Indian Wars of the Frontier West – Wounded Knee Massacre

Published on February 20, 2013 by Carol

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Wounded Knee Massacre

Segregation of the Indian tribes upon reservations seemed to the commission the only solution of the vexing problem. Various treaties were made and others were projected looking toward the removal of the tribesmen from the highways of continental travel. The result was misgiving and increased unrest among the Indians.

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In midsummer of 1868 forays occurred at many points along the border of the Indian Territory. General Sheridan, who now commanded the Department of the Missouri, believed that a general war was imminent. He determined to teach the southern tribesmen a lesson they would not forget. In the dead of winter our troops marched against the Cheyennes, then in their encampments below the Kansas line.

The Indians did not believe that white men could march in weather forty below zero, during which they themselves sat in their tepees around their fires; but our cavalrymen did march in such weather, and under conditions such as our cavalry perhaps could not endure today. Among these troops was the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s Regiment, formed after the Civil War, and it was led by Lieutenant-Colonel George A. Custer himself, that gallant officer whose name was to go into further and more melancholy history of the Plains.

Custer marched until he got in touch with the trails of the Cheyennes, whom he knew to belong to Black Kettle’s band. He did not at the time know that below them, in the same valley of the Washita, were also the winter encampments of the Kiowas, the Comanches, the Arapahos, and even a few Apaches. He attacked at dawn of a bleak winter morning, November 27, 1868, after taking the precaution of surrounding the camp, and killed Black Kettle, and another chief, Little Rock, and over a hundred of their warriors. Many women and children also were killed in this attack. The result was one which sank deep into the Indian mind. They began to respect the men who could outmarch them and outlive them on the range. Surely, they thought, these were not the same men who had abandoned Forts Phil Kearny, C. F. Smith, and Reno. There had been some mistake about this matter. The Indians began to think it over. The result was a pacifying of all the country south of the Platte. The lower Indians began to come in and give themselves up to the reservation life.

One of the hardest of pitched battles ever fought with an Indian tribe occurred in September, 1868, on the Arickaree or South Fork of the Republican River, where General “Sandy” Forsyth, and his scouts, for nine days fought over six hundred Cheyennes and Arapahos. These savages had been committing atrocities upon the settlers of the Saline, the Solomon, and the Republican valleys, and were known to have killed some sixty-four men and women at the time General Sheridan resolved to punish them. Forsyth had no chance to get a command of troops, but he was allowed to enlist fifty scouts, all “first-class, hardened frontiersmen,” and with this body of fighting men he carried out the most dramatic battle perhaps ever waged on the Plains.

Forsyth ran into the trail of two or three large Indian villages, but none the less he followed on until he came to the valley of the South Fork. Here the Cheyennes under the redoubtable Roman Nose surrounded him on the 17th of September. The small band of scouts took refuge on a brushy island some sixty yards from shore, and hastily dug themselves in under fire.

They stood at bay outnumbered ten to one, with small prospect of escape, for the little island offered no protection of itself, and was in pointblank range from the banks of the river. All their horses soon were shot down, and the men lay in the rifle pits with no hope of escape. Roman Nose, enraged at the resistance put up by Forsyth’s men, led a band of some four hundred of his warriors in the most desperate charge that has been recorded in all our Indian fighting annals. It was rarely that the Indian would charge at all; but these tribesmen, stripped naked for the encounter, and led at first by that giant warrior, who came on shouting his defiance, charged in full view not only once but three times in one day, and got within a hundred feet of the foot of the island where the scouts were lying.

According to Forsyth’s report, the Indians came on in regular ranks like the cavalry of the white men, more than four hundred strong. They were met by the fire of repeating carbines and revolvers, and they stood for the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth fire of repeating weapons, and still charged in! Roman Nose was killed at last within touch of the rifle pits against which he was leading his men. The second charge was less desperate, for the savages lost heart after the loss of their leader. The third one, delivered towards the evening of that same day, was desultory. By that time the bed of the shallow stream was well filled with fallen horses and dead warriors.
Forsyth ordered meat cut from the bodies of his dead horses and buried in the wet sand so that it might keep as long as possible. Lieutenant Beecher, his chief of scouts, was killed, as also were Surgeon Mooers, and Scouts Smith, Chalmers, Wilson, Farley, and Day. Seventeen others of the party were wounded, some severely. Forsyth himself was shot three times, once in the head. His left leg was broken below the knee, and his right thigh was ripped up by a rifle ball, which caused him extreme pain. Later he cut the bullet out of his own leg, and was relieved from some part of the pain. After his rescue, when his broken leg was set it did not suit him, and he had the leg broken twice in the hospital and reset until it knitted properly.

Forsyth’s men lay under fire under a blazing sun in their holes on the sandbar for nine days. But the savages never dislodged them, and at last they made off, their women and children beating the death drums, and the entire village mourning the unreturning brave. On the second day of the fighting Forsyth had got out messengers at extreme risk, and at length the party was rescued by a detachment of the Tenth Cavalry. The Indians later said that they had in all over six hundred warriors in this fight. Their losses, though variously estimated, were undoubtedly heavy.

It was encounters such as this which gradually were teaching the Indians that they could not beat the white men, so that after a time they began to yield to the inevitable.

What is known as the Baker Massacre was the turning-point in the half-century of warfare with the Blackfoot, the savage tribe which had preyed upon the men of the fur trade in a long-continued series of robberies and murders. On January 22, 1870, Major E. M. Baker, led by half-breeds who knew the country, surprised the Piegans in their winter camp on the Marias River, just below the border. He, like Custer, attacked at dawn, opening the encounter with a general fire into the tepees. He killed a hundred and seventy-three of the Piegans, including very many women and children, as was unhappily the case so often in these surprise attacks. It was deplorable warfare. But it ended the resistance of the savage Blackfoot. They have been disposed for peace from that day to this.

The terrible revenge which the Sioux and Cheyennes took in the battle which annihilated Custer and his men on the Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876; the Homeric running fight made by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces — a flight which baffled our best generals and their men for a hundred and ten days over more than fourteen hundred miles of wilderness — these are events so well known that it seems needless to do more than to refer to them. The Nez Perce, in turn, went down forever when Joseph came out and surrendered, saying, “From where the sun now stands I fight against the white man no more forever.” His surrender to fate did not lack its dignity. Indeed, a mournful interest attached to the inevitable destiny of all these savage leaders, who, no doubt, according to their standards, were doing what men should do and all that men could do.

The main difficulty in administering full punishment to such bands was that after a defeat they scattered, so that they could not be overtaken in any detailed fashion. After the Custer fight many of the tribe went north of the Canadian line and remained there for some time. The writer himself has seen along the Qu’Appelle River in Saskatchewan some of the wheels taken out of the watches of Custer’s men. The savages broke them up and used the wheels for jewelry. They even offered the Canadians for trade boots, hats, and clothing taken from the bodies of Custer’s men.

The Modoc War against the warriors of Captain Jack in 1873 was waged in the lava beds of Oregon , and it had the distinction of being one of the first Indian wars to be well reported in the newspapers. We heard a great deal of the long and trying campaigns waged by the Army in revenge for the murder of General Canby in his council tent. We got small glory out of that war, perhaps, but at last we hanged the ringleader of the murderers; and the extreme Northwest remained free from that time on.

Far in the dry Southwest, where home-building man did not as yet essay a general occupation of the soil, the blood-thirsty Apache long waged a warfare which tried the mettle of our Army as perhaps no other tribes ever have done. The Spaniards had fought these Apaches for nearly three hundred years, and had not beaten them. They offered three hundred dollars each for Apache scalps, and took a certain number of them. But they left all the remaining braves sworn to an eternal enmity. The Apaches became mountain outlaws, whose blood-mad thirst for revenge never died. No tribe ever fought more bitterly. Hemmed in and surrounded, with no hope of escape, in some instances they perished literally to the last man. General George Crook finished the work of cleaning up the Apache outlaws only by use of the trailers of their own people who sided with the whites for pay. Without the Pima scouts he never could have run down the Apaches as he did. Perhaps these were the hardest of all the Plains Indians to find and to fight. But in 1872 Crook subdued them and concentrated them in reservations in Arizona. Ten years later, under Geronimo, a tribe of the Apaches broke loose and yielded to General Crook only after a prolonged war. Once again they raided New Mexico and Arizona in 1885-6. This was the last raid of Geronimo. He was forced by General Miles to surrender and, together with his chief warriors, was deported to Fort Pickens in Florida. In all these savage pitched battles and bloody skirmishes, the surprises and murderous assaults all over the old range, there were hundreds of settlers killed, hundreds also of our army men, including some splendid officers. In the Custer fight alone, on the Little Big Horn, the Army lost Custer himself, thirteen commissioned officers, and two hundred and fifty-six enlisted men killed, with two officers and fifty-one men wounded; a total of three hundred and twenty-three killed and wounded in one battle. Custer had in his full column about seven hundred men. The number of the Indians has been variously estimated. They had perhaps five thousand men in their villages when they met Custer in this, the most historic and most ghastly battle of the Plains. It would be bootless to revive any of the old discussions regarding Custer and his rash courage. Whether in error or in wisdom, he died, and gallantly. He and his men helped clear the frontier for those who were to follow, and the task took its toll. Thus, slowly but steadily, even though handicapped by a vacillating governmental policy regarding the Indians, we muddled through these great Indian wars of the frontier, our soldiers doing their work splendidly and uncomplainingly, such work as no other body of civilized troops has ever been asked to do or could have done if asked. At the close of the Civil War we ourselves were a nation of fighting men. We were fit and we were prepared. The average of our warlike qualities never has been so high as then. The frontier produced its own pathfinders, its own saviors, its own fighting men.

So now the frontier lay ready, waiting for the man with the plough. The dawn of that last day was at hand.

Source: Legendsofamerica Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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