The U.S. Army outpost of Camp Robinson was established in 1874 in response to the need for a military presence near the Red Cloud Indian Agency in northwest Nebraska. The camp was designated as Fort Robinson in 1878. One of the original buildings at the camp was a cavalry barracks erected in 1874. From 1874 to 1877 the building was occupied by various companies of the Third U.S. Cavalry. In 1878 the building was temporarily unoccupied and consequently was available when Dull Knife's band of Cheyennes was brought into the fort.
Dull Knife [RG1227.PH:10-3]
The Northern Cheyenne tribe had been removed from their traditional home to a reservation with their Southern Cheyenne kinsmen in Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) in 1877. The following year, after suffering from poor food and diseases and having been denied permission to return north, more than 350 Cheyennes decided to break away from the reservation. Under the leadership of chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf, the group moved northward through Kansas. Several clashes with army troops and civilians occurred, with the Indians each time able to elude recapture. Eventually they were able to slip through a cordon along the Union Pacific rail line in Nebraska and resume their northerly trek.
Somewhere in Nebraska the group broke up. Little Wolf and his followers wanted to continue moving north and join the Lakota leader Sitting Bull in Canada. For the time being, they went into hiding in the vast Sand Hills. The second group decided to try to obtain refuge with the Lakota chief Red Cloud, who was a friend of Dull Knife. With this in mind, they set out for the Red Cloud Agency. Unknown to Dull Knife, however, Red Cloud and his people had been moved into Dakota Territory, and only soldiers remained near the old agency.
South of present-day Chadron, Nebraska, an army patrol intercepted Dull Knife and his people, and on October 24, 1878, escorted them into Fort Robinson. A total of 149 men, women, and children were taken into custody and confined in the cavalry barracks. Initially the Cheyennes were free to leave the barracks as long as all were present for evening roll call. Several of the women were even employed at the fort, and this arrangement continued into December 1878.
During this period Dull Knife requested that the Cheyennes be allowed either to join Red Cloud at his agency or to remain in their former northern Plains homeland. Attempts were also being made by Kansas officials to extradite certain members of the group to stand trial for alleged crimes committed during their flight through that state. Washington officials insisted on the return of the Cheyennes to Oklahoma.
By late December the Cheyennes were prisoners in the barracks, no longer allowed to come and go. The army was under orders to pressure them into returning south, and the Cheyennes were equally determined never to go back to the southern reservation. By the night of January 9, 1879, the impasse had come to a point of crisis, and the Cheyennes broke out of the barracks. Weapons they had hidden earlier were used to shoot the guards, and while some of the men held off the soldiers, the remaining Cheyennes fled in the dark.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated, Feb. 15, 1879, depicted the Cheyenne Outbreak. [NSHS 11055-2076]
A running fight ensued along the White River valley between the fleeing Cheyennes and the pursuing soldiers. At least twenty-six Cheyenne warriors were killed that night and some eighty women and children were recaptured. Those still free eluded the soldiers until January 22, when most were killed or taken prisoner at a camp on Antelope Creek northwest of Fort Robinson. In all, sixty-four Native Americans and eleven soldiers lost their lives during the protracted escape attempt. Dull Knife and part of his family were among the few that managed to get away, and they eventually made their way to refuge with Red Cloud.
Later Use of the Barracks
For the next several years the barracks was again used as quarters for soldiers, and also for quartermaster storage. In 1890 the building was converted to housing for the families of enlisted men. Seven or eight families occupied the building, its interior having been divided into separate living spaces. In the late 1890s it housed family members of noncommissioned officers of the black Ninth U.S. Cavalry, sometimes called "Buffalo Soldiers." The building was the scene of one last tragedy when fire broke out on March 22, 1898. Two children of Sgt. Harry Wallace, Troop C, Ninth Cavalry, died in the blaze. The structure was a total loss, and its remains were torn down. No other buildings were ever constructed on the location.
As part of a plan to reconstruct the building, the Nebraska State Historical Society began archeological excavation of the site in the summer of 1987. Excavation was conducted with the help of many volunteers, including substantial assistance provided by Earthwatch Expedition. Excavations concluded in the summer of 1989.
Excavations revealed the outline of the foundation logs and the stone foundation piers that supported them. Interior partition walls could also be traced. Archeologists found a pit believed to have been dug at the time of the Cheyenne Outbreak.
When the Cheyennes were under siege within the building the army brought up cannons in an attempt to frighten the Indians into giving up their demands. Reportedly, the Cheyennes tore up the floor and dug either a trench or pits to take shelter in should the soldiers shoot through the walls with cannon fire.
Most of the artifacts recovered during the excavation are associated with the final occupation of the building, including military insignia, buttons, and ammunition, along with personal effects from the soldiers' families. One of the artifact types most easily recognizable as probably being associated with the Cheyennes is various kinds of glass beads. More than 7,000 of these were strewn throughout the building remains.
Rendering of proposed reconstruction by architect Robert Hanna
In 1999 the Society received a legislative appropriation of $150,000, matched by donations to the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation, for the planning and reconstruction of the 1874 cavalry barracks building. Reconstruction began in October 2001, and the building was completed during the spring of 2003. The building is built on a steel foundation that rests on poured concrete footings, and the roof trusses were manufactured to meet today's building codes. Otherwise, the construction of the walls, floor, ceiling, windows, doors, and the hardware used are faithful to the original 1874 techniques.
Along with financial support from the Nebraska Legislature and the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation, the Society has received help from the logging company Pope and Talbot, which provided the lumber at a reduced cost; the Chadron High School Building and Construction Class of 2002, which built the roof trusses as a class project; and Herb Fricke and his son, Shawn, who procured the logs and constructed the barracks.
The reconstructed Cheyenne Outbreak Barracks
By summer of 2003 some initial interpretive panels detailed the daily life of a soldier, the early history of Fort Robinson, and the tragic story of the Cheyenne Outbreak. The displays will be expanded in the future to add to the Society's interpretive efforts at Fort Robinson.
Download PDF (1.8 megabytes) of The Cheyenne Outbreak Barracks, Explore Nebraska Archeology, No. 4.