Wounded Knee

Party politics and the road to an American massacre.

Woundedknee Heathercoxrichardson

Virtually everyone has heard of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where upwards of 300 Indians were murdered in one of the great tragedies of American history. Yet it’s probably safe to say that few are cognizant of the role that politicians and the media played in fostering the conditions that led to the disaster. “The dark machinations of partisan American politics are at the heart of the story,” writes political historian Heather Cox Richardson in “Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre” (Basic Books), a new book that reexamines the massacre—and why it occurred.

Last week I interviewed Richardson to discuss the major themes of “Wounded Knee,” as well as the political maneuvering of that era, which continues to impact elections to this day.

What happened near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota on the morning of December 29, 1890?
What happened is that a group of about 300 Minneconjou Sioux—mostly women, children and elderly men—were being moved to an Indian agency, and the officer in charge decided that he had to disarm them. In the process of disarming tensions developed, not only because the Indians were frightened of the large number of soldiers, but also because they were starving. They knew if the Army succeeded in taking their guns, they had no security that they would actually be fed. Guns were also very expensive, and they had paid a lot of money for their guns. As the soldiers disarmed them, they actually marked names on some of the guns, intending to give them to friends.

Finally, one of the Minneconjou held his Winchester over his head and announced that he had paid a good deal of money for his gun and would not give it up without being paid for it. Three soldiers jumped on his back, and as they began struggling, the soldiers around the four men lowered their guns and pointed them at the group. Then one of the mixed-blood scouts screamed, “Look out! Look out! They are going to shoot!” At that point, the gun they were struggling over went off. It fired into the air, but with the report, the commander screamed, “Fire!” The soldiers fired, and the first volley cut through the Indians, killing a number of them, including a bunch of little boys playing leapfrog. A number of soldiers were also killed.

This was in the days before smokeless powder, so with the firing of the guns everything was obscured by black powder. And when that happened the Indians began to fight back. They had knives and managed to snatch guns from the soldiers who had fallen. But they were badly outnumbered and the soldiers, who had canons set up on a rise, fired down on them. Meanwhile, the Indian women—who had been held separately and told to saddle up the horses and wagons to go to the agency—jumped into the wagons and tried to escape. But the mountain guns began taking out the wagons. In the carnage about 270 Indians died.

Can you give me some background in terms of the politics of the period?
Benjamin Harrison was elected president in 1888 without the popular vote—100,000 votes short. And he had only achieved that by an extraordinarily corrupt campaign. So from the time he got into office, his men were determined to skew the electoral system so that they would be able to get Republicans re-elected. One of the first things they did when Harrison got into office was to let in six new states, which they believed would vote Republican. That’s how we got North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. The problem was that the summer of 1890 was so bad out west that those states began to slide away to the Democrats. The Republicans knew they had to hold onto those states, but they ended up losing the House by 2-1 and held onto the Senate by just four votes. Then they lost the White House in 1892.

How did Harrison Republicans treat the Indians in South Dakota?
In October 1890, when they were trying desperately to hold those Western states, one of the things they did was to remove Indian agents in South Dakota—agents that had established relationships with the Sioux. They replaced those agents with Party operatives [who were part of a system of patronage]. But the man Harrison put in charge [Daniel F. Royer] knew nothing about Indians and was afraid of them. He became panicked that Indians were on the warpath. Yet there is no evidence that there was any concern on the part of people in South Dakota or Nebraska about the people being afraid of the Indians.

What role did the media play in the months leading up to and following the massacre?
Back east the media started to portray the crisis in South Dakota according to the Harrison administration. As soon as troops went in, [newspapers] sent stringers and reporters and photographers to South Dakota. But there wasn’t a story, so they started making stuff up—saying how the Indians were going to fight. They also got the photographers to stage pictures with the Indians, encouraging them to pose as if holding guns at reporters. There is a wonderful image of this in Richard Jensen’s “Eyewitness at Wounded Knee” (University of Nebraska Press).

What is the legacy of the massacre? What happened in the aftermath?
First, the general in charge of the Army mobilization [Nelson Myles] was aghast at what had happened, in part because the massacre destroyed his chance to possibly be President. He held a Court of inquiry, but the Harrison administration completely whitewashed it. Col. James Forsyth was exonerated, as were all the soldiers who we know killed women and children as they were running away. And the Harrison administration handed out 20 Medals of Honor to the people who were engaged at Wounded Knee [or immediately thereafter].

In terms of the Indians, the Sioux nation has never really recovered from anything that happened from the 1890s on. It remains mired in the direst poverty, and no one in America even seems to notice.

The final thing that is really important for people to understand is that five of the six states that the Harrison Republicans let in never got the settlers that the Republicans insisted they would, and continue to exercise a disproportionate influence on American politics. It’s astonishing that Americans don’t talk about this and don’t seem to recognize it.

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