THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

A CREEK CALLED WOUNDED KNEE (1978) by Douglas C. Jones

On December 29, 1890 Custer's old command, the Seventh Cavalry, attempted to disarm a band of 120 Minneconjou Sioux warriors led by Chief Big Foot that had surrendered the day before.  

When one warrior resisted surrendering his rifle and a trooper attempted to wrest it from him, either the rifle or some other weapon fired, and the soldiers began to fire indiscriminately into the group of Sioux, who then began to retrieve their stacked weapons and to fire back.  Since most of them had no weapons they began to flee in an effort to avoid annihilation.  

The Seventh had mounted four Hotchkiss cannons on a nearby knoll and the soldiers manning the guns began to fire into the Sioux encampment located some distance from where the meeting between the Seventh and Big Foot's men had taken place.  It is estimated that 230 women and children were in the camp at the time.  As they and a number of the men attempted to make their escape down a dry ravine, the guns were turned on them and the canister shells from the Hotchkiss guns rained deadly shrapnel up and down the ravine.

Soldiers and Hotchkiss guns at Wounded Knee
On that day, 153 known Sioux, including Big Foot, were killed. Over half of the dead were women and children.  Since many of the captured Sioux later died from wounds and others who were wounded but made their escape probably died as well, some estimates place the total dead as high as 300.

Twenty-five solders were killed and thirty-nine were wounded. However, because the two troops that were charged with the responsibility of disarming the Sioux were formed in an L shape in close proximity to the warriors, there is evidence that most of the Seventh's casualties were the result of friendly fire.

Body of Big Foot frozen into a grotesque shape by a winter blizzard

Monument marking mass grave in Wounded Knee cemetery

A Creek Called Wounded Knee (1978) was the third entry in what became a de facto trilogy on the Indian-white conflict on the northern plains.  The first two were The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1976) and Arrest Sitting Bull (1977).  Since the massacre at Wounded Knee occurred exactly two weeks after Sitting Bull's death, the third novel represents a natural progression.

The latter two events are closely related not only in terms of time, but also because it was the Ghost Dance movement that was spreading like a prairie grass fire among the Lakota Sioux that aroused fear among settlers, U.S. Indian Agents, and the U.S. cavalry.  Sensationalist reporting by competing newspapers not only added fuel to the fire, but also fanned the flames of hatred and distrust.  Adding further symmetry to the three novels is the fact that it was George Custer's reconstituted Seventh Cavalry regiment that was responsible for the massacre.

As he did in the first two novels, Jones utilizes both historical and fictional characters to tell the story, but within the plot he makes the story as factual as possible.  I always knew that he was a thorough researcher, but I discovered in rereading this novel that he was even more meticulous than I first imagined.  

I won't give them away, but there are two incidents in the story that just did not ring true for me.  I thought they were cases of a novelist doing what a novelist is supposed to do, in fact is obligated to do.  I assumed he had manufactured a couple of fictional events in order to spice up the story. However, in doing a little further research I discovered that both were documented events.  I also ran across other examples of a similar nature.

For some readers, this story will at first move slowly, but as a reviewer wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch "[t]he ominous presence of the coming tragedy is on every page."

In the beginning, Jones sets the stage by vividly detailing the fear and distrust that pervaded Big Foot's band as well as the nervous anxiety of the relatively inexperienced raw recruits who comprised a majority of the reconstituted Seventh Calvary, a regiment that had earlier sustained a stunning defeat at the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Bighorn.  Fourteen years later, near a creek in South Dakota, the Seventh and the Sioux clashed again in what was initially called the battle of Wounded Knee, but today is almost universally known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.


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