A Brief History of Wounded Knee

A long procession of people wound up the ridge east of Pine Ridge Agency. The road led to the Valley of Wounded Knee Creek. They were anxious to know if any wounded kinsmen of the Miniconjou Sioux tribe had survived the December 29th conflict and the howling blizzard that followed. It seemed improbable.

When they reached the scene they stared in silence. More than 100 tepees that housed Chief Big Foot's followers had been flattened. Here and there the skeleton of a teepee rose starkly from the wreckage, bits of charred canvas clinging to the poles. There were snow covered mounds cluttering the ground. Beneath them lay the shattered bodies of the victims of the battle. The mounds lay thick and numerous. The Indians burst into tears of anguish, some sang death songs.

The Face of Honor
Each mound hid a human form, torn by shrapnel and carbine bullets, caked with blood, frozen hard in the contortions of violent death. They were of all ages and both sexes.

In the council square where the mounds were thickest lay the remains of Chief Big Foot. Frozen in a half sitting position. He now looked out over the snowy field as if surveying in horror the disaster that had befallen his people. Nearby, lay the remains of Yellow Bird, the fiery medicine man. He had incited the men to fight rather than give up their guns to the soldiers.

Not all were dead. Still frozen and stiff the bodies were dumped unceremoniously into the hole which had been dug as a grave. "It was a thing to melt the heart of a man, if it was of stone," said one observer, "to see those little children with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into the pit." (Quoted in Mooney, pp. 878-879).

Later, missionaries built a church in front of the grave, and in 1903 the Indians erected a monument over it. The inscription reads:

This monument is erected by surviving relatives and other Ogalala and Cheyenne River Sioux Indians in memory of the Chief Big Foot massacre December 29, 1890. Col. Forsyth in command of US troops. Big Foot was a great chief of the Sioux Indians. He often said, "I will stand in peace till my last day comes." He did many good and brave deeds for the white man and the red man. Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here. (The last days of the Sioux Nation, Robert M. Utley, p.5)

The Sioux nation died there. Before wounded knee, the Sioux never really accepted the reality of 10 years of reservation life. They had illusions that some day things would be the way their fathers had known. This was the meaning behind the Ghost Dance movement that culminated in Wounded Knee. After wounded knee, the reality of the conquest descended upon the entire nation. After December 29th, 1890, the unity of tribes and bands progressively weakened. The individuals fitted into the mold of the reservation system.

On the morning of December 29th, 1890, Colonel James W. Forsyth's regiment numbered 413 enlisted men (229 in the first squadron, 181 in the second, 3 in regimental headquarters) and 25 officers. A total of 438. The artillery was manned by 20 men and 2 officers; and probably about 30 Oglalas made up Taylor's troop of Indian scouts. In all, Forsyth had a little more than 500 evicted.

Forsyth's orders from Brooke were to disarm the Miniconjous and send them, under escort of the first squadron, to the railroad for the movement to Omaha. His plan was to place the troops of the second squadron, mounted in position on three sides of the Indians and hold his first squadron, dismounted, in reserve close by on the fourth side for any special task that the actual disarming might require. Such a display of might would reinforce the already obvious fact that resistance invited destruction. (Testimony of Whitside, McCormick, Jackson, Edgerly, and Capron, WKIR; Maj. LS McCormick, "Wounded Knee and Drexel Mission Fights" MSS, December 1904, in ES Luce Seventh Cavalry Collection.)

At no time after the surrender to Whitside on the 28th, however, had the Miniconjous as a group considered armed resistance. They wanted only to appease the soldiers and get started on the final leg of the journey to, so they believed, Pine Ridge. The awful truth now dawned on them that they're guns are going to be taken.

Even so, they had no deliberate intent to fight. As all could see, such an act could only result in annihilation. The Indians could not shake the fear that if they gave up their guns they would be slaughtered. This explains what was soon to happen.

Forsyth, Whitside, and Shangreau herded the men into a rough, crowded line facing the cavalry camp, the center opposite the entrance to Big Foot's tent. The Indians immediately began talking amongst themselves and at length decided to send two men to confer with Big Foot. Shangreau went along. They explained to Big Foot what the soldiers wanted and asked what they should do. Big Foot advised them to give up the bad guns and keep the good ones. Shangreau interceded. "You better give up the guns," he warned, "you can buy guns, but if you lose a man you cannot replace him." "No," answered Big Foot, "We will keep the good guns." The two men returned to the group outside and reported what the chief had said. (Shangreau interview, Ricker Collection, is the only source for this conversation. Because the men did in fact follow Big Foot's advice as reported by Shangreau.)

The troops began to search the village for guns. After a while Varnum declared, "Everything found was so hidden that I almost had to dig for it." The women tried everything possible to conceal the arms, many of them were sitting on the ground and covering rifles with their voluminous skirts. Several had to be bodily removed. Varnum said, "The first rifle I found was under a squaw who was moaning and who was so indisposed to the search that I had her displaced, and under her was a beautiful Winchester Rifle."

The searchers took everything that could be considered a weapon-knives, axes, hatchets, bows and arrows. Soon a sizeable pile had accumulated. While the troops searched the village, the men in the circle, nervous over their separation from the women, grew increasingly restless. Now and then, one tried to slip through the barrier of soldiers, only to be turned back.

An Indian named Black Coyote caused the breaking of a military rule of some sort. Black Coyote had been stalking around holding his rifle in both hands overhead. He was described as-"a crazy man, a young man of very bad influence and in fact a nobody." He was also deaf. Black Coyote shouted that this gun was his and belonged to him; he had paid much money for it; and he would not give it to anyone unless he received pay in return.

Two soldiers seized him from behind. There was a brief struggle. Black Coyote brought the rifle down. Pointing to the east and upward at a 45 degree angle, it went off.

At the same instant, Yellow Bird gathered a handful of dirt and threw it into the air. Lieutenant Robinson, swinging his horse to get out of the way, shouted- "Look out men, they are going to fire!"

To Lieutenant Mann, the warriors seemed to hesitate an eternal moment. He drew his revolver and slipped through the ranks to the front. "Fire! Fire on them!" screamed Mann.

The explosion of a hundred carbines drowned the Lieutenant's command, the troops fired by instinct. The Indians and soldiers stood face to face and shot it out. Smoke and dust and the din of battle filled the square.

In the village, women and children scrambled in terrified confusion to get out of the way.

Captain Wallace rushed to his station behind the troops, he had no sooner reached there than a bullet carried away the top of his head. (Wells Interview, Ricker Collection. Maj. EA Garlington, "The seventh Regiment of Cavalry, "in Theo F. Rodenbough, ed. The army of the United States, New York, 1896, pp.265-266)

Before the first fire, the sun had been shining in Big Foot's eyes. He rose weakly into a sitting position. Big Foot was shot in the head and killed.

The warriors dashed around the square trying to break through the blue lines. There were hand-to-hand fights.

The savage contest at close quarters lasted no more than five minutes before the bulk of the warriors succeeded in breaching the military lines.

The warriors kept coming; down into the ravine and up the south bank. Now mixed with women and children, they burst onto the flat beyond, trying to reach the agency road.

In the ravine the Indians ran in both direction, some paused to fire at troops. Most of the action now focused on the fringes of the battle field; with the troops hunting down the fleeing Indians. There was still sporadic fighting in the council square and in the village itself. Not all Indians left the village. An occasional shot came from a teepee. To stop this, troops raked the Miniconjou camp from one end to the other.

Blue Whirlwind, an Indian woman, received fourteen wounds but lived. Her two little boys were wounded by her side. Another woman, maddened by wounds, crawled from the edge of the village. With a butcher knife between her teeth, she made her painful way over a distance of ten yards to where a soldier lay on his back, wounded. She raised the knife over him and, as he screamed, plunged it into his breast. Another soldier, in the square, saw the act and sent a bullet into her head. She dropped next to her victim.

In the square, Yellow Bird had taken refuge in the Sibley Tent belonging to the scouts. Slitting a hole in the canvas wall, he shot down several soldiers before someone noticed the source of fire. Cavalry men riddled the tent, and a Hotchkiss gun pitched two shells directly into it. Some soldiers stacked bales of hay around it and ignited them. The tent burned to the ground, revealing the shattered, charred body of Yellow Bird. (Mann, In Arnold, pp 18-20 Philip Wells and Charles Allen Interviews, Ricker Collection. Testimony of Wells and Frog, WKIR)

Down on the ravine, Philip Wells, had walked out the edge and cried out, in the Sioux tongue, "All of you that are still alive get up and come on over, you will not be molested or shot at any more." One old man painfully raised up and braced himself with his hands in a sitting position. Paddy Starr, who had come out with Taylor's scouts, watched in horror as just then, the first of Rice's platoon, relentlessly sweeping the ravine from above, came into view. The troopers had not heard or understood Wells and, seeing the old man move, they instantly cut him down with their carbines. When they became aware of the situation, however, they called off the operation. One by one, wounded people emerged from the ravine and, guided by soldiers, made their way to the hospital area north of the cavalry camp. (Paddy Starr Interview, Ricker Collection. Statement of Rough Feather In McGregor, pp. 109-110)

Among the Sioux, the Ghost Dance religion had been dealt a shattering blow. Wounded Knee demonstrated that Ghost Shirts would not, as the apostles had promised, turn the bullets of the white man. The Government had moved to restore ration issues to former levels and to carry out the other recommendations of the Crook Commission, thus alleviating much of the distress that had made the religion so appealing. Throughout the late winter and among the Sioux, the Ghost Dance religion had been dealt a shattering blow. Wounded Knee demonstrated that Ghost Shirts would not, as the apostles had promised, turn the bullets of the white man. The Government had moved to restore ration issues to former levels and to carry out the other recommendations of the Crook Commission, thus alleviating much of the distress that had made the religion so appealing.

Religion had failed to restore the old life. For the Indians of the West, there was now no choice but to submit to the new life.

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