During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Sioux peoples migrated from the lands their ancestors had settled, more than a century earlier, along the upper reaches of the Mississippi River.
The fact that their traditional enemies, the Ojibways and other Algonquin-speaking peoples, had been given firearms by French traders impelled their move westward.
The four major branches of Sioux established new territories—the eastern-most Santee, still near the Mississippi River; the central Yankton along the Missouri;
and the western-most Teton, in the Badlands and Black Hills.
These various peoples, once the victims of French firepower, would in turn obtain deadly firearms themselves.
Most would also mount what they called the "Sacred Dog," referring to the horse.
They would expand their land base throughout much of the northern plains.
And they would become among the most effective of Indian warriors, presenting a persistent defense against white expansion in the 19th century.
The Sioux War, or Wars, lasting almost half a century and comprising numerous engagements, can be organized into five phases, each a story in itself reflecting the subtleties of the period.
Two episodes in the final two phases—Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee—
are among the most famous in Indian history and carry special symbolic weight,
one representing the once-great power of the Indian tribes, the other, their ultimate defeat.
Other incidents carry the same poignancy and drama.
The first phase of the Sioux Wars occurred soon after the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the primary purpose of which was to assure safe passage for whites along the Oregon Trail.
It was whites, however, who broke the peace. In August 1854, a Mormon party was in transit along the North Platte River in Wyoming.
A cow belonging to one of them escaped and wandered into a Brule Teton camp along the trail.
The Mormon chased after it, became frightened at the sight of the Indians, departed, and reported to the army at Fort Laramie that the cow had been stolen.
In the meantime, visiting Sioux from another band killed the cow.
The incident escalated.
Although the Indians offered to make restitution for more than the cow was worth, Lieutenant John L. Grattan, fresh from West Point, insisted on the arrest of High Forehead, the man who had killed the cow.
Grattan led a force of 30 infantrymen and two cannons to the Brule village to carry out his intention.
When High Forehead refused to turn himself in, Grattan gave the order to fire.
Chief Conquering Bear, the spokesman for all the Sioux, was mortally wounded in the first howitzer volley.
Enraged, the Indians launched a counterattack in which they wiped out the detachment.
Alarmed whites dubbed the incident the Grattan Massacre and, in response, carried out a much more brutal act of their own.
On September 3, 1855, 600 troops out of Fort Kearny in Nebraska, under General William S. Harney, swarmed over a Brule village at Blue Water, killing 85 of the scattering Sioux, and taking 70 women and children captive.
Then Harney led his men on a march through Sioux country to demonstrate the army’s strength to other Sioux bands.
None rose up against the army for the time being. But they would remember the death of Conquering Bear and the attack at Blue Water.
One young Oglala Teton who had been in the camp the night Conquering Bear received his fatal blow would especially remember.
His name was Crazy Horse and, in a vision soon after the incident, he would discover his purpose and destiny as a war chief in battles to come.
Yet before Crazy Horse came to play his part as a Sioux leader, war broke out to the east, in the territory of the Santee Sioux on the Minnesota River.
By the Civil War years, the Santees were surrounded by whites who relentlessly sought more and more of their lands, repeatedly cheating and defrauding them.
Factions within the tribe disagreed on how to best deal with the ongoing abuse, through accommodation or resistance.
A group of four young braves forced the issue by killing five settlers.
Little Crow, the Santee chief, had previously argued for peace.
After the bold action by his young warriors, however, he too was persuaded that the only course of action was war.
The words of a trader who had refused the Indians credit—"As far as I’m concerned, if they’re hungry, let them eat grass"—became the rallying cry for all the Santee factions.
On August 18, 1862, the Santees opened their war with raids on trading posts and settlements.
As many as 400 whites died the first day, including 23 from a detachment of volunteer infantry out of Fort Ridgely.
On August 20 and 22, Little Crow led assaults on the fort itself where many more settlers had take refuge.
Three howitzers effectively cut down the attacking warriors, however.
After losing as many as 100 men, Little Crow called off the siege.
On August 23, another group of Santees stormed the village of New Ulm.
But the village had prepared well and, after a day of bitter fighting, with heavy casualties on both sides and a third of the town destroyed, they drove the insurgents away.
The next day, however, New Ulm was evacuated.
General Henry Hastings Sibley reached Fort Ridgely with 1,500 troops.
On September 2, he sent out a burial party of 135 men and 20 wagons.
Thirteen miles from the fort, at Birch Coulee, the detachment was set upon by Little Crow’s warriors.
With their wagons in a defensive circle, the soldiers held out for 31 hours until a relief force from the fort arrived,
but they had lost 23 of their number.
Sibley led his men into the field on September 18, following the Minnesota River northwestward into Santee country.
The Santees, having decided in council to make a stand rather than flee westward, attacked the army camp at Wood Lake on September 23.
Although 700-strong, they were no match for the whites’ artillery; they scattered in defeat.
Many of the surviving Santees fled to Dakota Territory or Canada, Little Crow among them.
Three hundred and three of those who stayed behind
—although they had released their captives, surrendered willingly, and claimed innocence in th slayings of settlers
—were sentenced to be hanged.
President Abraham Lincoln, on examining the trial records, commuted the sentences for the large majority.
But on December 26, 1862, at Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in American history took place as 38 Santee Sioux were simultaneously hanged.
Little Crow died in July of the following year on a horse-stealing expedition out of Canada to Minnesota, shot by settlers who now were being paid bounties for Sioux scalps.
That same month, General Sibley, who had pushed on into North Dakota on a punitive expedition against the Sioux, defeated Santee remnants along with their Teton Sioux kinsmen at Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, and Stoney Lake.
Then, the following September and the spring of 1864, General Alfred Sully defeated the coalition of tribes at Whitestone Hill and Killdeer Mountain.
The Santees, and the Tetons who had taken them in, had paid dearly for the Minnesota Uprising.
In another rebellion, beginning the very next year, their western kinsmen in Wyoming and Montana would fare better.
At the heart of the Red Cloud War, which broke out in the years following the Civil War, was the question of the Bozeman Trail.
With whites caught up in the mining fever and coming to Montana as well as California and Colorado, traffic increased over Indian lands guaranteed by treaty.
John Bozeman, seeking a more direct route to Colorado other than circuitous eastern and western routes, cut west of the Bighorn Mountains through Wyoming via the North Platte River, thereby crossing the Teton domain.
The various Sioux bands—among them Oglala Tetons under Red Cloud, including the teenaged Crazy Horse; Hunkpapa Tetons under Sitting Bull;
and Brule Tetons under Spotted Tail—
resented the growing white traffic.
They were joined in their concern by their allies on the northern plains—the Northern Cheyennes under Dull Knife and the Northern Arapahos under Black Bear.
Beginning in 1865, these groups—sometimes on their own, but increasingly in united forces—stepped up their raids on white migrants and military patrols.
In July 1865, for example, some of the attacked a cavalry detachment under Lieutenant Caspar Collins, riding out from Kansas to meet an eastwardbound army wagon train.
Along the North Platte stretch of the Oregon Trail, just west of the point at which the Bozeman Trail branched off from it, the combined force of Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahos easily routed the cavalry and captured the wagon train.
Three columns sent in that August, by General Patrick E. Connor, to the Powder River country from bases on the Platte River managed only to skirmish with the Sioux.
They did, however, destroy Black Bear’s Arapaho village (see "Arapaho" ).
One year later, in June 1866, Red Cloud and other chiefs arrived at Fort Laramie east of the Bozeman turnoff, to discuss the new trail.
During the parley, an infantry column under Colonel Henry B. Carrington arrived with instructions to build forts in the Powder River country, to protect the Bozeman.
Although some of the other chiefs signed a nonaggression treaty, Red Cloud rode off to make preparations for war.
Carrington’s men proceeded up the Bozeman. While under ongoing harassment from guerrilla strikes, they undertook to reinforce Fort Reno and build two more posts—Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.F. Smith—in northern Wyoming and southern Montana.
In addition to the numerous hit-and-run raids on work parties and supply convoys, the Indians also attacked army patrols.
In December 1866, Crazy Horse used a decoy tactic in an attack by a few of his warriors on a wood train.
Captain William Fetterman, in what has become known as the Fetterman Massacre, led an 80-man relief cavalry unit out of Fort Phil Kearny over Lodge Trail Ridge into a trap of 1,500 concealed Indians.
The army, realizing the extent of the Plains Indian threat, sent in fresh troops, with new breech-loading rifles, to the Bozeman posts.
In August 1867, during a planned offensive by two separate war parties against workers out of Fort Smith and Fort Phil Kearny, the Indians went up against the modern weapons.
Although they succeeded in chasing both the hay-cutting and wood-cutting parties back to their respective posts, the Indians suffered many casualties.
The military declared the so-called Hayfield and Wagon Box Rights victories;
nevertheless, with dogged Indian forays, and the transcontinental railroad south of the Platte near completion, the federal government yielded.
In the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, officials granted Red Cloud’s demands for the abandoning of the Bozeman posts in exchange for the cessation of raids.
Immediately after the army’s evacuation that summer, the Sioux in a victory celebration burned the posts down.
Meanwhile, in 1867, the army suffered another setback at the hands of the Southern Cheyennes,
Southern Arapahos, and some Sioux also living on the central plains—the abortive Hancock Campaign.
In that region too the whites made concessions, in the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 (see "Cheyenne" ).
For the time being, anyway, the whites had been thwarted in the takeover of the Plains.
But the railroad had come, carrying more and more settlers, and the Plains Indians staple—the buffalo—was slowly disappearing.
In the next round, the whites, despite a major loss to the Indians at Little Bighorn, once more gained the upper hand.
By the 1870s, both whites and Indians had violated the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty, with continued trespassing and continued raids.
Surveys for a new railroad, the Northern Pacific, aggravated the situation.
But it was the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, lands sacred to Sioux, by an 1874 expedition under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and the subsequent potential on-slaught of miners that again made war inevitable.
Red Cloud and Spotted Tail had opted for the life of the reservation Indian;
the principal leaders of the allied nomadic hunting bands by this time were Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Opposing them were General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had become commander of the U.S. Army in 1869, and General Philip Henry Sheridan, commander of the Division of the Missouri since 1867, both Civil War heroes and both proponents of all-out war against resistive Indians.
Sheridan is famous for the racist aphorism, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."
War broke out when the military, in an effort to gain control of the Black Hills through coercive negotiation, sent word to the northern hunting bands to come in to an agency within two months or be classified as hostile.
When the bands failed to report, General Sheridan organized two forces—one under the Paiute- and Apache-fighter General George Crook out of Fort Fetterman, Wyoming;
and the other under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer out of Fort Lincoln, North Dakota, a man who had fought Cheyennes and others on the central plains—
for what he hoped would be preemptive winter strikes.
The Custer force was delayed because of heavy snows.
Colonel Joseph Reynolds of Crook’s force led a cavalry attack against Tetons and Cheyennes at Powder River in Montana in March 1876,
but it was quickly repelled by Crazy Horse’s warriors, with heavy U.S. losses.
The next engagements came in the late spring during a new three-pronged army campaign—
Crook from the south; Colonel John Gibbon, out of Forts Ellis and Shaw in Montana, from the west; and General Alfred Terry, now with Custer, from the east.
The various bands had united in a camp in southern Montana.
Crook’s column approached from the south along the Rosebud Creek.
On June 17, 1876, about 700 Sioux and Cheyennes under Crazy Horse moved against it.
Although Crook’s force was 1,000-strong, with almost 300 Crow and Shoshoni auxiliaries, it was hard pressed to defend against the repeated, well-organized assaults.
By the time the attackers withdrew, Crook’s men had suffered numerous casualties and were forced back to base.
But the Battle of the Rosebud, although a significant Indian victory, was the preliminary to an even greater triumph.
The Indians regrouped at a new camp on a meadow they called the Greasy Grass along the Little Bighorn River.
Indians who had spent the winter at agencies were arriving all the while—Teton Sioux, Santee Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, Northern Arapahos—making a total number of nearly 7,000, probably 1,800 of them warriors.
Four days after Rosebud, Terry’s and Gibbon’s columns united on the Yellowstone River.
When a scouting party under Major Marcus Reno reported the general location of the Indian force along the Little Bighorn, Terry sent Custer’s Seventh Cavalry to cut them off from the south while the rest of the troops approached from the north.
The operation did not go as planned.
On June 25, when his scouts spotted the Indian encampment, the brash young cavalry officer whom the Indians called "Long Hair" organized for an immediate attack rather than wait another day for Terry and Gibson.
He organized his command into four sections—the pack train with an escort to stay behind;
a detachment under Captain Frederick Benteen to block the Indians from the south; and detachments under Major Reno and himself to follow the river northward.
On the way, he sent Reno’s men westward across the river, in pursuit of a party of about 40 warriors,
with instructions to strike the Indian camp from the valley to its south, while he proceeded along the rugged eastern bank of the river for an attack on the village at its northern end.
The plan proved a disaster.
In a series of separate actions against the divided force, the Indians managed to pin down and inflict severe damage on the outfits under Reno and Benteen—
more than 50 dead and another 60 or so wounded, out of about 400 -- and wipe out to the last man Custer’s detachment of about 200.
Indian losses have been estimated at as few as 30 or as many as 300, but the low end is probably the more accurate guess.
Custer’s Last Stand would become legendary, as would the warriors who fought there, including Crazy Horse of the Oglalas, and Sitting Bull and Gall of the Hunkpapas.
It would also serve to rally the whites in a stepped-up campaign of revenge and conquest against the Sioux and their allies.
The army triumphed in the next major encounters.
In July 1876, soon after Little Bighorn, a force under Colonel Wesley Merritt out of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, intercepted and defeated about 1,000 Cheyennes who had left Nebraska agencies to join up with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, in the Battle of War Bonnet Creek in northwestern Nebraska.
On September 8, General Crook’s advance guard under Captain Miles captured American Horse’s Teton band at Slim Buttes, South Dakota.
On November 25, Crook’s cavalry under Colonel Ranald Mackenzie routed Dull Knife’s camp of Northern Cheyennes, along the Red Fork of the Powder River in Wyoming (the Battle of Dull Knife).
In January 1877, General Nelson Miles, recently of the Red River War (see "Comanche" ), with a force of nearly 500, defeated Crazy Horse’s warriors in the Battle of Wolf Mountain, and in May 1877, he defeated Lame Deer’s Miniconjou Tetons in Montana (the Battle of Lame Deer).
The end of the war trail had come for the Sioux and Cheyenne leaders.
Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapas took refuge in Canada. He returned in 1881 and surrendered at Fort Buford, Dakota Territory.
His death in 1890 played a part in the tragedy at Wounded Knee.
Dull Knife surrendered on May 6, 1877, at the Red Cloud agency near Fort Robinson,
Nebraska; the next year he and his Northern Cheyennes made a desperate flight for freedom from there (see "Cheyenne" ).
But, for the time being, he and his people accompanied the Oglala Tetons under Crazy Horse—more than 1,000 Indians total—in the surrender party.
Crazy Horse, one of the most effective guerrilla fighters in history, threw down his rifle.
Although defeated, he was still considered a threat by officials who feared his ability to inspire an uprising.
On September 5, 1877, while resisting orders from General Crook for his imprisonment, the freedom fighter was fatally wounded.
The last gasp for the Sioux and for all the Indian tribes in the Wars for the West occurred 13 years later at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.
In 1888, a Paiute Indian from Nevada by the name of Wovoka, son of the mystic Tavibo,
drew on his father’s teachings and his own vision during an eclipse of the sun, and began spreading a gospel that came to be known as the Ghost Dance Religion.
He claimed that the earth would soon perish and then come alive again in a pure, aboriginal state, to be inherited by all Indians, including the dead, for an eternal existence free from suffering.
To earn this new reality, however, Indians had to live harmoniously and honestly, cleanse themselves often and shun the ways of the whites, especially alcohol, the destroyer.
He also discouraged the practice of mourning, because the dead would soon be resurrected,
demanding instead the performance of prayers, meditation, chanting, and especially dancing through which one might briefly die and catch a glimpse of the paradise-to-come, replete with lush prairie grass, herds of buffalo, and Indian ancestors.
The new religion spread to the conquered, destitute, and despondent people of the Far West, Southwest, and Plains, most now living on reservations.
Many of the Sioux, desperate in defeat for any glimmer of hope, took to the new religion after one of their own mystics, Kicking Bear, made his pilgrimage to Nevada to learn of it, and they began dancing the Ghost Dance.
Kicking Bear, a Miniconjou Teton, and Short Bull, a Brule Teton, gave the gospel their own interpretation, however, choosing to disregard Wovoka’s anti-violence and emphasizing the possible elimination of whites.
Special Dance Shirts, they claimed, could even stop the white man’s bullets.
White officials became concerned at this religious fervor tinged with activism and insurgency and, in November 1890, banned the Ghost Dance on Sioux reservations.
When the rites continued, officials called in troops to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota.
The military prepared for one more Indian campaign. General Nelson Miles was now the commander of the Division of the Missouri, having inherited the position from Crook who had died only two years after taking over.
He set up headquarters at Rapid City, South Dakota.
The presence of troops exacerbated the situation. Kicking Bear and Short Bull led their followers to the northwest corner of the Pine Ridge reservation, to an escarpment known at the Stronghold.
The dancers then sent word to Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas to join them. Before he could set out from the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, however, he was arrested by Indian police.
In the scuffle that ensued, the once-great chief was slain, along with seven of his warriors.
Six of the policemen, Indians who had followed the orders of the whites, were also fatally struck.
General Miles also ordered the arrest of Big Foot, a Miniconjou leader living along the Cheyenne River in South Dakota who had previously also advocated the Ghost Dance.
But Big Foot and his followers had already departed southward for Pine Ridge, asked there not by the Ghost Dancers,
as Miles assumed, but by Red Cloud and other reservation Indians supportive of whites in order to help restore tranquillity.
Miles sent out the Seventh Cavalry under Major S.M. Whitside to intercept them.
The unit scoured the Badlands, finally locating them to the southwest of Porcupine Creek, about 30 miles east of Pine Ridge.
The Indians offered no resistance.
Big Foot, ill with pneumonia, rode in a wagon.
The soldiers instructed the Indians to set up camp for the night about five miles westward, at Wounded Knee Creek.
Colonel James Forsyth arrived to take command and ordered his guards to place four Hotchkiss cannons in position around the camp.
The soldiers now numbered about 500; the Indians, 350, all but 120 of these women and children.
The following morning, December 29, 1890, the soldiers entered the Indian camp to gather all firearms.
A medicine man by the name of Yellow Bird advocated resistance, claiming the Ghost Shirts would protect them.
Big Foot, however, knew that a fight would be suicidal.
But when one of the soldiers attempted to roughly disarm a deaf Indian by the name of Black Coyote, the rifle discharged.
The silence of the morning was shattered, and other guns echoed the first shot.
At first, the struggle was at close quarters, but when the Indians ran to take cover, the Hotchkiss artillery opened up on them, cutting down men, women, and children alike, the sick Big Foot among them.
By the end of the brutal, unnecessary violence, which had lasted less than an hour, at least 150 Indians had been killed and 50 wounded.
In comparison, army casualties were 25 killed and 39 wounded. Forsyth was later charged with the killing of innocents, but exonerated.
The spirit of the Sioux had once again been crushed.
The next day, some warriors set a trap for the Seventh Cavalry at Drexel Mission Church north of the Pine Ridge agency and managed to kill two soldiers and would five before retreating.
Other Sioux fled the agency and joined Kicking Bear and Short Bull and their followers at White Clay.
Yet, surrounded by a larger force of bluecoats and disagreeing among themselves on the course of action, the Sioux surrendered to Miles.
With Wounded Knee, the Indian wars had in effect ended.
Appropriately, that same year, the Federal Census Bureau announced it could no longer designate a frontier of settlement on its map of the United States, as it had done in previous decades.
Also appropriately, given the fact that Anglo-Americans had shaped a new nation out of Indian lands, staring in 1927 the federal government sponsored the carving of four presidents’ faces on Mount Rushmore, in the Black Hills for which the Sioux had fought so hard.
Wounded Knee itself, on the other hand, would become a catch phrase for all the wrongs inflicted on Native Americans by the descendants of Europeans.
And, in 1973, Indian activists, drawing
on the courage of their ancestors, would stage another uprising there.