1851 Meeting at Fort Laramie
"“The hostility that was thus growing up between Indians and white men was racial. To the white man the Indian was an Indian, and the white man who had been robbed or threatened by an Indian felt himself justified in taking vengeance on the next Indian he saw, without regard to whether he had been injured by that man or by men of that tribe. In the same way if an Indian had been killed by a white man the members of his tribe were ready to revenge the injury on the next white man that came along. Thus it came about that persons innocent of any fault were constantly punished for harm done to their race. The guilty never suffered. As a result of this feeling neither Indians nor white men felt they could trust one of the opposite race, and each held the other always in suspicion” (The Fighting Cheyennes, George Bird Grinnell, page 100)"

Fort Laramie by Alfred Jacob Miller,1837

Fort Laramie by Alfred Jacob Miller,1837

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1851 Meeting at Fort Laramie

1851 Meeting at Fort Laramie

Fort William, which was later to become Fort Laramie, was built by fur traders Robert Campbell & William Sublette as early as 1834 where the North Platte and Laramie rivers meet. It served as a trading post where native Americans and trappers could take their beaver pelts and trappers could obtain essential supplies such as ammunition. The following year Fort William was purchased by Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger and Milton Sublette, who sold out to the American Fur Company in 1836 but continued trading in furs until the whole trade collapsed in 1841. At this point many trappers turned their knowledge to good advantage by acting as guides for emigrants travelling west.

Thomas Fitzpatrick is credited with discovering the South Pass through the Rockies as early as 1824 with his friend Jedediah Smith, so the task of negotiating their way through the mountains in the 1840s was relatively straight forward. Fitzpatrick guided the first emigrant wagon train, the Bidwell-Bartelson train, together with Father de Smet’s party, through to California in 1841. When The US war department needed guides to accompany John C Fremont in an exploratory venture, Fitzpatrick, along with Kit Carson, was an obvious choice. As the trail down the Platte River developed into the Oregon Trail during the 1840s Fort William became an important stopping off point where travellers could purchase supplies to get them through the last hurdle of their journey: the Rockies, the Plateau and the Sierra Nevada. By the late 1840s, especially after gold was discovered in California, emigrants were complaining of attacks by native Americans, although many saw nothing wrong in taking unprovoked pot shots at them, when their only crime was inquisitiveness and being different. In order to offer protection to those journeying westwards the U.S. Military purchased the fort in 1849 to garrison it and it was renamed after a local stream which had in turn been named after Jacques La Ramie, a local French fur trapper.

Thomas Fitzpatrick was as well known to the native Americans on the Great Plains and foothills of the Rockies as anybody, including Jim Bridger and Jim Beckwourth. He had their trust even if this did not always grant him safe passage. He was called White Hair by some native Americans because some of his hair had lost its colour when he had narrowly escaped from a group of Gros Ventre (Hidatsa) and only survived after great deprivation. It is thought that the shock to his system had resulted in some premature greying. His other native American name was ‘Broken Hand’ because he had two fingers missing on his left hand as a result of a musket exploding while he was holding it. Because of the reputation for understanding the native Americans, in November 1846 he was appointed ‘Indian Agent’ for the area around the Upper Platte and Arkansas Rivers, and because of his reputation among the native Americans he made a success of it. Following his recommendations forts were constructed or buildings converted: Fort Laramie, Fort Hall, (at the Great Bend of the Arkansas) and one near Bent’s Fort. As part of his duties, Fitzpatrick met with Cheyenne at Bent's Fort in 1847 and with Lakota on the South Platte in February 1848.

The 1846 election returned President Polk, an expansionist warmonger whose manifesto was belligerent but even so it toned down his intentions. Once elected he set about ‘acquiring’ Mexican lands and establishing ownership of Oregon, which, at the time, was the subject of a border dispute with England. In June 1846 a compromise was worked out over the latter by which the border was set at the 49th parallel. A war with Mexico began over the disputed ownership of Texas, the American inhabitants of which had fought against Mexico in 1836. Texas had become an independent republic thereafter until 1845 when, concerned about attack by Mexico it had applied to join the Union. The resulting war led to the U.S.A. ‘annexing’ vast tracts of land, including modern day California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, thereby expanding her territory by about half, while correspondingly Mexico lost about one third of hers. Incidentally the gained Oregon Territory was considerably larger than today’s Oregon State for it included today’s states of Washington to the north and Idaho to the east.

Against this background 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. The traffic down the Oregon Trail increased still further when the California Gold Rush was prompted by the discovery of gold in 1848. The wagon trains became so numerous that the life of buffalo and the peoples of the Plains who depended upon them was severely disrupted. Their food supply became scarce. Father de Smet’s letter, written in 1852 to highlight how arduous it was negotiating the Oregon Trail also reveals how numerous the migrants were:
‘Last summer I paid a visit to different Indian nations as far as the rocky (sic) Mountains, and returned to the States by the Oregon route, which I struck in the neighborhood of Independence Rock, about 200 miles above Fort Laramie. The scene we witnessed on this road presented indeed a melancholy proof of the uncertainty which attends our highest prospects in life. The bleached bones of animals everywhere strewed along the track, the hastily erected mound, beneath which lie the remains of some departed friend or relative, with an occasional tribute to his memory roughly inscribed on a board or headstone, and hundreds of graves left without this affectionate token of remembrance, furnished abundant evidence of the unsparing hand with which death has thinned their ranks. The numerous shattered fragments of the vehicles, provision, tools, etc., intended to be taken across these wild plains, tell us another tale of reckless boldness with which many entered up this hazardous enterprise.’ (1)
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. This was succinctly summarized by the famous ethnologist, George Bird Grinnell:
“The hostility that was thus growing up between Indians and white men was racial. To the white man the Indian was an Indian, and the white man who had been robbed or threatened by an Indian felt himself justified in taking vengeance on the next Indian he saw, without regard to whether he had been injured by that man or by men of that tribe. In the same way if an Indian had been killed by a white man the members of his tribe were ready to revenge the injury on the next white man that came along. Thus it came about that persons innocent of any fault were constantly punished for harm done to their race. The guilty never suffered. As a result of this feeling neither Indians nor white men felt they could trust one of the opposite race, and each held the other always in suspicion” (2)
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.

Having gathered together eight to twelve thousand people around the fort an unexpected problem was encountered, the direct result of their large number and the number of horses they brought with them: human and animal waste. The animals also overgrazed the grass. Soon the stench was so overpowering and the grass denuded that the army decided to move the whole assembly 35 miles away to the east to a spot which also had a ready water supply and forage: Horse Creek.
“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.”(3)
The new Americans, preoccupied by property and land ownership, called the treaty the ‘Treaty of Horse Creek’, although it is more widely remembered as the ‘Treaty of Fort Laramie’. The native Americans called it, with their typically disarming simplicity, ‘The Big Treaty’. Grinnell also records that it was referred to as ’The Fitzpatrick Treaty’, not unreasonably given he was probably the only possible catalyst for such a gathering to take place.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 in 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 glad if the whites would pick out a place for themselves and not come into our grounds.’(4)
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.

Some historians like Robert Utley put great store by the fact that the ‘culture’ of treaties was not understood by native Americans. Additionally the fact that not all chiefs signed is deemed to be significant in that only those who were actually there would follow the provisions of an agreement, even if they had understood what such an agreement meant:
“The Fort Laramie Treaty caused much trouble and set the stage for other troublesome treaties to follow. In one serious flaw, the officials assumed that the signatory tribes understood and would abide by the stipulations of the treaty.” (5)
But this kind of observation ignores the fact that the new Americans had no control over their followers either, and when it came to protecting the rights of native Americans over those of new Americans who wished to invade their land to gain resources and usurp their rights there was only ever going to be one winner. The whole process was a sham and it is hard to believe that even those negotiating did not know it, unless they were so self righteous that that could not see themselves for what they were.

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. (Many books of repute refer to the adjustment being to fifteen thousand but the original record in Washington states that it was ten). This resulted in a fiasco, because those ‘chiefs’ who had signed the original version could not be readily reassembled for the amendment to be agreed. The officials sent out into the Plains and foothills to repeat the exercise merely grabbed any likely individual whether or not they had originally been involved. They managed to find ‘representatives‘ of all except the Crow and they all assented to the reduction. The Crow never did. If it was not so tragic it would be laughable. So concerned were the new Americans to justify the legality of encroaching on the lives and land of the indigenous population that they went to any lengths to provide themselves with an alibi. The whole despicable process was clearly no genuine attempt to treat the native Americans fairly. Indeed the murderous treatment given to the ‘civilised’ tribes which had resulted in so many deaths of their peoples had been backed up by the ‘white man’s’ law. The Treaty of Fort Laramie, just like all the other legal statements of ‘agreement’ between native Americans and the United States had about as much value as the vacuous concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’. Red Cloud had it about right when, later, he famously remarked:
‘The white man made us many promises, but they never kept but one. They promised to take our land, and they took it.’ Red Cloud, Oglala
While this had the benefit of hindsight, no such crystal ball was available to Thomas Fitzpatrick although some of his statements suggest he was aware of what would happen, or at the very least feared it. Even so he negotiated a further treaty two years later with the Comanches and Kiowa who, living so far to the south, had missed the Laramie Treaty. Signed at Fort Atkinson, this was similar to that signed at Horse Creek in the north but it referred to the native American signatories staying away from the nearby Santa Fe Trail rather than the Oregon Trail, Thus, like the one signed near Fort Laramie its main purpose was to protect travellers journeying west. The comments of T. R. Fehrenbach make interesting reading;
“The 1853 treaty was another fraud. The annuity goods were not delivered as promised, though someone made a fortune from this appropriation, the tribes gave up no captives; raiding was not stopped. There was clear evidence that the chiefs came to see what presents the white men would offer and were affronted by the shoddy goods they received. What Fitzpatrick gained, if anything was the moral advantage of making the Indians treaty breakers if they continued to make war, and this, as always, was important to the Anglo-American mind.” (6) I think Fehrenbach has confused moral with legal here, but otherwise his observation is very astute, and the fact is that the new American/European culture equated moral with legal which, perhaps, it still does.

Thomas Fitzpatrick does not seem to have been a willing dupe, he was yet another well meaning man doing his best in difficult circumstances and trying to mediate in an impossible situation. In 1853, having journeyed the Oregon Trail he wrote, “They are in abject want of food half the year. The travel upon the road drives the buffalo off or else confines them to a narrow path during the period of migration, and the different tribes are forced to contend with hostile nations in seeking support for their villages. Their women and children are pinched with want and their children are constantly crying with hunger.” (7)

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.


1. Peter John De Smet, S.J. (1801 - 1873) ~ Life and times of a Blackrobe in the West, page 76
2. The Fighting Cheyennes, George Bird Grinnell, page 100)
3. The Long Death: The Last Days of The Plains Indians, Ralph Andrist, page 10
4. quoted in A History of the Indians of the United States, Angie Debo, page 165-6
5. The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull, Robert Utley page 43
6. Comanches: The History of a People, T.R.Fehrenbach, pages 415-6
7. The Long Death, Ralph Andrist, page 22

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1851 Meeting at Fort Laramie

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© Chris Smallbone March2006