Plains Indian Wars

During the first half of the 19th Century the entire nation was in the process of invention and in competition with itself at every level of society. The citizenry had not yet reached the point where compromise was considered necessary in nearly any conflict or controversy, where, in the waning decades of the Epoch of Conquest – might still made right – where the catastrophe of the American Civil War had not yet led Americans to the realization that such cultural clashes could never be allowed to happen again.

“During that period, accompanying the move of the railroads and American civilization westward into the States and territories of the West, the U.S. Army had been tasked to protect the interests of the nation, in areas not yet settled, from the tribes in the uncharted territories of the West. These included gold and silver claims in California and Nevada after the 1848 gold rush which helped finance the Union effort during the Civil War.

After the Civil War, things got worse for the Western tribes. The Army at that time was composed mostly of Civil War veterans – infantry and cavalry, armed and blooded, Union and Confederate alike – who had come of age living through the brutality and savagery on the unimaginable scale that was characteristic of that conflict. They had known little else in their formative years and could not succeed living a “normal” life. These were men comfortable at war.

Waiting for them were more cavalry, “Plains Indian” cavalry – also armed and blooded and with a savage mentality about combat that didn’t allow for any mercy at all. They went into battle with the objective that they would kill every single foe because, if they did not and were captured, they would be subjected to the most horrific torture imaginable and then would be killed and dismembered. It was – survive or be slaughtered – no prisoners allowed. This is why they were so effective in close-combat.

So here, on the Great Plains, the Civil War would continue – this time with reunited brothers fighting a new enemy. Having survived east of the Mississippi, they did not intend to be denied west of the great river. Under the legendary Phil Sheridan, they pursued their foe in savage skirmishes until both arrived, exhausted and old, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890. There the Civil War would finally end.

The tribes of the Great Basin, for the most part Shoshone, were severely impacted by the Oregon and California Trails and by Mormon emigration to Utah and finally by the railroads. Beginning with their encounter with Lewis and Clark in 1805 the Shoshone had generally had friendly relations with American and British fur traders and trappers.

A Shoshone woman named Sacagawea (Bird Woman) – the wife of a French-Canadian trapper, mother of a son, Jean-Baptiste – originally kidnapped from her home in the Shoshone region in Idaho and transported to South Dakota, where she was hired in 1804 by Merriweather Lewis and William Clark as a guide and interpreter on their famous expedition across America – was instrumental in establishing those good relations.

“Reports from early in the 19th Century have Sacagawea dying about 1812 at a trading post near present day Omaha, Nebraska. The entry refers to a wife of trader Toussaint Charbonneau, who had two wives – Sacagawea and Otter Woman. No name was given and no children were identified. Documents held by Clark show that her son Baptiste already had been entrusted by Charbonneau into Clark’s care for a boarding school education at Clark’s insistence.

Additionally, an adoption document made in the Orphans Court Records in St. Louis, Missouri, states, ‘On August 11, 1813, William Clark became the guardian of Tousant Charbonneau, a boy about ten years, and Lizette Charbonneau, a girl about one-year-old.’ There is no record of Lizette in William Clark’s records although he does record Sacagawea as dead in notes made in 1825. There is no record of Jean-Baptiste commenting about his mother.

In the early 20th Century, interest in famous American women caused renewed interest in Sacagawea and a biography was written by Grace Raymond Hebard in 1933, based on her 30 years of research and that of Dr. Charles Eastman, a Dakota Sioux physician who had been hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1925 to find Sacagawea’s remains.

He visited many Plains tribes and interviewed elderly individuals who might have known or heard of Sacagawea, and learned of a Shoshone woman at the Wind River Reservation with the Comanche name Porivo (Chief Woman). Some of the people he interviewed said that she spoke of a long journey wherein she had helped white men, and that she had in her possession a silver Jefferson Peace Medal of the type carried by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

He found a Comanche woman called Tacutine who said that Porivo was her grandmother. She had married into a Comanche tribe and had a number of children, including Tacutine’s father Ticannaf. Porivo left the tribe after her husband was killed.

According to these narratives, Porivo lived for some time at Fort Bridger in Wyoming with her sons Bazil and Baptiste, who each knew several languages, including English and French. Eventually, she found her way back to the Lemhi Shoshone at the Wind River Indian Reservation, where she was recorded as “Bazil’s mother”.

This woman died on April 9, 1884, and a Reverend John Roberts officiated at her funeral. It was Eastman’s conclusion that Porivo was Sacagawea. In 1963, a monument to “Sacajawea of the Shoshonis” was erected at Fort Washakie on the Wind River reservation near Lander, Wyoming, on the basis of this claim.” You can decide what to believe.

“Tribal relationships were initially friendly with travelers on the trails, but, with time, the volume of emigrants severely impacted natural resources in the areas traversed by the trails. Often travelers treated the tribes they encountered badly and the tribes for their part continued to steal horses and other livestock.

In Utah, expanding Mormon settlement pushed tribes from the fertile and well-watered valleys and the cattle of the Mormons consumed the grasses and other plants which made up the traditional Shoshone diet. While unwilling to compensate the Shoshone or the Ute for their lands, the Mormons did offer food. However, relations were not smooth, with the Indians being aggressive and demanding while the Mormons found the burden imposed by the Church leadership onerous. The federal government had little presence in the Great Basin and made little effort to ameliorate the situation.

The tribes, their traditional way of life disrupted and in retaliation for outrages suffered at the hands of emigrants, engaged in raiding of travelers along the trails and engaged in aggressive behavior toward Mormon settlers. The efforts of the undisciplined California militia, who were stationed in Utah during the Civil War, to respond to complaints resulted in the Bear River Massacre. Following the massacre, a series of treaties were agreed to with the various Shoshone tribes exchanging promises of peace for small annuities and formal reservations.

One of these, the Box Elder Treaty, identified a land claim made by the Northwestern Shoshone. (This claim was declared non-binding by the Supreme Court in a 1945 ruling, but later recognized by the Indian Claims Commission in 1968. Descendants of the original tribal group were compensated collectively at a rate of less than $0.50 per acre, minus legal fees.)

Most of the local groups were decimated by the war and faced continuing loss of hunting and fishing land caused by encroachment of white settlers. Some moved to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation when it was created in 1868. Some of the Shoshone populated the Mormon-sanctioned community of Washakie, Utah.

Initially relations between participants in the Pike’s Peak gold rush in 1859 and the North American tribes of the Front Range of the Rockies and the Platte valley were friendly. An attempt was made to resolve conflicts by negotiation of the Treaty of Fort Wise in 1861, which established a reservation in southeastern Colorado, but the settlement was not agreed to by all of the roving warriors, particularly the Dog Soldiers, a renegade band of the Cheyenne. During the early 1860s, tensions increased and culminated in the Colorado War and which set the stage for further conflict.

The peaceful relationship between settlers and the Indians of the Colorado and Kansas plains was maintained faithfully by the tribes, but sentiment grew among the Colorado settlers for tribal removal. The savagery of the attacks on civilians during the Dakota War of 1862 contributed to these sentiments as did the few minor incidents which occurred in the Platte Valley and in areas east of Denver.

Regular army troops had been withdrawn for service in the Civil War and were replaced with the Colorado Volunteers, rough men who often favored extermination of the tribes. They were commanded by John Chivington and George L. Shoup who followed the lead of John Evans, territorial governor of Colorado. They adopted a policy of shooting all tribal members encountered on sight, a policy which in short time ignited a general war on the Colorado and Kansas plains, the Colorado War.

Raids by bands of plains tribes on isolated homesteads to the east of Denver, on the advancing settlements in Kansas, and on stage line stations along the South Platte River, such as at Julesburg and along the Smoky Hill Trail, resulted in settlers in both Colorado and Kansas adopting a murderous attitude towards tribes, with calls for extermination.

The Dakota War of 1862 (more commonly called the Sioux Uprising of 1862) was the first major armed engagement between the U.S. Army and the Sioux. After six weeks of fighting in Minnesota, lead mostly by Chief Little Crow, records conclusively show that more than 500 U.S. soldiers and settlers died in the conflict, though many more may have died in small raids or after being captured.

The number of Sioux dead in the uprising is mostly undocumented, but after the war, 303 Sioux were convicted of murder and rape by U.S. military tribunals and sentenced to death. Most of the death sentences were commuted by President Lincoln, but on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, 38 Dakota Sioux men were hanged in what is still today the largest penal mass execution in U.S. history.

After the expulsion of the Dakota, some refugees and warriors made their way to Lakota lands in what is now North Dakota. Battles continued between Minnesota regiments and combined Lakota and Dakota forces through 1864, as Colonel Henry Sibley pursued the Sioux into Dakota Territory.

Sibley’s army defeated the Lakota and Dakota in three major battles in 1863. The Sioux retreated further, but again faced an American army in 1864; this time, General Alfred Sully led a force from near Fort Pierre, South Dakota, and decisively defeated the Sioux at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, 1864.

On November 29, 1864, the Colorado state militia responded to a series of tribal attacks on white settlements by attacking a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment on Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. Under orders to take no prisoners, the militia killed and mutilated about 200 of the Indians, two-thirds of whom were women and children, taking scalps and other grisly trophies of battle. The tribes at Sand Creek had been assured by the U.S. Government that they would be safe in the territory they were occupying, but anti-tribal sentiments by white settlers were running high.

Following the massacre, the survivors joined the camps of the Cheyenne on the Smokey Hill and Republican Rivers. There, the war pipe was smoked and passed from camp to camp among the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho camped in the area and an attack on the stage station and fort at Julesburg was planned and carried out in the January 1865 Battle of Julesburg in the far northwest corner of Colorado.

This successful attack was followed up by numerous raids along the South Platte both east and west of Julesburg and a second raid on Julesburg in early February. A great deal of material was captured and many whites killed. The bulk of the tribes then moved north into Nebraska on their way to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Powder River.

In the spring of 1865, raids continued along the Oregon trail in Nebraska and the Sioux, the Northern Cheyenne, the Northern Arapaho together with the warriors who had come north after the Sand Creek massacre raided the Oregon Trail along the North Platte River, and in July 1865 attacked the troops stationed at the bridge across the North Platte at the present site of Casper, Wyoming in the Battle of Platte Bridge.”[Casper is named after Lieutenant Caspar Collins of the 11th Ohio Cavalry, who died in the battle.]

During the Civil War, California State volunteers had replaced Federal troops and won the ongoing Bald Hills War and the Owens Valley Indian War and engaged in minor actions against hostiles in Northern California. California and Oregon State volunteer garrisons in Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico and the Arizona Territories also engaged in conflicts with the Apache, Cheyenne, Goshute, Navaho, Paiute, Shoshone, Sioux and Ute tribes from 1862 to 1866.

Following the Civil War, California was mostly pacified, but federal troops replaced the volunteers and again took up the struggle against the tribes in the remote regions of the Mojave Desert, and in the northeast of the state against the Snake and Modoc during the next decade.

“After the Civil War, all of the tribes were assigned to reservations; the role of the army was to keep them there. The reservations themselves were under the control of the Interior Department. Control of the Great Plains fell under the Army’s Department of the Missouri, an administrative area of more than 1,000,000 sq. mi, encompassing all the territorial land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

In 1863, European Americans had blazed the Bozeman Trail across the Great Plains, through the heart of the traditional territory of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota. It was the shortest and easiest route from Fort Laramie and the Oregon Trail to the Montana gold fields. The gold was critical to the success of the Union in the Civil War and later to fund Reconstruction and to pay off the war debt. From 1864 to 1866, the trail was traversed by about 3,500 miners, emigrant settlers and others. The emigrants, men women and children competed with the tribes for the diminishing resources near the trail and suffered horrendous brutality at the hands of the tribes.

Major-General Winfield S. Hancock had led the department in 1866, but had mishandled his campaign, resulting in Sioux and Cheyenne raids that attacked mail stagecoaches, burnt the stations and killed the employees. They also raped, killed, and kidnapped many settlers all over the frontier. Under pressure from the territorial and State governors, U.S. Commanding General Ulysses Grant turned to his trusted Civil War cavalry lieutenant, General Phil Sheridan.

In September 1866, Sheridan went to Fort Martin Scott in Texas, taking three months to stop tribal raids. In August 1867, Grant appointed Sheridan to head the Department of the Missouri and pacify the Plains. His troops, even supplemented with State militia, were spread too thin to have any real effect because the tribes were never going to stand and fight a major engagement – they had learned that lesson well – especially Chief Red Cloud.

Red Cloud’s War was an armed conflict between the Lakota (Sioux), Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho tribes on one side and the United States Army in Wyoming and Montana territories from 1866 to 1868. The war was fought over control of the Powder River Country in north-central Wyoming – a key route to the Montana gold fields where the U.S. hoped to replenish the financial losses from the Civil War.

Red Cloud’s War consisted mostly of constant small-scale Indian raids and attacks, many led by Chief Crazy Horse, on the soldiers and civilians at the three forts in the Powder River country (Forts Laramie, Phil Kearney and C.F. Smith), wearing down those garrisons. The largest action of the war, the Fetterman Massacre (with 81 men killed on the U.S. side), was the worst military defeat suffered by the U.S. on the Great Plains until the Battle of the Little Bighorn ten years later.

Red Cloud’s War ended in an American strategic military defeat, with the U.S. suing for peace to end the Army losses. It was historic in that it matched a conventional army, which was trained to fight large scale classic battles for control of strategic territory, against a guerilla army of small, mobile, independent units who fought skirmishes to disrupt and slowly deplete the enemy force. This format would repeat itself 100 years later in Vietnam – although that ended in a strategic political defeat – the U.S. military having never being tactically defeated in the field.

With peace achieved under the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, the Indians were victorious. They gained legal control of the Powder River country, although their victory would only endure for 8 years until the Great Sioux War of 1876 under Chief Sitting Bull.

The Army counterattacks began almost immediately after the treaty signing. Sheridan resorted to the tried-and-true strategy of winter warfare at a time when the tribes had to protect their food supplies. In the Winter Campaign of 1868–69 he attacked the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes [but not the Sioux] in their winter quarters, taking their supplies and livestock, forcibly relocating them to reservations.

It was as part of this campaign that in 1868 Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer carried out the Battle of Washita River in which the winter camp of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle was attacked by Custer’s 7th Cavalry, in which men, women and children were massacred. This treacherous attack would not be forgotten by the Cheyenne.

Once the Union Pacific Railroad completed the Wyoming and northern Utah portions of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the fate of the “Plains Indians” was sealed. With the railroad came the “buffalo hunters” who would virtually eliminate the American Bison [upon which the “Plains Indians” depended for virtually all of their needs] from the plains – finally driving the starving and destitute aboriginal people onto the reservations.

In 1875, the Great Sioux War of 1876–77, the last serious Sioux war, erupted when the Dakota Gold Rush penetrated the Black Hills. The U.S. Army did not keep miners off Sioux [Lakota] hunting grounds; yet, when ordered to take action against bands of Sioux hunting on the range, according to their treaty rights, the Army moved vigorously. In 1876, after several indecisive encounters, now General George Custer found the main encampment of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho alongside the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer and his men – who were separated from the main body of troops – were all killed on the field by the far more numerous tribal warriors who knew the geography and so had the tactical advantage. They were led in the field by Chief Crazy Horse and inspired by Chief Sitting Bull’s earlier vision of victory.

The massacre of Custer and his troopers, as a popularized episode in the history of warfare in the Western Territories, was fostered by an advertising campaign by the brewery, Anheuser-Busch, and endorsed by Custer’s widow, who spent the rest of her life embellishing his legacy. The enterprising company ordered reprints of a dramatic painting that depicted “Custer’s Last Fight” and had them framed and hung in many American saloons, helping to create lasting impressions of the battle and the brewery’s products in the minds of bar patrons.

Only one soldier survived the Little Bighorn and returned to his command – a cavalry horse named Comanche. The horse was bought by the U.S. Army in 1868 in St. Louis, Missouri and sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Captain Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry liked the 15 hands (60 inches) gelding and bought him for his personal mount, to be ridden only in battle.

In 1868, while the army was fighting the Comanche in Kansas, the horse was wounded in the hindquarters by an arrow but continued to carry Keogh in the fight. Ironically, he named the horse “Comanche” to honor his bravery. Comanche was wounded many more times but always exhibited the same toughness.

On June 25, 1876, Captain Keogh rode Comanche at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. U.S. soldiers found Comanche, badly wounded, two days after the battle. He was found by Sergeant DeLacey [Co. I] in a ravine where he had crawled, there “to die and feed the Crows.”

He was raised up and tenderly cared for. His wounds were serious, but not necessarily fatal if properly looked after. In all, he carried seven scars from as many bullet wounds. There were four in back of the foreshoulder, one through a hoof, and one on either hind leg. From the Custer battlefield, three of the balls were extracted from his body and the last one was not taken out until April 1877.

After being transported to Fort Lincoln, he was slowly nursed back to health. After a lengthy convalescence, Comanche was retired. Thereafter, upon all occasions of ceremony of mounted 7th Cavalry regimental formation, ‘Comanche,’ saddled, bridled, and draped in mourning, and led by a mounted trooper of Company I, was paraded with the regiment.

In June 1879, Comanche was brought to Fort Meade by the Seventh Regiment, where he was kept like a prince until 1887. He was then taken to Fort Riley, Kansas. As an honor, he was made “Second Commanding Officer” of the 7th Cavalry. At Fort Riley, he became something of a pet, occasionally leading parades and indulging in a fondness for beer.

Comanche died of colic on November 7, 1891, believed to be 29 years old at the time. He is one of only two horses in United States history to be given a military funeral with full military honors, the other was Black Jack, the horse of legendary General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, who was General of the United States Army who led the American Expeditionary Forces to victory over Germany in World War I.

Comanche’s remains were not buried but instead were sent to the University of Kansas and preserved, where the taxidermy mount can still be seen today in the university’s Natural History Museum.

Finally, in 1890, a Ghost Dance ritual on the Northern Lakota reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, led to another Army attempt to disarm and subdue the Lakota. On December 29, during this attempt, gunfire erupted, and soldiers killed up to 300 tribal members, mostly old men, women and children in the Wounded Knee Massacre. Long before this, the means of subsistence and the societies of the aboriginal population of the Great Plains had been destroyed by the slaughter of the buffalo, driven almost to extinction in the 1880s by indiscriminate hunting.

To read more about the final years of the Plains Indians, I call your attention to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.

And so, it was here at the beginning of the “Gilded Age”, America was finally at peace after an exhausting three centuries of conflict and expansion and, with little introspection, stood up in the world – whole and confident and with the determination that no more would there be wars of conquest.

The Epoch of Conquest was over as America would prove in the course of the 20th Century but a new aggression was well underway – industrial competition – both here and abroad – which would lead to new attempts at conquest. Generals were replaced by “captains of industry” and again, survival of the fittest would reign – and do battle with Theodore Roosevelt early in the new century.

Even so, occasional violent incidents took place over the next several decades between tribal groups, the Army and, sometimes, law enforcement officials:

October 5, 1898, Leech Lake, Minnesota: Battle of Sugar Point. Last Medal of Honor given for Indian Wars campaigns was awarded to Private Oscar of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.

1907, Four Corners, Arizona: Two troops of the 5th Cavalry from Fort Wingate skirmish with armed Navajo men. One Navajo was killed and the rest escaped.

March 1909, Crazy Snake Rebellion, Oklahoma: Federal officials attack the Muscogee Creeks and allied Freedmen who had violently resisted the government since 1901, headquartered at Hickory ceremonial grounds in Oklahoma. A two-day gun battle seriously wounded leader Chitto Harjo and quelled this rebellion.

1911, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico: A company of cavalry went from Fort Wingate to quell a possible uprising by Navajo.

January 19, 1911, Washoe County, Nevada: The Last Massacre occurred. A group of Shoshones and Bannocks killed four ranchers.

On February 26, 1911 eight of the natives involved in the Last Massacre were killed by a posse in the Battle of Kelley Creek; the remaining four were captured.

March 15, 1915, Bluff War in Utah between Ute natives and Mormon settlers.

January 9, 1918, Bear Valley, Arizona: The Battle of Bear Valley was fought in Southern Arizona. United States Army forces of the 10th Cavalry engaged and captured a band of Yaquis, after a brief firefight.

March 20–23, 1923, Posey War fought in Utah between Ute and Paiute natives against Mormon settlers.

Sometime in 1924 both the Renegade Period and the Apache Wars ended, which had begun decades earlier and brought the American Indian Wars to a close 302 years after the Jamestown Massacre of 1622.

Next: Inspirational 20th Century Tribal-American heroes.

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