BackStory

The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Listen
Connect
Newsletter

Was the Las Vegas shooting the “worst” in U.S. history? Far from it.

Big Foot's camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890), with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background. Source: Library of Congress

Big Foot’s camp three weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890), with bodies of several Lakota Sioux people wrapped in blankets in the foreground and U.S. soldiers in the background. Source: Library of Congress

Amid reports of the Oct. 1 shooting of at least 58 people in Las Vegas, media outlets were quick to call the tragedy the “worst” mass shooting in U.S. history. This followed a similar pattern that unfolded after the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which left 49 people dead. Time magazine, for instance, maintained that the Pulse shooting “was the deadliest in U.S. history.”  

In both cases, some people pushed back on social media, pointing out that there have been deadlier massacres that targeted Indigenous people and people of color. After the Pulse nightclub shooting, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) issued a statement that called upon the media to stop referring to the shooting as the “worst” in U.S. history. NAHJ president Mekahlo Medina said we must “put the shooting into proper context with history.”

The NABJ and NAHJ reminded the public of this statement in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting. “It’s not an issue of race; it’s an issue of accuracy,” NABJ treasurer Greg Morrison told KARE11-TV in Minneapolis.

One meme added to the chorus of calls to acknowledge the long history of violence against Indigenous people and to stop using historical superlatives.  

A screenshot of a meme found circulating on Facebook shortly after the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead and 546 injured.

A screenshot of a meme found circulating on Facebook shortly after the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead and 546 injured.

But how much of this meme is true?

In terms of specifics, it’s hard to say. Generally, most historians use estimates when they are writing about such atrocities. This is because poor or inadequate record-keeping, concealment efforts, and the use of mass graves often make it very difficult to know exactly how many people died in a given event.  

Still, the overall message of the meme is certainly true, even if we cannot account for exact numbers. European colonists and white Americans have a long history of murdering Indigenous peoples that started with Christopher Columbus’s 1492 arrival in the Caribbean, which the meme references as the “Taino Massacre.”

Other particularly egregious examples include the slaughter of roughly 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women, children, and seniors, in 1864, on the banks of Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado, as well as the notorious Wounded Knee Massacre, where U.S. officials shot and killed somewhere between 200 to 300 Lakota Sioux.

“What happened recently in Las Vegas was a terrible crime but not the largest massacre in U.S. History,” says Benjamin Madley, an associate professor of history at UCLA and author of the book, American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873, “There have been numerous larger massacres of Native American people both within and beyond California.”

Using eyewitness civilian accounts, U.S. Army reports, militia documents, and journalist reports, Madley found that from 1846 to 1873, American settlers, including government and military officials, killed approximately 120,000 Indigenous people. On average, that is 4,400 Indigenous people each year.

There were mass shootings outside of California, too. For instance, the NABJ and NAHJ statement points to the more than 100 African Americans killed in the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre, as well as the murder of roughly 100 black people in 1873 in Colfax, La.

No matter how you define it, what happened in Las Vegas, Orlando, and the growing list of American cities that were the scenes of mass shootings remains a horrific tragedy. But as many journalism organizations note, it is important–and accurate–to acknowledge these tragedies as part of a longer history.


For more “Meme Busters,” check out this audio from our history of women in politics show where we researched the accuracy of a meme about when different groups of women got the right to vote.

Have you found something online and wonder about its historical accuracy? Post it in the comments or send a link to backstory@virginia.edu and we’ll see if we can get to the bottom of it!