The Sioux — Part II

The Lakota Sioux

Before 1650, the Lakota Sioux lived east of the Red River and lived on the fringes of the prairies in the southern part of present-day Minnesota.  By 1700, they had migrated to the eastern Dakotas.  They were also, by then, well horsed and in a transitional period from subsisting on corn, wild rice, and small woodland animals to the American Bison for meat and ancillary goods (housing, clothes, tools).

The Lakota were moving west but remained a nomadic culture.  By 1720, the Lakota had begun to dominate the prairies east of the Missouri River and it was at this time that they divided into two main groups: Saone and Oglala.  The former occupied the area adjacent to Lake Traverse near the borders of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota.  The Oglala occupied the James River area.  Before 1760, however, both groups had crossed the Missouri River.

In 1776, the Lakota defeated the Cheyenne for possession of the Black Hills.  Earlier, the Cheyenne had taken it from the Kiowa.  Defeated, the Cheyenne moved west to the Powder River country and the Lakota made the Black Hills their home.  As Lakota territory expanded, so too did their contact with rival groups.  Eventually, the Lakota Sioux allied with the Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho — important because with dwindling buffalo herds, inter-tribal warfare was becoming more common.  The Lakota alliance fought the Mandan,[1] Hidatsa,[2] and Arikara[3] for control of the Missouri River in North Dakota.  The Lakota were aided in their victories by epidemics that ravaged the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes.

Both the Saone and Oglala groups encountered the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804; the Lakota refused to allow the expedition to continue upstream.  The Americans were sure that a battle would unfold, but hostilities never materialized, which was probably a good thing for the Expedition.

A typical year among the Lakota would involve a communal buffalo hunt in early spring; in the summer, scattered Lakota bands gathered into large tribal encampments and conducted traditional rites and ceremonies.  Such gatherings enabled political leaders to discuss matters of mutual concern, plan their seasonal movements, resolve disputes, and devise campaigns or war parties.  In the fall, the Lakota broke up into smaller bands to facilitate hunting for winter stores.  The period between fall and winter was a time for raids and war parties.  In the dead of winter, the Lakota settled into their camps doing little more than observing traditions and caring for their stock.

The Lakota Sioux were a fierce tribe — not to be trifled with by anyone.  In 1843, the southern Lakota attacked the Pawnee in Nebraska, killing many and burning over half the lodges in Chief Blue Coat’s village.  In 1850, the Sioux were the most powerful tribe on the American northern plain, a reputation they retained for several decades.[4]

Before 1848, numerous European settlers had passed over the Great Plains to California.  However, the discovery of gold in that year increased migrant traffic exponentially.  Respectable Indian agents feared an Indian uprising among the most powerful tribes in North America.  On the recommendation of Thomas Fitzpatrick and David D. Mitchell, the U. S. government opened negotiations with the plains’ tribes living between the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers with the view of protecting the right of way for migrants.  Called the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the negotiation took place 30 miles downriver at the mouth of Horse Creek.   In attendance were representatives from the Lakota, Cheyenne, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, Shoshone, Crow, and Arapaho.  Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache refused to send representatives because the meeting place was in Sioux territory.  To these three tribes, the Lakota Sioux were a detested enemy.

The United States Senate ratified this treaty with approved modification of the signatories.

The Treaty of 1851 acknowledged traditional territorial claims of the tribes, as the tribes did as well among themselves.  All the land covered by the treaty was Indian territory, and the United States did not claim any part of it.  Hardly realized at the time, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 would be used in judicial proceedings more than 100 years later.  For this, the tribes guaranteed safe passage of settlers over the Oregon Trail; they allowed the construction of roads and forts in exchange for an annuity of $50,000 each year for 50 years.

The Fort Laramie Treaty was a grand effort, of course — and broken almost immediately by the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne who attacked the Crow and continued to do so over the next two years.  In 1858, the failure of the United States to prevent the mass immigration of miners and settlers into Colorado during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush did not help.  Miners seized Indian lands to prospect on them.  They founded towns, started farms, constructed roads, and competed with the tribes for food and water.  Not once did the United States seek to enforce the Treaty of 1851.

The situation worsened in 1854.  Approximately 4,000 Brule and Oglala Sioux were camped near Fort Laramie in the late summer.  On 17 August, a cow belonging to a Mormon traveling on the nearby Oregon Trail strayed and was killed by a Sioux brave named High Forehead.  As a result, Lieutenant Hugh Fleming, commanding the small garrison, consulted with the Sioux chief Conquering Bear, to discuss this loss of livestock.  Fleming was unaware that such matters were, by the terms of the treaty, to be handled by the local Indian agent, which in this case would have been John Whitfield, who was scheduled to arrive in a few days.  Conquering Bear attempted to negotiate with Fleming, offering him a horse from his stock, or a cow from the tribe’s herd.  The Mormon, however, demanded payment of $25 instead.  Fleming asked the Chief to arrest High Forehead and deliver him to the fort, which the chief refused to do.

Two days later, a young second lieutenant by the name of John L. Grattan led a detachment of soldiers to the Lakota camp to arrest High Forehead.  By every account, Grattan (a recent graduate of the USMA) was determined to take High Forehead into custody and seemed unaware, upon entering the Indian camp of no less than 1,200 warriors, that he was seriously outgunned.  Grattan’s detachment consisted of the lieutenant, a sergeant, a corporal, 27 privates, and a half-breed interpreter by the name of Lucien Auguste.  Auguste, who was drunk in the saddle, entered the camp loudly berating the Lakota men by called them women.  Grattan first went to High Forehead’s teepee and demanded that he surrender, which he refused to do.  Next, Grattan approached Chief Conquering Bear, who attempted to negotiate but Auguste was a poor speaker of the Lakota language.  He informed Conquering Bear that the soldiers were not there to arrest anyone but to kill them all.  James Bordeaux, a local merchant, observed this confrontation and high-tailed it back to the fort and warned everyone that a fight was coming.

Ending his conversation with Conquering Bear, Lieutenant Grattan began walking back toward his column when a nervous soldier fired his weapon, the bullet striking a nearby warrior and a fight evolved.  Conquering Bear, who was wounded in the exchange, died nine days later.  Lieutenant Grattan and his entire detachment were killed by warriors led by Red Cloud, an emerging war chief.  Having been killed, the Lakota mutilated his body; the only way anyone could identify Grattan’s body was by the watch he carried on his person.

The American press called this incident a massacre — which could be true.  More likely, though, it was a case of Indians defending themselves from well-armed, poorly led soldiers.  Nevertheless, the Army wanted retribution for Grattan’s death, and they achieved it in the Battle of Blue Water Creek on 3 September 1855.  Within an encampment of 230 Sioux near present-day Garden County, Nebraska, the army killed eighty-six Sioux — half of whom were women and children.  This action, led by Colonel William S. Harney, restrained the Sioux for ten years, but the fight wasn’t over.

The American Civil War prompted the US Army to withdraw almost completely from the western regions of the United States.  During their absence, the Indians engaged in wars against one another, which of course had been going on long before the arrival of Europeans.  In this period, however, one of the contentious issues was dwindling numbers of buffalo, which in addition to Indian hunters, were being killed in large numbers by white settlers and government agents.  Historians estimate that between 1850 and 1865, one-hundred thousand buffalo were killed each year, which threatened the plains tribes with starvation.

Among the many failures of the United States in its dealings with Indians was the so-called Indian Peace Commission, established in 1867, and which lasted only until the next year.  Among its suggestions was that the US government stop recognizing Indians as sovereign nations, refrain from making peace with them, and use the military to force them into submission.  These suggestions offer us an entirely new meaning to the concept of a peace commission.  The Commission’s lasting effect was another ten years of ghastly hostilities between the United States, the Indians, and anyone who was caught in the middle.

From 1866-68, the United States Army engaged the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho in what became known as the Powder River War (Also, Red Cloud’s War) in the Wyoming and Montana territory.  The primary issue among the Lakota was their ability to feed themselves.  Dwindling game populations caused the Lakota to expand their hunting ground, which led them to encroach the territories that were set aside by treaty for other tribes.

By tradition and treaty, the rich grasslands of Wyoming and Montana belonged to the Crow.  Everyone who signed the Treaty of 1851 knew this, but when people are starving, treaties take a back seat to putting food on the table.  By the time gold was discovered, the Sioux had already driven the Crow back to the headwaters of the Yellowstone and claimed this Crow land for themselves by right of conquest.

As European migration increased, hunting land and wild game populations decreased.  This was taking place in an areas regarded by many Sioux as the last unspoiled hunting grounds of the Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota Sioux.  Red Cloud’s War came as a result of two expanding empires —that of the Sioux, and that of the United States.

(Continued next week)


  1. Chaky, D.  Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and US Soldiers on Upper Missouri, 1854-1868.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  2. Gibbon, G. E.  The Sioux: The Dakota and Lakota Nations.  Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
  3. Harring, N.  Crow Dog’s Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and the United States Law in the 19th Century.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  4. Hassrick, R. B.  The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.
  5. Hyde, G. E.  A Sioux Chronicle.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1993


[1] The Mandan called themselves Numakiki, plains Indians who lived in semi-permanent villages along the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota, having migrated there from the eastern portion of North America.  They spoke the Siouan language and fed themselves by raising corn, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, buffalo, and fishing.  By 1800, diseases reduced Mandan villages from nine to only two.  Today, only around 1,300 Mandan survive.

[2] Hidatsa Indians are of the Siouan language group but related to the Crow.  For hundreds of years, the Hidatsa occupied the Knife River area of North Dakota, their first villages dated to around the 1300s A.D.

[3] The Arikara people speak the Caddoan language, which is closely related to the Pawnee language.  As of 2007, there were only ten native speakers remaining out of 720 of total population.  Arikara are enrolled with the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes as a formal Indian nation.

[4] The proof of this was the Battle of Massacre Canyon on 5 August 1873.  Fifteen hundred Lakota Sioux warriors attacked a band of Pawnee during their summer buffalo hunt.  More than 150 Pawnee were killed, including women and children, many of whom were mutilated, and some of whom were set afire.  It was one of the bloodiest attacks in Indian history —which given the cruel and inhumane history of inter-tribal warfare, is an amazing statement.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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2 Responses to The Sioux — Part II

  1. Andy says:

    Of the many treaties that were negotiated between the U.S. and the native Americans, it seems that all of them were worthless. Did the native Americans understand the significance of a treaty? Did the U.S. government?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Between 1778 and 1871, the United States signed 368 treaties with American Indians (Amerind). One of many of my discoveries through research is that European conflicts with the Amerind were the result of incompatible cultures. Leopards do not change their spots. Amerind could no more change what they valued, or how they lived, or what they were willing to die for than their antagonists, which were often other tribal units. Agreeing to treaties among themselves was a long-held Indian tradition, and so too was breaking those agreements.

      The Americans erred in thinking that a tribal chief spoke for all of his people; this simply was not the case. Male Indians went their own way; no one controlled the brave once he became a man. He did what he pleased, went wherever he wanted, and behaved according to his own sense of what was right — for him and his family.

      For their part, US officials never took their eyes off the ball. The American end game was the acquisition and control of western land. To achieve this goal, the Americans would have to corral the Indians onto reservations; only then could the west be opened to white settlement. Of course, white settlers were instruments used by the government to achieve those goals. Other instruments included starving the Indians into submission or exterminating them. No lie was too vile, and no trick was too dirty to achieve Indian submission. The Indian Wars was the result of Indians deciding that they were not willing to go gently into that good night.


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