November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
Red Cloud’s Deal
When he finally signed a treaty with federal representatives on November 6, after two years of guerrilla assaults against three Powder River forts and the Bozeman Trail, the Oglala chief Red Cloud became the only leader in any of the Indian wars ever to win any kind of concession from the United States government. Red Cloud traveled to Fort Laramie to sign the treaty following the abandonment of Fort Reno and the partial burning of Forts Kearney and C. F. Smith. The three forts were supposed to have secured the Bozeman Trail, which wound through Powder River country, home to the Brublé, Oglala, and Teton Sioux, Arapahos, and Cheyennes who had joined together under Red Cloud for the campaign. Such an alliance of native peoples was rare in the history of the Indian wars and—along with the later defeat of Custer—uniquely effective. Wagon trains along the Bozeman Trail and even government mowing details outside the forts weren’t safe from attack during Red Cloud’s campaign, from the end of 1866 to November 1868.
On December 21, 1866, a group of Oglalas and Cheyennes had destroyed a command of eighty men led by Capt. William J. Fetterman. His men scared off travelers along the Montana Trail through much of the fall of 1867, skirmished several times at Crazy Woman’s Fork on the Powder River, and then fought again in sight of Fort Kearney in mid-December. A peace commission, headed by N. G. Taylor and including Gen. William T. Sherman, was gotten up during the summer of 1868 to deal with hostile tribes, and a request went to Red Cloud, as to other fighting chiefs, for a chance to discuss terms. He missed his November 1 rendezvous at Fort Laramie but sent a messenger named Man Afraid to explain that he could consent to no meeting until the Powder River hunting ground was secured and the three forts were relinquished. The generals, more annoyed than beaten, eventually agreed.
Having made the commissioners wait for him to finish his autumn buffalo hunt, Red Cloud came to the treaty talks in November full of confidence. But although he was led to believe that he was permanently gaining land, the Sioux claim on the Bighorn and Powder river areas was left tenuous by the agreement, and it would be meaningless once the Union Pacific Railroad was finished. In return for the land “north of the North Platte River and east of the summits of the Big Horn Mountains,” Red Cloud permitted railroad construction to continue south of the Platte. Growing disappointment with the results of his victory eventually led Red Cloud to visit New York City, in 1870, where he made a successful appeal about government reservation policies from the famous stage of the Cooper Union. By the time of the great agitation along the Little Bighorn six years later, he had retired to the Pine Ridge Agency, in South Dakota.