The “honorable outlaw,” Chief Dull Knife and the Cheyenne saga

September 27, 1878

On this day, 68-year-old Dull Knife, chief of the Cheyenne, led his band of survivors off the federal reservation in Oklahoma and headed home to their traditional lands in Montana.  Their saga earned the chief history’s “admirable outlaw”award and comparisons to legendary Scottish freedom fighter, William Wallace. 

The trouble began years earlier.  Dull  Knife,(right) known as Morning Star among the Cheyenne, had long opposed Anglo-American incursion into indigenous territory.  A signatory to the Treaty of Fort Laramie two years earlier, it had granted the Black Hills to the Lakota and Arapaho.   But the treaty was quickly ignored with the discovery of gold at Lookout Mountain near present day Deadwood, South Dakota.

The Dull Knife band and their Lakota allies were swept up in the Military’s massive retaliation following George Armstrong Custer’s humiliating defeat at the Little Big Horn.  General George Crook, (right) under scrutiny for his actions prior to the Custer disaster, began pursuing Crazy Horse along the Bozman Trail that November.  Hearing rumors of a large  encampment of Cheyenne, Crook dispatched Colonel Ranald Mackenzie and nearly 1,000 troops to Wyoming to find it.

Mackenzie, (right) breveted seven times during the Civil War, was widely respected by the Army brass.  He was, however, despised by his men who nicknamed him “Perpetual Punisher.” 

On November 24 Mackenzie located an estimated 175 to 200 lodges, perhaps as many as 1,700 Northern Cheyenne.
Waiting until dawn the next day, he swept down into the village, driving the Cheyenne out on to the unforgiving terrain of northern Wyoming

Site of the Battle of Red Fork in Johnson County, Wyoming

Known as the Battle of Red Fork, after setting fire to the camp, troops captured 500 war ponies, leaving the Cheyenne at the mercy of the elements.   With nighttime temperatures hovering at 20 degrees, a large number froze to death, virtually ending the Northern Cheyenne’s ability to resist.  Forced to surrender, the remnants of the tribe were rounded up and sent to Oklahoma.

Unable to hunt, the Cheyenne were facing starvation when government supplies failed to arrive.   On September 9 Dull Knife and Chief Little Wolf (right) of the Sweet Medicine Northern Cheyenne, marshaled what was left of the tribe, 89 men, a few of fighting age and 246 women and children for a migration north.  

In an effort to evade their Army pursuers, the two bands separated crossing the Nebraska Sandhills. 

Little Wolf and his followers managed to find temporary safety but eventually surrendered in 1879.  Dull Knife’s band, however, was captured near western Nebraska’s Fort Robinson.  Imprisoned there, they were denied food, water and firewood over their refusal to be transported back to Oklahoma.  

In a final desperate escape attempt on January 9, about 64 Cheyenne, mostly women and children were killed.  Another 78 were eventually recaptured.  Dull Knife and six family members managed to escape, reaching sanctuary on South Dakota’s Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation 70 miles north. 

The chief and 80 survivors 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 age 73 and was buried at Lame Deer, Montana.

Little Wolf, unfortunately met an inglorious end.   After becoming a scout for General Miles Nelson,  he accidentally shot and killed a chief of the Southern Cheyenne named Starving Elk (left) during a dispute.  Believed to be intoxicated, he was stripped of his status as a chief.  Disgraced, Little Wolf went into exile on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and  died there in 1904 at 84.  He was buried at Lame Deer near his old friend, Dull Knife.

Despite his latter-day misfortune, anthropologist and naturalist George Bird Grinnell, best known for his two-volume history of the Cheyenne people, called Little Wolf, “the greatest Indian I have ever known.” 

Colonel Ranald Mackenzie made a tragic exit, as well.   Suffering severe brain damage from a fall in 1883 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he died in 1889 at his sister’s home at Staten Island, New York.  He was just 48. 

And then there was the puzzling General Crook.   After spending more than a decade waging war against the nation’s Native Americans, he underwent a complete change of heart, decrying the government’s unfair treatment of his former adversaries.  Most dramatically, he spoke in support of the Ponca chief, Standing Bear, (right) in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Standing Bear v. Crook.  The court found in Standing Bear’s favor, finally granting citizenship protection under the law to America’s indiginous people. 

Crook died suddenly in 1890 at the age of 61 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  A major walkway in Arlington known as Crook Walk was constructed as a memorial and passes near his grave site.

In 1964, the saga of Dull Knife and his people became a modern Western epic   based on the 1953 novel “Cheyenne Autumn” by Nebraska writer Mari Sandoz.  Famed director John Ford turned it into a major motion picture, filling the silver screen with Hollywood luminaries including Richard Widmark, Carol Baker, Jimmie Stewart,  (Left, as Wyatt Earp),  Ricardo Montalbano as Little Wolf and Gilbert Roland as Dull Knife

 Montalban, Gilbert Roland and Sal Mineo

While not a box office success, the film received an Oscar nomination for cinamatography and Roland was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor.


Fort Robinson State Park, 3200 West Highway 20, Crawford, Nebraska, served as the crossroads for soldiers from Native Americans to African-Americans to German prisioners of war. Set amid a 22,000 acre state park it includes the Trailside  Musuem, historic structures, old post cememtery and the only known WWII-era K-9 kennel. 

The park includes a lodge, restaurant, cabins, camping, picnic and horse camp facilities, a summer playhouse, indoor Olympic-size pool and a variety of family activities.  Park permits are required; $6 for instate vehicles and $8 for out-of-state. 

Admission to the Trailside Museum is $3 for adults and under 18 are free. Open 9 to 6 Memorial Day to Labor Day, 10 to 5 Thursday through Sunday during April, May, September and October.  Closed winter from November through March except by appointment.  Seperate fees for lodging, camping and some activities apply.  For a complete list go to, call (308) 665-2900 or write PO Box 392, Crawford, Nebraska   69339-0392.

© Text Only – 2019 – 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.