LITTLE WOLF, THE GREAT CHEYENNE CHIEF
Chief Little Wolf
As a Southeasterner, I haven’t had an opportunity to become acquainted with the descendants of the western tribes of Native Americans. The Cherokee and Lumbee Indians where I live have become widely incorporated into our blended society. Although there is a Cherokee reservation in the mountains of North Carolina, most of the Cherokee were forced to leave their native land here by President Andrew Jackson on the now infamous Trail of Tears exodus.
Because I’m a western author, I am fascinated by western tribes and their battle to maintain their culture and land. One of these famous American Indian leaders was Cheyenne Chief, Little Wolf or Ohcumgache which literally translated means Little Coyote. Little Wolf was born in Montana in the mid-1820’s. As he grew into adulthood, he became greatly respected and honored by his people. Little Wolf was chosen as one of the "Old Man" chiefs among the Council of Forty-four, a high honor in traditional Cheyenne culture. He was also chosen as Sweet Medicine Chief, bearer of the spiritual incarnation of Sweet Medicine, a primary culture hero and spiritual ancestor of the Cheyenne. Because of this honorary title, he was expected to be above anger, as well as concerned only for his people and not for himself.
Little Wolf is known as a great military tactician and led a group of warriors known as the "Elk Horn Scrapers" during the Northern Plains War. He also fought in Red Cloud's War and the war for the Bozeman Trail, which lasted from 1866 to 1868. He was the chief of the Bowstring Soldiers, an elite Cheyenne military society. Even in his youth, Little Wolf demonstrated exceptional bravery and brilliant understanding of battle tactics. First in conflicts with other Indians like the Kiowa and then in disputes with the U.S. Army, Little Wolf led or assisted in dozens of important Cheyenne victories.
Historians believe Little Wolf was most likely involved in the disastrous, Fetterman Massacre of 1866, in which the Cheyenne cleverly lured a force of 80 American soldiers out of their Wyoming fort and wiped them out. After Cheyenne attacks finally forced the U.S. military to abandon Fort Phil Kearney along the Bozeman Trail, Little Wolf is believed to have led the torching of the fort. He was also a leading participant in the greatest of the Plains Indian victories, the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
Although he did not fight in the Little Bighorn battle, he did play a significant role before and after the battle. Some scouts from Little Wolf’s camp found food left behind by Custer’s attack troops and were observed by U.S. military scouts. When it was reported to Custer, he thought he had been discovered by the main camp of the Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Bighorn and decided it was crucial for him to move forward with his attack in order to prevent the escape of the Indians. When the battle ended, Little Wolf arrived and was almost killed by the angry Sioux who believed he had scouted for the whites. Little Wolf was able to convince the Sioux by his adamant denials and from the support of his fellow Northern Cheyenne present during the battle and, therefore, was saved him from harm.
Little Wolf at Fort Laramie
But, what Little Wolf is most famous for is his great escape from captivity.
After the defeat of Morning Star (Dull Knife) by Col. Ronald S. Mackenzie in November 1876, Little Wolf was forced onto a reservation in Oklahoma's Indian Territory. Two years later, he and Dull Knife led almost 300 Cheyenne from their reservation near Fort Reno, Oklahoma, through Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakota Territory into the Montana Territory, their ancestral home.
All the while, they miraculously eluded the U.S. cavalry units which repeatedly tried to capture them. Though Little Wolf and Dull Knife announced that their intentions were peaceful, settlers in the territory they passed through feared attack. The government dispatched cavalry forces that assaulted the Indians, but Little Wolf’s skillful defensive maneuvers kept Cheyenne casualties low. When the band neared Fort Robinson, Nebraska, Dull Knife and some of his followers stopped there. Little Wolf and the rest of the Cheyenne continued to march north to Montana.
While continuing to travel north, in the spring of 1879, Little Wolf and his followers were overtaken by a cavalry force under the leadership of Captain W.P. Clark, an old friend of Little Wolf’s. The confrontation could have turned violent, but with his force of warriors diminished and his people tired, Little Wolf was reluctant to fight the more powerful American army. Clark’s civilized and gracious treatment of Little Wolf helped convince the chief that further resistance was pointless, and he agreed to surrender.
Little Wolf And His Wife, Morning Star
Later on, Little Wolf would become a scout for the U.S. Army under Gen. Nelson A. Miles. It is unfortunate that Little Wolf became involved in a dispute which resulted in the death of Starving Elk. Drunk, Little Wolf shot and killed Starving Elk at the trading post of Eugene Lamphere on December 12, 1880. Little Wolf went into voluntary exile as a result of this disgrace. His status as a chief was revoked. Though formerly a celebrated Cheyenne warrior, the disgraced Little Wolf lived out the rest of his life in self-imposed exile on the Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation but had no official influence among his own people. He died in 1904 and is interred in the Lame Deer cemetery, alongside the gravesite of Morning Star. George Bird Grinnell, a close friend and ethnographer who documented Little Wolf's life, called him, "the greatest Indian I have ever known."
You can find all her western stories about the Wilding family saga by clicking onto The Wildings link.