On November 22, 1890, the paper put out a extra edition reporting under the headline,
"THE MASSACRE BEGUN," that "religion crazed Redskins" had broken out of the Pine Ridge Agency. The paper reported that 20,000 troops were being called up and that Fort Robinson had been left unprotected. It further reported that ranchmen and their families were "fleeing in terror." The entire issue was based on conversations with a lady who was passing through by stage and who had no first hand knowledge, but was merely repeating what she had heard.
Buffalo was, however, not the only place to be gripped by fear of an Indian uprising. In Newcastle, the Kilpatrick Brothers & Collins Commissary (later the Antlers Hotel) was fortified and stocked with guns and ammunition. The windows were barracaded with sacks of flour. A ladder was constructed so as to provide access to the roof from which the defenders could fire upon the Indians' expected attack.
The panic had commenced with an article in the Rapid City Journal of November 20, 1890, which had reported that the Sioux were on the warpath. As a result, in December, the governor of South Dakota activated the South Dakota Home Guard which proceeded to kill and scalp 75 ghost dancers.
On January 1, 1889, a total eclipse of the sun was visible in the Western United States. In California, the day dawned cloudy and overcast. Father Charles Marie Charroppin, nevertheless, predicted that the Virgin Mary would part the clouds. As the eclipse neared totality, the clouds parted to a perfectly clear sky. In parts of the Islamic World, the Hadj was cancelled. Later that year, Mark Twain published his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in which a central plot device was a total eclipse of the sun. And in Nevada, Wovoka (1856-1932), a Paiute Indian son of Tavibo an Indian mystic, in the early morning hours prior to the eclipse fell unconscious from scarlet fever. As the eclipse passed, he awakened as if from the dead and described how during the eclipse he ascended to Heaven and communed with the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit revealed that there would be a great flood which would wash the world of all corruption and there would be a Second Coming of the Messiah who would take the form of an Indian. If the Indians would become educated, do right, not fight, be truthful, abstain from alcohol, and dance and sing in prayer, there would be peace and harmony among all men, the buffalo would return, there would be the resurrection of the dead, and His children would become prosperous. Soon word of the new religion spread among the Indian tribes of the west.
With each tribe variations appeared. In the Wind River of Wyoming, the Arapaho rejected the new religion. With some Shoshoni, the religion partook of some elements of the old sundance and Episcopal teachings and the dance would be around a decorated cedar tree, emblematic of everlasting life. In others, the Indians would dance themselves into exhaustion and collapse in a trance. In the trance, the Indians would receive messages from the Great Spririt or would visit with deceased relatives. In some tribes, following the dance, the Indians would retire to a river and be immersed and washed of their sins. The Sioux sent a delegation to Nevada and brought the teachings back to Pine Ridge, much to the alarm of Gen. Miles in Chicago. Among some Sioux, it was believed that the robe worn while dancing would provide immunity to the white man's bullets. Among those who promoted the new religion was Sitting Bull. Thus, the order went forth for the arrest of Sitting Bull as the new religion was contrary to the official policy promoting Christianity among the Indians.
On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was killed by Indian police as they attempted to take him into custody. Some of the Sioux then fled in fear, with about 100 joining Chief Big Foot on the Cheyenne River. Chief Big Foot, suffering from pneumonia and coughing up blood which would then freeze in the snow, sought to lead his tattered band of aproximately 120 men and 230 woman and children to the agency at Pine Ridge.
On December 28, the band met up with the Seventh Cavalry which surrounded it, and sought to disarm the Indians. One Indian, Black Coyote who was deaf, did not wish to surrender his Winchester. In an ensuing scuffle the rifle discharged wounding an officer. Immediately, the soldiers opened fire with, among other things, four Hotchkiss rapid fire machines guns, each capable of firing two-pound, ten-ounce shells at a rate of 50 rounds per minute with an effective range of 4,200 yards. At the end, between 200 and 350 Indians lay dead in the snow, including women and children who were two miles from the scene.
Among the dead was Chief Big Foot who had a white flag next to his tent. Twenty-five troopers were also killed, most by their own cross-fire. On New Year's Day, troops were sent out to recover the dead. Beneath the snow next to her dead mother, a baby was found still alive, swaddled in a blanket, and upon her head a deerskin cap with a beadwork American flag. The dead were left in the snow for over a week and then buried unceremoniously in a mass grave.
The Seventh Cavalry received for its gallantry twenty Congressional Medals of Honor. One hundred years later the Wall Street Journal continued to refer to the massacre as the "Battle of Wounded Knee." One of the grievances of the American Indian is that when the Indians won, it is referred to as a "massacre," i.e. the "Fetterman Massacre." When the cavalry defeats even unarmed Indians or Indians under a flag of truce, i. e. Sand Creek or Wounded Knee, it is a "battle."