The Wounded Knee Massacre is not only the saddest chapter in the history of the West, but was entirely preventable. In fact, it is so rife with human error and misjudgments that altering any one of them might have averted the tragic outcome. This “what if” exercise is therefore more about what direction one of these changes might have led, than the obviously desired outcome of averting the massacre entirely.
South Dakota’s Indian reservations – where rations had been reduced and a recent drought had ruined the year’s crops – were fertile ground for the messianic message of Paiute Holy Man Wovoka. When the Lakota Sioux of the newly-minted state of South Dakota embraced the message and its outward manifestation, the Ghost Dance, state, federal and local officials proceeded down a path which began in uneasiness and ended in sheer panic.
Pine Ridge Indian Agent H. D. Gallagher, who at least knew something about the people he worked with, had been replaced by Dr. Daniel F. Royer in October of 1890, just as the unrest was coming to a head. Royer was not only ignorant about his new charges, but suffered from extreme paranoia and tended to see blood-thirsty Indians behind every bush. His increasingly panicky wires to the Bureau in Washington reflected his ineffectiveness, and of course, the Lakota knew it.
The problem was exacerbated by the presence of military troops on the reservation for the first time in ten years (including Custer’s old unit, the 7th Cavalry, which was predictably spoiling for a fight), and the irresponsible raiding onto the reservation by the civilian “Home Guard”, hastily organized on the orders of Governor Mellette. Led by another hot-head, M.H. Day of Rapid City, the militia provoked several skirmishes, adding fuel to the fire.
To this add the actual round-up of Big Foot’s Band at Wounded Knee Creek by inexperienced young troops (witness the placement of Gatling Guns in a semi-circle on the knoll overlooking the creek – which opens up an entire “what if” all by itself) and you have a classic recipe for disaster.
The former Pine Ridge Agent, Valentine T. McGillycuddy, was involved peripherally in the crisis as a colonel on Governor Mellette’s military staff (though he remained in Rapid City). Although highly unpopular during his tenure as agent, he did understand the Lakota and believed that all the to-ing and fro-ing by the military and wannabes was contributing to the crisis rather than forestalling it. “He believed the ghost dance troubles could be settled without bloodshed and was opposed to bringing troops onto the reservations.” General Miles, who was charged with “the responsibility of restoring tranquility to Sioux Country” held the politically-appointed Indian Agents in low esteem. He too felt that placing troops in such a volatile situation was asking for trouble.
What if McGillycuddy were still the Indian Agent at Pine Ridge during the fateful winter of 1890-91?