Wovoka & the Ghost Dance… the Wounded Knee Massacre

The conclusion of the war of 1876, which included Custer’s attack on Lakota and Cheyenne camped at the Little Big Horn River, brought another pact. The Treaty of 1876 reduced the “Great Sioux Reservation” further. Included in the land lost was the sacred Black Hills. In 1889, after several attempts the U.S. government succeeded in reducing the “Great Sioux Reservation” by more than nine million acres. These “surplus” lands were thought to be needed to accommodate a growing influx of European immigration.

The “Sioux Land Agreement” of 1889 divided the “Great Sioux Reservation” into smaller agencies. These reservations were Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule’, Crow Creek, Pine Ridge, and Rosebud. The remaining reservation lands were arid, sandy, and not suited to agriculture, and droughts commonly resulted in massive crop failures.

Prolonged drought had begun in central South Dakota in 1886. Many whites opted to use the land to graze livestock. The country was better suited for grazing than farming. Lakota people did not have that option, and had no choice but to attempt to raise crops in spite of the government’s refusal to provide the full allowances of seed, agricultural tools, oxen, or cows. Crop failures due to drought caused widespread hunger on the reservations, in many cases leading to starvation. Outbreaks of “blackleg disease” among the Lakota owned cattle took a heavy toll. The situation grew worse after the government reduced rations. In 1889 and 1890 epidemics of la grippe, measles, and whooping cough also caused many Lakota deaths.

Perhaps the most serious blow was the reduction of rations in 1890. After signing the “Land Agreement of 1889”, surrendering over nine million acres of Lakota land, congressional inaction cut rations further. Congress reduced the appropriations for rations severely the next year. For example, the beef ration was cut on the Rosebud reservation by two million pounds, and on Pine Ridge by one million pounds. Similar reductions took place at the other agencies.

The annuity goods due under the treaty were issued late if at all. The issues of winter clothing and equipment due on August 1 were not issued until mid or late winter. As late as December 12, 1890, the annuity goods were issued to Lakota at Cheyenne River. The goods had remained in a Pierre, SD warehouse due to the lack of transportation. One report stated they were waiting for the river to freeze to transport the goods across that way instead of utilizing the ferry.

Just when Lakota society and culture appeared to be disintegrating, rumors of a “Messiah” in the far west began to filter to the Lakota reservations by way of Arapaho and Shoshoni in Wyoming. The source of the rumors was a Paiute man by the name of Wovoka who lived near Walker Lake, Nevada. This man, known to local whites as Jack Wilson, had experienced a vision while in a delerium from a fever, during a solar eclipse. The vision became a new religion, with a mixture of traditional Paiute and Christian doctrines. A new religion which said the white man would disappear from the country. The prophecies also called for the resurrection all of the dead ancestors of all tribes, and the return of the buffalo and other game animals destroyed by the whites. The rumors of this new religion had also spread among tribes ranging from Montana to New Mexico.

In the fall of 1889 delegations were sent from several Lakota reservations to investigate this Messiah first hand. Oglalas sent Good Thunder, Yellow Knife, Flat Iron, Kicks Back, Elk Horn, Yellow Breast, Broken Arm and Cloud Horse. The Rosebud Sicangu sent Short Bull and Mash The Kettle, and the Mniconjou sent Kicking Bear. (Kicking Bear was born an Oglala, but after marrying Big Foot’s niece Woodpecker Woman, he had been living with the Mniconjou.) The Lakota delegation returned with the good news that all they had heard about Wovoka and the new religion was true.

The spring of 1890 saw another delegation leave for Nevada to confirm what they had heard from the first group. These men learned the tenets of this new religion from Wovoka and became devoted to its doctrine. The men of this delegation became leaders of the new religion among the Lakota. This new religion, which would become known by its most publicized ceremony, the “Ghost Dance”, its principal expression of worship. Lakota people saw the religion as a new hope, and some embraced it with exhilaration. Contrary to the beliefs of the whites, the doctrine of this new religion was not warlike. Wovoka preached peace. He directed his followers to go to work, send their children to school, and wait peacefully for the prophecies to come true. As the summer of 1890 passed, the religion and the dancing associated with it, spread throughout the western reservations.

Events of the summer and fall of 1890 brought alarm to settlers living near the Lakota Reservations. Fear spread out of control, eventually causing troops to be sent to quell what many whites perceived to be an uprising in the making. To nearby settlers, and the less experienced Indian agents, the new religion among the Lakotas caused great alarm. As the dancing spread so did the fear of the settlers. Out of ignorance, they thought any “Indian Dance” was a “War Dance.” Fear that Lakota would stage an uprising to drive the whites from their former lands, swept the frontier. These fears were totally unfounded, for the doctrine of the religion advocated peace. As the number of dancers increased so did the pressure on the Indian agents to stop the dancing.

Daniel F. Royer, a physician and former druggist, without prior experience dealing with Indians from any tribe, was appointed agent at Pine Ridge in October 1890. His appointment by Senator R.F. Pettigrew was strictly for political reasons. On October 3, 1890, shortly after assuming his duties Royer received orders to stop the Ghost Dance on Pine Ridge. Unable to do so, Royer called for troops as early as October 12, 1890, to stop the dancing. On November 11, 1890, Agent Royer issued a warrant for the arrest of Little, a Lakota man accused of stealing beef. Little resisted arrest and was subsequently rescued by a group of fellow of Ghost Dancers. Two days later Royer wrote to the commissioner of Indian affairs, “We have no protection and are at the mercy of these crazy dancers.” Perain P. Palmer, the agent at Cheyenne River, also requested aid.

Royer feared all Lakotas, and Lakotas called him “Young Man Afraid of His Indians.” A more experienced agent could have kept the situation under control. His behavior was reported as erratic and unreliable. Royer’s lack of experience and fear led to armed intervention on the reservation. The possibility exists that he was using drugs during his short term as Pine Ridge Agent, as some years later he lost his license to practice medicine due to substance abuse.

Agents had been instructed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to supply the names of the Ghost Dance leaders for possible arrest. Agent Reynolds on Rosebud submitted the names of twenty-one men. McLaughlin, the long time agent on Standing Rock only requested Sitting Bull and five others be arrested and removed. Palmer, the agent on Cheyenne River, wanted Hump, Big Foot, and three others removed. Agent Dixon at Crow Creek reported no problems. Agent Royer at Pine Ridge submitted a list of sixty-four names to be arrested, and added that may not be enough. He later said “60 or 70 should be arrested to insure peace here.”

Many people who had been among the Lakota and knew the Lakota, knew there was no reason for concern. As reported by Dr. V.T. McGillycuddy, the former agent at Pine Ridge reservation he said, “As for the ghost dance, too much attention has been paid to it.” His belief was that when the spring came and the prophecies of the Ghost Dance failed to materialize, the dancing would stop of its own accord.

Mary Collins, at the time a school teacher on the Standing Rock Reservation, thought the fears prevalent among the settlers were groundless. James McLaughlin, the experienced agent at the Standing Rock Reservation saw no need for panic. He was so confident the situation was not a problem that he requested to take five days annual leave in November 1890.

Reporters amplified and spread, the fear and panic. Twenty-one correspondents were at Pine Ridge at one time or another during the four months the troops occupied the reservation. Many of these people were “space writers” not accredited reporters. Some such as William F. Kelly who was an office clerk for the Nebraska State Journal had no previous experience or knowledge of Indians. Because no one else could be found, Kelly was made a “reporter” and sent to the “seat of war.” His reports are filled with embellishment, misrepresentations, and outright lies.

These reporters would gather in the back room of the reservation trading post and make up stories to send their editors. Their reports of “Unverified rumors were presented as reports from reliable sources or eyewitness accounts, idle gossip became fact . . . a large number of the nations newspapers indulged in a field day of exaggeration, distortion and plain faking.”

Even the Commissioner of Indian Affairs blamed the “exaggerated accounts in the newspapers” for causing the fear that brought on the flight of many Lakotas into the Bad Lands. Because of forced attendance in government schools, literacy was common among the younger Lakota. In addition, many mixed bloods in the employ of the government on the reservations, could also read and write. Lakota people were just as frightened as the settlers, because of the newspaper accounts they had read. Lakota people did not want the Army to occupy the reservations, and feared harm from the soldiers when they came.

Pressure on the government from panic-stricken settlers and the inexperienced agents finally brought troops to the reservations. On November 18, 1890 Maj.Gen. Nelson A. Miles, commander of the Division of the Missouri, ordered Brig. Gen. John R. Brooke Commander of the Department of the Platte, to proceed from his headquarters in Omaha Nebraska, to Pine Ridge with troops. Miles instructed Brooke to protect the Agency and to avoid hostile action if possible. Miles also advised Brooke that Agent Royer was “alarmed and inexperienced.” Brooke arrived on November 19, 1890.

Before the campaign was over the following units would be present in the Dakotas; 1st, 2nd, 7th, 8th, 17th, and 21st Infantry and the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Cavalry. In addition, units of the 1st and 2nd Artillery would also serve in the campaign. This would comprise the largest consolidated force of the U.S. Army since the Civil War. In addition units from the Nebraska National Guard stationed themselves on the southern border of the reservations, to protect the citizens of Nebraska in case of hostilities.

The Federal government at the request of the Governor of South Dakota, issued arms and ammunition to private citizens who had settled along the reservations boundaries. Colonel M. H. Day, of the South Dakota Militia under orders of Governor Mellette distributed guns and ammunition to settlers surrounding the reservations, most notable the Cheyenne River reservation. In one newspaper account over 100 guns are distributed to civilians.

The appearance of troops naturally alarmed the Lakota. Who were already confused by the reduction of rations, the intertribal strife caused by the 1889 land agreement, and excitement over the Ghost Dance. Fear intensified to the point that some leaders took their people to a remote area of the Bad Lands where they thought they would be safe from attacks by the soldiers, and be free to dance. Many who accompanied the dancers to the Bad Lands were not followers of the new religion but fled only out of fear of the soldiers. As many as 3,500 Lakotas were reported in the Bad Lands. They gathered on a portion of the high inaccessible plateau called Cuny Table. This area would become known as “The Stronghold.”

General Nelson A. Miles, was the overall commander of the troops. Working from his headquarters in Chicago. Miles had many years experience dealing with, and fighting different Indian tribes. He saw action against the Lakota in the 1870’s. Miles had been involved in campaigns against Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Lame Deer. He captured Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce in 1877. Miles was also credited with the capture of Geronimo and his Apaches in the 1880’s.

Miles devised a plan to attempt to persuade as many ghost dancers as possible to return to their homes. The army would then encircle those who remained defiant. The plan involved placing troops on three sides of the “hostiles,” who remained in the Bad Lands, leaving the south end open. Miles stationed troops in a line from Oelrichs, South Dakota, northeast down the Cheyenne River to the mouth of Rapid Creek. The line then went east to the White River. Miles hoped the “hostiles” would move toward the agency at Pine Ridge and surrender peacefully.

In mid December Miles moved his headquarters to Rapid City. On December 18th some 1,500 Lakota returned to the agency at Pine Ridge. However, in some outlying camps and remote reservations the new religion was still thriving. At the Cheyenne River reservation, the dancing continued, and bands of Mniconjou under the leadership of Hump and Big Foot continued to dance in their camps near Cherry Creek.

Sitting Bull Killed & Wounded Knee Massacre

On the Standing Rock Reservation, Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa band also continued to dance the “Ghost Dance”, and as a result were classified as “hostile” by the army because of their traditionalists beliefs. They believed in the new religion, and resisted the cultural changes eventuality forced on them by the whites.

Troops in the Cheyenne River area were under the command of Colonel E. V. Sumners. He was assigned the task of observing Hump, Big Foot, and their bands, and to protect the settlers in the area. These troops had been in the area for several weeks. Sumners had met with Big Foot several times. The two leaders developed a mutual trust and respect for each other. Through their meetings Big Foot had convinced Sumners of his peaceful intentions.

General Miles, devised a plan that would reduce the number of dancers at Cherry Creek. He knew of the friendship based on mutual trust and respect between Hump and Captain Ezra P. Ewers of the 5th Infantry. Miles issued orders for Ewers to report to Fort Bennett, from his station in Texas. Ewers met with Chief Hump and persuaded him and most of his followers to renounce the Ghost Dance and return to Fort Bennett, but some of Hump’s followers chose to remain with Big Foot’s band on Cherry Creek.

After Hump’s change of heart, Sumners received orders to bring Big Foot and his band to Fort Bennett, to prevent them from joining the “hostile” camps in the Bad Lands. The two leaders held talks and Big Foot consented to move his band under Sumners escort to the Fort.

Many people disagree on the role played by Sitting Bull in the Ghost Dance movement. Some claim that he was an ardent supporter and urged his band to the new religion. Others argue that he merely tolerated the movement. Though he may not have supported it, he believed in his band’s right to dance if they so chose.

On 15 December 1890, a party of Lakota reservation police, following orders of the government agent, killed Sitting Bull in a scuffle that erupted while attempting to arrest him. After the death of Sitting Bull, many of his followers fled in fear of their lives. On December 17th, about 38 Hunkpapa found their way to Big Foot’s camp on Cherry Creek. Big Foot opened his camp to the refugees. He and his followers fed and clothed them as best they could, sharing what little they had and made them feel welcome.

The arrival of Sitting Bull’s Hunkapapa’s and the news of his death brought more fear and alarm to Big Foot’s Mniconjou. Sitting Bull, was very much respected by many bands of Lakota. His honor and courage as a statesman, warrior, and respected leader were never in question by his followers. Big Foot was invited by Red Cloud, a leader of the Oglala at Pine Ridge, to come to the agency to help maintain the peace. Big Foot and his band of Mniconjou along with some followers of Sitting Bull and Hump then set out for Pine Ridge agency. The combined total in Big Foot’s mixed band was approximately 356 people, but no more than 111 could have been considered as warriors.

By going to Pine Ridge, Big Foot broke his word to Colonel Summers who had the responsibility to bring Big Foot and his mixed band to Fort Bennett. Big Foot had promised the Colonel he would take his people to Fort Bennett. However, several things factored into Big Foot’s decision to go to the agency at Pine Ridge. Perhaps the most compelling reason was the message Big Foot received from a settler named John Dunn who was sent by Col. Sumners to talk to Big Foot. Dunn’s mission was to find out when Big Foot intended to take his people to Fort Bennett. Instead of conveying Sumners message, Dunn told Big Foot that if he stayed the soldiers would open fire on the village during the night. According to Dunn the only way for Big Foot to avoid a fight with Sumner was to flee to Pine Ridge.

Interestingly, John Dunn was among those “fearful settlers” who wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on 26 September 1890 to request military protection from the “hostile” Lakota, and specifically named Big Foot as a possible source of trouble.

Following the will of his followers, Big Foot and his mixed band departed their camp for Pine Ridge so as to feel safe from the troops in the area.

The Army however, speculated Big Foot was on his way to join the other “hostiles” assumed to be in the Bad Lands. Units were ordered to the field to locate and obtain the surrender of Big Foot and his followers.

On 28 December 1890 elements of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Major Sammuel M. Whitside, intercepted this cold, tired, and hungry band on the main road near Porcupine Butte. The fact offers further evidence of Big Foot’s peaceful intentions. He was leading his band to Pine Ridge, and not to the Stronghold in the Bad Lands as the army contended. Big Foot, being ill with pneumonia and not wanting a fight, promptly surrendered to Whitside. Without further incident, Big Foot and his followers were escorted to Wounded Knee Creek to camp for the night. Whitside intended to start for the agency at Pine Ridge some 17 miles away first thing the next morning.

During the night however, Whitside was reinforced by the remainder of the 7th Cavalry, lead by Colonel James Forsyth who assumed command of the entire force. The Army units included the Light Battery E of the 1st Artillery. The Artillery unit came equipped with 4 rapid fire Hotchkiss Mountain Cannons. These guns fire explosive shells weighing a little more than 2 pounds each at the rate of 50 per minute and had an effective range of 4,200 yards. Total command strength of the Army present was now 487 soldiers.

Col. Forsyth’s orders were to disarm Big Foot’s band and take them to the railhead at Gordon, Nebraska. Where they would be transported south, and held until the troubles passed. On the morning of December 29th, Lakota men were assembled in a council ring and ordered by Col. Forsyth to surrender their arms. The council was held in front of the tent used to house Big Foot who was still sick and suffering from exposure. Troops of soldiers had been stationed in a hollow square surrounding the ring of Lakota, and facing each other. Some Lakota returned to their camp and brought their guns back to the soldiers, but only totalled 38 rifles. Fearing that some weapons were still concealed, Forsyth ordered a physical search of the Lakota men present in the council, along with a search of the camp. The search of the camp caused confusion, excitement, and fear among the women and children in the camp. The excitement in the camp caused concern among the men in the council ring.

During the confusion of the search, a soldier found a warrior named Black Coyote (later learning that he was mostly deaf), who was still in possession of a rifle. When the soldier struggled with him to take it away, Black Coyote shouted that “I will not give it up unless I am paid for it in return!” Then two other soldiers grabbed Black Coyote from behind, and the rifle, which was pointing upwards into the air, went off. At the sound of that first shot the troops opened fire on the unarmed camp with every rifle as well as the Hotchkiss guns on the ridge above the camp.

Most of the enlisted men were new to the plains, many were recruits from the East with minimal training, and over forty percent were immigrants. However, at least eight of the officers and several non-commissioned officers were surviving veterans of the 1876 Custer attack at the Little Bighorn. Within moments the troops and Lakota were plunged into bitter, close quarters fighting, followed by Lakota men women and children who survived the first volley, attempting to escape the slaughter. Some soldiers followed groups of fleeing Lakota and killed them in their hiding places within the ravines and brush along Wounded Knee Creek, as much as two miles away from the camp.

When the shooting stopped, 153 Lakota lay dead. Some authorities have put the total number of Lakota killed in excess of 200, as approximately 150 Lakota remained unaccounted for, and an unknown number subsequently died of wounds and exposure days later. Approximately 50 Lakota survived and made it to the Pine Ridge agency.

By comparison the army’s 25 casualties were light. Soldiers had been placed in a hollow square surrounding the Lakota in the council circle. The large number of casualties in companies A, B, I, and K who faced one another across the council circle has lead to the conclusion that a great many soldier casualties were the result of cross fire from their fellow soldiers.

Unbelievably, a total of 25 soldiers were recommended for the Medal of Honor for their actions during the massacre of Big Foot’s camp. Of these recommendations 20 were approved, and the Medals of Honor were issued.


Stories told by Oglala elders, relatives, and friends.

Interviews and first hand accounts from Dewey Beard (aka Horn Cloud), Standing Soldier, Frank Feather, and many others in the Eli S. Ricker Collection of Manuscripts (1905). Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, NE.

Andrist, Ralph K. The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indians. The MacMillan Co., New York, 1964.

Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indians Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1891. Vol. 1

Boyd, James P. Recent Indian Wars. Publishers Union, Philadelphia, 1891.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1970.

DeMaille, Raymond J. “The Lakota Ghost Dance: An Ethnohistorical Account.? Pacific Historical Review. Vol.51. No. 4., 1982.

Greene, Jarome A. “The Sioux Land Commission of 1889: A Prelude to Wounded Knee.” South Dakota History. No. 1, Winter – 1970.

Hyde, George E. A Sioux Chronicle. University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.

McGregor, James H. The Wounded Knee Massacre From the Viewpoint of the Survivors. Lund Press, Minneapolis, 1940.

Mooney, James. The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. 14th Annual Report (1892-1893), Bureau of American Indian Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

McLaughlin, James. My Friend the Indian. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1910.

Reports and Correspondence Relating to the Army Investigation of the Battle of Wounded Knee and to the Sioux Campaign of 1890-91.

National Archives and Record Administration. Microfilm publication number M-983.

Seymour, Forrest W. Sitanka: The Full Story of Wounded Knee. Christopher Publishing House, Hanover, MA, 1981.

Utley, Robert M. The Last Days of the Sioux Nation. Yale University Press, 1963.

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