There’s no place like home … the exodus of the Northern Cheyenne

Many are familiar with the Cherokees of the SE and their forced removal to Indian Territory known as the Trail of Tears. Many, too, know of Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribesmen of the NW and their battles to attempt escape into Canada. Not as many are familiar with this particularly heartbreaking exodus ~~~

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After a rousing defeat of the US 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn River in Montana, the victorious bands of united Sioux & Cheyenne began their dispersal moving to what would be their winter camps. Meanwhile, embarrassed by the defeat, just before the Nation’s Centennial, the military stepped up the intensity and numbers of soldiers in the field. Harassed and starving, nearly all bands – both Sioux & Cheyenne – surrendered or fled into Canada over the next couple of years.

In May of 1877 great Oglala Sioux war leader Crazy Horse surrendered his band at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. With him were at least two bands of northern Cheyenne led by chiefs Dull Knife & Little Wolf. They had been driven from their winter camps by the US Army and found their way to long-time friend & ally, Crazy Horse, whose camp was subsequently attacked, as well. It was a long, hard winter for these people. In the spring, with much suffering among the women, children, and elders, Crazy Horse took his bands to the fort. One officer on the scene commented that it looked more like a victory parade than a surrender.

Unexpectedly to the Cheyenne, they were instructed to be moved to the southern Cheyenne reservation in Indian Territory [present day Oklahoma]. Little Wolf & Dull Knife became enraged by this bad news. Both had signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 which forevermore had ceded lands in Montana & South Dakota, including the Black Hills, to the  Sioux AND Cheyenne.

It had been a bad time since the victory against Custer on the Little Bighorn. Now, the bands were all separated, the harassing winter campaigns by the Army had driven many of them into the stark, bitter winter snow … only to finally reach relative safety to be greeted with this news.

They began their trip to the south. Arriving in early August of 1877, the 972 souls who had began had now dwindled to 937. Some older folks had passed away during the arduous journey and were buried along the dusty trail. Some of the warriors slipped away at opportune times to rejoin their brethren in the north. Looking around their new surroundings, the Indians were disgusted by the poor, dusty, dry conditions. Many of the southern Cheyenne had been beaten a decade before along with many Comanche, Kiowa, Plains Apache and Arapaho. Others came in after the Red River Wars in 1874-75. It was clear to the newcomers, free just a few months ago, that reservation life down in this alien landscape might just be worse than death. When allowed to hunt and no game was found, merely old buffalo remains, starvation seemed possible. Then, a measles outbreak spread among them.

In the pre-dawn hours of September 10, 1878, Dull Knife & Little Wolf silently led their people north to try, at all costs, to make it back to their homeland. Their numbers now stood at an estimated high of just 353. As the Indians silently slipped from the reservation in the darkness, it wasn’t long before their departure was realized. Soon, a detachment of some 240 infantry & cavalry were in hot pursuit.

The Canyon at the Battle Site of Punished Woman’s Fork

For the next six weeks, the Indians managed to elude the pursuing troops through a series of running skirmishes and rear guard actions, most notably at Turkey Springs, along the Kansas border, and at Punished Woman’s Fork a bit further north. Though they were able to forage meager supplies during the Turkey Springs affair, they ended up losing all their food, some supplies, and 60 of their horses during the Punished Woman’s Fork battle. In fact, they almost lost it all. The Indians found themselves corned in a pit at nightfall. Against all odds, they slipped out of a tight situation by stealth overnight. Following, as they moved hurriedly through Kansas, a series of depredations occurred as the Cheyenne desperately sought food. Through cunning and treachery, they attacked homesteaders & cowboys on into Nebraska. Meanwhile, more soldiers from the forts in the region joined the chase, as did some 3,000 settlers — all told, 13,000 VS some 300. Five times the army caught up with the Cheyenne; five times the army was foiled by the mobility of the warriors and their families.

Winter was approaching and their numbers were continuing to dwindle. Council was held. Little Wolf’s people decided they wanted to continue with the exodus north. They moved a bit and then wintered, peacefully, in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Once spring arrived, the small band of less than 115 people moved out into the Powder River Country of Montana. They ended up surrendering to officers at Fort Keogh, near present day Miles City. They had reached the homeland and the men joined service with the white man as army scouts.

As this somewhat happy ending was playing out, Dull Knife’s band of about 150 would have a tougher go of it. They were tired and no longer wanted to run. Their plan was to turn themselves in to Red Cloud Agency of which Fort Robinson was a part. After all this turbulence and tribulation, they would end up back where the journey had started. The worst, though, was yet to come.

— Red Cloud Agency – sketch published in Harper’s Weekly, 1876

Before they could reach their goal, the Cheyenne were surrounded by elements of the Army. On the night of October 23, 1878, the Indians, in camp & still surrounded, disassembled their guns and distributed the parts among the woman who hid the larger pieces under their robes & blankets while actually wearing the smaller pieces as ornaments & jewelry. Two days later, the 150 Cheyenne people were crowded into a barracks built for 75 soldiers. The guns were reassembled and hidden under a floor board. Dull Knife agreed to a peace if his band could stay on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The Pit

 And so it stayed as an official response from Washington was awaited. That word arrived on January 3, 1879. It was not good. The northern Cheyenne were to be returned to the south, in Indian Territory, with their southern relatives. Dull Knife refused. To “entice” him to change his mind, the windows were barred and rations & firewood were withheld. Still, the Cheyenne refused to leave. On January 9, the Army took one of the lesser chiefs as a hostage to use as a bargaining chip. That night, at approximately 9:45, the Cheyenne removed the guns from hiding and fought their way out of the fort into the freezing elements and snow covered ground. The soldiers gave hot pursuit and a running battle in the darkness ensued. Soon, there were a string of bloodied dead & wounded in the snow. 32, following a warrior named Little Finger Nail, hid in a place now known as The Pit at the Hat Creek Bluffs. They were discovered by soldiers who repeatedly fired into the pit. Out of ammo and defenseless, Little Finger Nail brazenly charged the soldiers to protect the women & children. He was quickly cut down. There were 9 survivors in the pit. 65 Cheyenne were returned as prisoners the next morning. Of those, 23 were wounded. Another 6 were found hiding within miles of the fort over the next several days. Dull Knife was among the survivors. Months later, the US Government finally relented and allowed the surviving members of Dull Knife’s band of northern Cheyenne to join Little Wolf at Fort Keogh.

The good news to this bit of history is that, eventually, the Cheyenne of the northern plains did end up with their own plot of land in their home territory of Montana, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

 In the above slide show of 4 photos, one is the ledger that was found on Little Finger Nail’s body. It is housed at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Back in the 80s, I visited there and they also had his shirt on display, complete with bullet hole. I searched their online archives and could not find the shirt to add to this account. I had taken a photo of both the shirt & ledger book while there, but I cannot find it, so, for now, the ledger picture alone must suffice.

For a much more detailed account, read Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz

Though not entirely historical, an entertaining movie directed by the legendary John Ford is available on DVD: Cheyenne Autumn [Richard Widmark, Carrol Baker, Ricardo Montalban, Gilbert Roland, Sal Mineo]

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