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The Last Indian Wars
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

The Grattan Massacre


The first shots of the Indian Wars were fired over a dead cow. In the summer of 1854, a Mormon pioneer heading west along the Oregon Trail lodged a complaint with the officials at Fort Laramie that one of the Indians camped nearby had killed his cow. The Indians, mostly Sioux, were camped nearby to receive their annual payments of food and goods promised to to them by treaty in exchange for allowing settlers to pass through Sioux lands. Normally such a trivial matter would be handled by the Indian Bureau agent-- but he was out that day. Chief Conquering Bear refused to pay the excessive $25 price that the Mormon settler was demanding and instead counter-offered with $10.  Tempers flared as neither side could reach a compromise. Then just when things  couldn't get much worse, the interepreter showed up drunk and taunted the Sioux warriors by calling them 'women'.


But the situation was about to get even worse. In charge was a young hot head who has little respect for the Indians. The hothead in question was Second Lieutenant J.L. Grattan who decided that with only 27 calvary, 2 howitzers, (plus a drunk interpreter) he could teach the 4,000 Sioux encamped nearby a lesson.


No one is sure who fired the first shot but once the smoke cleared Conquering Bear was dead along with all 30 of the white soldiers. When word reached back east, outraged Americans demanded revenge for the 'Grattan Masscre'.  The U.S. army got it a few months later by attacking a Sioux village killing 100 men women and children. The thirty year conflict known as the Indian Wars had officialy begun.

Conflict between native peoples and settlers had been going on since Columbus. But the period known as the Indian Wars lasted
only thirty years from 1860-1890.

The Dakota Uprising


In March, 1862, in the state of Minnesota a story eerily similar to what happened at Fort Laramie a decade earlier was about to happen once again–this time with much bloodier results. The Santee Sioux were fighting for their homeland in a struggle between a flood of white settlers who showed little respect for treaties made by the U.S. government.


Year after year the Santee watched as their hunting grounds were carved into townships, its forests plowed under to be turned into wheat and corn fields. The buffalo driven off by the railroads and wagon trains of the settlers.


The Santee Sioux, like so many other Indians were pushed onto reservations just a fraction of the size of their former homeland.  Reservation life was hard, hunting became nearly impossible as antelope and buffalo became overhunted by both whites and Indians. More and more the Indians relied on annual payments of food and goods that the government promised to provide in return for them moving to a reservation peacefully. However, at thd time, the U.S. was involved in a Civil War and the plight of the Indians seemed to be the last on the government’s to-do list. Annuity payments were often late or short of what was promised. The Indians were forced to buy their goods at with the Indian agents on credit. But sooner or later credit runs out. That time came in the summer of 1862. When the Indians complained that they had nothing to eat one of the agents, Andrew Myrck replied: “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass."


​A Santee raiding party broke into a warehouse and stole the food stored there. A few days later another raiding party, hungry and desperate snuck onto a nearby white-owned farm and stole eggs. What should have been an innocent theft of a few eggs turned to murder after one of the men accused the other of being afraid of being caught by the whites. Egged on by his friends, his resentment toward the settlers came spilling out.  Ashamed, the other man said that he would prove his bravery by killing the farmer. Later that night, that’s what he and his friends did, including the farmer’s wife and children. From there things quickly spiraled into a full blown revolt as the Santee chiefs realized that with the United States distracted by Civil War, this may be their best chance at regaining their lost homeland.


Santee Warriors, dressed in little more than a buckskin loin cloth and their faces painted for war, attacked the two nearby Indian agencies. The Indian agent, Andrew Myrck was found dead with grass stuffed into his mouth. The Indians first attacked isolated farms killing 25 people. Then they turned their attention to capturing Fort Ridgley. The 3,000 warriors were driven back by cannon fire. Next, came the attack on the town of New Ulm, population 2,000. From dawn until dusk 500 warriors ransacked the town burning 80% of the buildings and killing 26 men defending the town.   The warriors might have finished the job had it not been for a thunderstorm that kept the Indians away. Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey responded by saying the entire Dakota nation “must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”


Across the Great Plains from Montana to Texas stories were playing out very much like the one that took place in Minnesota that turned the Great Plains into a killing field.


Refugees fleeing the violence of the Dakota Uprising.
"Since the white man has made a road across our land and has killed off our game, we are hungry , and there is nothing for us to eat. Our women and children cry for food and we have no food to give them."

Custer's Last Stand


After the South surrendered in 1865, George found himself sent to the west to deal with a new (or rather really old) conflict. The 1850s and 1860s had seen rising tension between the people of the Plains and the white newcomers who were moving onto their hunting grounds. 


To deal with the situation the government sent the army (including Custer's Seventh Calvary unit) to track down the renegade Sioux who were camping out for a traditional buffalo hunt somewhere in Montana and Wyoming. The armies plan involved a three-pronged attack with General John Gibbon marching from east from Fort Ellis in Montana. Another group under the command of George Crook would move north from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming. Custer was a part of the third group led by General Terry coming from Fort Lincoln in Dakota Territory. The plan was simple, drive the Sioux into a trap between the three armies.


On May 17, 1876 General Terry set out to locate the Indian camp. For weeks they roamed Montana and Wyoming finding not even a hoof print or an old campfire. Then in late June, they found the evidence that they were looking for. Anyone's best guess was that the Sioux were camped somewhere along the Little Bighorn River. Custer's orders were to follow Rosebud Creek and attack the Sioux there where they would flee into arms of the main army.  Custer and most soldiers assumed that even though Custer's small regiment would be outnumbered most Sioux did not fight wars to the death. Instead, they chose to flee when they could to protect their families. Therefore, when Custer's men attacked the Sioux would flee right into the waiting arms of Generals Terry and Crook. Custer and the Seventh Calvary did follow Rosebud Creek and they did come across the Sioux camp. But what happened next did not go according to plan.


On June 25 Custer's scouts were shocked to find one of the largest Indian villages ever assembled. As many as six thousand Indians from ten different nations were all gathered in the valley below. What Custer didnt know was that Sioux scouts had spotted him. Custers Seventh Calvary had only 600 soldiers but he decided that a surprise attack would give him his best chance at a win. He was certain that the Sioux would flee rather than fight, especially if they were still half asleep.

Little Bighorn

Custer was known for his bravery and daring in the face of incredible odds.  Custer was also known for acting rashly and more than once in his military career was punished for putting his men in unnecessary danger. Perhaps the Battle of Little Bighorn was one of those times. Custer knew he was outnumbered- anyone could see that. He also knew that General Crook would not be coming to the rescue- his army had been defeated by Sioux Warriors only a week before. But Custer was more afraid of the Sioux getting away than he was of be defeated on the battlefield. Being impatient he sent word for reinforcements but decided not to wait. Instead he made of the biggest blunder in the military playbook: never divide your troops when you are outnumbered. Custer divided his troops into three groups.  One company of men to attack the Sioux from the south while he attacked from the north. At first his plan worked and the sleeping Sioux camp erupted in panic. However, the 2000 warriors quickly figured out what was happening and attacked the Seventh Calvary with fury. Custer's request for back up never came.

The Ghost Dance


For thirty long years whites and Indians had fought one another for control of the Great Plains. By 1890, one way of life was almost extinct while another was pushing forward at an incredible rate. The Indians had lost the war for control of their ancestral land but they had one last ace up their sleeve that scared the daylights out of the U.S. army–the Ghost Dance.



It all started with a medicine man named Wovoka, a northern Paiute Indian from what would someday be called the state of Nevada. Like his father before him Wovoka was a medicine man meaning that he was trained in the knowledge of how to communicate with the spirit world. Unlike his father, Wovoka was also raised a Christian by white family who adopted the boy after Wovoka became an orphan.



On New Year’s Day 1889– which just so happened to be a Solar Eclipse–Wovoka had the first of many visions that would spark one of the strangest movements in U.S. History. In his visions he saw the return of long dead people and buffalo that had been driven from the plains. Through these visions he learned about a dance that would sweep the whites from the Great Plains and return life to the way it used to be. Also in his visions he saw the coming of a messiah much like Jesus Christ. The messiah of the Indian people was none other than Wovoka.


Wovoka taught the Ghost Dance to other tribes. Other tribes invited Wovoka to travel to their reservation to teach them the dance.  Soon thousands of Indians were dancing the Ghost dance day and night. The Ghost Dance looked like many other dances common in Native culture. A bonfire was built, the participants held hands in a circle chanting a special prayer. The energy was intense as all focus was on bridging the gap between the human and spirit worlds. Although it may sound silly to the uninitiated, but to Native Americans God is not some inaccessible deity in the heavens but lived all around us. If a person understood the right songs, and could interpret the signs, they could channel the protection of the spirit world. Understanding this makes what happened next make more sense.

Two Views of the Ghost Dance


The message of a return to "the good old days" before the white man was irresistible to the Plains Indians who had been rounded up and herded like horses onto reservations.  But the details of just how the buffalo would return and the whites would disappear were vague. Some believed that it would happen like magic. Others believed that the Great Spirit would give the Indians special protection through a magical garment called the Ghost Shirt. Wearing this special shirt made from white cotton the dancers could be protected from bullets. The Ghost Shirt was powerful medicine to defeat the whites in battle.


To the Native Americans, the Ghost Dance was a religious movement. But to the white settlers it all depended on how well they knew their Indian neighbors. Local settlers who knew the customs of the Lakota saw there was nothing to fear from the Ghost Dancing. Some whites even came to watch the show. Elaine Goodale Eastman, a white woman married to a Lakota, wrote that "no one with imagination could fail to see in the rite a genuine religious ceremony, a faith which, illusory as it was, deserved to be treated with respect.”


However, most of the fear-mongering came from newspapers in far flung corners of the United States like New York and San Francisco. Reporters had been sent to get the scoop on the Ghost Dance. In those days reporters were paid based on how many newspapers were sold. So minor things like facts often took a backseat to sensationalized stories that scared naïve readers whose knowledge of Indians came from paperback novels. Fear sells. The November 20th headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune read “In a State of Terror”. The accompanying story was about “savages” dancing with guns as women and children waited in terror for the attack to come. Other headlines carried equally frightening headlines like “To Wipe Out the Whites” and “Redskins Bloody Work”.  Of course, the whites were fleeing but more likely they were running away from hyped up newspaper accounts rather than any real danger. No wonder people began demanding the government act to put an end to the Ghost Dance movement.


All of this dancing made the government agents very nervous. D.F. Royer at the Pine Ridge Indian Agency wrote back to Washington that “the Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy.” He asked the government to send protection.

To stamp out the dancing tribal leaders were arrested and sent to distant Indian prisons in Arkansas and Florida.  But the dancing continued. Word got out that Sitting Bull was planning to lead the Lakota in a massive ghost dance at Pine Ridge. When the Indian police­­­— Indians who policed other Indians—along with the Calvary showed up at the Standing Rock Reservation to arrest Sitting Bull, a struggle broke out and the famous and respected Lakota leader was shot dead.

Wounded Knee


Meanwhile a group of Hunkapapa Lakota had been travelling for days from Standing Rock to join up with the Lakota at Pine Ridge­­­—a distance of about 100 miles. The band of 350 men, women, and children were led by an elderly chief named Big Foot. The band was being pursued by the 7th Calvary (Custer’s old unit). Their mission was to arrest Big Foot and bring the Hunkapapa back to Standing Rock. But for seven days Big Foot and his followers outfoxed the army, always staying one step ahead. But their luck ran out on December 28, 1890. The group was only a day’s walk from Pine Ridge but they were hungry and exhausted. Big Foot, who had to be carried on a travois—a kind of sled—, was coughing up blood brought on by pneumonia.


The army surrounded the band and ordered them to make camp at Wounded Knee Creek. The army passed out hard tack biscuits and bacon to the starving tribesmen. A doctor was called in for Big Foot. The soldiers had been given orders to disarm the Indians and “destroy them” if they chose to fight. To prevent any escapes in the middle of the night the camp was surrounded by soldiers and four rapid-fire Hotchkiss cannons were set up on the ridge above.


The next morning all of the young men were ordered to assemble and turn in their weapons. None of them trusted the promises to be treated well; after all the white man had broken many promises before. The warriors turned in only two worn out rifles. This prompted the army to order a more thorough search of every Indian tent. Tensions mounted as soldiers spilled the Indians’ possessions onto the ground and slashed through the Indians’ bags. Tempers flared when the women were searched—who had been hiding rifles under their blankets and skirts. The warriors began to shout at the soldiers that they will not give up their rifles without being paid for them. Then someone opened fire.


Most accounts claim it was a young warrior named Black Coyote.  But once the firing started it wouldn’t stop until nearly every member of Big Foot’s band lay dead on the frozen ground. The Hotchkiss guns tore through the tents below killing men, women, and children as they attempted to flee to safety in a ravine nearby.


The gunfire could be heard 18 miles away at the Pine Ridge Reservation and a band of warriors raced to Wounded Knee. By the time they arrived to drive back the army they found a massacre. Twenty five soldiers and hundreds of bodies were piled on top one another. Infants survived under the bodies of their dead mothers. The final battle between whites and Indians was over. The Indian Wars were finished. The Native Americans who had lived on the open Plains for countless generations would be kept on remote reservations as settlers raced to claim cheap land being given away by the U.S. government. Not every white person was celebrating what the newspapers claimed was a great victory over the “redskin savages”.


General Miles, who had ordered the arrest of the Ghost Dancers, claimed that the battle was more of a massacre. Miles demanded that President Benjamin Harrison look into the killing of women and children at Wounded Knee. The final report found that not only did the army act properly several soldiers were awarded a Medal of Honor for heroism. General Miles would continue to protest until his death in 1925.

Eyewitness Account of the Ghost Dance
US soldiers with Hotchkiss
guns used at Wounded Knee
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...”
― Black Elk

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