In 1865, Black Bear, the chief of the Northern Arapahos, led his people west to the Powder River, along with a smaller group of Southern Arapahos (who’d come north after the Sand Creek massacre). On the march, Black Bear heard rumors of approaching U.S. troops. These troops, under the command of General Patrick E. Connor, had orders to “hunt” Native American tribes “like wolves,” and kill all adult males.
Black Bear was a uniter: in the aftermath of Sand Creek, he brought together Arapahos from many different parts of the Great Plains, recognizing that different branches of the tribe needed to work together to protect themselves against the threat of another massacre. Notice that Connor spoke of Native Americans as wild animals, suggesting that he saw them as nuisances that needed to be tamed or eliminated.
In mid-August, the U.S. troops met a big group of Sioux and Cheyennes camped along the Powder River. These soldiers were breaking treaties by trespassing on Native American lands. The Sioux and Cheyennes opened fire, and the soldiers fired back. The fight ended when the Native Americans waved a white flag. The two sides arranged a meeting. Among the Cheyenne representatives were George Bent and Charlie Bent, the sons of William Bent.
As with many of the armed conflicts between the Cheyennes and the U.S. military, this conflict broke out because American soldiers were trespassing. However—and again, like many other Cheyenne-U.S. conflicts—the fighting ended with the Native Americans’ surrender.
During the meeting, the U.S. soldiers asked the Cheyenne chiefs why they’d attacked peaceful white men. Charlie Bent shot back that he and the Cheyenne would continue attacking white men until the U.S. government hanged the generals responsible for the Sand Creek massacre. During these negotiations, the U.S representatives mentioned a fort on Cheyenne land, led by General Patrick E. Connor: this was the first time the Cheyenne had heard of the fort.
The negotiations between the Cheyennes and the U.S. troops may have caused even more animosity, since the U.S. representatives accidentally mentioned the existence of a U.S. fort on Cheyenne territory.
On August 16, a small group of Cheyennes rode out to General Patrick E. Connor’s fort. Among them was Yellow Woman, the wife of William Bent. They had come to see whether there was a fort or not. As the group approached, a group of Pawnee scouts—mercenaries hired by Connor—rode out and murdered the Cheyennes. A week later, Connor left the fort with his soldiers.
Notice that the U.S. military worked closely with Native Americans who acted as U.S. mercenaries. In other words, this wasn’t simply a war between whites and Native Americans—there were some alliances between the two sides.
Connor’s forces reached an Arapaho camp by the Powder River. In the early morning, Connor’s soldiers attacked the camp, killing women and children. The Arapaho retreated, but the soldiers continued to fire.
Connor’s forces killed women and children, echoing the atrocities of the Sand Creek Massacre.
During the Arapahos’ long retreat, some Arapaho warriors fired arrows and old trade guns at the U.S. troops. They ran all the way back to their village, and took cover in the hills. The soldiers burned the village. The Arapahos were left with no food, and many had been killed. This was the Battle of Tongue River.
The Arapaho were unable to defeat their U.S. opponents: their guns and arrows were no match for the new, post-Civil War technology they faced.
General Connor continued across the plains, “searching hungrily for more Indian villages to destroy.” Two columns of troops marched across the plains to join him. Their morale was low: many of the soldiers have fought in the Civil War, and supplies were limited. On August 28, the columns reached the Powder River, but were surprised to find that General Connor wasn’t present—he was farther south.
Brown portrays Connor as an utter sadist, someone who enjoyed burning villages and killing children regardless of the overall utility of doing so.
Around the same time, a leader of the Hunkpapa Sioux, Sitting Bull, was leading his own warriors along the Powder River. He’d vowed to fight to save his land from whites. Sitting Bull led his men to the U.S. soldiers. He sent a truce party down to the camp, but soldiers simply fired on the party. In response, Sitting Bull led an attack on the Americans. At the time, these troops were weary and half-starved. Even though Sitting Bull was outnumbered, he was able to force the columns to retreat. He began planning an ambush on the remaining soldiers.
Sitting Bull is typical of the kind of leader that emerged among Native Americans in the second half of the 19th century. He saw, very clearly, that Native Americans couldn’t last unless they fought back. And he used guerilla tactics to outmaneuver his bigger, less nimble U.S. opponents.
In September 1865, the Cheyenne chief Roman Nose felt he was ready to lead an attack on the U.S. He joined with Sitting Bull and other chiefs in organizing an ambush on the enemy columns. During the ambush, the American troops were able to defend themselves. Roman Nose realized that his men would never defeat their enemies unless they had modern Civil War guns. However, the American soldiers were still starving. The Native Americans, on the other hand, had plentiful supplies of buffalo meat.
The Cheyennes, at least for the time being, had enough food to feed themselves. This would change later on, when the U.S. settlers began slaughtering buffalo in order to deliberately weaken the Native Americans. Notice, also, that the U.S. troops were weakened by their experiences during the Civil War: they were tired and disillusioned by half a decade of warfare with the Confederacy, and didn’t really want another fight.