On the night of September 9, 1878 the last remnants of Northern Cheyenne, under the leadership of Chief’s Dull Knife and Little Wolf, jumped the Darlington reservation on the northern banks of the Canadian River. The 700-mile journey, that they would make, created a legacy of remarkable courage, determination and human endurance. That same journey would also leave in its path a bitter legacy of violence, bloodshed and brutal revenge. Perhaps it will always be that among those who seek peace and quiet refuge there will also be those who only seek the chaos of war.
Two years earlier, after the battle of The Little Bighorn, the Northern Cheyenne were rounded up and shipped to the designated Cheyenne reservation at Darlington, Oklahoma Territory. Despite the protests of the Cheyenne, who had been assured that they would be returned to their homelands on the Rosebud in Montana, that particular treaty was ignored and the Northern Cheyenne were shipped south. Dull Knife and Little Wolf were assured that there would be plenty of game in the area to hunt in addition to the promised subsidies. Both promises proved to be false and after a year, most of the Cheyenne had perished from disease and starvation. Because of these conditions, Dull Knife and Little Wolf agreed to lead their people back to their native home. Dull Knife believed there were only two alternatives, either death on the reservation or death on the long journey with the remote possibility of at least some of his people reaching the Rosebud. The long, improbable journey was worth the risk and death by any other means was preferred over death on the reservation.
Dull Knife and Little Wolf hoped to avoid detection and travel mostly at night, avoiding the inevitable Army troops and to minimize the risk of encountering the increasing numbers of white settlers in Kansas Territory. However, another leader among the Cheyenne, Wild Hog was equally intent on a path of war and revenge that included slaughter, rape and plunder.
History has named the breakout Dull Knife’s Raid and when word of the Cheyenne leaving the reservation came out, newspapers reported that Dull Knife, the ‘panther of the prairie’ had escaped and that settlers, farmers and ranchers throughout Kansas and Nebraska were in grave danger. Dull Knife was 68 years old and he and Little Wolf led a group of 353 people. Those consisted of 92 men, about half of which were old men, 120 women and 141 children, hardly a Cheyenne war party. And it was Little Wolf, not Dull Knife, who was likely the greatest warrior chief among the Cheyenne. It would be Little Wolf’s defensive, tactical strategies that would prevail over the thousands of U.S troops that were sent out to stop them. Sheridan’s orders to General Crook were clear, any and all measures were to be taken to kill or capture the fleeing Cheyenne.
The first battle was fought at Turkey Creek on the Oklahoma-Kansas border. It was a brief skirmish with U.S. troops withdrawing soon after engaging the Cheyenne defenses. The fleeing band of Cheyenne were in Kansas at Cimarron Crossing on the Arkansas River when Colonel William H. Lewis was dispatched from Ft. Dodge. He and his troops intercepted the Cheyenne at Punished Woman’s Fork near the Smoky Hill River. At this battle, the old men, women and children hid in a cave near the river while the Cheyenne warriors set up a defensive position between them and the approaching soldiers. In the ensuing skirmish, Colonel Lewis suffered a fatal leg wound. After the troops withdrew, Dull Knife and Little Wolf continued to lead their followers north. Colonel Lewis would be the last Kansas Cavalry officer to die during the Plains Indian Wars.
On the last day of September the Cheyenne crossed Sappa Creek near present day Oberlin, Kansas and into Nebraska. During the western Kansas crossing several small bands of warriors did make deadly raids away from the larger body of travelers. Their purpose was to steal provisions, food, clothing, weapons and ammunition. Wherever a settler, cowboy or teamster was found, they were attacked and killed and their horses and weapons taken. A dispatch from Fort Wallace stated:
“…about 25 miles north of Buffalo Station they commenced killing settlers, and so far 17 dead bodies have been found along Sappa Creek. The Indians do not go out of their way at all to kill white people, but if they meet a man on horseback they kill him and take his horse. They are now 80 or 100 miles north of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, with troops pressing pretty hard. They have killed no women nor children and have not thus far mutilated the bodies of their victims.”
However, not stated in the dispatch was an instance where three white women were attacked and raped. The suspected warriors were later arrested and sent back to Kansas for trial. They were turned over to Deputy U.S. Marshall Bat Masterson who escorted them to jail. At the trial, the prosecuting attorney was unable to prove their guilt and all were released.
From Oberlin, Kansas the band of refugees cut across southern Nebraska toward the Platte River and in early October crossed the Platte at Ogallala and headed northwesterly across the panhandle. As they crossed into Nebraska, hundreds of troopers from Camp Sidney were dispatched west and east along the route of the Union Pacific in an attempt to intercept the so-called hostiles and end their northward march. Somehow, the entire band slipped by unnoticed.
Once into the western edge of the Nebraska Sandhills, Dull Knife and Little Wolf decided to split their bands. Little Wolf and his followers, which included not only a number of women and children but also a majority of the younger warriors, scattered throughout the rugged Sandhill terrain and being well hidden, settled in for the winter. Dull Knife resolved to find Red Clouds camp that, unknown to Dull Knife, had been moved to Pine Ridge.
Late October of 1878 had ushered in an already brutal winter. Sub zero temperatures took a dreadful toll on those who followed Dull Knife. On the 25 of October troopers from Fort Robinson intercepted Dull Knife and his people. In the midst of a driving blizzard, the tired, hungry and worn out travelers surrendered. From then until late December, Dull Knife and his people enjoyed the comfort and hospitality of Fort Robinson. Although ‘detained’ the Cheyenne were treated like guests rather than prisoners. Their barracks were warm, meals were served, hunters were allowed to go out and hunt game, on condition that if they did not return, all privileges would be taken away. The Cheyenne men and women were even invited to the forts Christmas dance.
The standing orders from Washington commanded the return of the Cheyenne to Darlington. However Dull Knife and his people refused to go, declaring that they would fight and die rather than return to the reservation. The post commander, Capt. Harry Wessells Jr. preferred not to use deadly force and tried to persuade Dull Knife that he must go. About the same time, the people of Dodge City, Kansas had called for the arrest of Wild Hog and his accomplices for the murders in Kansas. The pressure was on and Wessells then determined to use whatever means necessary to force the return to Darlington. The situation began to deteriorate rapidly.
Four days after Christmas, Dull Knife’s son Bull Hump left the fort to go hunting and did not return. That night, during the distribution of the evening meal, the acting Sargent’s headcount was one short. Hoping to give the missing Bull Hump a chance to return, he did not immediately report his absence. Three days later, the headcount still one short, the missing Cheyenne was reported.
Wessells immediate action was intended to force the defiant Cheyenne to submit and agree to their return to Darlington. He ordered the doors of the barracks to be locked and barred with sentries posted around the building at all times. To provide further encouragement to comply, all food, water and fuel were denied.
After three days, Dull Knife was summoned and Wessells tried to persuade him to give in. Dull Knife informed him that their wives and daughters had encouraged the men to fight and die if necessary, but to never agree to return to the reservation at Darlington.
The January weather was bitterly cold and though the barracks provided shelter from the biting wind, with no fuel for the barracks stove, the imprisoned Cheyenne were near freezing. By the seventh day without food or water, the prisoners were becoming weaker but no less determined to be free. Mothers held their children up to the frost-covered windows so they could lick the frozen moisture from the panes.
Although surrender was not an option and death would be a welcome freedom, starvation while locked away from the land and the sky held little honor. Dull Knife and his people were willing to fight and die for their freedom. Chains and barricades and armed sentries would not hold them.
M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, cowboy poet and entertainer. To contact Tim, e-mail; firstname.lastname@example.org