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

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On December 29, 1890, five hundred American troops massed around hundreds of unarmed Lakota Sioux men, women, and children near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. Outnumbered and demoralized, the Sioux posed no threat to the soldiers and put up no resistance. But in a chaotic scene, the Americans opened fire with howitzers, killing nearly three hundred Sioux in what would become known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. In this definitive account, acclaimed historian Heather Cox Richardson shows that the origins of this quintessential American tragedy lay not in the West but in Washington, where would-be lawmakers, locked in a desperate midterm-election battle, sought to drum up votes through an age-old political tool: fear.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Historian Richardson (West from Appomattox) brings a fresh perspective to the massacre at Wounded Knee in her engaging study. The U.S. Army slaughter of nearly 300 surrendering Sioux men and women was not just an appalling act of racist brutality, argues the author, it was the outcome of roiling partisan politics. Desperate to maintain their political majority as well as business-friendly tariffs, Republican lawmakers swept into the West, gaining new congressional seats and distributing patronage jobs to supporters, including posts on the newly formed Sioux reservations. Stripped of land, livelihood, and dignity, many Sioux turned to a religious movement called the Ghost Dance—misinterpreted by Republican appointees as a sign of impending insurgency. Their panic was fanned by a feckless media and the Republican political machine hungry to see its vision—a West transformed into thriving farms humming with commerce—fulfilled. Richardson describes the collision of incompetence, political posturing, and military might with elegant prose and the right blend of outrage and humanity, subtly highlighting the parallels between the disastrous partisanship of the late 19th century and the politics of today. (June)
Library Journal
In her previous book, West from Appomattox: the Reconstruction of America after the Civil War, Richardson (history, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst) argued against the view that Reconstruction ended in 1877, positing instead that it continued through the 19th-century conquest of the West. Now she builds upon that thesis by arguing that the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) was the inevitable end result of Reconstruction politics, which featured bitter partisanship and a media establishment run amok. Despite the author's well-crafted study of the Reconstruction era, the connection to the Wounded Knee Massacre is tenuous at best. In trying to prove her Reconstruction thesis, the author apparently turned a blind eye to the fact that Europeans and their descendants had been indiscriminately massacring Native American populations for centuries. VERDICT Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee remains the best book on the massacre. For other examples of heinous violence against Native Americans, readers should consider Alfred Cave's The Pequot War and Kevin Kenny's Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn's Holy Experiment.—John Burch, Campbellsville Univ. Lib, KY
Kirkus Reviews
Richardson (History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst; West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War, 2007, etc.) argues that the Wounded Knee massacre was a direct result of Gilded Age political expediency. The author examines partisan wrangling in the decades after the Civil War that observers of the current scene will find all too familiar. Looking to expand their power, President Benjamin Harrison and a Republican-controlled Congress admitted South Dakota to the Union in 1889. Few in Washington cared that much of the state's land was the Sioux reservation. The plans of railroad and mining companies, reliable supporters of the Republicans, trumped the welfare of the indigenous peoples. Enlightened whites of the day saw the "civilization" of the Sioux-by which they meant turning them into ersatz whites-as the highest goal for the natives. Others, remembering Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn, would have been just as happy to see them exterminated. Indian agents, who were usually unqualified if not outright corrupt, doled out rations stingily. So when in 1890 Sioux (and other tribes) responded to the threats to their way of life by adopting the Ghost Dance religion, which promised the disappearance of whites and the return of buffalo and open land, the whites perceived it as a rebellion. The U.S. Army was called in to stabilize the situation. The stakes were raised by an unresolved election that could determine control of the Senate and a power struggle between the Army and the Department of the Interior, which oversaw Indian affairs. The atrocity, during which soldiers mowed down some 300 Sioux men, women and children, was probably preventable, but few of thosewho participated seemed to know how to stop it-or made any great effort to do so. Richardson brings the actors, both Sioux and white, into clear perspective, and paints the broader context with a deft hand. Sober but stinging account of one of the saddest chapters in American history.
From the Publisher

Richard W. Etulain, author of Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West
“In this provocative history Heather Cox Richardson traces the close linkages among late-nineteenth century politics, the West, and the horrendous Wounded Knee incident of 1890-91. No previous study has uncovered the full political account the author provides in this thorough, convincing volume.”

Elliott West, Alumni Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, and author of The Contested Plains and The Last Indian War
"In Wounded Knee, Heather Cox Richardson continues her path breaking work in bringing the American West into its rightful place in the remaking of the nation during and after the Civil War. Here she portrays one of the most infamous events of its time as a consequence of politics, both in its seediest maneuverings and its more ennobling impulses. The story is tragic, the scholarship exhilarating, and the book is a must read for anyone drawn to this troubling and fascinating time."

Walter A. McDougall, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Heavens and the Earth, and author of Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War
"This poignant, professional history appears almost thirty years after Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, but could not be more timely as Americans face anew the human cost of their polarized politics, media spin, greed, hustling, pretense, and inept paternalism toward subject peoples. Richardson's research reveals that even an Indian massacre is far more than a simple matter of racism."

Leonard L. Richards, author of The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
“With a mastery that brings even her bit players to life, Heather Cox Richardson has given us a fresh and vivid account of the greed, partisan politics, prejudice, and butchery that led to the massacre at Wounded Knee. The result is a superb book, history at its very best.”

Ari Kelman, Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, and author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans
“Heather Cox Richardson explodes the myth that the tragedy at Wounded Knee was simply an unfortunate accident or an outgrowth of cross-cultural misunderstandings on the frontier. Instead, she proves that the massacre emerged out of misguided federal Indian policies and, above all else, partisan politics. The story is chilling. You'll want to put it down, but because it's so well told here, you won't be able to.”

Eric Rauchway, Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, and author of Blessed Among Nations and Murdering McKinley
“A gifted historian with a talent for narrative, Heather Cox Richardson uses her skills here to show that the killings at Wounded Knee might have happened at the edge of America, but they happened because of conflicts at the center of the nation's capital and the heart of the political struggles of the nineteenth century. A terrific book.”

William Deverell, Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West
“Beyond grace and intelligence, what makes this book so important is that it demonstrates how one of the most tragic moments in all of American history is best understood not only as a spasm of genocidal violence but as something emerging from the everyday processes of politics and culture in the late nineteenth century. It is precisely that mixture of the banal and the horrific that makes this book compelling, significant, and deeply troubling.”

Library Journal
“[Richardson argues] that the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) was the inevitable end result of Reconstruction politics, which featured bitter partisanship and a media establishment run amok…. [A] well-crafted study of the Reconstruction era.”

Gannett News Service
“In Wounded Knee, Richardson examined heretofore mostly overlooked papers of President Benjamin Harrison and other recently discovered documents to conclude that Washington politics and other factors led to the blood at Wounded Knee.”

“The latest scholarly analysis of the causes leading to this tragic event takes a unique tack…. [A] meticulously documented account.”

Boston Globe
“In Wounded Knee, Heather Cox Richardson … combines a solid account of the political context with a vivid and moving narrative of events that led to the slaughter of about 300 Sioux in South Dakota…. Wounded Knee is a tale of tragic heroes.”

“Heather Cox Richardson’s superb new book should come labeled: Warning! Reading the contents may lead to depression. A disclaimer might also be helpful: Author is not responsible for disturbing recurring historical themes such as: the perils of partisan politics, patronage, and news reporting; the dangers of doing the bidding for big business; the battle for turf between the military and the civilian bureaucracy; the mistreatment of the disenfranchised in the name of American prosperity; and the cover-up of a deadly military miscalculation…. Richardson’s greatest contribution is her meticulously researched, groundbreaking analysis of the tragedy’s root causes.”

RoanokeTimes  “Richardson meticulously recounts the Wounded Knee Massacre in vivid detail based on numerous eyewitness accounts made by Sioux survivors, soldiers, newsmen and citizens.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465009213
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 5/25/2010
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Author of West from Appomattox, The Greatest Nation of the Earth, and The Death of Reconstruction, she lives in Winchester, Massachusetts.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 13, 2010

    I Also Recommend:


    I never learned about Wounded Knee in high school and now that I teach high school social studies - it is something I always talk about with my classes. Professor Richardson's book is very detailed, reads like a great lecture about cultural and political issues, and I believe, has something to say to us today about how the 'ideas' of progress can sometimes destroy cultures. Up until a few years ago, the subject of Wounded Knee barely got coverage in high school history books (maybe a sentence) - now, it is at least getting a paragraph or more.
    Furthermore, this is a good study of Gilded Age politics and how parties manipulated voters to get what they wanted - AND it is a great overview of the history of the WEST during this time. I highly recommend it for the average reader and the historian alike.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted July 14, 2011

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