In the autumn of 1865, a government treaty commission, headed by the governor of the Dakota territory, Newton Edwards, traveled across the Great Plains. Edwards’ objective was simple: convince Sioux chiefs to sign treaties that would give the government control of Sioux land, which the government needed in order to build trains and allow citizens to migrate westward.
In chapter after chapter, Brown begins by returning to the U.S. government’s core problem following the Civil War: it had agreed to allow Native Americans to live in the Midwest, but also wanted to expand westward, and therefore had to rewrite the treaties to which it had already agreed.
By the end of the season, the commission had obtained several treaties. However, Edwards knew that the treaties weren’t legally binding, since the warrior chiefs hadn’t signed them. His purpose was to present Congress with official-looking treaties that could be used to enact legislation.
Congress didn’t need its agreements with Native Americans to be completely official, since, at the end of the day, no Native American of the era had the power to question the treaties in court.
Around the same time, Colonel Henry Maynadier was trying to contact a Sioux chief named Red Cloud and arrange negotiations. He sent out a group of “trader Indians”—Native Americans who arranged business deals between their tribes and the military—to offer Red Cloud a peace treaty. Months went by, and Red Cloud didn’t show up.
Red Cloud was an important figure for the U.S. government, because he alone had the authority to authorize a new treaty with the government.
In March of 1866, Colonel Maynadier’s messengers informed him that Spotted Tail, the chief of the Brulé tribe, wanted to discuss a treaty. He explained that his daughter was dying, and needed U.S. medical expertise. Maynadier agreed to meet with Spotted Tail. During their meeting, Spotted Tail argued that his tribe deserved compensation for the roads that white men had built through his territory.
Spotted Tail was a reformer, not a revolutionary. Put another way, he believed that he could use legal, peaceful means to negotiate with the U.S. and get what he wanted. Spotted Tail made a series of perfectly reasonable points—but the U.S. never honored its commitments by agreeing to respect the Brulé territory.
Within a week, Red Cloud arrived at Fort Laramie to negotiate with Colonel Maynadier. Red Cloud was angry when he realized that Maynadier had no guns or provisions for him, as was usually the case during a negotiation. He complained that treaties with the United States always hurt his tribe. Maynadier assured Red Cloud that he’d be compensated with provisions soon.
In contrast to Spotted Tail, Red Cloud was more wiling to antagonize the U.S., and often seemed to be on the verge of declaring an outright war.
On June 5, Red Cloud began negotiations with Colonel Maynadier; however, Red Cloud asked to adjourn until June 13 so that other chiefs from his tribe could be present. But on June 13, General Henry B. Carrington arrived at Fort Laramie. Carrington’s arrival derailed peace talks by suggesting that the military was going to infringe on Sioux land rights. Furious, Red Cloud left the negotiations.
Red Cloud proved that he was willing to risk outright war with the United States, leaving negotiations after it became clear that the U.S. was going to violate the treaty whether Red Cloud agreed to it or not.
On June 28, Carrington’s men reached Fort Reno, secretly followed by hundreds of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. In the middle of July, a Cheyenne truce party approached Carrington’s army. Carrington agreed to negotiate. He gave them “pieces of paper saying that they had agreed to ‘a lasting peace with the whites.’” But the next day, Red Cloud attacked Carrington’s fort. When soldiers rushed outside to fight, the Native Americans ambushed them. For the next few months, Red Cloud led a guerilla war against Carrington.
Red Cloud, confident that his people would have their rights violated by white settlers whether or not he agreed to a treaty, proceeded to lead a guerilla war against the U.S. In this sense, Red Cloud was representative of the kind of Native American leader common in the late 19th century: he was sober and realistic about the future of his people, and knew that violence was one of the only tools left to him.
In August, General Carrington made the bold decision to divide his army He sent 150 men north, and he sent scouts to negotiate with Red Cloud. Meanwhile, Red Cloud’s army became stronger as other tribes joined the guerilla war.
Red Cloud’s army grew, suggesting that other tribes recognized the direness of the situation with the U.S. military.
Red Cloud’s troops disrupted white supply routes, shutting down much of the white migration across Native American territory in the mid-1860s. In December, Red Cloud prepared for a daring attack on Carrington’s fort. His men staged a small battle with American troops outside the fort, and then ran away. Red Cloud’s warriors drew the white soldiers into an ambush. The Sioux and Arapaho armies joined in the attack. They succeeded in killing many white soldiers, but they sustained heavy casualties themselves.
Red Cloud’s troops’ priority wasn’t to take white settlers’ lives; rather, it was to disrupt the white settlers supply routes, thereby sending a message that it was no longer safe for settlers to trespass on Native American lands. This certainly doesn’t mean that Red Cloud was justified in killing white settlers and soldiers, but it also suggests that he was sincere in his desire to protect his people.
The devastation of the ambush—which white Americans later called the Fetterman Massacre—made General Carrington wonder why Native Americans were so violent. He concluded that there must be some pagan belief that led them to kill—though of course, anyone who’d witnessed the Sand Creek Massacre could have said the same thing about the people of the United States. Imitation—in war, as in all things—is the sincerest form of flattery.
Carrington was so blinded by the false ideology of Manifest Destiny that he couldn’t understand why the Native Americans would resort to violence—although, by this point in the book, it’s pretty clear that violence was an utterly rational, common-sense response to the realities of the Native Americans’ situation.
Following the Fetterman Massacre, the American government sent a new commission in the hopes of obtaining new treaties with the Plains Indians. The new commissioner, John Sanborn, was able to persuade representatives of the Brulé tribe to agree to peace. However, Sanborn was unable to meet with Red Cloud.
Some Native Americans agreed to peace, confident that, now that they’d demonstrated their power, they’d be able to coexist with the U.S. However, Red Cloud remained skeptical of peace treaties and continued to resist the U.S.
That summer, two important Oglala chiefs Little Wound and Pawnee Killer, began to negotiate with a general named George Armstrong Custer. The chiefs told Custer they objected to the “Iron Horse” (i.e., the new railroad) that ran across their territory.
The railroads of the 19th century were a symbol of the new power of the federal government. The U.S. allocated the equivalent of billions of dollars to build tracks across the country, even though doing so challenged the independence of Native American tribes.
Later on, the Oglalas and Cheyennes tried to tamper with the Iron Horse. They succeeded in bending the railroad tracks and, when the train derailed, plundering it for food and alcohol. In the coming months, the federal government began to rethink its plan to join the country together with railroads.
The passage suggests that the real object of the Cheyennes’ aggression wasn’t “the white man” but rather the looming specter of U.S. expansion. This is an importance difference, because it suggests that the Native Americans weren’t really motivated by racism, only by a rational concern that Manifest Destiny would wipe them out.
In August, a group of Cheyennes attacked a small group of U.S. soldiers. The soldiers were armed with machine guns, however, and easily overpowered their opponents. While these “victories” proved that the U.S. military could easily defend the railroads from Native American attack, the federal government continued to search for Red Cloud in the hopes of establishing peace.
Again and again, the U.S. military prevailed against the Native Americans using its superior firepower. However, the government still wanted Red Cloud to sign the latest treaty, since Red Cloud’s support would convince many other tribes to go along with the treaty, too.
In the summer of 1867, the new Native American commissioner, Nathaniel Taylor, reached out to a group of Native American chiefs, including Red Cloud. Red Cloud refused to negotiate with Taylor, but several important chiefs attended. Taylor opened negotiations by claiming that he’d come to understand “what has been the trouble.” The chiefs explained the truth: white Americans had broken their promises by passing through Native Americans. They’d massacred Native American women and children, and built railroads that disrespected Native American property.
The chiefs made an eloquent and utterly straightforward argument for why they’d waged war with the U.S. They argued that the U.S. had broken its word and violated treaties and rules of warfare by murdering children.
In response, the government representatives claimed that they’d look into the damage caused by the railroad. If they found that there was damage, they promised to reimburse the Native Americans at a later time. They also claimed that they’d allow the Sioux nation to live by the Missouri River without any further interference from white men. The chiefs were offended by this “gift,” since they knew the Missouri River area to be dry and barren.
Even after the chiefs’ speech, the U.S. negotiators stuck to their instructions and tried to convince the chiefs to accept a bogus, one-sided treaty designed to confine the Cheyennes and the other tribes to a worthless patch of land.
In mid-November, Red Cloud sent word that he wouldn’t negotiate with Taylor until the white men withdrew from the Powder River for good. Once again, peace negotiations between the U.S. and the Native Americans had failed. This was embarrassing for Taylor: he’d been tasked with getting agreements from the most powerful chiefs in the Great Plains, but he’d come back empty-handed. Finally, the government gave the order to withdraw troops from the Powder River. Red Cloud had won his war.
Red Cloud’s refusal to negotiate marked one of the few long-term victories for Native Americans in the second half of the 19th century. By refusing to negotiate, Red Cloud effectively out-negotiated Taylor, and won for his people the right to continue living in their current territory.
Red Cloud signed a peace treaty with the U.S. government, promising to keep the peace forever However, the treaty he signed was very different from the treaty later ratified in Congress. For the next twenty years, this treaty of 1868 was disputed by the Native Americans and the U.S. government.
The tragic ending to Red Cloud’s story is that, for all Red Cloud’s ingenuity, he could do very little to prevent the United States from prevailing. The U.S. manipulated the law to justify its unjust and illegal expansion into the west.