Six Sioux Chiefs in the Jail Yard
Part Four: The Last Indian Raids
In the dark of night on September 9, 1878, three hundred Northern Cheyenne followed chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf and began their 1,000 mile journey from Indian Territory in Oklahoma to their homeland in present day Montana.
Dull Knife was adamant that the journey be a peaceful one. He would not have his people accused of any wrongdoing during the trip. Their only goal was to make it home as quickly as possible without being seen. Whether or not he knew what the young warriors in the party were doing when they broke off from the group will forever be a mystery, but their actions were well documented. What happened during the last days of September and the first days of October would strike fear into settlers across the county, and would make the Army and the settlers even more determined than ever to capture them and contain them.
Agent Miles was informed of their departure within hours, and the band of Northern Cheyenne were followed closely by military detachments. Little Wolf had a brilliant understanding of military tactics and defense strategies. Tangle Hair, the leader of the Dog Soldiers, was also a member of the party, as was Wild Hog, another revered warrior. They were a small, but fragile, military force whose movement was weighed down by large numbers of women, children, elderly, and ill.
The first white men encountered by members of Dull Knife’s party were Reuben Bristow and Fred Clark, two cowboys from a ranch in Oklahoma, en route to the Cimarron Salt Plain for a load of rock salt. A group of Indians quickly surrounded Bristol and Clark’s wagon, killed both men, and took their mules. Their bodies were found on September 12 by Bristow’s cousin and two others. Tracks around the abandoned wagon and the men’s bodies told the tale of what had happened. They buried the men on a spot near where they were found.
Dull Knife was traveling with 300 people—and 300 people needed food and supplies for a long journey. With wild game on the Plains having been all but wiped out, their only option for survival was to steal from the settlers they encountered as they traveled. This was understood, but leaders claim to have been adamant that no one be injured in the process. The people moved mostly moved at night to avoid being seen and caught. They were swift and efficient as they quietly moved across the land.
They rested for the first time at Turkey Springs, a spot with excellent natural defense elements to shelter a large number of people and ponies. From this location, they could strategically isolate troops from water if they’d been detected and if the Army engaged with them. Raiding parties of warriors fanned out in search of fresh horses, supplies, and enough food for 300 weary travelers. When the troops did catch up to them, officers attempted to force Dull Knife and Little Wolf to surrender and return willingly to Darlington, but the chiefs refused. They simply informed the officers that they were going home. Over-eager soldiers began closing in, and a brief skirmish broke out.
After trading light fire with troops at Turkey Springs, the Northern Cheyenne moved on. Army commanders didn’t quite know what to do. They were reluctant to engage, and as the Indians swiftly moved across jurisdictions, no one knew who was giving the orders. And to make matters worse, the settlers’ distrust of the military’s ability to protect them was growing. Widespread panic ensued in western Kansas as rumors of stolen livestock and murdered settlers spread.
The Indians crossed into Kansas around September 17, and briefly faced troops at Bluff Creek. Again, soldiers hesitated, not knowing what to do or from whom they should be taking their orders. Their hesitation allowed the Northern Cheyenne to escape. At around this time, a rogue band of young Cheyenne warriors spotted a man by the name of Washington O’Connor, and surrounded his wagon. They proceeded to slit his throat, and drive off his mule team as a group of settlers watched from a distant hillside. This event would prove to be an important moment in the future of the tribe.
Punished Woman’s Fork
As they continued north, Tangle Hair, the leader of the Dog Soldiers, led the large group to the ruins of El Quartelejo, a spot he knew well. For decades, the Dog Soldiers had used a spot near this abandoned Pueblo trading community known as “Punished Woman’s Fork” as a base camp because its bluffs, caves, and ditches provided useful natural protection. The canyon would provide an excellent place for the Northern Cheyenne to rest while providing them sufficient protection from the Army if they should be located.
On September 27, the Army engaged the Northern Cheyenne for the last time on the battlefield. The women and children were sheltered in one ravine, their horse herd in another, and fire was traded between the enemies. In the shirmish, the Army lost their commander, Lt Col William H Lewis—shot in his femoral artery. As darkness fell, both sides withdrew. With Col Lewis gone, the new commander, Captain Clarence Mauck assumed command. This pause in the action and change of command proved pivotal.
When the sun came up, Capt Mauck sent some of his men into the canyon to bring back information on the Indians’ situation. The Northern Cheyenne had departed in the darkness. In their haste, they had left between sixty and eighty-five of their best ponies, loaded with food, blankets, and personal belongings. Captain Mauck ordered the slaughter of every single one of the ponies. Everything else the Cheyenne had left behind was to be piled up and set on fire.
Word went out throughout the region about another loss by the military, and the settlers began to defend themselves. They were frightened and angry and had lost all confidence in the Army’s ability to protect them.
As the settlers panicked, the Cheyenne also began to crack under the pressure. For three weeks, they had traveled across the prairie. This journey had taught them that the settlers would not give up their horses, livestock, or provisions without a fight. They now found themselves without anything they needed to survive, and they began to argue amongst themselves. Many were sick with fever and dysentery. They were hungry and tired. Some of the younger warriors had become impatient and irritated by their chiefs’ pacifistic approach to their journey home. They were inexperienced and eager to prove their bravery and their skills as warriors.
The Last Indian Raids
Not all of the settlers took up arms and harbored fear of the Indians. In fact, many of the settlements in the region were new European immigrants who had never even seen an Indian before. The Bohemian settlements along the Kansas border had heard that the Indians int he region were friendly, and that if they were approached, that they should simply share their food, and they’d be left alone.
On September 30, southwest of Oberlin, Kansas, for explained reasons, things took a decidedly violent turn. Some of the disgruntled younger warriors broke away from the larger group, fanned out, and began to take out their frustrations and anger on the settlers in their path. For two days, small bands of these men repeatedly approached white settlers under the guise of friendship, and then executed them at close range. They raped women and girls as young as nine years old. They ransacked homes, destroyed property, burned anything that would catch on fire, stole the things they wanted, slaughtered animals indiscriminately, and stampeded hundreds of head of cattle.
By sundown on October 2, 1878, around forty men and boys lay dead on the prairie, as many as twenty-five women and young girls had been violently raped. Several settlers had been injured. Acres and acres of farmland had been burned. Hundreds of animals, including dogs, cats, sheep, horses, and cattle, had been senselessly slaughtered. And several families had been destroyed.
The extent of the violence—especially the rapes—was not something that was talked about. Despite the fact that sexual violence has always been a part of war, it was not something that was discussed in polite society. Words like “ravaged,” “outraged,” “ravished,” and “disgraced,” were used, and in many cases, it simply wasn’t even talked about at all. For the Cheyenne, rape was a heinous crime within their culture, and, according to some sociologists, was sometimes used to punish the woman or her husband. The rapes were committed as a means to humiliate and insult the settlers and their families. The crimes against the women and girls were never separately addressed, so historians are unsure of the accuracy of the reports. It is possible that some were never even reported for real of social ostracism or other negative repercussions to the woman or her family.
After two days of unspeakable violence, the Northern Cheyenne continued on towards their homeland. The chiefs may not have known what had occurred out of their sight, but they had to have known something had happened when groups of young warriors returned with food, horses, clothing, and other provisions and items that had obviously been taken from white settlers. Dull Knife and Little Wolf had very different strengths as leaders, and the two chiefs couldn’t agree on their next course of action. Dull Knife was tired of running and wanted to join the Sioux at Red Cloud, a much shorter journey. Little Wolf wanted to continue on to Montana, their homeland. Since the two men couldn’t agree, they decided to split up.
Most of the younger men accompanied Little Wolf towards Montana. The majority of the women, children, and older people followed Dull Knife to Red Cloud— or where they thought the Red Cloud Agency was— near Fort Robinson, Nebraska. What they didn’t know was that during the year they were living in Oklahoma, the Red Cloud Agency had been renamed and relocated to South Dakota.
On October 23, 1878, a cavalry detachment under the US Army caught up to Dull Knife and his half of tribe. They were starving, exhausted, and many of them were sick. They surrendered without a fight and were taken to Fort Robinson, Nebraska.
The “Last Indian Raids” may have ended, but a whole new nightmare was about to begin.
Images: Map of the Route: University of Kansas Cartographic and GIS Services, from The Northern Cheyenne Exodus in History and Memory by James N Leiken and Ramon Powers; Cheyenne Woman traveling with a travois, image from True West Magazine, True West Archives; Punished Woman’s Fork, from WikiCommons, Public Domain; Pioneer Family from near Oberlin, Kansas, from Pinterest (could not locate original source); Kansas Historical Marker for the Last Indian Raids in Oberlin, Kansas, Kansas State Historical Society
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