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 Wounded  Knee 1890-1891 Army Reports

Wounded Knee Massacre
Battle of Wounded Knee
Sioux Campaign of 1890-91
United States Army Reports

2,150 pages of reports and correspondence concerning the United States Army's investigation of Wounded Knee and the Sioux Campaign of 1890-1891, copied from material held at the National Archives and Records Administration.


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Wounded Knee Massacre Army Reports CD-ROM

Also included are photographs, Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Department of the Interior - National Park Service Publications, and military journal articles.

In December 1890 a band of Sioux Indians in the custody of the 7th U.S. Cavalry was being disarmed when fighting broke out, resulting in numerous Indian casualties. Many of the Sioux casualties were women and children. Beyond these basic facts, the exact course of events at Wounded Knee and the ultimate responsibility for them have always been subjects for debate. The investigative reports and accompanying papers included in this collection record much of the earliest phase of that debate. They represent efforts of members of the Army to determine or to project a version of the circumstances surrounding the events at Wounded Knee and any possible misconduct on the part of the 7th Cavalry.

The material includes letters, telegrams, reports, and maps that relate to the investigation of the incident referred to by the Army as the Battle at Wounded Knee and to the background of Sioux unrest and consequent Army activity during the years 1890-91.

Also included are reports of two related investigations, Forsyth's reports to the Secretary of War in defense of his conduct at Wounded Knee and at Drexel Mission, and other reports and correspondence relating to the whole subject of Sioux unrest and Army attempts to suppress it during the period of the ghost dance phenomenon.

Wounded Knee December 29, 1890

Wounded Knee, as no other event in this county's history, has become associated with the perceived end of the American frontier. Over four hundred years of cultural conflict in North America resulted in the loss of Indian independence.

The National Park Service guide book for Wounded Knee states, "The regrettable and tragic clash of arms at this site on December 29, 1890, the last significant engagement between Indians and soldiers on the North American Continent, ended nearly four centuries of warfare between westward-wending Americans and the indigenous peoples. Although the majority of the participants on both sides had not intended to use their arms´┐Żprecipitated by individual indiscretion in a tense and confused situation rather than by organized premeditation´┐Żand although the haze of gunsmoke that hung over the battlefield has obscured some of the facts, the action more resembles a massacre than a battle. For 20th-century America, it serves as an example of national guilt for the mistreatment of the Indians."

On December 29, 1890 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, what is considered to be the last major violent clash between Native American Indians and United States armed forces occurred. The incident has been referred to as both the "Wounded Knee Massacre" and the "Battle of Wounded Knee." The differing usage of the terms usually reflects the historical perspective of the writer.  The tragic event has two major and distinct interpretations of the military engagement where forces of the United States Army, Seventh Cavalry, and the followers of the Minneconjou Chief Spotted Elk (also known as Big Foot), were participants in the close of  the Sioux Campaign of 1890-91.

For many Indian tribes the late 1880's and early 1890's were a desperate time resulting in disillusionment and/or defiance. The Lakota were being impacted by new laws that led to divesting the Lakota of huge tracts of land. Contracted obligations contained in treaties to provide food, housing, and to protect reservation lands from encroachment by settlers and gold miners were not implemented as dictated by treaty. Bison, once a staple of the Sioux diet, had been hunted to near extinction by settlers. Descendants of generations of hunters were now expected to sustain by farming inadequately fertile land during a time of draught. The Lakota tribe, as well as many other tribes who were confined to reservations across the West, had turned to the Ghost Dance religion as a way to preserve their traditional way of life and regain control of their destiny. The ill-treatment and enmity toward the Sioux was pooled into an event at Wounded Knee which American Indians usually can only describe as a massacre.

To the United States military authorities, Wounded Knee ended the threat of an Indian outbreak in the sparsely settled areas of the Plains. The Sioux Campaign was perceived as the last Indian War of the United States, with Wounded Knee representing the last major confrontation. It is seen as a battle not a premeditated massacre.

What Happened at Wounded Knee?

In October of 1890 the Spirit Dance movement made its way to the Sioux inhabitants of the Standing Rock Agency. The ghost dance religion began in 1889 when Wovoka, a Paiute Shaman living in Mason Valley, Nevada, claimed to have had a vision in which a coming Indian millennium of peace and plenty was revealed to him. According to James Mooney, who made a thorough study of the ghost dance phenomenon (14th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1892-93), the followers of Wovoka looked forward to a time "when the whole Indian race, living and dead, [would] be reunited upon a regenerated earth, to live a life of aboriginal happiness, forever free from death, disease, and misery." The new age was to be brought about by Indian adherence to principles of peace, honesty, and virtue and the performance of the ghost dance, which Wovoka taught his disciples.

In the case of the Sioux, however, dissatisfaction with the Whites over ration cuts, reductions in reservation land, and other matters considerably altered the pacifistic tone of Wovoka's message. They believed that the white population would be destroyed by some phenomenon in the spring of 1891 as punishment for mistreating the Indians. The feelings aroused in Sioux followers of the new religion made them bolder in their dealings with agency officials and heightened the influence of the discontented Sioux leaders Sitting Bull, Big Foot, and Hump. By September 1890 there was considerable alarm among the white population of Nebraska and North and South Dakota. Rumors spread that the Sioux were preparing for a bloody war, and Government leaders were deluged with requests for military protection. Many settlers abandoned homesteads and took refuge in settlements or returned to the East.

In November of 1890 President Benjamin Harrison ordered the military to take control of the Lakota reservations.  On December 15, 1890 Standing Rock Agency commissioner James McLaughlin, sent Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull.  During the confrontation Sitting Bull was killed. Later that month Spotted Elk (aka Big Foot) a leader of a band of Minneconjou Lakota Sioux learned of the death of Sitting Bull.

on December 28, 1890 Big Foot's band containing 120 men and 230 women and children left the Standing Rock Agency and headed for the Pine Ridge Agency, where Big Foot thought they would be safer. Major Samuel Whitside leading the 7th Cavalry intercepted the band and Spotted Elk surrendered peacefully. Whitside moved the band to a camp site on Wounded Knee Creek. Col. James W. Forsyth arrived at Wounded Knee Creek that night and ordered the placement of Hotchkiss cannons around the camp.

A common telling of the events is that on the morning of December 29, 1890 members of the 7th Calvary under the leadership of Col. Forsyth entered the camp to disarm the Lakota. A confrontation occurred when a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote would not surrender his weapon. One account is that Black Coyote claimed he had paid a lot of money for his rifle and he did not want to give it up. Another account says that because of his deafness he did understand commands being given. During the confrontation with Black Coyote a shot was discharged.

Another common account is that a medicine man named Yellow Bird began proclaiming tenants of his Ghost Dance beliefs and incited several Lakota men to attack nearby members of Troop K of the 7th Calvary, with rifles not yet surrendered.

The soldiers began firing their weapons, the Lakota used whatever weapons they had access to and could use. A number of Lakota survivors fled the camp. Some were hunted down and killed by the Calvary. About 150 Lakota, including 60 women and children according to the official count were killed. Among the Calvary 25 were killed and 39 wounded, 6 fatally. Some have surmised that many of the soldiers were killed by friendly fire.

Some calculate the number of dead among the Lakota higher. They refer to a letter written by Nelson Miles, who was a Major General in command of field operations at the time of Wounded Knee. He wrote in 1917 to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, stating that "The official reports make the number killed 90 warriors and approximately 200 women and children."

Major General Nelson Miles was appalled by what had happened and described it as an "unjustifiable massacre" and instigated a court of inquiry into the affair. Miles relieved Forsyth of his command. The Secretary of War disagreed with this decision and exonerated Forsyth and restored him to his command.

Aftermath - Action of the United States Government

The behavior of the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee immediately became a subject of controversy. President Benjamin Harrison directed that "an inquiry be made as to the killing of women and children at Wounded Knee Creek."

General Miles relieved Col. James W. Forsyth of his command of the regiment and ordered a full-scale court of inquiry to determine if Forsyth had improperly disposed his troops and if noncombatants had been killed indiscriminately. Major J. Ford Kent, division inspector general, and Capt. Frank D. Baldwin, assistant inspector general, were appointed to the court, and on January 7 they began taking testimony from 7th Cavalry officers.

The court handed down its final opinion on January 18, and the report of the investigation, including a transcript of the testimony, was forwarded to Washington along with an endorsement by General Miles strongly condemning the behavior of Colonel Forsyth. Although Miles' belief that troops had not been properly disposed was supported by the written opinions of Kent and Baldwin, it did not coincide with the testimony of the officers of the 7th Cavalry, who by and large defended their commander on the issues of troop disposition and indiscriminate killing.

Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, Commanding General of the Army, and Secretary of War Redfield Proctor also interpreted the Kent-Baldwin report differently from Miles. Schofield believed the investigation showed "that the conduct of the Seventh Cavalry under very trying circumstances was characterized by excellent discipline and, in many cases, by great forbearance." Proctor concurred in Schofield's belief that no further proceedings in the case were necessary and ordered that, "by direction of the President, Colonel Forsyth will resume command of his regiment."

Content and arrangement of the documents

The material is divided into four volumes plus Colonel Forsyth's reports.

Each volume has a separate name and subject index. The name and subject index is a comprehensive guide to the contents of the four volumes. Included are such headings as "Indians," "Interior Department," and "Troops" and applicable subheadings there under. Under each heading or subheading is a listing of all pertinent documents and brief descriptions of their contents.

The arrangement of these volumes is largely chronological, but dates of enclosures and supporting documents often precede dates of covering letters by a considerable period and thus fall outside the inclusive dates listed for each volume in the contents to this publication. Pagination (p 1-1793) is consecutive through the first and second volumes. These volumes, entitled "Sioux Campaign, 1890-91," consist of manuscript copies of documents and were apparently compiled by the Army, as were a third volume containing pages 1794 to 2006 and a fourth volume containing pages 2007 to 2057.

The first volume (p. 1-650) covers the period from October to December 1890. It includes the following: War Department and Bureau of Indian Affairs correspondence regarding the spreading "Messiah Craze" and its effect upon the Indians at various agencies; reports of spreading discontent among the Sioux and the growing conviction on the part of the military and civilian authorities that some show of force might be required in the near future; Army correspondence pertaining to troop movements and ammunition shipments; proceedings of a council held with the Cheyenne at Tongue River, Mont., containing their explanation of ghost dance doctrines (p. 110-121); a report from General Miles to the Adjutant General in Washington giving his assessment of the comparative military strength of white and Indian forces in the region of expected hostilities (p. 279-285); a discussion of Indian ration distribution problems; and initial reports on the death of Sitting Bull, the efforts to capture Big Foot's band, and the incident at Wounded Knee.

The second volume (p. 651-1793) begins with the report of the Kent-Baldwin investigation. This report includes copies of Division of the Missouri Special Orders 8 and 10, January 4 and 6, 1891, respectively, which authorized the court of inquiry; a transcript of the testimony presented before the court; copies of letters apparently taken in evidence; written opinions submitted by Kent and Baldwin; endorsements by Generals Miles and Schofield; and a map of the Wounded Knee battlefield.

Reports of two related inquiries are also included in the second volume: an "Investigation of circumstances connected with shooting of an Indian woman and three children by U.S. Troops near the scene of the battle of Wounded Knee Creek" submitted by Maj. Peter D. Vroom, Inspector General, Department of the Missouri (p. 1135-1158); and a report of the circumstances connected with Colonel Forsyth's fight with Indians near the Drexel Catholic Mission on December 30, 1890, prepared by Col. Edward M. Heyl, Inspector General, Division of the Missouri (p. 1077-1098). The Vroom report concerns the deaths of four Indians whose bodies were found 3 miles from the site of the Wounded Knee battlefield. It includes a cover letter from the Secretary of War, a number of endorsements, and copies of affidavits and transcripts of testimony from witnesses. Heyl's report concerns a battle fought by the 7th Cavalry on the day following the fighting at Wounded Knee. It includes the testimony of witnesses, copies of supporting correspondence, Heyl's findings, and a map of the battle site. General Miles believed that this report lent further credence to his contention that Colonel Forsyth was not fit to command (see Miles' cover letter, p. 1077).

In addition to the three investigative reports, the second volume contains considerable correspondence regarding the latter stages of the Sioux campaign and the condition of the Indians in early 1891. Topics include Army operations and troop movements, further details on the problems of Indian ration distribution, and reports of conditions at various Indian agencies. There is also further information on the circumstances of Sitting Bull's death (p. 844-867).

The third volume (manuscript p. 1794-2006) is entitled Headquarters Department of California, Report on Operations Relative to the Sioux Indians in 1890 and 1891 in the Deportment of Dakota. It consists of a report submitted to the Adjutant General, U.S. Army, by Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Ruger on the operations of the Sioux campaign conducted by the Department of Dakota. The report begins with Ruger's summary of conditions among the Sioux in 1890, the rise of the ghost dance, and the actions of troops under his command from November 1890 to January 1891. Reports from other officers who were engaged in the campaign are included as "exhibits."

The fourth volume (manuscript p. 2007-2057) consists of a report submitted to the Senate by the Secretary of the Interior in response to a Senate request of December 2, 1890, for information about arms and ammunition in the possession of Indians living on reservations in Nebraska and North and South Dakota. It consists largely of correspondence of the Department of Indian Affairs, May-December 1890, touching on the problem of weapons in Indian hands during the ghost dance "excitement."

Following the fourth volume are two lengthy unbound reports, dated September 1, 1895, and December 21, 1896, from James Forsyth to Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont. Forsyth, by then a brigadier general, he wrote in defense of his own conduct and that of his regiment at Wounded Knee and Drexel Mission. He refuted certain findings of the Kent-Baldwin and Heyl investigations, questioned whether the Kent-Baldwin court of inquiry had been a legally constituted body, and strongly protested what he termed the efforts of General Miles to discredit him. The reports, with appendixes and related correspondence, are arranged chronologically.

In addition to the documents described above the collection includes:

Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1891)

1,124 pages in two volumes, the 1891 annual report covers the December 1890 incident at Wounded Knee, among the comprehensive coverage of relations between the United States and indigenous peoples in North America within the continental United States.

Eli Seavey Ricker Ricker's interview with Joseph Horn Cloud, Wounded Knee survivor (1906)

Three pages of handwritten notes from an interview with Joseph Horn Cloud. Civil War veteran Eli Seavey Ricker worked as a farmer, researcher/writer for a company that published county histories, lawyer, judge, politician, rancher, and as a newspaper editor. In his 60's he began work on a book called "The Final Conflict between the Red Men and the Palefaces." Ricker died before he was able to complete his work.
Between 1906 and 1919 he interviewed 50 American Indians. In 1906 Ricker interviewed Joseph Horn Cloud who survived Wounded Knee, but lost his parents, two brothers, and a sister.

Wounded Knee: A Look at the Record (1939)

The text of a 19 page article titled, "Wounded Knee: A Look at the Record," written by retired Brigadier General E. D. Scott, published in the January/February 1939 issue of The Field Artillery Journal. Scott wrote this article in response to the beginning of the Battle of Wounded Knee being called the Wounded Knee Massacre. Scott cites many of the documents founded in the Reports and Correspondence Relating to the Army Investigations of the Battle at Wounded Knee and to the Sioux Campaign Of 1890-1891 found in this collection.

Wounded Knee Revisited (1973)

A 1973 article written by retired Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall appearing in a 1973 issue of the Army War College's journal "Parameters." Prompted by the 1973 American Indian Movement (AIM) occupation of Wounded Knee, Marshall writes a tough repudiation of referring to 1890 as a massacre. 

Selfless Service: The Cavalry Career of Brigadier General Samuel M. Whitside from 1858 to 1902 (2002)

"Selfless Service: The Cavalry Career of Brigadier General Samuel M. Whitside from 1858 to 1902" by Major Samuel L. Russell is a 171 page master thesis presented to the Faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.


45 photographs related to Wounded Knee, includes photos taken before and after the massacre in the area of the Wounded Knee camp.

Department of the Interior - National Park Service Publications

281 pages of Department of the Interior publications produced by the National Park Service. Includes:

Report on the Historical Investigation of Wounded Knee Battlefield Site, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota - A 1952 report on whether or not to give national recognition to the Wounded Knee site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota.

Wounded Knee Update / Cankpe Opi Wonahun - A 1972 National Park Service report on the progress of the creation of a Wounded Knee memorial.

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Report: Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark - A 160 page 1972 report on adding the Wounded Knee site to the register of National Historic Places.

Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance Bulletin - A two page summary from the National Park Service on the events of December 1890 at Wounded Knee.

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Report: Fort McPherson National Cemetery - A 2011 report on adding Fort McPherson National Cemetery to the register of National Historic Places.

Official Badlands National Park Map

United States Army Reports on Wounded Knee Massacre 1

United States Army Reports on Wounded Knee Massacre 2

United States Army Reports on Wounded Knee Massacre 3

United States Army Reports on Wounded Knee Massacre 4

United States Army Reports on Wounded Knee Massacre 5

United States Army Reports on Wounded Knee Massacre 6



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