The Sioux Wars tell the dramatic story of a people attempting to retain their way of life, but finally falling to overwhelming odds and the destruction of their food source. The wars had five distinct phases, the first beginning soon after the signing of the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1851. This treaty had allowed safe passage for white setters along the Oregon Trail. An unfortunate incident broke the peace. A cow escaped from a Mormon party in 1854 and it wandered into a Sioux (Brule) camp. The Mormons searched for it, and became afraid upon seeing Indians. They returned to their own camp and reported the incident to the army at Ft. Laramie, telling the soldiers the cow had been stolen.
Lt. John Grattan led a force into the village and tried to arrest the man whom he insisted had killed the cow. When the man claimed innocence and refused to turn himself in, Grattan ordered cannons to be fired upon the Indians. Chief Conquering Bear, spokesman for the Sioux, was killed. The Sioux were so incensed they launched a counter attack and killed the entire detachment. In retaliation, in September of 1855, General William S. Harney took 600 troops and overran a Brule village at Blue Water, killing 85 people and taking 70 women and children captives.
In the east, the Santee Sioux were inundated with white settlers constantly wanting more of their land and defrauding them. During a disagreement about how the situation was being handled, four braves killed five settlers. In August of 1862 the Santee Sioux opened the war with raids on white settlements and trading posts. Little Crow, chief of the Santee, led several assaults on Ft. Ridgely. The troops inside the fort fired howitzers at the Indians, killing as many as 100 warriors. The Santee continued to raid, drawing the ire of General Henry H. Sibley who arrived at Ft. Ridgely with 1500 troops.
Little Crow led more successful raids, but finally Sibley moved against the Santee and at Wood Lake the warriors were no match for the artillery of the army. Many of the scattered Sioux escaped and fled to the Dakota Territory or further on to Canada. Those who stayed were ordered hanged by President Abraham Lincoln. On December 26, 1862 at Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in American history took place. Thirty-eight Santee Sioux were hanged. General Sibley continued to pursue the Santee remnants. In the spring of 1864 General Alfred Sully defeated a coalition of tribes at Whitestone Hill and Killdeer Mountain. Once again Native Americans paid dearly for trying to keep their lands.
The opening of the Bozeman Trail led to the Red Cloud War in the years following the Civil War. A new trail discovered by John Bozeman brought more miners and settlers to Montana. The trail shortened the trip from the east but went through the heart of the hunting grounds of the Cheyenne and Sioux. Oglala Tetons, Hunkpapa Tetons and Brule Tetons joined with the Northern Cheyennes and Northern Arapahos to raid white migrants and military patrols along the trail. In June of 1866 Red Cloud and other chiefs met with Army officers at Ft. Laramie to discuss the new trail. While some of the chiefs signed a non-aggression treaty, Red Cloud left to prepare for war. The army sought to reinforce Ft. Reno and to add two new forts, Ft. Phil Kearney and Ft. C.F. Smith to the Bozeman Trail route.
In 1866 Crazy Horse sought to deceive the soldiers sent out to find wood. The men from the wood train thought that the Indians were going one direction and when they tried to avoid the party of warriors they were led directly into an ambush. A relief party led by Capt. William Fetterman fell into another trap and the entire 80-man party was killed. More soldiers were sent, this time with breech loading rifles, a new type of weapon that was much easier and faster to load and shoot than the old type of rifle. The Native warriors first saw these weapons at the Hayfield and Wagon Box Fights. While the warriors chased both parties back into their forts, they suffered many casualties.
Finally, with the transcontinental railroad south of the Platte River near completion, the government relented. The Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868 granted Red Cloud’s demand for abandoning the Bozeman forts in exchange for stopping the raids. The Sioux burned down the forts once they were abandoned.
With the arrival of the railroad, the source of the Plains Indians life style, the buffalo, was disappearing. Not only was the new railroad frightening these once numerous animals, the soldiers and settlers were hunting them by the thousands. Additionally, by the 1870s, both sides had violated the Ft. Laramie Treaty. Now surveys for another railroad, the Northern Pacific, would make matters even worse by bringing in more settlers to homestead on the surveyed land. But it was the discovery of gold in 1874 in the Santees’ sacred Black Hills that would be the event to cause the next round of fighting.
Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led the Native warriors. General William T. Sherman and General Philip H. Sheridan led the federal troops. War broke out when the military ordered Indian hunting bands to come into the agencies or be declared hostile. The Indian warriors won a battle at Montana’s Powder River in March of 1876 with heavy bluecoat casualties. Then in the late spring, a three-pronged campaign was started with General George Crook coming from the south, Col. John Gibbon coming from the west and General Alfred Terry with Col. George A. Custer advancing from the east. Crook’s troops arrived from the south along Rosebud Creek.
On June 17,1876 Crazy Horse with 700 Sioux and Cheyenne braves moved against the 1,000 man force of General Crook. The Indian warriors’ well-organized, repeated attacks drove Crook’s men back to their base with numerous casualties. The Sioux and Cheyenne now regrouped on a meadow called Greasy Grass along the Little Bighorn River. The total encampment contained 7,000 Natives with approximately 1,800 of them warriors.
On June 21st Terry’s and Gibbon’s columns united. Major Marcus Reno’s scouting party reported the general location of the Indian camp and Terry sent Custer’s 7th Calvary to cut them off while the test of the troops approached from the north. When Custer’s scouts discovered the encampment, instead of waiting for the rest of the army, Custer organized for an immediate attack. His plan proved disastrous and on June 25th Custer’s entire force of approximately 200 men was wiped out. This would be the last major victory for the warriors led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall.
In July of 1876, a force under Col Wesley Merritt intercepted and defeated 1000 Cheyennes who had been planning to join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. On September 8th Crook captured and defeated American Horse’s band at Slim Buttes. In November of the same year, Dull Knife’s Northern Cheyennes were routed by Crook. Crazy Horse lost at the Battle of Wolf Mountain in January of 1877 and Lame Deer was defeated in Montana.
Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa Sioux fled to Canada. Crazy Horse surrendered in 1877 only to be bayoneted to death while resisting orders for his imprisonment. Sitting Bull returned in 1881 and surrendered at Ft. Buford. He was moved to Standing Rock Agency and was killed in 1890 while resisting arrest.
The final chapter of the Sioux Wars would be played out in 1890. Wovoka, a Paiute mystic, started the Ghost Dance Religion. He taught that the Ghost Dance would bring the “old world” back. The dead would come alive, the buffalo would return and all whites would be removed from the plains. In order to hasten the event, Native American warriors should dance the ghost dance. To an impoverished, defeated and despondent people, most living on reservations, the new religion gave them hope. It was also thought that the ghost dance shirts would protect the wearer from white men’s bullets.
In November of 1890 the U.S. Government banned the Ghost Dance on the Sioux reservations. Indian police were ordered to arrest Sitting Bull, a staunch supporter of the Ghost Dance. In the scuffle that ensued, Sitting Bull and six of his warriors were killed. Big Foot was also to be arrested but before soldiers arrived, he and his followers set out for the Pine Ridge Agency.
General Nelson Miles, now in charge of the Division of the Missouri, sent the 7th Calvary under Major S.M. Whitside to intercept the band of Miniconjous. When the cavalry finally found the tribe the soldiers ordered them to camp for the night at Wounded Knee Creek. On the morning of December 29th while Big Foot and other leaders were meeting with the Army officers, a rifle accidentally discharged. Colonel James Forsyth who had arrived to take charge, ordered the troops to shoot. Hotchkiss artillery was used to cut down those men, women and children trying to flee the carnage. One hundred-fifty people including Big Foot had been killed.
This ended the almost forty-year battle by the Sioux to retain their lands and their way of life. They would be allowed neither.