Northern Cheyenne Escape Commemorated 140 Years Later

Oct. 11, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

Nebraska State Historical Marker near Ogallala, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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140 years ago this month, a group of 300 Northern Cheyenne Indians crossed the South Platte River near Ogallala, Nebraska. They were trying to go home, a 700-mile trek from what is now Oklahoma to their ancestral lands in Montana. Their journey ended in tragedy, but their arrival in Nebraska and a daring escape from the army is an important and sobering part of the state’s history.

On a cold, windy day on the edge of a cornfield, just off Highway 30 a few miles east of Ogallala, there’s a ceremony taking place on the spot where a group of tired, cold and desperate Northern Cheyenne decided their own fate. There’s a new historical marker that commemorates what happened. We’ll get back here in a just a minute, but first, a short history lesson.

Joe Starita is a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and wrote a book about what happened 140 years ago, titled The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge: A Lakota Odyssey. As part of so-called Manifest Destiny in the late 1870’s, Native Americans had been rounded and forced to march to what was known as Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma. They lived in crude camps there.

UNL Journalism Professor and author Joe Starita.(Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“These encampments in Oklahoma were concentration camps, where there was no food, no lodging, no medicine and diseases that they had no resistance to,” Starita said. “So they began dying and by September of 1878, 13 months after they had arrived, they had lost hundreds of Northern Cheyenne.”

A group of 300 Northern Cheyenne led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf, had had enough.

“They decided they would rather die trying to get back to their beloved homeland than to spend another week in Oklahoma and they just took off. They fled,” Starita said.

The group fought its way through Kansas, avoiding the cavalry as it headed north, toward Montana. In early October of 1878, the group entered Nebraska and made it across the South Platte River. The army was aware of their arrival and gathered troops to again attempt a capture. The Northern Cheyenne were too quick and made it north out of a valley near the river.

“Not long after that, they split up with the more able-bodied ones continuing on to Montana and the weaker, older ones going west through the Sandhills, trying to make it to the safety of Red Cloud’s Ogallala Lakota camp, but in a fierce snowstorm in the Sandhills, they were captured,” Starita said.

History Nebraska Executive Director and CEO Trevor Jones and Tom Kraus with the Keith County Historical Society. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

They were marched in the snow to Fort Robinson in far northwest Nebraska and housed in a barracks, with guards making sure they didn’t escape. In early January of 1879, the army first cut off food and then water. On January 9th, with temperatures at about -20, the Northern Cheyenne decided to make a break for it. 149 men, women and children broke out of the barracks and engaged in a days-long, running battle with the army.

“It was essentially a massacre in which women and children were shot in the back, gunned down like fleeing dogs,” Starita said. “It really represents the horrifying conditions and their desperate love of their homeland and a desire to get back.”

Seventy-eight Northern Cheyenne were captured. Sixty-four were killed, including 25 women and children.

Back near Ogallala, at the spot where the Northern Cheyenne crossed the South Platte, Angie Taylor holds a faded photograph. It’s her as an infant 80 years ago and her great-great-grandmother, Red Leaf, who was part of the group of Northern Cheyenne that crossed into Nebraska 140 years ago.

“She made it this far, you know, but she still made it further on north,” Taylor said. “She was with the Dull Knife Party when she got up into the Fort Robinson area.”

Angie Taylor of Crawford, Nebraska. Her great-great-grandmother, Red Leaf, was part of the Northern Cheyenne group that crossed into Nebraska in 1878. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Red Leaf survived the massacre near Fort Robinson and eventually ended up in nearby Crawford, Nebraska. Standing next to the new historical marker near Ogallala, Taylor says it feels like things have come full circle at the spot where her great-great-grandmother made a break for home.

“It’s really important now for my children, my grandchildren, I’ve got great grandchildren,” Taylor said. “So it’s important that I tell them about this so it will be safe and they’ll know their history.”

Tom Kraus, a longtime Keith County resident and member of the Historical Society there, led the effort to install the historical marker. He says it’s a sobering reminder of a dark period for Native Americans in Nebraska.

“I think we don’t give enough credit to our past history and look at it close enough to see that history maybe doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly mirrors itself and we need to think about some things,” Kraus said.

For Joe Starita, the Northern Cheyenne’s trek through Nebraska is part of a powerful lesson about the desire to return home for a native people who had been wronged.

“It’s one of the deepest, most profound instincts that the human race has, to go home. That’s what they wanted to do,” he said.

It was a journey that ended tragically for some and has rippled through the history of Nebraska.