Tongue River Massacre (1820)

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Tongue River Indian massacre
Tongue River in either Wyoming or Montana
Result Cheyenne and Lakota victory
Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota Crow Nation
Commanders and leaders
Unknown Unknown
The whole Cheyenne tribe, a camp of Lakotas 100 tipis in camp
Casualties and losses
Most likely very few, if any All the men killed. An unknown number of woman and/or children already taken captive killed

The Tongue River massacre was an attack by Cheyenne and Lakota on a camp of Crow people in 1820. According to some accounts, it was one of the most significant losses of the Crow tribe. [1] :p. 190

Cheyenne group of indigenous people of the Great Plains

The Cheyenne are one of the indigenous people of the Great Plains and their language is of the Algonquian language family. The Cheyenne comprise two Native American tribes, the Só'taeo'o or Só'taétaneo'o and the Tsétsêhéstâhese. These tribes merged in the early 19th century. Today, the Cheyenne people are split into two federally recognized Nations: the Southern Cheyenne, who are enrolled in the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, and the Northern Cheyenne, who are enrolled in the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana.

Lakota people Indigenous people of the Great Plains

The Lakota are a Native American tribe. Also known as the Teton Sioux, they are one of the three Sioux tribes of Plains. Their current lands are in North and South Dakota. They speak Lakȟótiyapi—the Lakota language, the westernmost of three closely related languages that belong to the Siouan language family.

Crow Nation ethnic group

The Crow, called the Apsáalooke in their own Siouan language, or variants including the Absaroka, are Native Americans, who in historical times lived in the Yellowstone River valley, which extends from present-day Wyoming, through Montana and into North Dakota, where it joins the Missouri River. In the 21st century, the Crow people are a Federally recognized tribe known as the Crow Tribe of Montana, and have a reservation located in the south central part of the state.



The intertribal conflict between the Cheyenne and the Crow predated the arrival of whites in the Yellowstone and Powder River areas. [2] :p. 127 The Lakotas were also enemies of the Crow. The Lakota winter count of Lone Dog gives the year 1800-1801 as the winter when "Thirty Dakotas [Lakotas] were killed by Crow Indians". [3] :p. 273 According to American Horse's winter count, the Lakota retaliated the next year. Several Lakotas, aided by the Cheyenne, killed all the men in a Crow camp with 30 tipis and took the women and children captive. [4] :p. 553

Powder River (Wyoming and Montana) river in Montana and Wyoming

Powder River is a tributary of the Yellowstone River, approximately 375 miles (604 km) long in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana in the United States. It drains an area historically known as the Powder River Country on the high plains east of the Bighorn Mountains.

Winter count

Winter counts are pictorial calendars or histories in which tribal records and events were recorded by Native Americans in North America. The Blackfeet, Mandan, Kiowa, Lakota, and other Plains tribes used winter counts extensively. There are approximately one hundred winter counts in existence, but many of these are duplicates.

American Horse Lakota chief (1840-1908)

American Horse was an Oglala Lakota chief, statesman, educator and historian. American Horse is notable in American history as a U.S. Army Indian Scout and a progressive Oglala Lakota leader who promoted friendly associations with whites and education for his people. American Horse opposed Crazy Horse during the Great Sioux War of 1876–1877 and the Ghost Dance Movement of 1890, and was a Lakota delegate to Washington. American Horse was one of the first Wild Westers with Buffalo Bill's Wild West and a supporter of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. "His record as a councillor of his people and his policy in the new situation that confronted them was manly and consistent and he was known for his eloquence."

The leadup to the 1820 massacre was a Cheyenne raid in 1819. A Crow camp neutralized 30 Cheyenne Bowstring warriors during a defense of the horse herds. [5] :p. 23

The attack

The Lakota attacked "a Crow village of a hundred lodges." The drawing is from the winter count of Lakota Indian American Horse. American Horse winter count, 1820-1821. Crow camp attacked.jpg
The Lakota attacked "a Crow village of a hundred lodges." The drawing is from the winter count of Lakota Indian American Horse.

To avenge the loss of so many young men, the whole Cheyenne tribe carried its sacred arrows, Mahuts, against the Crow the next spring. A Lakota camp joined the war expedition. [4] :p. 553 They camped at Powder River, either in present-day Montana or Wyoming. Crows from a camp at the Tongue River chanced upon them just before dark. The Cheyenne and the Lakota realized they were discovered, and the warriors quickly prepared to make an attack on their foes. Meanwhile, the Crow camp organized a big war party to strike first and drive the enemies out of the Crow country. The two Indian armies crossed each other unnoticed during the night. The Crows lost the track and never found the camps on the Powder River. [5] :pp. 24-25

Montana State of the United States of America

Montana is a state in the Northwestern United States. Montana has several nicknames, although none are official, including "Big Sky Country" and "The Treasure State", and slogans that include "Land of the Shining Mountains" and more recently "The Last Best Place".

Wyoming State of the United States of America

Wyoming is a state in the mountain region of the western United States. The state is the 10th largest by area, the least populous, and the second most sparsely populated state in the country. Wyoming is bordered on the north by Montana, on the east by South Dakota and Nebraska, on the south by Colorado, on the southwest by Utah, and on the west by Idaho and Montana. The state population was estimated at 577,737 in 2018, which is less than 31 of the most populous U.S. cities including Denver in neighboring Colorado. Cheyenne is the state capital and the most populous city, with an estimated population of 63,624 in 2017.

Tongue River (Montana) tributary of the Yellowstone River in Montana and Wyoming, United States of America

The Tongue River is a tributary of the Yellowstone River, approximately 265 mi (426 km) long, in the U.S. states of Wyoming and Montana. The Tongue rises in Wyoming in the Big Horn Mountains, flows through northern Wyoming and southeastern Montana and empties into the Yellowstone River at Miles City, Montana. Most of the course of the river is through the beautiful and varied landscapes of eastern Montana, including the Tongue River Canyon, the Tongue River breaks, the pine hills of southern Montana, and the buttes and grasslands that were formerly the home of vast migratory herds of American bison. The Tongue River watershed encompasses parts of the Cheyenne and Crow Reservations. The Headwaters lie on the Big Horn National Forest, and the watershed encompasses the Ashland Ranger District of the Custer National Forest.

The Cheyenne and Lakota attacked the unprotected Crow camp at noon. With a camp with only women, children and old men, they were in control right from the start. [2] :p. 130 They killed all the old men, captured the horse herds, took the women and children captive and reduced the camp to rubble. [5] :p. 26 On the way back to Powder River, a disagreement started between the Cheyenne and the Lakota over the division of the more than 100 captives. During the heated discussion, an unknown number of Crow women and children were killed by the warriors. [5] :p. 26

The battle is mentioned in the Oglala Lakota American Horse's winter count. It tells of a Crow camp with 100 tipis. The Lakotas "killed many and took many prisoners". [4] :p. 553, fig. 776

This was likely the most severe blow to the Crow tribe on the battlefield in historic time. [1] :p. 190 [7] :p. 168

Due to the meager sources, it is difficult to name all war leaders and warriors involved in the fighting, provide exact figures of the strength of the camps, or the number of casualties. The attack may sometimes be confused with other big Cheyenne or Lakota victories over the Crow. [2] :pp. 130-133 [8] :p. 55 In 1876, James H. Bradley, chief of Crow scouts gave an account of the battle as understood by him. [9] :p. 179

Plenty Coups Edward Curtis Portrait (c1908). Crow chief Plenty Coups told about the never forgotten massacre on a big Crow camp in 1820 to Frank B. Linderman. Plenty Coups Edward Curtis Portrait (c1908).jpg
Plenty Coups Edward Curtis Portrait (c1908). Crow chief Plenty Coups told about the never forgotten massacre on a big Crow camp in 1820 to Frank B. Linderman.


With the 1820 massacre, the Cheyenne and Lakota prevented themselves from ever becoming allies of the Crow, as they tried later during Red Cloud's War against the whites in the 1860s. [8] :p. 91

The following years the devastating defeat resulted in attacks of revenge by the Crows, which the Cheyennes counter-revenged. [5] :p. 27 Cheyenne warrior George Bent visited the scene of the massacre in 1865 with his tribe. It still showed evidence of the destruction in form of broken tipi poles. Here and there, they found old hand weapons of stone in the grass. [5] :p. 26

With time, the Crow blamed the Lakota alone for the attack at Tongue River in 1820. More than 100 years later Crow chief Plenty Coups told about the never forgotten massacre. In his opinion, the Crows had nearly been wiped out "that terrible day" in 1820. [1] :p. 190 Crow woman Pretty Shield expressed the same view while telling about her life and the Crows to Frank B. Linderman. [7] :p. 168

The Cheyenne Indians lost the Sacred Arrows around 1830, when they tried to repeat the victory over the Crow in an attack on a hunting camp of Pawnee Indians.

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  1. 1 2 3 Linderman, Frank B.(1962): Plenty Coups. Chief of the Crows. Lincoln/London.
  2. 1 2 3 Stands In Timber, John and Margot Liberty (1972): Cheyenne Memories. Lincoln and London.
  3. Mallory, Gerrick (1893): Picture-writing of the American Indians. Lone-Dog's Winter Count. Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1888-'89. Washington, 1893, pp. 273-287.
  4. 1 2 3 Mallory, Gerrick (1893): Picture-writing of the American Indians. Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1888-'89. Washington.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hyde, George E. (1987): Life of George Bent. Written From His Letters. Norman.
  6. Mallory, Gerrick: The Corbusier Winter Counts." Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. 4th Annual Report. 1882-'83. Washington, 1886. Pp. 127-146. P. 136.
  7. 1 2 Linderman, Frank B. (1974): Pretty Shield. Medicine Woman of the Crows. Lincoln and London.
  8. 1 2 Hoxie, Frederick E.(1995): Parading Through History. The making of the Crow Nation in America, 1805-1935. Cambridge.
  9. Bradley, James H.(1896): Journal of James H. Bradley. The Sioux Campaign of 1876 under the Command of General John Gibbon. Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Vol. 2, Helena, pp. 140-227.