The Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek

(please read Events leading to the Massacre at Wounded Knee first)

The capture of Big Foot's band
Because of the government "crack down" on the Ghost Dance religion and the increasing number of soldiers arriving on the reservations, the Minneconjou Lakota Chief Big Foot brought his band (probably over 300) off the reservation to a place called Cherry Creek in order to perform their rituals and dances without interruption and harassment. They were also not a little concerned, even scared—especially once word of Sitting Bull's death reached them. When they heard of the killing, they began to travel toward the Pine Ridge Reservation where they hoped Chief Red Cloud could offer protection.

Meanwhile soldiers were dispatched to track them down. The Indians were nearly captured sooner than they were. On 21 December 1890, some soldiers caught up with them and told them they must return "home." That night, in order that they did not attempt escape, the soldiers surrounded the camp (their count was 333 people, which may have included some of Sitting Bull's people who sought refuge with the band—something that upset the army).

The next day they were ordered to march with the soldiers, some riding in wagons. When asked why the soldiers stayed so close, the leader of the units said that "you are dancing the Ghost Dance, and I fear you will do wrong." Big Foot insisted that they would harm no one but the Lieutenant Colonel replied that the Indian agent said they were "bad" and that the Indians needed a pass to be off the reservation. To this, Big Foot replied that "we are not on the warpath. We are praying to our Savior and doing no evil. Do you get a paper from the Great Father at Washington when you pray to the white man's God? I think perhaps the Great Spirit does not know you." The next day he told the soldiers that "we are not cattle to be put in a pen" and that "we will pray where we please" (all qtd. in Coleman; all following quotes from that source except where noted). The soldiers left them and the Indians moved on.

Later the soldiers approached them again demanding they surrender. The Indians were made to march with them again, under guns. While doing this, they planned their escape. They discarded heavy items of equipment and some personal effects along the way, explaining that "the ponies are weak." That night they quietly began moving out the wagons on the far side of the camp, then quickly sped off on their fast horses.

During the course of the flight, Big Foot became seriously ill and developed pneumonia. He would have to be carried on a wagon and was bleeding a lot from his nose. For a time he seemed against the idea of surrendering at the Pine Ridge agency but many of his people desired it, so he acquiesced. Movement had slowed somewhat by then but continued. It was nearly Christmas.

Meanwhile units of the Seventh Cavalry, under Colonel James W. Forsyth, had mounted up and traveled to Wounded Knee Creek. Using it as a base of operations, they began searching the area in the snow and cold for Big Foot and his band. The day after Christmas, more cavalry left from the Pine Ridge agency headed for Wounded Knee. With them they brought two of what would eventually be four Hotchkiss cannons (able to rapidly fire two pound exploding shells over a mile) that would be placed on a hill overlooking the area near the creek where the Indians would be made to camp. Searches continued the following day but the Indians remained elusive.

On 28 December, the Indians began moving toward what was called Porcupine Creek. Around 11 AM, a scout reported to his commander that Big Foot's people had been sighted there (they had stopped to eat). Sometime later, the Indians who were riding ahead of the party were approached by Indian scouts from the cavalry who told them soldiers were coming and they would have to surrender. They would be well-treated and "everything would be all right if the Indians would go with the soldiers."

When the soldiers arrived, Big Foot was brought out to meet Major Samuel M. Whitside, commander of the units (he served under Forsyth). According to a correspondent who was with them, Big Foot (finding it difficult to speak with his sickness) stated that he was sick and his people only wanted peace. Whitside cut him off and demanded unconditional surrender or fighting. The chief said, "we surrender." The soldiers also demanded they give up their rifles. Big Foot said that they would once they reached the agency. Many feared what might happen if they surrendered all their weapons.3 Big Foot was allowed travel by ambulance wagon and they moved out to the camp at Wounded Knee.

Wounded Knee
Once they reached the camp, the soldiers again tried to get the Indians to disarm. The Indians did what they could to get around it and gave up some older, poor quality weapons. It is worth noting that some of the civilian witnesses claimed that the majority of the Indian rifles were of that sort (and they were poorly armed, as well). The army felt that they were concealing more (I find it likely a combination of the two). A "perimeter" was set up surrounding the Indians (and the four cannon were in place on the hill). Whitside suspected the possibility of "hostilities" by the Indians, though reinforcements (eventually around 500 soldiers) were on the way. Even if they were concealing a great number of rifles of good quality, the chance of breaking through the perimeter and escaping not only the rifle crossfire but the destruction the four cannons would rain down upon the camp was nearly zero. This didn't seem to occur to the soldiers.

News of the capture had spread quickly. The New York World ran a headline stating that "THE WAR HAS COLLAPSED"4 It further noted that "the Indian troubles are about to be brought to a close without the sacrifice of any more lives."

That night they were under heavy guard to prevent escape. Also that night, a local merchant brought a good deal of whiskey to the camp which was enjoyed by many of the soldiers. While it was claimed that they did not overdo it and were clear and sober in the morning, Indian and other witnesses made it clear that was not the case. Soldiers and officers were drinking heavily and carousing around loudly. Years later, a freighter who had taken the whiskey to the camp, confessed that he had felt guilty all his life for doing it, believing that had the soldiers not been so drunk, the massacre would not have taken place (perhaps, perhaps not).

The Indians were kept up much of the night due to the noise and commotion (the soldiers were congratulating themselves on the capture). The son of one of the survivors stated in 1991 that his father (a boy at the time) understood some English and had heard conversations claiming that some of the Indians were in the group that killed Custer. Later some roused—even interrogated—some Indians demanding to know which ones had been at Little Big Horn. Nineteen of the soldiers had been at Little Big Horn, seven officers. It begins to suggest revenge was in the air.

A minister from Pine Ridge who passed some Seventh Cavalry soldiers at the agency actually heard them "remark that if they could just get to the Indians 'they would give them hell.'" Also, after talking with some, he found some "desirous for an opportunity to square accounts with them." An Indian at Pine Ridge said he heard from a Major that "soldiers were going to kill Big Foot's band when they could get them, because they were in the Custer battle." He reportedly asked a Captain, who confirmed it.

29 December 1890. According to the "plan," the Indians would be disarmed and prepared to leave for the Pine Ridge agency. They were expected to arrive on the thirtieth (actually orders were that they were not to be taken to Pine Ridge but directly to a railhead and transported south out of the Dakotas). The Indians still refused to disarm until they were back at the agency. The army's position was that allowing prisoners to arrive armed would have a bad effect on the "hostiles." It was made conditional that weapons be surrendered before entry.

Some of the Indians were relieved and eager at the prospect of getting back where conditions would be better than being on the run, where they could rest and receive rations. Many of the women were packing that morning in preparation. After the "incident," Forsyth's men claimed that the packing was in preparation to escape. This may have been to justify their actions. It may also have contributed to what happened.

At first, Big Foot continued to refuse to relinquish arms, suggesting they turn over more old and worn weapons. It was explained to him by another that "if you give up guns you can get guns again—you can buy guns, but if you lose a man you cannot replace him." This didn't seem to change his mind. Slowly some of the Indians began to turn over weapons, coming up ten at a time to leave them in a pile. The soldiers (against orders from above Forsyth that they were not to enter the camp) began to search the tents for more arms. By then, the men had been separated from the women and children.

Demands for weapons continued, yet the majority (of what little there was) given up was old and practically useless. Soldiers began unpacking the Indians' wagons and personal effects, removing anything they could find. They even searched the women. Finally Big Foot decided it was time to give up and asked the men to "give him your guns. We are not on this trip to do any fighting, but we came over here to see our relatives and to be at Red Cloud's council" (by then, he had been carried to lie in front of the tents with his people as he was debilitated by his illness).

During the search, an Indian some say was named Yellow Knife (though no record exists of one by that name, the incident is well documented) picked up some dirt, threw it in the air and began chanting and moving in accordance of his religion. This, of course, worried and concerned the soldiers who saw it as resistance and possible prelude to rebellion. Of further concern was when the "medicine man" reminded the Indians of the protection afforded by the Ghost Shirts. A tense situation made worse.

By then, pretty much all of the weapons (including bows and arrows, knives, tomahawks, awls, et cetera) had been turned in or found. Forsyth still demanded more, believing there to be others hidden away. Nonmilitary observers give the approximate count of between sixty and seventy rifles surrendered. They are also in agreement that there could not be more than a couple that hadn't been turned over, if there were any at all. It turns out there were....

Some of the accounts vary, but there is consensus. There was a deaf warrior (Black Coyote) who had not given up his rifle. Indians claim he wasn't clear on what was going on (possibly) and that they were going to explain to him as best they could and retrieve the gun, themselves—also planning to inform the soldiers (though they were unable to as the interpreter was away at that moment). Regardless, he refused to give up his weapon. The medicine man was continuing to dance and sing and toss earth in the air, adding to the confusion. Soldiers then tried to forcibly take the gun, during which it went off into the air. Shortly after the shooting began.

Some of the soldiers later claimed that the Indians were still armed or that they still had knives (the latter being a weak possibility, but not implausible). In fact, Whitside claimed in testimony that after the shot, Indians began firing upon the soldiers. While it is possible that they were able to grab some of their piled up weapons rather quickly, it is absurd to think they could counterattack (or "attack," from the soldiers' point of view) so fast. Of course, Whitside also claimed that the Indians had gotten off at least fifty shots before the soldiers returned fire. Given the soldiers' poor positioning surrounding the encampment, that "volley" Whitside described was likely from his own men (it's thought that the majority of the army's 25 dead and 39 wounded may have come from "friendly fire").

Corroborating that assessment is the testimony of one of the soldiers, a Hugh McGinnis: "fantastic as it sounds, the surrounding troopers were firing wildly into this seething mass of humanity, subjecting us as well as the Indians to a deadly crossfire while the first volley from the Hotchkiss guns mowed down scores of women and children." Also of note is that, at the time, several soldiers were in the camp. An assistant surgeon later presented evidence, that due to the positioning, he had "reason to believe that some of our men were killed by the fire of others of our troops....and firing as they did, it was impossible not to wound or kill each other." (both Little consolation.

The guns tore into the Indians, indiscriminately slaughtering men, women, and children, nearly all of whom were unarmed. A Captain there wrote later that "I know the men did not aim deliberately and they were greatly excited. I don't believe they saw their sights. They fired rapidly but it seemed to me only a few seconds till there was not a living thing before us; warriors, squaws, children, ponies, and dogs...went down before that unaimed fire..." ( While part of its intention is to try to mitigate the circumstances, it clearly shows that it didn't really matter what they hit. Big Foot died in the opening shots of the incident.

There was limited hand-to-hand fighting at the camp, some Indians managing to get guns (as the casualty numbers show, it wasn't effective). The remaining Indians who were able began to flee the carnage. An army scout who had been helping disarm the Indians when the firing began, ran up the hill near the cannons where a Lieutenant informed him that they had gotten their revenge for the "Custer massacre." The scout replied that "Custer had all their guns to protect themselves with and they massacred him; and here you take all the guns away from them and massacre them."

Most of the men were killed in the initial firing, which one observer said "did not last ten minutes." He added, "scattered firing and all lasted four hours" (some accounts say it took up to an hour—regardless, the opening shooting was as brief as it was deadly). The soldiers, following the opening "battle," then proceeded to chase after and hunt down the survivors (which were mostly women and children). Brigadier General Colby wrote later that

The surviving Indians now started to escape to the bluffs and canons. The Hotchkiss guns were turned upon them and the battle became a hunt on the part of the soldiers, the purpose being total extermination. All order and tactics were abandoned, the object solely being to kill Indians, regardless of age or sex. The battle was only ended when not a live Indian was in sight.

At this point, it seems unlikely that the Captain's "excited" soldiers had any excuse for their actions, as it is untenable that assert they "did not aim deliberately."

Mounted cavalrymen chased them through the snow, killing any Indian they could find. Even though some were armed by now, it didn't help them much. When the soldiers were "finished," the survivors were told to sit up to be taken prisoner. One of the first to sit was shot by a soldier who had either not heard the command or didn't care.

A sworn statement by Captain Edward S. Godfrey stated that

I saw no wanton destruction of non-combatants, none that could be helped, in my opinion. I told my men throughout the day not to fire on women and children. Although the Indians that we saw of Big Foot's band were at times 200 yards off, we could not discern the distinction between bucks and squaws, and firing came from the parties. No firing took place on the part of my men when other of our troops were between us and the Indians.

News of the massacre spread fast. The gunfire could be heard back at the Pine Ridge agency. Indians scattered or hid and soldiers armed and prepared for what might happen. A few Indians (many old men) rushed off, thinking they would join the "battle" and aid Big Foot's people. They were mostly headed off and with some exchange of fire (resulting in one killed, two wounded) they desisted. A few other "rescuers" also exchanged fire but quickly retreated. Some believed that their short interference actually saved the lives of some of the prisoners that were going to be killed by the soldiers.

Around 4 PM, the soldiers began packing up and returning to the agency. The survivors/prisoners (many wounded who would later die) were loaded onto wagons and carted back with them. One count of the wounded was thirty-three, of which all but six were women and children. There was little medical help (though by all accounts, those that were there, including people from the Episcopal church there, did the best they could). The church was emptied and filled full of wounded.

The incident inspired some sporadic fighting throughout the area but it was relatively small and short lived. Some of the reservation Indians as well as some of the survivors chose to leave their reservations to head for the Badlands.

There was a blizzard the day after the massacre. Despite that, some Indians went to look for survivors. They found a few. The weather made it impractical for a burial detail to be sent so the bodies remained at the site(s) another three days. It was horrific. Bodies were frozen and contorted and piled up. This was also the first time people (other than the Indians and the soldiers) became aware that the victims had been hunted down, some as far as 2-3 miles (3.2 to 4.8 km) away. Pictures were taken, the one of Big Foot's corpse is particularly painful to see—one of the most stunning symbols of, not only what happened that day, but of futility of Indian resistance and the end of the myth of the West. Manifest Destiny had a body count and only denial and willful ignorance could cover up that fact.

The 168 bodies were put into a mass grave. Three of the women had been pregnant. They found seven more survivors ("five grown and two little children"). One of the men on the detail reportedly said that "it was a thing to melt the heart of a man, if it was of stone, to see those little children, with their bodies shot to pieces, thrown naked into that pit."

The bodies of the soldiers were taken and given a decent burial at the agency.

Counts vary, though at least 200 died, some later from wounds. Almost two-thirds of the original band. Later, soldiers confirmed that most of the women and children found dead were found away from the camp, meaning that they were in the process of fleeing for their lives. The army claimed the "dispersal" was due to wounded who had crawled away from the site (as far as 2-3 miles) or had been removed by relatives.

By mid January, the majority of the Ghost Dancers surrended at the agency. The dance had failed and it all but ended the movement.

Afterward and "Medals of Dishonor"
Major General Nelson A. Miles, who was in command over the plains soldiers, was furious over the events (in general, he was known to be a fair man among the Indians) and berated Forsyth for not only the army mistake of troop placement, but the massacre, itself. He stated that a

wholesale massacre occurred and I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee. About two hundred women and children were killed and wounded; women with little children on their backs, and small children powder burned by the men who killed them being so near as to burn the flesh and clothing with the powder of their guns, and nursing babes with five bullet holes through them.

Also concerning the military aspect: "Col. Forsyth is responsible for allowing the command to remain where it was stationed after he assumed command, and in allowing his troops to be in such a position that the line of fire of every troop was in direct line of their own comrades or their camp" (both For his part, Forsyth was relieved of his command and charged with incompetence. Miles also ordered a board of inquiry. Forsyth was absolved and returned to command.

Later, Miles made attempts to get the survivors compensation, writing in 1917:

In my opinion, the least Government can do is to make a suitable recompense to the survivors who are still living for the great injustice that was done them and the serious loss of their relatives and property—and I earnestly recommend that this may be favorably considered by the Department and by Congress and a suitable appropriation be made. (

Nothing came of it.

What did? Soldiers were rewarded. Twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were handed out to soldiers who had taken part in the massacre (many were later promoted). In 1917, guidelines for receiving the medal had been tightened and the previous year it had been decided that all the current medals would reviewed. Medals given to civilians were disallowed and some 864 given to some volunteer infantry during the Civil War ("partly an inducement to reenlist and partly a clerical error" according to were as well. Not one of the Wounded Knee medals was rescinded—even though, given the stricter standards, they should have been.

There is an ongoing campaign to get those medals taken away for the massacre of over 200 men, women, and children.

A massacre that noted children's writer L. Frank Baum wrote about in an editorial just days later:

The peculiar policy of the government in employing so weak and vacillating a person as General Miles to look after the uneasy Indians, has resulted in a terrible loss of blood to our soldiers, and a battle which, at best, is a disgrace to the war department. There has been plenty of time for prompt and decisive measures, the employment of which would have prevented this disaster.

The The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.

An eastern contemporary, with a grain of wisdom in its wit, says that "when the whites win a fight, it is a victory, and when the Indians win it, it is a massacre.

3In another bit of unheeded advice, former agent Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy had said "as regards to disarming the Sioux, however desirable it may appear, I consider it neither advisable, nor will succeed in disarming the friendly Indians because you can, and you will not succeed with the mob element because you cannot" (

4There is a question of whether the Indians were in a state of war at the time. This would have serious ramifications. If it was accurate to say that, the Indians were prisoners of war and the army could "justify" the actions as what in today's euphemistic language would be called "collateral damage" (whether that "justification" could hold up is highly debatable). If not—and clearly, despite army protestations at the time, Big Foot's band was not on the warpath or intending on fighting soldiers or civilians—then the Indians were murdered. Pure and simple.

(Sources used or consulted: Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: an Indian history of the American West 1970; David E. Stannard American Holocaust: Columbus and the conquest of the New World 1992; William S. E. Coleman Voices of Wounded Knee 2000; Carl Waldman Biographical Dictionary of American Indian History to 1900 rev. ed. 2001; Atlas of the North American Indian rev. ed. 2000;,;,;;;

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