“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth.” (Genesis 6:5)
Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, with the Civil War officially ending on Aug. 20, 1866.
But it did not bring peace to America.
There would be no rest from warfare for the U.S. Army. Far to the west, Native Americans were fighting for their survival; and led by great chieftains such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, Geronimo, Cochise and Red Cloud, they were a formidable foe.
This is the story of Red Cloud’s War of 1866-68.
It really started around 1852, when gold was discovered by trapper Francois Finlay in southwestern Montana, which at that time was part of Idaho Territory.
The Indians owned the land by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Though agreed upon by the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, Shoshone, Crow, and Arapaho, it was soon broken.
The government reneged on its obligations and the Indians attacked each other and emigrant whites.
Making matters worse, in 1858, prospectors James and Granville Stuart and Reese Anderson discovered more gold in southwestern Montana. Four years later, prospector John White and others found rich placer deposits along the banks of Grasshopper Creek in Southwest Montana, and fortune seekers came from everywhere.
At first, settlers and prospectors traveling through the traditional Lakota territory in the early 1860s were seldom confronted by the Indians who were busy fighting among themselves. Nevertheless, the turmoil frightened the emigrants, so they appealed for government protection.
Generally following ancient Indians trails, the Bozeman Trail broke off the Oregon Trail in Wyoming and became a shorter route to the Montana gold fields.
The trail passed through the Powder River Country in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana, long buffalo hunting grounds for the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoe — tribes that didn’t always get along with each other.
But when the Bozeman Trail brought a flood of immigrants who slaughtered the buffalo along the way and whose livestock ate up the grasslands, the tribes united against them — and also against the U.S. Army that was assigned to protect everyone.
The Army built three forts along the trail, with Fort Phil Kearny near today’s Buffalo, Wyo., as headquarters. The commander was Col. Henry B. Carrington, whose troops were armed with new breach-loading Springfield rifles, Howitzer cannon, 700 soldiers and 300 civilians.
The Indians had bows and arrows, spears, clubs and a few old rifles.
With so many outsiders traveling on the Bozeman Trail through Indian lands, competing for natural resources and trampling on Indian rights, conflict was inevitable.
The violence that followed ravaged the Great Plains from Kansas to Montana leaving a trail of death, destruction and unconscionable cruelty.
The worst incident happened earlier on Nov. 29, 1864, at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado.
U.S. Army Col. John M. Chivington sent a force of 700 men against 200 Indians who knew that they couldn’t win and wanted only peace.
Two Cheyenne chiefs seeking to talk peace were shot dead as they approached.
Not peaceful were militant Indians called the Dog Soldiers who vowed to fight both emigrants and Army.
Chivington’s troops attacked while the Dog Soldier warriors were away, leaving behind women and children and men either too young or too old to fight. The soldiers tore into them with merciless ferocity and grisly mutilations — taking body parts for trophies.
With the loss of much of their tribe and leaders, the Cheyenne never fully recovered — the survivors ending up on reservations.
Chivington resigned from the Army and was never brought to justice.
When newspapers across America publicized the Sand Creek Massacre story, both whites and Native Americans erupted in anger. The government investigated and held hearings, but the killings continued and Indian attacks on emigrants increased.
When Col. Carrington and his soldiers and civilians starting building the three forts along the Bozeman Trail, Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud became furious.
To him, the new military presence in the heart of the Powder River hunting grounds of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho tribes was unacceptable.
As the construction progressed, Red Cloud and his allies attacked more than 50 times, killing 20 soldiers and civilians.
Time and again, Red Cloud and other leaders outsmarted the soldiers in small encounters. Famed mountain man and guide Jim Bridger noted, “These soldiers don’t know anything about fighting Indians.”
A horrendous battle took place four days before Christmas in 1866.
At his headquarters in Fort Kearny, Col. Carrington was alerted by pickets about an Indian attack on a timber gathering party working about 4 miles to the north.
He immediately sent a rescue party of 81 men commanded by Capt.William J. Fetterman, telling him, “Under no circumstances” was he to “pursue over the ridge that is Lodge Trail Ridge.”
Fetterman however disobeyed the order and followed a small group of Indians who decoyed him a half-mile beyond the ridge, where a thousand warriors were waiting for them.
The Indians attacked ferociously with bows and arrows, clubs and a few old muzzle-loaders.
In his book “The Fetterman Massacre,” Dee Brown reported when the fighting ended, the Indians scalped, stripped, and mutilated the soldiers’ bodies before leaving, and the following day, soldiers found body parts lined up on rocks.
One dead civilian named Wheatley had 100 arrow wounds.
Until Custer’s Last Stand 10 years later, it was the worst military disaster ever suffered by the U.S. Army on the Great Plains.
That did not end Red Cloud’s war against the white intruders and the Army. On Aug. 1, 1867, near Fort C.F. Smith in Crow lands, with Crows living nearby for trade, six civilians were sent out to cut and dry grass for hay to feed livestock during the long, cold winter ahead.
They were accompanied by 19 soldiers for protection.
Suddenly, they were attacked by 500 to 800 warriors led by Red Cloud and his Cheyenne and Arapaho allies in a battle called the Hayfield Fight.
The Indians thought the hay party was armed with only slow muzzle-loading muskets and charged in after the first volley before they could reload.
To their surprise, they were instantly met with more gunfire from the newly acquired 1866 Springfield rifles that were easy to reload and could fire eight to 10 rounds per minute. Also, the civilians had 7-shot Spencer repeating rifles.
The Indian weapons were no match.
The battle raged on and off for eight hours before the Indians melted away.
Three soldiers and three civilians were killed, and the Indians lost maybe 60.
The next day, a similar battle called The Box Wagon Fight happened near the Big Horn River in southern Montana, when hundreds of warriors attacked a team of six wood-cutters and 26 soldiers assigned to protect them.
It was called the Box Wagon Fight because the defenders protected themselves behind a corral of 14 wagon boxes.
Later in the day, more soldiers arrived and scattered the Indians with a Mountain Howitzer, and by 8:30 p.m., everyone was back at the fort. Three defenders lost their lives, with Indian casualties unknown.
It was the last battle in Red Cloud’s War — and he might not even have been there.
The Indians won.
The Bozeman Trail was only used extensively for about five years. By 1868, the Army withdrew from the forts, which the Indians promptly burned to the ground.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn and the Indian wars of the 1870s were just ahead.
“I hope the Great Heavenly Father, who will look down upon us, will give all the tribes his blessing, that we may go forth in peace, and live in peace all our days, and that He will look down upon our children and finally lift us far above this earth,” Red Cloud said.
He died in 1909 at age 87 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Buried there in a simple grave, he outlived all the other major Lakota chieftains of the Indian Wars.
The government “made us many promises — more than I can remember — but they kept but one,” he said. “They promised to take our land — and they took it.”
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Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Calling on the Spirits…
A strange thing happened before the Fetterman Massacre of 1866. Lakota Sioux Chief Red Cloud consulted an Indian hermaphrodite believed to have had special powers. Riding on a pony among the braves “in a crazy manner,” he declared a vision of a hundred blue-coat soldiers in each hand.
The Lakota considered that a good prophecy and thereafter called the battle the “Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands.”
Sand Creek legacy…
Colonel John M. Chivington, the infamous Army commander who ordered the Sand Creek Massacre left bitter words to be remembered by:
“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!… I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little — nits make lice.”
It was finding gold that opened up Montana, but in the state’s early days it also brought great tragedies — settlers and fortune seekers destroying the buffalo herds of the Great Plains, and deadly Indian wars forever changing the Native American cultures that lived there.
Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet who played such an historic role in Idaho and the surrounding region knew that gold could be destructive to human character. He found gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota but would never reveal the location.
“While traveling through one mountain valley” an article by Catholicism.org said, “he came onto a gold nugget as big as a fist, which could only have come from a very large vein…But the virtuous priest knew that were he to make known his discovery, it would bring a flood of fortune seekers upon the Indians’ last refuge, along with the worst elements that greed engenders.”
Red Cloud after the war…
After years of fighting the U.S. Government, Lakota Sioux Chief Red Cloud reluctantly agreed to move his tribe to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1878, and spent the rest of his life battling for Native American causes. His marriage to Pretty Owl lasted more than 50 years.
Memorable quote and spent the rest of his life battling for Native American causes…
“I am poor and naked, but I am the chief of the nation. We do not want riches but we do want to train our children right. Riches would do us no good. We could not take them with us to the other world. We do not want riches. We want peace and love.”
— Chief Red Cloud, Oglala Lakota Sioux