(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Although based on intensive research, and supplemented by notes on sources, a map, and an index, Cheyenne Autumn is in fact an epic novel in which Sandoz employs dialogue and other fictional devices to re-create the historical event that is her subject. The novel recounts the fifteen-hundred-mile flight of the Northern Cheyenne in 1878-1879 from the Indian Territory back to their homeland in the Yellowstone Country. After the Cheyenne surrendered to General Miles in the spring of 1877, they were promised good treatment and an agency in their north country, but those promises were immediately broken, and they were told that they must resettle in the Indian Territory, far to the south: If they did not like it there, later they could return. The Cheyenne were refused all food and supplies until they agreed to go, so the starving tribe had no choice but to agree. The Northern Cheyenne were reunited with their Southern relatives at their new reservation near Fort Reno, in the Indian Territory, but that summer they were hungry and sick with malaria. The promised supplies never arrived, and finally Dull Knife and Little Wolf decided to lead their people north to the Yellowstone. A year earlier, they had brought two hundred warriors south, but starvation and disease had reduced their ranks to barely one hundred warriors, plus women and children.

On the night of September 9, 1878, the small troop set off on foot and horseback, slipping quietly past the army sentries under the veiled moon. They were pursued by Rendlebrock’s cavalry from Fort Reno, with additional troops sent from Fort Dodge to intercept them. The Dog Soldiers, or warrior society men, defended the rear and kept the stragglers moving as the tribe wended its way through settled country.

The Cheyenne held off the first army attack at Turkey Springs on September 13 and 14, even though they were outgunned and outnumbered, by following Little Wolf’s strategy of choosing a narrow ravine in which to ambush the approaching soldiers and hold them off while the tribe slipped away. These constant skirmishes were particularly hard on the women and children, already weakened by starvation and disease. As the Cheyenne moved, they lived on buffalo and wild game or on horse carcasses left behind after the fights, but it was still hard for the hunters to find enough meat for three hundred people. Young warriors had to capture wild horses or raid ranch stock to replenish their exhausted mounts. In Kansas, they were repeatedly harassed by cowboys and troopers, who killed women and children, until in revenge the Cheyenne began attacking white settlers. With guns and ammunition in short supply, the Cheyenne searched for army supplies after each skirmish or else brought back guns from their raids. The women dried meat and prepared skins in their temporary camps, but sometimes even these scant supplies had to be abandoned in the haste to escape from the cavalry. Always the Cheyenne kept to ravines, creek bottoms, and washouts to avoid detection. The newspapers exaggerated the size of the Cheyenne band and invented atrocities, whipping up anti-Indian hysteria among the cattlemen and settlers.


(The entire section is 1296 words.)