1868: A Big Year in Indian History

It seems that 1868 was a big year in American Indian history.

The Navajo Nation signed a treaty with the U.S. government which allowed them to return to their homeland after the Long Walk and forced exile at Bosque Redondo.

Since then the Navajo Nation has become one of the more successful Native American tribes, operating its own government, courts, schools, economic developments and police departments.

But there was another major development in Indian history that year that had a bigger impact.

Even before there was a United States, American settlers had been fighting wars with the native population. It began with conflicts between the Powhatan Confederacy and the Jamestown colonists and slowly swept across the continent.

The Americans emerged victorious in virtually all of the wars. All but two, that is.

The first came in a war with the Seminoles of Florida. In fact there were three Seminole Wars and third ended without an armistice. It was simply too costly to chase the Seminoles, who retreated to the Everglades to avoid capture, so the U.S. just gave up.

Technically the U.S. and the Seminoles are still at war.

But a war ended in 1868 in which the U.S. officially surrendered to the Indians.

It was Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868).

The war was a series of skirmishes with U.S. forces losing about 200 men and Indian losses estimated at half that.

The roots of that war began when settlers traveling to Oregon began crossing Indian land – right through the heart of the tribes’ hunting grounds. This led to the Lakota (Sioux) raiding the wagon trains. Settlers called it the Bozeman Trail, but the Lakota saw it as the Thieves Road.

To protect the settlers the army built three forts along the trail. This enraged the Lakota and led by a war chief – Red Cloud – they shut down the road. They laid siege to the forts and attacked woodcutters and hunters supplying them.

The one major battle in the conflict involved a brash new West Point graduate – Capt. William Fetterman – who scoffed at the Indians. He boasted that with 80 men he could “ride through the whole Sioux Nation.”

Fate sometimes has a sense of humor.

In December of 1867 Fetterman and 79 others struck out after a small group of Indians (including a young Crazy Horse). It was a decoy force and lured Fetterman into a trap where he and his entire command were wiped out.

On April 29, 1868 – 150 years ago this Sunday – the U. S. signed a peace treaty with the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. Red Cloud did not sign the treaty until November.

Red Cloud’s War also led directly to two other notable events in Indian history.

The Treaty of 1868 gave the Lakota the Black Hills for “as long as the grass shall grow.” But four years later gold was discovered, leading to a rush and the government’s 1876 decision to ignore he treaty and seize the Black Hills. This culminated in Custer’s Last Stand.

In the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 the U.S. also gave the Santee Sioux reservation land it had already promised to the Ponca Tribe.

The Ponca protested and the U.S. invited 10 chiefs (including Standing Bear) to “visit” Oklahoma to see if they liked it. Once there, they were left stranded. They walked back to Nebraska, where the army moved in to force the entire Ponca tribe to Okalahoma.

Conditions were harsh during the forced removal, with many Indians – included Standing Bear’s young daughter – dying. Despite their harsh treatment, the Poncas came to the rescue and saved soldiers that had become caught in a flash flood.

But in Oklahoma the government failed to provide food and medicine to the tribe and nearly a third of the Poncas died within months. One of the casualties was Standing Bear’s son, who begged to be buried by his sister.

Standing Bear led his followers back to Nebraska. The government ordered Standing Bear arrested for leaving the reservation without permission.

General George Crook “delayed” carrying out the order while alerting a friendly newspaperman about the Poncas’ plight.

Lawyers representing Standing Bear argued that he was a person under legal definition and, as such, was free to travel at will.

The case – Standing Bear v. Crook – ended up in District Court where, in 1879, the court ruled that Standing Bear was a human being.



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