KILLDEER, N.D. – “Four Horns was shot in the Killdeer Battle between Sioux and General Sully’s troops…some time after the fight, his daughter cut out the lead bullet,” One Bull said to Colonel Alfred Welch on hot July day in 1934 at Little Eagle, South Dakota. “The report [that] the soldiers killed hundreds of Indian dogs is untrue,” said One Bull, “because Indian dogs, half wild creatures, would follow the Indians or run away long before soldiers would come up within range.”
The Killdeer Mountain conflict occurred on July 28, 1864. Sully was under orders to punish the Sioux in another campaign following the September 1863 massacre of Dak?óta and Lak?óta peoples at Pa ÍpuzA Napé Wakpána (Dry Bone Hill Creek), Whitestone Hill.
The Lak?óta and Dak?óta knew Killdeer Mountain as Ta??á Wakútepi (Where They Hunt/Kill Deer), Killdeer. The hunting there was good and dependable, and the people came there regularly, not just to hunt, but to pray as well. The plateau rises above the prairie steppe allowing for a fantastic view of the landscape, and open sky for those who came to pray.
Mat?ó Wat?ákpe (Charging Bear; John Grass) led the Sihásapa (Black Sole Moccasin; Blackfeet Lak?óta) on the defensive at Killdeer. The Sihásapa had nothing to do with the 1862 Minnesota Dakota Conflict. “In this surprise attack the Indians lost everything… soldiers destroyed tons of food, etc.,” Mat?ó Wat?ákpe told Welch, and added that great suffering followed the fight and hatred against the whites grew.
The Lak?óta and Dak?óta saw General Sully’s approach from miles away, his march put a great cloud of dust into the sky. Sully formed his command in to a large one-mile square, and under his command was a detachment of Winnebago U.S. Indian Scouts, traditional enemies of the O?héthi Šakówi? (Seven Council Fires; Great Sioux Nation). A war party of 30 warriors had tussled with the Winnebago two days before Sully’s arrival.
Historian Robert Larson describes July 28, 1864, nearly perfectly, “…Sully’s five mile march to reach the large Sioux village was a tense and uncomfortable one. Even though it was morning, the day would be hot and dry; the tense summer heat had already thinned the grass and muddied the water holes. On every hill along the valley at the south end of the village were clusters of mounted warriors.”
The Dak?óta under ??kpaduta (Scarlet Point) had been engaged with soldiers since the Minnesota Dakota Conflict of 1862. They had fled west towards Spirit Lake when General Sully and his command caught up to them at Big Mound. The Hu?kpháp?a Lak?óta under Phizí (Gall) had crossed the Mníšoše (Missouri River) in search of game; the heat and drought had driven game from the traditional their hunting grounds. Sibley’s arrival and pursuit of the Dak?óta and Lak?óta towards the Mníšoše marked the first U.S. martial contact against the Hu?kpháp?a.
Ta?há??pi Lúta (Red Tomahawk), infamously known for his part in Sitting Bull’s death years later, recalled the Sibley Campaign, “There was a shallow lake south of the hills and about where Dawson now stands. That was fine buffalo country. The buffalo would get into this lake and mire down so they could not get out. We went there that time to drive them into the lake and get meat and hides. While we were there the Santees came along.”
Ta?há??pi Lúta then referred to the ?sa?yathi (Santee) as “hostile,” but that the Hu?kpháp?a camped with them and joined together in the hunt. He doesn’t detail how the fight began at Big Mound, only that Sibley pursued them to the Mníšoše. The warriors held the attention of the soldiers, which allowed the Lak?óta two days to cross the river. The ?sa?yathi under ??kpaduta and Wakhéye Ská (White Lodge) broke off and turned north.
After the escape at Apple Creek, ??kpaduta and Wakhéye Ská moved their camps in an arc, first northerly, then back east and south, and kept a respectable distance between the Isá?yathi and Sibley’s retreat. Then the Isá?yathi journeyed to Pa ÍpuzA Napé Wakpána to make camp and hunt with the Ihá?kt?u?wa?na the following month. Sully found the camp and slaughtered as many as 200 and took over 150 captives, mostly women and children in both cases.
After the Dak?óta split from the Lak?óta, “we went to cross the river. We were not afraid,” explained Ta?há??pi Lúta, “We did not lose any of our people when we crossed.” He admitted to being a part of the party who waited the night through and then attacked and killed two soldiers.
The late Delma Helman, a Hu?kpháp?a elder from Standing Rock, recalled the story of the Mníšoše crossing, “The soldiers chased us into the river. We cut reeds to breathe underwater and held onto stones to keep submerged until nightfall.” After the vesper of sunset, they emerged from the river safely onto Burnt Boat Island (later called Sibley Island).
The Sibley campaign was the Hu?kpháp?a’s first encounter with U.S. soldiers, Sully’s assault at Killdeer was the second. Sitting Bull’s own pictographic record testifies to his portrayal, not as a warrior but as a medicine man, counting coup and stealing a mule from Sibley’s wagon train in July 1863.
Historian Robert Utley estimates there were perhaps as many as 1,400 lodges at Ta??á Wakútepi. It was a sizable village consisting of Hu?kpháp?a, Sihásapa, Mnik?ówožu, Itázip?ho, Ihá?kt?u?wa?na, and Isá?yathi. Utley paints the Lak?óta and Dak?óta in overconfident tones: “they did not order the lodges packed,” explains Utley, “nor did they order the village moved, The women, children, and old men, in fact, gathered on a high hill to watch.”
But the camp was moved. At least the Lak?ótas’ was, from the west side of Ta??á Wakútepi to the southeast side, below Medicine Hole the day before Sully’s arrival, in a movement which placed a freshwater creek between them and the approaching soldiers. The Lak?óta had learned the previous summer that water slowed or stopped the soldiers’ advance.
Ernie LaPointe, T?at?á?ka ?yotake’s (Sitting Bull’s) direct lineal descendant, a great-grandson of the Hu?kpháp?a leader, offers this retrospective, “If it had been possible, T?at?á?ka ?yotake might have accepted peace terms that simply allowed his people and him to continue to live their traditional lifestyle.” As it was, Sully’s assault left 100 Lak?óta dead, though Sully’s reports have the count closer to 150.
The Lak?óta camp had moved in a position, which faced Sully’s left flank; ??kpaduta’s camp faced Sully’s right. A hunting party, possibly a war party though all the men were as much prepared to fight as to hunt, skirmished with Sully’s Winnebago scouts earlier that day. Sully’s command, five miles away, approached Ta??á Wakútepi for a showdown.
When the soldiers got closer, a lone Lak?óta warrior, Šú?ka Wa?žíla (Lone Dog), decided to test the fighting resolve of the soldiers and boldly rode his horse within range of fire. The soldiers fired three times at him. T?at?á?ka Ská (White Bull) believed that Šú?ka Wa?žíla lived a wak?á? life, charmed some would say in English. Šú?ka Wa?žíla, explained T?at?á?ka Ská, “…was with a ghost and it was hard to shoot him.”
Lt. Col. John Pattee, under Sully’s command that day, said of Šú?ka Wa?žíla riding, waving, and whooping at the soldiers, that an aide from Sully approached him, “The General sends his compliments and wishes you to kill that Indian for God’s sake.” Pattee ordered three sharpshooters to bring down Šú?ka Wa?žíla. One shot, according to Pattee, sent Šú?ka Wa?žíla from his horse, though Sully claimed the warrior fell from his horse.
According to Šú?ka Wa?žíla’s own pictographic record, he was riding, armed with bow and arrows, carrying black shields as much for practical protection as for spiritual protection, and received one wound.
The fighting continued north for the five miles it took for Sully’s command to reach the encampments. For those five miles, the Lak?óta held the soldiers’ attention, at times in brutal hand-to-hand combat. The Lak?óta managed to outflank Sully’s men, which threatened the wagons and horses, so Sully ordered artillery to open fire. When the fight approached the encampments, the women hastened to break and flee. Frances “Fanny” Kelly, a captive of the Lak?óta said that as soon as soldiers were sighted, the women withdrew into the hills, woods, and ravines, around Ta??á Wakútepi, for protection.
On the Ihá?kt?u?wa?na and Isá?yathi side of the conflict, the fight for the Dak?óta became a stubborn retreat back to the encampments at the base of Ta??á Wakútepi. There the soldiers broke into heavy fire into the Dak?óta protectors until they finally broke. White Bull told Stanley Vestal (Walter Campbell) that the Ihá?kt?u?wa?na and Isá?yathi were as strangers to the Lak?óta, and that they lost 30 when their line of defense broke.
In a dialog with Mr. Timothy Hunts In Winter, there was a woman, an ancestor of his, Ohítika Wi? (Brave Woman) who fought at Killdeer. “She was only 14 on the day of the Killdeer fight but she fought along side her até (father). Her até was killed that day in battle,” explained Hunts In Winter, “she was named Ohítika Wi? because she was a woman warrior.”
From the Lak?óta camp there came a singer escorting a man known as The-Man-Who-Never-Walked, a cripple since birth. His limbs were twisted and shrunken and in all his 40 winters, he had never once hunted nor fought. When the soldiers came to the camp, The-Man-Who-Never-Walked knew that this was his one chance to fight. He was loaded onto a travois and a creamy white horse pulled the drag. The singer led him to where T?at?á?ka ?yotake was watching the fight.
When the singer finished his song, he called out, “This man has been a cripple all his life. He has never gone to war. Now he asks to be put into this fight.” T?at?á?ka ?yotake replied, “That is perfectly all right. Let him die in battle if he wants to.”
White Bull later said of T?at?á?ka ?yotake, “Sitting Bull’s heart was full that day. He was proud of his nation. Even the helpless were eager to do battle in defense of their people.” The horse was whipped and drove The-Man-Who-Never-Walked straight into a line of soldiers, who shot the horse then him. They called him ?ha?te Mat?ó (Bear’s Heart) after that because of his great courage.
Í?kpaduta engaged in a counter-attack on Sully’s right flank to stall his approach and lost 27 warriors in hand to hand fighting. The Isá?yathi broke just as Sully’s artillery began to fire upon the encampment.
Women and children who hadn’t retreated into the hills and ravines west of Ta??á Wakútepi were suddenly in the fight. The women gathered what they could before abandoning camp, and young boys shepherded the horses to safety. “Children cried, the dogs were under everybody’s feet, mules balked, and pack horses took fright at the shell-fire or snorted at the drifting smoke behind them,” according to Frances Kelly.
The Lak?óta and Dak?óta turned west into the Badlands, and there evaded capture.
The smoke cleared and over 100 Lak?óta and Dak?óta lay dead. Sully ordered troops to destroy everything left behind. Lodges, blankets, and food were burned. Dogs were shot. Children inadvertently left behind in the confusion were chased down by the Winnebago scouts and killed.
Dakota Wind is a theologian by education and a public historian by trade. He has been by turns a National Park Service ranger, a state park ranger, and a college instructor. Wind maintains the history blog The First Scout.