Wounded Knee Massacre

From Academic Kids

Wounded Knee Massacre
ConflictIndian Wars
DateDecember 29, 1890
PlaceWounded Knee, Dakota Territory
ResultU.S. victory (massacre);final conquest of Native Americans
Great Sioux Nation United States
Big Foot James W. Forsyth
120 men
230 women and children
500 men
150 killed
50 wounded
25 killed
39 wounded

The Wounded Knee Massacre or the Battle of Wounded Knee was the last armed conflict between the Great Sioux Nation and the United States of America. It occurred at Wounded Knee, Dakota Territory on December 29, 1890. The United States Army used Hotchkiss guns which were capable of firing two pound explosive shells fifty times per minute, while Sioux warriors were generally poorly armed.


Prelude to the Incident

Jack Wilson claimed that during the total eclipse of the sun on January 1, 1889, he had a revelation that he was the Messiah. The new religion formed by this revelation was the Ghost Dance Religion, a syncratic mix of Paiute spiritualism and Shaker Christianity. Wilson preached that earthquakes would be sent to kill all whites. However, Wilson taught that, until that judgement, Native Americans must live in peace and not refuse work from Whites.

Two early converts to the Ghost Dance Religion were the Lakota warriors of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Kicking Bear and Short Bull. Both stated that Wilson levitated before them, though they interpreted his statements differently. They rejected Wilson's claims to be the Messiah, and believed that the Messiah would not arrive until 1891. They also rejected Wilson's pacifism, and believed that special garments, called Ghost Spirits, would act as bulletproof armor.

Though perhaps a majority of Pine Ridge Lakota converted to the Ghost Dance Religion, Chief Sitting Bull was not among them. However, he granted practitioners religious freedom. Federal officials misconstrued Sitting Bull's tolerance as full support, and attempted to arrest him on December 15, 1890. For unclear reasons a gun battle ensued, and Sitting Bull was killed.

Sitting Bull's half-brother, Big Foot, was chosen as the new leader of the tribe. On the way to help fellow chief Red Cloud make peace with the Whites, Big Foot was intercepted by Major Samuel Whitside of the 7th Cavalry. Whitside transferred Big Foot to an army ambulance due to his severe pneumonia and escorted the Native Americans to their camp for the night at Wounded Knee Creek. The army supplied the Native Americans with some tents and rations, and then conducted a census, determining that there were 120 males and 230 women and children.

The next morning, the Lakota found that additional 7th Cavalry troopers with more Hotchkiss guns had arrived during the night. The cannons were set up on a low hill overlooking the Lakota encampment. Colonel John W. Forsyth had assumed command of the soldiers. Forsyth informed his command that the Lakota were to be taken to a military camp in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Massacre

The military was under orders to disarm those who were considered to be their prisoners, having escorted them to the camp-site the evening before. The Native Americans had elected to surrender without any attempt at resistance at that time. The military did not attempt to disarm their prisoners that evening. That morning, the Lakota were summoned to a meeting in their own camp, issued army hardtack for rations, and informed that they must hand over all firearms. Soldiers attempted to disarm the Lakota, but fears of hidden weapons persisted. Not satisfied with the weapons voluntarily stacked by the Lakota, the soldiers began to search the tents, and removed anything that could be used as a weapon. Seized material ranged from firearms to extra tent stakes and hatchets for cutting firewood. Next, the soldiers began to search the warriors themselves. As the efforts to locate weapons continued, the Lakota became more irritated and unruly according to US Army accounts.

The last warrior the soldiers attempted to disarm was Black Coyote. Some accounts claim that Black Coyote was deaf or otherwise impaired. Regardless, the seizure was unsuccessful and a weapon discharged. Fearing an attack, other soldiers on the rise began firing the Hotchkiss guns. Chaos ensued, as soldiers attempting to disarm Lakota warriors were caught in the crossfire, and warriors ran to re-arm themselves from the stacked weapons.

When the shooting stopped, 153 Lakota lay dead, along with 25 American cavalrymen. Big Foot lay among the dead. Perhaps a majority of the cavalrymen killed died by friendly fire, but no actual attempt was made to determine whether this was the case. Wounded soldiers and Native Americans were placed in wagons and taken to Pine Ridge. Approximately 50 Lakota arrived at Pine Ridge, but were kept outside in the cold until quarters were found. Approximately 150 Lakota remained unaccounted for. Most sources believe that these fled the federal army, and an unknown number subsequently died of wounds and exposure.

The Aftermath

The military hired civilians to bury the dead Lakota after an intervening snowstorm had abated. Arriving at the battleground, the burial party found the deceased frozen in contorted positions by the freezing weather. They were gathered up and placed in a common grave. Forsyth was exonerated by the US Army of any wrongdoing.

Reaction to the battle among the American public was generally favorable. 20 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to federal soldiers. Many Americans living near the reservations interpreted the battle as a defeat of a murderous cult, though some confused Ghost Dancers with Native Americans in general. In an editorial in response to the event, a young newspaper editor, L. Frank Baum, later famous as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on January 3, 1891:

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.

In the late 20th century, reaction grew more critical. Many consider the incident one of the most grievous atrocities in United States history. It has been commemorated in the popular protest song written by Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, as well as the book by Native American historian Dee Brown by the same name.

Historically, Wounded Knee is generally considered to be the end of the Indian Wars, the series of conflicts between European colonial/U.S. forces and indigenous peoples since at least the 17th century, establishing total U.S. dominance of the frontier. It was also responsible for the subsequent severe decline in the Ghost Dance movement.

More than eighty years after the massacre, beginning on February 27, 1973, Wounded Knee was also the site of a 71-day standoff between federal authorities and militants of the American Indian Movement.

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