Congress’ failure to ratify an 1859 treaty was a missed opportunity.
Fort Laramie Indian Agent Thomas Twiss had called together the Sioux, Northern Cheyennes and Arapahos in September 1859. The meeting followed the “Cow War, which centered on the Grattan Massacre near the fort (in present-day Wyoming) and the retaliatory massacre of Lakota men, women and children near Ash Hollow, Nebraska Territory. But it preceded the greater Indian wars and the final tragic clash at Wounded Knee. After the pleasantries, the native New Yorker got to the point: “My children, your Great Father directs me to say to you that as the buffalo and small game also are rapidly diminishing, what do you propose to do to gain subsistence when there is no longer any game for food and prevent your old people and little children from dying by starvation? Will you labor like the white man, plant, hoe and raise corn for food, or will you die with hunger?”
The Lakotas conferred with their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies and designated Medicine Man, an Arapaho chief, as their spokesman.The Arapahos, perhaps alone among the Plains tribes, had a strong commercial ethic, so much so that their tribe comprised age-related trading societies rather than family-related warrior societies. (Frank Huston, ex-Confederate and unabashed squaw man with the Lakotas, thought the Arapahos must be descended from the Phoenicians.) The tribes knew the buffalo were dying out and being replaced by the white man’s cattle. They argued and perhaps agonized among themselves and then sent Medicine Man back with their consensus: “Our old people and little children are hungry for many days, and some die, for our hunters can get no meat. Our sufferings are increasing every winter. …We wish to live.”
The three tribes—destined in coming decades to wipe out thousands of soldiers and settlers and to be decimated themselves—agreed to settle on permanent reservations, take up farming and accept government subsidies for tools, equipment and food until they started to produce crops. The Arapahos would settle “on small farms and live in cabins” on the Cache la Poudre River, the Northern Cheyennes on the Laramie River, the Oglala Lakotas on Horse and Deer creeks and the Brulé and other Lakotas on theWhite River east of the Black Hills. Twiss, an 1826 graduate of the Military Academy at West Point, accepted the agreement in concept and also agreed to provide more than $100,000 a year in annuities—goods, farming implements and money—“for a period of time at the discretion of the president of the United States.” The agreement, Medicine Man agreed, was “the only one that will preserve us from extinction and permit us to dwell for a long time on these beautiful prairie lands.”
Delegates from each tribe signed the treaty on the same day, but the U.S. Senate (which had to ratify all treaties with Indian nations before 1871) refused to ratify it. For the next two decades—in fact, for a large part of the next century— the whites would argue that the Plains Indian wars had been necessary because the Lakotas and Cheyennes refused to give up buffalo hunting and the warpath and take up farming. But that had not been the case in 1859, when an opportunity for a lasting peace slipped away.
A hundred years before Thomas Twiss tried to convince the Plains tribes to take up farming, their ancestors had been farmers who supplemented their crops by hunting and gathering. Every Plains tribe, except perhaps the Blackfeet, had some sort of agricultural tradition. In the early 1830s, Seth Eastman, the Army officer and illustrator, lived among the Santee Sioux and took one as his wife (as she saw it, anyway). At the time the tribe raised large fields of corn, supplemented with beans and squash—“the three sisters,” as the Indians called them. To encourage the germination and pollination of the corn, young girls were urged to walk around the cornfields naked at night, when prying eyes would not disrupt their vigil. Eastman rendered a watercolor of this ceremony, which may be how he met “Mrs. Eastman.” The Yankton Sioux had long been farmers and sold corn to neighboring tribes and other settlers along the Missouri River. The Cheyennes kept ears of dried corn in their medicine bundles. The Arapahos were farmers in Minnesota into the 1780s.Women, by dint of their nurturing and reproductive force, did most of the hoeing and planting in farming tribes and often had overt power in the family.
Around the turn of the 19th century, the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho farmers were driven from the Great Lakes and their tributaries by better armed tribes. Out on the Plains they adopted the horse and turned to hunting for subsistence. When the 1837 smallpox epidemic (“the year of the spotted head”) devastated many Western tribes, the Plains Indians escaped lethal contamination. Hit particularly hard were the farming tribes (Mandans, Arikaras and Hidatsas) who lived in villages along the Missouri River.
Peace between the Plains Indians and whites broke down twice in the 1860s— once after the 1864 Sand Creek massacre and again after the Army built three forts along the Bozeman Trail. Red Cloud’s War ended with the signing of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which the Indians again asked for “seeds and agricultural implements,” as well as a sawmill and gristmill to process the anticipated crops. The treaty also gave each Indian the right to homestead a 160-acre farm on the reservation. Unfortunately, the government repeatedly moved some of the agencies, disrupting the Indians’ planting schedule and discouraging further farming. Short rations at the agencies and the free flow of firearms from post traders sparked the Great Sioux War in 1876, as the government tried to force the Sioux to sell the Black Hills.
Once the Lakotas and Cheyennes did finally settle on the reservations, in the wake of Custer’s Last Stand, they encountered a third obstacle: lack of rainfall. The fertile soil and adequate rainfall of the East enabled virtually any healthy farmer to prosper. Rainfall at the time of the Plains Indian wars averaged 44 inches at Boston, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., 30 inches around Milwaukee and 25 inches at Fort Snelling—the country where the Arapahos had hoed and bare Dakota girls once strolled about the massive cornfields. But the rainfall around Fort Randall in Lakota country was 16 inches, and rainfall at Fort Laramie was 15 inches. Lacking proper irrigation, the land was unsuitable for corn and beans. A single drought could even wipe out the grass crops.
The final seal on the tribes’ fate was the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887. Seeking to discourage the communal lifestyle and accelerate the assimilation process, Congress surveyed the reservations, kicked off white squatters (unless married to Indians) and then grandly gave every Indian head of family individual title to 160 acres, with an extra 40 acres for grown children living with their parents and 80 acres for single people and orphans. The government sold the “surplus” land to whites. The Indian allotments proved too small to be irrigated by one family and were soon fractured even further by inheritance claims. Thus many Indians leased or sold the land to whites, who could afford irrigation.
Instead of the self-sufficient farmers they wanted to be in 1859—let alone the self-sufficient farmers their ancestors had been in centuries prior—descendents of the Plains tribes settled for tending household vegetable gardens while collecting meager lease money from white ranchers and farmers. Thomas Twiss (who later married a full-blood Oglala girl) and the Arapaho Medicine Man (who later talked his people’s way onto the Shoshone reservation at Wind River, Wyo.) cannot be blamed if Pine Ridge, the Oglala Sioux reservation, today is one of the nation’s poorest communities. Perhaps things would have been different had Congress ratified the 1859 treaty.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.