Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Peace--Black Elk

Dove, a symbol of peace, photographed in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. 
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

"The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere.
It is within each of us."

--Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, 1932

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Colorado, Here I Come!

Horsetooth Mountain, one of the most famous landmarks in Northern Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Just a short note to let you know I am moving, which explains the long delay in posts--selling, buying, and moving to another state is a time-consuming process, but by the end of the week I will be living in a small town in Northern Colorado

I will be living closer to my family and friends and where I also attended and taught at the local universities. I lived in Colorado most of my life. I love Colorado and I am fascinated by its wild west history. If you notice a change in my posts, a few more focusing on mining towns, ghost towns, and the history of Colorado, now you know why!

There is still so much about the Wild West that I haven't even touched on, such as mining, logging, the early explorers, and the far western states such as California, Oregon and Washington. 

If you study a particular topic regarding the Old West and would like to guest blog or trade guest blogs, please contact me at dsdollman@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

XIT Ranch: The Largest Fenced Ranch in the 1880s

Cowboys at Escarbada Bunkhouse at the XIT Ranch, 1891. Image from the Portal to Texas History.

Moving closer to the end of the alphabetical journey through the American Old West, we will take a short break from Wounded Knee to examine the XIT Ranch for the letter X, then return briefly to Wounded Knee for yet another terribly painful story starting with Z for Zintkala Nuni, the little girl found four days after the massacre beneath the body of her mother. Let's take a breath, though, first, and a look at a 3,000,000 acre cattle ranch, the XIT Ranch. 

XIT Ranch Office Plaque. Photo taken in Channing, Texas by Billy Hathorn (who quite often makes his photos of the Old West available for use for educational purposes. Thank you Mr. Hathorn!) 

In the 1880s, the XIT was the largest ranch in the world, and believe it or not, it was completely fenced, too. Three million acres stretched out from the "Yellow House" headquarters to Lubbock, Texas. The ranch land resembled a strip that was only 30 miles wide with the remainder of the ranch in its length. It had pieces in ten different counties--Dallam, Hartley, Oldham, Deaf Smith, Parmer, Castro, Bailey, Lamb, Cochran, and Hockley--and according to the XIT Museum many people believed this was the reason for the name, that XIT stood for Ten in Texas. In fact, XIT was a brand chosen because it would be difficult for rustlers to imitate. 

A beautiful photo of the revised XIT Ranch Office in Channing, Texas. Photo by Billy Hathorn.

So, where did this ranch come from? How did a ranch this size possibly get started? It was a trade! The Texas State Capital Building in Austin was too small to handle the business for all of Texas and to make matters worse, it suffered from a terrible fire on November 9, 1881, destroying most of its structure. Purely by coincidence, just two years earlier, in 1879, Governor Oran M. Roberts called a Special Legislative Session to discuss the matter. The Texas Constitutional Convention had already set aside 3,000,000 acres in the Texas Panhandle to help pay for a new capital building. After the fire, Charles B. and John V. Farwell, brothers from Chicago, agreed to buy the 3,000,000 acres for exactly $3,000,000. 

This lovely photo of the Texas State Capital at 1100 Congress Ave. in Austin, Texas was taken by photographer Roger heslop. The building is made of red granite and is still one of the largest state capitols in North America, second in size only to the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. according to the XIT Museum. It's dome stands seven feet higher than the US Capitol's dome. 

The corrals, foreman's house and bunkhouses were built at the Springs in Dallam County and still remain as the oldest structures in Dallam County, Texas. The first cattle--mostly Longhorns--arrived on the XIT ranch in 1885. At one point the ranch had over 150,000 head of cattle! They were well-contained within the 1500 miles of fence. The ranch also had 325 windmills and 100 dams to regulate the water supply.   

They also had strict rules for their many employees, including no alcohol allowed on the premises; no gambling or card playing; no hunting of wild game using any ranch horses; no non-ranch horses allowed on the ranch (which would just about cover any of the previous listed activities as the employees could not leave the ranch); and no employee-owned weapons. 

A gorgeous Texas Longhorn grazing among the bluebonnets outside Kingsland, Texas. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

With a ranch of this size you may wonder why we don't hear more about it! Because sadly, it didn't last long. With a ranch that size it was difficult, if not impossible to thwart cattle rustlers and predators, such as wolves. The ranch was actually syndicated, and when the cattle market crashed in 1886 the Farwell brothers were forced to sell off large parcels of land to repay investors.

Edited to add: While researching my next post I found a note stating that in the late 1880s the XIT Ranch added 15,000 square miles of Montana land to its Texas holdings (remember it was syndicated) then established a trail between the two properties through seven states--now that's a cattle trail!  

  • Anderson, Allen H. "XIT Ranch." Texas State Historical Association. Accessed December 2, 2013.
  • Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Life Books. Canada:1974.
  • "Thumbnail History of the XIT Ranch.XIT Museum Website. Accessed December 2, 2013.
  • "XIT Ranch." Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

William N. Byers and the Rocky Mountain News

William N. Byers circa 1903. Photographer unknown, public domain.

I still remember reading the Rocky Mountain News as a child. When I was raised in Colorado there was only two newspapers worth reading--The Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post--and they were constantly at war with each other. And yet, between them they provided flawless coverage of every event in the state. Odd as it sounds, I was deeply saddened when the Rocky Mountain News shut down, as if I'd lost a part of my childhood. But the story of the Rocky Mountain News is more than the story of a newspaper, it is a chronicle of the history of the City of Denver and the State of Colorado, as well. 

This is the story of the man who created The Rocky Mountain News. The history of the Rocky Mountain News begins with two mining towns and one man, William Newton Byers, with a dream of uniting a community.

Panorama of Denver taken sometime between 1865 and 1900, photographer unknown. 

Ohio farm boy William Newton Byers had little formal education, but a tremendous amount of courage and pluck. According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, at t twenty-four years old, Byers had served as the first deputy surveyor of the Nebraska territory, issued the first official plat of Omaha, was a member of Omaha's first city council and a member of the first session of the Nebraska Territorial Legislature.

Byers had already demonstrated an inclination toward reinventing his life, but when he heard that gold was discovered in the Pikes Peak region of Kansas territory, he made a drastic move. He bought a used printing press and hired a couple of employees with the intention of starting a newspaper in the mining towns.

Before he could leave Omaha, Byers got into a scuffle with some men attacking a German immigrant and was shot in the shoulder. According to Keith Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers spent his recovery time writing a guidebook to the Pikes Peak region and selling advertising space to Omaha business owners for the front page of his newspaper.

Pikes Peak Mountain viewed from Manitou Springs region of Colorado, circa 1870. Photographer B.H. Gurnsey, public domain. 

Byers decided to name his newspaper the Rocky Mountain News because he had no specific town in mind when he left Omaha on March 8, 1859. What he did have was two wagons filled with paper, a press, and type set for the front page of his first issue.

A Fierce Competition Produces the First Issue of the Rocky Mountain News

According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers arrived on the banks of the Cherry Creek on April 17, 1859. At that time, there were two mining camps, one on each side of the river, called Auraria and Denver City. As soon as he arrived, Byers discovered that another publisher, Jack Merrick, was busy setting up type in a nearby cabin. According to the Rocky Mountain News "History Timeline," Byers rented a room in the attic of Uncle Dick Wooten's Saloon, which would now be located at 1413-15 11th Street, and furiously went to work interviewing the local residents for stories.

Byers finally had his stories and the necessary type in place. He started the press, then snow began to fall. The roof leaked, and Byers had to rig a tarp over the press. He somehow managed to print his first issue and rushed into the street just as the sun began to rise on April 23, 1859, waving a few snow-smudged copies in his hand. He completed his first edition 20 minutes before Merrick. Byers' advantage, of course, was his previously-set first page. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Merrick conceded his defeat, sold his printing equipment to Byers and became a prospector.

In his premier edition of the Rocky Mountain News, Byers stated, "With our hat in our hand and our best bow, we make our first appearance upon the stage in the capacity of Editor." In The Townsmen, Wheeler described Byers as an "extraordinary voice," and his premier publication of the Rocky Mountain News as a "bragging, scolding, counseling, jealous, defensive, aggressive and thoroughly irrepressible newspaper."

Byers and the "Gobacks"

According to The Miners by Robert Wallace, newspapers around the country called the Cherry Creek "the new Eldorado." By April of 1859, 100,000 men and women left their homes, destined for the Cherry Creek. Wallace states that less than half of these emigrants arrived alive. Many travelers lost their wagons and supplies on the plains, or died from starvation and disease.

In The Townsmen, Keith Wheeler tells the story of three brothers who lost their pack horses. Two of the brothers died of starvation and the third was found by an Arapaho hunter, so desperate he was eating the body of one of his deceased siblings.

When they arrived to find the promised river of gold had already run dry, some emigrants headed back home. Byers, who quickly gained a reputation for castigating editorials, did not respond well to the retreating masses. Byers referred to those who left the area as "Gobacks." As quoted in The Townsmen, one of Byers' many editorials on this subject said 'Farewell to these 'gobacks.' They have had their day and soon will be forgotten."

Byers predicted in his newspaper that more gold would be found. A few months later, John Gregory announced his discovery near Clear Creek, and two weeks later, 'Gregory Gulch' was packed with 30,000 returning "gobackers" returning to the mining camps.

Byers Convinces the Miners to Create the City of Denver

According to Byers, it was illogical for the two mining camps to divide their efforts toward building communities and he repeatedly urged Auraria and Denver City to join forces. On April 3, 1860, the inhabitants of the two mining camps took a vote and merged under the name Denver City. This act not only strengthened the community, but the reputation of William Byers, as well.

Soon, a Masonic Lodge and Ladies Union Aid Society formed. the Colorado National Bank was created with the combined efforts of brothers Luther and Charles Kountze, and two other brothers named Clark, along with E.H. Gruber, constructed a two-story brick building and started Denver City's mint. The first $10 gold eagle coin was presented to William Byers, Editor of the Rocky Mountain News.

Byers Fights City Crime

According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers primary concern for the City of Denver was crime control, and his enemy in this endeavor was Charley Harrison, a Southern-born ruffian, and owner of Charley Harrison's Criterion Saloon. Harrison used threats and violence to control saloon owners and brothels.

Unfortunately for Harrison, he grossly underestimated Byers' determination to eliminate crime. On July 12, 1860, Harrison shot the local blacksmith when the man tried to join a card game. Byers described the act in the Rocky Mountain News as "cold-blooded murder." Within three days, the100-man Denver Committee of Safety was formed on the urging of William N. Byers.

Charley Harrison was infuriated by what he perceived to be a threat to his control over the city. His thugs, known as "Bummers," were also tired of Byers' editorial criticism. They stormed into the offices of the Rocky Mountain News one morning and marched Byers down to Charley Harrison's bar. Harrison wisely ushered Byers out the back door with a warning.

The Bummers, angry that Byers was released by their boss, once again marched into the newspaper offices. This time, Byers was waiting with a shotgun. He wounded one of the Bummers. The other three were chased out of town by the Denver Committee of Safety, but the remaining Bummers were not ready to surrender and tried to burn down the newspaper building. Soon, Byers was forced to travel to and from work in disguise to protect himself from attacks.

In response, the Denver Committee of Safety became a vigilante group. They broke into houses, using violence and other means to extract confessions, then hung suspected murderers and thieves. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers would later state: "We never hanged on circumstantial evidence. I have known a great many such executions, but I don't believe one was ever unjust."

Denver and the American Civil War

On February 28, 1861, President James Buchanan signed an Act of Congress establishing the Territory of Colorado. On May 27, 1861, Colorado's first governor, William Gilpin, arrived in Denver. Gilpin organized the First Colorado Volunteers and issued $375,000 in drafts from the U.S. Treasury to purchase uniforms and other necessities from Denver merchants. The First Colorado Volunteers, guided by Major John Chivington, destroyed Confederate General Henry H. Sibley's dream of capturing Denver and its wealth of mines by burning Sibley's supply wagons.

Major John Chivington, US Army, Public Domain.

Sibley's men retreated back to Texas, but the Union government refused to honor Gilpin's $375,000 in drafts. Infuriated by this financial slight on his city, Byers posted scathing editorials demanding a replacement for Gilpin. President Lincoln responded to public demand and replaced Gilpin with John Evans, a physician and founder of Northwestern University.

In 1864, Chivington and Governor Evans met with the chief of the Cheyenne, Black Kettle, at the Camp Weld Conference to sign a peace treaty. Then, on November 29, 1864, Chivington and his men attacked the Cheyenne at their encampment while the warriors were hunting for food. They slaughtered 163 Cheyenne women and children, then scalped and mutilated their bodies in the Sand Creek Massacre. In the Rocky Mountain News, Byers' editorial hailed Chivington and his men as heroes, but most of Denver and the rest of the United States was horrified. Governor Evans was forced to resign and Chivington's career was over.

The Rocky Mountain News Survives Fire and Flood

Denver continued to struggle with the basic necessities of a city, and on April 19, 1863, when the city's fire department was little more than a plan, a fire broke out and burned through the center of town. Damages were close to $350,000, nearly the equivalent of the losses from Gilpin's unpaid drafts, leaving Denver in dire straits. The Rocky Mountain News building survived because it was located in the center of the Cherry Creek on pilings, a position Byers chose to show his neutrality with the affairs of what had once been two separate mining towns.

The following year brought record snow and spring runoff. On May 20, 1864, a flash flood tore through Denver and destroyed the Rocky Mountain News building and all that was inside. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, 20 Denver residents died in the flood. By this time, however, Byers was a successful businessman. He used his savings to purchase the Commonwealth, a competitive newspaper, and the Rocky Mountain News was in business once more.

Byers Greatest Political Mistake

The popularity of William Byers, as well as the Rocky Mountain News, continued to grow. In 1876, the year Colorado achieved statehood, William N. Byers was considered the best candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor of Colorado.

Bird's eye view of Denver, Colorado--William Byers must have been amazed by how much it had grown by 1887! US Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division.

Then Byers made his greatest political blunder--a romantic affair. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, when Byers tried to end the affair with the attractive Hattie Sancomb, she stopped Byers near his home and fired on him with her pearl-handled revolver. Byers' wife, Elizabeth, ran for the family carriage and rescued her husband before he was harmed, but news of the sex scandal traveled quickly through Denver and Byers' reputation and political career was destroyed.

The Legacy of William Byers and the Rocky Mountain News

Byers sold the Rocky Mountain News in 1878. He became the Postmaster of Denver in 1880, initiating free home delivery of mail to Denver residents.

From his early days in Denver, Byers showed constant concern for the basic necessities of a city, including food and water. In 1860, he homesteaded 140 acres, experimenting with irrigation techniques and crop rotation. Although his home was eventually torn down to build the William N. Byers Junior High School, may of the trees originally planted by Byers still remain on the property.

William Newton Byers died March 25, 1903 and was buried in Fairmont Cemetery in the City of Denver. He is now considered one of the founding figures of both Omaha, Nebraska and Denver, Colorado.

Unfortunately, the City of Denver suffered a tremendous loss to its heritage when the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News permanently closed for business on February 27, 2009.

  • Hudson, Barbara. "Rocky Mountain News History Timeline." Denverpost.com. Posted Feb. 27, 2009. Retrieved June 1, 2011. 
  • "The Rush for Gold." The Real West. History Channel Documentary. Originally aired Nov. 19, 1992. 
  • Wallace, Robert. The Old West: The Miners. Time Life Books. Canada: 1976. 
  • Wheeler, Keith. The Old West: The Townsmen. Time Life Books. Canada: 1975. 
  • "William N. Byers." Nebraska State Historical Society. Official Nebraska Government Website. Retrieved June 9, 2011. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in the Old West

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. Photo courtesy Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico.

Old West Christmas, 1876, Harper's Weekly. Photo courtesy of Legends of America.

Christmas in the Old West. Photo taken in 1900. It's likely these were not Old West pioneers judging from the many household luxuries. Photo courtesy of Legends of America.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Massacre at Wounded Knee

US Attorney General Eric Holder laying a wreath at the site of the Wounded Knee Memorial. Photo taken September 26, 2009.

November is Native American Heritage Month. As you will read below, November and December are also the months leading to the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee. 

Moving along in my A to Z challenge we are now on W, and a topic that has caused me great heartache every time I think of it, from the time I first read Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. My mother bought the book when I was 12, and it was a brutal, harsh, painful introduction to American history for a 12 year old, but one that has never left me. (Note: I have revised and removed photos of the dead at Wounded Knee out of respect for those who died and their ancestors.)

"All Indians must dance, everywhere. Keep on dancing. Pretty soon, next spring, Great Spirit come, He bring back all game of every kind. All dead Indians come back and live again when Great Spirit comes this way. Then all Indians go to mountains, high up away from whites. Then while Indians way up high, big flood comes and all white people die. After that, water go away and then nobody but Indians everywhere. Then Medicine Men tell Indians to send word to all Indians to keep up dancing and the good times will come." --Wovoka

Wovoka, Paiute Shaman.

"Indian people were ready to try anything, and what Wovoka proposed sounded reasonable. To a drowning man, he would reach for a straw floating by, and it was in that state that the coming of the Messiah idea was presented, and they grasped it." --Johnson Holy Rock, Lakota

Sioux Ghost Dance, circa 1894 (If video fails to play, click on link.) 

"Yes, it is so about Jesus, and all the Indians are talking about it. He has come to save the Indians. It is the first time he has come to save just the Indians. It was too far to go to him where he was before, up in the sky. Now it is not half so far to where he is, so you may come to him. All Indians may." --Crooked Nose.

"Dancing was a way of life. Even the wind or the tree, everything seems to dance. So everything begins with a song and a dance. It's a ritual. This is why the Ghost Dance was acceptable." 
--Birgil Kills Straight, Lakota

"Our elders speak of a one brief period of time that the divine being gave our people the opportunity to make a connection with the life hereafter. The Ghost Dance was powerful, it was real, and it came to pass." --Leonard Little Finger, Descendant of Big Foot 

December 29, 1890: The Beginning of the End

It was December 29, 1890. The Great Indian Wars were over, but the tension remained. The white settlers feared the Native American Indians. The surrender of the Sioux was less than a decade behind them. The Native American Indians, cheated and lied to in nearly every promise made to them, were equally distrustful of the white men. This one battle, the battle of prejudice, was not over.

On that fateful day, December 29, 1890, the atmosphere of hatred and distrust exploded in a tragedy that shocked the nation with the Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The Ghost Dance 

As you may recall, the Ghost Dance moved from one reservation to another like wildfire to the desperate Indians on their drought-parched land. It reached the Sioux in the Dakotas around 1890. By the time it reached the Sioux it was obvious that the government and white settlers were afraid of the implications of the dance, in spite of its ties to Christianity. The dance, the shirt, the press, the desperate-sounding messages of naive Indian Agents added together to form a lethal mix.
Kiowa Ghost Dance shirt. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.

The Implications of the Ghost Dance Shirt

The impact of the Ghost Dance Shirt must be understood when piecing together the events of that day. The shirts were not in the vision of Wovoka, they were introduced to the Sioux by a warrior named Kicking Bear. Kicking Bear told the Sioux that the symbols--the eagle, stars--would protect them from bullets should the military try to harm them.

The military believed the magic symbols were a sign that the Sioux were planning an uprising. "Why would they need protection if their intentions were honorable and their actions were peaceful?" the settlers asked. Suspicion and mistrust was everywhere.

By this time the military knew the way of life of the Native American Indians. I believe they would have/should have known that painting symbols on their shirts was part of their spiritual practice, similar to painting their bodies, shields, teepees, and even their horses.

According to "Native American Tech," the symbols used on shields, teepees, bodies, and clothing were often chosen because they came to a person in a vision or dream. For instance, Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse painted lightning bolts on his face and white circles resembling hail stones on his horse and his own body.

According to Oglala Lakota Nation Historian Aaron Ten Bears speaking on "Native American Tech," these symbols represented their medicine, and every warrior walked his own path and had his own medicine. Therefore, painting symbols on the Ghost Shirts for protection would be a logical action and a way of life, and not necessarily preparation for war.

Paint came from ground minerals mixed with bear grease. Black came from charcoal, white from clay, blue from duck poop. Images decorating shields, teepees, and horses were believed to help protect them from enemy arrows. The Ghost Shirt symbols were certainly not new to the military. They should have known the painted symbols had the same meaning as all other painted symbols used by the Native American Indians--protection, not a declaration of war.

Fear and Panic Inspired by Indian Agents

The dance and its promise of the return of the prosperity and great leaders of past years was the last hope to the desperate Sioux. They left their jobs and schools and everything the white government tried to force them to do to make them more "white," and they danced and danced into a frenzy.

Nevertheless, it was not the dance that spread fear among the pioneers as much as the Indian Agents, their messages to the government and military and their quotes to the press. All Indians were practicing the Ghost Dance, but only the Sioux wore the Ghost Shirts, and it was the Indian Agents who were supposed to be working with the Sioux who inspired fear in the hearts of the settlers.

According to the Story of the Great American West, Indian Agent James McLaughlin of the Standing Rock Agency wrote, "A more pernicious system of religion could not have been offered to a people who stood on the threshold of civilization." It was one of the few logical statements made by McLaughlin, in my opinion. At least he recognized the religious connection, but failed to see that the white civilization had failed the people, all of the people. It did not bring peace to the community. It did not bond the Native American Indians and the settlers. Forcing one's beliefs on others does not create unity.

According to the US National Park Service website, Valentine McGillicuddy was the Indian Agent at Pine Ridge from 1879 to 1886, and McGillicuddy clashed regularly with Oglala Chief Red Cloud over education, farming, and social and religious changes forced upon the Sioux. McGillicuddy was replaced by Indian Agent Hugh D. Gallagher from 1886-1890, and Gallagher seemed to have a more calming affect on the situation, but the resentment still existed between the Sioux and the white settlers.

On October 9, 1890, when the Ghost Dance religion was at its peak, the inexperienced agent Daniel F. Royer replaced Gallagher, which proved to be one of the worst decisions the US government could have made in Indian relations. Within four days of his arrival he was already sending frantic pleas for help and military protection based on his misunderstanding of the Sioux way of life and the meaning of the Ghost Dance. 

According to Leonard Little Finger, descendant of Big Foot, speaking on "Wild West Tech," Indian agents were political appointees who rarely had any understanding of the ways of life of the Native American Indians, little understanding of their dreams and hopes, or what they had lost. It is certain that Daniel F. Royer did not understand the culture of the Sioux.
The local Indians referred to Daniel F. Royer as Young Man Afraid of Indians, and their description was spot on. Royer felt fear and spread fear like a contagious virus. "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy," Royer said in an urgent appeal for help, help that was unnecessary as there was no real threat. Nevertheless, he begged in his message to the military, "We need protection and we need it now."

In Washington, D.C., far removed from the events taking place on the reservations, the only information US President Benjamin Harrison had available in order to guide him on the situation in South Dakota was the frantic messages sent by Daniel F. Royer, so he sent troops to both the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Agencies.

The Arrival of the Military

On November 20, 1890, the first contingents of military troops arrived at the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations. They came from Omaha and Forts Robinson and Niobrara, Nebraska. Within a week, thousands of troops filled the reservations from surrounding states.

According to the National Park Service Website, "nearly half the Army's infantry and cavalry and some artillery, the largest concentration of troops anywhere in the United States between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and one of the largest ever assembled in one place to confront Indians."

At Pine Ridge Reservation, Major General Nelson A. Miles commanded the operation with approximately 3000 troops, including the entire 7th Cavalry Regiment serving under Colonel James W. Forsyth. The soldiers essentially sat and waited while their leaders tried to gather information and calm the situation, but their presence alone was enough to incite fear in the Indians.

"Troops or no troops, we do not intend to stop dancing." --Little Wound

Colonel James W. Forsyth commanded the 7th Cavalry Regiment at Pine Ridge Reservation.

Then the reporters arrived looking for a war that wasn't there. They gathered each morning over coffee and concocted stories to send across the nation. They did not imply, they outright claimed that a war was taking place, and the government and the people believed every word they read. The Indians knew what was being said, and they could sense what was coming. 

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull became the focus of much of the fear and anxiety of the white community. He was feared more than the Ghost Dance. Sitting bull was a Hunkpapa Sioux, a medicine man, one of the last of the great warriors to surrender to the military, one of the last to accept the white government's authority and many believed he never did accept the white government's authority.

Sitting Bull was the man who had a vision of the defeat of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Calvary at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and the man who made that happen.

Sitting Bull, circa 1885. Photo by David Francis Barry (1854-1934).

Sitting Bull led the Sioux in the Battle of Little Bighorn and The Great Sioux War of 1876. He escaped with some of his followers to Sasketchewan, but surrendered to US soldiers in 1881. He then worked for Buffalo Bill Cody's Buffalo Bill's Wild West where he was paid $50 a week. He was a celebrity, a warrior, and earned a small fortune before returning to the Standing Rock Agency.

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody. Photo taken in 1885.

According to the Story of the Great American West, Sitting Bull was also one of the few leaders of the Sioux who questioned the power of the Ghost Dance, but he kept a respectable distance and did not interfere.

Then James McLaughlin, Indian Agent at Standing Rock Agency, heard rumors that Sitting Bull converted to Catholicism. For some reason, this incised McLaughlin, who began a campaign to bring about the end of Sitting Bull. McLaughlin insisted that Sitting Bull was responsible for what he considered to be a dangerous religious frenzy created by the Ghost Dance and argued both with the government and in the press for the immediate arrest of Sitting Bull. 

In spite of all evidence to the contrary, McLaughlin's accusations regarding Sitting Bull were believed by military leaders and in December of 1890, Major General Nelson A. Miles at Fort Yates on Standing Rock ordered the arrests of Sitting Bull and Big Foot, leader of the Miniconjou Sioux on the Cheyenne Reservation. 

On December 14, 1890, McLaughlin sent a letter to Lt. Henry Bullhead with instructions on how to capture Sitting Bull, recommending an early morning arrest. The troops arrived at Sitting Bull's camp at 5:30 a.m. on December 15 and included 39 officers and four volunteers. They surrounded his house, shouted out that he was under arrest, then entered. Sitting Bull was led outside and told to mount a horse. Bullhead told Sitting Bull he would be taken to meet with an Indian Affairs agent, then he could return. Sitting Bull refused and the officers grabbed him and a struggle ensued. 

Lakota Catch-the-Bear shot Bullhead who turned and fired his revolver at Sitting Bull. Another officer, Red Tomahawk, shot Sitting Bull in the head. The Great Chief Sitting Bull died in the arms of his people. 
According to the show "Native American Tech," Sitting Bull's horse, a gift from Buffalo Bill, was trained to do a dance in the Wild West show. Sitting Bull's horse survived the shooting of Sitting Bull and his followers believed this was a sign, that the horse was telling them to continue with the Ghost Dance as the horse pranced and bowed for the people. Some believe the horse was simply doing a trick, but to the mourning, desperate people, it was a sign. (I know animals, and love them as much as they love me. I would have also believed it was a sign, that Sitting Bull's horse was speaking to the people.)

The grave of Chief Sitting Bull, circa 1906. Sitting Bull was originally taken to Fort Yates for burial, but in 1953 Sitting Bull's ancestors had his remains removed and reburied near his birthplace at Mobridge, South Dakota.

At this point the military, white settlers, US government and the press were closely following three "hot spots" and three Indian tribes involved in the situation: The Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge Reservation led by Chief Red Cloud; the Hunkpapa at Standing Rock where Sitting Bull died; and Chief Big Foot and the Miniconjou at the Cheyenne River Reservation. 

Around 400 of the Hunkpapas attempted to flea to the Cheyenne River Reservation led by Sitting Bull's half brother Spotted Elk, but Miniconjou Chief Hump, with the assistance of US Army officers, managed to convince most of them to surrender and they were taken to Fort Bennett. However, 38 of the Hunkpapa turned to Big Foot for help, joining him at his village on the forks of the Cheyenne River west of Fort Bennett. 

Big Foot's band of Miniconjou Sioux at a dance at the Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota, circa August 8, 1890.

Fear and Tension Inspires Desperate Acts

Lt. Col. Edwin V. Summer was given the responsibility to arrest Chief Big Foot, but considering the tragic circumstances he decided to hold off on the arrest and keep the village under surveillance. His actions only increased the tension and fear in the village. More troops arrived for the surveillance operation and the tension and fear in the village grew stronger. 

Chief Big Foot was in a terrible position. He knew he had to act to bring peace to his people and the Hunkpapa refugees, 350 in all, but what could he do that would not incite a violent reaction from the military? He must have known that any action would bring violence. In his heart, he must have known he was facing his own death. 

Late in the evening on December 23, in an act of desperation to save his people, Big Foot led his people and the remaining Hunkpapa Sioux out of the village and into the darkness. They quietly headed south through the Dakota Badlands toward the Pine Ridge Reservation. Big Foot's intention was to ask for help from Chief Red Cloud on how to make peace with the military and save his people and the people of Sitting Bull.
The military were not as quiet in their pursuit. They were angry, and perhaps felt foolish that they had missed Big Foot's escape. The 7th Calvary, the former command of deceased Lt. Col. George Custer serving under Major Whiteside, left in pursuit of Big Foot who of course surrendered without violence--it was never his intention to do anything else. Big Foot and his followers, now numbering around 350, all made camp at Wounded Knee Creek 20 miles from the Pine Ridge Agency while 500 soldiers positioned themselves in the surrounding hills. Big Foot, who by this time had pneumonia and was very sick, had no intention of running anywhere. Nevertheless, the entire 7th Calvary was called in, as well. The military, and the press, was prepared and aching for a war.
A 1923 re-enactment of the encampment at Wounded Knee Creek showing a line of US troops in the background. The rest of the troops were positioned in the nearby hills. 

Then, early in the morning on December 29, 1890, Col. James W. Forsyth ordered the surrender of all weapons. The military and the press would have their war. They insisted on it, no matter how the Indians felt, no matter what their intentions.

The Shot Heard Round the West

On the morning of December 29, 1890, Chief Big Foot and the 350 men, women and children who looked to him for guidance awoke to find themselves completely surrounded by military with a line of military on the hillside and orders to surrender all of their weapons to the US military. Chief Big Foot was so sick he could barely stand unassisted. His warriors refused to surrender their weapons--they were already surrounded and the request, to them, was illogical and might place them in danger. They were right. They were in danger.

The warriors were lined up and ordered to bring their guns out of their teepees. They said they had no guns. Forsyth was angry, and impatient. He ordered his soldiers to enter the tepees, the homes of the Miniconjou, and the Hunkpapa refugees, to search for and confiscate all weapons. 

The medicine man, Yellow Bird, sang and danced and called to the people to resist.

Forsyth then ordered his men to search the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa. It was unwise for a white man to lay hands on a Sioux, particularly military men, but they were not even respectful in their search. They were bullying, rough, and insulting. And what happened next was confusing, fast, and deadly. It is believed that a young man named Black Coyote, angry over the rough treatment he received at the hands of a soldier, stood up and said, "This is my rifle, I paid for it, and no one is going to take it from me without paying me for it." He was grabbed by two soldiers.

Then came that horrible moment. A shot was fired. There was a struggle. Who fired the shot was never verified. It was the shot heard round the West. It's source was never identified, but that one shot will never be forgotten.

The massacre began. The peaceful valley was suddenly filled with the screams of women and children. The soldiers on the hill were infuriated that the women and children were escaping in the ravine and pursued them for two miles, shooting them down, making certain that they would all die. It was ghastly. It was torture. It truly was a massacre. Over 200 men, women, children, and tiny babies lay dead in the snow.

A nearby church, still decorated for Christmas was used as a makeshift hospital. Men were hired to bury the dead at $2 per body in a mass grave. The press stayed on, reporting every last horrible detail they could find, propping up the frozen bodies of the dead to take pictures that were later made into postcards and sold to tourists. 

Closing Thoughts on The Wounded Knee Massacre

The Wounded Knee Massacre was a symbol, a threat, really, for those who refused to adopt the ways of the white man. The white American government was dissatisfied with simply rounding up the Native American Indians like cattle and watching them with armed guards like criminals, the government wanted to see the Sioux, and anyone else who stood up for their rights for fair treatment, destroyed. Wounded Knee was the last confrontation, a violent end to the spirit, culture, and dreams of the Native American Indians.

 Big Foot at the Cheyenne River Delegation in 1888. I removed the previous photo because I spoke with one of Big Foot's ancestors who feels Big Foot's death photo is sacred, and I agreed and removed the photo. There were many photos taken of the dead after the shooting and these photos were printed on postcards and sold to tourists.

"Wounded Knee was the last act in the government conspiracy to dispossess the Sioux," according to Paul Andrew Hutton, Professor at University of New Mexico speaking on The Final Clash: Wounded Knee. "When all of their nefarious schemes and with bogus treaties with false negotiations with broken promises failed, the government reacted with thuggery, and they achieved their ends with violence."

Soldiers on horseback return to the Cheyenne River Reservation following the massacre at Wounded Knee. Photo from the Office of the Chief Signal Officer.

According to Dee Brown, author of Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, "Wounded Knee is usually listed as the last battle of the American Indians. It was not a battle, it was a massacre. There is no way it could be called a battle, or even a fight." 

Black Elk said the Sacred Hoop was broken at Wounded Knee. According to Black Elk, "Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people flourished," he explained in Black Elk Speaks. "And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."

  • Brown, Dee. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Sterling Innovation Publishing. New York: 1970. 
  • "Native American Tech." Wild West Tech. Originally aired May 11 2004. Accessed August, 2007. 
  • "Pine Ridge Agency: South Dakota." National Park Service Sites and Buildings. Accessed October 4, 2013. 
  • "The Final Clash at Wounded Knee." Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.
  • "The Final Clash: Wounded Knee." Wild West Tech. Greystone Television. First aired September 16,1993. Accessed February, 2011. 
  • "The Ghost Dance." Native American Encyclopedia. Accessed October 4, 2013.
  • The Spirit World. Time Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia: 1992.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wounded Knee Massacre: More on The Ghost Dance (Natdia)

Ghost Dance Painting. Image courtesy of Legends of America.

The importance of The Ghost Dance in the history of the Native American Indians cannot be over-stated. The Ghost Dance was more than a dance, it was a spiritual movement that brought hope to the Native American Indians at the most desperate moment in the history of their existence--the late 1800s. It began with a dream of the return to a beloved way of life and the disappearance of the invaders that had destroyed that way of life. It ended on December 29, 1890 with the deaths of more than 200 Sioux men women and children, as well as the death of any hope that remained.

The Ghost Dance performed by the Ogallala Sioux at Pine Ridge Agency. This painting was made by Frederick Remington based on sketches he made while witnessing the Ghost Dance. 

There were many signs that this moment was coming, many dreams and movements leading up to Wounded Knee, but it was The Ghost Dance that brought the crisis to its peak. An odd name, when you think about it, words that could have various meanings--a dance to bring the ghosts of ancestors back to their people, or a dance that transformed great warriors and skilled caretakers of their mother, Earth, into mere memories.  

Prophetic Visions and Movements Prior to The Ghost Dance 

The Ghost Dance was not the only "movement" viewed as rebellions by the white government. In fact, there were many prophetic visions that sparked movements prior to the final crisis at Wounded Knee, and these movements were often seen as rebellions by the white government. Whether or not they were rebellions is debatable, but they most certainly represented the seriousness of the conflicts between the beliefs of the various tribes and the life the white government was forcing upon them, a life of farming.

These visions generally had a similar theme. For instance, one 18th century Seneca medicine man had a prophetic vision that warned of the complete eradication of the Native American Indian if they followed the ways of the white man. The Medicine Man was named Handsome Lake and he suffered from the disease of alcoholism. When he was in his trance he would have experienced withdrawal, and alcohol withdrawal is deadly. He had a near-death experience and his vision during this time attracted thousands of followers who continue to believe in his prophesies to this day, according to The Spirit World. 

Another Wanapum shaman led a group called "Dreamers" who had a belief that I personally relate to as it is similar to my own. The shamen, Smohalla, who lived in the mid 19th century, taught his followers to resist anything they considered harmful to nature.

However, Smohalla also considered farming harmful to nature, and it's possible that they type of farming the white men practiced was harmful--many farming practices used today are still harmful to the land. When confronted by government agents about the logic behind his teachings Smohalla replied, "You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? Then when I die, she will not take me to her bosom to rest." To the Wanapum, the earth was their mother, just as the Canyon de Chelly was mother to the Navajo.

Wodziwob and the Railroad

According to The Spirit World, in 1869 a Paiute medicine man named Wodziwob, or Grey Hair, had a vision that started one of the largest movements among the Native American Indians. In Wodziwob's vision the recently-completed transcontinental railroad brought back the deceased ancestors in a miracle that would mark the revival of the Native American people.

Union Pacific steam engine. Photo taken near Eaton, Colorado by Darla Sue Dollman.
Wodziwob told the Paiute should prepare for this miracle by reviving a traditional Round Dance symbolizing the sun's journey through the sky. The Round Dance was referred to by many observers as a "religious frenzy," Wodziwob's movement lost its great popularity when the train filled with deceased ancestors failed to arrive and instead, the Paiute reservation was struck with severe drought, which destroyed the Paiute's hopes and Wodziwob's credibility. 

For the next two decades the lives of most tribal Native American Indians living on reservations rapidly declined. To make matters worse, the success of the railroads attracted the same wave of white settlers, gamblers, prostitutes, and business owners that the discovery of gold would bring to small towns. As they traveled through the West on trains, the white men slaughtered what few buffalo were left. Some trains would make short stops so travelers could randomly shoot buffalo from the train windows, watching the majestic animals slowly fall to the ground and die.

The United States Government continued to provoke the situation by breaking treaties and promises, reducing land holdings--not a few hundred acres, but millions of acres previously approved by Congress--food allotments, promised clothing and supplies. According to the Story of the Great American West, the years 1889 and 1890 were the most painful yet for all of the various tribes now living on small reservations that were stricken with drought. The lack of food supplements from the government led to starvation and disease, particularly among the children. It was a time of great despair among people desperate for hope.

Wovoka Revives The Ghost Dance

In 1889, the Paiute Shaman Wovoka also had a vision, a dream that his people would regain their former strength and power, but his dream would prove to be apocalyptic. As discussed before, Wovoka assured his followers that if they followed his instructions, wore the protective clothing and danced The Ghost Dance the buffalo would fill the plains, dead tribal members would return to their families, and the Native American Indians would live a blissful life free of the white men.

Paiute Ghost Dance. Courtesy of Legends of America.

Wovoka's timing was impeccable, and his revival of The Ghost Dance became a cult that moved across the West like a rogue wave. By 1890 it had reached the Sioux in South Dakota. They were desperate with drought and starvation and embraced the symbolism of The Ghost Dance, dancing to the point of exhaustion. They wore their shirts with magical symbols painted on them with the belief that the shirts were blessed and would repel any bullets shot at them, which naturally intimidated outside observers.

Ghost Dance of the Sioux, illustrated in the London News, 1900.

The adults left their chores, the children left the schools, and they all danced with a frenzy that caused great panic among many of the white people, including Indian Agent James McLaughlin who sent a desperate message to the military, stating: "Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy...We need protection and we need it now." The government responded, sending troops.

According to Lakota Birgell Kills Straight on The Real West, "Dancing was a way of life. Even the wind in the trees--everything seemed to dance. There's songs all over. Everything begins with a song and a dance. It's a ritual."

"This is why The Ghost Dance was readily acceptable," he continues. "It wasn't an elaborate ceremony. People linked hands and danced a very simple step to the left. And that's basically all it was."

According to author Joseph Marshall, III: "They tried to dance themselves into a trance so they could communicate with their ancestors." Day and night, round and round they danced until they collapsed from exhaustion, then they would rest, rise, and dance again.

The Ghost Dance: Harmful or Harmless? 

There were some who viewed The Ghost Dance as harmless, as a dance of hope among a people filled with despair, seeking hope. Indian Agent Valentine McGillycuddy (love that name) sent his own dispatch to the U.S. Government recommending that the government refrain from interfering. "I should let the dance continue," he said.

"The coming of the troops has frightened the Indians," he continued. "If the Seventh Day Adventists prepare their ascension roves for the second coming of the Savior the United States Army is not put in motion to prevent them. Why should not the Indians have the same privilege?"

Why indeed? The West was flooding with people of every religion you could possibly imagine, so why stop the Native American Indians from worshiping as they pleased? Because they were Indians.

  • "The Final Clash at Wounded Knee." Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.
  • "The Ghost Dance." Native American Encyclopedia. Accessed October 9, 2013.
  • The Spirit World. Time Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia: 1992.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Wounded Knee: The Measuring Woman Attempts to Avert Disaster

Alice Fletcher meets with Chief Joseph at the Nez Perce Lapwai Reservation in Idaho, 1889. The man on one knee is James Stewart, her interpreter. The photograph is by Jane Gay, who wrote in her book With the Nez Perce that James Stewart only knelt on one knee when he was anxious. Although Alice Fletcher seemed calm and determined, her work was quite dangerous considering the tensions between the white men and Native American Indians at that time.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923) was an American Ethnologist who studied and wrote about the culture of the Native American Indians. She was also one of many people who saw the crisis of Wounded Knee coming in the near future and tried to intervene, to do what she could to help the Native American Indians. She was a surprise to the people--small of stature and tireless in her work, but her efforts were greatly appreciated.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher

Alice Cunningham Fletcher came from a wealthy family in Havana, Cuba. Her father was a graduate of Dartmouth and successful attorney in New York who moved the family to Cuba for health reasons. According to the National Anthropological Archives, when Fletcher's father died, her mother, who was also educated in the best schools, moved her children back to Boston so they could continue their education in the United States.

After graduating from college, Alice Fletcher worked as an educator, but she was also active in organizations for the advancement of women. She also had a lecture tour where she discussed the history of human life and her belief that ancient history was best explored through archaeology and ethnography, or the "scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures."

Fletcher attracted the attention of Frederick Ward Putnam, Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. He was impressed by her knowledge, as well as her determination and invited her to study with him. At first she was reluctant--in spite of her determined spirit she still believed she was not qualified for such a distinction, but she soon realized the magnificent opportunity Putnam's invitation promised to further her education, so she agreed. It was Putnam who encouraged Fletcher to study the remains of the Indian civilization in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher. Photo taken in 1893.

Putnam also encouraged her to join the Archaeological Institute of America. These were great accomplishments for a woman in the 1800s, but not enough for Alice Fletcher. During her explorations she learned too much about what was happening to the Native American Indians and she knew she could not turn away from the atrocities she witnessed.

Proving the Critics Wrong

She was an unmarried woman of 43 at the time and I think her decision to travel and study among the Native American Indians at her age and without military protection of any kind surprised everyone. She was discussed in many scientific circles--few people believed she would succeed in her goals.

Alice Cunningham Fletcher. Photo taken in 1892 for Popular Science Monthly.

Nevertheless, on September 16, 1881, Fletcher left with her companions--Susette La Flesche, an Omaha Indian, and Thomas Henry Tibbles, a journalist--to begin her studies and prove her critics wrong. 

She first traveled to the Nebraska Territories in 1881. She lived in the camps among the Omaha, Winnebago, Poncas, and Nez Perce. According to Story of the Great American West, she would tell the people as she entered their camps, "I came to learn...your ways, your songs, and to see if I can help you in any way."

Fletcher documented the history of the people, their culture, language, and religion as she visited the various tribes. More importantly, she documented what was happening between the Indian Agents and the Native American Indians, and the fact that they were not receiving their allotments of food, supplies, and clothing. What she discovered appalled her. She was angered by the amount of corruption in the Indian Agent system and the lack of government oversight.

Alice Fletcher Visits Washington

In 1883, Alice Fletcher decided she'd seen enough government corruption and she left for Washington, D.C. to talk to politicians about the mistreatment of the Native American Indians and ask for assistance. She worked on a bill that allowed the Omaha people to claim title to their own land and helped promote it's passage through Congress. She returned to Nebraska, and from 1883 to 1885 worked as a government agent. She personally supervised the parceling out of 76,000 acres of land to the Indians.

This same year, Fletcher was appointed Special Agent to the U.S. to allot lands to the Miwok tribes. The following year, in 1884, she was sent to the World Cotton Centennial to present and exhibit on the progress of civilization among the Native American Indians. In 1886 she extended her explorations to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to investigate the education of tribal people. When the Dawes Severalty Act was passed in 1887, Fletcher was again appointed Special Agent in the allotment of lands, this time to the Winnebago and the Nez Perce.

The Measuring Woman

In 1889, Fletcher was once again in Idaho working with the Nez Perce, directing surveys of allotted lands to the people. She worked for 22 months straight in challenging conditions described as "blazing heat and bitter cold." She impressed the Native American Indians so deeply with her tireless efforts to help them that they referred to her as The Measuring Woman, the woman who measured everything, making sure the people received what they were promised.
A Grievous Error?

Although clearly her heart was in the right place, according to the National Anthropological Archives many believed Fletcher's land allotments and other benevolent works were a grievous error due to her attitude, perhaps because she encouraged the Indians to argue for what they were promised, which turned out to be a dangerous move. Or maybe because she also encouraged them to try to educate themselves in the ways of the white people, claiming this would make them more productive as Americans, which they may have found insulting.

The article "Camping with the Sioux" implies that Fletcher may have also realized the error in her attitude. I did not get this impression in my studies. I suspect she simply realized that there was too much prejudice against Native American Indians at that time and her efforts were useless.

After Wounded Knee, Fletcher confined her work to ethnography. She returned to Harvard's Peabody Museum where she held a fellowship for the next 25 years. Her studies of the Native American Indians still influence American archaeologists to this day.

  • "Camping with the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher." National Anthropological Archives. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed October 13, 2013.
  • Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association. New York: 1977.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Wounded Knee: Wovoka and the Ghost Dance

Wovoka, (1856-1932), who was also known as Jack Wilson. Wovoka was the Northern Paiute religious leader who founded the Ghost Dance movement that is believed to have added to the fear and mistrust that led to the Wounded Knee massacre. 

Leading up to the discussion on the Wounded Knee Massacre it seems there is so much preliminary information that should be discussed in order to fully understand what occurred on that day, so many seemingly minor incidents, major issues, people, places, all mixed together to create a situation that led to the horrific events of December 29, 1890. 

Of the many people involved in the incidents leading up to that fateful day, Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, plays one of the most intriguing roles, for it was Wovoka who introduced the people to the Ghost Dance in the spirit of reviving their hope for a better future, and yet, it was Wovoka's belief that anything that brought a better future to his people should come about through non-violent acts. 

Depiction of the Sioux Ghost Dance by the Philadelphia Publishers Union, 1891.

Wovoka was born in Nevada, possibly in or near Carson City, around 1856. It is believed that his father was the famous religious leader Tavibo, also known as Numu-Taibo. Wovoka's religious teachings were similar to, or based on, the same teachings of his father. Wovoka also had training as a medicine man, a Native American Indian spiritual healer.  

Wovoka's father died when Wovoka was a young teen, around 14 years old. It was then that David Wilson, a nearby rancher, took Wovoka into his home and continued his religious instruction, this time teaching Wovoka the beliefs of the European American Christians. Wovoka worked on Wilson's ranch during the day, and at night, Wilson and his wife, Abigail, taught Wovoka Christian theology and read to him from the Bible. Wovoka was given the name of Jack Wilson.

Wovoka Gains a Reputation as a Healer and Magician

As he grew older, Wovoka became a popular and respected medicine man. It is also believed, however, that he knew many magic tricks, but it is difficult to say whether or not this would have affected his reputation in any way, or how it would affect his reputation. It depends on how "magic" was perceived by his followers. 

Wovoka was known to have performed a popular Old West trick known as the bullet catch, which made it appear as if he survived being shot with a shotgun. This may have influenced the Lakota in believing their "ghost shirts," worn during the Ghost Dance, were capable of stopping bullets. He was known for many "tricks" though, including levitation, and influencing the weather, which was another common trick used in the Old West as pioneers and Native American Indians both depended on the weather for survival of their crops and livestock. 

The Prophecy

On January 1, 1989, during a solar eclipse, Wovoka claimed he saw a vision that the Paiute dead were resurrected and the white men disappeared from the land. According to the book Great American West, Wovoka told visiting tribal representatives that he had this vision during a seizure, and he believed he visited the Great Spirit in Heaven during this seizure, which would make sense to Wovoka who was raised to believe in a mixture of both Native American and Christian spirituality. 

During this vision, he said, he was told that the buffalo would once again fill the plains (if only this were true!) and their dead tribesmen would return to their families to live a peaceful life. Wovoka claimed he was told this would only come to pass if his followers performed the proper ritual dance, which became known as the Ghost Dance due to its association with the resurrection of the dead. 

The Cult of the Ghost Dance

The Native American Indians at this point were desperate, and Wovoka's vision offered them hope. Word of his vision spread quickly among many tribes, but most notably the Lakota in the Dakotas. 

Unfortunately, the Indian Agents, Federal Officials, and Army personnel, as well as the local residents viewed the Ghost Dance as a threat. To them, if Wokova preached that the Ghost Dance would stop bullets, then he must also be encouraging an uprising. This is believed to have been a large factor in what occurred at Wounded Knee. 

Kiowa Ghost Dance Shirt. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.

Guilt and Responsibility 

I believe it would be wrong to blame Wokova for the violent reaction to the dance since he made it very clear that he believed in non-violence. It was the mystery involved in the dance that frightened the white men, and the speed with which the cult spread across the country. 

Two Miniconjou leaders--Short Bull and Kicking Bear--also emphasized the elimination of the whites when they spread the word of Wovoka's vision, which certainly didn't help, but I wouldn't blame them, either. As I said before, the Wounded Knee Massacre was a horrific tragedy, and all tragedies have many factors leading up to the final event.  

I do not know if Wovoka felt responsible for what happened at Wounded Knee, but I feel certain he felt remorse, and though I hope he did not feel guilty, I suppose it is possible that he felt a certain amount of guilt for his involvement in inspiring the people to act in a way that ultimately brought their deaths. I do not believe he was responsible. Wovoka had a dream, and many leaders share their dreams with their people in times of trouble. 

Wovoka did not die at the Wounded Knee Massacre. He died on September 20, 1932 and is buried in the Paiute Cemetery in Schurz, Nevada. 

  • Great American West. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. New York: 1977.
  • Trafzer, Clifford E. American Indian prophets: religious leaders and revitalization movement. Sierra Oaks Publishing Company. Indiana:1986.