“Decidedly Sensational” – The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890

This DBL, geared towards a high school level history class, is focused on the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. This lesson could close out a westward expansion unit, be apart of an imperialism unit, or even tie into a broader theme of media and/or military bias. The inspiration for this lesson comes from a paper I wrote during my undergrad (whaddup Dr. Slater) where the main focus was an analysis of the media’s (which at the time was really just various newspapers) portrayal of the events leading up to the massacre on December 28th, 1890. For the sake of this lesson, the scope has been broadened to include various military correspondences and additional photographs in order to highlight dissenting points of view that potentially contradict the narrative that might be too often taught.

Historical Context:

All throughout the 19th century, indigenous peoples were steadily removed from their lands, whether forcibly, selling the lands to the government, signing treaties they understood very little of, or just plain old colonization and conquest on the part of the American government and its citizens and armed forces. By the end of the 1800’s, it was clear to them that their culture and way of life was under threat of being eliminated. In addition, the once plentiful bison herds of the mid-west was all but decimated, depriving many tribes of their main source of sustenance and forcing them to rely on the American government for aid since they knew no other way of life.

Rumors began circulating within various tribes, including the Lakota and the Sioux, that Jesus Christ would be reincarnated as a Native American and rid them of the Westerners. This prophet was heralded by what came to be known as the “Ghost Dance”, a special ceremony, dance, and belief system that swept through many plains reservations at the time. Whether the majority of the Ghost Dance followers actually believed it would be Jesus Christ that would save them or if the Messiah’s appearance in this ordeal was just a symptom of the western religion’s spreading influence is unclear, what is sure is that many indigenous people saw this new movement as a way to reconnect to their dying way of life.

Americans, on the other hand, saw the “Ghost Dance” as something more insidious and feared that this new movement was a prelude to a last stand of sorts, or potentially a widespread war. Many settlers became very alarmed at the sight of hundreds of indigenous people engaged in what was perceived as a “war dance” and pleaded with the Army to put a stop to the hysterics. Indian Police then decided to arrest Chief Sitting Bull in South Dakota in order to put a stop to the movement, but an altercation ended with his death instead. This then sent off other tribes, who saw the event as them being hunted down by the Indian Police and the Army.

These event culminated in roughly 350 Lakota being cornered along Wounded Knee Creek in the Pine Ridge Reservation by the 7th Calvary. In an attempt to confiscate their weapons, an apparent misunderstanding with a deaf Lakota led to a rifle being mistakenly discharged. Unfortunately, with nearly 500 Army troops and 4 rapid-fire guns trained on the Sioux, bloodshed quickly ensued, leaving 90 Lakota men and 200 Lakota women and children dead, while the Army suffered only 25 fatalities.


Using the various documents provided, piece together the events directly leading up to the massacre as well as what took place afterwards. Pay close attention to any biases in the documents and write about them as well. Then, answer the essential questions below.

Essential Questions:

How did the attitudes and biases of the military and the media shape the events of the Wounded Knee Massacre?

How did the conditions on the ground lead to the massacre taking place?

How do the voices not heard in these documents effect how this event is presented in the historical record?

Correspondence from officers at the Pine Ridge Agency cautioning against military response to ghost dancing, November 24, 1890. Image courtesy of National Archives Catalog

What is this correspondence saying? Who do you think the intended audience is?

Dec. 20 1890 8 P.M. To Pioneer Deadwood J. D.,
Expedition friendlies after Badland hostiles. Just departing. Wild scene. Squaws death chant heard in every direction. Think hostiles may be brought in. Troops and Pine Ridge Indians impatient at long delay; civilians indignant. Leave for home tomorrow. B
Image courtesy of PICRYL

What might this person be referring to when he talks of “Squaws death chant”?

This telegram was sent in the aftermath of Sitting Bull’s death. Knowing this, how do you think his death has affected the native population around him and his troops? Could what this person is observing merely be mourning, or maybe something more?

Decidedly Sensational – Sunday Herald and Weekly National Intelligencer, Dec. 21, 1890. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

Who would be the intended audience of this article? What message is the reporter trying to get across? Use specific examples from the article.

A photograph of the Rose Bud and Lakota “war dance” at Pine Ridge, December 25, 1890. Image courtesy of Denver Public Library Digital Collections

What are your immediate observations looking at this photograph? What does it look like they are doing? What kind of dress are they wearing?

A photograph of the Seventh Cavalry at Pine Ridge returning from the fighting at Wounded Knee. Image courtesy of National Archives Catalogue.

While this is a very old photograph, there is indeed snow all around them. How might have these blustery conditions led to the massacre?

A photograph of officers and civilians unloading the frozen bodies of Lakota men, women and children into a mass grave at Wounded Knee. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What does the staging of the photograph say about how the subjects feel towards their victims? How about the photographer towards the living subjects? And the dead?

First Blood of the Sioux War – The Indianapolis Journal volume, December 30, 1890. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Who is the intended audience of this news article? Who is the author focusing on in their reporting? how might their reporting influence reader’s opinions of the events? Use Specific details from the article to back up your claim.

The Opening of the Fight at Wounded Knee – Draws of Fredric Remington from a [unintelligible] by the Seventh Cavalry, Jan 24th, 1891. Image courtesy of PICRYL

What biases does this artist have? How might what is depicted in this illustration differ from other accounts?

Featured image courtesy of PICRYL

The Four P’s of U.S. Imperialism at the end of the 19th Century.


This lesson is designed for a high school level U.S. history class. It could be adapted to fit the APUSH curriculum but for the sake of this post the lesson is tailored to the garden-variety U.S. history class typically taught in 10th-11th grade. This lesson could be expanded and designed to take an entire class period, but for the purpose of this post it should take roughly 25-30 minutes.


The tail end of the 19th century is often breezed over in many history classes, usually seen as something of a bit of a slump between the frenzies of the Civil War/Reconstruction era and the brashness of the Progressive Era with its looming world conflicts and economic downturns on the horizon. This lesson unfortunately does little to remedy the brevity of these sordid omissions, but it certainly can and will give the student a glimpse of how the U.S. came to be an imperial power. By analyzing primary documents, political cartoons of the time, and the actual words of historical figures that held sway over the order of events that transpired, Students Will Be Able To create a definition of imperialism as it pertains to world powers at the time, specifically the United States with regard to the four “P’s”.

  1. There will be a brief intro by the teacher, then students will be broken up into 4 groups and asked to read the text pertaining to one of the four P’s. They will then each fill out their table on a Google Slide.
  2. Each group will then share their findings with the class on their respective topics.
  3. The class will then either read quotes from prominent figures of the day or analyze political cartoons from the time period and determine which of the four P’s the documents represent.
  4. Finally, as a class, we will then come up with a collective definition of imperialism as it pertains to the United States during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
  1. Four P’s Texts

2. Google Slide containing the four P’s activity, as well as examples of quotes and political cartoons (link will be provided in Zoom)

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

James Reese Europe: Hellfighter Bandleader

Image 1: Cover of “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” Sheet Music

Image Source: Library Of Congress

Context: Cover of “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” sheet music from 1919, featuring band leader Lieutenant James Reese Europe and the 369th Infantry Band. During WWI the military was still heavily segregated, with the 369th and 370th Regiments being designated the African American regiments. The 369th, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”, primarily came from Harlem, New York.

Image 2: “Genuine Jazz for the Yankee Wounded”

Image Source: Library Of Congress

Context: Title reads: “Genuine Jazz for the Yankee Wounded” Caption: “In the courtyard of a Paris hospital for the American wounded, an American negro military band, led by Lt. James R. Europe, entertains the patients with real American jazz.” The image shows African American musicians in the 369th Infantry Regiment band led by James Reese Europe in 1918.

Image 3: “African American Jazz Band Leader Back With [the] 15th”

Image Source: PICRYL

Context: Caption reads: “African American jazz band leader back with [the] 15th. Lieutenant James Reese Europe, well-known in New York dancing circles, and formerly with Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle, returns from battle with 369th ([African American]) (old New York 15th) Regiment, under command of Colonel Hayward.” Here Europe is standing in front of members of his band while they look on admirably in 1918.

Questions for Students:

  1. Who do you think the intended audience is for the sheet music? What about the pictures?
  2. Who might have taken these pictures, and for what purpose?
  3. What do you think the purpose of having the band play overseas? Can you think of any contemporary comparisons?
  4. Knowing that the U.S. military was segregated at this time, how do you think the band was received overseas? How about by their fellow White servicemen?

Instructional Goals and Model Answers:


  • understand how context/background information influences the content of the document
  • identify and evaluate the author’s purpose in producing the document
  1. The intended audience would most likely be those who have a piano in their home or have access to one at a club, meeting hall, cafe, bar, etc. The intended audience for the pictures would be those reading about the war effort at home via a newspaper. it might also be simply for documenting, since the military was known for that.
  2. As previously said, the military was keen on documenting everything, so the person taking the pictures might be part of that part of the military. The purpose of these pictures would most likely be for morale-boosters. Showing pictures of American bands playing to soldiers in Europe would be extremely uplifting to both those in the U.S. and abroad. A prototypical example of “soft power”.
  3. As previously said, the band would potentially be quite the morale booster for service men who have been at sea for a long time. Hearing jazz, which at the time was a very new sound, would give American soldiers a taste of home. Contemporary comparisons would be the many different Army bands currently in service as well as the USO.
  4. Most likely, foreign soldiers would be in awe at the new sound they were hearing. This might arguably be Europe’s (the continent) first taste of American jazz. As for American servicemen, I would imagine it would be pretty split. Some would be excited to hear these sounds of their homeland, while others might think they don’t belong in the military at all.

Featured Image Source: PICRYL

The Fight For Your Mind in WWI

Image 1: Don’t Be Careless!

Image found on PICRYL

Context: Propaganda poster during World War I. Pictured is the wreckage of an American plane into what seems to be a swamp or quagmire. There is a pilot looking out towards the sea and spots a boat heading his direction, with another plane below him. Caption reads: ” Warning! Consider the possible consequences if you are careless in your work.”

Caption Writer: Look at the caption, does it do an effective job conveying its message? Write a new caption for the pilot standing on top of the wreckage. What would he be thinking or going through his head?

Response: I don’t think it does an effective job conveying it’s message because it’s a bit wordy. A much better caption from the pilot would read “‘Loose lips sink ships’? I think they meant ‘Sloppy work crashes planes’!” This is better because it gives the pilot in the poster some personality, as well as riff on the other message the Government was putting in their propaganda pieces about the spreading of information.

Image 2: Uncle Sam’s Guilt Trip

Image found on PICRYL

Context: World War I drawing. Uncle Sam is staring at the viewer while holding a Liberty Bond in one hand and pointing to soldiers running into enemy fire only to be mercilessly gunned down. Caption reads: “Remember, they are giving their lives!”

Thought Bubbles: Uncle Sam is shown here talking directly to the viewer. What do you think he is thinking? What about the soldiers? What thoughts they might be having? Create thought bubbles for Uncle Sam and at least two of the soldiers.

Response: Uncle Sam: “For the love of god people, just give us more money so we can beat those Germans already!”
Soldier 1: “Wait, why are we fighting again? They never did anything to me!”
Soldier 2: “I know that even though my death will be meaningless, I am honored to die here in this trench with y’all.”

Image 3: All Together Now, “Let’s All Be Americans Now!”

Image found on PICRYL

Context: Cover of a World War I era songbook. It shows a soldier standing out in front rows of other soldiers under the banner title “Let’s All Be Americans Now.” These type of song books, typically for piano and voice, were popular both in the home and in public places like movie theaters, parks, and cafes. They were predominantly circulated by the Committee on Public Information.

Symbols: Analyze the image for any symbols that you can identify. In what context do they fit in? What context would make those symbols confusing? Do these symbols still hold up today?

Response: The most obvious symbol is the shield behind the soldier. The shield is most often used in imagery pertaining to the U.S., and is meant to denote some kind of official capacity. These days we most often see this type of shield being used to mark state highways. The clothes that the soldier is wearing is something that people of the time would automatically recognize as a soldier’s uniform, from the boots to the shirt and the hat. In the present day one might associate the hat with a park ranger’s hat, but the fact the person is holding a gun would show that he is a soldier of some type.

Featured image found on PICRYL.