Making Sense of the Plains Wars
North and South: an Overview

"The frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history"
Frederic Jackson Turner

Across the continent  Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way, Currier and Ives 1868

Across the continent Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way, Currier and Ives 1868

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Making Sense of the Plains Wars, North and South: an Overview

Making Sense of the Plains Wars
North and South: an Overview

Understanding what happened on the Great Plains 1840-90

By the end of the nineteenth century the United States, chief imperial world power today, had grown right across the continent of America whereas at the beginning of the century it neither owned, valued nor even knew about the vast tract of land across the centre. The Great Plains, as it came to be known, had been referred to on the map as "The Great American Desert". As the new Americans pushed the frontier further and further westward myths were created as they established their culture at the expense of that of the indigenous peoples. (1) What makes this period so remarkable is the speed at which this occurred: in 1840 the frontier was roughly at the Mississippi-Missouri, still only about one third of the way across the continent. Just two generations later, by 1890, the indigenous peoples had been supplanted and the new Americans’ self proclaimed "Manifest Destiny" had been realised. (2) Apart from one or two later additions today's map of the United States was firmly in place.

The Great Plains is divided by the Oregon Trail and the Railroad

To understand how and why this took place one needs to step outside the chronology of the events. Unlike the newcomers, who imposed themselves on their surroundings, native Americans utilised their natural environment to provide their basic needs. In a continent as vast as America there were vastly different environments from which food shelter and clothing could be obtained. The indigenous inhabitants on the north east coast of America, for example, ate mainly fish and made timber homes, while those on the Great Plains ate bison, made tepees from their hides and utilised many other parts of their prey to make tools, utensils and weaponry. But even within the Great Plains events cannot be seen as affecting all the peoples who dwelt there in the same way. The native inhabitants of the plains were not directly linked throughout this time period, for they acted independently of each other and some even allied themselves with the new Americans against other native peoples because of traditional enmities. The new Americans drove a wedge across the Plains, splitting this environment and those who depended upon it into two. This began in the 1840s with the overland trail to Oregon and California: the “age” of the Wagon Train, and was cemented in the 1860s by the transcontinental and Kansas Pacific Railroads. The new Americans then first fulfilled their destiny in the southern Plains by subjugating and supplanting the native peoples, before moving to deal with those native Americans who resisted ceding their land in the north.

In 1851 Thomas Fitzpatrick managed to assemble most of the peoples of the plains in the vicinity of Fort Laramie, although the Comanche and the Kiowa, far away in the south, did not take part. (3) At this point all the other peoples except the Comanche and the Kiowa ranged across the central plains, but the traffic down the Oregon Trail in the 1840s had begun to drive a wedge into the vast buffalo herd and to separate the peoples who hunted them. In the following decade this wedge became more pronounced and during the late1860s, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho were pushed further and further south into an ever decreasing area. They were driven so far back that they eventually joined forces with the Comanche and the Kiowa in the Red River War (1874-5), which was a last ditch attempt at resistance. This conflict was named after the Red River which forms the border between Texas and the rest of the USA which clearly shows how far south they had been shifted. No treaty followed this final defeat and humiliating conditions were imposed. In the north the Northern Cheyenne and their Lakota allies fought the so called "Red Cloud's War" against the incursion by gold prospectors onto lands designated to them by the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851). (4) Their victory gained concessions in a second treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868: the US army was defeated and withdrew from the forts they had built. However when a further discovery of gold was found on Lakota Land in the 1870s, the army used tactics rehearsed in the south to harass and drive the native peoples northwards

So, to understand the events of the Plains whereby the indigenous peoples and the life giving bison were supplanted and replaced by cattle ranchers and subsisting homesteaders, we need to clearly distinguish between those peoples who inhabited the most desirous area for settlementby new Americans in the central and southern parts of the plains (Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa) and those who lived to the north. (Lakota and Northern Cheyenne) (5). Other peoples such as the Pawnee, Crow and Arikara (or Rees) had become enemies of the Lakota when supplanted by them earlier in the century. Therefore the Pawnee, Crow and Arikara chose to ally themselves with the new American troops. Interestingly it was largely a rearguard action fought by Crows which enabled General Crook’s troops to withdraw from the Battle of the Rosebud River in 1876 and escape the famous fate of Custer’s troops ten days later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.(6)

The treaties had little meaning for they were not honoured

Mention of the treaties detailed above might give them undue prominence. It must be stressed that they reflect what was happening but, in themselves, they were valueless and meaningless. By the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851) the native Americans recognized “the right of the United States government to establish roads, military and other posts” (article 2) while the United States bound “themselves to protect the aforesaid Indian nations against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States” (article 3). However, Fort Kearny, such as it was, had already been established as a stopping off point and garrison in 1848, Fort Bridger as a trading post in 1843, and Fort Laramie itself had been taken over by the army in 1849. Also, such noble words meant little when the arbiters of “justice” attempted to mete it out in a summary manner (7). Only three years after the treaty, not far from Fort Laramie itself, Lieutenant Grattan’s troops attempted to bully Conquering Bear’s Lakota into giving up a visitor who was accused of helping himself to a lame cow. The troops were annihilated which led to retaliatory punitive action by the army, that was wholly unjustified since any available native Americans were punished, regardless of whether they had been involved. This racist approach reflected the army’s attitude generally, as indeed had Grattan’s action in the first place. 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek was also valueless because by 1874 all the lands “given” to the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho to hunt bison had been overrun by buffalo hunters. The claim by the new Americans was that the native American leaders could not control their followers and agreements were therefore broken. This supported their claim to Manifest Destiny whereby they considered the use to which the new Americans put the land was intrinsically more justified as they were “taming” a savage wilderness. Later commentators refined this argument to suggest that the native Americans had no cultural tradition of commitment to a permanent system of leadership and government. They functioned on simple, temporary and expedient arrangements with no lasting obligation to follow their leaders’ directives

While this was undoubtedly true it belies the fact that the new Americans were no more committed than the native Americans to acting upon agreements or attempting to enforce the supposed obligation of their followers to the rule of law. It was all rather theoretical. While the land was seen as a useless desert the new Americans were content to leave it to the native Americans. However, as soon as something of value was discovered – usually gold - the new Americans moved in to violate the treaties with impunity. When buffalo hunters from Dodge City went to Fort Dodge in 1872 to ask if they could hunt south of the Cimarron, thereby violating the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, Colonel Irving Dodge replied,
“Boys, if I were a buffalo hunter, I would hunt where the buffalo are” (8)
This time the reason for the incursion onto native American land was a new found value in the buffalo. But the result was the same, to paraphrase the treaty of Fort Laramie: the United States failed to protect the Indian nations from depredations by the people of the said United States.

While the treaties had no meaning in themselves, for neither side’s leaders were willing or able to secure their followers’ compliance, they stand as clear indicators of the new Americans perceptions of how to deal with the “Indian Problem” as they perceived it. As such the treaties are useful in showing what the new Americans were trying to achieve at any one time, thus cutting through their professed policy towards the native Americans which had as much substance as the notion of “Manifest Destiny”. For example in the Treaty of Fort Laramie 1851 article 2 was an attempt to protect travellers on the Oregon Trail. This had been opened up by those journeying to the fertile coastal lands of California and Oregon in the 1840s and, even more importantly in terms of numbers and disruption, those making the journey as a result of the discovery of gold in California in 1848. (9) However, Article 3 of the treaty, which purported to commit the United States to protecting ‘Indian nations’ from ‘depredations’ by U.S. citizens was never properly enforced.

Struggle in the southern plains: Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche and Kiowa

In the southern plains The Treaty of Fort Lyon 1861 was an attempt to protect gold miners attracted to the area of Denver in Colorado territory in 1859. (10) How seriously the new Americans viewed this as an attempt at peace may be judged by the massacre of peaceful Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho by Third Colorado Regiment of volunteers at Sand Creek only three years later in 1864. Unspeakable violence was inflicted on men, women and children alike. The leader of the outrage, the bloodthirsty John Chivington, fed the bloodlust of his troops, and was fond of the phrase which rationalized such cowardly behaviour to infants: “Nits make Lice”. Certainly the idea of limiting peoples to set areas when they were accustomed to a free ranging existence following their source of life - the bison - was as unrealistic as it was racist. The concept of the reservation was surely similar to that of National Parks and as such was formal recognition that the new Americans saw the native Americans as no more or less significant than the flora and fauna. The native Americans unleashed a robust raiding campaign in response to the massacre at Sand Creek. Because of these two related factors: to confine the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho and to protect the settlers and travellers, the US government perceived there to be a need for another treaty later in the decade and therefore despatched a “Peace Commission”. This treaty, signed at Medicine Lodge Creek in 1867 worsened the domain “given” to the native Americans in the southern plains. Four years later a method of tanning the buffalo hides to produce a good quality leather was developed, and the buffalo hunters moved in. Now there was an economic reason to annihilate the buffalo, and annihilate them they did, in a wasteful and devastating manner.
“The picture is even more depressing when it is considered that……….. So many inept amateurs were in the field that the majority of the hides were lost through clumsy skinning or by spoilage through poor drying or by failure to protect against insect damage.”(11)

In 1872-3 three million buffalo perished and by 1874 the hunters had moved so far south that the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek was a dead letter. This was recognized by General Philip Sheridan when he said of the buffalo hunters:
“These men have done (more) in the last two years, and will do more in the next year to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years.” (12)
The sorry remnants of the Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche and Kiowa were harried and starved into submission. They were encircled by five columns of troops led by Colonel Ranald MacKenzie (from Fort Concho, Texas), Colonel Nelson A. Miles, (Fort Dodge), Major William Price (Fort Union), Lieutenant Colonel G.P. Buell (Fort Griffin) and Colonel John W Davidson (Fort Sill). They came at the native Americans from all directions, keeping them on the move, wearing them down, giving them no rest. The troops burned and destroyed possessions they left behind, including their tepees and winter food stores, as they hastily withdrew their families to safety. Those still roaming free despite constant harassment came into Forts Sill and Reno in 1875, where they were humiliated.
“This time there were no presents, no peace councils, no treaties. Guns, bows and arrows, hatchets, knives, and clubs were collected, put in a great pile and burned”, Brent Ashabranner (13)
72 were chosen to be transported to prison in Miami, Fort Marion where, incidentally, they painted superb works of art recording many of their experiences. The cursory application of “justice” in their selection meant that while some were guilty of violent acts others most certainly were not.

Struggle in the northern plains: Lakota and Northern Cheyenne

While in the southern plains the native Americans were driven south, confined to ever smaller areas and ultimately defeated, those in the north were more successful at repelling the invaders, at least in the short term. The Lakota were themselves usurpers, for they had moved into the northern plains from the north and displaced Crow, Pawnee and Arikara, hence these three peoples’ willingness to ally themselves with the new Americans. As in the south, the incursion by miners contravening the Treaty of Fort Laramie 1851 resulted in armed conflict. When gold was discovered in Virginia City, Montana in 1862 Forts Phil Kearney and C F Smith were built to protect miners using the Bozeman Trail. Helped by Crazy Horse, Red Cloud led his Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors to victory which culminated in these forts being evacuated and then burned by the victors in celebration. (14) The Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) which followed was very much on the terms of the native Americans, it reaffirmed the Treaty of Fort Laramie 1851. This was in direct contrast to that of Medicine Lodge Creek in the south which only served as a reminder that the native Americans were being progressively humiliated and confined.

The advantage was to be short lived for once again the discovery of gold (1874) was to result in the rules being rewritten. Attempts to hoodwink the native Americans into selling the Black Hills in 1875 met with a rebuff; Commissioners were told by Red Cloud that the asking price was $600,000,000, so far in excess of the Commissioners’ valuation that it rendered negotiation futile. Tactics already rehearsed in the southern plains were now re-enacted in the north. Lakota and Northern Cheyenne were given notice to “come in” to Fort Robinson: those not doing so would be deemed “hostile”. Three encircling columns under Generals Gibbon, Crook and Terry clearly had the same objective as the five columns had had in the south: to harry and destroy. However, the native Americans had not read the script, they chose to fight and this surprised the arrogant Colonel Custer who commanded Terry’s troops and who underestimated his foe and chose to ride the glory trail in defiance of all logic. After all, such tactics had worked in the south, and why else had such a reckless, discredited leader been chosen by his superiors, unless they too were convinced that the only problem was forcing the native Americans into an open engagement? However in the battle against General Crook at the Rosebud River and the famous debacle of Custer at the Little Big Horn the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne were victorious. But the reaction to the annihilation of Custer’s troops by the United States meant that this was effectively the end of resistance by native Americans in the northern Plains. As all but the most stubborn or suicidal recognized, any greater commitment of resources to defeat them was certain to succeed. In the face of a vigorous pursuit the Lakota and their allies were driven further north into Canada.


Not only is it possible to understand more clearly what happened in the colonisation of the Great Plains by the new Americans by separating out the events into those of the north and south but by comparing them one gains greater insight into what happened within each part. While in most cases incursions onto land “granted” to the native Americans in both areas was linked in both areas to the discovery of gold, the eventual supplanting of groups in the south was not. It was as a result of the native Americans fighting back after their source of life, the buffalo, had been decimated in three years (1872-4) on land promised to them less than a decade previously. The defeat of the southern peoples came at the end of a long line of losses which always followed a discovery by the new Americans that the land occupied by native Americans was not as useless as they first thought. They were driven south by the slaughter of the buffalo. However, in the north, the Lakota and their allies first achieved military success even though they were to ultimately suffer the same fate: the loss of land promised to them. They too were driven further away from the heart of the Great Plains. The Oregon Trail and the Railroad which carried travellers, information and goods to link east and west split the vast buffalo herd and the native Americans who relied on them. By clearly separating the history of the plains into north and south from the mid nineteenth century, one can unravel the links between events where they exist, and explain the discrepancies where they do not.

The Great Plains
1840s Pioneers and gold miners cross the Great Plains in wagon trains using the Oregon Trail. Buffalo migration routes are disrupted. These new Americans demand protection from the native peoples. Forts such as Fort Kearny (1848) are established for this purpose. (15)
1850s The buffalo and inhabitants were disrupted
Southern Plains
Northern Plains
Peoples Southern Cheyenne Arapaho Comanche Kiowa Lakota Northern Cheyenne Pawnee Crow Arikara
1860s Gold was discovered in Colorado 1858-9. The atrocity took place at Sand Creek 1864. Settlers move further west into Kansas and Nebraska. Railroads are constructed Gold was discovered in Montana in 1862. Forts were built to protect the miners on the Bozeman Trail but the U.S. troops were forced to withdraw in 1868
1870s A process tanning buffalo hides is developed The buffalo are destroyed 1872-4 Five pronged encircling campaign to attack and subjugate the native Americans 1874 Gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874. Three pronged encircling campaign to attack and subjugate the native Americans. 1876.


1 I have chosen to use “new Americans” instead of the usual “whites” as many of the participants were, in fact, black. Hence this seems to be a more accurate description of them.

2 This was a phrase first used by John L O’ Sullivan in 1845 to justify the westward expansion of the frontier of the United States at the expense of other nations. However the “philosophy” which rationalised expansionism was very much in evidence prior to this expression of it. I concur with Michael Coyne’s description of Manifest Destiny as an “ideological conceit”. Michael Coyne, The Crowded Prairie, page 5.

3 Fort Laramie was built by fur traders Robert Campbell & William Sublette as Fort William in 1834 where the North Platte and Laramie rivers meet. In 1849, the U.S. Military purchased the fort and named it Jacques La Ramie, after a local French fur trapper. It was located along the Oregon Trail to protect and supply emigrant wagon trains. It later became a major link in the Pony Express, Overland Stage and transcontinental telegraph systems.

A separate treaty was negotiated with the Comanche and Kiowa two years later at Fort Atkinson, by which they promised not to attack settlers using the Santa Fe Trail, while the Fort Laramie Treaty related to the Oregon Trail.

4 I put this in parentheses since, in common with many of the names given to the conflicts it reflects the bias of the recording of history from one side. It was hardly Red Cloud’s War since it was caused by an incursion onto Lakota land.

5 I use Lakota instead of Sioux since the latter was how the Chippewa pronounced their word for enemy when asked by French trappers, what was the name of these fearsome people, who then wrote down the reply as “Sioux”. Lakota was their name for themselves, and, in common with most native American for themselves, meant “the people”.

The division of the Cheyenne into northern and southern groups was unconnected with the disruption caused by the new Americans in the 1840s, for it took place in the 1820s, in 1826 according to George Bent. The reason for the division was the reports by Blackfeet of large numbers of wild horses in the land south of the Platte River, together with vast buffalo herds. While some Cheyenne and Arapaho migrated south others remained north of the Platte near the Black Hills and effectively became a separate group which closely allied itself with the Lakota. See The Life of George Bent, George E Hyde, p32

6 Although Crook claimed he was victorious, interestingly his autobiography ends abruptly at this point.

7 Emigrant William Kelley commented on the troops at Fort Kearny: "A most unsoldierly looking lot they were: unshaven, unshorn, with patched uniforms and a lounging gate. The privates being more particular in their inquiries after whiskey, for which they offered one dollar the half-pint; but we had none to sell them even at that tempting price." In these circumstances it is not surprising that conflicts arose with native Americans.

8 quoted in Ralph Andrist, The Long Death, page 183.

9 Gold was discovered near Sutter’s trading fort in 1848 which led to the Gold Rush in 1849.

10 At the time of signing this fort was known as Fort Wise, however shortly afterward it was renamed Fort Lyon and the treaty was to be named after the latter.

11 Ralph Andrist, The Long Death, page 180.

12 quoted in James L Haley, The Buffalo War page 25

13 Brent Ashabranner, A Strange and Distant shore, page 10 . The final exile group contained 33 Cheyenne, 2 Arapaho, 27 Kiowa, 9 Comanche and 1 Caddo.

14 I use the name reluctantly since I believe that the word Crazy must have been poorly translated in the first place and am convinced that the original Oglala name had much more spiritual and mystical connotations than this crude translation suggests.

15 This was three years before the treaty was “agreed”.

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Making Sense of the Plains Wars, North and South: an Overview

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© Chris Smallbone March2006