Plains Indian Wars
(August 17, 1862)
By the mid 19th century, some of the normally peaceful Sioux Indian Tribes had agreed to non-nomadic, civilized lives on a reservation in exchange for an annuity to cover certain needs, including food. However, in 1862, the Federal Government found that it could not supply both the Sioux Indians and the needs of the troops in the new American Civil War. With no food coming from the federal government, several starving young Indians decided to steal eggs from a local farmer.....inciting others....until over 600 settlers became victims. 392 Indians were captured and tried and 307 found guilty of rape and wounding women and children.
President Lincoln sent a letter to H. M. Rice, first U. S. Senator from Minnesota, informing him that the Assistant Secretary of the Interior would personally investigate the situation. (October 16, 1862) The President reprieved all but 38 of the Indians, who were then hanged in our country's largest execution!
Most of the Indians fled west spreading their version of the broken agreements and the horror that followed. The resulting Indian protests spread and complicated the white man's inevitable western migration. Roads, railroads, and forts came under retaliatory attacks. Although some Indians chose not to fight, others resisted and began a war to remove the white man from his lands.
After the tragedy of 1862, relations between the United States and the Sioux deteriorated until war resulted. After two years of war, in 1868, the Sioux Indians, under Chief Red Cloud, succeeding in a negotiated defeat of the United States!! The United States agreed to each and every one of the terms demanded by Red Cloud; to abandon the Boseman Trail, to remove all forts which were built in the Sioux Territory and to guarantee the Sioux fixed living boundaries and extended hunting boundaries*. This war marks the only loss of an Indian War by the United States.
The Fort Laramie treaty won by Chief Red Cloud in 1868 was violated in 1874 by a survey party under General George A. Custer. Custer's trespass into the Black Hills living boundaries of the Sioux would not have been serious except that the survey party also discovered gold there. The United States could not control the influx of fortune seekers that followed and, indeed, made little effort to try, since the nation could use the financial gain to cure the economic recession of 1873.
The United States offered to purchase the Black Hills in 1875, but with no success. A plan was then formulated to create a new war with the Sioux and to seize the gold lands. The first step of the plan was to announce that any Indians found living within the hunting boundaries would be considered hostiles. The Sioux pointed out that the treaty amendments specifically allowed for hunting parties to winter on those grounds. The United States ignored those arguments and sent in the army to enforce the new policy. By the time a sufficient force was amassed the next spring of 1876, the Indians had sent massive reenforcements to join and protect their hunters. Ironically, the first attack was made by General Custer, himself. No one will know of his surprise at seeing the enormous Indian reenforcements on June 24, 1876.....he and his men were massacred in a famous battle now known as.....
Custers's loss gave the government a better excuse for war than anyone in the administration had dreamed. Even the news of the massacre arrived back East on the best possible moment, July 4th, 1876, the Centennial of the Independence of the United States. The public was easily swayed. With little opposition from the public, the government moved over 40% of its entire armed forces into the Black Hills area. The Sioux had no choice than to agree to whatever demands were made by the United States government.
By the terms of the resulting agreement, The Custer's Last Stand Treaty*, the Sioux surrendered all claims and hunting rights, as defined by the treaty of 1868, to any country lying outside the boundaries of a new permanent "reserve". The Government also would be given full possession the Black Hills.
The outrage of these actions by the United States was not addressed until over 40 years later, in 1920, when the Sioux Nations sued in federal court. The lawsuit lasted 60 years until, in 1980, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in favor of the Sioux, awarding damages against the United States of $106,000,000.00.
* These treaties are preserved at the Karpeles Manuscript Library