On this date in 1879, in weather even colder than today’s, the long saga of Dull Knife’s (aka Morning Star) band of Cheyenne reached a climax. Three years earlier, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Custer’s Last Stand), the group was attacked at night in their winter camp, sending families with small children fleeing into forty-below weather. Many died and they were forced to slice open their horses to create a warm place to keep their babies from freezing.
In late 1878, they found themselves imprisoned on a reservation in Oklahoma, dying of malaria at an alarming rate. One night they all fled. In what became known as “Cheyenne Autumn”, they outmaneuvered thousands of US Army troops and pioneer vigilantes in a desperate attempt to return home. Almost there, Dull Knife’s band of 150 men, women, and children ended up surrendering at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. On January 2, Captain Henry W. Wessels Jr., the commanding officer, informed Dull Knife that they must return to Indian Territory. The order had come down from the Secretary of the Interior. Dull Knife was unequivocal in response: “I will never go back. You may kill me here; but you cannot make me go back.” On January 3, Wessels cut off their food. Dull Knife informed Captain Wessels: “You can starve us if you like, but you cannot make us go south.”
On January 7 Wessels caught off their water. Huddled in the dark barracks, they drank from the ice forming on the inside of the windows of the barracks that was their prison.
Dull Knife spoke again with Wessels: “We will not go. The only way to get us there is to come in here with clubs and knock us on the head, and drag us out and take us down there dead. We have nothing to defend ourselves with, and if you want to you can come here with clubs and kill us like dogs.”
By January 9, Day Seven without food, the Cheyenne spoke with each other: “We might as well be killed outside as starve here in this house. We have been without food and fire for seven days; we may as well die here as be taken back south and die there. It is true that we must die, but we will not die shut up here like dogs; we will die on the prairie; we will die fighting. Now, dress up and put on your best clothing. We will all die together.”
It had warmed to zero degrees outside. As best they could in the dark and cold, they painted their faces for battle. They assemble five rifles and eleven pistols, which had been taken apart and smuggled in under the women’s clothing and as pieces of children’s toys. Outside, the soldiers paced back and forth in the snow.
That night, after the winter sun had disappeared behind the white hills and mid-winter’s full moon illuminated the snow in the Fort Robinson yard, shots rang out from each barrack window. The Cheyenne poured through the broken glass, running for the creek, breaking through the ice, drinking the water, struggling up the snow-covered hill, women carrying babies, men firing back.
The soldiers came, guns blazing. Women and children were struck down as the report of rifles echoed off the distant bluffs in the crystalline night. They saw Old Sitting Man, sitting in the snow next to the barracks. He had broken his leg jumping out the window. A soldier placed a muzzle against his head and fired. Other soldiers raced past bodies and up the hill after the starving freezing Cheyenne. The moon on the snow was like daylight. They found five women and three babies huddled under a group of pines. They shot them all. The next morning they found more Cheyenne hiding in rock crevices under the bluffs. They blasted away until there was a single survivor. Fifteen men, women, and children were found hiding in a buffalo wallow. They unleashed their weapons until all but two and a half were dead. A wounded girl was captured and spoke for all, “No, we will not go back; we will die rather. You have killed most of us, why do you not go ahead now and finish the work?”
Of the one hundred-fifty Cheyenne in the Fort Robinson break-out, sixty-four were killed. Most of the rest escaped to Pine Ridge or other reservations within their homeland. Only seven were sent back to Indian Territory.