Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings
The regrettable and tragic clash of arms at this site on December 29, 1890, the last significant engagement between Indians and soldiers on the North American Continent, ended nearly four centuries of warfare between westward-wending Americans and the indigenous peoples. Although the majority of the participants on both sides had not intended to use their armsprecipitated by individual indiscretion in a tense and confused situation rather than by organized premeditationand although the haze of gunsmoke that hung over the battlefield has obscured some of the facts, the action more resembles a massacre than a battle. For 20th-century America, it serves as an example of national guilt for the mistreatment of the Indians.
The arrival of troops on the Pine Ridge Reservation, S. Dak., to quiet the Ghost Dance disorders of 1890 provided the climate for the battle. After Indian police killed Chief Sitting Bull while trying to arrest him on December 15 on the Standing Rock Reservation, his Hunkpapas grew agitated and troop reinforcements arrived. When 200 of the Indians fled southward to the Cheyenne River, military officials feared a Hunkpapa-Miniconjou coalition. Most of the Standing Rock fugitives allied for a time with the Miniconjou Chief Hump and his 400 followers before joining them in surrendering at Fort Bennett, S. Dak.
About 38 of the Hunkpapas joined a more militant group of 350 or so Miniconjou Ghost Dancers led by Big Foot. After a few days of defiance, Big Foot, ill with pneumonia, informed military authorities he would capitulate. When he failed to do so at the appointed time and place, General Miles ordered his arrest. On December 28 a 7th Cavalry detachment under Maj. Samuel M. Whitside intercepted him and his band southwest of the badlands at Porcupine Creek and escorted them about 5 miles westward to Wounded Knee Creek, the place where Big Foot said he would surrender peacefully. Early that night, Col. James W. Forsyth arrived to supervise the operation and the movement of the captives by train to Omaha via Pine Ridge Agency. His force, totaling more than 500 men, included the entire 7th Cavalry Regiment, a company of Oglala scouts, and an artillery detachment.
The disarming occurred the next day. It was not a wise decision, for the Indians had shown no inclination to fight and regarded their guns as cherished possessions and means of livelihood. Between the tepees and the soldiers' tents was the council ring. On a nearby low hill a Hotchkiss battery had its guns trained directly on the Indian camp. The troops, in two cordons, surrounded the council ring.
The warriors did not comply readily with the request to yield their weapons, so a detachment of troops went through the tepees and uncovered about 40 rifles. Tension mounted, for the soldiers had upset the tepees and disturbed women and children; and the officers feared the Indians were still concealing firearms. Meanwhile, the militant medicine man Yellow Bird had circulated among the men urging resistance and reminding them that their ghost-shirts made them invulnerable. The troops attempted to search the warriors and the rifle of one, Black Coyote, considered by many members of his tribe to be crazy, apparently discharged accidentally when he resisted. Yellow Bird gave a signal for retaliation, and several warriors leveled their rifles at the troops, and may even have fired them. The soldiers, reacting to what they deemed to be treachery, sent a volley into the Indian ranks. In a brief but frightful struggle, the combatants ferociously wielded rifle, knife, revolver, and war club.
Soon the Hotchkiss guns opened fire from the hill, indiscriminately mowing down some of the women and children who had gathered to watch the proceedings. Within minutes the field was littered with Indian dead and wounded; tepees were burning; and Indian survivors were scrambling in panic to the shelter of nearby ravines, pursued by the soldiers and raked with fire from the Hotchkiss guns. The bodies of men, women, and children were found scattered for a distance of 2 miles from the scene of the first encounter. Because of the frenzy of the struggle and the density of the participants, coupled with poor visibility from gunsmoke, many Indian innocents met death accidentally. In the confusion, both soldiers and Indians undoubtedly took the lives of some of their own groups.
Of the 230 Indian women and children and 120 men at the camp, 153 were counted dead and 44 wounded, but many of the wounded probably escaped and relatives quickly removed a large number of the dead. Army casualties were 25 dead and 39 wounded. The total casualties were probably the highest in Plains Indian warfare except for the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The battle aroused the Brules and Oglalas on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations, but by January 16, 1891, troops had rounded up the last of the hostiles, who recognized the futility of further opposition.
Although a comparatively small number of Sioux died at Wounded Knee, the Sioux Nation died there too. By that time its people fully realized the totality of the white conquest. Before, despite more than a decade of restricted reservation life, they had dreamed of liberation and of a return to the life mode of their fathersa sentiment strongly manifested in the Ghost Dance religion. But the nightmare of Wounded Knee jolted them from their sleep. They and all the other Indians knew that the end had finally come and that conformance to the white men's ways was the price of survival. It was perhaps not purely coincidental that the same year as Wounded Knee the U.S. Census Bureau noted the passing of the frontier.
The battlefield, though scarred by modern intrusions and fragmented by a road system, remains an impressive reminder of the last major military-Indian clash. It is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. On the site of the 1890 troop positions are the Wounded Knee store, post office, a privately operated museum displaying battlefield relics, and other modern structures. Dominating the pleasant pastoral scene is the modern church of the Sacred Heart Mission, a simple white frame structure. It stands atop a low hill on the approximate site of the Hotchkiss battery. Behind the church, in the cemetery, is the mass grave of the Indians who died in the battle and the Big Foot Massacre Memorial, erected by the Sioux Indians in 1903. Below, on the site of the Indian camp, where the main fighting took place, the State historical society and the Sioux have placed a series of markers. Practically all the sites, as well as the surrounding lands embracing Wounded Knee Creek and the ravines that figured in the pursuit, are in private and tribal ownership.
NHL Designation: 12/21/65
Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005