Across The Fence
On January 8, 1879 three Cheyenne Chief’s, with Dull Knife’s band, were taken from the barracks where they were being held at Fort Robinson. Capt. Harry Wessells hoped that by removing the leaders from the Cheyenne people that they would relent and agree to be returned to the reservation at Darlington. Each of the three leaders, Old Crow, Wild Hog and Left Hand, individually and collectively refused to voluntarily return to the Indian Territory Reservation at Darlington and were subsequently placed in irons and held in separate quarters. Their families were also taken from the barracks where Dull Knife and the others were being held and were confined along with the three leaders. Of the 149 Cheyenne who had been captured two months earlier, only 107 remained confined in the barracks with Dull Knife. The other 42, including Old Crow, Left Hand and Wild Hog were imprisoned in separate quarters, had perished or were confined to the post hospital.
After seven days without food or heat and three days without water, the remaining 107 resolved that they would not surrender without a fight and planned a desperate escape. Although they had been searched for weapons, Dull Knife’s people had somehow managed to smuggle 5 rifles and 11 pistols into the barracks. How this was accomplished and how they were able to keep them hidden for over two months is the subject of some dispute.
Some claim that the women had hidden the weapons under their clothing and since supposedly chivalrous soldiers would not dare to search a woman, the weapons were undetected. Others claim that the weapons were dismantled and the parts were worn as trinkets on necklaces, bracelets and hair ornaments and hidden under blankets. Still others maintain that, over the two months of captivity, various weapons were smuggled in to the barracks and hidden under the floors. Nevertheless, however the arsenal was accumulated, the armament was critical to the success of the planned escape.
The daring breakout was to be led by warriors of the Elk Society. Armed with some of their few weapons, they would break through the windows of the barracks and set up a line of defense against the soldiers guarding the barracks, who were bound to attack, once the breakout began. Next, the warrior society of Dog Soldiers, those charged with the responsibility of protecting the women and children, would set up a secondary line, protecting those who fled into the moonlit night. Throughout the skirmishing, other warriors would gather up the weapons and ammunition of the soldiers killed and arm themselves against the pursuit that would inevitably ensue.
The night of January 9, 1879 a full moon shone brightly across the snow-covered prairie near the fork of White River and Soldier Creek. Nearly a foot of snow blanketed the grounds of Fort Robinson and the temperature had dropped to well below zero. Into this freezing prairie emptiness, 39 men with 68 women and children, weak from the cold and days without food or water, with no supplies or adequate clothing, would break from their prison. They planned to complete the final 100 miles of their 800-mile journey to return to their ancestral home, to live free upon the land of their fathers or willingly die in the pursuit of that quest.
At 10:00 o’clock that night, the sentries were startled by the sharp clatter of shattering glass. From out of the broken barracks windows a half-dozen warriors leaped like startled deer ahead of a rushing prairie fire. Aligning themselves as a human fence, between the barracks buildings, they set up a line of fire and held back the advancing troops that charged the Cheyenne defenses. While other Cheyenne broke down the bars that blocked the prison doors, the Dog soldiers attacked wildly while the old men, women and children fled into the night. The Dog soldiers continued to fight until eight of the ten were killed by troopers. Several U.S. soldiers were wounded but only one was killed during the breakout.
Among the first of the Cheyenne to escape was Dull Knife along with his wife Pawnee Woman, his youngest son Little Hump and two of his daughters. As they fled across the moonlit expanse the Elk warriors and remaining Dog soldiers continued to cover their escape without much effect. Meanwhile, troopers had assembled and pursued the fleeing Cheyenne on foot and horseback. The last Cheyenne to leave the gaping doors of the fort barracks were three women, each clutching babies. All three were shot through the back, killing each woman and the child she carried. One of those women was Dull Knife’s daughter.
The fleeing Cheyenne were pursued into the hills and ravines to the north and west of Fort Robinson. Several times, during the next two days, troopers would return to the fort for fresh mounts, food, warmth and rest then rejoin the relentless search for the escaped prisoners. Their orders were to kill or capture as many as possible.
Among the Cheyenne who fled were Big Antelope and his wife. Both were wounded as they ran and fell near each other. Big Antelope’s wife pulled herself closer to her husband and was shot again as she crawled to him. As they lay together in the snow they spoke to one another and Big Antelope said it would be better to die than to be captured and returned. He drew his knife quickly across her throat then plunged the bloodied blade into his own heart.
During the next two days the soldiers scoured the surrounding area and brought the dead and wounded back to the fort. The dead were stacked like frozen logs and the wounded were treated in the fort hospital. Most of those injured died of their wounds. Most were women and children.
On the 11th of January, troopers under the command of Capt. Lawton cornered a small group of Cheyenne. A brief skirmish ensued during which one of the trooper’s horses was shot and killed. Fearing that the starving Indians might butcher and eat the horse, he detailed two men to burn it and remain with the horse until it was reduced to ash. During the two days following the mass escape, three more soldiers were killed while routing the Cheyenne.
Those Cheyenne who escaped the first two days of pursuit fled to the northwest toward their homeland in Montana on The Rosebud. They were discovered and surrounded on the 22nd of January on the open plains near Hat Creek, about 45 miles northwest of Ft. Robinson. They were just a few hundred yards from the sight where, three years earlier, Buffalo Bill Cody had killed the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hand at the Battle of War Bonnet Creek and claimed the first scalp to avenge Custer’s defeat.
On spotting the approaching troopers the Cheyenne ran for the cover of an old buffalo wallow about fifty feet in length, a dozen feet wide and nearly six feet deep. Four companies of the Third Cavalry, nearly 150 men, surrounded the wallow and opened fire on the seventeen men and fifteen women and children who hid there. After nearly half an hour they ceased the barrage and approached the edge of the wallow. As they approached three Cheyenne warriors charged up and over the edge of the wallow. They were immediately cut down. One of the warriors brandished an empty revolver, the other two carried clubs. All of the men and boys and several of the women who had taken cover in the wallow were dead. When the soldiers removed the bodies they discovered three women, alive, who had been covered and protected by the men.
A wagon detail was sent out to gather up the bodies and while soldiers loaded the frozen corpses’, local trophy hunters and some soldiers gathered blankets, moccasins, knives, pipes, jewelry and scalps from off the dead.
After the breakout Dull Knife along with his wife and daughters had hidden in a cave a short distance from Ft. Robinson. For five nights they remained hidden until the troopers ended the search in that area. Then they began a thirteen-day trek, in sub-zero weather, to walk the seventy miles to the Pine Ridge Reservation. They survived on scarce berries and frozen roots and finally ate the sinew from their clothing and the leather uppers of their moccasins in order to stay alive.
Of the 107 Cheyenne, who made the courageous break for freedom, all of the men in Dull Knife’s band, 39 in all were killed, along with 8 women and 15 children. The survivors numbered 45 women and children. Dull Knife, his wife, two surviving daughters and one son were allowed to stay at Pine Ridge with their Sioux brothers. Dull Knife died in 1883. His quest, to return with his people to The Rosebud, was never completed.
Today, his many descendants continue to honor his legacy and memory on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, cowboy poet and entertainer. To contact Tim, e-mail; [email protected]