The history of the Wounded Knee Massacre: Reports from the scene, and later perspectives

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


Over the decades, there have been many versions of the story of what happened at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota in 1890.

While there is no way to cover every point of view, here you will find original vintage news reports of the battle, plus a historical review of the events as seen 86 years after the fact.

New inquiry into Wounded Knee (1976)

Adapted from an article by William K Wyant, Jr. – St Louis Post-Dispatch (St Louis, MO) January 11, 1976

WASHINGTON DC: It is difficult for Americans to read without emotion the varied and conflicting accounts of what happened when the Seventh Cavalry undertook to disarm a band of Indians under Big Foot on Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will look into the controversy once again when it holds hearings January 29-30 [1976] on a bill “to liquidate the liability of the United States for the massacre of Sioux Indian men, women and children at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890.”

The Army, opposing the bill, insists that the incident was not a massacre but a battle.

Chairing the hearings will be Senator. James Abourezk (Dem.), South Dakota, who introduced the bill. His proposal calls for payment of $3000 each to the heirs of every Sioux who died at Wounded Knee. By unofficial estimate, the beneficiaries would total about 500 persons.

Scenes from the battlefield - Wounded Knee Massacre 1890 (5)

THE CASUALTY figures throw light on the nature of the struggle. Col. James W. Forsyth’s losses were 25 officers and men killed, 33 wounded. On the Indian side, a contemporary official account says 84 men and boys, 44 women and 18 children were killed, and at least 33 wounded, many seriously.

After the smoke had cleared, and after a blizzard which froze bodies on the wintry field, the Army contended that Indian fire killed the first women and children.

The Army blamed Sioux braves for mixing with the women and children, thus exposing them to cavalry fire.

“Many of them, men and children, got on their ponies, and it is impossible to distinguish buck from squaw at a little distance when mounted,” said a report issued by the Secretary of War in 1891. It said the injury to noncombatants was unavoidable and “universally regretted” by the Seventh Cavalry.

The Indian survivors and some others told a very different story. By their account, indiscriminate fire by the cavalry killed troopers as well as Indians. Also, frenzied troopers hunted down fleeing women and children and shot them to death.

ALSO SEE: War declared: American newspaper headlines from the very start of WWI in 1914

Scenes from the battlefield - Wounded Knee Massacre 1890 (2)

MUCH OF THE carnage at Wounded Knee was wrought by a battery of two Hotchkiss guns — “wagon-guns,” the Indians called them — which had been deployed as artillery at the surrender scene. Colonel Forsyth was harshly criticized for the way he dispersed his troops.

ALSO SEE: A brief history of revolvers, rifles & other guns, from the Civil War through the 1930s

The late John G. Neihardt’s 1961 book, “Black Elk Speaks,” the life story of a religious leader of the Oglala Sioux, contains the following as Black Elk’s eyewitness account of what he saw after the shooting started.

We followed down the dry gulch, and what we saw was terrible. Dead and wounded (Indian) women and children and little babies were scattered all along where they had been trying to run away.

The soldiers had followed along the gulch, as they ran, and murdered them in there. Sometimes they were in heaps because they had huddled together, and some were scattered all along. Sometimes bunches of them had been killed and torn to pieces where the wagon guns hit them. I saw a little baby trying to suck its mother, but she was bloody and dead.

Black Elk

When we drove the soldiers back, they dug themselves in, and we were not enough people to drive them out from there. In the evening they marched off up Wounded Knee Creek, and then we saw all that they had done there.

Men and women and children were heaped and scattered all over the flat at the bottom of the little hill where the soldiers had their wagon guns, and westward up the dry gulch all the way to the high ridge, the dead women and children and babies were scattered…

This is the way it was: …The women and children ran into the gulch and up the west, dropping all the time, for the soldiers shot them as they ran. There were only about a hundred warriors and there were nearly five hundred soldiers.

The warriors rushed to where they had piled their guns and knives (previously). They fought soldiers with only their hands until they got their guns…

It was a good winter day when all this happened. The sun was shining. But after the soldiers marched away from their dirty work, a heavy snow began to fall. The wind came up in the night. There was a big blizzard, and it grew very cold.

The snow drifted deep in the crooked gulch, and it was one long grave of butchered women and children and babies, who had never done any harm and were only trying to run away.

Wounded Knee

Neihardt, who died at Columbia, Mo., at age 92 in November 1973, was on the staff of the Post-Dispatch from 1926 to 1936, and, as literary editor, wrote a column called “Of Making Many Books.” He met Black Elk at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1930.

IT WAS RECALLED by Neihurdt’s daughter, Mrs. Hilda Petri, a lawyer in Columbia, that her father went to the reservation in hopes of finding an elderly medicine man who would have recollections of the Indian “ghost dance” or messiah movement that formed part of the background leading to the tragedy at Wounded Knee.

Mrs. Petri told the Post-Dispatch that there was no question in her father’s mind that Wounded Knee had been a massacre. Neihardt’s papers are now in the state historical society’s collection at the University of Missouri Library.

“It wasn’t a battle,” Mrs. Petri said. “Most of the Indians had given up their arms.”

ALSO SEE: Native American sign language: Illustrated guides to 400 gestures

In opposing Senator Abourezk’s effort to obtain compensation for Indian survivors, the Army took a stance similar to the one it had taken in 1937 toward another congressional attempt to grant compensation.

The Army’s report is a 23-page document produced by the Legislative Relief Division of the Judge Advocate General’s Office and signed by acting Secretary of the Army Norman R. Augustine Aug. 28. There was no input, an Army spokesman said, from the Army’s historical section.

“AT THE OUTSET,” Augustine wrote to Senator James O. Eastland (Dem.), Mississippi, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “there is manifest objection to the bill because of the precedent effect of reviving claims arising out of an event which occurred during the last century.

“Should other claims be recognized which go back through our nation’s history, and during periods of hostilities, when it is difficult to reconstruct the facts?”

As the Army report suggests, Wounded Knee did not take place in a vacuum. It was the last gasp of decades of Indian wars in which the nation’s aborigines — some of them fierce, free and warlike — had been pushed into reservations, robbed of their way of life, and driven inexorably to the wall.

Wounded Knee took place only 14 years after Gen. George A. Custer and 226 men of the Seventh Cavalry were slaughtered at the Little BigHorn in Montana territory. Two weeks earlier, Sitting Bull had been shot to death. There was tension between Indians and white settlers.

Scenes from the battlefield - Wounded Knee Massacre 1890 (3)

“INDIANS ARE dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” said a Pine Ridge agent’s telegram to Washington. “We need protection and we need it now.”

There were conferences between Big Foot and the cavalry. Big Foot was sick, bleeding from the lungs. The Army provided an ambulance, stove, tent and surgeon for him. Rations were issued. Big Foot and his party — said by writer Dee Brown to number 120 men and 230 women and children — proceeded under military escort to a cavalry tent camp on Wounded Knee Creek.

The next morning, Colonel Fontyth had a parley after which the disarming of the Indians took place. Not satisfied with the number of weapons produced, the cavalry searched the Indian tepees. Troopers clashed with a young Indian who had a Winchester, the rifle was fired, and that touched off a general melee.

The Army report to Senator Eastland last August said numerous orders had been issued by the cavalry to control the firing. As a precaution, primers had been removed from the Hotchkiss guns. However, the Army conceded that “individual excesses” took place but were not based on malevolence.

“INSTEAD,” SAID the Army report, they were the actions of inexperienced, untested troops who were carried away in the heat of battle, just as were the Indians.”

Apparently there were more than 450 cavalrymen on the scene. The point about the troops being green is made by both sides, and presumably is a fact. In fairness to the Army, the evidence also shows that many military men thought the Indians were unfairly treated in that period.

ALSO SEE: The Battle of Little Bighorn: Original newspaper stories & more details from the disastrous conflict in 1876

Big Foots camp 3 weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre
Big Foot’s camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890), with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background.

First newspaper reports from the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890)


Soldiers Butcher Chief Big Foot’s Warriors.


The Despairing Savages Fight On Foot. Half Armed.


After Tasting Blood the Troops Act With the Frenzy of Fiends.

Big Foot’s Band Surrender — While Surrounded by Troops and Being Disarmed They Attack the Soldiers With Rifles, Knives and Clubs — Mounted Men and Machine Guns Mow Them Down — Hardly a Redskin Escapes One White Officer Killed With a Tomahawk, and Many Soldiers Are Wounded — The Slaughter Continues for Hours.

Battle of Wounded Knee

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle, Washington Territory) December 30, 1890

Pine Ridge [South Dakota], Dec. 29.

Big Foot’s band of Indians were discovered shortly before noon yesterday by Little Bat, one of the Indian scouts, at a hostile camp eight miles northeast of Major Whiteside’s camp, on the Wounded Knee.

When this was reported to Major Whiteside, he ordered four troops of the Seventh cavalry into the saddle and marched to the point indicated by the scout.

As the military approached the hostiles formed in line of battle. The major brought his men up into line, and when they came within ride shot Big Foot came forward on foot, unarmed, and signaled that he wanted to speak with the major.

Dismounting, the latter walked out and met the chief. As they came forward Big Foot extended his hand in token of peace.

Soldiers Butcher Chief Big Foot's Warriors

He said: “I am sick. My people here want peace.”

Major Whiteside cut him short, saying: “I do not want, nor will I have any parleying at all. It is either unconditional surrender or fight. What is your answer?”

“Surrender,” said the chief. “We would have done so before, but we couldn’t find you, and couldn’t find soldiers to surrender to.”

Then, at a signal, his warriors raised a white flag, and in less time than it takes to write the military had their prisoners surrounded, and a courier hastened to the agency for the other part of the Seventh cavalry and Lieutenant Taylor’s scouts to help guard and disarm the party.

ALSO SEE: The wanted poster with a $100,000 reward for catching President Lincoln’s killer (1865)

Washington City, Dec. 29.

Official dispatches from General Miles, dated Rapid City, S.D., were received tonight by General Schofield telling of a fight in the Bad Lands today. The first was:

Whiteside had four troops of cavalry and held the Indians till Forsythe reached him with four more troops last night. At 8:30 this morning, while disarming the Indians, a fight commenced. I think very few Indians have escaped.

I think we will have this matter in hand as soon as all are in position. There was no precaution omitted. The tight occurred near the head of Wounded Knee Creek. I have just seen many of the Indians who went out toward Forsythe this morning coining back.

The next dispatch says:

General Brooke telegraphs: Forsythe reports that while disarming Big Foot’s band this morning, a flight occurred. Captain Wallace and five soldiers were killed, and Lieutenant Garlington and fifteen men wounded.

The Indians are being hunted up in all directions. None are known to have gotten their ponies. General Brooke also reports that many young warriors that were going out from the camp in the Bad Lands to the agency have gone toward Forsythe. All the troops have been notified.

A later dispatch says:

General Brooke reported that two shots were fired near the agency at Pine Ridge by someone later in the day, and several were fired in return. Quite a large number of Two Strike’s warriors ran away, and the agency is generally excited. This makes matters look more serious.

General Schofield, though deeply regretting the occurrence, was not greatly surprised when he learned of the treachery displayed by the Indians in the fight. He had been on the lookout for treachery all the time.

It was almost inevitable. So far as he could see just now, there appeared to be no further danger at hand, except that to be feared by the disarmed band of Indians that is still out, although the excitement following the fight of today might be the means of leading to further trouble.

Secretary Proctor also expressed regret at the occurrence, as he had hoped for a settlement of the trouble without further bloodshed. He supposed that inasmuch as Big Foot was connected with Sitting Bull’s band, it was a case where the Indians wanted revenge for the killing of their friend.

Scenes from the battlefield - Wounded Knee Massacre 1890 (6)

Lincoln, Neb., Dec. 29.

The State Journal has from its special correspondent the following story of the fight between the troops and Big Foot’s Indians at the camp at Wounded Knee:

At 8 o’clock this morning, troops were massed about the Indian village, the Hotchkiss guns overlooking the camp not fifty yards away. Colonel Forsythe ordered all the Indians to come forward, away from the tents. They came and sat in a half circle until counted. Dismounted troops were then thrown around them, Company K, Captain Wallace, and Company B, Captain Varnum. The order was then given to twenty Indians to go and get their guns.

They returned with only two guns. A detachment of troops at once began to search the village, finding thirty-eight guns. As this task was about completed the Indians, surrounded by companies K and B, began to move.

All of a sudden they threw their blankets to the ground, whipped up rides and began firing rapidly at the troops, not twenty feet away. The troops were at a great disadvantage, fearing to shoot their own comrades. The Indian men, women and children then ran to the south, the battery firing rapidly as they ran.

Soon the mounted troops were after them, shooting them down on every hand. The engagement lasted fully an hour and a half. To the south, many took refuge in a ravine, from which it was difficult to dislodge them. I should estimate the killed and wounded, from what I saw on the field and vicinity, at fifty. Just now it is impossible to state the exact number. Soldiers are shooting them down wherever found.

The field was one of great confusion, horses running in every direction. The men for a few moments were frantic, owing to the unfortunate way in which they were placed. Captain Wallace, of K troop, was the only officer killed.

In the first mad rush of Indians, those of them who had no guns attacked the troopers with knives, clubs and tomahawks, and Captain Wallace was struck down with a blow from a hatchet on the head. Father Craft, a Catholic missionary, received a bullet wound which will probably result fatally.

Lieutenant Garlington, of Arctic exploration fame, received a serious wound in the arm and a number of non-commissioned officers and privates wounded, probably twenty-five or thirty in all. Several of these are likely to die. I cannot at this time give the names of all the wounded.

As the dispatch is being written, troops are still pursuing the Indians in every direction.

The correspondent says the Indians must have been mad to have attacked the number of soldiers who were gathered about them, there being only 120 bucks.

The treacherous deed, coming at the time it did, was a surprise, and the correspondent doubts if any of the Indians will be left alive to tell the tale when the soldiers get through the day’s work. The members of the Seventh cavalry have once more shown themselves heroes in deeds of daring. Single conflicts of great bravery were seen all over the field.

The opening of the fight at Wounded Knee illustration
The opening of the fight at Wounded Knee (artist Frederic Remington)

Chicago, Dec. 30.

A special from Pine Ridge agency says: This afternoon a troop of cavalry was fired on by Indians from Rosebud camp, near Pine Ridge. A skirmish followed in which two soldiers were wounded. The casualties among the Indians are unknown.

Much excitement is seen among the other Indians at the agency and it is feared a lot of the young bucks will slip away tonight. Owing to the absence of the cavalry they could not be pursued with any degree of success.

Chicago, Dec. 30.

Another special from the scene of the battle asserts that five troopers were killed outright and at least a dozen mortally wounded. The correspondent expresses the belief that not one of Big Foot’s band is left alive tonight.

Chicago, Dec. 30.

A bulletin from Pine Ridge agency received at 3 o’clock this morning, says that lighting is now going on between the Indian police and some of the Indians recently returned from Bad Lands. It is impossible to learn now how serious it is. There is much anxiety at the agency, where there are only a few companies of infantry.

Scenes from the battlefield - Wounded Knee Massacre 1890 (4)

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.