RED CLOUD'S WAR
Despite the challenge to the Army by the daring "Cossacks of the Plains," a peace party with a benign attitude toward the rampaging nomads gained ascendancy in Washington. In 1866, therefore, instead of a campaign to crush the Indians there was mounted a peace offensive, with Fort Laramie as the setting. Runners were sent out from the fort in January to hostile camps with invitations to a great council to be held in June.
In March of that year Colonel Henry Maynadier, the Fort Laramie commander, reported a good omen. Spotted Tail, head chief of the Brules, brought in the body of his daughter for burial among the whites because that was her express wish. In a ceremony which contained all the pageantry of the military and the primitive tradition of the Sioux her body was placed in a coffin on a raised platform on the plateau beyond the fort cemetery.
The peace commissioners assembled on June 1 with the principal chiefs of the Sioux and Cheyenne. Although some 3,000 Indians showed up for the ceremonies there were still some die-hard factions missing. Nevertheless the delegates present signed the treaty and the usual presents of gay-colored cloth, mirrors, cheap jewelry, peace medals, and some weapons were distributed. The treaty had a provision, not clearly explained, which permitted passage of whites over the Bozeman Trail, the new road from Fort Laramie northwestward to Virginia City and the recently discovered Montana gold mines.
While ceremonies were still in progress, Colonel Henry B. Carrington arrived on the scene with 2,000 troops, heavily armed and equipped to set up a chain of posts along the Bozeman Trail. To Red Cloud, leader of the rebels, such armed occupation would make a mockery of any peace treaty, and he withdrew in fury. Construction of the new forts in Sioux territory amounted to a declaration of war. Thus the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1866 was broken faster than any other treaty on record.
On June 17 Carrington marched north with the Eighteenth Regiment of Infantry, plus cavalry units and hundreds of mule teams hauling vast quantities of equipment and supplies. After garrisoning Camp Connor on Powder River, later relocated as Fort Reno, he moved toward the Bighorn Mountains, and in their shadow on Piney Creek built an outsize log stockade called Fort Phil Kearny. Shortly thereafter he directed the establishment of Fort C. F. Smith at the crossing of the Bighorn River in Crow country, south-central Montana. Soon the environs of both these new forts became scenes of almost daily Indian attacks on traders, wagon trains, wood-cutting parties, and troops, with many scalps lifted. The tragic climax came on December 21 when Captain William Fetterman, disobeying orders, led 80 men into an ambush near Phil Kearny, and all were killed and mutilated by warriors led by Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. Alerted by Scout "Portugee" Phillips, Fort Laramie troops under General Wessels rode through sub-zero weather to relieve the garrison. In 1867 the Army scored victories in the Wagon Box Fight near Phil Kearny and the Hayfield Fight near C. F. Smith.
The suffering and heroism enacted along the Bozeman Trail was destined to have little impact on the course of history because of larger events elsewhere. First was the westward progress of the Union Pacific Railroad, reaching Cheyenne in 1867. The completion of this modern "Overland Route" would lessen the importance of the Oregon Trail or Platte route, and thereby make it less imperative to dispossess the Indians of the Northern Plains. Secondly, again the "doves" in Congress prevailed over the "hawks." Accordingly, an Act of July, 1867 set up a new Commission to make peace, once and for all.
Arriving at Fort Laramie via Cheyenne in November, the Commission under General W. T. Sherman was dismayed to find no Sioux to parley with as planned. Red Cloud refused to come in until the garrisons at Forts Reno, Phil Kearny and C. F. Smith were withdrawn. The Commission acceded and in March, 1868 the President ordered their abandonment. However, it was not until the hated forts were totally evacuated in August, and then burned to the ground by the implacable Red Cloud, that he came in to Fort Laramie to affix the final Indian signature.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 gave the Sioux as a reservation all of what is now South Dakota west of the Missouri River. It also gave them hunting rights in the great expanse north of the North Platte and east of the Bighorn Mountains, designated as unceded Indian lands. The First Red Cloud Agency was established in 1871 on the North Platte, just 25 miles below the fort, at the present Nebraska-Wyoming line. In 1873 it was moved north to a site on White River in northwestern Nebraska.
Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003