It has been said that Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas in which Stephen Paddock open fire with assault weapons modified to fire automatically on a large crowd of concertgoers is the worst in American history. That’s not even close to being accurate.
Others more correctly say that Las Vegas was the worst mass killing in modern American history. Depending on how you define “modern,” that is closer to accurate.
Paddock's body count of 58 dead victims surpassed the 49 murdered by Omar Mateen when he opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016. That led some to proclaim this killing spree to be the worst.
But the history of mass shootings didn’t begin 20 or 30 years ago — or even when Charles Whitman opened fire from the clock tower at the University of Texas in 1966.
You don’t have to go back much further in American history to find slaughters even bigger than Vegas. You can start with Wounded Knee on what is now the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.
On the morning of December 29, 1890, Chief Spotted Elk (Big Foot), leader of a band of some 350 Minneconjou Sioux, sat in a makeshift camp along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. The band was surrounded by U.S. troops sent to arrest him and disarm his followers. The atmosphere was tense, since an order to arrest Chief Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Reservation just 14 days earlier had resulted in his murder, prompting Big Foot to lead his people to the Pine Ridge Agency for safe haven. Alerted to the band’s Ghost Dance activities, General Nelson Miles commanded Major Samuel Whiteside and the Seventh Cavalry to apprehend Big Foot and his followers, and the regiment intercepted them on December 28, leading them to the edge of the creek. While confiscating their weapons, a shot pierced the brisk morning air. Within seconds the charged atmosphere erupted as the Indian men rushed to retrieve their confiscated rifles and troopers began to fire volley after volley into the Sioux camp. From a hill above, a Hotchkiss machine gun raked the tipis, gun smoke filled the air, and men, women, and children ran for a ravine near the camp, only to be cut down in crossfire. More than 200 Lakota lay dead or dying in the aftermath as well as at least 20 soldiers.
The number of victims at Wounded Knee varies widely, depending on which account you read, from 150 up to 300. But whatever the number, it apparently doesn’t count as “modern.”
And then there is the Sand Creek Massacre of November 29, 1864, in which Colorado volunteers under the command of Col. John Chivington slaughtered and mutilated anywhere from 70-163 Cheyenne and Arapaho, most of whom were women and children.
Here is an eyewitness account from the Wikipedia article on Sand Creek that describes just how brutal and sadistic it was:
There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind, following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, travelling in the sand. I saw one man get off his horse at a distance of about seventy-five yards and draw up his rifle and fire. He missed the child. Another man came up and said, 'let me try the son of a b-. I can hit him.' He got down off his horse, kneeled down, and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up, and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.
— Major Anthony, New York Tribune, 1879
And then there was the white mob that attacked and burned
the Greenwood community of African-Americans in Tulsa, Okla., on May 31-June 1, 1921, killing as many as 300.
As with some of the others, the Tulsa riot seemed to have started with the explosive accusation that a black man had sexually assaulted a white woman. (The charges were dropped after the riot.)
On May 31, 1921, hundreds of armed white men gathered outside the courthouse where the man was being held, and a group of armed black men arrived to prevent a lynching. A shot was fired. The black men fled to Greenwood, and the white men gave chase.
The battle that ensued, enabled by the Tulsa police chief, who deputized hundreds of white men and commandeered gun shops to arm them, lasted through the night and well into the next day.
When the New York Times wrote that story in 2011 on the Greenwood killings many survivors were still alive. But it apparently doesn’t qualify as “modern.”
There were other mass killings. The Colfax Massacre of 1873 in Louisiana resulted in 150 deaths of African-Americans. The list goes on and on.
Many of those massacres have been largely forgotten by a nation that often wants to erase its bloody history.
Thus the necessity, perhaps, to make a distinction between modern history and all of history.
In practical terms, one reason is that it's difficult to determine the exact number of victims murdered in the 19th century — a problem that persists today, too. There's also a vocabulary issue, as different words used to describe similar events can affect perceptions of their significance. "The mid-2000s is around the time that the phrase 'mass shootings' started being used more and more," Duwe says, "whereas during the 1980s and the 1990s, the phrase 'mass murder' is used." (His research uses the term mass public shooting to describe incidents in which four or more victims are killed with a gun in a public location.)
There’s that. But that’s not the real reason. Emphasis added.
Many have argued this week and in the past that events like the Colfax Massacre and Wounded Knee are seen as separate because, within American history, the deaths of Native Americans and African Americans have not been seen the same as the deaths of white people — and that failing to specify "modern" history while talking about events like Las Vegas only underscores that idea by implying that earlier shootings don't count.