Fort Robinson Breakout: Survival of the Cheyenne Way of Life
Commemoration of the Fort Robinson Breakout will be on January 9th. Our goal is to present background information leading up to the Breakout. Our story begins at the Battle of Greasy Grass on June 25th and 26th, 1876
June 25 and 26, 1876
Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho defeat General George Custer at the Battle of Greasy Grass. Custer and two hundred and eighty six of his men are wiped out. Only seven Cheyenne and sixty six Lakota are killed. The tension begins because of the discovery of gold on Native lands. This is the plains Indians greatest victory.
After the battle of Greasy Grass the victorious Indians break out and settle in camps across the area and spend the summer hunting. They do not realize that it is their last summer of freedom. Many small fights break out between white troops and Indians. Crook and Terry hunt them without success.
November 25, 1876
Five months to the day that Custer was defeated, the U.S. troops under Col. Mackenzie find Morning Star (Dull Knife) and his people on the Powder River. They burn the village down to the ground, destroying 173 lodges and capturing 500 ponies. This little-known battle is known as the Dull Knife Fight or the Red Fork Battle. These battles impact the Northern Cheyenne people more than the Battle of Greasy Grass did. Then six weeks later, Two Moons surrenders to General Miles on the Tongue River in 1877.
In the summer of 1877, 972 Cheyenne who are camped at Red Cloud’s agency are taken to Oklahoma with the promise that they will be allowed to return if they do not like living there. They are quickly stricken with malaria. There is little game and rations are inadequate. The Cheyenne become severely undernourished. Malaria strikes again the next summer and a measles epidemic kills many children. Regretting they ever came, the Cheyenne begin to ask to return to the North. Their request is refused. There is disagreement among the Cheyenne, but Little Wolf makes the decision to leave,
September 9, 1878
Early on September 9, 297 Northern Cheyenne under the leadership of Little Wolf, Morning Star (Dull Knife) and Wild Hog leave their lodges standing and leave for their northern homeland. Less than one third are younger men. The rest are children, women and older men. In one of the epic journeys of all world history, the Cheyenne make their way. The entire Division of the Missouri under General Sheridan is mobilized to stop them. They fight four major battles. After crossing the Union Pacific tracks, the Cheyenne split into two bands. One under, Little Wolf waits out the winter on Lost Chokecherry Creek. The other, under Morning Star head to Red Cloud’s agency.
October 23, 1878
Morning Star and his band come upon two companies of the United States Army’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment by accident in a snowstorm. During the next two days, Captain J.B. Johnson, Commanding Officer of the 3rd Cavalry and Morning Star negotiate what will become of the Cheyenne. The Cheyenne say they want only to reach Red Cloud’s agency and want no trouble. Yet, Johnson makes the Cheyenne turn in their weapons, and relocates them to Fort Robinson.
October 25 to Late December 1878
On October 25th the Cheyenne arrive at Fort Robinson, and the soldiers house the Cheyenne in log barracks that are too small for their numbers. The guards keeping watch over them present them with blankets, food, medicine and wood for their warming stove. Morning Star (Dull Knife) asks everyday if he could take his people to Red Cloud’s Pine Ridge Agency in the Dakota Territory. Showing sympathy, Fort Robinson’s Post Commander grants Cheyenne men the right to go and hunt wild game, what was left of it, yet the Cheyenne enjoy their ability to wander freely. During the Moon When the Wolves Run Together, Henry W. Wessells comes to be the new Post Commander and he shows an ill temperament with the Cheyenne. During Wessell’s arrival, Red Cloud is permitted to come down and speak amongst the Cheyenne people. Red Cloud expresses his and his people's sorrow and longing for the Cheyenne people to come and be among them. Then, Chief Morning Star (Dull Knife) presents Captain Wessells with the question to let his people stay, and says that they would cause no harm.
Late December 1878
The Cheyenne have some freedom at Fort Robinson. They are able to go out and hunt, but they have to come back to the barracks when night falls. Their freedom comes crashing down when one woman escapes. The husband leaves to see his wife, but is brought back to Fort Robinson. They now have no freedom and are imprisoned at Fort Robinson.
January 3, 1879
The Indian Bureau informs Wessells that the Cheyenne are to be taken back to Oklahoma immediately. On January 3, the Cheyenne receive the information and their answer is the same. They aren't going to Oklahoma, the Cheyenne say they would rather be killed by the soldiers then die slowly in the south. “Does the Great Father desire us to die?” Dull Knife asks Captain Wessells. “If so, we will die right here. We will not go back.”
January 4th-8th, 1879
The Cheyenne realize that they are not able to join Red Cloud, but they still refuse to return to Oklahoma. Captain Wessells gives the Cheyenne five days to change their minds. The temperature drops to forty below at night. During this time of struggle the Cheyenne food, water, and heat are cut off. In the five days the Cheyenne are huddled together without eating anything. They scrape the window ledges for drinking water because it would snow every night. Wessells offers to free the women and children but the Cheyenne refuse to answer him.
January 9, 1879
Captain Wessells calls Morning Star (Dull Knife) and Wild Hog to council. The people refuse to allow Morning Star to leave the barracks because they fear a trap. The young men are ready to attack. At ten o’clock that night, the Cheyenne make their way to freedom. The people break through the windows and barracks making their way to a nearby creek. Not too far behind, the soldiers are firing their guns leaving the Cheyenne dead and wounded. The soldiers are not giving up. They hunt for the Cheyenne for twelve days. 149 were originally imprisoned at Fort Robinson. 61 are killed and many of the survivors are badly wounded. The Cheyenne think Morning star died. However, Morning Star and his family are just separated from the main group of Cheyenne and later reunited.
Iron Teeth – A Survivor
Iron Teeth was a Cheyenne woman who was present on the trip back from Oklahoma. She was separated from her children during the breakout. She waited in the cold barracks for her children
“I was afraid to ask anybody about my son and the little daughter, as my asking might inform the soldiers of them. But I kept watching for them among the Indians there. After a while the little girl came to me. I asked her about her brother. It appeared she did not hear me, so I asked again. This time she burst out crying. Then I knew he had been killed. She told me how it had been done. That night, they had hidden in a deep pit. The next morning some soldiers had come near to them. The brother had said to her: ‘Lie down, and I will cover you with leaves and dirt. Then, I will climb out and fight the soldiers. They will kill me, but they will think I am the only one here, and they will go away after I am dead. When they are gone, you can come out and hunt for our mother.’ The next day she came out, but the soldiers caught her.
Lots of times, as I sit here alone on the floor with my blanket wrapped about me, I lean forward and close my eyes and think of him standing up out of the pit and fighting the soldiers, knowing that he would be killed, but doing this so that his little sister might get away to safety. Don’t you think he was a brave young man?”
From “Iron Teeth, A Cheyenne Old Woman”
A History of the Cheyenne People by Tom Weist
Cheyenne Memories by John Stands In Timber and Margot Liberty
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
The Cheyennes of Montana by Thomas B. Marquis