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But all was not well at the thrice-relocated Red Cloud Agency.

When the American public of the 1870s heard the name Red Cloud, it conjured vivid images of a famous person but also an infamous place. Chief Red Cloud became a household name in 1870 with his cross-country visit to Washington, D.C. When he came east, it was as if a head of state had arrived, with all the accompanying pomp and circumstance. The victor of Red Cloud’s War (also known as the Bozeman War), that bloody struggle of the Lakota tribe and its allies to evict the U.S. Army from their lands, was to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant, the victor of the Civil War. When two battle-hardened warriors shook hands in the White House for the first time, it represented the high-water mark of Indian– U.S. government relations—two great nations meeting together through their leading figures.

One aim of the Red Cloud–Grant negotiations and their aftermath was the establishment of an agency for the chief and his Lakota followers, a place where government officials and tribal leaders could work toward their common interests. Representatives sited the original Red Cloud Agency along the North Platte River near Fort Laramie, within the tribal range of both Red Cloud’s Oglalas and Spotted Tail’s Brulé Lakotas. After Red Cloud’s return from his Washington excursion, crews began constructing facilities to house the government employees, their shops and stores. But this first locale —derided as the “sod agency,” perhaps in reference to the state of the government structures—was poorly situated and proved unsuitable. Too many whites, and thus too many temptations, existed along the Platte Valley route—better to place the potentially troublesome Lakotas farther off the beaten track.

In 1873 the government moved the agency to the White River in the northwest corner of Nebraska. The next five turbulent years kept the outpost in the national headlines and the name Red Cloud on the minds of millions.

Thomas R. Buecker relates the history of this Red Cloud Agency and Camp Robinson (the latter soon established to watch over the former) in his definitive book Fort Robinson and the American West, 1874–1899. The agency and its namesake remained in the spotlight due to a series of remarkable, often-violent episodes: the shooting of civilian employee Frank Appleton (1874) and subsequent arrival of the U.S. Army as peace- keepers; the “flagpole incident” (1874), in which factions of Lakotas rioted over the seemingly innocuous task of erecting an agency flagstaff; the confiscation of Red Cloud’s pony herd (1876) in the wake of Custer’s Last Stand; and the surrender of Crazy Horse (May 1877) and his killing (that September).The relative geographic isolation of the agency and the introduced veneer of civilization did little to keep the lid on strained relations between the tribesmen and the U.S. government.

In 1873 political appointee John J. Saville took the reins as Indian agent at Red Cloud and held on unsteadily for a little more than two years. His duties spanned three broad categories: informing higher-ups of the constantly changing political conditions; relaying new policies and procedures to his Indian charges and, in turn, passing on their concerns and grievances to Washington; and, perhaps most important, purchasing and/or distributing government annuities to their recipients as stipulated by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The latter responsibility involved money, lots of money, which became the root of many evils at this and many other Indian agencies. At Red Cloud Agency the dispute over scandalous deals prompted bitter partisan bickering and eventually a massive government investigation.

Many of the problems Saville had with running the agency stemmed from determining how many Indians he had. Counting Indians became a constant struggle, made nigh impossible as the Indians themselves did not willingly participate. In purely bureaucratic terms, the number of Indians translated directly to the amount of rations purchased and issued; more Indians meant more livestock purchased by the government for tribal needs. Both agent and Indians soon recognized the mutually exclusive benefit in inflating the numbers. The Indians would benefit from more food and clothing per person, while an unscrupulous agent could sell off surplus stock to civilians. Here was a signature Gilded Age public-private partnership, and census-taking became an art not a science.

In late 1874 Othniel C. Marsh, a Yale University professor of paleontology and an avowed friend of the Indian, visited the agency and spoke with Red Cloud, who shared tales of theft, embezzlement and suffering Indians—some perhaps even true. Marsh blamed Saville for the irregularities and sparked an outcry that led to an investigation.The results of that row filled several hundred pages of government testimony, reports and supporting documentation. Saville resigned under pressure in 1876, but not before his and his successor’s notoriously poor counts led to military ramifications.

During the Great Sioux War of 1876–77 the numbers of warriors available to Crazy Horse, Gall and Sitting Bull were important pieces of intelligence for Army commanders George Crook, Philip Sheridan and William Sherman. In the fateful spring and summer of 1876 the telegraph wires sang with queries about the counts at Red Cloud. Many suspected the Indian population was fast dwindling as the season progressed. So-called “summer roamers” understandably migrated from the agencies to the buffalo-hunting ranges, but officials wondered, In this time of war were the Indians instead going to the Powder River to fight and not hunt?

When word reached the country of George Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, many eyes turned to Red Cloud—the man and the place. The government faced pressure to keep the aging but still highly regarded war leader out of the fray and his people confined to the agency. It considered civilian officials incapable of doing either and briefly turned to the military. Five officers served as temporary agents at Red Cloud and together assumed the duty of taking an official census.

The result was the “Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger,” a register of that warrior’s 899-member band when it surrendered at Camp Robinson in May 1877, essentially drawing the Great Sioux War to a close. Scrawled down in a common ledger book, the register also contained the names of tribal leaders—Little Wound, Red Leaf,Yellow Bear and, of course, Red Cloud—and their followers listed under heads of households (“lodges”). Most important, this valuable military intelligence included the numbers of fighting-age males and their dependents. For the first time the Army knew how many warriors they might have to fight, and the Office of Indian Affairs knew how many men, women and children they might have to feed.

War’s end and the Lakotas’ ultimate defeat meant the federal government faced little resistance to its wishes. Red Cloud’s influence was also on the wane. He objected to the move of his namesake agency to the Missouri River in late 1877 but settled for a new home when the renamed agency (present-day Pine Ridge) moved to Dakota Territory the following year. The troubles, though, continued between Red Cloud’s Oglalas and a succession of sometimes well-meaning, often venal government intermediaries. The pattern had more or less been set at the Red Cloud agencies of the 1870s.


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.