Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 6 : Red Cloud's War | Summary



In the summer and fall of 1865, a treaty commission led by Newton Edmonds, the governor of the Dakota territory, and Colonel Henry H. Sibley travels along the upper Missouri River to parley with any Indians they can find. The commissioners want right-of-passage for trails, roads, and railroads across Indian Country. They end up drafting nine treaties with various Sioux bands, but they know the treaties don't really mean anything without the signatures of the war chiefs, who are all busy fighting General Patrick E. Connor's three regiments north of the Platte River (see Chapter 5). The commissioners want the Indians to stop blocking the Bozeman Trail, the main road into Montana. This won't happen without the signatures of Red Cloud and the other war chiefs.

Red Cloud finally comes into Fort Laramie in March 1866. He has been told that he will meet with the commissioners and be given gifts, but the commissioners aren't there yet. Colonel Henry Maynadier, a commander at Fort Laramie, puts Red Cloud in touch with the president of the new commission, E.B. Taylor, via telegraph. Red Cloud dictates a message of peace and friendship. Taylor responds with a promise of a "train loaded with supplies and presents" in June, which will arrive around the same time the commissioners do. Red Cloud is appeased. He returns in May with a thousand Oglala Sioux, who join the Brulé Sioux and Cheyennes already at the fort.

The meetings are scheduled to begin in earnest on July 13, the same day Colonel Henry B. Carrington and his 700 soldiers arrive near Fort Laramie. They are building two forts along Bozeman Road to prepare for the heavy summer travel. The Indians figure out a new road is being built through Powder River country whether they sign the treaty or not. The gathered Indians are furious. Red Cloud and the rest of the Oglalas are gone the next morning.

Red Cloud's band of Oglala start a guerrilla war on July 17, 1866, that lasts all summer. No soldier, civilian, or wagon train is safe. More and more tribes join the Oglalas as Carrington and his men build Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.F. Smith. By December, the Indians are ready to take on an entire troop of soldiers. On December 21, 1866, 2,000 Indians lure Fort Kearny's 81 soldiers into an ambush in nearby Reno Valley. Every soldier is killed. Their remains are disemboweled, and hacked to bits. Fetterman's Massacre, as the white men come to call it, is the worst defeat since Indian warfare began.

A new peace commission headed by John "Black Whiskers" Sanborn tries to persuade the Sioux to give up their hunting grounds in Powder River country, and live on a reservation. Red Cloud refuses to negotiate until "all soldiers [are] removed from the Powder River country." The raids along Bozeman Road continue. In late July 1867 the Sioux and Cheyennes decide to go after the two new forts themselves. The battles are indecisive, and in September General William Tecumseh Sherman heads west for a new peace council.

Red Cloud doesn't attend this meeting either, but many of the other Sioux chiefs do. They tell the commissioners their land is overrun by white people, and the wild game is gone. Pawnee Killer, an Oglala band leader, promises that white people will be able to travel unharmed on the railroad "if the Great Father stops the Powder River road." Sherman tells them the road won't be given up until the Indians stop attacking it. Then he says the Indians need to end their dependence on wild game, and move back east to the Missouri River.

The commissioners return in November 1867. Only a few Crow chiefs are there to meet them, but a few days later Red Cloud sends a message saying he will talk peace as soon as soldiers are withdrawn from the forts on the Powder River road. The commissioners leave and then return again in the spring of 1868. Red Cloud's message is the same. At the end of July, the War Department closes Fort C.F. Smith, and Red Cloud and his followers burn it down. A month later, Fort Phil Kearny and Fort Reno are closed. Red Cloud finally signs the treaty on November 6, 1868.


The Fort Laramie treaty was originally drafted during the peace commission's spring 1868 visit to Powder River country. Its terms were as follows:

  • secure the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota for Sioux use.
  • allow for the government-funded construction of a warehouse; an agency building; lodging for the agency's agent, doctor, carpenter, farmer, blacksmith, miller, and engineer; and a schoolhouse, all to be erected along the Missouri River.
  • outline monetary compensation for Indians who choose to farm.
  • mandate all Indian children must go to a school, giving them "an English education."
  • state the clothing and financial allotments for each person based on gender and age.
  • take away Indian territory outside the reservation while still allowing Indians to hunt north of the North Platte River and on the Smoky Hill River "so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase." The exception to this is Powder River country, which, as "unceded" land, still belongs to the Indians.
  • call for the closure of the military posts in Powder River country.
  • force the Indians to make the reservation their permanent home.
  • prohibit Indians from trying to stop the construction of railroads; protesting military posts south of the North Platte River; attacking settlers, travelers, or their possessions; taking white women and children as hostages; and scalping white men.
  • explicitly state no treaty meant to void any of these terms can be executed unless signed by "at least three-fourths of all the adult male Indians occupying or interested in the same."

The official tone and language used in government treaties can make their contents difficult to understand, even for someone with a good grasp of the English language. Hardly any of the Indians who signed the Fort Laramie treaty, as Brown calls it, spoke English, and virtually none of them could read it. Translators provided a basic synopsis of what the Indians needed to know, but it lacked the nuance and accuracy necessary for the Indians to have a clear understanding of the treaty's contents. For example, the Northern Cheyennes interpret the treaty as meaning they can live in the Black Hills with the Sioux. But the treaty really says the reservation is for the Sioux only. Their friends are allowed to visit, but they cannot live there permanently. This causes problems in 1877 when Powder River country is claimed by the United States. Instead of going back to the Great Sioux Reservation (minus the Black Hills) with the Sioux, the Northern Cheyennes are forced to move south to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. The result is the near-extermination of the entire tribe.

The treaty also has a few other key items of interest. Indians can still hunt in the Smoky Hill territory, but only if white officials deem it acceptable. This makes Indian survival contingent on the attitudes and moods of their government contacts. The Indians aren't allowed to do bodily damage to white settlers or their property, while white people are just told to stay off Indian land. The treaty also states the three protested forts in Powder River country will be closed, but after that, the Indians aren't allowed to protest any existing forts or the construction of new forts. The same thing goes for the railroads: the Indians aren't allowed to be mad about rails being built through their land.

The most interesting part of the treaty is what it doesn't say. The treaty makes provisions for an agency to be set up along the Missouri River. The Missouri runs north to south through the center of present-day South Dakota, and the Sioux live in the territory's southwest corner. This is a long way to go for rations and provisions (see Chapter 8). Nowhere else in the treaty does it indicate the Sioux have to live there—the treaty is written to seem like they can live in the western part of the Black Hills where they already are. They don't learn about the government's intentions until they hear about it from General Sherman. The Sioux don't want to go east—there's no wild game there, and the land has already been decimated by loggers. Although the treaty doesn't specify, the Sioux suspect "the greedy eyes of the white men [had] already chosen these bountiful lands for their own." It was always the intention of the government to take back the Black Hills and Powder River. They are just stringing the Indians along.

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