The Lakota and the Treaty of Fort Laramie

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The northern Plains contain a huge diversity of people, each with their own unique history. And each of these nations adopted different strategies to deal with the expansion of American empire. So did the Lakota. However, for the Lakota, one incident, in particular, proved decisive in setting the stage for a 20-year defense of their land and way of life.

A photograph of the Black Hills in South Dakota. It shows a range of hills with jagged peaks surrounded by trees.

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The Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, were considered by the Lakota to be the area of their place of origin, the center of their universe. (Image: Zack Frank/Shutterstock)

The Mormon’s Cow

In mid-August 1854, a cow owned by a Mormon traveling along the Oregon Trail strayed into the Brulé camp of Conquering Bear. A Miniconjou named High Forehead, shot the troublesome beast, and the Lakota proceeded to butcher it and distribute the meat.

The Mormon, however, reported to the soldiers at Fort Laramie that his cow had been stolen. In keeping with provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty, Conquering Bear responded by offering to settle matters the Lakota way—by making amends through reciprocal gift giving—in this case, a horse.

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Lt. Grattan Demands Surrender

The commander of the fort, however, demanded that the cow’s owner be paid $25 and that High Forehead be turned over to the federal troops. Conquering Bear declined and pointed out that as a Brulé leader, he lacked the authority to make the man do anything.

A photograph showing lots of people gathered inside a teepee, signing the peace treaty at Fort Laramie.
According to the Fort Laramie Treaty, matters could be settled the Lakota way—by making amends through reciprocal gift giving. (Image: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public domain)

Intent upon teaching the Lakota a lesson, the fort’s commander dispatched a military detachment outfitted with two howitzer cannons and led by Lt. John Grattan, a self-styled cavalier Indian fighter. Outside of the Lakota camp, Grattan arrayed his troops in fighting position and demanded that Conquering Bear turn High Forehead over to them.

In the end, Lt. Grattan and his entire detachment of 29 soldiers were wiped out. The sole Lakota to die in the fighting was Conquering Bear, the person who had worked so hard to abide by the dictates of the Treaty of Fort Laramie and to negotiate a settlement.

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Bear Butte

The next year, the US army launched a horrific retaliatory campaign that left 86 Lakotas—half of them women and children—dead. Sensing how dangerous the situation had become, the Lakota organized a massive council that brought between 5,000 and 10,000 out of a total estimated population of 13,000 Lakotas together near Bear Butte, a place  of great spiritual significance located on the northeastern edge of the Black Hills in South Dakota.

They outlined a strategy that respected the principle of band autonomy. Those who wanted to accept treaty annuities could. Those who, in the words of historian Jeffrey Ostler, “resolved to fight to retain their way of life,” would move into the vitally important bison range west  of the Powder River in northeastern Wyoming and into the Black Hills.

The Black Hills

Three men, with dog, panning for gold in a stream in the Black Hills panning for gold.
The federal government sent expeditions into the Black Hills, which the Lakota knew contained gold. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Black Hills, or Paha Sapa in Lakota, were of particular importance because the Lakota considered the area to be their place of origin, the center of their universe—the heart of everything that is. To their dismay, the federal government sent expeditions into the Black Hills, which the Lakota knew contained gold. The Lakota, though, didn’t value it, but they well knew how much whites did.

By the mid-1860s, the so-called Bozeman Trail, which branched from the Oregon Trail  northward  through  Lakota  and Cheyenne hunting grounds before terminating in the gold mines in southwestern Montana, became the focal point of conflict.

Fetterman Massacre

A Painting depicting the Fetterman Massacre.
Arapaho warriors, lured 81 infantry and cavalry under the command of Col. William J. Fetterman into a perfectly laid trap and left no one alive. (Image: Kim Douglas Wiggins/Public domain)

Between 1866 and 1868, this intertribal alliance, spearheaded by an Oglala leader named Red Cloud, scored a series of dramatic victories against the United States Army after it invaded their hunting grounds in the Powder River Country. This included an engagement near Fort Phil Kearny, one of the new posts constructed along the Bozeman Trail in northern Wyoming.

In December 1866, a force of approximately 1,500 Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors lured 81 infantry and cavalry under the command of Col. William J. Fetterman into a perfectly laid trap and left no one alive. Reinforcing notions of white innocence, non-Indians called it the Fetterman Massacre. The Lakota called it by another name, They Killed One Hundred Whites.

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Treaty of Fort Laramie

At the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, the Lakota compelled the United States to abandon and burn the Bozeman Trail forts, establish a permanent peace, and provide cash and food annuities, livestock, farm equipment and continued access to the vitally important hunting grounds in the Powder River Country. The treaty further affirmed Lakota ownership of the Black Hills.

However, many Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho refused to sign. They disagreed with the land cessions that reduced the territory originally demarcated by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. They also refused to accept reservation life or to live like white men.

Treaty of Fort Laramie: Fraught with Ambiguities and Contradictions

Moreover, dissenters could have pointed to all of the ambiguities and contradictions that the commissioners intentionally inserted into the text  of the treaty but did not speak of in the council.

This included provisions for other roads and railroads to be built through the hunting grounds; stipulations that, at a future date, the Lakota would “relinquish all right to occupy permanently the territory outside their reservation”; and the granting of federal jurisdiction for crimes committed by Indians against non-Indians within the boundaries of the reservation.

The Betrayal

While Red Cloud touched the pen and abided by the terms of the treaty, he later acknowledged that he felt betrayed. In 1868, men came out and brought papers, he revealed in a speech two years later. “We could not  read them, and they did not tell us truly what was in them.”

Other Lakota, including the Oglala warrior Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa holy man Sitting Bull, rejected the treaty, refused to go to the reservation, and resumed defensive positions in the Powder River Country.

Common Questions about the Lakota and the Treaty of Fort Laramie

Q: How did Conquering Bear offer to settle with the Mormon?

Conquering Bear offered to settle matters the Lakota way—by making amends through reciprocal gift giving.

Q: How many Lakota tribesmen attended the Bear Butte council?

The Lakota tribe organized a massive council that brought between 5,000 and 10,000 Lakotas together near Bear Butte.

Q: By what name do the Lakota call the Fetterman Massacre?

The Lakota called the Fetterman Massacre as They Killed One Hundred Whites.

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