In the first three parts of this series, we’ve been following the travails and the courage of a small band of Northern Cheyenne people, as they bravely decided to leave the harsh and soul-destroying conditions of the reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to which they had been forcibly relocated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Army, and begin a 1500 mile trek back to their homeland in the territories of Wyoming and Montana. Having fought several skirmishes and one major battle with the army, by the end of October, 1878, Chief Dull Knife had decided to separate from Chief Little Wolf and take about 150 of his people, who no longer wanted to try to evade the U.S. Army, and head for Fort Robinson in the northwestern corner of Nebraska, which had been established in 1874 as a base of operations against the Northern Cheyenne and the Lakota Sioux people, where they trusted that the military and the Indian Bureau would provide sufficient supplies to keep them alive.
MILITARY PERFIDY AND MASSACRE AT FORT ROBINSON
Chiefs Dull Knife, Left Hand, and Wild Hog, with their diminished band, reached the fort on October 25, 1878. They all were placed in barracks built to hold 75 troopers, but which now held at least 150 Cheyenne men, women, and children. They were held in these conditions until Dec., 1878, when Lakota Chief Red Cloud was brought to the fort for a council with the Cheyenne chiefs. Chief Dull Knife agreed to cease fighting the army if the “great father in Washington” would allow his Cheyenne to live on the Pine Ridge reservation with Red Cloud and the Lakota people.
Unfortunately, the far-too-common untrustworthiness of “the white man” came through again, and on Jan. 3, 1879, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided that Dull Knife and the incarcerated Cheyenne would have to return to their previous inhospitable reservation in Oklahoma Territory. Naturally, the Northern Cheyenne refused to capitulate to the B.I.A.’s demands; therefore the military installed bars on all the windows, guarded the doors, and ceased providing food and wood for heat. After six days of this harsh treatment by the U.S. military, Chief Dull Knife still refused to return to Oklahoma, but two other chiefs indicated that they were ready to talk with the B.I.A.’s agent, stating firmly that they knew their people would refuse to return to the “Indian Territory” reservation. Immediately, Chief Wild Hog was shackled and confined in the fort’s prison. This was the final straw that decided the fate for the imprisoned and starving Northern Cheyenne people.
At about 9:45 pm on Jan. 9, 1879, Chief Dull Knife and his Cheyenne reassembled their previously dismantled and hidden firearms and broke out of their barracks prison, trying to make their “great escape” on a freezing cold night. The military troopers immediately began to pursue the escaping Cheyenne and killed many of them. By dawn’s light, 65 of the Cheyenne (23 of them wounded), were taken back to the fort as prisoners. Only 38 managed to elude the military and began to move north, toward their homeland in Montana Territory, pursued relentlessly by the U.S. Army. Six were found hiding near the fort and were re-incarcerated. Within a day or two, the U.S. military trapped 32 of the escaped Cheyenne at Hat Creek Bluffs, and after a final battle at a place called “the pit”, only NINE Cheyenne of the 32 were left alive and sent back to their prison at Fort Robinson.
Chief Dull Knife escaped to the Pine Ridge Reservation later in January of 1879, where Lakota Chief Red Cloud had been imprisoned by the military. After a delay of several months on the part of the B.I.A., the military released their Cheyenne prisoners from Fort Robinson and sent them all to Fort Keogh in eastern Montana Territory, (where Chief Little Wolf had already ended up). After Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf split their people into two bands in the Fall of 1878, Little Wolf took his people to the remote Sand Hills in Nebraska, where they spent the winter of 1878/79, and where game was plentiful. By early Spring of 1879, Little Wolf’s band had moved north toward the Powder River in Eastern Montana Territory. As previously, they were spotted by Indian scouts from Fort Keogh, who were employed by the U.S. Army, and who were commanded by Lieut. W. P. Clark, an army officer whom the Cheyenne called “White Hat”, and who had been on very friendly terms with Chief Little Wolf in previous years (and who was portrayed in the film, Cheyenne Autumn, by Richard Widmark).
After negotiating with the scouts, and finally with their friend, Lt. Clark, Little Wolf’s band of around 110 very weary people agreed to all surrender to Lt. Clark, the one white man they truly trusted, and go with him to Fort Keogh. This fort was located very close to the traditional homelands of these Northern Cheyenne people, and apparently this must have been considered as an opportunity to locate, even temporarily, close to the final destination of their long and arduous trek. Interestingly, during their stay at Fort Keogh, some of the Cheyenne were offered jobs as scouts in the U.S. Army, and some accepted, as did Chief Little Wolf and Chief Red Armed Panther.
I quote now from the blog, NET: Today In History, and an article by John H. Monnett for some final thoughts about these two great Northern Cheyenne leaders. “Dull Knife’s band has received far more attention in the literature of the Plains Indians…. Dull Knife and his followers made a dramatic escape from Ft. Robinson in the January, 1879 snow and then made a determined effort to sell their lives or gain their freedom in the grim fighting above the Hat Creek Bluffs that culminated in a bloody last stand at Antelope Creek on Jan. 22, 1879. For this reason earlier historians falsely anointed Dull Knife overall leader of the Northern Cheyenne throughout the entire northern odyssey. In fact, it was the younger Little Wolf who led the people north from Indian Territory. Were it not for Little Wolf’s leadership and determination, the Northern Cheyenne likely would never have realized their dream of remaining in the beloved Montana hills after 1879.”
After Little Wolf’s surrender, his friend, Lt. Clark, became essentially his captor. Kansas officials demanded Little Wolf’s extradition to stand trial for the violence and atrocities committed by the Cheyenne during their homeward exodus, and others urged the B.I.A. to send them back to Indian Territory as a lesson to not resist “Manifest Destiny”. But Clark was honorable, and strongly supported the right of the Northern Cheyenne to stay in Montana with land of their own, where they wanted to be. Eventually in 1879, Little Wolf became a sergeant in Clark’s Indian Scouts. Chief Dull Knife died in 1883, greatly lamented by his people.
The survivors of Little Wolf’s band stayed at Ft. Keogh until 1884, after which Congress finally approved a small reservation for the Northern Cheyenne people along the Tongue River, in the area of their original homeland, near present day Lame Deer, Montana. (It has been greatly expanded by our day). Sadly, many of the older Northern Cheyenne people could not adjust to their new reservation life where they could not roam the plains as they once did. Some of them became alienated with their new lives, and succumbed to despair and alcoholism, which also claimed the noble Little Wolf. In 1880, in a drunken rage against his fellow Northern Cheyenne, Starving Elk, for having exhibited “improper attention” to his daughter, Pretty Walker, he shot and killed the younger man. Afterwards, Little Wolf relinquished his Sweet Medicine Chief’s Sacred Bundle to another chief, and banished himself away from his people in the wilds of his new reservation for the rest of his life.
Little Wolf did accomplish his goal of taking his people back to their homeland in Montana. Whatever faults he had, he surely was honorable in keeping his word to take his people “back home”. He died in mostly obscurity in 1904, and now he rests in peace in his beloved land along the Tongue River country in Lame Deer, Montana, next to his fellow hero, Dull Knife. As John Monnett concluded, “Little Wolf is a tragic hero, the brilliant story of his leadership abilities juxtaposed against societal alienation, depression, and murder.” In a 1925 letter, naturalist George Grinnell, who knew Little Wolf well in his later life, wrote a tribute to his friend: “I knew old Little Wolf almost intimately toward the end of his life…. I disregarded the tribal feeling about him and used to pass him my pipe to smoke. I consider him the greatest Indian I have ever known.” Not a bad epitaph for a hero, even a tarnished one!