|Lakota Lake, Black Hills, South Dakota.|
The surge of white settlers after the Civil War — prompted in part by gold discoveries in Montana — finally pushed tensions over the edge. Red Cloud was chief of the Oglala Lakota Sioux in Montana when he joined with Cheyennes and Arapaho in 1866 in a two-year wave of strikes against settlers and cavalry throughout Montana and Wyoming. It was a bloody guerilla war and culminated in the Battle of the Hundred Slain (or “Fetterman Massacre” to the cavalrymen) when Red Cloud’s warriors managed to wipe out an entire 81-man detachment from Fort Kearny led by a Captain William J. Fetterman. Red Cloud had used a decoy — the already prominent Crazy Horse — to lure the cavalrymen into a massive ambush.
|Battle of the Hundred Slain (Fetterman Massacre) — by artist Harold von Schmidt.|
After this, the US government sought peace and signed the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie click here for full text. This treaty gave Red Cloud’s Lakota Sioux perpetual rights of “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” covering a swath of land — far too big to call simply a “reservation” – that included not just the Black Hills but virtually all western South Dakota. For the foreseeable future, so long as both sides kept promises, it seemed to create a workable peace — enough good land for the Sioux, and enough good land for the settlers.
The great Sioux War
|Contemporary 1875 cartoon of Red Cloud turning
down Grant’s offer of meaningless trinkets.
But it wasn’t good enough. In 1874, prospectors found gold in the Black Hills, bringing yet another new wave of settlers into Sioux territory. By now, the mid-1870s, migration from the East had become a torrent. Over 120,000 white settlers would move into the Dakotas during the 1870s, plus hundreds of thousands more into the nearby new states of Iowa and Nebraska. These settlers, in turn, were followed by over 50,000 miles of new railroad track laid across the west between 1865 and 1875. The great herds of buffalo — staple food for the Sioux – began to disappear and cavalry forts dotted the landscape.
Over the next few years, as more and more Indians were crowded into the reservations and circumstances grew desperate, many Indians began looking for salvation through a cult called the Ghost Dance,which alarmed many white settlers and soldiers. Cult followers believed they were bulletproof during the dance, and new violence seemed inevitable.
Things reached a head in December 1890. By this time, Crazy Horse had been killed by soldiers, Sitting Bull had recently been killed during an arrest, and Red Cloud, still on the reservation, was growing increasing frustrated trying to negotiate with Washington. One day that month, after a brutal winter storm, soldiers from the Seventh Cavalry happened to come across a group of about 350 Sioux wandering near the Dakota Badlands, led by a chief named Spotted Elk. All but about 120 of the Indians were women and children.
The cavalrymen, under Major Samuel Whitside, decided to escort the indians to the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation — a small southern carveout from the original 1868 treaty lands. Rather than try to disarm the Indians immediately, Major Whitside decided to wait for reinforements. He ordered his cavalrymen to march together with the Indians for about five miles, then camp by Wounded Knee Creek.
Later that night, a heavily armed column of cavalrymen under Colonel James Forsyth joined Whitside, bringing the cavalry total to some 500 men, including four Hotchkiss guns (similar to Gattling machine guns) which they mounted around the Indian encampment. The next morning, December 29, they planned to disarm the Indians and deliver them to the reservation.
It would not be peaceful.