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The Artist
In April 1837 Alfred Jacob Miller accompanied an expedition into the Great Plains led by Captain William Drummond Stewart. They were guided by Thomas Fitzpatrick, who was later instrumental in bringing diverse Native American peoples together at Fort Laramie in 1851. The party consisted of 45 men and 20 carts, the route they took would later be called the Oregon Trail. Miller returned from the trip with approximately 200 sketches, which were shipped to Stewart’s Murthly Castle in Scotland. Miller would follow his sketches to Scotland, living at the castle from 1840 to 1842, and painting scenes from the trip while there. Once he had completed his commission for Stewart, Miller returned to Baltimore where he spent the rest of his career painting portraits and scenes from his journey “out West.” He died in 1874 in Baltimore.

1851 Meeting at Fort Laramie:
Extended Version

1851 Meeting at Fort Laramie

ARTICLE 2. The aforesaid nations do hereby recognize the right of the United States government to establish roads, military and other posts, within their respective territories.
ARTICLE 3. In consideration of the rights and privileges acknowledged in the preceding article, the United States bind themselves to protect the aforesaid Indian nations against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States, after the ratification of this treaty.

Fort Laramie by Alfred Jacob Miller,1837

Fort Laramie by Alfred Jacob Miller,1837

In the late 1840s there was an upsurge in settlers wishing to travel to Oregon, not unreasonably given the fertile land which was now available and that its title was no longer in dispute with Britain. The traffic down the Oregon Trail increased still further when the California Gold Rush was prompted by the discovery of the stuff of dreams in 1848. The wagon trains became so numerous that the life of buffalo and the peoples of the Plains who depended upon them were severely disrupted. Their food supply became scarce. Fear of the native Americans preoccupied the travellers but the wagons themselves and disease, mainly cholera, were far more real dangers. Cholera also readily spread to the native Americans giving them another reason to resent the intrusion. Thus genuine grievances and a lack of understanding between the cultures led to incidents which caused distress to new and the native Americans alike.

It was against this background that Thomas Fitzpatrick was asked to arrange a meeting to resolve the problem of the perceived threat to the emigrants, and he sent runners out to the far corners of the plains. It is a testimony to the very highest regard in which he was held that virtually every people of the plains responded to his request and came in to Fort Laramie in 1851. The assembly of sworn enemies was unprecedented and showed the regard in which Fitzpatrick was held. Lakota, northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, Shoshone, Crow, Assiniboine, Arikara, Hidatsa (Gros Ventre) and possibly a few surviving Mandan were all in attendance. Not surprisingly petty disputes broke out and it is said that the soldiers were kept busy splitting up fights although one can imagine them not carrying out this duty with great enthusiasm. Nevertheless the whole scenario was like a powder keg ready to blow, so somehow a lid needed to be kept on it.

“The parley was held in a large tent, one of the most colourful such meetings ever held, with great men from great tribes sitting, rank on rank, in the full glory of their ceremonial regalia. The council lasted twenty days, being purposely drawn out to permit the army to locate and bring the gifts.” (The Long Death: The Last Days of The Plains Indians, Ralph Andrist, page 10)

The Arapaho Cut Nose was unduly optimistic of the outcome of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, unless he was engaging the use of irony: ‘I will go home satisfied. I will sleep sound, and not have to watch my horses cin the night or be afraid for my women and children. We have to live on these streams and in the hills, and I would be clad if the whites would pick out a place for themselves and not come into our grounds.’ (quoted in A History of the Indians of the United States, Angie Debo, page 165-6)

However, in mentioning the proximity of the ‘whites’ he showed he was fully aware of the potential for a disrupted harmony, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before the Grattan affair was sparked off by the ‘racial hostility’ so perfectly summarized above by George Bird Grinnell. Lieutenant Grattan tried to mete out summary justice to Conquering Bear’s Lakota. The Brule leader refused to give up a visitor who had taken possession of a lame cow left wandering around by its owner, instead offering compensation. Grattan’s thirty men were wiped out, but this resulted in punitive raids by General William Harney on any native Americans he could find. Significantly the Lakota called him ’Mad Bear’. If Cut Nose’s statement was ironic it could not have been more accurate. The time he could have ‘slept soundly’ was but three years.

In view of the above it is hardly worth mentioning the provisions of the treaty. I have quoted the two main ones at the head of the previous webpage. The whole purpose was to keep the native Americans away from the Oregon Trail, which they promised to do, as well as to cease hostilities between each other. In return the United States pledged to protect them from attacks and to give annual compensation of a derisory $50,000,000 to be shared – how this was to be was not clear- between all the native Americans. When the treaty went to the United States Senate they could not even ratify it without changing it. The $50,000,000 was reduced to $10,000,000.

In 1854 Fitzpatrick died of pneumonia while on a trip to Washington to represent the native Americans. It was perhaps just as well, for moves were already underway which would undermine the genuine efforts he had made to bring a peaceful transition from the old to the new. New treaties were being drawn up by which native peoples in Kansas and Nebraska gave up thirteen million acres of land. As these two new states were formed farmers moved in in droves. The vast reservation of the plains was now reduced to a tiny area inhabited by Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks , Chickasaws and Seminoles: Indian Territory.

1851 Meeting at Fort Laramie: Extended Version

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© Chris Smallbone March 2006