Lakota Lake, Black Hills, South Dakota.Wounded Knee is a stark, remote place in western South Dakota with freezing winters, blazing hot summers, and hard, rocky ground tough for raising crops. Wounded Knee Creek itself is a narrow, shallow, twisting stream -- barely 100 miles start to finish -- that snakes across the barren landscape through today's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation before vanishing into another stream just south of Badlands National Park.
This creek never held much appeal for the Lakota Sioux Indians. But just north sat something much better, the Black Hills, a natural wonder of peaks and streams, lush grasslands and deep forests, rich with game -- bison, deer, and bighorn sheep. This was land worth fighting for. The Sioux -- a loose confederation of tribes -- had already dominated the North American plains for two centuries by the 1770s when they first moved into this area, captured it from the Cheyennes, and made it central to their culture, religion, and survival.
By the time white settlers began reaching this area in the early 1800s, they found Sioux tribes -- Lakota, Oglala, and others -- covering vast stretches from Minnesota to the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and as far west as Montana and Wyoming. (Note: This wasn't all their land; Sioux constantly fought with other tribes and permanent borders or settlements had little meaning on this frontier.) At first, relations between Indians and this handful of white settlers were calm. Tribes signed dozens of treaties with settlers during the 1820s and 1830s, setting vague boundaries and promising friendships. But as the trickle of settlers began to grow, demands for land increased. In 1851, the US government agreed to pay the Lakota Sioux $1.6 million for the entire Iowa territory plus large chunks of Minnesota in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. (Click here for full text.) Many Sioux objected to this rich deal -- ceding 24 million acres in one stroke -- but tribal chiefs insisted.Red Cloud's War
The surge of white settlers after the Civil War -- prompted in part by gold discoveries in Montana -- finally pushed tensions over the edge. Red Cloud was chief of the Oglala Lakota Sioux in Montana when he joined with Cheyennes and Arapaho in 1866 in a two-year wave of strikes against settlers and cavalry throughout Montana and Wyoming. It was a bloody guerilla war and culminated in the Battle of the Hundred Slain(or "Fetterman Massacre" to the cavalrymen) when Red Cloud's warriors managed to wipe out an entire 81-man detachment from Fort Kearny led by a Captain William J. Fetterman. Red Cloud had used a decoy -- the already prominent Crazy Horse -- to lure the cavalrymen into a massive ambush.
Battle of the Hundred Slain (Fetterman Massacre) -- by artist Harold von Schmidt.After this, the US government sought peace and signed the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie click here for full text. This treatygave Red Cloud's Lakota Sioux perpetual rights of "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" covering a swath of land -- far too big to call simply a "reservation" - that included not just the Black Hills but virtually all western South Dakota. For the foreseeable future, so long as both sides kept promises, it seemed to create a workable peace -- enough good land for the Sioux, and enough good land for the settlers.
The great Sioux War
Contemporary 1875 cartoon of Red Cloud turning
down Grant's offer of meaningless trinkets.
Red Cloud himself led a delegation of Sioux leaders to Washington, DC, in 1875 to meet President Ulysses Grant and ask him to keep the US government's 1868 treaty promises. Instead, they received an ultimatum from the US Congress -- a draft treaty demanding they leave the Dakotas in exchange for a one-time payment of $25,000 and the right to resettle in "Indian Territory" (today's Oklahoma). Red Cloud and the others refused to sign it.
This was this spark that led to the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, climaxed by its signature battle in which warriors under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse annihilated General George Armstrong Custer and much of his Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn. (More on this later.) The roundupWinning this battle and killing Custer ultimately meant doom for the Sioux. The American public, shocked by the Little Bighorn massacre, rallied around the fallen cavalrymen and turning General Custer into a martyred hero. They found totally unacceptable the whole idea of armed, hostile frontier tribesmen killing soldiers and settlers while blocking national expansion. The warring Sioux had to be disarmed and neutralized -- immediately. Within weeks after Little Bighorn, the US government forced Sioux chiefs to sign a new treaty (click here for text) drastically cutting back the size of Red Cloud's reservation, stripping it of the Black Hills and Badlands, requiring it be crossed by roads, and making most aspects of Indian daily life totally dependent on largesse from the US government. At the same time, the US Cavalry began a concerted effort to round up in all the remaining nomadic tribes.
Things reached a head in December 1890. By this time, Crazy Horse had been killed by soldiers, Sitting Bull had recently been killed during an arrest, and Red Cloud, still on the reservation, was growing increasing frustrated trying to negotiate with Washington. One day that month, after a brutal winter storm, soldiers from the Seventh Cavalry happened to come across a group of about 350 Sioux wandering near the Dakota Badlands, led by a chief named Spotted Elk. All but about 120 of the Indians were women and children.
The cavalrymen, under Major Samuel Whitside, decided to escort the indians to the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation -- a small southern carveout from the original 1868 treaty lands. Rather than try to disarm the Indians immediately, Major Whitside decided to wait for reinforements. He ordered his cavalrymen to march together with the Indians for about five miles, then camp by Wounded Knee Creek.
Later that night, a heavily armed column of cavalrymen under Colonel James Forsyth joined Whitside, bringing the cavalry total to some 500 men, including four Hotchkiss guns (similar to Gattling machine guns) which they mounted around the Indian encampment. The next morning, December 29, they planned to disarm the Indians and deliver them to the reservation.
It would not be peaceful.