BLACK HILLS GOLD AND THE SIOUX CAMPAIGN
Ratification of the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1869, coupled with the completion that year of the first transcontinental railroad, seemed to presage a new era of peace on the Plains, but it again proved to be a fragile peace. There were many scattered hostile actions in the Fort Laramie region, 1869-1873, such as the killing of Lieutenant Levi P. Robinson on a wood-cutting detail near Laramie Peak. Renegades under Sitting Bull in Montana harassed surveyors of the proposed Northern Pacific Railroad. Accordingly, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs recommended the establishment of U. S. military forces at the agencies to preserve law and order, and to prevent the Sioux from straying off their reservations. Furthermore, he enjoined that "any found off be forced in and brought to obedience by the military."
It should have surprised no one that the Sioux at the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Agencies were restless, simply because they felt their style somewhat cramped after generations of untrammelled buffalo-hunting and inter-tribal warfare. There was also deep-seated repugnance to suggestions of agriculture, and chronic dissatisfaction with the beef issues. Threatening demonstrations against civilian employees led in 1874 to the establishment of military posts in their midst Fort Robinson at Red Cloud Agency (named for the slain Lieutenant), and Camp Sheridan at the Spotted Tail Agency further east, both linked to the Fort Laramie command post by the old Fort Pierre Trail.
The Fort Laramie Treaty was sabotaged by the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. The motives of the Custer Expedition out of Fort Abraham Lincoln (on the Missouri River, opposite Bismarck, North Dakota) in the spring of 1874 may have been scientific, but the results were cataclysmic. When the excitable Custer sent Scout Charley Reynolds to Fort Laramie to telegraph the news to the world, the wholesale invasion of the Sioux Reservation was bound to follow. In 1875 the Government sent out a second scientific expedition to the Hills, this time from Cheyenne, to make sure the gold was real. Escorted by Fort Laramie troops under Colonel I. R. Dodge, Professor W. P. Jenney of New York prospected the Hills and confirmed the presence of the glittering metal.
When a Commission sent by the Government to Red Cloud Agency failed in its mission to buy back the Black Hills, the Army gave up its efforts to keep prospectors away, large numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne then expressed their anger by withdrawing to Powder River country, to hunt buffalo and plan retribution. The wayward tribesmen were issued an ultimatum: return to their respective reservations by January 31, 1876 or the Army would take appropriate action. The sullen warriors elected to fight for their freedom.
In the 1876 war against the defiant tribes Fort Laramie played a primary role as a base of operations, supplemented by the new Fort Fetterman at the main North Platte crossing 80 miles upriver. Thus it took on vigorous new life as a staging area for thousands of blue-clad troopers and hundreds of Army supply wagons heading north towards the headwaters of the Powder and other tributaries of the Yellowstone River. In March Colonel J. J. Reynolds left Fort Laramie with cavalry to surprise an encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Powder. In June General George Crook led a large force northward to a head-on clash with massed warriors under Crazy Horse. This Battle of the Rosebud was a triumph for the Sioux because Crook was put out of action, unable to effect a junction with General Terry's forces moving south from the Yellowstone. The stage was set for the famous disaster to the Seventh Cavalry on the Little Bighorn.
If Custer's annihilation was the zenith of military glory for the Plains Indians, it was a sun that sank quickly. While the tribes scattered to hunt for food, the Army was given full support for a final solution to the Indian problem. Again Fort Laramie figured in the clean-up campaigns now set in motion. It was the base for General Crook's control of the now subdued Red Cloud Agency, and a successful campaign against Dull Knife's Cheyenne village on Crazy Woman Fork of Powder River. Early in 1877 Crazy Horse himself surrendered, while the incorrigible Sitting Bull fled to Canada. The Government was now able to dictate the formal relinquishment of the Black Hills.
Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003