American Indians, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Remembering the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D.

It’s a bit overwhelming to write a post about Wounded Knee, both because of the complexity of the events leading up to the massacre and the enormity of the heartbreak, but I wanted to note the date—126 years ago today.

What was originally called a battle and now widely acknowledged as a massacre happened two weeks after Sitting Bull was killed. Wounded Knee marked the end of the Indian wars by crushing the last vestige of the Plains Indians’ resistance. It still resonates as a shocking tale of cruelty and wanton disregard for life.

In the immediate aftermath of Sitting Bull’s death during a botched arrest, bands of Sioux panicked and fled. Some joined up with Miniconjou Lakota Chief Big Foot and his people, who were on their way to procure rations at the Indian agency near Fort Bennett in South Dakota. They were intercepted by the 8th Cavalry, which had orders to arrest Big Foot because U.S. authorities believed he was a troublemaker. The Indians went with the soldiers toward Camp Cheyenne, but when they got close to their village, they refused to go any further. During the night, amid reports of more troops coming from the east, the Indians fled toward the Badlands.

Another cavalry unit caught up with them on December 28 and demanded that they surrender, which the Indians did, being in no condition to fight the Army. The troops hurried them to Wounded Knee Creek, where the Indians set up camp as the soldiers took up positions around them.

More soldiers arrived in the morning, bringing the military escort to 470 for some 350 hungry, tired Indian men, women and children led by a chief who was suffering from pneumonia.

On the morning of December 29, Col. James Forsyth sought to disarm the Indians first voluntarily then by force. Soldiers tore through the tipis in the hunt for weapons then tried to search the warriors themselves. In the confusion, a young Indian fired wildly. “Instantly, the soldiers retaliated with a point-blank volley which cut down nearly half the warriors,” according to Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs.” “The rest of them drew concealed weapons and charged the soldiers.”

The Army’s rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns shredded the tipis and set them on fire, mowing down women and children as they and a few warriors fled into a ravine. The soldiers repositioned the Hotchkiss guns to “sweep the ravine and cut down anything that moved.”

Chief Big Foot’s frozen body lays in the snow at Wounded Knee.

Big Foot was shot and killed as he tried to rise from his sickbed. Some of the wounded managed to run two miles from the camp before being killed by cavalry members who rode after them, while other soldiers finished off the wounded in the camp, including children coaxed from their hiding places.

The Army suffered 25 killed and 39 wounded. But because the Indians had few guns and the troops were firing from all sides at once, the soldiers likely caused many of their own casualties. To add insult to injury, 20 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions.

burial_party_wounded_knee-640Some 300 dead Indians were left where they fell for three days as a blizzard swept through. On New Year’s Day 1891, a burial party was sent to retrieve the bodies. Civilians were paid $2 per body to drag the Indians from under the snow and dump them into a mass grave.

According to Time-Life’s “The Great Chiefs”:

“Four babies were discovered still alive, wrapped in their dead mothers’ shawls. Most of the other children were dead. ‘It was a thing to melt the heart of a man, if it was of stone,’ said one member of the burial party, ‘to see those little children, with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into the pit.’”

In “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Dee Brown writes that only four Indian men and 47 women and children survived the massacre. Soldiers loaded them onto wagons and took them to the Pine Ridge Indian agency.

The last words of Brown’s book fittingly belong to Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota leader born in 1863:

“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

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