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Sioux Indian Wars - Page 2

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Red Cloud's War, 1866-1868


The discovery of gold in western Montana in 1862 around Grasshopper Creek, near present-day Deer Lodge, brought hundreds of miners and prospectors into the region. Nearly all of these fortune seekers had come up the Platte Road, the northern fork of the old Oregon-California Trail, and moved into Montana from the west. Others worked their way up the Missouri River as far as Fort Benton, then came down into the goldfields from the northeast. In 1863, two entrepreneurs, John Bozeman, a Georgian who had arrived on the frontier only two years earlier, and John Jacobs, a veteran mountain man, blazed a trail from the goldfields to link up with the Platte Road west of Fort Laramie.


Fort Laramie painting by Alfred Jacob Miller

Fort Laramie painting by Alfred Jacob Miller, Walters Art Gallery.



This route cut through Bozeman Pass east of Virginia City, crossed the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers, ran south along the east side of the Bighorn Mountains, crossed the Tongue and Powder Rivers, then ran south through the Powder River country to join the Platte Road about eighty miles west of Fort Laramie. It reduced by nearly 400 miles the distance required by other routes to reach the goldfields.


Travelers along the Bozeman Trail soon found themselves under fierce attack by hostile Indians. Under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the U.S. government had set aside the Powder River country, through which the Bozeman Trail ran, as Oglala and Brulé Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne hunting land. Thus, these tribes objected to the intruders and attempted to turn back their wagons and herds. In 1865, responding to the demands of the settlers for protection, the U.S. Army sent a column under General Patrick E. Connor to the region. Connor constructed a stockade, Fort Reno, 169 miles north of Fort Laramie at the forks of the Powder River, but his attempt to subdue the tribes failed.


In June 1866, while a number of the Powder River chiefs were at Fort Laramie negotiating yet another treaty, Colonel Henry B. Carrington led the 2d Battalion, 18th Infantry, up the Bozeman Trail. Leaving one company at Fort Reno, Carrington proceeded sixty-seven miles to the forks of Piney Creek, near present-day Banner, Wyoming, where he established Fort Phil Kearny. In July, Carrington detached two companies under Captain Nathaniel C. Kenney to move even farther up the Bozeman Trail to build a third fort, C. F. Smith, ninety-one miles north of Phil Kearny, near present-day Yellowtail, Montana. The Indians would contest the establishment of this trail for the next two years.

The war would result in a number of battles including the Fetterman Massacre, the Hayfield Fight and the Wagon Box Fight.


The Sioux War of 1876-1877


The Sioux War of 1866-68 clearly established the dominance of the Oglala Sioux over U.S. forces in northern Wyoming and southern Montana east of the Bighorn Mountains. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 between the Sioux nation and the United States set aside a portion of the Sioux territory as the Great Sioux Reservation. This included the Black Hills region for their exclusive use. It also provided for unceded territory for Cheyenne and Lakota hunting grounds. This territory was called unceded in recognition of the fact that although the United States did not recognize Sioux ownership of the land, neither did it deny that the Sioux had hunting rights there.


The treaty also established a reservation in Dakota Territory wherein "the United States now solemnly agrees that no persons except those herein designated and authorized so to do ... shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article ... and henceforth the [Indians] will, and do, hereby relinquish all claims or right in and to any portion of the United States or Territories, except such as is embraced within the limits aforesaid, and except as hereinafter provided." This provision clearly established the solemn rights of the Sioux to perpetual ownership of the reservation.


Battle of Rosebud

Battle of Rosebud, by Charles Stanley, Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, August, 1876. This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!


In the spring of 1874, General Philip H. Sheridan, commanding the Military Division of the Missouri, directed his subordinate, Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, commanding the Department of Dakota, to send a reconnaissance party into the Black Hills to ascertain the suitability of establishing an Army garrison there.


This reconnaissance party, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, not only determined the adequacy of the ground for a garrison but found evidence of gold. The news flashed through the nation, triggering a gold rush to the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota. The difficulty was that the Black Hills region was squarely inside the territory reserved to the Sioux in the treaty of 1868.


But no American government, no matter how progressive, would have attempted to restrain such a great number of citizens in their pursuit of happiness (as manifested by their dreams of gold). The predicament faced by President Ulysses S, Grant was that he could not prevent Americans from entering the Black Hills; at the same time, he could not legally allow them to go there.


Rationalizing an excuse for war with the Sioux seemed to be Grant's only choice to resolve the matter. If the government fought the Sioux and won, the Black Hills would be ceded as a spoil of war. But Grant chose not to fight the Sioux who remained on the reservations. Rather, he was determined to attack that portion of the Sioux roaming in the unceded land on the pretext that they were committing atrocities on settlers beyond the Indians' borders. Accordingly, Grant ordered the Bureau of Indian Affairs to issue an ultimatum to the Indians to return voluntarily to their reservation by 31 January 1876 or be forced there by military action.


There were two categories of roamers outside the reservation, most of whom ignored the ultimatum. One category, called winter roamers, spurned all sustenance from the white man and lived in the unceded area. Those in the other category, called summer roamers, took the white man's dole in the winter but pursued their old ways in warmer weather. When Sheridan received the mission to mount a campaign against the Indians in the unceded area, he believed he would be fighting the winter roamers only. As the weather turned warmer, however, the number of summer roamers grew in the unceded area, creating a greater threat to the soldiers.


Source: Atlas of the Sioux Wars


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April, 2012


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