Little Wolf, Cheyenne Chief
If any people ever fought for liberty and justice, it was the
Cheyennes. If any ever demonstrated their physical and moral courage beyond cavil, it was
this race of purely American heroes, among whom Little Wolf was a leader.
I knew the chief personally very well. As a young doctor, I was sent
to the Pine Ridge agency in 1890, as government physician to the Sioux and the Northern
Cheyennes. While I heard from his own lips of that gallant dash of his people from their
southern exile to their northern home, I prefer that Americans should read of it in Doctor
George Bird Grinnell's book, "The Fighting Cheyennes." No account could be
clearer or simpler; and then too, the author cannot be charged with a bias in favor of his
At the time that I knew him, Little Wolf was a handsome man, with the
native dignity and gentleness, musical voice, and pleasant address of so many brave
leaders of his people. One day when he was dining with us at our home on the reservation,
I asked him, as I had a habit of doing, for some reminiscences of his early life. He was
rather reluctant to speak, but a friend who was present contributed the following:
"Perhaps I can tell you why it is that he has been a lucky man all his life. When
quite a small boy, the tribe was one winter in want of food, and his good mother had saved
a small piece of buffalo meat, which she solemnly brought forth and placed before him with
the remark: 'My son must be patient, for when he grows up he will know even harder times
than this .'"He had eaten nothing all day and was pretty hungry, but before he could
lay hands on the meat a starving dog snatched it and bolted from the teepee. The mother
ran after the dog and brought him back for punishment. She tied him to a post and was
about to whip him when the boy interfered. 'Don't hurt him, mother!' he cried; 'he took
the meat because he was hungrier than I am!'"
I was told of another kind act of his under trying circumstances.
While still a youth, he was caught out with a party of buffalo hunters in a blinding
blizzard. They were compelled to lie down side by side in the snowdrifts, and it was a day
and a night before they could get out. The weather turned very cold, and when the men
arose they were in danger of freezing. Little Wolf pressed his fine buffalo robe upon an
old man who was shaking with a chill and himself took the other's thin blanket.
As a full-grown young man, he was attracted by a maiden of his tribe,
and according to the custom then in vogue the pair disappeared. When they returned to the
camp as man and wife, behold! there was great excitement over the affair. It seemed that a
certain chief had given many presents and paid unmistakable court to the maid with the
intention of marrying her, and her parents had accepted the presents, which meant consent
so far as they were concerned. But the girl herself had not given consent.
The resentment of the disappointed suitor was great. It was reported
in the village that he had openly declared that the young man who defied and insulted him
must expect to be punished. As soon as Little Wolf heard of the threats, he told his
father and friends that he had done only what it is every man's privilege to do.
"Tell the chief," said he, "to come out with any
weapon he pleases, and I will meet him within the circle of lodges. He shall either do
this or eat his words. The woman is not his. Her people accepted his gifts against her
wishes. Her heart is mine."
The chief apologized, and thus avoided the inevitable duel, which
would have been a fight to the death.
The early life of Little Wolf offered many examples of the dashing
bravery characteristic of the Cheyennes, and inspired the younger men to win laurels for
themselves. He was still a young man, perhaps thirty-five, when the most trying crisis in
the history of his people came upon them. As I know and as Doctor Grinnell's book amply
corroborates, he was the general who largely guided and defended them in that tragic
flight from the Indian Territory to their northern home. I will not discuss the justice of
their cause: I prefer to quote Doctor Grinnell, lest it appear that I am in any way
exaggerating the facts.
"They had come," he writes, "from the high, dry
country of Montana and North Dakota to the hot and humid Indian Territory. They had come
from a country where buffalo and other game were still plentiful to a land where the game
had been exterminated. Immediately on their arrival they were attacked by fever and ague,
a disease wholly new to them. Food was scanty, and they began to starve. The agent
testified before a committee of the Senate that he never received supplies to subsist the
Indians for more than nine months in each year. These people were meat-eaters, but the
beef furnished them by the government inspectors was no more than skin and bone. The agent
in describing their sufferings said: 'They have lived and that is about all.'"
The Indians endured this for about a year, and then their patience
gave out. They left the agency to which they had been sent and started north. Though
troops were camped close to them, they attempted no concealment of their purpose. Instead,
they openly announced that they intended to return to their own country.
We have heard much in past years of the march of the Nez Perces under
Chief Joseph, but little is remembered of the Dull Knife outbreak and the march to the
north led by Little Wolf. The story of the journey has not been told, but in the
traditions of the old army this campaign was notable, and old men who were stationed on
the plains forty years ago are apt to tell you, if you ask them, that there never was such
another journey since the Greeks marched to the sea. . . .
The fugitives pressed constantly northward undaunted, while orders
were flying over the wires, and special trains were carrying men and horses to cut them
off at all probable points on the different railway lines they must cross. Of the three
hundred Indians, sixty or seventy were fighting men—the rest old men, women, and
children. An army officer once told me that thirteen thousand troops were hurrying over
the country to capture or kill these few poor people who had left the fever-stricken
South, and in the face of every obstacle were steadily marching northward.
The War Department set all its resources in operation against them,
yet they kept on. If troops attacked them, they stopped and fought until they had driven
off the soldiers, and then started north again. Sometimes they did not even stop, but
marched along, fighting as they marched. For the most part they tried — and with success
— to avoid conflicts, and had but four real hard fights, in which they lost half a dozen
men killed and about as many wounded.
It must not be overlooked that the appeal to justice had first been
tried before taking this desperate step. Little Wolf had gone to the agent about the
middle of the summer and said to him: "This is not a good country for us, and we wish
to return to our home in the mountains where we were always well. If you have not the
power to give permission, let some of us go to Washington and tell them there how it is,
or do you write to Washington and get permission for us to go back."
"Stay one more year," replied the agent, "and then we
will see what we can do for you. "No," said Little Wolf. "Before another
year there will be none left to travel north. We must go now."
Soon after this it was found that three of the Indians had
disappeared and the chief was ordered to surrender ten men as hostages for their return.
He refused. "Three men," said he, "who are traveling over wild country can
hide so that they cannot be found. You would never get back these three, and you would
keep my men prisoners always."
The agent then threatened if the ten men were not given up to
withhold their rations and starve the entire tribe into submission. He forgot that he was
addressing a Cheyenne. These people had not understood that they were prisoners when they
agreed to friendly relations with the government and came upon the reservation. Little
Wolf stood up and shook hands with all present before making his final deliberate address.
"Listen, my friends, I am a friend of the white people and have
been so for a long time. I do not want to see blood spilt about this agency. I am going
north to my own country. If you are going to send your soldiers after me, I wish you would
let us get a little distance away. Then if you want to fight, I will fight you, and we can
make the ground bloody at that place."
The Cheyenne was not bluffing. He said just what he meant, and I
presume the agent took the hint, for although the military were there they did not
undertake to prevent the Indians= departure. Next morning the teepees were pulled down
early and quickly. Toward evening of the second day, the scouts signaled the approach of
troops. Little Wolf called his men together and advised them under no circumstances to
fire until fired upon. An Arapahoe scout was sent to them with a message. "If you
surrender now, you will get your rations and be well treated." After what they had
endured, it was impossible not to hear such a promise with contempt. Said Little Wolf:
"We are going back to our own country. We do not want to fight." He was riding
still nearer when the soldiers fired, and at a signal the Cheyennes made a charge. They
succeeded in holding off the troops for two days, with only five men wounded and none
killed, and when the military retreated the Indians continued northward carrying their
This sort of thing was repeated again and again. Meanwhile Little
Wolf held his men under perfect control. There were practically no depredations. They
secured some boxes of ammunition left behind by retreating troops, and at one point the
young men were eager to follow and destroy an entire command who were apparently at their
mercy, but their leader withheld them. They had now reached the buffalo country, and he
always kept his main object in sight. He was extraordinarily calm. Doctor Grinnell was
told by one of his men years afterward: "Little Wolf did not seem like a human being.
He seemed like a bear." It is true that a man of his type in a crisis becomes
spiritually transformed and moves as one in a dream.
At the Running Water the band divided, Dull Knife going toward Red
Cloud agency. He was near Fort Robinson when he surrendered and met his sad fate. Little
Wolf remained all winter in the Sand Hills, where there was plenty of game and no white
men. Later he went to Montana and then to Pine Ridge, where he and his people remained in
peace until they were removed to Lame Deer, Montana, and there he spent the remainder of
his days. There is a clear sky beyond the clouds of racial prejudice, and in that final
Court of Honor a noble soul like that of Little Wolf has a place.
by Charles A. Eastman