Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

Across the fence

Wounded Knee; December 29, 1890


Mass grave at Wounded Knee (photo is in the public domain)

Sitting Bull, his son Crow Foot and fourteen other Sioux, had been killed in a botched attempt to arrest him on December 15, 1890. Stunned by his death and fearful of reprisal approximately 200 of his Hunkpapa band left the Standing Rock Reservation to join the Miniconjou Sioux at the Cheyenne River Reservation. The Miniconjou band was under the leadership of Chief Spotted Elk.

The attempted arrest was based on the false assumption that Sitting Bull was a leader and instigator of the recent Ghost Dance religion. The Ghost Dance was a ceremony performed by those who believed that the practice of the dance and adherence to the religious beliefs that it espoused would result in the re-creation of the earth. In the rebirth a flood of soil would cover the old earth, bring back the ancestors of the people and restore the decimated herds of buffalo. Equally important, this re-born earth would be devoid of the 'white man'.

Most non-native people believed that the Ghost Dance movement was the prelude to war and were fearful of a massive uprising of unprecedented violence. In truth the Ghost Dance was a non-violent movement although there were those among the Sioux who hoped for battle. No doubt the young warriors did not share the view of their elders, that armed conflict was not the path to peace. The previous forty years of war had shown the futility of resistance to the ever-increasing numbers of land hungry settlers and broken treaties. And not since Custer's defeat at The Little Big Horn, fourteen years earlier, had the Indian Nations won a decisive victory. The Ghost Dance embodied the deepest desires of their last hope.

By this time, in the last days of December 1890, most native tribes were settled on reservations under U.S. jurisdiction and reservation management was administered by appointed Indian Agents. Some were more sympathetic to the plight of the Indian than were others.

At the Cheyenne River Reservation, Spotted Elk and his people were poorly clothed and ill equipped for the winter conditions. A two-year drought had taken its toll on crops and livestock throughout the region. A scarcity of food and absence of promised rations had weakened Spotted Elk's people to the point where death by starvation and exposure seemed imminent. And so, in order to distance themselves from the turmoil at the Standing Rock Agency where Sitting Bull had been killed and in hopes of finding food, shelter and safety, Spotted Elk led his people south.

It was the twenty-third day of December when Spotted Elk, with nearly 350 Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Sioux, left the Cheyenne River Reservation and began a winter trek, of almost 100 miles, to seek shelter with his Sioux brother Red Cloud on the Pine Ridge Reservation. On the sixth day of their journey, December 28, Spotted Elk and his followers had reached a point southwest of the Dakota badlands near Porcupine Butte. It was there that a detachment of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Major Samuel M. Whitside intercepted the nomadic caravan of weary men, women and children. At that point, the troopers took custody of Spotted Elk and his people and escorted them further west, about five miles, to Wounded Knee Creek.

While the Sioux made camp in the broad valley northwest of the creek the rest of the 7th Cavalry, under the command of Col. James Forsyth, arrived to assist in guarding the Sioux encampment. In the lodges that dotted the valley floor there were no more than 50 or 60 young to middle-aged warriors. The other 300 Sioux, who huddled close to the lodge fires for warmth, were old men, women and children. The soldiers of the 7th Cavalry, who surrounded the encampment, numbered about 500 men. Included in that number were 20 soldiers from Battery E of the 1st Artillery who set up four Hotchkiss guns on the nearby hill overlooking the Sioux camp. At least one of the four guns was the Hotchkiss, revolving barrel, gun capable of firing 43 rounds per minute with an effective range of 2,000 yards.

Hopefully, on that cold December night, no one could have imagined the carnage that would unfold in the morning hours to come. The stage was set and the rising sun would draw the curtains for the opening scene. The players were in their places. Nervous warriors with an inferior arsenal concealed their weapons beneath their tattered blankets, afraid of a possible surprise attack but too weak, in numbers and strength, to mount an offensive on their own. The flicker of lodge-fire flames danced against the sides of tipi's illuminating the clear night like candles inside brown paper bags.

In the midst of the circle of lodges, a white flag hung unmoving from the long pole that had been pushed into the frozen ground and propped with white sandstone rocks. A clear sign of truce, but many remembered that white flags also flew in the Cheyenne camps on the Washita and at Sand Creek.

Around the camp was stationed the 7th Cavalry. Some remembered their comrades who fell under the assault of Cheyenne and Sioux who overwhelmed and defeated Custer's command. Perhaps there was a score to settle.

To the south, in Rushville and Hay Springs eastern reporters telegraphed news of the Sioux uprising, the frenzied mayhem of Ghost Dancers who were heading their way. Settlers were being attacked, scalped and mutilated and although the reports were unfounded, it made for exciting, sensational news. Fear of the unknown brought outlying settlers and their families crowding into town for protection and the hope of safety in numbers.

Nearly halfway between the guarded Sioux camp at Wounded Knee and the crush of settlers who had doubled the population of Rushville, stood a remote homesteaders cabin that had not been abandoned. At that place, between Rush Creek and Wounded Knee Creek, a lone man stood watch in the bitter cold beneath a clear, star filled sky. His eyes to the north, watching the horizon for painted warriors. Listening for the sound of horses, or the imitated yip of coyotes or hoot of owls. He paced the perimeter of the cabin like a soldier on watch, his rifle ready.

From outside the cabin, that he so fiercely guarded, he listened to the moans and muffled cries of his wife who lay inside. Her pregnancy at full term, she had been unable to make the journey into town and so they had stayed, she would deliver, he would keep them safe. Through the long night the horizon remained empty, no painted warriors, no rush of horses. In the pre-dawn of December 29 1890, came the urgent sounds of birthing then a sharp slap and the gurgling cry of new life.

As he rushed to the door of the cabin he heard another stifled cry of pain, then another slap of palm on flesh and finally yet another burst of life joined in chorus with the first. Twin boys had been born on that early morning. The parents of those boys were my wife's great grandparents.

At Wounded Knee Creek, as the sun peaked above the timber that stood along the creek's edge, Colonel Forsyth ordered a search of the camp to confiscate any weapons. The initial search netted nearly 40 rifles and a few more were found under the blankets worn by several warriors. It is told that none of the old men had any weapons.

There are several differing accounts as to who or what triggered the first shot. One Sioux woman, who was eight years old at the time, later told that she remembered a soldier holding a cloth in the air and when he dropped his arm, the shooting began. Others tell that a medicine man began performing the Ghost Dance that unnerved the soldiers and caused the first shot to be fired.

Oral history among the Sioux is a strong and often accurate account of events. Most oral history, according to tradition, must be verified before it becomes eligible for retelling. One of those accounts, told by an Oglala Sioux descendent on the Pine Ridge Reservation relates that it was Sitting Bull's adopted brother, who while coming forward to lay down his weapon, was spun roughly around by soldiers. During this rough treatment his gun accidentally discharged and the shooting began.

Perhaps this was Jumping Bull, the Hohe boy that Sitting Bull had saved and adopted many years earlier. Perhaps he was also symbolically 'surrendering' for his brother who had been killed just two weeks earlier.

Whatever the cause, the ensuing melee brought gunfire from all quarters of the surrounding 7th Cavalry. Several soldiers were killed in their own crossfire. The fury of the Hotchkiss guns were unleashed and when the echo of the last bullet faded among the cedars, 25 troopers lay dead and nearly 300 Sioux, mostly old men, women and children, lay in the blood stained snow near Wounded Knee Creek.

For bravery in the face of an unarmed force of women, children, and old men, ten U.S. soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Volume 1 of "101 Yesterdays", containing 50 selected columns from the past six years is now available. To order contact Tim at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com or send $17.00 plus $3.00 postage and handling to M. Timothy Nolting P.O. Box 68 Bushnell, NE 69128


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