Heather Cox Richardson


On her book Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre

Cover Interview of June 06, 2010

In a nutshell

Wounded Knee is the story of the 1890 massacre in South Dakota that left more than 250 Sioux and 25 soldiers dead.

The book explains the history of the relationship between the Sioux and the American government, the religious movement among the Sioux that made Indian agents nervous, the escalating tensions between the military and the Indians, and, finally, the massacre and its aftermath.

Critically, though, Wounded Knee asks a question no one has asked before: Why were the troops sent to South Dakota in the first place, when there were no lives lost and no property threatened in the alleged Indian “uprising”?

The answer is that what happened on December 29 at Wounded Knee Creek came out of a struggle to control the national government.

In 1890, America was bitterly divided between rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, Easterners and Westerners.  Since the Civil War, the Republicans had used the federal government to promote business.  But by the 1880s, rich industrialists threw million-dollar parties while laborers worked for pennies in mills and fields and factories.  Americans began to worry that government was too cozy with business, and pressured politicians to cut back their pro-business legislation.  Government, they said, should not privilege businessmen over everyone else in society.

Horrified, Republicans countered that business development was the centerpiece of America’s life, and that any attempts to ameliorate the abuses of industrial capitalism were “socialism.”  Those demanding that government regulate business—or at least stop protecting it at every turn—were trying to destroy America, Republicans insisted.  They organized businessmen to pour money into the 1888 presidential election.  Their candidate, Benjamin Harrison, won in the Electoral College, but lost the popular vote.

Harrison’s administration was weak from the start, and to shore it up, Harrison’s men worked to skew the electoral system toward the Republicans and away from Democrats.  They admitted to the Union six new western states that they believed would vote Republican, tried to change election laws to favor Republicans, and bought a popular newspaper to act as the administration’s mouthpiece.

By the summer of 1890, it had become clear that none of these measures were sufficient to stop the flow of voters toward the Democrats.  Republicans heightened their rhetoric about socialism and the destruction of America in the months before the midterm election of 1890.  At the same time, though, they passed a new law that dramatically benefited business at the expense of consumers, workers, and farmers.

The backlash of 1890 threatened to take control of the government out of the hands of the Republicans.  They lost the House of Representatives by a margin of 2:1, and retained control of the Senate by only four votes.

This was not the relief it should have been, though.  Three of those four Senate Republicans had voted against the last piece of pro-business legislation, and had indicated that they would no longer support the administration’s economic policy.

Control of the Senate hung on one seat: the seat from South Dakota.

The election for that seat was contested, and would not be decided until January of 1891.  While South Dakotans fought over who had won, President Harrison sent troops to the new state.

The Sioux could not vote in the election of 1890, but nonetheless they became crucial pawns in the struggle to control the government.