History of the Wounded Knee Massacre

Photograph of corpse of Big Foot following Wounded Knee Massacre
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The massacre of hundreds of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, marked a particularly tragic milestone in American history. The killing of mostly unarmed men, women, and children, was the last major encounter between the Sioux and U.S. Army troops, and it could be viewed as the end of the Plains Wars.

The violence at Wounded Knee was rooted in the federal government's reaction to the ghost dance movement, in which a religious ritual centered around dancing became a potent symbol of defiance to white rule. As the ghost dance spread to Indian reservations throughout the West, the federal government began to regard it as a major threat and sought to suppress it.

The tensions between whites and Indians greatly increased, especially as federal authorities began to fear that the legendary Sioux medicine man Sitting Bull was about to become involved in the ghost dance movement. When Sitting Bull was killed while being arrested on December 15, 1890, the Sioux in South Dakota became fearful.

Overshadowing the events of late 1890 were decades of conflicts between whites and Indians in the West. But one event, the massacre at the Little Bighorn of Col. George Armstrong Custer and his troops in June 1876 resonated most deeply.

The Sioux in 1890 suspected that commanders in the U.S. Army felt a need to avenge Custer. And that made the Sioux especially suspicious of actions taken by soldiers who came to confront them over the ghost dance movement.

Against that backdrop of mistrust, the eventual massacre at Wounded Knee arose out of a series of misunderstandings. On the morning of the massacre, it was unclear who fired the first shot. But once the shooting began, the U.S. Army troops cut down unarmed Indians with no restraint. Even artillery shells were fired at Sioux women and children who were seeking safety and running from the soldiers.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the Army commander on the scene, Col. James Forsyth, was relieved of his command. However, an Army inquiry cleared him within two months, and he was restored to his command.

The massacre, and the forcible rounding up of Indians following it crushed any resistance to white rule in the West. Any hope the Sioux or other tribes had of being able to restore their way of life was obliterated. And life on the detested reservations became the plight of the American Indian.

The Wounded Knee massacre faded into history, but a book published in 1971, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, became a surprise bestseller and brought the name of the massacre back to public awareness. The book by Dee Brown, a narrative history of the West told from the Indian point of view, struck a chord in America at a time of national skepticism and is widely considered a classic.

And Wounded Knee came back in the news in 1973, when American Indian activists, as an act of civil disobedience, took over the site in a standoff with federal agents.

Roots of the Conflict

The ultimate confrontation at Wounded Knee was rooted in the movement of the 1880s to force Indians in the West onto government reservations. Following the defeat of Custer, the U.S. military was fixated on defeating any Indian resistance to forced resettlement.

Sitting Bull, one of the most respected Sioux leaders, led a band of followers across the international border into Canada. The British government of Queen Victoria allowed them to live there and did not persecute them in any way. Yet conditions were very difficult, and Sitting Bull and his people eventually returned to South Dakota.

In the 1880s, Buffalo Bill Cody, whose exploits in the West had become famous through dime novels, recruited Sitting Bull to join his famous Wild West Show. The show traveled extensively, and Sitting Bull was a huge attraction.

After a few years of enjoying fame in the white world, Sitting Bull returned to South Dakota and life on a reservation. He was regarded with considerable respect by the Sioux.

The Ghost Dance

The ghost dance movement began with a member of the Paiute tribe in Nevada. Wovoka, who claimed to have religious visions, began preaching after recovering from a serious illness in early 1889. He claimed that God had revealed to him that a new age was about to dawn on earth.

According to Wovoka’s prophecies, game which had been hunted to extinction would return, and Indians would restore their culture, which had been essentially destroyed during the decades of conflict with white settlers and soldiers.

Part of Wovoka’s teaching involved the practice of ritual dancing. Based on older round dances performed by Indians, the ghost dance had some special characteristics. It was generally performed over a series of days. And special attire, which became known as ghost dance shirts, would be worn. It was believed that those wearing the ghost dance would be protected against harm, including bullets fired by U.S. Army soldiers.

As the ghost dance spread throughout western Indian reservations, officials in the federal government became alarmed. Some white Americans argued that the ghost dance was essentially harmless and was a legitimate exercise of religious freedom.

Others in the government saw malicious intent behind the ghost dancing. The practice was seen as a way to energize Indians to resist white rule. And by late 1890 the authorities in Washington began giving orders for the U.S. Army to be ready to take action to suppress the ghost dance.

Sitting Bull Targeted

In 1890 Sitting Bull was living, along with a few hundred other Hunkpapa Sioux, at the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota. He had spent time in a military prison and had also toured with Buffalo Bill, but he seemed to have settled down as a farmer. Still, he always seemed in rebellion to the rules of the reservation and was perceived by some white administrators as a potential source of trouble.

The U.S. Army began sending troops into South Dakota in November 1890, planning to suppress the ghost dance and the rebellious movement it seemed to represent. The man in charge of the Army in the area, General Nelson Miles, came up with a plan to get Sitting Bull to surrender peacefully, at which point he could be sent back to prison.

Miles wanted Buffalo Bill Cody to approach Sitting Bull and essentially lure him into surrendering. Cody apparently traveled to South Dakota, but the plan fell apart and Cody left and returned to Chicago. Army officers decided to use Indians who were working as policemen on the reservation to arrest Sitting Bull.

A detachment of 43 tribal police officers arrived at Sitting Bull’s log cabin on the morning of December 15, 1890. Sitting Bull agreed to go with the officers, but some of his followers, who were generally described as ghost dancers, tried to intervene. An Indian shot the commander of the police, who raised his own weapon to return fire and accidentally wounded Sitting Bull.

In the confusion, Sitting Bull was then fatally shot by another officer. The outbreak of gunfire brought a charge by a detachment of soldiers who had been positioned nearby in case of trouble.

Witnesses to the violent incident recalled a peculiar spectacle: a show horse which had been presented to Sitting Bull years earlier by Buffalo Bill heard the gunfire and must have thought it was back in the Wild West Show. The horse began performing intricate dance moves as the violent scene unfolded.

The Massacre

The killing of Sitting Bull was national news. The New York Times, on December 16, 1890, published a story at the top of the front page headlined “The Last of Sitting Bull.” The sub-headlines said he had been killed while resisting arrest.

In South Dakota, the death of Sitting Bull stoked fear and distrust. Hundreds of his followers departed the Hunkpapa Sioux camps and began to scatter. One band, led by the chief Big Foot, began traveling to meet up with one of the old chiefs of the Sioux, Red Cloud. It was hoped Red Cloud should protect them from the soldiers.

As the group, a few hundred men, women, and children, moved through the harsh winter conditions, Big Foot became quite ill. On December 28, 1890, Big Foot and his people were intercepted by cavalry troopers. An officer in the Seventh Cavalry, Major Samuel Whitside, met with Big Foot under a flag of truce.

Whitside assured Big Foot his people would not be harmed. And he made arrangements for Big Foot to travel in an Army wagon, as he was suffering from pneumonia.

The cavalry was going to escort the Indians with Big Foot to a reservation. That night the Indians set up camp, and the soldiers set up their bivouacs nearby. At some point in the evening another cavalry force, commanded by Col. James Forsyth, arrived on the scene. The new group of soldiers was accompanied by an artillery unit.

On the morning of December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army troops told the Indians to gather in a group. They were ordered to surrender their weapons. The Indians stacked up against their guns, but the soldiers suspected they were hiding more weapons. Soldiers began searching the Sioux tepees.

Two rifles were found, one of which belonged to an Indian named Black Coyote, who was probably deaf. Black Coyote refused to give up his Winchester, and in a confrontation with him, a shot was fired.

The situation quickly accelerated as soldiers began shooting at the Indians. Some of the male Indians drew knives and faced the soldiers, believing that the ghost dance shirts they were wearing would protect them from bullets. They were shot down.

As Indians, including many women and children, tried to flee, the soldiers continued firing. Several artillery pieces, which had been positioned on a nearby hill, began to rake the fleeing Indians. The shells and shrapnel killed and wounded scores of people.

The entire massacre lasted for less than an hour. It was estimated that about 300 to 350 Indians were killed. Casualties among the cavalry amounted to 25 dead and 34 wounded. It was believed most of the killed and wounded among the U.S. Army troops had been caused by friendly fire.

Wounded Indians were taken on wagons to the Pine Ridge reservation, where Dr. Charles Eastman, who had been born a Sioux and educated at schools in the East, sought to treat them. Within days, Eastman traveled with a group to the massacre site to search for survivors. They did find some Indians who were miraculously still alive. But they also discovered hundreds of frozen corpses, some as many as two miles away.

Most of the bodies were gathered by soldiers and buried in a mass grave.

Reaction to the Massacre

In the East, the massacre at Wounded Knee was portrayed as a battle between “hostiles” and soldiers. Stories on the front page of the New York Times in the final days of 1890 gave the Army version of events. Though the number of people killed, and the fact that many were women and children, created interest in official circles.

Accounts told by Indian witnesses were reported and appeared in newspapers. On February 12, 1890, an article in the New York Times was headlined “Indians Tell Their Story.” The sub-headline read, “A Pathetic Recital of the Killing of Women and Children.”

The article gave witness accounts and ended with a chilling anecdote. According to a minister at one of the churches at the Pine Ridge reservation, one of the Army scouts told him he had heard an officer say, after the massacre, “Now we have avenged Custer’s death.”

The Army launched an investigation of what happened, and Col. Forsyth was relieved of his command, but he was quickly cleared. A story in the New York Times on February 13, 1891, was headlined “Col. Forsyth Exonerated.” The sub-headlines read “His Action at Wounded Knee Justified” and “The Colonel Restored to Command of His Gallant Regiment.”

Legacy of Wounded Knee

After the massacre at Wounded Knee, the Sioux came to accept that resistance to white rule was futile. The Indians came to live on the reservations. The massacre itself faded into history.

In the early 1970s, the name of Wounded Knee came to take on resonance, largely due to Dee Brown’s book. A native American resistance movement put a new focus on the massacre as a symbol of broken promises and betrayals by white America.

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McNamara, Robert. "History of the Wounded Knee Massacre." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/wounded-knee-massacre-4135729. McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 16). History of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/wounded-knee-massacre-4135729 McNamara, Robert. "History of the Wounded Knee Massacre." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wounded-knee-massacre-4135729 (accessed June 6, 2023).