THE INDIAN PROBLEM: TREATY AND MASSACRE
Contrary to popular fiction writers the Plains Indians were not in the habit of attacking wagon trains, at least during the main period of migrations up the North Platte, 1841-1858. Because of chronic rumors in the border towns about the Indian menace, emigrants were wont to arm themselves heavily and practice the formation of defensive corrals, but actual sieges were rare. In practice the emigrants came to look upon the natives as, at worst, a nuisance because of their habits of begging and pilfering. At best they were a curious part of the scenery, particularly at Fort Laramie where they had tipi encampments, and buried their dead in tree scaffolds. As to the Indians, they stoically observed the white nation on wheels, hoping that the Platte region would soon revert to its accustomed solitude. But when the great migrations continued year after year, disrupting the buffalo herds, unrest smoldered and finally broke into flame.
In 1845 the Government had sent five companies of Dragoons under Colonel S. W. Kearny on a peaceful mission to Fort Laramie to impress the natives with American might, and to discourage depredations against Oregon Trail travellers. In 1847 Thomas Fitzpatrick, veteran of the fur trade and trail guide, became the first agent for Indians of "the Upper Platte and the Arkansas." Aware of the mounting tension he urged a treaty council to ensure the peace. Early in 1851 Congress appropriated $100,000 for such a purpose. This led to the great Fort Laramie Treaty Council in September of that year, unique in western annals because of its immense size and the number of different tribes from all over the Northern Plains, including hereditary enemies such as Cheyenne and Shoshone, Sioux and Crow, who attended peacefully. Superintendent of Indian Affairs D. D. Mitchell, Jim Bridger with the Shoshone, and the Catholic missionary Father De Smet with Mandan, Gros Ventres, and others tribesmen from the Upper Missouri, were among other white notables present. The countless ponies accompanying an estimated 10,000 Indians required much forage, and grass around the fort was so depleted, that the commissioners decided that the vast assemblage should move 30 miles east, to the meadows at the mouth of Horse Creek, near Scotts Bluff. There parades of Indian tribes in full regalia were held, oratory flowed, presents were distributed, the pipe of peace was smoked, and a solemn agreement finally reached that peace should reign between red man and white. For promising not to molest Oregon Trail travellers, the Indians would receive annual gifts or "annuities" worth $50,000.
During the large migration of 1852 all went smoothly, but a serious incident occurred in mid-June of 1853. When a North Platte ferryman, busy with emigrants, refused to transport a party of young Sioux, they seized the boat, and one of them fired on the soldiers, who recaptured it. Lieutenant H. B. Fleming and 23 men were dispatched to the nearby village of Minniconjou Sioux to arrest the offender. The Indians refused to give him up. In the ensuing exchange of gunfire three Indians were killed. The enraged Sioux then threatened the fort and passing emigrants. Through skillfull diplomacy Captain Richard Garnett, post commander, was able to calm them down and persuade them to accept their annuities for that year, but the seeds of mistrust had been planted.
Until August 18 the migrations of 1854 saw little trouble with Indians. On that day, eight miles east of the fort, a Mormon caravan passed a village of some 1,000 Brule Sioux waiting for their annuities, and a cow strayed into the village where it was promptly butchered for meat by a hungry Indian. Upon complaint of the aggrieved owner, Captain Fleming sent Lieutenant John Grattan, Sixth Infantry, with a half-breed interpreter and 28 enlisted men to arrest the offender. After a brief parley, a fusillade by the soldiers resulted in the death of Chief Conquering Bear, and the retaliatory massacre of Grattan, the interpreter and his entire command. The Indians then pillaged Bordeaux's nearby trading post and helped themselves to goods stored at the American Fur Company post three miles upriver. The Fort Laramie garrison was then threatened but the Indians moved away before inflicting any casualties there. Thus the harmony of 1851 was destroyed and 25 years of intermittent warfare began.
In 1855 most Indian leaders, fearing reprisals for the Grattan affair, brought their bands into Fort Laramie in accordance with orders received by Agent Thomas Twiss to round up all those "friendly and peaceable." Unfortunately the Brule Sioux under Little Thunder were off on a buffalo hunt north of the Platte. In August a force of 600 cavalrymen under General W. S. Harney rode westward from Fort Kearny to punish the Sioux. On September 2 the expedition arrived at Ash Hollow, 150 miles below Fort Laramie, and scouts located the "hostiles" in camp six miles north. Early the next morning the troops attacked the village from two sides, killing 86 Indians, wounding countless others, and capturing a large number of women and children. After burying the dead, treating the survivors, and destroying the Indian equipage, Harney continued up the Platte to Fort Laramie. After lecturing the cowed "friendlies" there, he reinforced the garrison, then with 450 men marched northwestward to Fort Pierre on the Missouri.
Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003