Chief Dull Knife – the bloody saga of an”admirable outlaw”

Time Before Now, January 1878 Former Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes and his temperance-minded wife, Lucy, were in the White House.  The US Supreme Court ruled segregation on trains to be unconstitutional and the US Senate proposed giving women the vote. The promising young inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, married 19-year-old Mabel Hubbard, one of his students in his study of deafness and the daughter of his benefactor, Gardiner Greene Hubbard.  And the Egyptian obelisk, Coleoptera’s Needle, was rescued after a ship wreck on the way to England.  It was towed back to the Themes and installed in the City of Westminster, London. (Right, installation)

          January 22, 1878

On this day nearly three dozen Northern Cheyenne, followers of Chief Dull Knife, died in the last bloody chapter of what became known as the Fort Robinson Massacre.  

Known among the Cheyenne as Morning Star, Dull Knife (left) and the tribe left the confines of a federal reservation in Oklahoma.  They’d been forbidden to even hunt off their federal land.  But after U.S. government supplies failed to arrive, they were facing starvation.  On September 9 the chief notified government officials he and his band were leaving. 

Along with Little Wolf, often translated as Little Coyote, (right) a chief of the Sweet Medicine Northern Cheyenne, he marshaled meagre numbers of the surviving tribe;  89 men, some fighting age and 246 women and children in an attempt to reach their traditional lands in Montana.

Described by a number of modern historians as an “admirable outlaw,” Dull Knife, is often compared to Scottish freedom fighters William “Brave Heart” Wallace and Rob Roy.  A signer of the Treaty of Fort Laramie  which granted ownership of South Dakota’s Black Hills to the Lakota and Arapaho in perpetuity, he had long felt betrayed by the government.  

The treaty had gone south in a hurry when General George Armstrong Custer announced to the world that gold had been discovered there.  Attempts by the U.S. military to remove the native people eventually led to the disaster at the Little Big Horn where Dull Knife was allied with the Lakota.

Enter General George Crook, (right) smarting  from substantial losses to Crazy House in a run-up to Little Big Horn.  Pursuing his elusive nemesis along the Bozman Trail he heard rumors of a large Cheyenne encampment in Wyoming.   Crook dispatched Colonel Ronald Mackenzie (right) and 1,000 troops to find it.  Mackenzie, respected if not loved by his superiors, was despised by his men, who  nicknamed him “Perpetual Punisher.”

Finding a camp of 1,200 Northern Cheyenne on November 24, Mackenzie swept down the next day, driving them out onto the prairie.  After setting fire to the camp, he captured 500 war ponies, leaving the Cheyenne at the mercy of the elements.  As a result many froze to death, virtually ending the Northern Cheyenne’s ability to resist.  Forced to surrender, the survivors were rounded up and sent to Oklahoma.  Fast forward.  Two years later, Dull Knife decided he’d had enough.

While attempting to evade their Army pursuers through the Nebraska Sandhills, Dull Knife and Little Wolf separated into two bands.  Little Wolf managed to lead his followers to temporary safety, eventually surrendering in 1879.  Some sources say Dull Knife’s band was captured near Fort Robinson while others say he surrendered.  

Harper’s Weekly illustration of Fort Robinson, 1878

However it happened, they were Imprisoned at the fort, denied food, water and firewood over their refusal to be transported back to Oklahoma.  

In desperation, they attempted to escape on January 9.  Some 64 of the Cheyenne, mostly women and children were killed.  Another 78 were eventually recaptured.  Just 32 managed to escape.

But 13 days later the escapees, 18 men and 14 women and children, were cornered  35 miles from the fort in a dry creek bed.   It became known as “the pit.”  All but eight were killed.   

An artist’s illustration of the massacre

Dull Knife and six family members managed to escape, reaching sanctuary on South Dakota’s Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation 60 miles north east of Fort Robinson.   The chief and 80 other Northern Cheyenne were eventually allowed to return to a reservation along the Rosebud River in Montana.   Reuniting with the Little Wolf band, Dull Knife died in 1883 at 73.  He was buried at Lame Deer, Montana.    

Little Wolf met an unfortunate and inglorious end.  Becoming a scout for General Miles Nelson, he accidently shot and killed Starving Elk, a chief of the Southern Cheyenne.  Thought to be intoxicated at the time of the shooting, he was stripped of his status as a chief and died disgraced in 1904  He was interred at Lame Deer near his friend, Dull Knife. 

Colonel Ranald Mackenzie had a miserable end, as well.  He suffered a severe brain injury from a fall at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1883.  He died six years later at his sister’s home at Staten Island, New York at just 48. 

Richard Widmark at Capt. Asher  in “Cheyenne Autumn”

The grim saga of Dull Knife and his people was the basis for the 1953 novel “Cheyenne Autumn” by Nebraska auther Mari Sandoz.  Made into an epic Western by Director John Ford in 1964, it starred Richard Widmark, Carol Baker, Jimmie Stewart and a host of Hollywood notables. 

Fort Robinson State Park, 13200 Highway 201, Crawford, Nebraska, is a family resort that provides a peek into the past.  The  Nebraska Historical Society’s Fort Robinson Museum chronicles it’s frontier history and the University of Nebraska’s Trailside Museum looks even further back into the state’s geology and archeology.  The park features a number of amenities including a restaurant, Olympic-size indoor pool, a number of lodging options, camp sites and a variety of activities. The Post Playhouse features five musicals performed in rotation throughout the summer and traditional rodeos are held weekly. 

The original post headquarters at Fort Robinson

There are more than 20 miles of horse trails for trail riding and ample places to hike, picnic and tour the park’s 22,000 acres.  The park and Fort Robinson Museum are open year round.  Most park activities are offered 10 to 5, Memorial Day through Labor Day.  A single day entry fee is $6 for in-state vehicles, $8 for out-state.  Other permits for boating, fishing and hunting apply.  Go to for information.  For information on lodging and summer activities go to, e-mail, call (308) 665-2900 or write 13200 Highway 20, Crawford, NE 69339-0392.

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.  

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.