Although Dull Knife (1810?-1883) was active in the Cheyenne-Arapaho War in Colorado, the Sioux Wars for the Northern Plains, and also the War for the Black Hills, he is, perhaps, best remembered for attempting to lead nearly three hundred people from an assigned reservation back to their Tongue River homeland in northern Wyoming and southern Montana.
Best-known for leading his people in a courageous attempt to return from exile in Oklahoma to their Montana homeland in 1878, the Northern Cheyenne leader Morning Star was born in about 1810 on the Rosebud River. He was known mostly by his nickname of Dull Knife, given to him by his brother-in-law, who teased him about not having a sharp knife. A renowned Dog Soldier in his youth, Dull Knife became a member of the Council of 44 and in the 1870s was one of the four principal, or Old Man, Chiefs. These chiefs represented the mystical four Sacred Persons who dwelt at the cardinal points of the universe and were the guardians of creation.
Little is known of Dull Knife's early life. When he was a young man in the late 1820s, he went on a raiding party against the Pawnees. Capturing a young girl, he saved her life by asking that she replace a member of his family previously lost to the Pawnees. When he became a chief, Dull Knife made Little Woman his second wife, the union producing four daughters. Dull Knife had two other wives, Goes to Get a Drink, with whom he had two daughters, and her sister Slow Woman, by whom he had four sons and another daughter.
Dull Knife first appears in white history in 1866, when he joined Red Cloud and the Oglala Sioux in ambushing U.S. soldiers under Captain William J. Fetterman traveling along the Bozeman Trail to reach the Montana gold fields. At the end of the Bozeman Trail War, the Northern Cheyennes signed the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie agreeing to settle on a reservation. The U.S. government gave them the choice of joining the Crows in Montana, the Sioux in Dakota, or the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos in Indian Territory. To force an early decision, the government withheld supplies, and the Northern Cheyennes signed an agreement on November 12, 1874, to move to Indian Territory whenever the U.S. government saw fit.
These arrangements were set aside, however, when the Black Hills Gold Rush led to war with the Sioux and their allies. The precipitating act was an ultimatum ordering the Indians to return to agencies in South Dakota by January 31, 1876. The Big Horn Expedition, intended to force the Indians back to their agencies, engaged the Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, and Northern Arapahos in several major battles, the most famous being Custer's fight on the Little Big Horn. Dull Knife was not in the Indian village that day, but his son Medicine Lodge was present and died in combat against the Seventh Cavalry.
The pivotal battle for the Northern Cheyennes occurred on the morning of November 25, 1876, when Colonel Ranald Mackenzie's force of 600 men of the 4th Cavalry and about 400 Indian scouts surprised Dull Knife's camp on the Red Forks of the Powder River. Reportedly killed in the fighting were one of Dull Knife's sons and a son-in-law. The dead numbered around 40, but destruction of the village and its contents sealed their fate. For all practical purposes, the campaign of 1876-77 ended the Indian wars on the Northern Plains.
Concern for their children caused Dull Knife and his people to surrender to the troops under Crook and Mackenzie in the spring of 1877. At Fort Robinson they learned that the government had decreed that all Northern Cheyennes would be sent to Indian Territory. Dull Knife and Little Wolf urged their tribesmen to abide by the wishes of the government. The Northern Cheyennes may have been led to believe that they could return to their tribal lands in a year if they did not like life in the south. The journey to Indian Territory began on May 28, 1877. In the group were 937 Northern Cheyennes. Seventy days later, on August 5, they arrived at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency, selecting a campsite about eight miles north.
Within a year, the Northern Cheyennes were ready to return to their homeland. Starved, ravaged by disease, preyed upon white gangs of horse thieves, unwilling to farm, critical of the civilized ways of their southern brethren, rankled by the fact that the Northern Arapahos had been allowed to remain in the north, and with 50 of their children dead, they had had enough. So at 10:10 p.m. on September 9 a party of 353 Cheyennes—92 men, 120 women, 69 boys, and 72 girls—quietly left the foreign place, leaving fires burning and lodge poles standing to fool distant military pickets. After discovery of their departure the next morning at three in the morning, the army's pursuit began, eventually involving 13,000 men in three military departments.
Following the route of the Texas Cattle Trail from Oklahoma through Kansas, Dull Knife and Little Wolf and their followers skirmished with army units on September 13 at Turkey Springs, September 14 at Red Hill, September 17 and 21-22 at Sand Creek, and September 27 at Punished Woman Creek, each time eluding the troops and continuing north. On the journey, Little Woman was killed by a horse that stampeded through the camp. When the fleeing Cheyennes reached northeast Kansas, warriors roamed the countryside, killing 40 male white settlers, some said in revenge for a mass killing of their kinsmen by whites in the area in 1875. In Nebraska, Dull Knife and Little Wolf separated, the former heading for Fort Robinson and Red Cloud Agency, the latter to the traditional Northern Cheyenne homeland in Montana.
On October 23, two companies of the 3rd Cavalry traveled up Chadron Creek and caught Dull Knife and his people. Taken to Fort Robinson, the Cheyennes learned on January 3 that the Washington government had decided they must be sent back to Indian Territory. When they refused, Post Commander Henry Wessells imprisoned the band in a cavalry barracks, cutting off heat, food, and water. Barricading doors and covering windows with cloth to conceal their movements, the captives tore up the floor and constructed rifle-pits to command the windows. At 10:10 at night on January 9, the Cheyennes began firing. The men moved forward through the windows with children under their arms, while the women followed, and once again Dull Knife and his band dashed for freedom. This time they were not so fortunate. Soldiers sent volley after volley into the fleeing band. Twenty-two men, eight women, and two children died in the initial exodus, including Dull Knife's daughter, Traveling Woman, who was carrying her 4-year-old sister on her back. The retreat continued for four miles in the darkness until the fugitives reached neighboring hills where pursuit was no longer possible.
Twelve days later, four companies of soldiers caught the largest number of remaining Cheyennes, pinning them down in an oblong depression about 40 miles from Fort Robinson. Twenty-three Indians were killed and nine captured, including two young girls, aged 14 and 15, discovered under the bodies of young men. The dead Indians were buried in the pit where they had hidden. In the meantime, Dull Knife, Slow Woman, and their remaining children had found a haven in the rocks, where they stayed for ten days, keeping alive by eating their moccasins. After eighteen days of wandering, they reached Pine Ridge, where they were hidden by Sioux relatives in a lodge under a little bluff on Wounded Knee Creek.
After wintering in a sheltered valley near the forks of the Niobrara River, Little Wolf and his followers headed north. On March 25, they surrendered to Lieutenant W. P. Clark on the Yellowstone and were sent to Fort Keogh. In November, Indian Bureau officials permitted the Northern Cheyenne at Pine Ridge to transfer to Montana to join the rest. At the request of General Nelson A. Miles, Dull Knife was allowed to return to the valley of the Rosebud. An Executive Order of November 26, 1884, established a permanent home for the Northern Cheyenne in south central Montana east of the Crow reservation.
Dull Knife spent his remaining years, embittered and grieving, in the hills of southern Montana. Among the dead he had left behind at Fort Robinson were two daughters and a son, bringing the total of his loved ones lost in a single year to a wife, three sons, and two daughters. Dull Knife died in 1883 at his son Bull Hump's home. In 1917 Cheyenne historian George Bird Grinnell had his remains and those of Little Wolf reinterred in the cemetery at Lame Deer, where they are today.