|Little Wolf, standing, also known as Little Coyote and Morning Star of the Northern Cheyenne|
The large Northern Cheyenne village near the Powder River in Wyoming was not only sleeping, it was sleeping off a celebration of a victory against their traditional enemies and allies of the Long Knives, the Shoshone. At dawn on November 1876 Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie with nearly 700 troopers in 11 companies of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th United States Cavalry Regiments and a force of 400 Shoshone, Pawnee, and Arapaho scouts attacked. It was the signature tactic of the Army in Indian warfare since the Battle of Fallen Timbers decades earlier. It was what the hapless George Armstrong Custer had failed to do against a much larger village of Lakota Sioux and their allies on the Little Big Horn earlier in the year.
The attack took the village of Cheyenne chief Morning Star (Vóóhéhéve)—who was known to the Army by his Lakota name Dull Knife—totally be surprise. Men, women, and children were driven from their tepees onto the freezing plains below the Big Horn Mountains, most of them before they could grab blankets or buffalo robes. Many were barefoot.
Outside the village Dull Knife and his famed war chief Little Wolf rallied his warriors to attempt to rescue his horses. There was a prolonged, sharp fight with Pawnee scouts taking a leading role. Dozens of warrior were killed before scattering. The Army lost one officer, Second Lieutenant John A. McKinney, of the 4th Cavalry and five enlisted men.
The troops then set about demolishing the village, burning 173 lodges with all of their content and capturing almost all of the horses numbering about 500.
|Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie commanded the raiding force.|
The so-called Dull Knife Fight broke the Northern Cheyenne as a military force in the on-going war against the northern plains tribes. Most of the survivors straggled into the Army camp to surrender after facing freezing nights exposed without shelter. Some warriors retreated north in the shadow of the Little Big Horns and managed to make it to Crazy Horse’s Oglala Sioux camp on Beaver Creek in the Tongue River country. These few would fight with Crazy Horse in the Battle of Wolf Mountain on January 8, 1877, one of the last major engagements of the Great Sioux War.
The attack on Dull Knife’s village was a side show to the campaign of General George A. Crook and his large force that had set out from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming Territory back in March originally intending to link up with forces under Colonel John Gibbon with a force from the west and General Alfred Terry with another force, including Custer, from the east for an attack on the Sioux in their home country. In a forced march north, Crook had encountered fierce resistance from the Cheyenne under Dull Knife and Little Wolf. There had been sharp fights at the Battle of Prairie Dog Creek on June 9 and the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876. At the latter battle combined Cheyenne and Sioux forces under overall command of Crazy Horse fought Crook’s column to a standstill forcing him to fall back on his supply base at Goose Creek to resupply and receive reinforcements. That prevented Crook from rendezvousing with Terry and Custer—fatal for the impetuous cavalryman.
In August Crook had recovered enough to send a force on the Horsemeat forced March which found and destroyed Oglala Chief American Horse’s village at Slim Buttes and repelled a counter-attack by Crazy Horse. It was the first clear cavalry victory of the Great Sioux War and whetted the General’s appetite for a further triumph.
Crook was taking his main force north to attack Crazy Horse in Montana when he heard rumors of major Cheyenne village to the west from his scouts. Continuing on with his main force, he had dispatched Mackenzie to do the job, thus missing out on the personal glory of another victory.
|Cheyenne Fat Bear, Morning Star (Dull Knife) and Dog Soldier leader Big Head in 1866 at peace talks with the Army.|
Morning Star, to use Dull Knife’s Cheyenne name was born around 1810 somewhere on the sprawling hunting grounds of his people before Lewis and Clark penetrated their territory. He rose to be one of their principal chiefs and cemented relationships with various Siouan tribes through family connections and warrior societies that included braves from both nations. He represented the Northern Cheyenne at the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 which ended Red Cloud’s War and established the vast Great Sioux Reservation north of the Platte River and the route of the Union Pacific and east of the Shining Mountains (Rockies). The Reservation included the Cheyenne and other Sioux allies.
But that treaty was being broken almost as soon as the ink was dried. Buffalo robe hunters were slaughtering the herds upon which all of the tribes depended by the hundreds of thousands each year. Immigrant wagon trains crossed their territories. And after gold was discovered in the Black Hills, an avalanche of fortune hunters descended on the holiest ground of the Sioux. Morning Star was a leading advocate of the war party among the tribes and committed his people to the aid and support of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Man Afraid of His Horses, and other Sioux leaders. Morning Star and the Cheyenne were raiding forts in Wyoming then battled Crook’s advances while other members of the Cheyenne rode with Crazy Horse at Little Big Horn.
After he surrendered, Morning Star and his people were shipped to the unfamiliar near wastelands of Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Dependent on government beef rations, they were cheated by contractors and crooked Indian agents. With his people Morning Star and Little Wolf led a desperate break out in September of 1878 in an attempt to reach his old friends and allies the Sioux far to the north. The epic tale of that trek was famously told in Maria Sandoz’s classic Cheyenne Autumn and in the movie made from it in which Gilbert Roland played the stoic Morning Star—back to being identified as Dull Knife—and Ricardo Montalban played Little Wolf.
They were finally captured in the Nebraska Sand Hills and taken as prisoners to Fort Robinson where they were held through a bitter winter on short rations and few blankets. Before they surrendered warriors disassembled several rifles and pistols and scattered the parts among them, even hiding some in plain sight as necklace ornaments on children. On January 9, 1879 they tried to fight their way out of the stockade. Most were killed, including many women and children.
But Dull Knife and a few followers did escape and make it into Montana. Eventually they were granted a small reservation. Dull Knife died there in 1883 at Lame Deer.