After the Northern Cheyenne were forced to a reservation in Indian Territory, Chief Dull Knife’s band, dissatisfied with the terrible conditions and rations furnished by the government, decided to return to their former home in the Black Hills of South Dakota in September 1878. Along the way, they committed a number of depredations referred to as the Cheyenne Raid in Kansas.
The Cheyenne then made their way to Nebraska where they split up with part of the group following Chief Dull Knife and the other with Little Wolf. Dull Knife’s group of about 150 people were captured close to Fort Robinson, Nebraska while Little Wolf’s band remained in the sand hills of Nebraska for the winter and eventually made their way to Montana.
In November the government decided that the Cheyenne at Fort Robinson had to be returned to the south but the Cheyenne said they would rather die than return. Negotiations between the Indians and the government were fruitless and when the Indians continued to refuse to move back to Indian Territory, the soldiers confined them to barracks in January without rations or wood for heat.
“Tell Him If He Tries To Send Us Back We Will Butcher Each Other With Our Own Knives.” — Dull Knife
Most of the band escaped on January 9, 1879, but the US Army hunted them down quickly and by the next day, returned with 65 of them, 23 of whom were wounded. By January 22nd the soldiers cornered and killed most of the last 32 escapees, as they were poorly armed and greatly outnumbered by 150 soldiers.
During the escape and following battles, the Cheyenne suffered between 32 and 64 people killed, about 23 wounded, and 78 others captured. The U.S. Army lost 11 soldiers and one scout killed and nine wounded.
Only about 10 Cheyenne, including Dull Knife, managed to escape, either to Little Wolf’s band or to the Sioux reservation.
Several Midwestern and East Coast newspapers covered the Northern Cheyenne’s treatment at Fort Robinson and their courageous and ill-fated flight. Word got back to the public and Washington, D.C., and galvanized support for the Northern Cheyenne, despite the negative publicity following the Kansas killings. The following editorial in the New York Times reserved harsher judgment for the federal government:
“The bloody affair at Fort Robinson is, let us hope, the final scene in an Indian drama which, from beginning to end, has been a disgrace to the Government and the people. The Cheyenne bands of Dull Knife and Old Crow are not, it is true, the sort of Indians to excite sentimental sympathy… They committed many outrages, on their road through Kansas… Nevertheless, it is a demonstrable fact that the Government had been shamefully remiss in its treatment of these Indians, and thus tempted them to the revolt which has had so bloody a course and ending.”
Afterward, General George Crook sent a board of officers to investigate the massacre at Fort Robinson. Of the 78 Northern Cheyenne who were recaptured and returned to Fort Robinson, seven who were suspected of committing, permitting, or instigating the depredations upon civilians in Kansas the previous year, were taken first to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, then to Dodge City for trial. These included Cheyenne men Wild Hog, Tangle Hair, Strong Left Hand, Old Crow, Porcupine, Noisy Walker, and Blacksmith. Including their families, 20 Indians traveled south in February. They were finally tried in Ford and Douglas Counties, but the evidence was insufficient to convict, and in October 1879, the Indians were released by order of Judge Stephens of Lawrence, Kansas.
After some delay, a reservation for the Northern Cheyenne was established in southeastern Montana near the Black Hills, the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, and they were never forced to return to the south.
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.