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Summary Article: Plains Wars from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide
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Image from: Mexican War in The Reader's Companion to Military History

Series of conflicts between the Plains Indians and the US Army 1850–90, during the era of US westward expansion. The Great Plains had been promised to the American Indians forever under the Permanent Indian Frontier policy of 1830, but had been increasingly invaded from the 1840s and the Indians forced onto Indian reservations. The wars were marked by massacres, reversals, and broken peace treaties on both sides. By 1891 the Plains Indians had lost their independence and lands.

Collapse of the Permanent Indian Frontier After the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the forced relocation of almost all the Indian peoples to the west of the Mississippi River during the 1830s, there was a brief period of peace between the USA and the American Indians. However, in the 1840s US settlers and gold miners started to trek across the Great Plains, invading the lands of the Plains Indians promised to them forever under the Permanent Indian Frontier. Both sides wished to avoid conflict where possible, but the mutually incompatible aims of the two sides over the following decades made peace impossible.

Fort Laramie Treaty, 1851 The first treaty between the US government and the Plains Indians was the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Under this treaty, the Plains peoples agreed to live on large areas of land allotted to them by the USA, and to allow American settlers to cross the Plains without fear of attack. However, with the increasing numbers of settlers and the natural migrating habits of the North American buffalo, or bison, that sustained the Plains peoples' way of life, the Indians were coming into increasing conflict with the USA. With the justification of manifest destiny driving the Americans forward (a belief in their God-given right to expand westwards), the Plains Indians could not be allowed to block the growth of the USA.

Fort Lyon Treaty, 1861 In 1859 gold was discovered in the Colorado Mountains at Pike's Peak. The miners crossed lands belonging to the Cheyenne and Arapaho to get to the gold fields and the US government and Army did not stop these treaty violations. Settlers were taking land in the Plains Indian territories in Kansas and Nebraska as land became ever more scarce in the states of the east and far west (California and Oregon).

The Plains Indians were forced to sign a new treaty in 1861 at Fort Lyon. This reduced the lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho allotted under the Fort Laramie Treaty to a small reservation at Sand Creek on the Arkansas River in Colorado. Under the treaty, the Cheyenne gave up large amounts of fertile land around the new city of Denver, Colorado. The US government tried to solve the problems caused by its failure to uphold the Fort Laramie Treaty by producing a new ‘permanent’ treaty, but many Indian warriors did not trust the Americans and attacked miners' camps and stagecoaches on the Plains.

Distrust escalated between the two sides. The Plains Indians could not trust the Americans to uphold their treaties and the US government felt that the Indian chiefs were failing to ensure that their people complied with the new treaty. Unfortunately, the structure of American Indian society made it impossible for the chiefs to force their warriors to accept a treaty if they did not want to do so; warriors were able to act against their chief if they disagreed with his decisions as a group. The Americans expected a chief to have the same control over his warriors as a US general over his troops, but the two were completely different organizations.

Minnesota Sioux, or Little Crow's War, 1861–62 Between September 1861 and September 1862 the Santee Sioux led by Little Crow rebelled against conditions on their reservation in Minnesota. Crops failed to grow, and the US government did not send the annual payments promised under their treaty.

Little Crow's War followed the pattern of many of the Plains Wars of the next 30 years. Initially very successful, Little Crow defeated the US Army units sent against him. However, the chiefs were unable to keep their warriors under control and many young Santee Sioux warriors went on uncoordinated killing sprees of settlers in isolated farmhouses; 700 American settlers were killed during a year-long campaign. Little Crow was unable to take the larger towns and forts of the USA, and over time his force dwindled in size. The Santee leader was unable to gain the support of other Plains peoples, so the US Army faced much smaller numbers than they could have encountered. Eventually the Santee were defeated by the forces of US generals Pope and Sibley.

The US government punished the Santee Sioux heavily after their defeat. They were forced onto a new reservation at Crow Creek on the Missouri River, where they were mixed with other peoples on far more inferior land. During the reprisals 303 warriors were sentenced to death but, after the intervention of President Abraham Lincoln, only 38 were executed by hanging in December 1862. Eventually Little Crow was killed while picking strawberries in a field at Hutchinson, Minnesota, in June 1863. The Minnesota State government paid a reward of $500 to a farmer for his scalp.

Sand Creek massacre, 1864 In 1864 the Sand Creek massacre took place at the Cheyenne peoples' Sand Creek Reservation in Colorado; the first major massacre of American Indians by US citizens. With the increasing population of Colorado owing to the development of mining and farming, the local Americans wanted the Cheyenne out of the territory.

A continuous state of war existed between the Cheyenne of Colorado and the local volunteer American forces between 1861 and 1864. During the American Civil War (1861–65) volunteer regiments replaced the regular army troops, and in the summer of 1864 the 3rd Colorado Volunteers were formed under the leadership of Col John Chivington. Chivington was a proven soldier, having defeated the Confederates' march into Colorado at the Battle of Glorietta Pass in 1862. He was notorious for his hatred of the American Indians, and had declared that ‘the Cheyenne will have to be roundly whipped – or completely wiped out – before they will be quiet.’

Despite the efforts of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle to gain peace, Chivington led a surprise attack on sleeping Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek on 29 November 1864. Despite Black Kettle's raising of the US flag and a white flag of peace, 450 Cheyenne were brutally massacred and mutilated, two-thirds of whom were women and children. The 3rd Colorado Volunteers were feted by the people of Denver as conquering heroes, as was Chivington. The scalps of the dead Cheyenne taken by the Volunteers were strung across the stage of the Denver Opera House. In the East, politicians and press attacked the massacre but Chivington was never prosecuted.

The legacy of the Sand Creek massacre was increased bloodshed and bitterness between the Plains Indians and the US Army. War erupted across the whole Plains as the US Army tried to put down the remnants of Black Kettle's Cheyenne. Generals William Sherman and Philip Sheridan, who would dominate US Army policy on the Great Plains for the next decade, were sent to crush the Cheyenne. Both hated the American Indians and their ruthless actions spread the war to the northern and southern Plains as the Plains Indians united against the common enemy. By 1865 the situation on the Plains was extremely dangerous. Peace was needed by both sides to stop the killing.

Bluff Creek Treaty, 1865 Peace came to the southern Plains in 1865 when the Cheyenne under Black Kettle and the Arapaho under Little Raven signed the Bluff Creek Treaty. The Cheyenne gave up the Sand Creek Reservation to go to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. The Kiowa and Comanche gave up most of Texas and New Mexico in exchange for a reservation in northwest Texas. However, many Cheyenne warriors refused to accept their defeat and joined forces with Red Cloud's Oglala Sioux in Montana.

Red Cloud's War, 1865–68 Red Cloud's War represented the next major stage in the Plains Wars. Under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the lands around the Powder River, North Platte River, and Black Hills were Sioux lands. When gold was discovered in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, miners poured into the region. The Sioux attacked these miners who were breaking the terms of the treaty. The response of the US government was not to uphold the Fort Laramie Treaty. Instead the US Army began to construct a series of forts in Wyoming and Montana along the new Bozeman Trail to Virginia City for the protection of the illegal miners travelling along the route. The Bozeman Trail left the Union Pacific Railroad at Julesburg and travelled northwest through Sioux lands along the North Platte and Powder rivers.

By the end of 1866 negotiations between the US government and Red Cloud's Sioux had broken down. The US Army had built six forts on the Bozeman Trail, but the Sioux were laying siege to them and had the soldiers trapped inside. In 1866 eighty US cavalry were killed at Fetterman's Massacre when they were lured out of Fort Phil Kearney to retrieve a supply train. Although unable to capture the forts, Red Cloud succeeded in closing the Bozeman Trail for two years. In 1868 the US Army and government accepted defeat by the Sioux on the Bozeman Trail. By now the loss of the Bozeman Trail had become irrelevant because the miners had discovered a new route to the Montana goldfields.

Second Fort Laramie Treaty, 1868 The two sides met at Fort Laramie to sign the 2nd Fort Laramie Treaty to end Red Cloud's War. The Sioux were confined to the Great Sioux Reservation in Dakota, but would be allowed to hunt outside their reservation in the Powder River country of Montana, the area where the Bozeman Trail had been. The US government had capitulated to Red Cloud's demands to withdraw all soldiers from the Bozeman Trail and ban all settlers and miners from this area of Montana. The Powder River lands were no longer the property of the Sioux and the US government reserved the right to ban the Sioux from them, but they were protected from US settlement. Red Cloud was content; he had defeated the US Army and kept control of the Sioux lands.

However, the conclusion of hostilities proved a short interlude in the Plains Wars. The US Army was determined to avenge its defeat, and the massacre of Capt Fetterman's 80 soldiers. For the Sioux the peace treaty split the peoples, just as Cheyenne chief Black Kettle's peace had done in 1865. Many warriors refused to accept the terms of a peace treaty that confined the Sioux to the Great Sioux Reservation in Dakota. Warrior leaders who were prepared to carry on the fight such as Oglala Sioux chief Crazy Horse and Hunkpapa Sioux chief Sitting Bull attracted more followers and their power increased. However, in 1868 the conflict on the northern Plains seemed settled.

Conflict on the southern Plains At the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad began in earnest. By 1869 the railroad had crossed the Great Plains. The attacks made by Plains Indians on the railroad crews had led to a strong response from the US Army. The coming of the railroad affected the migration of the North American buffalo, or bison, herds on the Great Plains, and so threatened the way of life of the Plains Indians. Even more devastating were the American hunters who were beginning to destroy the herds; buffalo numbers would really collapse in the 1870s and 1880s, but the threat was already visible.

Medicine Lodge Treaty, 1867 Indian chiefs such as Black Kettle recognized the increasing hopelessness of the Plains Indians' situation, and tried once again to make peace with the US government. A meeting was held at Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas in 1867. The southern Plains Indians, including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche, agreed to leave their lands and go to new reservations in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. This signalled the effective defeat and humiliation of the Southern tribes, as they would be unable to hunt or continue with their old way of life. The US Army appeared to have won the Plains Wars, at least on the southern Plains.

Many warriors still refused to accept these terms, however, and were fired by the successes of Red Cloud and the Sioux on the northern Plains. By 1868 many of the Cheyenne and Arapaho bands had still not entered the reservations agreed under the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty. The US Army, who intended to take swift action to force the Indians to obey the treaty, treated them as hostile and at war.

Battle of the Washita, 1868 The celebrated Civil War veteran Lt-Col George Custer was chosen by generals Sherman and Sheridan to lead the 7th Cavalry in the campaign of winter 1868–69 against the Cheyenne and Arapaho on the southern Plains. A noted hothead, Custer was infamous for disobeying orders in his pursuit of success, but this did not worry the generals who were intent on total victory at all costs. The battle plan was to force the Indians into the Washita Valley in Colorado and drive them down the valley to their reservations on the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. Custer would be waiting for the Cheyenne and Arapaho at the foot of valley, and would defeat their forces and disarm them. The campaign was intended to end the wars on the southern Plains. Sheridan's plan was to attack the Indians during the winter because they would be in their less-mobile winter camps. The Plains Indians usually stayed in one place during the harsh winter months, and this would make them easier to find.

The 7th Cavalry was sent to take up position at the end of the Washita Valley and await the arrival of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. However, Custer soon broke with his orders and followed an Indian trail found by his scouts. Custer advanced on a camp of Arapaho and Cheyenne on the Washita River and attacked without warning on 27 November 1868. Of the 103 Cheyenne killed, 92 were women and children and only 11 were warriors. Custer's cavalry also killed Black Kettle, the Cheyenne peace chief who had tried to bring peace to the southern Plains since the early 1860s. Black Kettle's Cheyenne had already suffered a massacre in 1864 at the Sand Creek Reservation; now they were massacred again. The Battle of the Washita established Custer's reputation as a tough fighter of the American Indians. By the spring of 1869, Sheridan, Sherman, and Custer had defeated all the remaining Indian groups on the southern Plains. The Kiowa and Comanche were allowed to go to their reservations granted in the Medicine Lodge Treaty. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, however, were punished for their fierce resistance by being assigned a smaller and poorer reservation than the one stated in the treaty. The war on the southern Plains was at an end, with complete victory for the US Army.

Conflict on the northern Plains On the northern Plains the Sioux remained undefeated, and potential sources of confrontation between the American Indians and the US Army were ever present. The railroads across the Plains were spreading, the destruction of the buffalo herds was increasing, and the numbers of homesteaders settling on the Plains was rising.

The next stage of the Plains Wars was sparked by the building of a second transcontinental railway and a gold strike in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sacred lands of the Sioux and other Plains Indians. The Black Hills were in the Great Sioux Reservation, territory agreed under the Second Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and the US government should have stopped the miners from entering the Black Hills, rather than encouraging them. At the same time as the South Dakota gold rush, the Northern Pacific Railroad was constructing a second transcontinental railway across the northern Plains. The Northern Pacific would need to build across the Sioux hunting grounds of Dakota and Montana, violating the treaties. The US government wanted the benefits of the railroad and the money from the gold to flow back into the US economy, and had no intention of upholding the treaties.

In 1874 Lt-Col Custer, victorious after the Battle of the Washita, was the first to publicize the gold in the Black Hills. He was sent with his 7th Cavalry to see if rumours of gold were true, while protecting the railroad crews from attack by the Sioux. Custer used his contacts in the press to spread the news of the gold strike and miners started to flood in by the thousands. The Sioux were enraged; their lands were under attack from all sides. They turned down the US government's offer to buy the land for $6 million. In early December 1875 the US government gave the Sioux 60 days to return to their reservations and stop all attacks on miners and railroad crews. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the two main war leaders of the Sioux who had fought with Red Cloud between 1865 and 1868, refused to lay down their arms and leave their old hunting grounds. Sitting Bull led his Hunkpapa Sioux to the Powder River country and camped by Rosebud Creek. Crazy Horse soon joined him with his Oglala Sioux. A large number of undefeated Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors and their families also joined the encampment. By May 1876 thousands had gathered on the Rosebud, including over 2,000 warriors. The tribes had gathered in what could be seen as one last effort to preserve their way of life against the encroaching Americans. Sitting Bull inspired confidence and the other Plains Indians felt safe with him. Once the 60 days was up, the US Army led by General Sheridan moved in to crush the Indians camped on the Rosebud.

Battle of the Rosebud, 1876 In 1876 Sheridan planned a three-pronged attack from the south, west, and east of the Indian encampment. They would be surrounded and crushed by the combined force of 2,500 cavalry and infantry under generals George Crook, Alfred Terry, and Col John Gibbon. The generals had at least 320 km/200 mi to march to the Rosebud, and had little information on the strength of the opposing force. Sheridan believed there to be just 800 warriors rather than over 2,000.

The first setback for the US Army in the campaign was the defeat of Crook's force at the Battle of the Rosebud on 17 June. Crook's soldiers were attacked on the upper Rosebud by 1,500 warriors led by Crazy Horse and forced to retreat south towards Fort Fetterman and away from the fighting. By now the camp had moved to the Little Bighorn River.

Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1876 Unaware of Crook's defeat, on 21 June Col Gibbon and General Terry combined their 1,450 men and prepared for a joint attack. The infantry under Gibbon and Terry would attack from the north, while the 7th Cavalry led by Custer would scout around the Wolf Mountains and attack from the south. Complete precision was crucial, the forces had to synchronize their attacks to succeed. Custer's failure to follow orders, by going through rather than round the Wolf Mountains, meant that he arrived a day early. His subsequent reckless attack without support led to the defeat of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on 25th June 1876.

Custer had 600 soldiers. He had been offered four companies of the 2nd Cavalry, an extra 180 men, but had arrogantly refused these reinforcements, believing that his 7th Cavalry could defeat any Indian camp on the Plains. Although his Crow scout, Curly, had warned him not to attack the huge camp, Custer ignored all advice and attacked the camp in the afternoon of 25th June 1876. He split his forces into three groups: Major Marcus Reno led about 125 men to attack from the south; Capt Frederick Benteen led a similar detachment to support Reno's attack, and Custer took an estimated 225 men to attack the camp from the north. The 7th Cavalry were at a disadvantage. Clearly outnumbered by the Indian forces, over 2,000-strong, they were also tired from their two-day forced march. In addition to this, the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry had single-shot Springfield rifles, while the Indian warriors had the technologically superior repeating Winchester rifles which could fire much faster.

Custer was trapped on top of a hill and surrounded by the warriors led by Crazy Horse and Gall. By 4 p.m. Custer and his detachment were all dead. When General Terry arrived two days later on 27 June, the Plains Indians had withdrawn and the bodies of Custer's soldiers lay scalped and mutilated on the hill above the camp. Custer's body, however, was not mutilated. Many American Indians and historians have argued that despite his status as an enemy, the Indians respected Custer as an honest fighter. Sitting Bull had inflicted the greatest defeat on the US Army of the entire Plains Wars.

End of the northern Plains Wars The victory proved short-lived. The supply of buffalo in the Powder River country was unable to support the 7,000 Indians camped on the Little Bighorn, and by October 1876 the huge force gathered around Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had broken up. Many of the Sioux and Cheyenne returned to their reservations, and the Plains Indians lost the Black Hills and Powder River country to the USA. The US Army was able to pour in thousands of troops to suppress the fleeing bands and force the warriors to submit to reservation life.

At the same time the destruction of the buffalo herds meant that the Plains Indians were no longer able to feed themselves. The Plains were empty of buffalo by 1883, with only a few hundred left of the millions of buffalo that had roamed the Plains in the 1850s. The killing of the Plains Indians' horses and ponies during the Little Bighorn campaign made it impossible for them to transport their equipment and families or to effectively hunt the few remaining buffalo. After 1876 the Plains Wars were over on the northern Plains as well as the southern Plains. Any more treaties would simply involve the Plains Indians losing more lands and accepting domination by the USA.

The Plains Indians became prisoners of the reservation system, forced to farm and give up their old way of life. Even Sitting Bull, who had escaped to Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, returned to live on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. There were sporadic uprisings, such as the Nez Percé of Oregon in 1876 and the Apache of Arizona in 1881, but these local revolts were all put down.

Battle of Wounded Knee, 1890 The final confrontation of the Plains Wars was at Wounded Knee Creek in December 1890. Following the death of Sitting Bull in 1890, who was killed by a Sioux police officer while supposedly resisting arrest for encouraging the anti-American Ghost Dance ceremonies, the Sioux on the reservations involved in the Ghost Dances panicked and tried to flee.

On 23 December 1890 the Miniconjou Sioux chief Big Foot left his Cheyenne River Reservation in an attempt to lead 350 of his Miniconjou Sioux and Sitting Bull's remaining Hunkpapa Sioux south to safety on Red Cloud's Pine Ridge Reservation. The Sioux bands trekked wearily through the snow and ice of the Plains winter, with Big Foot soon struck down with pneumonia. By 28 December the 7th Cavalry, Custer's old regiment, had captured them and taken them to Wounded Knee Creek. Here they were to be disarmed. On the morning of 29 December 1890, surrounded by dozens of soldiers and three Hotchkiss cannons, the Sioux were forced to surrender their weapons. In the confusion someone fired a shot, just as the Miniconjou Sioux medicine man, Yellow Bird, threw a handful of dust into the air. The cavalry assumed that this was a pre-arranged signal for the Sioux to attack, and opened fire with rifles and the cannons. Within ten minutes 150 of the 350 Indians were dead. Some were killed while fleeing across the frozen Plains. Women and children were cut down by the soldiers despite making their identity known.

The confrontation marked the final end of the Plains Wars. The 7th Cavalry had avenged the killing of Custer and his men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; indeed some of the soldiers involved in the massacre had been under the command of Benteen and Reno at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Members of the 7th Cavalry received the Medal of Honour for their actions at Wounded Knee, one of the highest honours that can be given to a US Army soldier. This reflected the US Army's attitude towards the Plains Indians. Even today descendants of the victims of the Wounded Knee massacre campaign for the medals to be taken away.

Overview of the Plains Wars Between the signing of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty and the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, the Plains Wars saw changing fortunes for the Plains Indians and the US Army. Although the defeat of the Plains Indians was not inevitable, the period saw an almost continuous downward slide in the power, land holdings, and freedom of the Plains Indians. The US Army and government conspired to defeat the tribes and force them on to reservations while taking away their lands.

Although the Plains Indians won some victories, including Red Cloud's War and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, these proved to be short-lived successes in a series of defeats. Some engagements of the Plains Wars were proper battles but many, such as Sand Creek in 1864 and the Washita in 1868, were massacres. Condemnation from the East for the massacres was strong, but no one was ever punished. Generals Sheridan and Sherman were violently anti-Indian, and accepted massacres as an unpleasant but necessary task.

The USA won the Plains Wars as much through non-military methods, such as the destruction of the buffalo herds, as through military victories. By the mid-1870s the Plains Indians were simply unable to support themselves and were too weak to resist the power of the US Army and American people.

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