Red Cloud and the Lakota

Red CloudRed Cloud, c.1905 (Photo: Library of Congress)

On December 10, 1909, Red Cloud died poor, blind, and discouraged. Thus passed one of America’s most famous warriors and statesmen. In his day, this Oglala Lakota leader was a household name. His experience in the second half of the nineteenth century personified the experiences of the Lakota, a northern plains American Indian tribe known by its enemies as the “Sioux.”

Red Cloud was born in 1822 in what is now Nebraska, near the Platte River. The Lakota lived in a rich land that reached northwest into the Powder River Country of what is now Wyoming and Montana. The land onto which their ancestors had moved generations before teemed with game and waterfowl. The introduction of horses had made hunting easier and enabled the seven tribes of the band to become wealthy. Their economy centered on buffalo, and goods they could not produce themselves they obtained from the traders who came through their territory every once in awhile. Otherwise there was little contact with white Americans in the East.

That isolation disappeared during the American Civil War. In 1864, miner John Bozeman blazed a trail directly through the Powder River hunting lands to the newly discovered mines in what is now Montana. Red Cloud was by then a well-known fighter, famous for his mercilessness and his great height – six and a half feet, according to an awed reporter, although this was likely generous – and he emerged as the leader of Lakota resistance to the miners and settlers who crossed the tribe’s lands. With the Civil War distracting the U.S. Army, Lakota warriors, aided by members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, pushed interlopers out of their hunting grounds.

In the summer of 1865, after winning a war to spread the northern system of individual enterprise to the American West, the U.S. government became determined to push back the Lakota who seemed to be standing in the way of that system. Miners, farmers, storekeepers, cowboys, and railroad men stood poised to rush into the rich northern plains. The Lakota promised to kill them if they tried. To break Indian resistance, General U. S. Grant put General William Tecumseh Sherman, fresh from his total war in the South, in charge of defending eastern emigrants from Lakota attacks.

In 1866, Sherman negotiated a treaty with some Lakota leaders. When Union reinforcements arrived during the negotiations, though, Red Cloud and legendary fighter Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse accused Sherman of bad faith and vowed to fight. Sherman misjudged the situation. He believed the angry Lakota were only a few outliers and that settlement would soon overrun the Indians. But Red Cloud was so effectively marshaling his warriors into resistance that the ensuing fights would be known as Red Cloud’s War.

While Sherman plotted to push Lakotas onto a reservation that would keep them away from the transcontinental railroad, soldiers marched up the Bozeman Trail and built forts to protect the miners and settlers pouring into the region. The army had established Fort Reno in 1865; soldiers built Fort Phil Kearny, then marched another ninety miles to the Bighorn River and knocked together Fort C. F. Smith. But Americans were tired of war, and the troops at the forts were understaffed, underequipped, and undertrained.

In December 1866, trouble erupted when an arrogant and inexperienced officer at Fort Phil Kearny, Lieutenant Colonel W. J. Fetterman, set out to whip the Lakota once and for all. Ignoring orders to stay close to the fort, Fetterman led his eighty men directly into an ambush. Red Cloud and his men killed Fetterman’s entire party. By summer 1867, the Lakota forces controlled the Bozeman Trail and the Powder River Country, keeping the troops holed up in their raw forts. In August, the Lakota attacked men haying near Fort C. F. Smith. The soldiers drove them off, but the next day, the warriors returned. They descended on a corral made of wagon boxes near Fort Phil Kearny, killing an officer and five soldiers. Within days of the “Wagon Box Fight,” Lakota warriors attacked a Union Pacific freight train in Nebraska, causing the president of the Union Pacific to warn the Secretary of War that construction on the road would have to stop unless the government protected the railroad workers.

Government officials decided they could not defend both the Bozeman Trail and the transcontinental railroad. In 1868, they decided to negotiate a treaty with Red Cloud promising to abandon the Bozeman Trail if the Lakota would leave the railroad alone. For his part, Red Cloud refused to talk until all the troops left Forts Phil Kearny and C. F. Smith. The government had little choice. It abandoned Forts Reno, Phil Kearny, and C. F. Smith, and agreed that the Lakota could follow the buffalo so long as they stopped attacking the railroad. By August, the troops had left the forts and Red Cloud’s people burned Forts C. F. Smith and Phil Kearny.

The Lakota had won their war against the U.S. Army. Red Cloud signed the treaty, but announced that, while he and his people agreed to stop killing settlers, they would not change their way of life.

Red Cloud’s victory was short-lived. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie promised that the army would leave the Bozeman Trail, but it also established what became known as the Great Sioux Reservation, a 22 million-acre tract of land where government officials would force Red Cloud and his horse warriors into farming. Having signed the treaty, Red Cloud ceded his role as a resistance leader role to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. These two marshaled the forces that fought the U.S. Army in the mid-1870s while Red Cloud took up the mantle of a negotiator. In that capacity, he proved as effective as he had as a fighter, although without the accolades of a military leader.

But no matter how well he negotiated, Red Cloud could not stop the press of settlers into Lakota territory. After the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, the government took the Black Hills and forced the Lakota onto what was known as the Great Sioux Reservation. In 1889, it took even more land, dividing the original reservation into six, much smaller, reservations. By then, Red Cloud had grown old and lost his sight. Government officials built him a frame house on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a district that still bears the distinction of being the poorest in the United States.

Home of Chief Red Cloud at Pine Ridge Agency

Home of Chief Red Cloud at Pine Ridge Agency. (Photo: Library of Congress)

At the turn of the century, an anthropologist came to Pine Ridge to interview the old leader. Through an interpreter, Red Cloud sadly told the interviewer about the free “buffalo days” of the past. Then the old man took his visitor outside and told him to look around the poor, barren valley that Red Cloud himself could no longer see. “Think of it!” he said. “I, who used to own rich soil in a well-watered country so extensive that I could not ride through it in a week on my fastest pony, am put down here!” The government had promised to feed and support the Indians, he said, but now they had to beg for food. If they complained too much, officers put them in jail. The young people were going bad, the old were dying. “Young man,” he told the anthropologist, “I wish there was someone to help my poor people when I am gone.”

About the Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Historian. Author. Professor. Budding Curmudgeon. Heather Cox Richardson studies the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.

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  1. Well researched and written – thank you for adding perspective. An insight on the Wagon Box fight is that advanced weapon technology specifically repeating rifles – gave a great advantage to the small number of soldiers and civilians – possibly 32 – against an estimated 1,000 braves. If the soldiers had only the still widely used single shot muskets the outcome would been very different.

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