By Lotte Govaerts
This blog post is part of a series of posts about my research on the historic artifacts collected by River Basin Surveys (RBS) archaeologists in the mid-20th century and curated here at the National Museum of Natural History. In previous posts we established that RBS historic sites fall into three primary categories: fur trade, military, and Indian Agencies. In my last post, I discussed the historical background of the region’s fur trade. Here, I will focus on how the US military presence in the area influenced the region’s shift towards US settlement.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the northwestern expansion of the US military presence reached the Upper Missouri Basin. The US government had made plans to establish military outposts in the region after the war of 1812 to counter British interests and establish dominance, but implementation was limited due to funding shortfalls. Only two posts were eventually built in 1819. One was Fort Atkinson, the first US military post west of the Missouri, in what is now Nebraska. The other was Fort Snelling (originally Fort Saint Anthony), at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in what is now the state of Minnesota. There was ongoing discussion on moving the military frontier line westward over the years, especially after a conflict between fur traders and the Sahnish (Arikara) in the 1820s eventuated in military actions. Ultimately the expansion was deemed unnecessary until the late 1840s when forts were built to protect US settlers moving to the west.
Regional demographics were changing rapidly in the mid-19th century. Smallpox and other epidemics decimated the Plains Village tribes in the area. The Sioux, particularly among the seven Lakota bands, were not as affected by these diseases as the more sedentary tribes. It is thought that their nomadic way of life offered the Sioux some protection against infectious disease. It is also possible that US vaccination programs had some success. As a consequence, the Lakota Sioux became one of the dominant Native groups in the area.
In the meantime, growing US populations to the east resulted in settlements creeping up the Missouri River and tributary valleys. In addition, there was a large increase in overland travel by US settlers and miners seeking the rich lands of the northwest or western sites where gold was being discovered. New military forts were built to accompany this westward expansion. The first were Forts Kearny (1848) and Laramie (purchased from fur traders in 1849) along the Platte River and the famous Oregon trail. Many others soon followed. In many cases the military followed in the footprints of the earlier fur traders, as they purchased earlier fur trade establishments to use as military posts.
Increasing intrusions of US settlers onto Native lands, and the related decline of buffalo herds contributed to rising tensions and conflict between Native tribes and the US. The US sought to establish boundaries and safe westward passage via the signing of treaties with Native peoples. One glaring issue relating to these treaties was that the Native people in attendance did not necessarily speak for all the peoples the US was attempting to negotiate with, nor did they necessarily understand what they were agreeing to. Although the US representatives did speak for the US government, individual settlers or miners did not always heed the treaties, and the US government frequently ended up disregarding them as well. In the Northern Plains specifically, the first Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 was supposed to assure safe passage for US settlers on the Oregon Trail, and allow the construction of roads and forts along the trail, in exchange for annuities. In reality, conflict continued and small issues easily escalated into major incidents. For example, in 1854 when a dispute over a cow lead to an armed confrontation that resulted in the deaths of Brule Lakota chief Conquering Bear as well as Lieutenant Grattan and his entire command. Events like these, where the US military suffered a serious loss, would trigger punitive campaigns aimed at Native villages.
In 1862, when the military was occupied with the Civil War, a large scale conflict arose between the Dakota Sioux and non-native settlers in Minnesota. This conflict is often referred to as the “Sioux uprising”. The conflict spread west when some of the Dakota involved in this conflict, pursued by the US military, fled into what is now the Dakotas. Generals Sully and Sibley followed these bands of Dakota, bringing with them a military presence and a string of military forts.
To the west, the Bozeman trail to the Montana gold fields angered the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples as it cut through their hunting grounds. Here too, in 1866, an officer by the name of Fetterman was killed with his entire command (totaling over 80 people) when he underestimated a situation and strayed too far from his fort in pursuit of a group that had attacked a wood train. Incidents like these impassioned the US public and made the US government reflect upon the cost of western expansion. At the same time, the public back east became increasingly horrified by stories about the destruction of entire Native villages, particularly after such incidents as the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. At Sand Creek, Colonel Chivington (who infamously advocated the killing of Native children by saying “Nits make lice”) and a force of some 700 men attacked a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho. The village had been flying a US flag, and did not harbor the warriors that had been attacking settlers in the area. Chivington and his men indiscriminately killed villagers, including children and elderly people. Indian policy became a topic of national debate. It was in this climate that a Peace Commission was created in 1867. Its purpose was to find a peaceful solution to the conflicts. The solution the Peace Commission came up with primarily involved Native assimilation into mainstream US culture.
As it continued to experience resistance from the Northern Cheyenne and bands of Arapaho and Lakota under the leadership of a man named Red Cloud, the US Government eventually closed the Bozeman trail and abandoned the forts along it. In the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 the Great Sioux Reservation was created. The Powder River Country was declared “Unceded Indian Territory”. Not long thereafter, however, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Great Sioux Reservation, and profit-hungry miners and settlers descended upon these Sioux lands. This naturally led to more conflict and eventually the US government seized the land, in violation of their earlier treaty. Various battles were fought between the US army and the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. The most famous of these battles is probably the Native victory at Little Bighorn in 1876. Unfortunately for the victors, their success in battle essentially sealed their fate. The peoples involved were relentlessly pursued by the US military. They fled north but straggled back south due to starvation. Soon thereafter, the last of the Native peoples in the area were confined to ever-shrinking reservations.
This concludes the discussion of the historical context of 19th century US military activity in the Upper Missouri River Basin. In my next post, I will examine the establishment of Indian Agencies in the Northern Plains, and the Upper Missouri Basin more specifically. Stay tuned!
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