Wounded Knee By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
March 1, 2013
Wounded Knee Creek. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota. December 29, 1890. The last battle of the American Indian wars. This is the story. On the day before the battle, a detachment of U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment intercepted Spotted Elks band of Lakotas. They were escorted to Wounded Knee Creek where they made camp. The remainder of the 7th Cavalry arrived, led by Colonel James Forsythe, and his four Hotchkiss guns (rapid fire). At daybreak on the morning of December 29, the troops entered the Lakota camp to disarm them. Things went downhill from there. There were 350 Native Americans, of whom all but 120 were women and children, compared to 500 soldiers. A search of the camp confiscated 38 rifles, and more recovered as the soldiers searched the Indians. Most of the old men were unarmed, but the young men were becoming agitated and the tension was spreading to the officers. Although the cause of the fight is still debated, according to some accounts a medicine man (Yellow Bird) began the Ghost Dance (reiterating his assertion to the Lakota that ghost shirts were bulletproof). Tensions mounted further, and when Black Coyote refused to give up his rifle (he was deaf and did not understand the order), he was seized from behind, and in the struggle his rifle discharged. Five young Lakota men with concealed weapons immediately threw aside their blankets and fired at the troops. After this the firing became indiscriminate. At first the struggle was fought at close range. Half of the Indian men were killed before they could get off any shots. Some of the Indians grabbed rifles they had been hiding, but while this phase was fought at close range it lasted a few minutes at most. Other soldiers then used the Hotchkiss gun against the tipi camp full of women and children. They fled, seeking shelter in a ravine. The officers had lost any control over their own men. Some fanned out across the battlefield and finished off wounded Indians, while others leaped onto their horses and pursued the Lakota men, women and children. The fighting lasted less than an hour. At least 150 Lakota were killed and 50 wounded. Some Historians place the actual number killed at 300. Army casualties were 25 dead and 39 wounded. Following a three day blizzard the military hired civilians to bury the dead Lakota. The burial party found the deceased frozen and they were gathered up and placed in a common grave on a hill overlooking the encampment. Colonel Forsythe was relieved of his command, however following an Army Court of Inquiry, which criticized Forsythe for his tactical dispositions, but otherwise exonerated him of responsibility, he was reinstated to command the 7th Cavalry. The American public reaction to the battle was generally favorable; many living near the reservation viewed it as the defeat of a murderous cult. Interestingly enough, the Army awarded twenty Medals of Honor for the actions at Wounded Knee. In contrast, only three Medals of Honor were awarded among the 64,000 South Dakotans who fought for four years of World War II. In 1903 a monument was erected at the gravesite, and the Wounded Knee Battlefield was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1965.
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