Famed Cheyenne chief and leader of the Bowstring Warriors, Little Wolf (c. 1818-1904) defied the U.S. government and led 300 Cheyenne from an Indian reservation in Oklahoma back to their homeland in southeastern Montana. In the course of this journey, the group eluded some 13, 000 U.S. troops for more than half a year before finally surrendering.
In the late 1870s, Little Wolf, along with Dull Knife, led 300 Native Americans from the Cheyenne Indian Reservation near Fort Reno, Oklahoma, resulting in a lengthy chase by the U.S. Cavalry through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and into Montana. The leadership Little Wolf demonstrated during this incident, as well as his courage and skill in battles covering a period of over 45 years prior, contributed to his reputation as a great Cheyenne warrior. Although this reputation was diminished among his people in his later years due to his murder of a fellow tribesman, many of the white soldiers who fought and chased him over the high plains remembered him with admiration long after his death.
Very little is known of the early life of Little Wolf. He was born some time between 1818 and 1820, probably closer to the latter year, in southeastern Montana, the home of his tribe, the Northern Cheyenne. He is mentioned as a good warrior as early as 1837, during which time the Cheyenne were involved frequently in inter-tribal warfare. By 1838, he was the chief of the Bowstring Warriors, one of the six military societies-including the Fox Soldiers, the Blue Soldiers, the Dog Men, the Red Shields, and the Crazy Dogs-which comprised the fighting segment of the Northern Cheyenne people.
By 1851, treaties with the United States government had brought an end to the conflicts between the tribes, for the most part. Little Wolf effectively disappeared from the historical record for a lengthy period. He always preferred peace, so until 1865, there was little reason to take notice of him. In that year, he led an assault on U.S. troops to avenge the massacre of 150 Cheyenne at Sand Creek, Colorado, the year before. Three years later, he and his warriors drove troops out of Ft. Kearny, Nebraska, burning it to the ground after it was abandoned.
These were, however, isolated incidents. Later in 1868, Little Wolf and 13 other Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho chiefs signed a treaty with the U.S. government granting them the option of settling with the Southern Cheyenne south of the Arkansas River, or with the Sioux on the Great Sioux Reservation. It is perhaps an indicator of Little Wolf's great desire to make peace with the U.S. government that he was willing to tarnish his own reputation among his people by agreeing to this treaty. When he returned to his tribe, he was greeted with anger for signing it without consulting the other tribal leaders first. While he could perhaps be faulted for this, his status among whites as a peacemaker grew. Some time after the treaty signing, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive a peace medal from United States President Ulysses S. Grant.
The Darlington Reservation
In 1877, relations between the U.S. government and the Northern Cheyenne changed. Lieutenant H. W. Lawton of the U.S. Fourth Cavalry arrived in Red Cloud, Montana, with orders to escort the Northern Cheyenne to Darlington, Oklahoma, where they would join their southern brethren on a reservation there, near Fort Reno. Peaceful as always, the Cheyennes in Red Cloud agreed to the move, and they began to arrive at their new home in August of that year, continuing throughout the fall.
The conditions in Darlington, unfortunately, were not what they had been promised. Indian agent John D. Miles was charged with caring for all of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people on the reservation, but in this role he was either woefully inadequate or entirely corrupt, as many believed. Before long, several chiefs were complaining to Lieutenant Lawton that they were being given starvation rations. The buffalo herds in the region had been systematically decimated by careless hunters, so the Native Americans on the reservation depended on their caretakers for the bare necessities for survival. Lawton and a trader named Philip McCusker alleged that Miles was charging the Northern Cheyennes up to 300 percent of the normal prices for goods, and that he played favorites among the traders in the area.
None of this much pleased the Northern Cheyennes, who began squabbling over minor issues with the southerners already on the reservation, as well as with Miles. Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Wild Hog refused to send their children to the Native American school Miles had set up, and in the spring, they refused to plant crops and settle down. The winter was extremely hard on the nearly 1, 000 Northern Cheyennes who had relocated to the camp. Being used to the dry climate of the high plains of Montana, they were defenseless against disease in the more humid southern region. Forty-seven Cheyennes died that first winter in Oklahoma.
The Dull Knife Outbreak
By September of the following year, the crisis was coming to a head. Small numbers of Cheyenne males began to leave the group, heading back north to their home in Montana. When Miles confronted Little Wolf and demanded aid in recovering these fugitives, Little Wolf refused. Shortly after, on September 10th, approximately 350 Northern Cheyennes left Darlington and headed north. They were led by Dull Knife, Wild Hog, Crow Indian, Chewing Gum, Old Bear, Squaw, Black Horse, Day, Red Blanket, and Little Wolf.
The group had not traveled far, perhaps just under a hundred miles, when they were overtaken at the Little Medicine Lodge River by troops from Fort Reno with Arapaho scouts. A brief fight ensued, in which three soldiers and one Arapaho were killed. The Cheyennes barely paused, driving north with great intensity. Though the band was comprised mainly of women, children, and elderly men, with only about 60 warriors in the whole group, General P. H. Sheridan of the U.S Indian Bureau apparently considered them a significant threat. He immediately ordered his subordinate, General Crook, to capture or kill the renegades. Fearing perhaps that the Cheyenne's success might spur other tribes to desert the reservations, Crook mobilized over 13, 000 troops to apprehend Little Wolf, Dull Knife, and the others.
Still the determined group pushed onward. A series of battles were fought through the fall, at the Cimarron River, south of the Arkansas River, then again north of the Arkansas. Despite being outnumbered and forced to move relentlessly over open country where there were no opportunities to hide and rest, the Cheyennes fared well under Little Wolf's great tactical skill. In all of the battles fought during that period, they lost only half a dozen men, with another half dozen wounded. Furthermore, they made tremendous progress, fighting their battles as quickly as possible and then moving on, or even fighting while on the march. In this way, they were able to cover over 700 miles before winter.
Before reaching their winter destination, however, Dull Knife's group split off from that of Little Wolf, somewhere near the Platte River. Dull Knife headed west, toward Fort Robinson, Nebraska. He and his band were soon captured without a fight. Little Wolf, with about 114 remaining Cheyennes pressed on until he reached the Sand Hills. Here, game was plentiful, and there were plenty of places to hide from pursuers. He and his followers entered winter quarters and effectively disappeared.
In the spring they continued on to the Powder River. Here they were met by Lieutenant W. P. Clark, known to the Cheyenne as White Hat, a friend to Little Wolf. When Clark found Little Wolf, he shook his hand and assured him that the group would not be harmed. Wishing only peace for his people, Little Wolf surrendered. He followed Clark to Fort Keogh, where Little Wolf and many of his followers signed on to help U.S. troops fight the Sioux. Although Little Wolf's band had far outlasted Dull Knife's, the chase from Darlington to Red Cloud is now known as the Dull Knife Outbreak.
Some time after these events-probably in the 1880s, Little Wolf murdered a fellow Cheyenne, Starving Elk, who had been paying too much attention to his daughter. Murder within the tribe was extremely rare, though not unprecedented, and was considered to be an unforgivable crime. Little Wolf's reaction was to give up all his property, including his horses, and commit himself to exile. He was no longer a chief, and he went with his family to the Tongue River Indian Reservation in the southeast corner of Montana, near his original home. There he lived out his years. Although he had long been expected to die in battle, he instead grew old, eventually going blind. He died in 1904.
It is arguable whether Little Wolf ever achieved his dream: "a springtime when the Cheyenne were once more warm, a well fed, a straightstanding people." Considering the tremendous forces in play at that time, he probably never could have succeeded unequivocally. He brought his people home, but on terms dictated by the U.S. government. Furthermore, he permanently disgraced his own name within his tribe. It is therefore a testament to the overwhelming power of his memory, the sheer force of his personality, that George Bird Grinnell, a one-time U.S. cavalryman who wrote a two-volume history of the Cheyenne tribe in 1923, said of Little Wolf that he was "the greatest of modern Cheyennes."
Further Reading on Little Wolf
Berthrong, Donald J., The Cheyenne and Arapaho Ordeal: Reservation and Agency Life in the Indian Territory, 1875-1907, University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.
Grinnell, George Bird, The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life, Yale University Press, 1924.
Grinnell, George Bird, Fighting Cheyennes, University of Oklahoma Press, 1915.
Sandoz, Mari, Cheyenne Autumn, McGraw-Hill, 1953.
Stands in Timber, John, and Margot Liberty, Cheyenne Memories, Yale University Press, 1967.
Svingen, Orlan J., The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, 1877-1900, University Press of Colorado, 1993.