The Fort Robinson Outbreak Run, which begins January 9th each year, commemorates one of the greatest events in the history of the Cheyenne people – the Fort Robinson Breakout.
St. Labre Honors English students researched the event and wrote a thorough timeline, beginning with the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) and taking us through a day-by-day account of the imprisonment and escape at Fort Robinson.
Please enjoy reading the timeline of the Fort Robinson Breakout below:
Fort Robinson Breakout: Survival of the Cheyenne Way of Life
Commemoration of the Fort Robinson Breakout will be on January 9th. Our goal is to present background information leading up to the Breakout. Our story begins at the Battle of Greasy Grass on June 25th and 26th, 1876.
June 25 – 26, 1876
In one of the Plains Indians greatest victories, the Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho defeat General George Custer at the Battle of Greasy Grass (aka Battle of Little Big Horn). Custer and 286 of his men are wiped out. In comparison, only seven Cheyenne and 66 Lakota are killed. The tensions began months before when gold was discovered on Native lands.
After the Battle of Greasy Grass the victorious Indians break apart and settle several camps across the area and spend the summer hunting. They do not realize that it will be their last summer of freedom. Brigadier Generals George Crook and Alfred Terry and their troops are assigned to hunt and capture the Indians. Crook, traveling north from Ft. Fetterman in Wyoming, and Terry, traveling west from Ft. Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, meet at the mouth of the Powder River where they begin their search for the Indians. They were not successful in finding them, however many small fights break out between white troops and Indians during their travels.
November 25, 1876
U.S. Troops, under Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie and his troops travel from Ft. Robinson to the Bighorn mountains where they find Northern Cheyenne Chiefs Morning Star (aka Chief Dull Knife) and Little Wolf and their people living along the Powder River. They burn the village down to the ground, destroying 173 lodges and capturing 500 ponies. This little-known battle is known as the Dull Knife Fight or the Red Fork Battle. This battle impacts the Northern Cheyenne people more than the Battle of Greasy Grass did. After this battle it took several weeks for the Northern Cheyenne survivors to travel nearly 150 miles to the camp of Crazy Horse near the east fork of Otter Creek in southeastern Montana.
In the summer of 1877, many Cheyenne are camped at Chief Red Cloud’s Pine Ridge Agency in northwest Nebraska. They are taken to Oklahoma with the promise that they would be allowed to return if they did not like living there. Soon after they arrive, many are stricken with malaria. There is very little game to hunt and rations are inadequate. The Cheyenne become severely undernourished. Malaria strikes again the next summer along with a measles epidemic that kills many children. Regretting they ever came, the Cheyenne begin asking to return to the North. Their request is refused. Chief Little Wolf, who is among the 972 Cheyenne in Oklahoma, makes the decision to leave.
September 9, 1878
Early on September 9th, 297 Northern Cheyenne under the leadership of Chiefs Little Wolf, Morning Star and Wild Hog leave Oklahoma and begin the journey to their northern homeland; less than one third are younger men while the rest are children, women and older men. In one of the epic journeys in Indian history, the Cheyenne make their way north. The entire Division of the Missouri is mobilized to stop them and four major battles are fought. After crossing the Union Pacific tracks, the Cheyenne split into two bands. One under Chief Little Wolf waits out the winter on Lost Chokecherry Creek. The other, under Chiefs Morning Star and Wild Hog head to Red Cloud’s Pine Ridge Agency.
October 23, 1878
In a snow storm Chief Morning Star and his band come upon two companies of the United States Army’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment stationed at Ft. Robinson. During the next two days, Captain J.B. Johnson, Commanding Officer of the 3rd Cavalry and Chief Morning Star negotiate what will become of the Cheyenne. Although the Cheyenne say they want only to reach Red Cloud’s Pine Ridge Agency they are forced to turn in their weapons and are relocated to Ft. Robinson.
October 25 – December 1878
On October 25th the Cheyenne arrive at Fort Robinson, and the soldiers house the Cheyenne in log barracks that are too small for their numbers. The guards keeping watch present them with blankets, food, medicine and wood for their warming stove. Chief Morning Star asks every day if he could take his people to Red Cloud’s Pine Ridge Agency in the Dakota Territory. As a sign of sympathy, Fort Robinson’s Post Commander grants Cheyenne men the right to go and hunt wild game, what was left of it, and the Cheyenne enjoy the ability to wander freely. During the Moon When the Wolves Run Together, Henry W. Wessells Jr. comes to be the new Post Commander and he shows an ill temperament with the Cheyenne. After Wessells Jr.’s arrival, Chief Red Cloud is permitted to come and speak amongst the Cheyenne people. Chief Red Cloud expresses his and his people’s sorrow and longing for the Cheyenne people to come and be among them. Then, Chief Morning Star presents Captain Wessells Jr. with the question to let his people go, and says that they would cause no harm.
Late December 1878
The Cheyenne have some freedom at Fort Robinson. They are able to go out and hunt, but they have to come back to the barracks when night falls. Their freedom comes crashing down when one woman escapes. Her husband leaves to find his wife, but is brought back to Fort Robinson. They now have no freedom and are imprisoned at Fort Robinson.
January 3, 1879
The Indian Bureau informs Wessells Jr. that the Cheyenne are to be taken back to Oklahoma immediately. The Cheyenne receive the information and their answer is the same, they will not go back to Oklahoma. They say they would rather be killed by the soldiers than die slowly in the south. “Does the Great Father desire us to die?” Chief Morning Star asks Captain Wessells Jr. “If so, we will die right here. We will not go back.”
January 4th-8th, 1879
The Cheyenne realize that they will not be allowed to join Chief Red Cloud, but they still refuse to return to Oklahoma. Captain Wessells Jr. give the Cheyenne five days to change their minds. The temperature drops to forty below at night. During this time of struggle the food, water, and heat are cut off. The Cheyenne are huddled together without eating anything and they scrape the window ledges for drinking water because it would snow every night. Wessells Jr. offers to free the women and children, but the Cheyenne refuse to answer him.
January 9, 1879
Captain Wessells Jr. calls Chiefs Morning Star and Wild Hog to council. The people refuse to allow Chief Morning Star to leave the barracks because they fear a trap. The young men are ready to attack. At ten o’clock that night, the Cheyenne make their way to freedom. The people break through the windows and barracks, making their way to a nearby creek. Not too far behind, the soldiers are firing their guns, leaving many Cheyenne dead and wounded. The soldiers continue to search for the remaining escaped Cheyenne for twelve days.
Upon arrival to Ft. Robinson 149 Cheyenne were imprisoned. After the breakout, 61 are killed and many of the survivors are badly wounded. The Cheyenne think Chief Morning Star has been killed during the escape. However, Chief Morning Star and his family are just separated from the main group of Cheyenne and are later reunited.
Iron Teeth – A Survivor
Iron Teeth was a Cheyenne woman who was present on the trip back from Oklahoma. She was separated from her children during the breakout. She waited in the cold barracks for her children. After she was reunited with her daughter she said, “I was afraid to ask anybody about my son and the little daughter, as my asking might inform the soldiers of them. But I kept watching for them among the Indians there. After a while the little girl came to me. I asked her about her brother. It appeared she did not hear me, so I asked again. This time she burst out crying. Then I knew he had been killed. She told me how it had been done. That night, they had hidden in a deep pit. The next morning some soldiers had come near to them. The brother had said to her: ‘Lie down, and I will cover you with leaves and dirt. Then, I will climb out and fight the soldiers. They will kill me, but they will think I am the only one here, and they will go away after I am dead. When they are gone, you can come out and hunt for our mother.’ The next day she came out, but the soldiers caught her.”
She continued, “Lots of times, as I sit here alone on the floor with my blanket wrapped about me, I lean forward and close my eyes and think of him standing up out of the pit and fighting the soldiers, knowing that he would be killed, but doing this so that his little sister might get away to safety. Don’t you think he was a brave young man?”
From “Iron Teeth, A Cheyenne Old Woman”
A History of the Cheyenne People by Tom Weist
Cheyenne Memories by John Stands In Timber and Margot Liberty
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
The Cheyennes of Montana by Thomas B. Marquis