THE GREAT PLAINS INDIAN WARS
1862 - 90
The first eruption of violence on the Great Plains occurred in Minnesota during the American Civil War. In August 1862, annoyed both by economic hardship and the dishonesty of the Federal Indian Agents, the Santee Sioux rose up in bloody revolt.
Over the next several months, continued running battles pitted the Dakota against the white settlers and later, the United States Army. Hostilities ended with the final defeat of the Sioux at Fort Ridgely. By late December, soldiers had taken over one thousand Dakota captives, who were all later interned in Minnesota jails.
After mock court trials and bias sentencing, thirty eight Dakota warriors were hanged on December 26th 1862, in what today still remains the largest one day execution in American history. Casualties in the four month conflict numbered 500 civilians killed along with 80 U.S. soldiers in contrast to 188 Sioux.
In April1863, the remaining Dakota Sioux had their lands confiscated by the American government and were expelled from Minnesota to South Dakota.
After the end of the American Civil War, the United States government went forth with a plan to build a chain of new army forts along the Bozeman Trail within Wyoming and Montana. This angered the Native Americans who felt the army was again encroaching on their lands.
Led by Chief Red Cloud, an alliance between the Northern Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux and Arapaho agreed to go to war and put a stop to the proposed white occupation of their territories.
On December 21st 1866, Red Cloud and six hundred warriors attacked and annihilated an eighty one man cavalry detachment led by Captain Fetterman. This massacre was to spark what was to be later known as Red Cloud's war.
After a harsh winter, fighting once again resumed outside Fort Smith Montana when early on August 1st 1867, twenty one soldiers under Lieutenant Sigismund accompanying and a work detail of nine civilian's were suddenly attacked by two hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors.
Sigismund quickly took refuge in a nearby corral, were for the next eight hours the unit had to fend of repeated attacks by the Indians. Although possessing far superior numbers, the Native bow and arrow could not penetrate the logs of the corral, where as the soldiers effectively held off the tribesman with the newly issued breech loading Springfield rifle.
the fighting would continue until fort commander Colonel Murray was notified by Crow scouts of the situation and sent out a relief force of one hundred men which scattered the remaining Indians into the surrounding hills. Casualties in the Hayfield fight numbered twenty five Indians dead in comparison to four U.S soldiers killed and five wounded.
The very next day Red Cloud ordered a fresh attack near Fort Kearny Wyoming, later Known as the Wagon Box Fight. At 7:30 am on the morning of August 2, Captain Powell's force of 26 soldiers protecting six civilian wood cutters, were forced to take refuge within the wagon box coral as they were attacked by 300 Sioux including a band under the leadership of Crazy Horse.
The Indians attacked on horseback in one mass wave but were repulsed by the disciplined steady fire they encountered from the soldiers new breech loading rifles. For the next six hours the Indians withdrew, regrouped, and launched several additional attacks.
Fort Kearny learned of the engagement from returning Crow scouts and immediately dispatched 103 Cavalry under the command of Major Benjamin Smith to relieve their trapped comrades.
Upon Smith’s arrival the Indians quickly dispersed in all directions and the fighting ceased at 1:30 pm. The U.S Army lost three men including Powella’s second in command Lieutenant Jenness. Indian casualties numbered seven killed.
After the battle, Red Cloud along with the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho bands settled for peace with the United States under the treaty of Fort Laramee, in which the U.S agreed to abandon their forts and withdraw completely from Lakota territory.
During Red Clouds War, the Cheyenne tribes within the state of Kansas were constantly pushed westward by the transcontinental railroad with its main cargo being thousands of white settlers. On September 10th 1867, Fort Wallace received information that Indians had attacked and killed over one hundred settlers in a wave of violence against ranches, farms and along travel routes.
Colonel Forsyth and a force of fifty troopers immediately departed the fort to investigate. They trailed the Indians into Colorado were on the 16th, the unit arrived at the Republican River and made camp on the south bank. Forsyth was not aware that they were a mere twelve miles downstream from a large encampment of Cheyenne villages.
With full knowledge of the troopers presence, war leader Chief Roman Nose ordered a massed attack for the morning of the 17th. The element of surprise was lost however when a group of young warriors rushed the camp before the order to attack was given.
Alerted to the coming danger, Forsyth gave orders for his men to saddle their chargers. Seeing that his men were practically surrounded, he directed them to take cover on a large sand bar in the middle of the river.
The initial assault on Forsyth’s position was broken up and halted by the well disciplined and accurate gunfire of the U.S. troopers. This was not to deter Roman Nose who ordered repeated attacks throughout the day, all of which failed to reach the troopers positions atop the sand dunes.
Around 4:00pm, Roman Nose ordered the island surrounded. As darkness fell he gave the order for a massed attack. After an hour of heavy fighting it was clear the assault had failed, the Cheyenne warriors had suffered many casualties along with Roman Nose himself being severely wounded. His warriors retrieved his body and returned to their villages only to have the Great Chief die later that night.
At dawn the second day Forsyth ordered two troopers to ride to Fort Wallace some seventy miles South East and alert Colonel Bankhead of their situation. For the next four days troopers Pierre Trudeau and Jack Stilwell were forced into a running gun battle for their very lives as Cheyenne warriors pursued them. Meanwhile Forsyth’s command fought off and endured repeated attacks by Cheyenne warriors bent on avenging the death of Roman Nose.
Both wounded troopers finally arrived at Fort Wallace with the desperate plea from Forsyth on the 22nd. Colonel Bankhead quickly took command of two troops (200) men of the 10th Cavalry Regiment and gave Major Brisbin command of two additional troops from the 2nd Cavalry and charged out to assist their trapped comrades.
Three days later on the morning of September 25th, a vial putrid odour greeted the relief force. Forsyth’s command had been out of rations for nearly a week and were forced to survive on drinking river water and feeding on the decaying flesh of their horses.
Upon further reconasense their were no Indians to be found, the Cheyenne, aware of the approaching U.S. forces had packed up their encampment and disappeared into the mountains the previous night.
Among the seventeen seriously wounded troopers was Colonel Forsyth himself, being struck by an arrow in the neck and shot through the leg. His second in command Lieutenant Beecher was killed along with eight other soldiers, Cheyenne casualties in the area numbered twenty five dead.
After the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho people’s signed the Medicine Lodge Treaty, they were required to move south from present day Kansas and Colorado to a new reservation in Oklahoma. This forced them to give up their traditional lands for territory with little arable land and no Buffalo, their main source of Food.
In early August 1868, the Cheyenne, and Arapaho allied themselves with the Kiowa, Comanche and Pawnee tribes. Together they began systematic attacks against white settlements in Southeast Colorado, Western Kansas and Northern Texas.
Within days the warriors had killed twenty five settlers, wounded a further one hundred and were reported to have raped women and taken children captive to be adopted into their tribes. General Philip Sheridan, in command of the U.S. Army's Department of the Missouri, decided upon a winter campaign against the hostile tribes.
On November 19th, Sheridan ordered Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer and the five hundred strong 7th Cavalry to depart Fort Bascom in New Mexico and converge upon the various Indian tribes wintering along the Washita River.
On the evening of November 26th, Custer’s troopers came across Chief Black Kettle’s village. Custer then divided his force so that they could encircle the village.
At daybreak Custer gave the order to attack. Caught unawares and by complete surprise, the Cheyenne warriors along with their women and children hurriedly scattered to take cover but where caught out in the open by the troopers and mercilessly cut down.
Chief Black Kettle was Later found shot in the back several times and his body mutilated by sabre cuts. After an hour of slaughter, the entire village ceased to exist. Kiowa, Pawnee and Comanche warriors now began to arrive from villages up the river to aid Black Kettle's encampment. With this unexpected arrival of hostile forces Custer abruptly ordered a withdrawal
Custer’s swift retreat in the face of enemy combatants (after destroying an entire village) was to darken his reputation amongst his peers and harbour deep resentment within the 7th Cavalry for many years.
the 7th Cavalry had twenty five men killed and fifteen seriously wounded were as The Cheyenne had lost fifty warriors killed along with one hundred additional elderly men, women and children and one hundred and fifty taken prisoner.
After the enormous slaughter of the Northern Plains buffalo during 1872 - 73, the hunters moved south into more fertile buffalo grounds. The trading post at Adobe Walls included a makeshift store, corral and sod saloon. All of which served the population of three hundred buffalo hunters in the Texas Panhandle area.
The Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapaho perceived the post as a major threat to their very existence and decided to act. On the morning of June 27th 1874, the thirty men present within Adobe Walls were suddenly attacked by a combined Indian force of four hundred warriors led by Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, with the sole intent on erasing the white populace from their territory.
The initial attacks were repulsed due in large part that the hunters were able to keep the Indians at bay with their high calibre, long range, Sharps rifles. By evening the Indians had ceased attacking, and had returned to their lodges.
Quanah Parker would repeat this tactic (attack by day withdrawal at night) for the duration of the fighting drawing ever closer to the outpost with each assault. On August 4th, a cavalry troop of fifty men under Lieutenant Frank Baldwin arrived at Adobe Walls where two dozen hunters were still holed up. Baldwin remained on site for another day but their was no sign of the Indians.
The next day the soldiers and remaining men left the area for the U.S. main command at Cantonement Creek. The Indians later returned and burned Adobe Walls to the ground. The end result of the battle was that buffalo hunting ended in the region and Quanah Parker could claim victory for the plains tribes for his attacks had succeeded in driving the whites from the territory.
Casualties in the seven day battle amounted to six hunters killed and an equal number seriously wounded. Indian deaths numbered thirty five warriors.
The Lakota and their Northern Cheyenne allies had benefited greatly from the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868). They gained a large and prosperous area in Dakota Territory which included their sacred Black Hills.
The discovery of gold within the Black Hills in 1875 prompted the U.S. government to attempt and buy the Black Hills from the Indians. Chief's Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse sternly declined all attempts at negotiation. Therefore on January 31st 1876, the United States Government ordered all Cheyenne and Lakota onto reservations.
The Indians choose to disobey all future government directives and In early June, the U.S. broke the treaty and renewed hostilities with a three pronged invasion of the Dakota Territories themselves.
Colonel John Gibbon led a force westward from Fort Ellis Montana. General Alfred Terry advanced eastward from Fort Lincoln North Dakota and General George Crook marched northward from Fort Fetterman Wyoming. In all the U.S. forces amounted to 3,000 Cavalry
On June 14th Crooks column of nine hundred men was joined by 175 Crow and 86 Shoshoni warriors eager to strike a blow against their old enemies. On June 16th Crook advanced northward beyond the Tongue River to the headwaters of Rosebud Creek in search of the Lakota and Cheyenne.
Crook was overconfident and severally underestimated the determination of his foe. He anticipated the standard Indian tactics of hit and run and ambushes, not the pitched battle Crazy Horse had envisioned and planned to execute.
The Indian force of almost 1,000 warriors made first contact with Crook's advance scouts along the south fork of the Rosebud on the morning of the 17th. Soldiers in the column now began to hear gunfire coming from the surrounding bluffs.
By 8:30 am the Sioux and Cheyenne had heavily engaged Crook's Indian allies on the high ground north of the main body. Vastly outnumbered, the Crow and Shoshoni fell back upon the camp, however their stubborn fighting withdrawal, gave Crook the time he needed to deploy his forces.
Crook now directed 3rd Cavalry along with 4th Infantry under Captain Vliet and Major Chambers respectivally to seize the high ground and surrounding bluffs north and south of Rosebud Creek. With his flanks secure Crook along with the remaining six troops of 3rd Cavalry occupied a ridge line in the center of the battlefield, establishing his headquarters there at approximately 9:30 am.
Crook's initial moves had tactically secured key terrain but did little in engaging the Indians. At 10:00 am, Lakota and Cheyenne war parties attacked all along Crook’s line probing for weakness.
Crook believed a quick end to the fighting rested in that the usual tenacity of the Indians was based on defence of their families in a nearby village. He then ordered Captain Mills to withdraw his cavalry from the center and swing eastward to find the suspected village. He then recalled Captain Vliet's Battalion from the south side of the Rosebud to reinforce him.
While this shifting of forces was underway, Crazy Horse saw an opportunity to attack Crooks main camp and destroy his army’s provisions and supply wagons. A force of three hundred warriors rode in on the camp which was protected by one hundred men under Lieutenant Colonel Royall.
At 11:00 am, Crook began receiving reports from Royall that he was being attacked by superior numbers and in need of reinforcements otherwise holding the camp was untenable. Crook responded by ordering Royall to load up all remaining stocks of ammunition, abandon the camp and join him in the center (in what was now being called Crooks Hill).
Colonel Royall advanced rapidly along the ridge line to the northwest to a point about one mile away from Crook when his force was suddenly ambushed within the valley of Kolmarr Creek.
Crazy Horse now shifted his attack and sent hundreds of warriors through the now vacant south side of the Rosebud, concentrating on Royall’s command, which was now separated and in grave danger of being surrounded.
Royall's situation now deteariated rapidly, he tried to withdraw across Kollmar Creek, but the Indian forces before him were just to great. Next he began to withdraw southeast, however a large group of Sioux and Cheyenne broke off from the fight against Crooks' Hill and charged down the valley towards Royall’s command.
Just as Royall’s soldiers began to panic and break ranks, the Crow and Shoshoni warriors arrived and drove the Lakota and Cheyenne back. It was at this critical moment that Crook sent two infantry companies to occupy a nearby hill to aid Royall with long range rifle fire. It was these two events which probably saved Royall’s entire command from being wiped out.
Royall now ordered his remaining Cavalry remounted and prepared to move with all haste to reach the relative safety of Crook's Hill. As they began their dash through the gauntlet of Indian gunfire, the Crow and Shoshone rode alongside protecting the flanks.
While Royall’s men were fighting for their very lives, Captain Mills force slowly made their way up the Rosebud (still searching for a village that did not exist) Mills then received orders redirecting him to turn west and attack the rear of the Indians.
Mills Cavalry arrived on the Lakota and Cheyenne flank at about 12:30 pm, it was about this time that Royall’s battered and exhausted men reached General Crook’s position. Crazy Horse was furious with Royall’s narrow escape, and wanted to strike, but the unexpected appearance of a large force of fresh Cavalry on his flank persuaded him to break contact and retire from the battlefield.
Sporadic fighting would continue a further two hours until 2:30 pm, when the battle of the Rosebud was officially over. U.S. casualties numbered 28 soldiers killed and 56 wounded, the Crow and Shoshoni lost a further 15 dead. Lakota and Cheyenne casualties were 40 killed and 64 wounded.
Crook would later withdrawal to his main camp in Goose Creek Wyoming, were he would remain there immobil awaiting reinforcements. He was to play no role in the coming Battle of the Little Bighorn eight days later.
Unaware of Crook's battle On June 22, Terry ordered the 7th Cavalry, composed of 31 officers and 566 enlisted men under Custer to begin a reconnaissance and pursuit along the Little Big Horn valley. At sunrise on June 25th, Custer's scouts reported they could see a massive Indian village roughly 15 miles in the distance. Custer's overriding concern was that once the Indians knew of his arrival they would break up and scatter.
Custer decided to attack the village without further delay, he then divided his 12 companies into three battalions Three companies were placed under the command of Major Marcus Reno and three were placed under the Captain Frederick Benteen, the remaining five companies would remain with Custer.
At 3:00 Reno's force crossed the Little Bighorn and was immediately attacked by a force of 500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, He quickly ordered his troopers to dismount and deploy in a skirmish line. Suddenly warriors emerged from the tall grass to the left and rear of Reno's line forcing his troops to take refuge in the timber along the bend in the river. Here the Indians pinned Reno and his men down as they set fire to the surrounding brush to drive the soldiers out and into the open.
Reno was now forced to lead a disorderly retreat across the river toward the bluffs on the other side. They were immediately confronted by Cheyenne warriors and forced to fight thier way through at close quarters. Once atop the bluffs, Reno's shaken troops were joined by Captain Benteen's column arriving from the south.
Benteen's coincidental arrival was just in time to save Reno's command from possible annihilation. The American force now 340 troopers strong were organized an all round three sixty degrees defensive position. Although the combined assaults led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall were unable to break this position, It did however pin down the troopers that would be desperately needed by Custer to attack the Indian Village.
Reno and Benteen now began to hear gunfire from the bluffs to the north, Suddenly their Indian attackers disengaged and peeled off in the direction of the fighting. Benteen and Reno then decided to withdrawal from the battlefield too more defensible positions three miles from the bluffs.
At that same moment, believing that Reno was in position to commence his attack, Custer began crossing the river to assault the Indian encampment. Custer however was completely stunned when hundred's of Lakota warriors under Crazy Horse suddenly began fording the river directly to his front.
Custer ordered his men to dismount and form a firing line to deal with the oncoming charge. Custer's men got off only a few volleys in unison when larger numbers of Cheyenne now appeared on both flanks and quickly bore down on his position.
Faced with mounting attacks on three sides, Custer ordered his men to mount their chargers and fall back into the valley, but the order had come to late, Crazy Horse's assault had reached Custer's firing line and many soldier's were forced into hand to hand combat.
Those troopers which did get away were now being picked apart on the run. Custer spotted what he believed to be an escape rout and gave the order to head in that direction. When the remnants of Custer's shattered command reached the summit their hopes for escape were dashed as another large force of Indian warriors led by Chief Gall appeared, closing the pocket and completing the trap.
Now completely surrounded, Custer had no choice but to make a final stand and gave the fateful order for his men to dismount and fire at will. The Indian assault numbering nearly three thousand braves rapidly converged on and penetrated Custer's shrinking defensive perimeter.
Unable to repel nor withstand the endless waves of Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne, the continuous slaughter inflicted upon Custer's men resembled a great Sioux buffalo hunt. The resulting Indian massacre of the trapped U.S. Seventh Cavalry was over in roughly one hour and Custer along with his entire command of 210 troopers were wiped out to a man.
Total U.S. losses numbered 268 killed and 55 wounded, Native American casualties amounted to 60 dead.As a result of the defeat large American forces were rushed to the Bighorn area but not a single Indian could be found.
Sitting Bull was quite satisfied with their complete victory and ordered the tribes to scatter with many going back to their reservations. The American government now adopted a strict policy of disarming all Indians. American cavalry in pursuit of the fleeing Sioux could not capture the elusive Sitting Bull and his follower's who eventually crossed the border and escaped into Canada.
When Sitting Bull fled to Canada Crazy Horse remained hidden with his followers in the Bighorn mountains. During that winter General Cook learned that he was ready to surrender and sent his uncle Spotted Tail to bring him into camp. The emissary returned from the hills with two thousand Indians but Crazy Horse remained until May 6th 1877 when the great Chief himself finally came in and surrendered with eight hundred more warriors including two thousand ponies.
Crazy Horse now remained interned at Fort Robinson under heavy military guard. Uneasy with his situation and fearing for his life, Crazy Horse Resisted arrest during a prisoner transfer and was bayoneted by a sentry and died on September 5 1877.
In 1881 Sitting Bull crossed the Canadian border back into the United States with most of the Lakota that also fled and surrendered at Fort Buford. After serving two years as a prisoner of war at Fort Randall he was released and taken to the Standing Rock agency were he lived peacefully.
After the disaster of the Little Big Horn, the U.S. government continued the illegal seizure of Lakota lands. The once great bison herds (on which the Indian depended for survival) had been hunted to near extinction and the treaty’s in which the Native Americans signed in good faith were either broken or revoked.
During this great unrest news spread amongst the reservations of a new Ghost Dance religion. It was believed that during this time the white man would completely disappear from all Native lands, the buffalo would return in abundance and the ghosts of their ancestors would return to earth.
White Americans were alarmed and disturbed by the gathering of such large number of plains tribes and were worried that it might be a prelude to an armed attack.
On December 23rd 1890, Chief Spotted Elk of the Miniconjou Lakota tribe was ordered to move his people from their peaceful existence on the open plains of South Dakota to the Pine Ridge reservation. While in the process of making the long trip to the agency (In the dead of winter) they were intercepted by units of the 7th Cavalry on December 28th and were escorted to Wounded Knee Creek and told to make camp.
Later that evening Colonel James Forsyth and three hundred additional troopers of the 7th Cavalry arrived, bringing the total number of troopers at Wounded Knee to 500. During the night the Regiment surrounded the sleeping Lakota encampment of three hundred and fifty Indians ( 200 Men and 150 Women and Children ) including the deployment of four rapid firing Cannons.
At daybreak on December 29th, Forsyth ordered Chief Spotted Elk to surrender all weapons, then abandon the camp for immediate departure to awaiting trains.
As panic amongst the women and children spread throughout the camp, a medicine man by the name of Yellow Bird began performing the "Ghost Dance", informing the Lakota men that their participation would make them bullet proof.
As tension mounted, soldiers began forcibly searching the camp, as troopers approached Yellow Bird, he threw some dust into the air and was shot dead. Three young Lakota men now threw aside their blankets and fired their rifles upon the soldiers responsible for Yellow Bird’s death. After this initial exchange, gunfire on both sides became widespread and indiscriminate.
Once the Cannons began to open fire upon the camp, the officers quickly lost all control of their men rendering the situation irreversible. The Indian women and children began to flee from the camp in all directions but were mercilessly cut down on the open plains by sabre wielding mounted troopers.
In less than an hour it was over, in the end soldiers loaded a mere 51 survivors (4 elderly men and 47 women and children) onto wagons and escorted them to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Army casualties numbered 25 Troopers dead and 40 wounded.
The conflict at Wounded Knee was originally referred to as a battle, but in reality it was a tragic and avoidable massacre. Many historians speculate that the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry were deliberately taking revenge for the regiment’s defeat at Little Bighorn in 1876.
Whatever the motives, the massacre ended the Ghost Dance movement and was the last confrontation in America’s war against the Plains Indians.
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