In 1877, Custer's defeat had heated up military determination to put an end to what was vaguely known as "the Indian problem." Military reinforcements poured into the Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming territories, with the singular objective of corralling all the remaining Sioux and Cheyenne into the newly established reservation system. It didn't matter if the tribes in question had participated in the Little Big Horn or not. The reservation system was a "one size fits all" solution to the settlement of the land by the whites.
As a result, in the spring of 1877, a band of approximately 900 Cheyenne, came to Ft. Robinson, Nebraska intent upon surrender.
History reports three reasons contributed to their decision to surrender: 1) they lived by the hunt, and the buffalo were all but gone, 2) plains Indians knew they could not survive the white man's propensity for making war, and an endless running battle, especially where one side has to take care of its women, children, and elderly, gives a decided advantage to the professional soldier, and 3) suffering from hunger, with rags for clothes, with even the horses emaciated, the promise of food, provisions, peace, and a home with their relatives and Sioux allies looked like the better course for the future of their people.
Dull Knife and Lone Wolf, two elderly and respected chiefs, led their people to Ft. Robinson in northwest Nebraska to surrender because their children, their old people, and their women could not go on much longer. Soon, however, they found that the promise of the white man (the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868) meant very little.
In spite of the treaty promising them a home with the Sioux, word came down from Washington that the Northern Cheyenne were to be shipped to Indian Territory in Oklahoma to be with the Southern Cheyenne. Only after General Crook told them to go down and have a look and, if they didn't like it, return and live at Pine Ridge, did they consent to go.
What they found in Oklahoma was abject poverty, broken promises (e.g., 'we'll get you more food'), bad water, and disease. Disease and hunger began taking their toll immediately, and pleas to allow them to return home were met with rejection. Seeing their numbers dwindle and fearing that they would all die and be forgotten, they began making plans to leave, with or without governmental permission.
As a result, on the night of September 9, 1878 - a bit over a year since their arrival - approximately 300 Sioux Indians headed north. In his book, "The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge," Joe Starita describes what they faced: "ahead lay more than a thousand miles of open prairie. Cowboys and ranchers, farmers and homesteaders, two railroads, a dozen forts, and thousands of soldiers stood between them and their freedom. Along the way, there would be no mountains to hide in, little wild game, few weapons and not enough horses. Some would have to walk and some were afraid."
Of the 300 that left, about 60 were warriors, 30 were old men and boys, and the rest were women and children. What happened over the next several weeks is a testimony to the courage of a people fueled by the certainty of having nothing to lose. They fought and won four major battles, traveled 500 miles in five weeks, lost food, possessions, and much of the pony herd. Ammunition was scarce and winter came early.
Starita writes that "Chief Dull Knife saw his weary people and he wanted to turn off course now, take them to Red Cloud and his Lakota camp near the fort on the White River. The Lakota, their relatives, would help them, he said, and the soldiers would treat them fairly, would let them stay in the north with the Red Cloud Sioux."
Little Wolf did not agree. He was all for continuing north to the Powder River and Big Horn Mountains of Montana. And so they split up; 149 going with Dull Knife, most were women, children, and old people. At the end of October they were met in a blinding snowstorm by some troops from Ft. Robinson, who took them there and set them up in one of the barracks. They were given food, medical attention, and their Sioux relatives brought them clothing.
On Christmas Eve, word came from Washington that they were to be returned immediately to Indian Territory. General Crook wrote to his superiors: "at this time, the thermometer at Ft. Robinson showed a range of from zero down to nearly 40 below. The captives were without adequate clothing, and no provisions had been made..."
On January 3, 1879, the post commander summoned Dull Knife and four sub-chiefs to his office to give them the bad news. They were to be taken to the reservation in the south as soon as possible. Dull Knife spoke for all of his people when he said, "I am here on my own ground, and I will never go back. You may kill me here, but you cannot make me go back."
For two days, the post commander at Ft. Robinson, Captain Wessells, told his Cheyenne prisoners that he had no choice but to ship them back south to Indian Territory. For two days, Dull Knee and his subordinate chiefs told him they would not go. It was there that their children had died, their old people had suffered and died. It was there that starvation would kill them, too, if disease didn't kill them first.
Under pressure from his superiors, Wessells withheld food and heat from the Indian group for two days. Two days later, he withheld water. In "The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge," Joe Starita descrIbes what must have been a heartrending sight: "soldiers guarding the barracks sometimes saw the windows crack open, saw the Indian hands scooping snow from the ledges so the children could have some water. Still, no one surrendered. They had decided they would not be starved into returning to a place they had left because they were starving."
On the morning of January 9, Wessells invited the Indian leaders to his office. Three subordinate chiefs went, but Dull Knife refused. Wessells had the three men put in irons and taken to the cavalry post about a mile away, reasoning that without leaders, the people would weaken. In the afternoon, the wives and families of the three prisoners were ordered out to join them.
This action left 130 Sioux in the barracks - angry and frightened for their lives. They fully expected to be shot. The warriors covered the windows with blankets and made preparations to fight for their lives. When they were brought to the fort, they had not surrendered all their guns. They had disassembled five rifles and eleven pistols, hiding them as trinkets in the women's clothing. The larger pieces were hidden under the wooden floorboards of the barracks. These were now retrieved and reassembled. Floorboards were crafted into clubs. They did not want to be killed by being trapped in the barracks, so they determined that they would die fighting on the prairie.
Just before 10:00pm, glass in the windows was broken, shots were fired, and the Cheyenne poured out of the barracks, running for the hills beyond the fort. The warriors stopped only long enough to gather weapons and ammunition from the fallen soldiers. Women and children and the old ones led the flight, while selected warriors formed a line of defense between them and the soldiers racing to stop their escape.
One old man killed his wife and himself when she fell to the ground, wounded. Within minutes of the first shots, half of the warriors fighting for delaying action were dead.
For the next two weeks, a group of 32 Cheyenne Indians managed to wear down several companies of troops, who would return to the fort for fresh food an clothing; a luxury not afforded the Cheyenne.
Supply trains arrived and reinforcements were sent into the battle.
The Cheyenne were located approximately 45 miles north of the fort; when spotting the soldiers, they took refuge in a buffalo wallow about six feet deep.
Four companies of cavalry soldiers surrounded them and fired into the wallow for approximately 30 minutes. Many acts of bravery by the Cheyenne proved pointless; three warriors charged oncoming soldiers with knives and empty guns only to be killed immediately. Only eight women and children survived that attack.
Of the 64 dead, 39 were men, 25 were women or children. Of the 78 prisoners back at the fort, many were wounded, some severely. Seven were reported missing, including Dull Knife and some of his family; they had chosen an alternative path and hidden in a cave where they hid for ten days. Traveling only at night, they made their way eastward, careful to leave no tracks.
Forced to eat the rawhide from the soles of their moccasins…