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On the clear, cold morning of December 29, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, three U.S. soldiers tried to wrench a valuable Winchester away from a young Lakota man. He refused to give up his hunting weapon; it was the only thing standing between his family and starvation. As the men struggled, the gun fired into the sky.
Before the echoes died, troops fired a volley that brought down half of the Lakota men and boys the soldiers had captured the night before, as well as a number of soldiers surrounding the Lakotas. The uninjured Lakota men attacked the soldiers with knives, guns they snatched from wounded soldiers, and their fists.
As the men fought hand-to-hand, the Lakota women who had been hitching their horses to wagons for the day’s travel tried to flee along the nearby road or up a dry ravine behind the camp. The soldiers on a slight rise above the camp turned rapid-fire mountain guns on them. Then, over the next two hours, troops on horseback hunted down and slaughtered all the Lakotas they could find: about 250 men, women, and children.
But it is not December 29 that haunts me. It is the night of December 28, the night before the killing.
On December 28, there was still time to avert the Wounded Knee Massacre.
The Achilles’ heel of American capitalism in the 19th century was the shortage of sufficient manpower at hand to transform eager capital and vast raw materials into profitable infrastructure, products, and commodities, let alone rescue snowbound emigrants.
In the 1860s, the labor shortage was a matter of desperation to the capitalists known as the Big Four, who were striving to drive the Central Pacific line through the unforgiving terrain of the Sierras, so it could reach the basin land of Nevada and Utah and slap down track (and claim land grants) in competition with the Union Pacific railroad racing over the Midwest flatlands.
As usual, California was short of labor, at least white labor.