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“A wholesome lesson to the other Sioux”: The Massacre at Wounded Knee

Posted on 10/12/2020


In 1890 the Paiute shaman Wovoka gained a reputation among Western tribes as a visionary and teacher. Central to his teaching was the Ghost Dance which, properly practiced, would halt the expansion of white settlers, summon the spirits of their ancestors to unite with the living, and usher in a new age of unity and prosperity among all the Indians of the region.

At the time of Wovoka’s prophecies there was great suffering among the Sioux. Their ancient way of life had been destroyed by the depredations and deceits of the white man. Today, these people are officially recognized as the Oglala Sioux Tribe, one of seven subtribes of the Lakota people.

When some of the Oglala Sioux who were camped near Pine Ridge Agency began gathering to perform the Ghost Dance, it struck fear in the white agents and the encamped U.S. Army. This was reported by the Omaha World-Herald on November 21, 1890. The headline and the reportage display the overt racism directed at the Indians. One of the subtitles announced that “Six Hundred Buck Indians Are Holding Their Savage Dance of Death.”

The massacre, often referred to as a battle, was the final major confrontation in the decades old war between American Indians and American troops. It was decisively bloody. On December 31, 1890, the Columbus Daily Enquirer reported in detail the events at Wounded Knee the day before. A reporter who was an eyewitness to the mayhem telegraphed a vivid account. 

The soldiers, maddened at the sight of their falling comrades, hardly waited the command, and in a moment their whole front was a sheet of fire, above which the smoke rolled, obscuring the central scene from view. Through this horrible curtain single Indians could be seen, at times, flying before the fire, but after the first discharge from the carbines of the troopers, there were few of them left. They fell on all sides like grain in the course of the scythe. The Indians and soldiers lay together, and the wounded fought on the ground.

The same day the Patriot of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, reprinted the same account as the Columbus paper with an added report. Under the ugly headline “More Good Indians,” it read, in part:

At daybreak this morning thirty-three Indians belonging to Two Strikes’ band tried to capture the provision train of the Ninth cavalry, two miles from Pine Ridge. The Indians were all killed.

The Albuquerque Morning Democrat published an article on January 1, 1891, that enumerated the dead and wounded as reported by Generals John R. Brooke and Nelson A. Miles. It was the latter who said that the heavy losses suffered by the Indians “at the hands of the Seventh Cavalry may be a wholesome lesson to the other Sioux.”

Even when calling for an investigation “by competent authority” into the circumstances under which the battle of Wounded Knee creek was fought,” the Macon Telegraph of January 1, 1891, expressed the popular attitude toward the Indians. “It [the battle] not only resulted in the loss of many valuable lives, and more that were not valuable…” 

It seemed certain that those who reported the carnage were determined to blame the Indians for its necessity. A graphic account of the battle was published by the Chicago Herald on January 2, 1891. The headline: “Big Foots Treachery. Story of the Wounded Knee Fight. Twenty Awful Minutes Passed in a Storm of Leaden Hail—A Ghastly Scene of Bloodshed When the Smoke of Battle Had Cleared.” The reporter leaves no doubt regarding his sympathies. 

When we rode out last Friday with the First Battalion [sic] we prayed for a chance to capture some Indians, an opportunity to do something to help bring this war to a close and restore peace….Sunday came….Seven miles were rode and the scouts signaled the approach of the foe….Even then they showed their treacherous nature….The return march was formed, and sunset found us all in camp, happy, indeed, with the successful hunt and game neatly bagged. No more escape for these wily devils.

Also on January 2, 1891, the Daily Inter Ocean of Chicago published excerpts from several newspapers under the headline “Lesson of Wounded Knee.” The Buffalo Courier broached the idea that 

It is likely that the regimental traditions of the Seventh Cavalry, which was Custer’s regiment, had much to do with the merciless character of the punishment visited upon the Indians. Barbarous work though it seems, it may be the most merciful in the end.

Other rationalizations were offered by the New York Press

With the strong arm of the military instead of civil authority extended over him we might expect to have a few good Indians who were not dead Indians.

By the Buffalo Express

Rules of civilized warfare cannot be followed in a fight with barbarians.

And the Philadelphia Ledger

The Indians are so much our inferiors in every way that it seems almost shameful to fight them at all, but they must be fought when they go on the warpath…

While the Buffalo Courier briefly considered the revenge of the Seventh Cavalry, the St. Louis Republic devoted more space to reckoning that the troops were vengeful in an article titled “That Massacre. An Historical Coincidence at the Wounded Knee Slaughter. Another Slaughter by the Seventh Cavalry—The Last Fight of the Regiment in the Last Indian War with the Sioux.” The article, which provides a detailed look at the Seventh Cavalry’s encounters with the Sioux, was published on January 6, 1891. 

Is it not something of a coincidence that the first battle of the Indian war which has been imminent for several weeks in the Northwest should have been participated in solely, on the part of the white troops, by the Seventh Cavalry, the regiment that was fairly wiped out of existence during the last Indian war occurring in the same region of the country? On Wounded Knee Creek the Seventh Cavalry captured Big Foot’s band of Indians, and, resisting disarmament, the Indians were massacred, 110 warriors and 250 squaws and pappooses [sic] being slain.” 

The slaughter of so many women and children horrified many people who otherwise were complacent about containing the Indians. A reporter for the Omaha World-Herald accompanied the burial party as they searched for corpses. The Daily Inter Ocean published his account on January 7, 1891, under the headline “The Field of Wounded Knee. Some of the Things the Burial Party Saw…”

There lay scores of boys, down to the ages of 10 and 11, who wore the gaudy painted ghost shirts in which they hoped to conquer and in which they were woefully deceived.

On January 16, 1891, the Kansas City Star reported the view of educator Elaine Goodale that “the Wounded Knee fight was simply a slaughter.” Goodale, Supervisor of Indian Education for the Dakota Territories, relied on information 

obtained chiefly from Indian prisoners who engaged in it, and half breeds who were present. The testimony of the survivors is unanimous that the Indians did not plan resistance. The party was not a war party, but a party intending to visit the agency at the invitation of Red Cloud….The fugitives were pursued up the ravines and shot down indiscriminately by the soldiers. It is reported that one of the officers called out, ‘Don’t shoot the squaws,’ but the men were doubtless too much excited to obey. The killing of women and children was in part unavoidable, owing to the confusion, but I think there is no doubt that it was in many instances deliberate and intentional. The Seventh cavalry, Custer’s old command, had an old grudge to repay.

As reported by the Omaha World-Herald on January 18, 1891, a human-interest story arose when Leonard Wright Colby, one of the generals at Wounded Knee, returned to Lincoln, Nebraska with

the most interesting Indian relic yet brought from the battle fields. It was an 11-months-old papoose. 

The infant, a girl, had lain for days, half frozen, on the ground. She survived, and was taken by General Colby to his wife. They adopted the child and appear to have used her as something of a war bounty and pride in their goodness. The girl did not have a happy life.

A dispatch from a reporter for the Chicago Herald which was published on January 22, 1891, justified the killing of women. 

So much has been said about the killing of women and children at Wounded Knee, and out of it has come the investigation that has reflected upon General Forsythe and the famous Seventh Cavalry. I am wondering upon whom the investigation would settle if to-day these treacherous hostiles should again take it into their heads to open fire….The killing of little children at Wounded Knee was most pitiful. The killing of the squaws was as just as it was unavoidable. They were armed with knives, and some of them with revolvers….The squaws stood and loaded guns for the Indians to fire….The greatest fight that day was by an Indian and his daughter. She was armed with knife and revolver.

This reportage directly conflicts with the Supervisor of Education who asserted that rumors about armed women were fiction.

The Times of Troy, New York, published a letter on January 22, 1891, from a white woman who was on the scene. The letter writer, “Mrs. Charles Cook, formerly Miss Jessy Wells,” indicates

that none of the newspaper reports has been wholly true, and that ‘many statements have been made for which there was absolutely no foundation.’ She continues: ‘It gives one such a helpless feeling to know that these false reports are sinking into the minds of the public continually, and that no amount of correction will remove the first impression…It is said the women used gun and knives, but the most careful examination has disclosed that only one woman took part in the firing. She had a revolver.

The massacre lingered for many years in the public imagination. On July 29, 1891, the Boston Daily Advertiser reported that plans were being made to display some of the Indian survivors at the World’s Fair as arranged by white men at Pine Ridge. 

“[The] plan is to take a party of some 70 Sioux direct from the reservation to Chicago and have them quartered there in a village of their own construction, patterned after the style of the tepee villages they construct on the plains.” 

It is stunning that these defeated peoples should be put on display for the entertainment of the fair-goers, that their devastation should become a source of amusement.


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