s tepee.

Dean also visited the agency’s missionary chapel, where wounded Indian women and children, most in stoic silence, lay sprawled across the floors. “One little fellow, about 7 years old, has one side of his jaw and throat shot away,” Dean wrote. “He has never made a murmur.” She described one woman with a broken arm and a crushed leg that needed amputation, which she refused because “her friends would not know her in the Happy Hunting Ground.” As Dean left the chapel to the sound of a child’s screams of pain, she “came out the door with the full realization of the horrors of war.”

A day or two after her arrival Dean found the other reporters busily staging a photo they hoped would impress their editors and public to the danger they risked daily. With borrowed rifles, revolvers and cartridge belts, loaded down with knives and ammunition until round shouldered, they gathered in front of the Indian lodges to emphasize the threatening atmosphere.

Dean walked up to join the shot. There was an uproar. Reporter John B. McDonough of The World objected strenuously: “I’ve been telling the people back home what a dangerous assignment this is. If I send back a picture with a woman correspondent in it… I’ll be the laughingstock of my New York friends.” Others shouted agreement. A female reporter in a fur-collared coat might make readers suspicious of the “impending massacres” and “imminent bloody battles” they’d been so busy reporting.

Herald colleague Charles Seymour and another reporter spoke on Dean’s behalf, but the majority ruled, ushering her out of the picture.

Dean did find the atmosphere threatening, she wrote, with “everybody armed to the teeth. The air itself seems filled with powder that might explode with no one knowing by whom the match was applied.” She observed that while hostile Indians were at least open about their war paint and tomahawks, the wires “manipulated by civilization” were too tangled to know who wanted what.

Miles declared an end to hostilities on January 19, when the Sioux agreed to his terms. But Dean continued to dig for the facts, interviewing the wounded Father Francis Kraft and querying troopers about their controversial placement on the battlefield.

“The killing of Indian children at Wounded Knee was most pitiful,” Dean wrote. “[But] the killing of the squaws was as just as it was unavoidable,” she concluded, as they were loading the guns for the warriors and using knives and revolvers against the troops. In the same column she related Little Wound’s complaint that what the Pine Ridge agent claimed was a month’s supply of food barely lasted two weeks; Dean decried the Indians’ wasteful nature. She also chastised the Office of Indian Affairs for returning its wards to the reservation after schooling. Educated Indians, she thought, were worse off for having nothing to do. “They have failed to discover where in the world there is a place for them,” she wrote.

Dean struggled to understand the Sioux. Like most of her contemporaries, she believed their only salvation lay in changing to white ways. Yet she realized that greedy and dishonest white men often took advantage of them. “It is difficult at times to decide which one is in the most need of missionary work,” she wrote. “In fact, some of the missionaries complain that their good work is riddled by their precincts being invaded by white men.”

Dean kept her eyes and mind open, and each day on the reservation provided a lesson. She watched Chief Red Cloud, lame and nearly blind, stroll the agency grounds, guarded by young Oglala braves who obviously revered him. She listened when Red Cloud spoke with Miles, noting the old chief’s simple dress and modest demeanor. His deeply lined face showed great age, but there was more—the reporter also detected character and wisdom.

Dean wrote at length about attempts to educate the Indians and described the agency school as rough and unfinished with substandard equipment and supplies, everything from furniture to matches; the latter had to be baked in an oven for a prolonged time before they would strike. The flour provided for students was so coarse and dark the agent ordered it returned. Worse still, the children cleaned their plates and turned hungry eyes for more. Many looked undernourished and ill. Dean remarked how the Catholic school was much better staffed and provisioned. But she found all the teachers dedicated to their students.

On the morning of January 26 Dean watched in fascination as the Sioux women gathered outside the enclosure at Miles’ headquarters to bid their Washington delegates farewell. She troubled herself to have the women’s chants translated: They warned the Lakota leaders of danger among strange peoples and encouraged them to be brave, to remember their fathers, brave and good, and to remember their people’s wrongs.

Later that day Dean explored a tepee with a guide. She had been told Indian babies never cried, but in this otherwise empty lodge an infant strapped in a cradleboard was howling lustily. She picked it up, and the cries ceased. The baby laughed. Uneasy about her intrusion, Dean tried to set down the cradleboard again, but the infant immediately erupted in cries, “just like— a white child,” she wrote, adding, “The babies at least have generous streaks of human nature.”

That sense of common humanity remained with Dean after her return to the Herald’s busy offices and other assignments. Editors sent her to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War, to the Philippines to cover the insurrection and to China to report on the Boxer Rebellion. She saw much, vastly widened her experience, and changed newspapers twice, but in 1903 when Dean read that Red Cloud lay near death, her mind went back to those days at Pine Ridge.

Accounts from other newspapers noted that the proud old chief had forsaken the wooden house the government had built for him near the agency, opting instead to die in his own tepee. Dean recalled how impressed she had been with Red Cloud and was moved to tell new readers how his dignified presence had affected her. “We have had many years in which to teach Red Cloud the advantages of civilization,” she wrote in Town Topics, a New York magazine. “In dying true to himself, Red Cloud teaches us, if we will but learn, that he may have been the more civilized.” It was a concept ahead of her time. Reports of Red Cloud’s impending death, it turns out, were premature: He would live on another six years.

Dean’s reportorial accomplishments are little known today. And the “first female war correspondent” would have been the first to say she found no war to report on in Pine Ridge, S.D. Those real wars came later for Dean, and their risks were real. But her subsequent work maintained the clear vision and forthright honesty she instinctively demonstrated in 1891 as the inexperienced, unwanted female reporter at Wounded Knee.


Colorado writer Nancy Peterson is a longtime contributor to Wild West and the author of Walking in Two Worlds: Mixed-Blood Indian Women Seeking Their Path. Suggested for further reading: Following the IndianWars: The Story of the Newspaper Correspondents Among the Indian Campaigners, by Oliver Knight; and “Teresa Dean: Lady Correspondent Among the Sioux Indians,” by Douglas C. Jones, Journalism Quarterly,Vol. 42, Winter 1972.

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.  

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