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  • Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre
  • Randolph Roth (bio)
Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre. By Heather Cox Richardson. (New York: Basic Books, 2010. Pp. 363. Cloth, $28.95; paper, 17.99.)

Heather Richardson's Wounded Knee is compelling, original, and persuasive. Richardson pays homage to James Mooney's The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee (1896), which assembled many of the first-hand accounts of the 1890 South Dakota massacre on which her interpretation depends. But as she observes, neither Mooney nor his successors unraveled the mystery of why the administration of President Benjamin Harrison considered the Sioux a threat. The northern plains tribes were defeated decisively in 1876-77 and forced onto reservations, where they lived in relative peace. Why Harrison decided to mass thousands of troops on the Sioux reservations in December 1890 and put them on a war footing—over the protests of his commanding general, Nelson Miles—has remained a mystery until now.

Richardson acknowledges that the Sioux were angry but stresses that the administration did little to help native leaders who were willing to work with them. It failed to deliver promised supplies and did nothing when Sioux crops withered in the droughts of 1889 and 1890. And it came down hard on native leaders who believed the starving Sioux had the right to leave the reservation to hunt buffalo. Experienced Indian agents counseled patience, but inexperienced agents panicked, convinced that the Sioux were plotting to cut the throats of every settler in South Dakota. The War Department advised the administration that the Sioux posed no threat, but it ignored that advice.

Fear of the Sioux was exaggerated by the Ghost Dance movement. The Ghost Dancers never harmed their non-Indian neighbors and the movement lost support as the subsistence crisis deepened, but it terrified the administration's more timid agents.

In Richardson's considered judgment, though, these agents were not responsible for the massacre. The ultimate cause was party politics, which led the Harrison administration to act on the direst of its agents' reports. As it looked toward the election of 1890, the administration realized that farmers and workers were rejecting its policies. It held fast to its belief that those policies, which enriched the nation's wealthiest industrialists and financiers, would build a brighter economic future for everyone. But as wages lagged and farm prices fell, discontented voters turned to the more egalitarian policies of Democrats, Populists, and Farmers' Alliance members. [End Page 116]

Republicans scrambled for votes and thought they had them in the new western states they created in 1889 and 1890: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming. The administration tried to seal the deal by channeling patronage and pork-barrel projects to these states and by opening more land to settlers. The 1889 land agreement took more than half the Sioux reservation. The Sioux no longer controlled enough range to feed themselves by hunting, and when the 1890 census undercounted them, the administration cut down on their supplies. As part of a general effort to win favor with voters, Congress also cut its appropriation for the Sioux.

But in the fall of 1890 most South Dakotans voted for the Democrats or for Farmers' Alliance candidates. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats had a majority in the state legislature, so the state's Senate seat hung in the balance through November and December. The seat was critical, because the Republicans had lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives and would lose control of the U.S. Senate if they did not win the seat in South Dakota. Under these circumstances, the administration did not dare alienate voters by showing weakness toward the Sioux. It authorized an armed response to Sioux disruptions—a policy that was popular with South Dakotans because of the money to be made locally by supplying the army—and ordered Indian police to arrest Sitting Bull. A shootout ensued, and Sitting Bull, six of his supporters, and four policemen were killed. The administration made matters worse by sending the reconstituted Seventh Cavalry to South Dakota. The Seventh was eager to...


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