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Chapter 8 Victory and Defeat
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1849: The Gold Rush

Because of their association with the Bents, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had enjoyed relative stability, as compared to the other Plains Native American groups in the vicinity, until the outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846. The next few years after the war saw confusion and unrest. The year 1849 ushered in even greater chaos, which had a terrible effect upon these two groups. The sudden mass of forty-niners that swarmed through the Plains eroded the resources there and thereby strained relations with the Indians. But worse, the forty-niners brought cholera.

That summer the Pawnee lost eleven hundred people, swept off "like chaff before the wind." In about early June the cholera epidemic found the Cheyenne who lost about half of their tribe. Berthrong described it this way:

While the Cheyennes moved south from the Platte Rivers, men and women were stricken by "big cramps," or cholera, fell from their horses in agony, and died. They fled in terror all the way to the Arkansas River, and slowly the epidemic abated. At Bent's Fort the Cheyennes joined a peace enclave and celebrated the cessation of hostilities between the Kiowas and Osages. During the dances, a Kiowa warrior and an Osage dropped to the ground clutching their stomachs. Soon the tribes were in flight. . .. Ceran St. Vrain informed the Indian agent at Santa Fe that never had he seen a "worse state" of affairs during all of his time in the Southwest.[15]

This cholera epidemic was the deciding blow to Bent's Old Fort. It seems possible that the cholera was contracted by the Indians at Bent's Old Fort, since the epidemic struck while the tribes were there. Certainly, for the next few years, the Plains Indians gave the site of the fort a wide berth. The general trend had been a decline in revenues for some years, but 1848 had been profitable. Since the war, though, the Comanche and even some of the Arapaho had been openly hostile to the Bents; now, their principal trading partners, the Cheyenne, were devastated by cholera. Because of this, there was probably no real trade in 1849. One cannot discount William Bent's psychological condition when considering why he abandoned his fort in late August of that year. He had lost his brother Charles during the brief revolt in Taos in 1847. Shortly thereafter, his wife, Owl Woman, died giving birth to their fourth child. He was angry at the United States Army for refusing to pay what he considered just com-


pensation for their use of Bent's Fort during the Mexican War. Now, half of his adopted people, the Cheyenne, were dead because of the cholera epidemic. And war parties ranged the countryside. William Bent's world was falling down around him. With the abandonment and destruction of his fort, he was in one way or another acting out this collapse.

The fort's presence was soon missed. Officials at all levels of the Indian Agency were convinced that a treaty with the unsettled tribes was vitally needed. The appropriate place for the gathering of tribes, of course, would have been Bent's Old Fort.

Beginning on September 8, 1851, treaty talks were held, instead, at Fort Laramie. Attending were most of the Plains tribes from north of the Arkansas, including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Shoshoni, Crow, Assiniboin, Minnitaree, and Arikira. The southern tribes would not attend, being reluctant to journey through a land inhabited by "such notorious horse thieves as the Sioux and the Crow"—nonetheless, the number of Native Americans gathered at Fort Laramie was estimated at ten thousand.[16]

Indian Superintendent D. D. Mitchell told the assembled throng that the great father wanted safety for his white children as they passed through the Indian's territory and the right to build forts there. He asked that each tribe select a chief who would control and take responsibility for his people. The great father wanted to assign a territory where each tribe could live and hunt. With this initiative, based in the modern practices of segmentation and private ownership, the settling of nomadic groups began.

It was a festive gathering, although threatened a few times with the outbreak of violence between groups harboring grudges. Tribes feasted each other and adopted each other's children. Jesuit priests baptized many, including 253 Cheyenne infants. There were impressive displays of horsemanship and dances. Many gifts were exchanged, although the treaty goods were three days late in arriving. In the end, most tribes, like the Cheyenne, were assigned to roughly the area they were frequenting at the time of the parlay. Tribes were not actually restricted to those lands but could hunt and fish where they had been accustomed to doing so. The Treaty of Fort Laramie was the first land treaty for the Cheyenne, and most of the other groups as well. We can see in this an attempt to reinstate the relative stability that the area had known during the existence of Bent's Old Fort.

The treaty was accompanied by ritual (the exchange of gifts, feasting, smoking peace pipes) and included explicit promises of long-term recip-


rocal obligations. The rituals, however, involved only a few representatives of the federal government. Meaningful exchange did not extend to the masses of Easterners now streaming to and across the Plains. The Native Americans remained unknown and terrifying to the immigrants, as the immigrants did to the Native Americans.

The government promised the tribes a total of fifty thousand dollars each year for fifty years (later reduced to ten years by Congress) in compensation for the destruction of buffalo.[17] A similar treaty was signed with the southern groups, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache in July of 1853. These developments were probably an inspiration to William Bent to build his new fort at Big Timbers. In the winter of 1852-53, stone cutters began preparing the masonry for his new trading post.

In 1853, however, Thomas Fitzpatrick wrote that the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux were actually starving: "They are in abject want of food half the year. . .. Their women are pinched with want and their children constantly crying out with hunger."[18] The killing of buffalo and the disruption to trade were beginning to take a heavy toll. More disruption to the nomadic way of life of the Plains Indians rapidly followed. The Treaty of Fort Laramie, as benign as it might have seemed to the Native Americans at first, signaled the advance of surveying parties, increased immigration, and the construction of army posts.

During the next decade, the world that the Cheyenne inhabited became increasingly hostile to them. Immigrants and settlers pressed in. Berthrong noted that "during the 1853 season, fifteen thousand Americans moved past Fort Laramie, destroying game and bringing diseases to the Indians."[19] When the Cheyenne pressed back, the army engaged in punitive expeditions.

One tragic chain of events began in 1854, only months after the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed. Irritated by increasing numbers of Anglos coming into their territory on the Santa Fe Trail, some Miniconjous Sioux decided to interrupt the flow of newcomers by taking control of a ferryboat near Fort Laramie. Soldiers were sent from the fort to recover the boat. During this operation, the Sioux shot at the sergeant leading the detachment. Word of this was carried back to the fort. Lieutenant Hugh B. Fleming then decided to lead a larger detachment back to the Sioux, demanding that the Sioux who fired the shot be turned over to them. A skirmish developed in which three Miniconjous Sioux warriors were killed, three were wounded, and two were taken prisoner.

Later, a Sioux warrior angry with the Anglos for the casualties taken during this skirmish shot arrows at a Mormon emigrant. Although he


missed the Mormon he killed the Mormon's cow. When word of this reached Lieutenant Fleming, he dispatched Lieutenant John L. Gratten with twenty-nine men and one interpreter to bring in the remaining group of Miniconjous Sioux. Lieutenant Gratten had boasted earlier in the year that with thirty men he could defeat the whole Cheyenne nation. Here was his opportunity to demonstrate the accuracy of his judgment. After a brief but fruitless parley, Gratten attacked, employing two howitzers. The Sioux camp, though, contained not only Miniconjous but Brulé Sioux. In the fight that followed, twenty-eight of the soldiers were killed. Lieutenant Gratten's body was found with twenty-four arrows in it and could be identified only by his watch. In retaliation for the "Gratten Massacre," Colonel William S. Harney led six hundred troops from Fort Kearny in the following year to a camp that had been identified by the new Indian agent in the area as that of the hostiles. Little Thunder, a chief implicated in the Gratten incident, tried to talk the soldiers out of attacking, but to no avail. The soldiers killed at least eighty-six men, women, and children, wounded five persons, and took seventy women and children prisoner.[20]

This pattern—confusion and then conflict leading to retaliation and escalating violence that culminated in inevitable tragedy for the Native Americans as a much superior force was brought into the fray—was repeated. "Peace" might follow, but only briefly, until the resentment and bitterness engendered by the pacification produced yet another incident. The bitterness would quickly spread to other Native American groups, even those not involved with the trouble. For example, after defeating the Sioux, Harney took advantage of his presence as a superior force in the area to make demands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. If they did not withdraw from the Platte route, hunt only on their own land, and make peace with the Pawnee and Sioux, Harney would "sweep them from the face of the earth."[21] In the face of mounting violence, the military. could only respond as they had been trained to do, with force.

Anxiety surely increased with each passing year, perhaps with each month. Such anxiety played a role in the increasing intertribal conflict during this same period. Such fighting quickly acted synergistically with the escalating skirmishes between the Anglos and Indians. Relations between the Cheyenne and Arapaho on one side and the Pawnee on the other, for example, were generally hostile and had grown worse after a Cheyenne defeat in 1853 by the Pawnee. The Cheyenne were made even more aggressive by another terrible loss in 1854. In this debacle, an intertribal force that included not only Cheyenne, but also Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche,


Sioux, Osage, and Crow had started after the Pawnee, but on the way had encountered a hunting party, of Sac, Fox, and Potawatomi. Eastern Indians such as these were extraordinarily well armed and, unlike the Plains Indians, used rifles with skill and in carefully coordinated movements. They inflicted a great number of casualties on the Plains Indian war party.

By 1856, the Cheyenne were back in the vicinity of the Platte, looking for Pawnee and eager to avenge these two defeats. The Cheyenne, of course, had been ordered out of this area by Colonel Harney. Soon enough, the Cheyenne found trouble—but not with the Pawnee, who had been intimidated enough by the Cheyenne presence to forgo their annual buffalo hunt in the Platte River area. Instead, some young Cheyenne warriors encountered a mail wagon, stopped it, and asked the driver for tobacco. The driver panicked. After drawing his pistol and firing, he whipped his horses in a desperate attempt to flee. He did not escape, though, before being wounded in the arm by an arrow.

The young men were chastised by their elders for their rash action, but this, of course, did nothing to stop the by now familiar chain of events from proceeding, having been set in motion in this case by the aspiring warriors' lust for glory. The driver had made his escape into Fort Kearny, and soldiers there responded in alarm. The Cheyenne were tracked to a camp on the Platte, where ten of them were killed and eight to ten more wounded.

Thoroughly enraged, the Cheyenne attacked with a vengeance at three locations along the Platte River route. During one attack on a four-wagon train, Almon W. Babitt, secretary of the Utah territory, two other men, and one child were killed. The child's mother was carried off and later killed. Such actions, of course, only seemed to confirm the immigrants' fears that the Plains Indians were savages.

In 1857, William Bent warned the Cheyenne of an army expedition being prepared against them. The Cheyenne were still angry at their own losses and told him of their strategy, to scatter into small bands between the Arkansas and Platte rivers, and to "kill all they want, and get plenty of white women for prisoners."[22]

The American retaliation for the attacks along the Platte River route was led by Colonel William Vos Sumner in late July 1857. His force of about four hundred cavalry and infantry, with four mountain howitzers, found the Cheyenne camped along the Republican River. The Cheyenne had, therefore, made no attempt to escape, despite what they earlier told William Bent. By this time, they had been convinced by their medicine man, Dark, that the white man's bullets could not harm them. Confident in the power derived from the medicine man's dream, they rode directly at the


soldiers. For reasons that remain unknown, Colonel Sumner executed an extremely unusual maneuver at this stage of the battle—a saber charge. The Cheyennes were confounded by this. Their protection was from white bullets, but what about sabers? As the cavalry drew close, the Cheyenne broke and fled. Casualties on both sides were few, but Cheyenne pride was severely damaged.[23] This put the Indians in an even worse temper.

There occurred in 1858 and 1859 a lull in the hostilities. The immediate cause for this cessation of violence was probably the influence of the Cheyenne's old friend William Bent. Having interceded between the Anglos and Native Americans on a number of recent occasions, he was appointed Indian agent in the summer of 1859. But events were to occur that same year that made peace a forlorn hope, even given Bent's ties to the Cheyenne. Bent's position in the Anglo world had deteriorated drastically over the last decade. Where he had been liminal, he was now regarded as marginal by the Eastern immigrants. He could no longer mediate between the modern and traditional worlds.

Before proceeding to those events that in the later nineteenth century finally cast the Cheyenne, the other Plains tribes, and most of the Native American population of the United States into the role of unmitigated and incorrigible villains to the settlers of the West, it might be well to pause. It is from about this time in Cheyenne history that one of the persistent, ahistorical images of the American Indian has been taken. The Cheyenne were still hunting buffalo, still free (that is, had not yet been placed upon reservations), still relying upon the bow and arrow for warring and raiding.[24] The Indian agent for the Upper Arkansas Agency in 1855 described his charges in this way:

The total population of the agency numbered 11,470, in which number were included 3,150 Cheyennes and 2,400 Arapahos. From their camps on the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers, the Cheyenne could field a force of 900 warriors and their allies, the Arapahos, 500. The Cheyennes lived in 350 lodges and possessed seventeen thousand horses. The Cheyenne enjoyed an income of $15,000 from the 40,000 buffalo, 3,000 elk, 25,000 deer, and 2,000 bear killed annually whose skins and hides were the staples in their exchanges with the traders.[25]

This picture faded rapidly. Up until 1858, gold seekers had generally only traversed the trails through what would become the Colorado Territory. But in the spring of that year, a small quantity of gold was found in the areas around the Platte and, in the words of George Bent (William Bent's son by Owl Woman), "the whole frontier was thrown into excitement. In Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa, thousands of men


began to prepare to set out for the mountains in the following spring. . .. The Indians . . . did not understand this rush of white men and thought the whites were crazy."[26] During the winter of 1858-1859, prospectors moved quickly to acquire title to Cheyenne and Arapaho lands.

William Bent could not hope to maintain peace for long. His evaluation appeared in the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1859:

The concourse of whites is therefore constantly swelling, and incapable of control or restraint by the government. This suggests a policy of promptly rescuing the Indians, and withdrawing them from contact with the whites. . .. These numerous and warlike Indians, pressed all around by the Texans, by the settlers of the gold region, by the advancing people of Kansas, and from the Platte, are already compressed into a small circle of territory, destitute of food, and itself bisected athwart by a constantly marching line of immigrants. A desperate war of starvation and extinction is therefore imminent and inevitable, unless prompt measures shall prevent it.[27]

While Bent acted as Indian agent, he pressed for an adequate reservation for the Cheyenne and Arapaho: the entire Fontaine-qui-bouille and Arkansas River region above Bent's Fort. But a treaty was not finalized until Bent was replaced by Colonel Albert G. Boone. There is no evidence that Colonel Boone did not have the best interests of the Cheyenne and Arapaho at heart. Unfortunately, however, he may have lacked influence in the eventual treaty, or he may have overestimated the ability to teach an entirely new way of life to the Cheyenne and Arapaho and their willingness to learn a new way of life. Whatever the circumstances of its manufacture, the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise soon proved to be only a legalistic maneuver on the part of the American government to disenfranchise the Indians of the lands they had inhabited before the arrival of the Americans on the scene.

Signed by many of the major chiefs (though they quite often denied their signature later), the treaty indicated that the Indians agreed to give up their claims to most of their lands. What remained to them was a barren part of southeastern Colorado Territory with little game. The treaty also promised $15,000 a year to each tribe for fifteen years and assistance in learning and adopting a sedentary way of life. Stock, agricultural implements, mechanic shops, and dwelling houses were to be purchased with a portion of their yearly monetary allotment. Interpreters, millers, farmers, and mechanics to help them learn the skills needed for this new lifestyle were also to be provided.[28]


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Chapter 8 Victory and Defeat
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