Back in 1964, a film titled Cheyenne Autumn was released. Starring Richard Widmark and Carol Baker, it was an effort, only partly accurate historically, to tell the story that I’ve been trying to tell in Parts 1 & 2 of this series—of the noble attempt on the part of the Northern Cheyenne People to leave their inhospitable Southern reservation in modern-day Oklahoma (then called Indian Territory), into which they had been forced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Army, and return to their homelands in Wyoming and Montana Territory (referred to in history as the Exodus of the Northern Cheyenne). That these people even had to return to a homeland from which they had been ripped by the forces of “Manifest Destiny” was a dark stain on American history—that some of them actually completed their return was inspiring, a worthy example of the triumph of the human spirit, wherein the desire for freedom can never be quenched.
THE EXODUS BEGINS
On the night of Sept. 10, 1878, between 290 to 350 surviving Northern Cheyenne people left their bleak and disease-ridden reservation in “Indian Territory”, and began a 1500 mile trek back to their traditional homelands. Some of them never completed their “exodus”, but some of them did. Led by Chiefs Little Wolf and Morning Star (aka Dull Knife), this intrepid band soon crossed the Cimarron River. Knowing that they would be pursued by the U.S. Army, Chief Dull Knife took the women and children into what is now Kansas, where they could rest. Chief Little Wolf, however, began to prepare an ambush at a place called Turkey Springs, in Oklahoma Territory. Part of this group began to dig rifle pits near the springs, while others searched the area for supplies. They came across scattered groups of cowboys, and in their desperation killed some of them and took their food and weapons.
After a major battle with the U.S. Army at Turkey Springs, at which the outnumbered Little Wolf and his men totally whipped soldiers from the 4th Cavalry, the Cheyenne crossed the Arkansas River into Kansas, being pursued by Lt. Col. William Lewis and 238 soldiers of the 19th Infantry and the 4th Cavalry, and fighting several skirmishes. On Sept. 27, 1878, with the U.S. Army in hot pursuit, the Northern Cheyenne prepared an ambush in a canyon on Punished Woman’s Fork, near present-day Scott City, Kansas. The ambush might have worked, and possibly resulted in a route of the pursuing troopers, but an overly-eager Cheyenne fired on the Indian scouts before the ambush could be sprung. This allowed Col. Lewis to deploy his forces on the rim of the canyon and block its entrance with dismounted cavalry and several cannon, which trapped the Cheyenne warriors and their families in the closed end of the canyon.
As fate would have it, during the battle one Cheyenne marksman shot Col. Lewis in the leg and severed his femoral artery, which caused such confusion in the military’s leadership that it allowed the Cheyenne to escape after darkness fell. Col. Lewis bled to death the next day, and several troopers were wounded in the melee. But the Cheyenne lost many of their horses, most of their baggage and all of their food, causing much desperation among their ranks.
CHEYENNE VIOLENCE IN KANSAS
Battling for one’s freedom can be trying, but fighting for the freedom of an entire band of people can cause desperation, which became the case after the fiasco at Punished Woman’s Fork. A group of cattle drovers (cowboys) had camped on Prairie Dog Creek in northwestern Kansas, and two days after the battle with Col. Lewis’ force, the trekking Cheyenne stole 80 cattle to feed themselves. Between Sept. 30 and October 3, 1878, in various locations in northwestern Kansas, the Cheyenne foraging parties took horses, cattle, and supplies from isolated homesteaders. Some white men and boys were killed by the Cheyenne, and some white women and girls were ravaged. During this trek through northwestern Kansas, less than 50 white males were killed. Violence such as this seems inexcusable, but when people are fighting to preserve their lives and their freedom, in this context it is at least understandable as an unfortunate result of war, which this was. Sadly, elderly or injured Cheyenne who could no longer keep up with their main band and were left behind, were shot or clubbed to death without mercy by the white settlers of Kansas.
The Northern Cheyenne march across Kansas and Nebraska was basically a running battle or threat of battle most of the way, with U.S. Army troopers from Forts Wallace, Hays, Dodge, Riley, and Kearney in merciless pursuit of them. It has been recorded in history that as many as 10,000 troopers and 3,000 civilian settlers relentlessly pursued this dwindling Cheyenne band day and night. By the end of September, 1878, the army had caught up to these desperate Cheyenne five times, but by purposely going through very rough terrain, these people were able to evade the army each time, preferring to avoid conflict whenever possible.
DULL KNIFE AND LITTLE WOLF SPLIT THEIR BAND
By early Fall of 1878, 34 of the original band of Cheyenne were dead or had left to take their own route to Montana. After crossing the Platte River, Chief Little Wolf took about 110 of his people north, toward the goal of their homeland in Montana Territory, while Chief Dull Knife took about 150 of his people who wanted to stop running from the army, and headed toward the Red Cloud agency, deciding that the rapidly cooling weather and his people’s poor condition made their further “exodus” too difficult. On their way to Fort Robinson, the Cheyenne dismantled their weapons, and their women hid the parts under their clothing, even attaching the smaller pieces to their clothes and moccasins as “ornaments”, for they had long since learned not to trust the whites to do right by them. As it turned out, they would soon have need of their weapons.
NEXT TIME: Dull Knife and his people learn more lessons on why they should not trust the word of The Bureau of Indian Affairs. A massacre at Fort Robinson is precipitated by the white man’s perfidy. A friendly army officer helps the Cheyenne. Some of the Northern Cheyenne finally achieve their goal. Sadly, Chief Little Wolf, the true hero of this Exodus, lives out his life in disgrace.