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Old West Legends IconAMERICAN HISTORY

Soldiering Begins in the American West

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By Edward Sylvester Ellis in 1892

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Distant view of the Rocky MountainsUntil the year 1851, the vast plains to the eastward side of the Rocky Mountains were regarded as Indian territories, over which numerous tribes roamed at will from Texas and Mexico to the British possessions to the north.

The discovery of gold in California, in 1849, drew the eyes of the civilized world to the Pacific Coast, and a tide of emigration set in that direction, the like of which this country had never seen before. The ships that made the tempestuous passage around Cape Horn were crowded to overflowing with men eager to face every peril for the sake of digging the yellow particles from the mountains and river beds.

While these lines of travel were crowded, thousands more crossed the continent by the plains or overland route, which was filled with perils. The emigrants spent weeks and months, their wagons winding slowly across the prairies, fording streams, climbing mountains, toiling through ravines, deluged with rain, sleet and snow, shivering with cold or fainting with heat, and in continual danger from Indians. Many a train that left Independence, Missouri, fully equipped and armed, and full of high hopes, never lived to catch the gleam of the far Pacific. If they survived starvation and the rigor of the climate, they were overwhelmed, perhaps, in some lonely glen by the fierce warriors, and their whitening bones were left to tell their fate to the crowds following in their footsteps, and compelled to face the same perils and possibly to meet the same fate.

Overland Route to CaliforniaThe tide of emigration across the plains made necessary a treaty with various tribes, by which a broad highway was opened to California, and the Indians were restricted within certain boundaries. The government agreed to give the tribes $50,000 annually for 15 years in payment for the privilege granted to emigrants to cross the plains without molestation.

This treaty assigned as boundaries to the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the larger part of the present State of Colorado, while the Crowand Sioux were to occupy the land traversed by the Powder River route to Montana. However, some years later, gold and silver were discovered in Colorado upon the Indian lands, and hundreds of settlers crowded in, as usual with no regard for the rights of the Indians. When these intruders had taken up most of the lands, another treaty -- The Treaty of Fort Wise -- was made on February 18, 1861. The Indians agreed to give up an immense tract of territory and to confine themselves to a small district on both sides of the Arkansas River, and along the northern boundary of New Mexico. The government bound itself to protect them in these possessions, paying an annuity of $30,000 to each tribe for 15 years, and to furnish them with stock and agricultural implements.

No difficulties occurred between the white inhabitants of Colorado and the Indians until April, 1864. During the summer of that year, some warriors began committing depredations and robberies upon the property of the settlers. Colonel John Chivington, commanding the troops at Denver, allowed a subordinate officer to lead a detachment of soldiers to punish theIndians for their acts. He attacked the Cheyenne village of Cedar Bluffs, killed 26, wounded 30, and divided the plunder among his men. Hostilities and fighting continued until autumn, but the Indians wanted peace, and applied to Major Edward Wynkoop, commander of Fort Lyon, to negotiate a treaty to secure it. That officer ordered the Indians to gather about the fort, assuring them of protection.
 

 

 

In response to this command and guarantee, 500 men, women, and children collected at the post. Colonel Chivington then attacked and slaughtered them without mercy. This horrible crime, known as the Sand Creek Massacre, was committed November 29, 1864. Inevitably, a war with these tribes followed, drawing 8,000 men from the forces in the field to suppress the insurrection, and costing the country 30 million dollars. During the campaign of 1865, less than 20 Indians were killed. The attempt to obtain peace by this means was as futile as with the Seminole tribe, nearly 30 years before.

 

Commissioners were appointed in autumn of 1865, to secure a council with the tribes and end, if possible, the war. In October of that year, the commissioners met the chiefs of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes at the mouth of the Little Arkansas River, and induced them to give up their reservation upon the Arkansas River, and accept another in the State of Kansas, with the privilege of ranging over the plains formerly owned by them.

 

The Senate later amended this treaty to exclude the tribes entirely from Kansas, leaving them nothing but their hunting privileges on the unsettled plains. Nevertheless, the southern tribes strictly observed the treaty through the year 1866.

 

The Sioux, to the north, had driven the Crow into Montana, and occupied the wide range of territory originally assigned to both. The territories to the south had become populous, and rumors of rich mines in Montana attracted emigration in that direction across their lands. This narrowed the rich hunting grounds to the valley, from the north of which flowed the Powder River. The annuities from the government having ceased, it was important that the remnant of the Indians' hunting ranges should remain intact, for they afforded their only means of subsistence.

 

Continued Next Page

Sand Creek Massacre

Painting of the attack on Sand Creek, courtesy the Colorado Historical Society

 

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