Eyewitness to the Massacre at Wounded Knee Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By December 1890, the Sioux Nation—which comprises the Lakota and Dakota groupings, among others—had largely been confined to reservations in the Plains States. The Ghost Dance movement, a religious movement that was quickly spreading throughout the reservations, was perceived as disruptive and potentially threatening to federal efforts to manage the American Indian population. In light of this perception, federal authorities planned to arrest the famous Lakota chief Sitting Bull in an effort to suppress the movement. Sitting Bull was killed during the arrest, and US authorities soon turned their attention to another Sioux leader, Spotted Elk, also known (derogatorily) as Big Foot. In December 1890, Spotted Elk and his followers were detained, and Spotted Elk was interrogated by Colonel James Forsyth, with the assistance of interpreter Philip Wells, while the other Sioux were searched for weapons. After a shot rang out in the crowd, Sioux fighters and American military personnel clashed, leaving as many as three hundred Sioux and twenty-five white soldiers dead. After the incident, Wells delivered his own account of the incident to his superiors.

Summary Overview

By December 1890, the Sioux Nation—which comprises the Lakota and Dakota groupings, among others—had largely been confined to reservations in the Plains States. The Ghost Dance movement, a religious movement that was quickly spreading throughout the reservations, was perceived as disruptive and potentially threatening to federal efforts to manage the American Indian population. In light of this perception, federal authorities planned to arrest the famous Lakota chief Sitting Bull in an effort to suppress the movement. Sitting Bull was killed during the arrest, and US authorities soon turned their attention to another Sioux leader, Spotted Elk, also known (derogatorily) as Big Foot. In December 1890, Spotted Elk and his followers were detained, and Spotted Elk was interrogated by Colonel James Forsyth, with the assistance of interpreter Philip Wells, while the other Sioux were searched for weapons. After a shot rang out in the crowd, Sioux fighters and American military personnel clashed, leaving as many as three hundred Sioux and twenty-five white soldiers dead. After the incident, Wells delivered his own account of the incident to his superiors.

Defining Moment

During the 1880s, American Indians suffered major setbacks, due in no small part to the United States government's efforts to control and assimilate the tribes into white society. As American Indians endured starvation, disease, and other hardships, an unusual movement began to spread among the tribes. The Ghost Dance, which had been first popularized by the Northern Paiute mystic Wodziwob during the early 1870s, saw a resurgence thanks to the efforts of another American Indian mystic, Wovoka, also known as Jack Wilson. Wovoka claimed that while suffering from a fever, he was taken to the spirit world and told that the dead would rise again and the plight of American Indians would soon end. If American Indians lived a good, upright life free of violence, the return to their traditional way of life would be hastened. Part of the commitment to this ideal involved wearing colorful garb and practicing a sacred dance that came to be known as the Ghost Dance.

As the Ghost Dance spread, however, an additional concept was added to the practice—one that gave white settlers and leaders pause. Some practitioners of the Ghost Dance believed that the dance would result in the ejection of white settlers from American Indian lands. White officials, seeing the movement's adherents as a hostile group, attempted to ban the Ghost Dance and prosecute those who practiced it.

Prominent Lakota shaman and chief Sitting Bull was accused of promoting the Ghost Dance movement, although he was not a follower of the practice, and US authorities attempted to arrest him at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which encompasses parts of North and South Dakota. During the ensuing confrontation, Sitting Bull was killed. Less than a month later, authorities attempted to arrest another Lakota leader, Spotted Elk, at a camp near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Spotted Elk and his 350 followers were detained by US troops. While American military forces, led by Colonel Joseph Forsyth, conducted their investigation and slowly disarmed Spotted Elk's followers, Forsyth's interpreter, Wells, spotted a medicine man, or shaman, throwing dirt into the air while praying. Wells reported that the man was attempting to incite an uprising.

Shortly thereafter, according to Wells's report, a shot fired from the crowd caused the military to open fire. Unarmed Sioux men, women, and children ran from the scene, but many were shot by the Army. Reports on the number of dead vary, but as many as three hundred Sioux may have died in the event, along with some twenty-five US soldiers. A few days later, the military launched an investigation of the incident. Wells, the only interpreter at the scene and, therefore, the only person with an understanding of what the Lakotas involved had said before the firefight, provided his own account.

Author Biography

Philip Faribault Wells was born in 1850 in Frontenac, Minnesota. The child of a white frontiersman and a woman of partial Sioux descent, Wells became conversant in a number of American Indian languages, including Sioux dialects. In 1865, Wells joined the Army as an interpreter and scout. During the 1880s, after leaving the Army, he held a number of positions on Sioux reservations, benefiting from his status as an American with Sioux blood. Wells was fiercely supportive of the US government, serving as its agent when dealing with the Sioux tribes. He later left the public service to become a rancher. Wells died in 1947.

Chief Spotted Elk, or “Big Foot,” was born between 1820 and 1825 into the Miniconjou, a subgroup of the Teton Lakota (Sioux). His Lakota name was Unpan Glešká. The Miniconjou lived in northwestern South Dakota with the Hunkpapa, another band of the Teton Lakota led by Chief Sitting Bull. Spotted Elk was a cousin of the famous Crazy Horse through the latter's mother. In 1868, Spotted Elk signed the Ft. Laramie Treaty, which ceded lands to the Sioux, although the treaty was later violated by white gold prospectors and the US government, causing war. Spotted Elk was killed during the conflict at Wounded Knee. A photograph of him lying dead in the snow became an iconic image of the event.

Historical Document

I was interpreting for General Forsyth [Forsyth was actually a colonel] just before the battle of Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890. The captured Indians had been ordered to give up their arms, but Big Foot [i.e., Spotted Elk] replied that his people had no arms. Forsyth said to me, “Tell Big Foot he says the Indians have no arms, yet yesterday they were well armed when they surrendered. He is deceiving me. Tell him he need have no fear in giving up his arms, as I wish to treat him kindly.” Big Foot replied, “They have no guns, except such as you have found.” Forsyth declared, “You are lying to me in return for my kindness.”

During this time a medicine man, gaudily dressed and fantastically painted, executed the maneuvers of the ghost dance, raising and throwing dust into the air. He exclaimed “Ha! Ha!” as he did so, meaning he was about to do something terrible, and said, “I have lived long enough,” meaning he would fight until he died. Turning to the young warriors who were squatted together, he said “Do not fear, but let your hearts be strong. Many soldiers are about us and have many bullets, but I am assured their bullets cannot penetrate us. The prairie is large, and their bullets will fly over the prairies and will not come toward us. If they do come toward us, they will float away like dust in the air.” I turned to Major Whitside and said, “That man is making mischief,” and repeated what he had said. Whitside replied, “Go direct to Colonel Forsyth and tell him about it,” which I did.

Forsyth and I went to the circle of warriors where he told me to tell the medicine man to sit down and keep quiet, but he paid no attention to the order. Forsyth repeated the order. Big Foot's brother-in-law answered, “He will sit down when he gets around the circle.” When the medicine man came to the end of the circle, he squatted down. A cavalry sergeant exclaimed, “There goes an Indian with a gun under his blanket!” Forsyth ordered him to take the gun from the Indian, which he did. Whitside then said to me, “Tell the Indians it is necessary that they be searched one at a time.” The young warriors paid no attention to what I told them. I heard someone on my left exclaim, “Look out! Look out!” I saw five or six young warriors cast off their blankets and pull guns out from under them and brandish them in the air. One of the warriors shot into the soldiers, who were ordered to fire into the Indians. I looked in the direction of the medicine man. He or some other medicine man approached to within three or four feet of me with a long cheese knife, ground to a sharp point and raised to stab me. He stabbed me during the melee and nearly cut off my nose. I held him off until I could swing my rifle to hit him, which I did. I shot and killed him in self-defense.

Troop K was drawn up between the tents of the women and children and the main body of the Indians, who had been summoned to deliver their arms. The Indians began firing into Troop K to gain the canyon of Wounded Knee creek. In doing so they exposed their women and children to their own fire. Captain Wallace was killed at this time while standing in front of his troops. A bullet, striking him in the forehead, plowed away the top of his head. I started to pull off my nose, which was hung by the skin, but Lieutenant Guy Preston shouted, “My God Man! Don't do that! That can be saved.” He then led me away from the scene of the trouble.

Document Analysis

Wells's account of the massacre at Wounded Knee identifies the Lakotas as the instigators of the outburst of violence. He claims that he and his military superiors showed patience and fairness toward Spotted Elk and the Lakotas, only to have that even-handedness challenged and returned with criminality and brutality. The Lakotas' actions, in Wells's view—and not the actions of Forsyth and his troops—resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Lakotas, including women and children, as well as more than two dozen US troops.

Wells's report begins by describing the deceptiveness of the captured chief, Spotted Elk. Forsyth, through Wells, told Spotted Elk that the Lakotas were to give up their arms. Spotted Elk, according to Wells, claimed that his followers had no weapons, even though the Lakotas who were captured the previous day were well armed. Wells argues that Forsyth insisted that the troops wished to treat the Lakotas well as long as they gave up their weapons, and that Spotted Elk returned this benevolence with lies.

At this point, Wells reports that he noticed a Lakota shaman throwing dirt in the air and practicing the Ghost Dance. According to Wells, the man next shouted out in a manner that Wells knew to be indicative of his intention to “do something terrible.” The shaman then turned to his fellow Lakotas and invited them to join him, as the army's bullets would have no effect on them. Wells writes that he informed Forsyth, who joined him in confronting the shaman. Suddenly, a soldier noticed one of the Lakotas brandishing a gun, and as they attempted to disarm the man, several more Lakotas revealed that they were armed. One warrior, Wells recalls, fired into the line of troops. The soldiers fired back. During the ensuing battle, a Lakota man slashed Wells in the face, nearly severing his nose, and Wells killed him in self-defense. During the battle, Wells writes, the Lakotas endangered the many innocent women and children who were standing near the troops, injuring those innocents with their own fire.

Wells's account places the blame for the violence squarely on the shaman, apparently an adherent of the Ghost Dance movement, as well as the intransigent Spotted Elk/Big Foot and his well-armed followers. The troops, whom Wells describes as calm and patient in the face of an unruly crowd, are presented as the victims of a surprise attack to which they were forced to respond. The resulting battle, Wells reports, ended with numerous dead Lakota, American troops, and innocent bystanders.

Essential Themes

Wells had spent his life living among American Indians and was a steadfast patriot, a combination of characteristics that made him a desirable intermediary between the US government and the Sioux. However, he was not fluent in the Lakota dialect and, according to observers and historians alike, likely misunderstood the shaman's actions, which in turn sparked the firefight. Certainly, the scene at the Wounded Knee camp was tense before the first shots, as hundreds of Lakotas were forced to wait to be searched for weapons. Although the accuracy of Wells's version of the story has been heavily debated by historians, his account is undeniably accurate in one important area: Once the first shot was fired, an already-tense situation exploded into a brutal battle.

In his account, Wells places the blame for the eruption of violence on the shoulders of the Lakotas. Spotted Elk, he claims in his account, angered the even-tempered Forsyth by lying about whether the Lakotas were still armed. The shaman, meanwhile, is portrayed in Wells's account as an instigator who attempted to inspire his fellow Lakotas to rise up against the troops. Wells even blames the Lakota men for the deaths of the Lakota women and children, arguing that the men positioned themselves in such a way that these innocents would be fired upon. He describes the entire event as a Lakota attack on a nonaggressive military unit.

In addition to blaming the Lakotas for the massacre, Wells's account serves to elevate his own standing. Wells claims to have been the first person to alert Forsyth of the imminent danger from the shaman. He was close at hand when the first weapons were allegedly pulled out from under the captured Lakotas' blankets. Finally, he was himself nearly a casualty of the violence, almost losing his nose to a Lakota attacker's knife. His account of this battle, however suspect, likely helped further his career as an agent of the government to which he steadfastly committed himself.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Beasley, Conger. We Are a People in this World: The Lakota Sioux and the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1995. Print.
  • DiSilvestro, Roger L. In the Shadow of Wounded Knee: The Untold Final Chapter of the Indian Wars. New York: Walker, 2007. Print.
  • Flood, Reneé Sansom. Lost Bird of Wounded Knee: Spirit of the Lakota. Cambridge: Da Capo, 1998. Print.
  • Richardson, Heather Cox. Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.
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