On November 25, 1876, Colonel Ranald MacKenzie, in command of the Fourth Cavalry, led troops of about 1100 men into the east end of Red Fork Valley for the purpose of destroying the Dull Knife band of Northern Cheyenne. The Red Fork of the Powder River was a favored winter camping spot for the Cheyenne, with easy access to water that didn’t freeze over due to a warm spring.
On the eve of the battle the Cheyenne were celebrating a victory over the Shoshone. Colonel MacKenzie waited until the following dawn to attack the sleeping village of 173 lodges. Caught unaware, the Cheyenne ran from their village, many leaving their clothes and buffalo robes. The subsequent fight was a running uphill battle with the Cheyenne moving upward to a high point above a deep canyon. Their goal was to get the women and children over the top and down into the canyon to hide.
The battle waged until around the midday and the Army rounded up the survivors. For those who managed to escape, their battle was just beginning. During the night the temperatures dropped to 30 below and many of the band, including several children, froze to death in the night. They had been trying to go North to meet with the Crazy Horse band of Lakota.
MacKenzie ordered the village burned, including all of the winter food supplies, blankets, robes, clothing – anything that was left in the village. Many of the Dull Knife band had been at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June and it was said MacKenzie found items taken from the Little Big Horn in the Dull Knife village. Undoubtedly this fueled the hostility and the order to burn everything.
This battle was the death knell for the Dull Knife band. Even though some did make it to the Crazy Horse camp, it was only about ten months later that Crazy Horse surrendered at Ft. Robinson, ending the war on the Northern Plains.
Visiting the Site of the Battle
The Frontier Traveler was lucky to have a tour of the Red Fork Ranch, site of the Dull Knife Battle, land which has been owned by the Graves family for five generations. Ken and Cheri Graves have a great respect for the history of their property and Cheri gives a dramatic account of the battle that makes you feel you can see it happening. No amount of reading from a book can bring the battle to life in the way Cheri can. In going to the top of the west end of the valley, the stone cairns that were placed by the Cheyenne warriors, from which to fight while the women and children were climbing down into the canyon, still remain.
I often wonder about the spirits roaming the Red Fork of the Powder on freezing winter nights and if the Graves ever hear the sound of drumming, keening, gunshots, or cries of despair, or perhaps the happy sounds of a winter village at peace in a time before the war on the Northern plains. For a village deep in sleep, seemingly safe in their warm lodges on a cold November night, they had no idea that the dawn would bring an end to their way of life.
For more on the Dull Knife Battle, please read
For those interested in a tour of the Dull Knife Battle site, contact Ken and Cheri Graves at http://redforkranch.com/tours.html