1891 Annual Report of Major General Miles – Part 2


After detailing the cause of Indian disaffection at each of the reservations in Part 1 of his Annual Report, Major General Nelson A. Miles went on to discuss the origins of the Messiah “Delusion” and the ghost dance, and how a peaceful message took on a militant tone among the Sioux tribes in the Dakotas.  Following is Part 2 of General Miles 1891 annual report to Secretary of War Redfield Proctor submitted in September of that year.

The Messiah Delusion.

Gen. Nelson A. Miles viewing hostile Indian camp near Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota.- Cropped from photograph by John C. H. Grabill, January 16, 1891.

Gen. Nelson A. Miles viewing hostile Indian camp near Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota.- Cropped from photograph by John C. H. Grabill, January 16, 1891.

In this condition of affairs, the Indians, realizing the inevitable, and seeing their numbers gradually diminishing, their strength and power weakening, very naturally prayed to their God for some supernatural power to aid them in the restoration of their former independence and the destruction of their enemies. It was at this stage of affairs, when driven to desperation, they were willing to entertain the pretensions or superstitions of deluded, fanatical people living on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, whose emissaries first secretly appeared among the Indians prior to 1889. It was not, however, until the autumn of that year that the widespread conspiracy assumed serious character. They first aroused the curiosity of the Indians by some secret method scarcely realized by the savages themselves and persuaded delegations from different tribes of Indians to leave their reservations in November, 1889.

It is remarkable that by concerted action the delegations from the different tribes secretly left the various reservations, some starting from points a thousand miles apart from others, and some traveling 1,400 miles into a country entirely unknown to them, and in which they had never been before. The delegations from the Sioux, Cheyennes, and other tribes, secretly leaving their reservations, met at and traveled through the Arapahoe and Shoshone Reservations in Wyoming, and thence via the Union Pacific they passed into Utah, and were joined by Gros Ventres, Utes, Snakes, Piegans, Bannocks, Pi-Utes, and others, until they came to a large conclave of whites and Indians, near Pyramid Lake in Nevada, where not less than sixteen prominent tribes of Indians were represented. These delegates were then told that “those present were all believers in a new religion,” that ” they were all oppressed people.” that “the whites and Indians were all the same, and that “the Messiah had returned to them.” So well was this deception played by men masquerading and personating the Christ that they made these superstitious savages believe that the so-called Christ could speak all languages, that the whites who were not of their faith were to be destroyed, and that all who had faith in the “new religion” would occupy the earth; that the Messiah would cover the earth with dust and would then “renew everything as it used to be and make it better.” He told them also that all of their dead would be resurrected; that they were all to come back to earth again, and that as the earth was too small for them and us he would do away with Heaven and make the earth large enough to contain all of them, and that they must tell all the people they meet about those things. He (or they who were personating one being) spoke to them about fighting, and said that was bad and that they must keep from it, that the earth was to be all good hereafter, and they must all be friends to one another. He said that “in the fall of the year (1890) the youth of all the good people would be renewed so that nobody would be more than 40 years old,” and that “if they behaved themselves well after this, the youth of every one would be renewed in the spring.” He said “if they were all good he would send people among them who could cure all their wounds and sickness by mere touch and that they would live forever.” He told them “not to quarrel, nor fight, nor strike each other, nor shoot one another; that the whites and Indians there were to be all one people.” He said “if any man disobeyed what he ordered his tribe would be wiped from the face of the earth; that they must believe everything he said, and must not doubt him or say he lied;” that “if they did he would know it; that he would know their thoughts and actions in no matter what part of the world they might be.” Indian delegates who have seen the Messiah describe him in different ways, some as an Indian, others as a white man. There were, undoubtedly, several masquerading in the same robes and disguise as one person. They state that the Messiah is the one who taught them various religious ceremonies and to dance what has been termed the “ghost dance” or a sacred dance, clothed in a light garment like a shirt or hunter’s frock, which, after being sanctified, was believed to be bullet proof.

It has been learned that delegates from the different tribes were all present when the Messiah appeared or was seen by them at different times, and these all returned to their various reservations, announcing to their relatives and friends what, they had learned, fully convinced themselves, and convincing others that what they had seen and heard was true. These talks lasted sometimes for four or five days, and the warriors were initiated in the mysteries of the new faith as taught by the so-called Messiah. The Indians received the words of prophecy from the Messiah with intense enthusiasm, thinking that after years of distress and discouragement their prayers had been heard and that they were about to enter into a life of happiness for which they believed nature had originally intended them. The fanaticism and superstition of these people were taken advantage of by their disaffected and designing leaders to encourage them to assume hostilities toward the Government and white people.

Outbreak Precipitated.

Short Bull, one of the Indians who had made the pilgrimage to Nevada, and who had become one of the acknowledged leaders of the hostile element, in a public harangue announced that he would shorten the time for a general uprising, and called upon all the warriors to assemble in what is known as the Manvaises Terres or Bad Lands, on the White River, southwest of South Dakota, in November, 1890. Short Bull’s speech, interpreted, was as follows:

“My friends and relatives: I will soon start this thing in running order. I have told you that this would come to pass in two seasons, but since the whites are interfering so much, I will advance the time from what my Father above told me to do so. The time will be shorter. Therefore you must not be afraid of anything. Some of my relations have no ears, so I will have them blown away. Now there will be a tree sprout up, and there all the members of our religion and the tribe must gather together. That will be the place where we will see our relations. But, before this time, we must dance the balance of this moon, at the end of which time the earth will shiver very hard. Whenever this thing occurs I will start the wind to blow. We are the ones who will then see our fathers, mothers, and everybody. We the tribe of Indians, are the ones who are living a sacred life. God, our Father, himself has told and commanded and shown me to do these things. Our Father in Heaven has placed a mark at each point of the four winds; first, a clay pipe, which lies at the setting of the sun and represents the Sioux tribe; second there is a holy arrow lying at the north, which represents the Cheyenne tribe; third, at the rising of the sun there lies hail, representing the Arrapahoe tribe; and fourth, there lies a pipe and nice feather at the south, which represents the Crow tribe. My Father has shown me these things, therefore we must continue this dance. There may be soldiers surround you, but pay no attention to them, continue the dance. If the soldiers surround you four deep, three of you on whom I have put holy shirts will sing a song, which I have taught you, around them, when some of them will drop dead, then the rest will start to run, but their horses will sink into the earth; the riders will jump from their horses, but they will sink info the earth also; then you can do as you desire with them. Now you must know this, that all the soldiers and that race will be dead; there will be only five thousand of them left living on the earth. My friends and relations, this is straight and true. Now we must gather at Pass Creek, where the tree is sprouting. There we will go among our dead relations. You must not take any earthly things with you. Then the men must take off all their clothing, and the women must do the same. No one shall be ashamed of exposing their persons. My Father above has told us to do this, and we must do as he says. You must not be afraid of anything. The guns are the only things we are afraid of but they belong to our Father in Heaven. He will see that they do no harm. What, ever white men may tell you, do not listen to them. My relations, this is all. I will now raise my hand up to my Father and close what he has said to you through me.”

This harangue was followed by the movement of some three thousand Indians from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations, to that rough, broken country of high buttes, ravines, and impassable gulches. The hostile element on the Cheyenne and Standing Rock agencies were prepared to join them. As the following of Short Bull and Kicking Bear moved to the bad lands they looted the homes of hundreds of Indians who had been trying for years to farm and in part support themselves, and carried with them many Indians who were peaceably disposed. This would have been the case on other reservations had not protection been given to the loyally disposed and decided measures been taken to suppress the hostile element.

Threatened Hostilities.

The leaders who have been constantly and persistently hostile to every measure of civilization proclaimed there could be no better way of helping the prophesy and hastening the coming of the Messiah than by aiding in the removal of the white people, and to such disaffected, turbulent, hostile spirits as Sitting Bull, Kicking Bear, Short Bull, and others, this was the time for action. Nothing could be more gratifying to them, and the false prophets and medicine men immediately took advantage of the wretched condition of the Indians to spread disaffection among the different tribes.

The runners of Sitting Bull, who for years had been the great war chief and the head center of the hostile element, traveled in various directions, but more especially to the tribes in the Northwest, carrying his messages to get ready for war and to get all the arms and ammunition possible, and for all the warriors to meet near the Black Hills in the spring of 1891. He even sent emissaries beyond the boundary line of the United States to the Indian tribes in the British Possessions, and promises of support were returned. The first serious disturbance of any kind was to be signal for the gathering of all the warriors from the different tribes.

The Indians had, in the interim of peace, succeeded in getting together a large amount of ammunition and arms, particularly their favorite weapon, the Winchester rifle. They were, consequently, far better prepared to wage a war than at any previous time in their history. As some of the delegates to the conclave in Nevada were not imbued with the peaceful teachings of the “Messiah,” but were, on the contrary, disappointed, inasmuch as they had hoped to hear him teach some incendiary doctrine, the disaffection spread by Sitting Bull and other like spirits received their hearty support, and they disseminated knowledge to the Indians not strictly conforming to the Messiah’s teachings, but more to their own, and the Indians were wrought up to a frenzy of wild excitement.

The above information and much more was gained from various sources chiefly while the division commander was engaged with the Northern Cheyenne Commission, visiting the various Indian reservations during the latter part of October and the early part of November, 1890, and through the department commanders and staff officers ordered to investigate the subject. As the control of Indian affairs was in the hands of Indian agents the military could not and did not take action until the conspiracy had spread over a vast extent of country, and the most serious Indian war of our history was imminent. In fact, the peace of an area of country equal to an empire was in peril. The States of Nebraska, the two Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada, and the Territory of Utah, were liable to be overrun by a hungry, wild, mad horde of savages. The old theory that the destruction of a vast herds of buffalo had ended Indian wars, is not well-founded. The same country is now covered with domestic cattle and horses and the Indians would have, in what they believed to be a righteous crusade, looted the scattered homes and lived and traveled upon the domestic stock of the settlers. Pillage would have been followed by rapine and devastation.

So general was the alarm of the citizens, the officials of the General Government, the governors of the States, and the press of that part of the country, that all earnestly appealed for aid and protection for the settlements.

Appeals For Troops.

In a letter dated October 29, 1890, from P. P. Palmer, Indian agent, Cheyenne River Agency, to the Interior Department, he says of Hump and his following that the best means of preventing an outbreak among the Indians would be to take these leaders entirely out of the reach of their followers.

In a letter dated October 30, 1890, D. F. Royer, Indian agent at Pine Ridge Agency, informs the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that—

“Some of the disadvantages originating from this ghost dance is the believers in it defy the law, threaten the police, take their children out of school, and if the police are sent after the children, they simply stand ready to fight before they will give them up. When an Indian violates any law the first thing they do is to join the ghost dance, and then they feel safe to defy the police, the law, and the agent.”

And further—

“I have carefully studied the matter for nearly six weeks and have brought all the persuasion through the chiefs to bear on the leaders that was possible, but without effect, and the only remedy for this matter is the use of military, and until this is done, you need not expect any progress from these people; on the other hand, you will be made to realize that they are tearing down more in a day than the Government can build up in a month.”

In transmitting the reports of Agents Palmer and Royer, the Secretary of the Interior says:

“It may be best to have a force of soldiers sufficient to arrest and watch these Indians for a time, but if it is attempted, it should be done with firmness and power so great as would overwhelm the Indians from the beginning.”

Under date of November 12, 1890, the Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs, upon receipt of additional reports from the Indian agents, says that the agent at Pine Ridge reports “that the craze has steadily increased until now it has assumed such proportions both in the number and spirit of adherents that it is entirely beyond the control of the agent and police force, who are openly defied by the dancers,” and as a means of stopping the dances, the agent suggests sending a body of troops sufficient to arrest the leaders therein and imprison them and disarm the balance of the reservation. And on the 13th he transmits a telegram from Agent Royer, showing that two hundred participants in the ghost dance, all armed and ready to fight, had overpowered the Indian police, and that the agency is at the mercy of these “crazy dancers,” and says:

“I deem the situation at said agency arising from the ghost dance as very critical, and believe that an outbreak may occur at any time, and it does not seem to me to be safe to longer withhold troops from the agency. I therefore respectfully recommend that the matter be submitted to the honorable Secretary of War with the request that such instructions as may be necessary be given to the proper military authorities to take such prompt action as the emergency may be found by them to demand, to the end that any outbreak on the part of the Indians may be averted and the Indians be shown that the authority of this Department and its agent must be respected and obeyed by them.”

Not until the civil agents had lost control of the Indians and declared themselves powerless to preserve peace, and the Indians were in armed hostility and defiant of the civil authorities was a single soldier moved from his garrison to suppress the general revolt. To prevent the threatened murder of the civil agents and employes at the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Agencies and the destruction of the public property at those places, as well as to give protection to and encourage the loyal and peaceful Indians, troops were ordered to those points under command of General Brooke, commanding the Department of the Platte, on November 17, 1890.


Source: United States War Department, Annual Report of the Secretary of War, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1892), 140-145.
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About Sam Russell

I am a fifth-generation Army officer with over twenty-eight years of commissioned service. I have been researching the frontier Army for over fifteen years and am interested in documenting the lives of the soldiers that participated in the battle of Wounded Knee using primarily official reports, diaries, letters, newspaper articles and other primary source documents. My interest in Wounded Knee stems from my kinship to one of the principal participants. I am the great-great-grandson of Samuel M. Whitside, who was a major and battalion commander at the battle. I welcome and encourage comments on posts and pages and am always interested in any new primary sources. If you have copies of letters, diaries, etc, from participants and are willing to share, please contact me. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are strictly my own, and should in no way be construed as official Army or U.S. Government positons.
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