Native History: Cheyenne Village Destroyed to Avenge Custer’s Defeat

Wikimedia Commons /Looking north at the Dull Knife Battlefield site. The village site is in the foreground. The battlefield is across the creek beyond the cottonwood trees.

Alysa Landry

Native History: Cheyenne Village Destroyed to Avenge Custer’s Defeat

This Date in Native History: On November 25, 1876, U.S. troops led by Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie destroyed a village of Cheyenne Indians in central Wyoming during an incident known as Dull Knife Fight or Red Fork Battle.

The attack came five months to the day after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which ended June 25, 1876, with the deaths of George Armstrong Custer and 262 of his men. News of Custer’s death led to an intensified military campaign against the Indians, and General George Crook dispatched Mackenzie and 1,100 men, including 400 Indian scouts, to locate the Cheyenne village and convince residents to surrender.

The soldiers stayed up all night and attacked at dawn, said Sherry Smith, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and author of Sagebrush Soldier, a book about the battle.

“The whole point was to wrest control of the northern plains and force the people onto ever smaller reservations,” she said. “But the memory of what had happened at Little Bighorn was in the hearts and minds of the soldiers, so there was an element of revenge.”

The intent was to surround the village at dawn, round up the people and transport them to a reservation, said Gerry Robinson, a historian and member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. When the soldiers arrived in the valley, gunfire erupted between some of the Indian scouts and a herdsman. Once the shooting started, the incident escalated.

Cheyenne men held off the attack long enough for the majority of women, children and elderly to escape into the surrounding hills, many of them with little or no clothing, Robinson said. The soldiers then raided the village and burned it to the ground, destroying much of the tribe’s culture and wealth.

An estimated 40 Cheyenne people were killed, including 11 infants or children who froze to death that first night. Six U.S. soldiers were killed.

The Cheyenne went north in search of Crazy Horse and the Lakota, but the incident changed the way many Natives viewed the Indian wars, Robinson said.

“The effect this fight had on the Cheyenne is that it just impoverished them,” he said. “It was their impoverished state that convinced many Lakota that fighting was futile. It frightened them so much that they began considering going in to the agency to avoid a similar fate.”

Smith, whose book is based on a diary her great-grandfather kept about his experiences as an orderly serving with Mackenzie, said she found no evidence that the soldiers felt remorse about the ambush.

“My sense of this is that none of the Army people had any qualms of what they were doing in the course of this expedition,” she said. “Some officers did actually have some moments when they understood they were part of something they weren’t always proud of. Sometimes they understood these people had done nothing wrong. In this case, I didn’t find any mention of remorse.”

President Ulysses S. Grant once called Mackenzie “the most promising young officer in the Army.” He fell short of that potential, however. Mackenzie contracted syphilis and was later diagnosed with general paralysis of the insane. He died in an asylum in 1889. He was 48.