American Massacres and the Media

The mass media coverage of how 33 students were fatally shot and at least 15 injured on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, was punctuated by phrases such as, “the worst massacre in U.S. history.” or as the New York Times put it, the “Worst U.S. Gun Rampage.” CNN called it the “Deadliest Killing Spree in U.S. history.” This was followed by San Francisco Fox affiliate KTVU Channel 2’s claim that it was “the worst massacre ever in the United States.”

TV text and commentary did not qualify these claims, and at least one Virginia Tech student, an Asian American himself, echoed the phrase when interviewed on national television, pondering his presence at the “worst massacre in U.S. history.”

In reality, an accurate investigation of mass killings of this magnitude would quickly reveal that the Virginia Tech massacre, as horrendous as it was, was not the worst massacre to occur on U.S. soil. Before Blacksburg, there were many bloodier massacres. Here are just some massacres that took place on mainland U.S. soil in the 19th and 20th centuries, which involved guns and where more than 33 people were known to be killed:

–In 1832, the junction of the Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers, at Saukenuk (now Rock Island, Illinois), was site of the extermination of at least 300 Sac (Plains Indians also known as Sauk) men, women and children, and 20 whites. The government was so determined to remove the Saks from the small portion of their ancestral homelands that they were attempting to withhold from white settlers, that 1,300 federal troops under General Samuel Whiteside and the Illinois state militia–including Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, Captain Abraham Lincoln, and Colonel Zachary Taylor-carried out eight hours of mayhem against 500 Indians who were already in retreat.

–In 1857, at Mountain Meadows, Utah, between 100 to 140 white settlers were massacred at their camp site, after falling for a false offer of truce to end five days of fighting. The victims were emigrating in covered wagons to California from Arkansas, and their temporary encampment was in Mormon territory, as the Mormons had migrated from Illinois to settle the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1846, and President Milliard Fillmore had appointed their leader, Brigham Young, as territorial governor in 1850. There have been many charges and counter charges of cover-ups over the years, but the essentials of an 1859 investigation, led by U.S. Army Brevot Major James H. Carleton, concluded that Mormons dressed as Paiute Indians were the perpetrators of this slaughter of men, women and children, where “every skull had been shot through with rifle or pistol bullets.” The Paiute Indians denied any involvement, and a 1999 archeological excavation at the memorial site found skeletons confirming Major Carleton’s report.

–In 1860, Bret Harte, a well-known California writer, had just began his career, working as a local newspaper reporter in Arcata, California (a town then known as Union). Harte was expelled from Humboldt County because he recorded the Gunther Island Massacre of Wiyot Indians, committed on February 26, 1860, when a small group of white men murdered between 60 to 200 Wiyot men, women and children. The massacre was
encouraged by a local newspaper. Extermination was once the official policy of the California government toward Native Americans, as Governor Peter H. Burnett stated in 1851: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected”

–On April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow, near Memphis, Tennessee, Confederate troops under General Nathan Forrest massacred 227 black and white Union troops with such ferocity that an eyewitness Confederate soldier said, “blood, human blood, stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantityGeneral Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”

–On April 13, 1873, 350 miles northwest of New Orleans in Colfax, Grand Parish, Louisiana, 280 blacks were victims of a group of armed white men that included members of the White League and the Ku Klux Klan. Known as the Colfax Massacre, it was said to be sparked by contested local elections, although more generally its cause was white opposition to Reconstruction, which in 1875 resulted in United States v. Cruikshank, an important basis of future gun control legislation, because it allows that “the federal government had no power to protect citizens against private action (not committed by federal or state government authorities) that deprived them of their constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment.” (quote from “The Racist Origins of US Gun Control” by Steve Ekwall)

–In the 1880s, when anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant throughout the western United States after the 1882 enactment of the first Chinese Exclusion Act, two massacres of more than 30 Chinese immigrant workers occurred. In 1885, in riots against Chinese miners employed by the Union Pacific Railroad to work their coal mines at Rock Springs, Wyoming, more than 40 Chinese Americans were robbed, shot, and burned by a mob of white miners, who also burned the “Chinatown” village to the ground. The white miners, still angry that the Chinese miners had been brought in ten years earlier as strike breakers, disputed the right of the Chinese to work the mine’s more profitable veins. Federal troops had to be brought in to protect the surviving Chinese workers, and no one ever was convicted of these crimes. In 1887, at Hells Canyon on the Snake River in Wallowa County, Oregon, a gang of at least 7 white horse thieves robbed, shot or otherwise murdered and mutilated at least 31 or 34 Chinese immigrants who six months previously had set up camp to mine gold there. Many bodies remained unfound until months later, when another group of Chinese immigrants arrived to mine gold in the area. Although 3 people were brought to trial for the crimes in Oregon, no one was convicted. The National Archives holds diplomatic correspondence between representatives of the Chinese and U.S. governments, showing the U.S. authorities agreed to make financial compensations for loss of life and property in these and other 1880s incidents, to be received by the victims’ families. In 2005, the Hells Canyon area was renamed Chinese Massacre Cove to honor those dead.

–In 1913, during another nationally publicized action known as the Ludlow Massacre, over 66 people were killed, including eleven children and two women who were burned alive. Sparked by a strike against the Rockefeller family-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation by the mostly foreign born Serb, Greek and Italian coal miners after one of their union organizers was murdered, it eventually involved the Colorado National Guard, imported strikebreakers, and sympathetic walk-outs by union miners throughout the state. The union never was recognized by the company, and a U.S. Congressional committee investigation failed to result in indictments of any militiaman or mine guard.

–In 1921, a year when 64 lynchings were reported, the African American Greenwood business district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the site of shooting deaths of at least 40 people, most of whom are black, although the actual–but undocumented–death toll is said to be closer to 300. This site was then known as the “Negro’s Wall Street,” and was home to 15,000 people and 191 businesses. The rampage took the form of a riot, and was caused by economic tensions, particularly sparked by an article in the Tulsa Tribune regarding an alleged rape incident between a black shoe shiner and a white elevator operator-a rape that never occurred. Because of this riot, Tulsa became the first U.S. city to be bombed from the air, when police dropped dynamite from private planes to break it up. Whites took possession of most of the land, and the site has become part of Oklahoma State University’s Tulsa campus.

–In 1971, at Attica State Correctional Facility, a federal maximum-security prison in upstate New York, 1,300 inmates staged a revolt, said to be sparked by news that George Jackson, a member of the Black Panthers, had been killed by guards at California’s San Quentin State Prison during an alleged escape. Four days of negotiations about inmates’ rights ended when Governor Nelson Rockefeller called in 500 state troopers and police. Helicopters dropped pepper gas, and over 2,000 bullets were fired into the yard where hostages, inmates, and guards huddled together, killing 31 prisoners and 9 guards. Guards violently assaulted the surviving prisoners with clubs in the aftermath of what is said to be the bloodiest suppression of an inmate uprising in U.S. history

The reporting of the Virginia Tech massacre reveals that an ignorance of American history is not only a problem effecting American students but extends to our most influential newsrooms, even those with archives extending back to the 1800s. The New York Times’ referring to Virginia Tech as the “Worst U.S. gun rampage” encouraged other newspapers to follow their lead. This is how public myths are begun. Present on the Times’ editorial staff is Brent Staples, a black writer who is an expert on the Tulsa massacre. There is no excuse for such historical amnesia on the part of those who have taken upon themselves the serious task of informing the public.

Post script:

At this May 5th expansion of the Op-Ed that originally appeared May 2 in the San Francisco Chronicle and on CounterPunch, I continue to find, and readers continue to send, other U.S. massacres of the Virginia Tech scale or greater, some obscured by time, some well known. I have not had time to fully research many of these events, but thought it might be helpful, however overwhelming, to acknowledge these investigations:

In 1862 the U.S. government hung 38 innocent Dakota people in Mankata, Minnesota, under an order from President Abraham Lincoln that was and still is the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

In the 1887 massacre at Thibodaux, Louisiana, the Louisiana militia and vigilante bands of “prominent citizens” killed between 30 to 2000 black sugar plantation workers and their families after about 9000 black and 1000 white workers staged a strike at sugar plantations in St. Mary, Terrebonne, and Lafourche parishes. The strike was organized by the Knights of Labor, a national labor union representing both white and black workers, to raise workers’ wages from $1.00 to $1.25 per day.

In the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, a Sioux reservation in present day South Dakota, more than 300 unarmed men, women, and children, mostly Lakota Sioux followers of the Ghost Dance, were killed by U.S. military troops while practicing religious services. The victims were dumped in a mass grave. Writer and historian Gerald Vizenor said in Rediscovering America:

“The massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890 marked a moment of profound transformation in the narrative of America and its native population, who within a decade would see their numbers drop to historic lows. The story of America over the last hundred years in some ways starts here; the American story is in crucial ways the story of those who have been marginalized, attacked, destroyed, or held captive, and have survived to remember, bear witness, create, innovate, and contribute.”

In 1993 the FBI and the Christian Branch Davidian sect, a religious group that lived in a compound in Waco, Texas, engaged in a standoff. Following the shooting of 4 agents by Branch Davidians, the sect’s compound caught fire. More than 80 members of the sect were killed, including children. Although later investigations indicate the Branch Davidians had placed highly flammable materials in the compound, suggesting a mass suicide may have been planned, in 1999 the FBI admitted to its possible use of pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters. “Remember Waco!” became an anthem of the radical right, inspiring more acts of mass violence, especially the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on the 2nd anniversary of Waco in 1995, which ex-U.S. soldier Timothy McVeigh admitted was plotted to avenge the Branch Davidians’ deaths.

CARLA BLANK is the author of “Rediscovering America” (Three Rivers Press,




Carla Blank directed Ishmael Reed’s most recent play, “The Conductor,” which closed at Off-Off Broadway’s Theater for the New City on September 10, 2023.  Her article, “The Resurrection of Sister Aimee,” published in ALTA magazine, was a finalist for a Los Angeles Press Club 2021 National Arts & Entertainment Award.