Cheyenne Autumn (1964)





Director:     John Ford

Starring:     Richard Widmark (Capt. Thomas Archer),  Carroll Baker (Deborah Wright),  Karl Malden (Capt. Wessels),  Dolores Del Rio (Spanish Woman),  Sal Mineo (Red Shirt),  Edward G. Robinson (Sec. of the Interior),   James Stewart (Wyatt Earp),  Ricardo Montalban (Little Wolfe),  Gilbert Roland (Dull Knife),  Arthur Kennedy (Doc Holliday),  Patrick Wayne (2nd Lt. Scott),  Elizabeth Allen (Miss Plantagenet), Victor Jory (Tall Tree),  John Carradine (Jeff Blair),  Mike Mazurki (First Sergeant),  George O'Brien (Major Braden).

story of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, involving the return of the Northern Cheyenne to their traditional homeland after the government had resettled them in Oklahoma (Indian Territory).  


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

September 7, 1878.  Cheyenne Reservation, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), American southwest.  Two sub-chiefs, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, walk over to the chief.  The three chiefs pray over their sacred bundle that the US government might keep its promises to them.  This is the one year anniversary of their leaving their lands in the north, 1,500 miles away, to come to this desolate, barren area. 

US Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Cheyenne Agency Lt.  The soldiers are camped near the Indian Bureau headquarters.  Captain Thomas Archer walks over to First Sgt. Wichowsky, who tells him that the troops are all present or accounted for.  In the agency are two Quakers from the same family, uncle and niece.  Uncle Jeremy Wright watches over his aide Deborah Wright, the niece.  They are preparing the drinks and food for the arrival of the Congressional Committee. The entire reservation arrives early to be there when the Committee arrives. Six little Indian girls run over to Deborah to say hello. Deborah is very happy to see them. She has the girls set the table for her.

The commander, Major Braden, comes out of his tent and says hello to Archer, Wichowsky and 2nd Lt. Scott.  He asks if there is any news about the Congressional Party? Archer says that they haven’t even left Fort Scott yet.

Archer goes over to see Deborah.  He compliments her on her dress.  The Cheyenne take up their positions in front of the Indian Bureau building  The three chiefs are in front of the group.  Archer sends Plumtree out to take a lookout position ,so he can ride back and tell them when the Congressional Party is in sight. 

Hour after hour the Cheyenne wait and wait.  They want to show the white fathers how the Cheyenne have been forgotten.  It is now 5:30 in the afternoon.  The commander goes over to the telegraph operator to ask him when their guests are going to arrive? There has been no word since 11:30.  The main chief, an old man, finally collapses while waiting in the sun.  He won't let anyone help him get up.  Deborah can't even give him a glass of water.  He gets up and waits some more.

Plumtree returns to say that he doesn't think the Congressional party is coming.  Just then the commander gets a telegraph from Fort Reno.  It says the party has been delayed by bumpy roads and dust storms, so they decided to return to Reno so they could rest up for the Officers' Ball tonight.  The commander is disgusted and tells Archer to arrange the details for he the commander is going to Fort Reno.  Jeremy asks the commander not to forget to ask the committeemen about the needed medicines for the sick and food for the hungry. 

Finally, the chief starts walking back home.  He is accompanied by his tribe.  Deborah asks Major Braden to plead for justice to the committeemen.  Of the over 1,000 Cheyenne brought here, only 286 are still living.  This makes the major angry and he says that she should tend to her own knitting.  He walks off. 

Archer goes over to Little Wolf and Dull Knife to tell them that regardless of what has happened, they and their people still have to obey the laws.  Little Wolf responds that the Cheyenne are given a lot to remember, but the whites remember nothing.  He then thanks Deborah for speaking out on behalf of the Cheyenne people. 

The next day the Cheyenne children refuse to go to school.  With Spanish Woman they stand outside the school.  Deborah keeps ringing the bell anyway.  The son of Spanish Woman and her husband Dull Knife, Red Shirt, goes over to shoo the children back home.  Archer urges Deborah to leave this place.  She won't go.  Deborah wants to show the Cheyenne that she is on their side.  Archer erases the writing on the blackboard and puts up a question for Deborah:  "Will you marry me?"  Deborah quickly erases it once she discovers it. 

During the night, the Cheyenne prepare to leave.  Spanish Woman brings Dull Knife his repeating rifle.  Early in the morning, Deborah comes out to visit the tribe.  A group of men take out of hiding a stash of rifles.  Deborah tries to speak to Little Wolf, but he only tells her that this is not a place for her.  So Deborah asks Spanish Woman where they are going?  Spanish Woman tells her they are going home, back to Yellowstone territory.  The men start moving out, while the women take down the teepees. 

Archer rides out to the village.  Everyone is gone.  It is Archer's duty to follow them.  He stops at the school house and reads a note from Deborah that she has gone with the Cheyenne. 

The Cheyenne are on the move through the barren land.  The cavalry trails after them.  Archer asks Scott why does he have it out for the Cheyenne. Scott tells him that his father was killed in the Fetterman Massacre, near Fort Philip Kearney, Dakota Territory, December 21, 1866. Archer tells him this does not give Scott the right to shoot Indians, so he better not start any trouble. The Cheyenne broke no laws by leaving the reservation, that is until they cross over the river.

The cavalry catch up with the Cheyenne just as the last half of the tribe is finishing the crossing of a river.   Archer lets them finish crossing the river.  They are still not out of the reservation land.  Mr. Scott objects to not going after them immediately, so Archer tells him to put in in writing.   Little Wolf tells Deborah to take the orphans and go with the other women and children.  Little Wolf keeps seeing Red Shirt make eyes at his second wife and he doesn't like it. 

The Cheyenne get into position to fight the cavalry.  The troop halts quite a distance from the Cheyenne defensive position.  Plumtree and Smith are sent ahead to see what's up.  The Indians fire upon them.  Red Shirt shoots the horse of Plumtree, who then piggybacks with Smith back to speak to Archer.  Archer gets his men into position.  Two cannon are brought up.  Major Braden is with the artillery.  He says he is going to court-martial Archer.  Archer tells Braden that he can't fire the cannon on the Cheyenne, because most of them are women and children.  Braden tells Archer he is putting him under arrest. 

A piece of cannon shrapnel strikes Deborah's favorite orphan girl in the leg.  Deborah gets off the wagon to tend to her.  The Cheyenne descend upon the area holding the cavalry horses sending them galloping away from the cavalrymen.  Red Shirts is blamed by his people for firing the first shot.  Remaining defiant, Red Shirt jumps onto the back of his horse and takes off.  The Major has been killed in the fight.  Dull Knife says there will be war.  Deborah still stays with the tribe. 

The chief of the tribe is about to die.   Before he does, he gives the sacred bundle to Little Wolf.  They bury the chief in an opening along a cliff and then seal it with rocks. 

The Army deploys troops all along the 1,200 miles of trail that the Cheyenne would have to travel to get to their homeland.  The Dept. of the Interior is swamped by railroad tycoons, mine owners and land speculators.  The generals blame the head of the Dept. of the Interior, Carl Schurz, for all the Indian problems because it was he who brought in the Quakers.  The army blames the Quakers for stirring the Indians to rebellion.  Suddenly the news from the West just stops. 

Congress tries to snatch the Indian Bureau away from Schurz, in order to hand it over to the army.  Schurz is afraid that if the army gets the Indian Bureau they will make the reservations no larger than "postage stamps".  And that's exactly what the land grabbers want.  The senators warn Schurz that he better find those Cheyenne soon. 

Little Wolf tells Dull Knife that his son Red Shirt is trying to steal his youngest wife.  Together they look over the cavalry still following them.  Archer sends out Scott on the right flank and Wichowsky on the left flank.  Scott decides to run a cavalry charge at the Cheyenne.  But the Cheyenne are setting brush fired of the desert vegetation.  Scott and his men run right into a wall of fire.  Archer is mad that Scott decided to take the initiative and do something audacious.  The fire consumes two of Archer's wagons.  When Archer sees Scott he balls him out.  Scott falls off the horse carrying him.  He has been wounded. 

The occasional cattle herd came up the Chisholm Trail from Texas to the railhead in Dodge City, Kansas.  Sometimes the Cheyenne could catch a few stray cows and at other times the Cheyenne would ask for food from the rough trail hands.  Two Cheyenne braves come to speak with the trail hands to ask for food.  One of the cowboys, named Homer, wants to kill an Indian.  The other cowboys dare him to do it, so he does.  He shoots and kills one of the Indians.  The other one gets away.  On the way back to the herd, Homer takes a scalp from the dead Cheyenne brave. 

Two older Cheyenne men grab Deborah's young colt to kill for food.  Deborah has a fit.  The two chiefs come over to drive the men off. 

From a cliff Archer sees the Cheyenne on the move.  Spanish Woman tells Deborah that the Dakotas (the Sioux) will be coming south with the buffalo.  But the white hunters get to the buffalos first and slaughter the buffalo for their hides.  The Cheyenne are very disappointed. 

In Dodge City a group of women "entertainers" arrive at the main saloon.  Inside Marshal Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are playing cards with a major.  One of the women says she knows Wyatt Earp from Wichita.  She goes over to him to talk, but Wyatt doesn't remember her.  A train comes through the center of town filled with soldiers.  The mayor is very upset saying that the army is not leaving enough men behind in the fort to protect Dodge City.  Homer and three of his buddies come into the bar.  The fellows say they came to go to the fort to tell the cavalry that the Cheyenne are southeast of Dodge City.  The mayor rushes over to Earp to tell him that the townsfolk are all about to be massacred by the Cheyenne.  Wyatt and his two cronies are not really listening to the mayor.  Homer comes over to pick a fight with Wyatt, for what reason is not clear.  Wyatt ends up shooting Homer in the foot with his derringer when Homer draws on him. 

Wyatt starts to remove the slug from Homer's foot.  He knocks Homer out and then operates on him.  The operation being a success, Wyatt goes back to his card game.  Then he and Doc get into a buggy and lead a posse out to see what they can do to fight against the Cheyenne.  Some of the cowboys are drunk already.  Even the women "entertainers" go with the posse.  The whole thing looks like a drunken party on parade.  But Wyatt is leading them all away from the Cheyenne Indians rather than to them.  A single Indian appears on the top of a hill and the cowboys start shooting at him.  He shoots back and panic sets in among the cowboys.  Soon they are riding wildly away.  Archers says:  "And so ended the Battle of Dodge City."  There were no casualties. 


 Archer and his men arrive at a fort.  The man left in charge tells Archer that there have just been too many of these false alarms about Indians.  The fort's troops are scattered up and down the surrounding area.  Archer says tomorrow he is sending out patrols along both sides of the river to see if can see where the Cheyenne are.  The Cheyenne still have 900 miles to travel to reach their northern home. 

First Sgt. Wichowsky says that he is no longer in the army.  His contract was over ten days ago and now he is Mr. Wichowsky.  He doesn't want to stay in the army, because he doesn't like fighting Indians who don't want to fight him.  He refers to the Cheyenne as just some poor "blanket-heads" trying to go home.  

The Cheyenne watch and study the trains coming back and forth along the railway lines.  As a train goes over the trestle, the Cheyenne go under the trestle.  The next day Plumtree finds the diary of Deborah Wright.  That means the Cheyenne have crossed over the river.  Plumtree and Smitty ride back to tell Archer.  They give him Deborah's dairy.  He gets his unit together and they go after the Cheyenne.  Wichowsky goes with them as First Sgt. Wichowsky.   

The weather turns snowy.  Lt. Scott shows up at Archer's camp.  He slipped away from the fort.  Archer tells Scott that he might make a good soldier yet. 

In the Cheyenne camp there is a dispute between the two chiefs.  Dull Knife wants to go to Fort Robinson, which is nearby.  But Little Wolf wants to continue north to their homeland.  Deborah says if they go on, the children will die. The two chiefs will go their separate ways with those who want to follow them.  Little Wolf sees his youngest wife rush over to be with Red Shirt and Dull Knife.  Little Wolf and his group have 700 more miles to go.  Dull Knife goes to Fort Robinson.  Capt. Oskar Wessels is the commanding officer at the fort.  He tells his men to feed the Cheyenne and make them feel comfortable.  He says this will make him a major.  

Deborah takes her wounded little girl to the surgeon.  He tells Deborah that after awhile when the girl is stronger, he will have to operate on her.  Archer and his men arrive at Fort Robinson.  Wessels shows him the Cheyenne that have come in.  Captain Wessels receives a telegram telling him that the Cheyenne are to be restrained and then escorted back south as soon as possible.  Archer and Deborah are upset over the news.  Archer says it would be murder, because these people cannot withstand marching 800 miles back to the southern reservation.  Wessels tells Archer that they will put the Cheyenne in the empty storehouse. 

The Cheyenne are put into the warehouse at temperatures of 10 degrees below zero.  Wessels comes in to see them, but walks out again without saying anything.  Deborah is in the warehouse with the Indians.  The Cheyenne take out their knives and put their rifles together. 

Captain Wessels tells Archer that as commander of this post all messages have to be cleared through him.  Archer says he is sending his telegram because Wessels can't refuse it.  He is taking two weeks leave as of now. 

Wessels goes inside with the Cheyenne.  He tells them they will prepare to go back tomorrow morning.  Dull Knife tells him they will not go back.  Wessels asks for another Cheyenne who can speak English.  Spanish Woman comes forward.  She tells Wessels:  "They will not go back.  Life there is not life.  They will die here."  So Wessels takes away their food, water and firewood until they change their minds. 

The surgeon is ready to operate on the little orphan.  Archer says goodbye.  He is heading to Washington to see Carl Schurz.  Schurz hears Archer mention Fort Robinson and tells Archer that he  has been wanting to speak to someone from Fort Robinson.  He wants to know why Archer is risking his career for the Cheyenne?  Archer says the Cheyenne are dying of cold and starvation.  He says, in fact, that they are being murdered.  Schurz says he will do something about it and sends Archer back to Fort Robinson.   

The Cheyenne are planning their escape.  Deborah urges the surgeon to go speak to Wessels.  He does so, but Wessels is already drunk.  The surgeon says Wessels blames everybody but himself for this situation with the Cheyenne.  He also says Wessels is making this a personal battle between himself and the Cheyenne.  Wessels now puts the surgeon under arrest.  He calls in Lts. Scott and Peterson and the First Sergeant.  They refuse to arrest the surgeon.  The surgeon puts Wessels under arrest for not being capable of performing his duties due to his alcoholism. 

It's time for the breakout.  Red Shirt and the others grab their rifles.  They bust open the windows and rush out into the snow shooting at the troops.  Indians are killed and soldiers are killed in this fight.  The people are able to get away from Fort Robinson.  Wessels shoots his way out of his quarters.  Outside he sees the ground littered with dead bodies of Cheyenne and soldiers. Scott shouts at Wessels:  "Has authority been sufficiently obeyed, sir?"  Wessels walks out of Fort Robinson. 

Dull Knife's group pushes on into the arid hills of Dakota where they meet up with other groups of Cheyenne.  There they are greeted by Little Wolf.  The army arrives at the Cheyenne meeting place.  The braves grab their rifles.  Just as the cavalry is about to attack, Archer and Carl Schurz arrive.  Schurz tells the colonel that they will not fire until he has had a chance to talk to the Cheyenne.  Schurz and Archer go to talk.  Red Shirt wants to shoot them and tries, but his father deflects his rifle downwards and the bullet goes into the ground. 

Dull Knife and Little Wolf speak with Schurz who tells them that they have made one of the most heroic marches in history and they deserve to go back to their original homeland.  He asks the two chiefs to take the gamble.  Archer tells them that Schurz speaks the truth.  The chiefs agree to cooperate.   

The soldiers leave and the Cheyenne set up their teepees on open ground.  Little Wolf comes now to kill Red Shirt for stealing his younger wife.  Red Shirt comes forward to do battle and Little Wolf kills him with three rapid-fire shots to the chest.  Little Wolf then breaks the rifle.  He now gives Dull Knife the sacred bundle and leaves, because he is a Cheyenne who has shed the blood of another Cheyenne.  His younger wife stays with Dull Knife. 

Archer, Deborah and the orphaned Indian girl travel to the girl's new home.      


Good movie about a true story.  The US government as usual has moved more Indians (these are Cheyenne) to far away, desolate places that the whites don't want yet.  And then the US government fails to provide for the people at an acceptable level.  The Cheyenne are miserable and dying on their new reservation.  And when the US government breaks its promises to them again, the Cheyenne pack up and start for their northern home 1,500 miles away before any more of their people die off.   Of course, the cavalry has to pursue them (if nothing else than to save face for the government).  The story is mostly about this journey up north with the soldiers and Cheyenne fighting skirmishes.  Some of the soldiers have divided loyalties and Quaker Deborah is all for the Cheyenne.  There is a love story in the film, this one between the Quaker Deborah and Captain Archer. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background: 


Cheyenne Indians

Algonquin speaking people of eastern North Dakota who spread through the plains.

1750 -- acquire horses.

1851 -- Alights on the Cloud, Cheyenne chief, killed by the Pawnee Indians.

1853 -- Cheyenne defeated by Pawnee.

1854 -- Cheyenne and Kiowa cut off and kill 113 Pawnee.

1864 -- Major General Samuel R. Curtis withdraws troops from Colorado Territory to meet a Confederate force poised on the Arkansas River.

1864, July -- war parties hit overland roads of the whites; Black Kettle tried to calm things down.

1864, November -- under Col. Chivington, troops massacre between 700-750 men of Black Kettle's band at Sand Creek, near Fort Lyon, Colorado (southeast Colorado).

1865 -- Chief Roman Nose helps win a victory at the Platte Bridge Fight (off the Bozeman Tail in southwest Wyoming); destroy all 25 soldiers escorting a wagon train.

1867 -- Roman Nose defeats a cavalry unit under Captain G. A. Armes near Prairie Dog Creek, Kansas.

1868 -- Roman Nose is killed at the Beecher's Island Fight (near border intersection of Colorado, Nebraska & Kansas).

1868, November -- Custer & 7th Calvary attack Black Kettle's camp on the Washita in northern Texas; Black Kettle killed.

1874 -- Battle of Adobe Walls where 5 tribes of southern plains Indians attack buffalo hunter and trading settlement (northern Texas).

1875 -- most of the hostile Cheyenne surrender to Col. Miles from Camp Supply.

1876  --  participated in the Battle of Little Big Horn, massacring Custer and part of the 7th Cavalry.

1877  --  a group of 972 Cheyenne were escorted to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.  The US government wanted all the Cheyenne to be in Oklahoma.  But the people were not used to Oklahoma conditions and many died of malaria. 

Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie and his Fourth Cavalry are sent to Fort Robinson, Nebraska. These troops form the core of the Powder River Expedition.

1876 (October) – the Powder River Expedition is sent to locate the northern Cheyenne villages.

1876 (November 25) – Mackenzie defeats a village of Northern Cheyenne in the Dull Knife Fight in Wyoming Territory. These Northern Cheyenne want to remain in the north, but the US government forces them to locate on the reservation of the Southern Cheyenne in Indian Territory (Oklahoma)

The Northern Cheyenne find conditions in Indian Territory very difficult: inadequate rations; no buffalo; and lots of malaria.

1878 (fall) – a portion of the Northern Cheyenne, led by Little Wolf and Dull Knife, attempt to return to the north.  After they reach the northern area, they split into two bands. The band led by Dull Knife is imprisoned in an unheated barracks at Fort Robinson without food or water.

1879 (January 9) – Dull Knife and others escape, but many die in the Fort Robinson tragedy.  All but about 50 are gunned down.   

Little Wolf's band, after staying in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, travel to Fort Keogh (present day Miles City, Montana) settling near the fort. The Northern Cheyenne are granted a reservation, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, southern Montana.  Many of the Cheyenne working as Army scouts help find Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.

The Northern Cheyenne Exodus  the tribe about two-thirds of its people.

1890  --  the reservation is expanded. 




Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)