Wounded Knee Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This last major confrontation between American Indians and U.S. government troops represented the end of violent resistance by Native Americans to the loss of their independence and signaled the closing of the American frontier.

Summary of Event

On December 15, 1890, two weeks before the Battle of Wounded Knee was fought, Sitting Bull, the last great Sioux warrior chief, was killed in an effort to suppress the Ghost Dance Ghost Dance religion, which had been begun by Wovoka. Wovoka’s admixture of American Indian and Christian beliefs inspired hope in an eventual triumph of the American Indians over the white settlers, who, Wovoka envisioned, would fall through the earth and disappear forever. Although Wovoka preached passivity and patience, some of his zealous disciples carried a more aggressive message. Among them were a Minneconjou Sioux named Kicking Bear Kicking Bear and his brother-in-law Short Bull Short Bull . They and other followers of Wovoka Wovoka introduced the Ghost Dance to the Dakota reservations, including Standing Rock and Pine Ridge. Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) Sioux;Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) South Dakota;Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) Native American wars;Sioux Sitting Bull Big Foot South Dakota;Wounded Knee Massacre [kw]Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890) [kw]Massacre, Wounded Knee (Dec. 29, 1890) Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) Sioux;Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) South Dakota;Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) Native American wars;Sioux Sitting Bull Big Foot South Dakota;Wounded Knee Massacre [g]United States;Dec. 29, 1890: Wounded Knee Massacre[5730] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Dec. 29, 1890: Wounded Knee Massacre[5730] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Dec. 29, 1890: Wounded Knee Massacre[5730] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 29, 1890: Wounded Knee Massacre[5730] Wovoka Paiutes Cody, William Forsyth, James W. McLaughlin, James Miles, Nelson A.

In an effort to suppress Ghost Dancing, James McLaughlin, McLaughlin, James the government agent in charge of the Standing Rock reservation, first arrested Kicking Bear, then moved against Sitting Bull, an old adversary and, in McLaughlin’s mind, the symbolic center of tribal unrest. McLaughlin was convinced that Ghost Dancing could be suppressed only if Sitting Bull were in prison. He called Sitting Bull a fomenter of disturbances, prompting General Nelson A. Miles Miles, Nelson A. , U.S. Army Commander of the Missouri Division, to send William Cody Cody, William to Standing Rock to persuade the chief to negotiate with Miles. However, McLaughlin complained to Washington and had Cody’s mission aborted.

What followed was a fiasco. Forty-three American Indian police, commanded by Lieutenant Bull Head, surrounded Sitting Bull’s cabin and ordered him to come outside. Sitting Bull obeyed, but one of the assembled Ghost Dancers, angered at the arrest, shot Bull Head with a rifle. While attempting to fire back at his assailant, Bull Head accidentally shot Sitting Bull at the same moment that another American Indian policeman fired a lethal shot through the old chief’s head.

When news of Sitting Bull’s death reached Big Foot, the chief of the Minneconjou at Cherry Creek, he decamped his followers and started a journey toward Pine Ridge, hoping to find protection under Chief Red Cloud Red Cloud . His band consisted of 120 men and 230 women and children. Big Foot himself was ill with pneumonia and had to make the journey in a wagon. On December 28, near Porcupine Creek, the Indians encountered troops of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry under the command of Major Samuel Whitside Whitside, Samuel . Although near death, Big Foot arranged a meeting with Whitside, who informed the chief that his orders were to escort the Indians to Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot agreed to comply with Whitside’s directions, because Wounded Knee was on the way to Pine Ridge. Whitside then had his men move Big Foot to an army ambulance to make his trip more comfortable.

Cavalry troops fighting the Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The combined Indian trains reached Wounded Knee Creek before nightfall. Whitside oversaw their encampment south of his military bivouac and provided them with rations, tents, and a surgeon to tend Big Foot. He also took measures to ensure that none of the Indians could escape by posting sentinels and setting up rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns in key positions.

During the night, the remaining Seventh Cavalry troops arrived, and command of the operation passed from Major Whitside to Colonel James W. Forsyth. Forsyth, James W. The colonel told the junior officer that he had received orders to accompany Big Foot’s bands to the Union Pacific Union Pacific Railroad Railroad for transport to a military prison in Omaha. The next morning, on December 29, after issuing hardtack rations to the Indians, Colonel Forsyth ordered them to surrender their weapons, and his soldiers stacked up the Indians’ arms and ammunition. Not satisfied that all weapons had been turned in, Forsyth sent details to search the Indians’ tipis. The searchers then ordered the Indians to remove their blankets, which, the soldiers assumed, masked hidden weapons.

The situation grew tense. The Indians were both humiliated and angry, but they were badly outnumbered and almost all of them had been disarmed. Only the Minneconjou medicine man Yellow Bird openly protested. He began performing Ghost Dance Ghost Dance steps and chanted lines from the holy songs that assured the Indians that their Ghost Shirts would not let the soldiers’ bullets strike them.

The soldiers found only two rifles during the last search, but one of them belonged to a deaf Sioux brave named Black Coyote Black Coyote , who resisted them. Soldiers grabbed him and spun him around, attempting to disarm him, and at that point Black Coyote fired his rifle, possibly by accident. The debacle followed has been called a battle, but it was little more than a massacre. The soldiers opened fire on the unarmed Minneconjou at once, slaughtering many of them with repeated volleys from their carbines. Most of the Indians tried to flee, but the Hotchkiss guns opened up on them from their hillside positions. Firing at a rate of almost one round per second, the soldiers’ shots tore into the camp, indiscriminately killing braves, women, and children. The Hotchkiss guns turned the rout into a massacre.

When it was over, Big Foot and more than half his followers were dead or seriously wounded. One hundred fifty-three lay dead on the ground, but many of the fatally wounded had crawled off to die elsewhere. One estimate claimed that there were barely more than fifty Indian survivors, only those transported after the massacre. Twenty-five soldiers were killed; most had been shot accidentally by their own comrades, not by Indians.

After the wounded troopers were decamped and sent to Pine Ridge, a detail of soldiers rounded up the surviving Indians: four men and forty-seven women and children. Placed in wagons, they also set out for Pine Ridge, leaving their dead to a blizzard that prevented their immediate burial and froze them into grotesque, hoary reminders of the debacle.

Significance

An inquiry followed the events at Wounded Knee, prompted by General Miles Miles, Nelson A. , who brought charges against Forsyth, Forsyth, James W. but the colonel was exonerated and nothing else came of the investigation. The affair traditionally has been viewed as the last armed resistance of American Indians to reservation resettlement. It and the death of Sitting Bull, both in 1890, although not singled out, were certainly factors in the conclusions of Frederick Jackson Turner, who claimed in his renowned 1893 thesis that the U.S. frontier Frontier, American;and Native Americans[Native Americans] closed during the year of the massacre.

For American Indians, however, the infamous day did not die with the victims. On February 27, 1973, more than two hundred members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) took the reservation site at Wounded Knee by force, proclaiming it the Independent Oglala Sioux Nation and demanding that the federal government make amends for past injustices by reviewing all American Indian treaties and policies. Federal marshals immediately surrounded the group. After a two-month standoff, the marshals persuaded the Indians to surrender with promises of a public airing of grievances. For American Indians, Wounded Knee has remained an important symbol of the Euro-American injustice and suppression of their people.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Charles Wesley. Autobiography of Red Cloud: War Leader of the Oglalas. Edited by R. Eli Paul. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1997. First publication of a memoir that the Sioux chief Red Cloud dictated three years after the massacre at Wounded Knee.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Gary Clayton. Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood. New York: Longman, Addison-Wesley, 1996. Biography of the last great Sioux chief that focuses on the challenges Sitting Bull faced in leading his people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Readable, popular account of the displacement and oppression of American Indian nations by European settlers, from the beginnings of European settlement in North America to the massacre of 1890. Includes a helpful but now dated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jensen, Richard E., R. Eli Paul, and John E. Carter. Eyewitness at Wounded Knee. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. Fine collection of photographs from the Wounded Knee battlefield and related sites, with essays on the American Indian perspective, the U.S. Army’s role, and the distorted media coverage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klein, Christina. “’Everything of Interest in the Late Pine Ridge War Are Held by Us for Sale’: Popular Culture and Wounded Knee.” Western Historical Quarterly 25 (Spring, 1994): 45-68. Argues that commercial exploitation of Wounded Knee in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, photographs, and the dime novel played as significant a role as the military in defeating the Ghost Dancers’ dreams of American Indian autonomy. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. 1932. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979. This classic work chronicles the spiritual odyssey of Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala Sioux. Provides important insight into American Indian beliefs and an account of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Utley, Robert M. The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994. Nearly definitive biography of Sitting Bull that portrays the Sioux chief as a complex leader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Last Days of the Sioux Nation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. Highly regarded, sensitive, and evenhanded study that documents the events leading up to Wounded Knee. Contains a chapter on sources, making it invaluable for further study.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    Voices from Wounded Knee, 1973. Rooseveltown, N.Y.: Akwesasne Notes, 1974. With edited transcripts of interviews, documents the efforts of the Oglala Sioux to gain national sympathy for the plight of the American Indian by their stand at Wounded Knee Creek in 1973. Includes a chronicle of events from 1868 to 1973 and an account of the 1890 massacre.

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