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From Fort Laramie to Wounded Knee: In the West That Was

Wounded Knee photograph
In the book, From Fort Laramie to Wounded Knee, Charles Allen described the Lakota tent camp after the Wounded Knee massacre:

We rode past what but recently had been the site of a far-flung camp of white and brown army tents and the grimy old canvas of torn tepees; now marked only, here and there, by the bended willow frames and shattered poles of what so lately were shelters for the living. Near by was the debris-strewn grass where lay the lonely dead.

This photograph was taken five or six days after the tragedy while the bodies of the Lakota victims were being collected for burial. (Nebraska State Historical Society RG2845.ph. The photo has been digitally enhanced.)

In the opening lines of his reminiscence, Charles Allen tells his readers: "These sketches are only intended to record and describe some of the more interesting incidents of my personal experience...." He goes on to relate incidents beginning in 1871 when he was a nineteen-year-old greenhorn on a cattle drive from Kansas to a ranch near Fort Laramie and ending with his description of the Ghost Dance troubles and his eyewitness account of the massacre on Wounded Knee Creek in 1890. Within this twenty-year span Allen describes other adventures and events in eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska, and South Dakota. He was at the Red Cloud Agency in 1874 when the Lakota came within a heartbeat of wiping out the little white enclave. Two years later he hauled freight to Deadwood and described the town at height of the Black Hills gold rush. Allen moved to Valentine, Nebraska, in 1883 when the town was only a year old and later settled in Chadron, Nebraska, whose genesis he describes. Allen devoted two chapters to stories and legends told to him by his Lakota friends.

Allen devoted nearly one-third of From Fort Laramie to Wounded Knee to a description of the events surrounding the Wounded Knee massacre. At the time he was the editor of the Chadron Democrat and accompanied the Seventh Cavalry to report on the arrest of the Lakota Ghost Dancers under Chief Big Foot. On the morning of December 29, Allen was walking idly through the captured Indians' camp when the first shots were fired leading to the slaughter.

His description of that tragic event and the incidents surrounding it is arguably the best of all the eyewitness accounts. Allen was an experienced newspaper reporter with sufficient ability to be hired by the New York Herald to cover the Ghost Dance period from the field. Although he was not fluent in the Lakota language, what knowledge he had gave him an advantage over other reporters. Allen had been to Pine Ridge on numerous occasions and knew many people there. His wife was part Lakota and her relatives on the Pine Ridge Reservation were a useful source of information. Finally, his record is especially valuable because he was present when many of these events took place or was able to obtain accounts from eyewitnesses shortly afterwards. While familiarity does not assure accuracy, Allen's memoirs do not contain flagrant bias or notable misrepresentations. It is an attempt by an observant and intelligent man to record a turbulent and complex time.

When Allen was completing his book in the 1930s he admitted he was still uncomfortable about discussing what he had witnessed at Wounded Knee:

For a long time after the distressful events at Wounded Knee I would not permit my mind to dwell on the scenes enacted there, but felt inclined to and did sidestep every inducement of my friends to become reminiscent of that conflict. And in this record of my varied experiences in the early West I have felt something akin to ever-mounting dread as my pen drew nearer and nearer to the unavoidable subject. But the record shall be completed.

Richard E. Jensen
Nebraska State Historical Society

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Last updated 30 June 1998

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