There was a time when the land was sacred,
and the ancient ones were as one with it.
A time when only the children of the Great Spirit
were here to light their fires in these places with no boundaries…
In that time, when there were only simple ways,
I saw with my heart the conflicts to come,
and whether it was to be for good or bad,
what was certain was that there would be change.
-The Great Spirit
By 1862, the Santee Sioux had given up their traditional homelands, which comprised most of southern Minnesota, in exchange for a narrow reservation on the southern bank of the Minnesota River. As compensation for their lands, the Sioux were to receive cash annuities and supplies that would enable them to live without the resources from their traditional hunting grounds. Because of administrative delays, however, both the cash and food had not arrived by the summer of 1862. Crop failures the previous fall made the late food delivery particularly distressing to the Indians. Encroachment by settlers on reservation land and the unfair practices of many American traders also fueled Sioux suspicions and hatred. Furthermore, the Sioux were emboldened by the Minnesotans’ relative weakness, brought on by the departure of many of their young men to fight in the Civil War. This combination of hunger, hatred, and the perceived weakness of the Minnesotans and the local military created an explosive situation that needed only a spark to bring on a full-scale war.
The spark came on August 17, 1862, when four Sioux warriors murdered five settlers near Acton, Minnesota. On August 18th, Indians at the Lower Sioux Agency rebelled, killing most of the settlers on their reservation. A few escapees managed to reach Fort Ridgely and warn its commander, Captain John S. Marsh, of the rebellion. Marsh and forty-seven men subsequently sortied from the fort only to be ambushed at Redwood Ferry, where half of them, including Marsh, were killed. Twenty-four soldiers managed to return to Fort Ridgely.
News of the rebellion spread quickly through the settler and Indian communities. For the Sioux, this was a catharsis of violence; for the settlers, a nightmare had come true. Most settlers in the Minnesota River Valley had no experience with warring Indians. Those who did not flee to a fort or defended settlement fast enough were at the Indians’ mercy. The Sioux killed most of the settlers they encountered but often made captives of the women and children. In response, the Army marshaled its available strength, 180 men, at Fort Ridgely, where well-sited artillery helped the soldiers fend off two Sioux attacks. At the town of New Ulm, which became a magnet for settlers fleeing the rebellion, defenders also repulsed two Indian attacks. The stout resistance of the settlers and soldiers effectively halted the spread of the rebellion.
Now, the military seized the initiative. A relief expedition under Colonel Henry H. Sibley arrived at Fort Ridgely on August 27th. Sibley’s command consisted largely of green recruits with second-rate weapons. The Sioux surprised and inflicted a tactical defeat on Sibley’s men at Birch Coulee on September 2nd. This minor setback, however, did not change the course of the campaign. From September 2nd to the 18th, Sibley drilled his soldiers and received supplies and reinforcements, including 240 veterans of the 3d Minnesota Infantry Regiment.
On September 19th, Sibley resumed his advance. This time, the expedition encountered and defeated the Sioux at Wood Lake on September 23rd. Three days later, the Sioux released their 269 captives and surrendered, ending the campaign.
Outraged over the uprising, state authorities executed thirty-eight Indian prisoners and banished the other captive Sioux to reservations outside Minnesota. In addition, the Army launched punitive expeditions into the Dakota Territory in 1863 and 1864 that drove the remaining bands of free Santee Sioux well away from Minnesota’s western border.
Two years later, along the Bozeman Trail, the U.S. Army would fight another branch of the Sioux nation, but this time with very different results.
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.
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 Sioux War of 1876-1877 (Black Hills War)
Red Cloud’s 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.