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Americans You Should Know



Yesterday in 1909, the great Lakota leader Red Cloud died. He’s someone you all might have heard of but probably don’t know very much about. Heather Cox Richardson helps you fill that gap:

In the summer of 1865, after winning a war to spread the northern system of individual enterprise to the American West, the U.S. government became determined to push back the Lakota who seemed to be standing in the way of that system. Miners, farmers, storekeepers, cowboys, and railroad men stood poised to rush into the rich northern plains. The Lakota promised to kill them if they tried. To break Indian resistance, General U. S. Grant put General William Tecumseh Sherman, fresh from his total war in the South, in charge of defending eastern emigrants from Lakota attacks.

In 1866, Sherman negotiated a treaty with some Lakota leaders. When Union reinforcements arrived during the negotiations, though, Red Cloud and legendary fighter Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse accused Sherman of bad faith and vowed to fight. Sherman misjudged the situation. He believed the angry Lakota were only a few outliers and that settlement would soon overrun the Indians. But Red Cloud was so effectively marshaling his warriors into resistance that the ensuing fights would be known as Red Cloud’s War.

While Sherman plotted to push Lakotas onto a reservation that would keep them away from the transcontinental railroad, soldiers marched up the Bozeman Trail and built forts to protect the miners and settlers pouring into the region. The army had established Fort Reno in 1865; soldiers built Fort Phil Kearny, then marched another ninety miles to the Bighorn River and knocked together Fort C. F. Smith. But Americans were tired of war, and the troops at the forts were understaffed, underequipped, and undertrained.

In December 1866, trouble erupted when an arrogant and inexperienced officer at Fort Phil Kearny, Lieutenant Colonel W. J. Fetterman, set out to whip the Lakota once and for all. Ignoring orders to stay close to the fort, Fetterman led his eighty men directly into an ambush. Red Cloud and his men killed Fetterman’s entire party. By summer 1867, the Lakota forces controlled the Bozeman Trail and the Powder River Country, keeping the troops holed up in their raw forts. In August, the Lakota attacked men haying near Fort C. F. Smith. The soldiers drove them off, but the next day, the warriors returned. They descended on a corral made of wagon boxes near Fort Phil Kearny, killing an officer and five soldiers. Within days of the “Wagon Box Fight,” Lakota warriors attacked a Union Pacific freight train in Nebraska, causing the president of the Union Pacific to warn the Secretary of War that construction on the road would have to stop unless the government protected the railroad workers.

Government officials decided they could not defend both the Bozeman Trail and the transcontinental railroad. In 1868, they decided to negotiate a treaty with Red Cloud promising to abandon the Bozeman Trail if the Lakota would leave the railroad alone. For his part, Red Cloud refused to talk until all the troops left Forts Phil Kearny and C. F. Smith. The government had little choice. It abandoned Forts Reno, Phil Kearny, and C. F. Smith, and agreed that the Lakota could follow the buffalo so long as they stopped attacking the railroad. By August, the troops had left the forts and Red Cloud’s people burned Forts C. F. Smith and Phil Kearny.

The Lakota had won their war against the U.S. Army. Red Cloud signed the treaty, but announced that, while he and his people agreed to stop killing settlers, they would not change their way of life.

It didn’t turn out well in the end of course. After the Lakota were put down in 1877, by which time Red Cloud had moved from a leading warrior to someone calling for peace with whites, he ended up at the Pine Ridge Reservation, which quickly became one of the poorest and most desperate places in the nation, and remains so to this day. He died old, blind, and deeply depressed.

It’s also worth noting that the very military methods we praise Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan for because they crushed the South and ended slavery were immediately used to commit genocide in the American West.

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