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Lakotas: Feared Fighters of the Plains

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The fighting men discovered a large tepee village near a creek on the Great Plains. According to the reminiscences of one of those men, 'A great dance was in progress, in the center of which a small pole from which floated an Indian flag was standing.' The man came up with a plan. He and several of the other well-trained fighting men would break off from the main body and surprise the Indians of the village. They would charge on horseback 'through that portion of the village farthest removed from the congregated dancers' and do whatever was necessary to capture that offensive flag.

The charge began. As a diversion, the small party of fighting men set fire to the first lodge they came to before dashing for the flag. Although surprised by the sudden appearance of their longtime enemies, warriors in the village responded quickly. The fighting men soon faced, according to their leader's account, 'flying arrows and scathing bullets.' The leader was about to cut the sapling that supported the flag when one of his men took a rifle bullet and started to fall from his horse. The leader and another man caught their wounded comrade and held him in the saddle as they galloped back to the main body, which had drawn off toward a bluff just west of the village.

Warriors from the village climbed on their horses and quickly gathered between their lodges and their attackers. Undaunted, the attackers came again, for they were fighting men and they had a job to do. What they did, their leader later recalled, was 'maneuver for a feigned attack upon the south side of the village; then suddenly changing [our] course made a charge toward the north side with all the rapidity that the speed of [our] horses could accomplish.' The villagers, however, were alert for just such a move and responded with a rapid maneuver of their own, flanking the charging men. The attackers, as their leader related, were driven 'from [our] course over the bridge to the north of the village.'

For the next two days there was fighting off and on. Nobody from either side was killed, but many were wounded, according to the one surviving account. On the final afternoon, the opposing forces had a parley from a distance. The warriors from the attacked village, though, broke off the talks. They waved a blanket, which in sign language meant, 'Come and fight us.' The men who had so bravely charged the village two days before declined the offer. Soon, according to their leader, they were 'again on the move.'

The 19th-century 'battle' described above has no name. Exactly when it happened is not known. Where it happened is somewhat less vague–along Prairie Creek, not too far from the Platte River in present-day Hall County, Neb. The names of the individuals involved, except for one, are not available. The lack of details might seem disappointing or annoying, but it can't be helped. No man in the fight was required to make an official report. Perhaps the fight sounds a bit like one of those engagements that occurred when U.S. Army patrols or columns discovered a 'hostile' Plains Indian encampment. Well, not exactly. True, there was a leader with a plan; true, the main body divided instead of attacking as one; true, it was a surprise attack on an unsuspecting village; and true, a lodge was torched. But no soldiers were involved. Of course not, a history-minded cynic might suggest, for had the attackers been soldiers, they would have been after more than just a flag and there would have been a 'massacre,' one way or another.

The Indians in the village were members of the Omaha tribe, who usually lived in earth lodges in eastern Nebraska near the Missouri River, but who used skin tepees whenever they ventured west to hunt buffalo. The attackers, who had objected to these 'easterners' infringing on their hunting grounds, were among the most feared fighting men of the Plains. They were Oglalas, a subdivision of the western Teton Sioux, or Lakotas. On this occasion, the Lakotas and Omahas were of equal strength, and though the fight lasted much longer than most Indian vs. Indian engagements, it did not prove deadly. The battle is remembered today only because the Lakota leader who tried to capture the Omaha flag went on to greater military successes–against the U.S. Army in the 1860s–and then, in 1893, reminisced about his early years during visits with an old friend at the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. Those reminiscences can be found in the 1997 book Autobiography of Red Cloud: War Leader of the Oglalas, edited by R. Eli Paul.

'Achieving great success
in his younger years as a Lakota warrior, Red Cloud became arguably his people's greatest war leader until the rise of Crazy Horse,' Paul writes in his introduction. Even people with only a passing interest in frontier history recognize the distinctive names of those two remarkable Oglalas. Yet, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse still must take a back seat in the grand Teton tepee to Sitting Bull, the militant spiritual leader from the Hunkpapa subdivision. Together, those three Lakotas must be the most recognizable Indian trio of the 19th-century West, perhaps rivaled only by the Big Three of the Apaches–Geronimo, Cochise and Mangas Coloradas.

It might also be argued whether the adjective 'warlike' has appeared in print more frequently before 'Sioux' or 'Apaches.' Surely in the 19th century, the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans of the Southwest would have voted one way, while the pale-skinned folks who lived in or traveled through Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana would have cast a different vote. No question, though, that when it came to history-making large-scale confrontations with the U.S. Army in the West, the Sioux were war bonnets above the Apaches. Such deadly engagements as the Minnesota (Sioux) Uprising, Grattan Massacre, Fetterman Massacre, Wounded Knee Massacre, Wagon Box Fight, Battle of the Rosebud, Battle of Slim Buttes, Battle of Blue Water and Battle of Wolf Mountain immediately come to mind, even while those labels–'massacres,' 'fights,' 'battles,' 'uprisings'–get lost in the fog of semantics. As for the indefatigable Battle of the Little Bighorn, well, it never really leaves the mind–just stays lodged there like a spent 7th Cavalry bullet or a Lakota arrowhead.

What sometimes does slip the mind is the fact that the Sioux were a warlike people even before they began to seriously resist Euro-American expansion into western Minnesota and the northern Plains in the middle of the 19th century. The Omaha hunters attacked by a young Red Cloud were just one of many native peoples who, over the many moons, did not see eye to eye with the Sioux. In fact, the name 'Sioux' derives from an Ojibwa (Chippewa) word, nadowe-is-iw, meaning 'adder' or 'enemy,' that was transformed into something like nadoussioux by French voyageurs. Tribe members most often referred to themselves as Dakota (eastern group), Nakota (central group) or Lakota (western group)–all of which mean 'alliance of friends' in the three Siouan dialects of the same names. They also called themselves Oceti Sakowin ('Seven Council Fires') because of the seven major allied subgroups–Sisseton, Wahpeton, Wahpukute and Mdewakanton (the eastern group, collectively known to whites as the Santee Sioux, speakers of Dakota); Yankton and Yanktonai (central group, the Yankton Sioux, speakers of Dakota and Nakota); and Teton (western group, the Teton Sioux, speakers of Lakota). Today, the Dakota-Nakota-Lakota speakers are often collectively called Sioux, although more and more people seem to prefer 'Dakotas' or 'Lakotas' as the encompassing term.

In the early 17th century, the Sioux mainly occupied what would become Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, but Lakota bands began to migrate from the upper Mississippi River valley onto the Great Plains because of costly warfare with the Cree Indians, who were armed with French rifles, and pressure from the Ojibwas to the east. The lure of the great buffalo herds also encouraged the westward expansion and, after horses were acquired around 1750, the moving became a whole lot easier…and so did the fighting.

The Lakotas warred against settled agricultural people such as the Pawnees and Arikaras and also against other mounted nomads such as the Cheyennes, Kiowas, Arapahos and Crows. Upon 'discovering' the forested slopes and lush meadows of the Black Hills (Paha Sapa) around 1776, the Lakotas, now well supplied with firearms, proceeded to displace the Cheyennes and Kiowas, who had previously enjoyed the region's abundant game, timber and water. Defeating the Arikaras in 1792 allowed the Lakotas to expand into the middle Missouri Valley and what would become western South Dakota. In 1814 the Lakotas made peace with the Kiowas, who now formally recognized that their former enemies controlled the Black Hills. In the early 1820s, the Lakotas joined forces with another former enemy, the Cheyennes, to drive the Crows out of what would become eastern Wyoming. Historian Elliott West describes this 'expansionist burst' in his award-winning 1998 book The Contested Plains. 'By the 1830s,' he writes, 'the Lakotas were the preeminent power of the northern plains. With the Black Hills as their spiritual and geopolitical center, they ranged west to the Continental Divide, east to the Missouri basin, south to the South Platte and Smoky Hill Rivers, and north to the lands of two powerful rivals, the Crows and the Blackfeet.'

By the 1840s the Lakotas had made peace with the Cheyennes and Arapahos, but there was no peace with those tribes to the east that ranged westward for bison (Pawnees, Osages, Omahas, Potawatomies, etc.) or with the Crows and Blackfeet to the north. Encounters with non-Indians, which had occurred infrequently in the past, now increased as Oregon-bound settlers and California-bound gold seekers began crossing the Plains. The buffalo herds were disrupted, and the Plains Indians, in turn, tried to disrupt some of the wagon trains. 'It was only a matter of time,' writes R. Eli Paul, 'before Lakota expansionism came into conflict with that other great power, the United States.'

At mid-century, about 15,000 Lakotas stood in the way of 'progress.' This western group included seven subdivisions–Hunkpapa, Oglala, Minneconjou, Two-Kettle, Sans-Arc, Blackfoot and Brulé. Red Cloud was almost 30 at the time, Sitting Bull was not yet 20 and Crazy Horse was only about 10 and still known as Curly or Curly Hair. Even the young Crazy Horse may have already displayed bravery, generosity, wisdom and fortitude–the four great virtues of the Lakota male–by that time, and certainly Red Cloud had already made a name for himself among his Lakota peers. But the trio was unknown to the white world and would have held no interest for the white man in any case. That would only change when they became threats to that white world…or at least to that small part of the white world that passed through Teton territory.

In an attempt to head off trouble at the pass in 1851, representatives of the U.S. government negotiated the Treaty of Fort Laramie (also known as the Treaty of Horse Creek), which was signed by representatives of the Lakotas and other tribes. The treaty was designed to buy off the natives so that there would be peace on the emigrant road (the Indians were not to attack the white people just passing through) and on the Plains (the Indians were not to attack each other). It was a pipe dream. For one thing, the Indian signees did not represent all of their tribesmen. For another, a warrior culture could not be transformed overnight. Far too many Plains Indians were fighters to the bone. And far too many whites were coming.

Three years later, near Fort Laramie (in what would become Wyoming), the Lakotas had their first significant clash with the U.S. Army. In mid-August 1854, a wayward cow from an emigrant wagon train was killed by a Minneconjou man, and Brevet 2nd Lt. John L. Grattan, determined to do something about it, led an expedition of 30 men to a large Lakota camp. Negotiations with the headof the camp, Brulé Chief Conquering Bear, broke down in no time, and the impatient young lieutenant tried to force the issue despite being badly outnumbered. Who fired first is not certain, but Grattan died with his boots on, and Conquering Bear died with his moccasins on. Because all Grattan's men were also killed, while the cow killer got nary a scratch, the clash has been labeled a 'massacre'–the Grattan Massacre.

Red Cloud was a witness to the killings, but he and most other Lakotas paid the skirmish little mind. They went on with their lives; skirmishes, after all, were part of life. The U.S. War Department, not liking anything about that particular skirmish, eventually called upon Brevet Brig. Gen. William S. Harney to exact revenge. 'By God, I'm for battle–no peace,' Harney announced, and in early September 1855 he proved it by attacking the Brulé Chief Little Thunder's village on Blue Water Creek near Ash Hollow, in Nebraska Territory. Harney's force of more than 600 men destroyed the village and suffered relatively minor casualties (four dead, four badly wounded) while killing at least 85 inhabitants. Most history books call it the Battle of Blue Water, though 'Harney's Massacre' has been suggested as an alternative by a few. Red Cloud was not a witness to General Harney's punitive action, but legend has it that Curly (Crazy Horse) was in Little Thunder's camp that bloody September day. Whether he was actually there or not, the future warrior was surely affected by the unprecedented Lakota losses. His uncle, Spotted Tail, had been wounded in the Blue Water fight, and Spotted Tail's wife and baby daughter were among the 70 women and children captured by the soldiers.

The ruthlessness of Harney did not drive the Lakotas to war. In fact, they apparently became better behaved because of the possibility that the aggressive general might be back in full force the following spring. For the remainder of the 1850s, an uneasy truce existed between the Lakotas and the U.S. government. Red Cloud, for one, chose to withdraw with his Oglala band to the Powder River country (in present-day north-central Wyoming and southeastern Montana), where the hunting was still good and the whites were still few.

Things changed drastically in the 1860s, beginning to the east, where starving and discontented Dakotas (Santee Sioux) led by Mdewakanton Chief Little Crow killed some 700 whites in the Minnesota (Sioux) Uprising. Little Crow himself was killed by white settlers in July 1863, and nearly all the surviving Santees were kicked out of Minnesota into Dakota Territory. By then, the Lakotas had started their own little uprising because white men were traveling to the Montana gold fields on the Bozeman Trail, which cut right through the Powder River hunting grounds. Red Cloud, a'shirt wearer' (head warrior) of the Oglalas who had counted coup some 80 times, would no longer have only skirmishes with Indian enemies on his mind. War against the whites was on the horizon.

Raids against white emigrants occurred in 1863, and the U.S. government sent Brig. Gens. Henry Hastings Sibley and Alfred Sully, who had subdued the Santees in Minnesota, to attack Lakota camps on the Little Missouri. Things grew worse in 1864, but mostly farther south. Lakotas raided with their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies along the Platte River Road (see related story, P. 32), and then Colorado militiamen slaughtered a village of Cheyennes at Sand Creek that November. Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho warriors responded early in 1865 by twice sacking Julesburg and generally spreading death and destruction along the South Platte. The raiders then moved north, where Red Cloud and the other Lakotas in the Powder River country seemed to have it a little better. But not for long. General Sully returned to the upper Missouri for another campaign, and even worse, Brig. Gen. Patrick Edward Connor led one of the three columns that invaded the Powder River country.

The Powder River Expedition of 1865 was a fiasco. Connor did not succeed in engaging the Lakotas in battle, but he did further stir up Red Cloud and his followers. The U.S. government now tried a different tack and gave the free-roaming Lakotas gifts, including arms and ammunition, to come down to Fort Laramie and parley in June 1866. The government's goal was a peace treaty that would allow gold seekers and others to move freely on the Bozeman Trail. Red Cloud, Man Afraid of His Horses (who was the principal chief) and other Powder River leaders proved to be tough negotiators, especially after they learned the soldiers had already made plans to build three outposts–Forts Reno, Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith–to guard that detested trail. The council failed, and Red Cloud's status grew in the Indian world as he denounced the way the white man had treated his people and the way the peace commissioners were now treating the Lakota leaders as if they were children.

If Red Cloud–who was not actually a chief–did not yet have a reputation in the white world, that changed in dramatic fashion on December 21, 1866, when he struck a blow that rocked the nation even more than the Grattan Massacre of '54 and resulted in the U.S. Army's most shocking defeat in the Indian wars until the debacle at the Little Bighorn in 1876. Lured away from Fort Phil Kearny by decoy parties, overconfident Captain William J. Fetterman and 80 men were wiped out by the main body of Indians–mostly Lakotas, but also some Cheyennes and Arapahos–in about 40 minutes. During the Indians' victory celebration, they scalped and mutilated the dead soldiers.

Best known to whites as the Fetterman Massacre, the clash is often referred to today as the Fetterman Fight or the Fetterman Disaster. The 31-year-old captain, who once boasted that with a company of soldiers he 'could ride through the Sioux Nation,' certainly left the fort looking for a fight, and despite falling into a trap, he and his men did not go down easily. At least 60 warriors are said to have died on the battlefield. The Indians did not call it Fetterman anything, instead referring to it as the Battle of the Hundred in the Hands or the Battle of the Hundred Slain. It is uncertain whether Red Cloud had a hand in directing the action that cold December day. Historian Robert Utley contends that the Minneconjou High-Back-Bone was the man behind the plan. Crazy Horse, according to most accounts, led one of the decoy parties, but in his recent biography of Crazy Horse, Mike Sajna puts him with the main force, adding: 'Crazy Horse's leadership of the Oglala in the Fetterman Fight could be taken as an indication that by the winter of 1866 he had…become head war chief of his people.'

Whatever roles they played in Fetterman's failure, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and other leaders remained on the offensive, intent on driving the white soldiers out of Lakota land. On August 1, 1867, a Northern Cheyenne war party, along with some Lakota warriors, attacked a group of hay-cutting soldiers near Fort C.F. Smith. The very next day, a large war party of Lakotas, including Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, attacked the wagon camp of some wood-cutting soldiers about five miles from Fort Phil Kearny. Both attacks failed in the end because most of the troops were armed with new Springfield breechloaders and because relief columns arrived from the forts.

Although the Hayfield Fight and Wagon Box Fight were victories by the whites, the Powder River Indians were hardly defeated. They kept the soldiers bottled up in their isolated forts and continued to deny emigrants use of the Bozeman Trail. U.S. government officials became intent on reaching a settlement with the warring Lakotas and friends. But Red Cloud wouldn't come to Fort Laramie to sign the treaty. There was one big sticking point. 'When we see the soldiers moving away and the forts abandoned, then I will come down and talk,' said Red Cloud. In the summer of 1868, he got his wish. The soldiers abandoned the three forts on the Bozeman Trail, and the Indians promptly burned down Forts C.F. Smith and Phil Kearny. Red Cloud finally arrived at Fort Laramie that November to sign the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The Lakotas were granted a great territory that included the Black Hills and hunting privileges in the Powder River country. Red Cloud's War (1866-68) was over, and he had won. He was the first Indian leader to win a war against the United States–and the last.

Between 1868 and 1876, the Lakotas were–at least to white Americans–not quite so warlike. While they continued to skirmish with the likes of the Shoshones and the Crows, they were at peace with the United States, in accordance with President Ulysses S. Grant's peace policy. Relations remained strained, though, and Red Cloud did a lot of complaining in Washington and elsewhere as the spokesman not only for the Oglalas but also for the entire Lakota Nation. The Indian Bureau wanted the Lakotas to make the transition to reservation life and live like white settlers. In 1873, the government consented to build two agencies in northwestern Nebraska–the Red Cloud Agency for the Oglalas and the Spotted Tail Agency for the Brulés–outside the Great Sioux Reservation. The U.S. government's peace with Red Cloud would last, but other Lakotas rejected the forced lifestyle changes, the dependence on annuities delivered by ineffective and corrupt administrators, and the Army's reluctance to keep white gold seekers out of the Black Hills. Many of Red Cloud's followers now turned to men like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse–Lakotas who were still willing to fight the white intrusion with more than just words.

Sitting Bull, like most of the other Hunkpapas, had been living and hunting up in Yellowstone River country and was not directly involved in the Red Cloud War. But like the older Red Cloud, Sitting Bull was firmly against white intrusions into the northern Plains. In the aftermath of the Minnesota Uprising, he had skirmished with General Sibley during the summer of 1863 and had tried to defend the Little Missouri River camp that was successfully attacked by General Sully on July 28, 1864, in the Battle of Killdeer Mountain (near present-day Killdeer, N.D.). During General Connor's three-pronged Powder River expedition the following year, Sitting Bull helped thwart the marches of both Colonel Nelson Cole's column and Colonel Samuel Walker's column.

After rejecting the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, Sitting Bull became the recognized leader of not only the Hunkpapa bands but also all the other nontreaty Lakotas–Indians who were officially viewed as 'hostile' once they failed to obey the order to report to the reservations by January 31, 1876. The U.S. Army sent soldiers to find these winter roamers. The Great Sioux War of 1876-77 was about to begin.

On March 17, 1876, a cavalry force led by Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds attacked a village along the Powder River. Reynolds reportedly believed it was the village of Crazy Horse, but it turned out to be the Cheyenne camp of Two Moons. The villagers lost their horse herd but regained it, and most of them were able to escape to a small camp nearby–the camp of Crazy Horse. Next, they all pushed north, traveling another 60 miles to the larger camp of Sitting Bull. Reynolds' attack made the free-living bands more determined than ever to resist. When the Army sent three columns from three directions to converge in the Powder River Country as part of a spring-summer campaign to force their compliance, the Lakotas and their allies were ready for them–physically and spiritually. It helped that in early June, Sitting Bull had a vision of soldiers falling upside down from the sky.

A few weeks later, in the Battle of the Rosebud, Crazy Horse and other Lakotas fought Brig. Gen. George Crook's invading force to a standstill–but that was not the great victory Sitting Bull had envisioned. The Indians' greatest triumph came just over a week after the Rosebud Creek fight when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked Sitting Bull's extensive village on the Little Bighorn River (known to the Lakotas as the Greasy Grass) in Montana Territory. Custer and all the soldiers in his immediate command did not exactly fall from the sky, but fall they did–never to rise again, except in a million books and a billion imaginations. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25-26, 1876, was of course the crowning triumph for the warlike Lakotas, even if Sitting Bull did not take part in the actual fighting and even if Crazy Horse, as brave as he was, did not make a legendary charge over Custer Hill.

Custer's Last Stand, as everyone on this side of Custer Hill (and the other side, too) knows, was almost the last stand for the Lakotas. They had won the battle, but could not be expected to win this war. In the aftermath of a fight that totally overshadowed the Fetterman and Grattan massacres (and every other Indian engagement, too), the U.S. Army pursued the hostiles. On September 9, 1876, Crook's troops found the Lakota village of American Horse at Slim Buttes (in what today is northwestern South Dakota). They eventually torched it, but not before Crazy Horse, who had arrived with a band of warriors during the battle, gave them a scare or two.

That winter, Colonel Nelson Miles tenaciously tracked down Crazy Horse's village near the Tongue River in Montana Territory, and on January 8, 1877, with about 3 feet of snow on the ground, the two sides clashed in what would become known as the Battle of Wolf Mountain. Blizzard conditions cut the fighting short, and casualties were light, but Crazy Horse had suffered a mighty blow. His people could run, but they could not hide. The war ended in 1877, not because Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were defeated in battle but because the hungry Lakotas were unable to hunt or gather food. In early May, Crazy Horse rode into the Red Cloud Agency to surrender, about the same time that Miles struck Minneconjou Sioux Lame Deer's band on Muddy Creek, a small tributary of Rosebud Creek, in Montana Territory. Lame Deer was among the casualties in that May 7, 1877, clash, and the Battle of Lame Deer (or Muddy Creek) was the last significant engagement of the Great Sioux War.

Four months later, Crazy Horse was bayoneted to death by a guardhouse sentry at Camp Robinson. Sitting Bull, insisting that he did not want to become an agency Indian, sought sanctuary in Canada and found it for a while. But he, too, surrendered–at Fort Buford, in Dakota Territory, on July 19, 1881. By then the buffalo had all but disappeared from the homestead-infested Great Plains, and there was little choice but to forsake the nomad way of life for the reservation.

Sitting Bull lived long enough on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas to see the late Crazy Horse's cousin Kicking Bear kick up his heels in the first Sioux-style Ghost Dance, a frenzied performance that frightened the Indian agent down at Pine Ridge no end. But the great Hunkpapa spiritual leader was shot down by Indian police while 'resisting arrest' on December 15, 1890, two weeks before soldiers from Custer's old regiment, the 7th Cavalry, opened up on Big Foot's band along Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. That shocking bloodbath, in which the old Minneconjou leader and at least 150 other Lakota men, women and children were killed, has come to be known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Organized Lakota resistance to the white world faded in the aftermath of Wounded Knee. Not all the old warriors were dead, however. Later, some of them would tell their stories, including Red Cloud, who did not die until 1909. By then, many of his earlier military accomplishments were forgotten. That was due, in part, to his long life and the fact he had not resisted and fought to the bitter end like that brave Oglala warrior Crazy Horse or that charismatic Hunkpapa hero Sitting Bull. But unlike the other two members of the most famous Indian trio, Red Cloud had faced an even more difficult task in the end–trying to meet the confusing demands of the white man's world while also trying his best to keep Lakota culture alive. Lakotas had often been warlike in the past, but war, he knew, was not everything–especially when the odds against them were stacked higher than the Black Hills.



This article was written by Gregory Lalire and originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of Wild West magazine.

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