The US Peace Policy with the Sioux

“The United States hereby agrees and stipulates that the country north of the North Platte River and east of the summits of the Big Horn Mountains shall be held and considered to be unceded Indian territory, and also stipulates and agrees that no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the same, or, without the consent of the Indians first had and obtained, to pass through the same; and it is further agreed by the United States that, within ninety days after the conclusion of peace with all the bands of the Sioux Nation, the military posts now established in territory in this article named, shall be abandoned, and the road leading to them and by them to the settlements in the Territory of Montana shall be closed.”

So read the treaty of 1868, made at fort Laramie, Dakota, with a dozen or more tribes of Sioux who had been at war continuously for a half dozen years. For between the nine treaties of 1865 and this new agreement warfare had been going on unceasingly, the annihilation of Fetterman’s command near Fort Phil Kearney being one of the outstanding events of this officially peaceful period.

Among the many causes of trouble with the Indians was the division of authority between the military and the civil arm of the government, or between the legislative and the administrative powers. The army offered bullets while the Indian agent offered bread. The exasperated and ungentle folk of the pioneer country took a leaf from the Indian’s own book and perpetrated an outrage or two on their own account while the friends of oppressed races in the east were calling for clemency and sending missionaries and teachers to the Indian. Treaty commissioners would hold council and sign an agreement with the various bands; Congress would deliberate a year or two before ratifying the compact-perhaps would change its tenor completely. If there are any bright spots in the record, they are not caused by the luster of the jewel consistency. And consistency is absolutely the first need in any dealings with simple and primitive people. No wonder that the wavering policy of the white man failed either to convince the Sioux of the good intent of the government or to give him a wholesome fear of its power.

So, after years of fighting, forts were abandoned, and the inevitable result was fresh attack from the hostile Indian. In the gifts of goods and money that the treaty provided, he saw a confession of weakness. With equal inconsistency, the makers of the treaty had promised something impossible of performance. The pioneer was advancing farther and farther each year. Already, under armed guard, the line of the first transcontinental railroad had been laid across the plain in the very face of the hostiles.

Already the lure of gold in the northern hills was bringing such impassioned hordes as the greed for fortune alone can create. In the midst of all this the treaty-makers solemnly promised to keep white men forever out of this vast territory of the Dakotas. King Canute threatening the ocean made a far less futile gesture.

It was Red Cloud, the leader of the Oglala band of Teton Sioux, who dictated the terms concerning the abandonment of forts and exclusion of whit men from the lands of his people; and indeed the whole treaty, with its liberal annuities and its wide reservation of lands, was a triumph for his prowess in was and diplomacy. Bus his eager young warriors could not become reconciled to any treaty; it may be suspected, since the Sioux have always been notable for their warlike tendencies, that they preferred the warpath to the quiet life of the agency. In spite of his victory, Red Cloud lost caste with the red man as he conducted himself in a manner more satisfactory to the white; his remaining years found him faithful to his agreements, but found Sitting Bull, the medicine man, gaining the power over the Sioux which Red Cloud had let slip through his hands.

When General Grant became president, the situation as to the Indians throughout the west was anything but satisfactory. Everywhere the army was engaged against hostile bands and everywhere fighting at the disadvantage which guerilla warfare imposes on the professional soldier who cannot adopt the tactics of the savage. Grant determined upon a “peace policy.” In short, the motto of the government became “It is cheaper to ration the Indians than to conquer them.” Commissioners were sent out to make peace with all the tribes. The issuance of rations to all who would come to the agencies to receive them became more and more a settled practice. With the early Seventies a measure of quiet descended upon the Dakotas. But out in Montana Sitting Bull with his increasing band of malcontents was roaming and making medicine against the time when the red man should again go on the warpath.

In 1869, at Fort Sully in Dakota territory, Major General Stanley reported on the various bands of Sioux, their numbers, disposition and activities. He concluded his survey:

“At the agencies established for the Sioux, there is one class of Indians which has been friendly for four or five years and are nearly residents, only leaving from time to time to hunt or pick wild fruit. With this class there is no trouble. There is another class passing half its time at these agencies and half in the hostile camps. They abuse the agents, threaten their lives, kill their cattle at night and do anything they can to oppose the civilizing movement, but eat all the provisions they can get, and thus far have taken no lives.

“During the winter for the past two years, almost the entire hostile Sioux have camped together in one big camp on the Rosebud, near the Yellowstone. In the summer time they break up and spread over the prairies, either to hunt, plunder, or come into the posts to beg.”

The early Seventies saw many infractions of the treaty of 1868. Reconnoitering parties visited the Black Hills from time to time. A projected change in the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad was another source of complaint. Gold seekers prospected and staked out claims, and when warned by the military that they were violating treaty stipulations, excused their actions by instancing the many cases in which the Indians had violated their part of the agreement.

So matters went from bad to worse. Sitting Bull’s band, by this time about three thousand in number, grew bolder and bolder in their attacks upon settlers, their raids of the frontier posts, their warfare with all the tribes maintaining friendly relations with the United States. It was decided to make a final effort to return these hostile Sioux to their reservations, and an order was issued that unless they came in to the agencies by January 31, 1876, the army would be asked to take charge of the situation. The Indians totally disregarded the warning.

A winter campaign was planned, Custer to take his regiment-the Seventh Cavalry-in pursuit of Sitting Bull, General Crook to proceed to the capture of Crazy Horse, Oglala leader of a mixed force of Sioux and Cheyenne. Owing to the bad weather, battle was not joined as soon as was expected, and when Crook and Crazy Horse met the result was not such as to discourage the Indians. The army then desisted from its efforts until the late northern spring was at hand.

Meanwhile Custer had been in trouble with his superiors at Washington and was no longer in command, but under orders from General Terry when, on the 22nd of June, with six hundred cavalrymen, a pack train and a group of free and Crow scouts he set out southwest from the Yellowstone to discover the trail of the hostiles. Up the valley of the Rosebud and across the divide to the course of the Little Big Horn, known to the Indians as the Greasy Grass, in southeastern Montana, they traveled for three days. The scouts read signs and reported a large force; how large they could not tell, but they gave warning of impending trouble. Custer, however, paid but little attention to these warnings, for where was the band of Indians who could stand up before his brave fighters? And it may be the desire to reestablish himself with headquarters made him more reckless than he should have been. He divided his force into three columns and pushed boldly forward. In that almost treeless country there was no cover for the attacker, so his movements were known at every turn to the enemy which remained invisible to him until the two parties were at last in contact.

There were ten thousand souls in the Indian village into which Custer’s command stumbled on that memorable 25th of June, 1876, on the banks of the Little Big Horn. Gall and Crow King were their war chiefs; Sitting Bull, the medicine man, fled with his wives to the hills at Reno’s firing, and though he took no part in the fighting, he gained great prestige with his people through his prophecies and predictions. The Indians were not expecting attack; their numbers, they thought, were sufficient protection. They knew how pitifully few were the cavalrymen who had come in search of them.

The story of that fight has been told innumerable times in song and story. The division of the forces; Reno’s attack at the river bend and withdrawal to the heights beyond; the delay that brought Benteen up too late; the last stand of Custer and his two hundred men on the ridge above the Sioux village. Today stone markers thick along the slopes tell where the bodies were found, fallen like a harvest before the moving of the Sioux village. Today stone markers thick along the slopes tell where the bodies were found, fallen like a harvest before the moving of the Sioux warriors. Standing on the bare wind-swept hilltop, now a national reserve, one can see in imagination the handful of blue-coated men huddled together in small groups, making their last desperate resistance, while all about the hill swarm thousands of savage fighters. A great cloud of smoke rises from reeking guns, an the dust and thunder of galloping horses sweeps the ridge; sweeps over it in a whirlwind, and is gone. When the storm passes there is no white man left alive; the ridge is covered with the bodies of the slain, which are at once attacked by boys and women from the Indian camp in a barbaric orgy of plunder and mutilation.

There was great rejoicing that night in the encampment along the river. Let a Sioux woman give the ending of the tale as she told it to her white friend, Major McLaughlin;

” That night the Sioux men, women and children, lighted many fires and dances; their hearts were glad, for the Great Spirit had given them a great victory. All along the valley of the Greasy Grass fires were lighted, and the women laughed as they labored hard to bring in the fuel; for in the darkness they could see the gleam of the flames on the arms of the soldiers fastened in a trap on Reno Hill. The people had taken my guns, cartridges, horses and much clothing from the soldiers, and they rejoiced whit the fires lit up the field on the hill across the river, where the naked bodies of the soldiers lay….Since the Sioux first fought the men who are our friends now, they had not won so great a battle, and at so little cost.

So we went out from the Greasy Grass River and left Long Hair (Custer) and his dead to their friends. The people scattered and the pursuit did not harm us. But I still remember the bitterness of the suffering of the Sioux that winter, after we had met and talked with Bear Coat (General Miles) on the Yellowstone, when we were on our way north into the land of the Red Coats, where we remained five winters and were frequently very destitute while we remained there.

“So it was that the Sioux defeated Long Hair and his soldiers in the valley of the Greasy Grass, which my people remember with regret but without shame. We are now living happily and in friendship with the whites, knowing that their hears are good toward us. The great chiefs who led that fight are dead; Gall, Crow King, Crazy Horse, Big Road, and the other head men are dead and gone to the land of ghosts, but their deeds live and we of the Sioux nation keep them in our memories, even as we keep in remembrance Long Hair and his men, whose bravery in battle makes the bravery of their conquerors a thing that cannot be buried in the grave nor forgotten, because their ghosts are at peace.”


Seymour, Flora Warren. The Story of the Sioux Indians. Haldeman-Julius Company. 1924.

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