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But the Allison Commission failed.

The mounted Plains Indians thundered over the brow of the hill and down toward the banks of the White River where white commissioners huddled beneath the canopy of a tent pitched near a lone cottonwood. It was just before noon on September 20, 1875, opening day of the grand council in northwestern Nebraska to discuss the future of the Black Hills, sacred to these Indians.

The Sioux, Northern Cheyennes and Arapahos had donned their finest garments, painted their faces and adorned their hair with feathers. They rested rifles on their thighs as they rode, except when they raised their weapons to fire salutes. They also chanted war songs. The long line of charging Indians finally halted 100 yards from the tent. The warriors fired a final round, fortunately again into the air. The commissioners could breathe again.

The Indians had reason to put on this display: They were unhappy. In 1874 Lt. Col. George Custer’s expedition into their Paha Sapa (Lakota for “Black Hills”) had confirmed the presence of gold. White miners soon flooded the area in violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which set aside the land for the exclusive use of the Sioux. In the spring of 1875, Oglala Chief Red Cloud and Brulé Chief Spotted Tail had journeyed to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant. But the two prominent chiefs had refused to speak for their people and bargain over the disposition of the Black Hills. Consequently, Grant had called upon his political crony Senator William Boyd Allison of Iowa to head a commission that would visit the Sioux to pursue an agreement.

Allison, who had no particular qualifications in Indian affairs, did not let the Indians’ loud arrival at the grand council unnerve him. He stood before their chiefs and asked them “to give our people the right to mine in the Black Hills, as long as gold or other valuable metals are found, for a fair and just sum.” Allison added: “The great object we have in making this agreement is to secure a lasting peace with you. It will be hard for our government to keep the whites out of the hills. To try to do so will give you and our government great trouble.” The gold-hungry miners had created great tension, and Allison knew that if negotiations failed, open warfare was a strong possibility.

At that point Red Dog, an Oglala leader, arrived with a message from Red Cloud, who was absent from the opening of the grand council. Red Cloud requested a seven-day delay in the talks to allow newly arrived Indians to discuss the issues. Immediately the gathering dispersed, and the council adjourned. But the commission rejected a weeklong delay and insisted on meeting in three days, on September 23.

When the grand council reconvened, the Sioux again “charged” the nervous commissioners and gathered around them. Suddenly, a commotion broke out south of the tent. The columns of Indians parted, and the Oglala Little Big Man, wearing a breechcloth and eagle-feather war bonnet, galloped with Winchester rifle in hand toward the commissioners. He and 300 hostile warriors took Crazy Horse’s extreme position of total opposition to the white man. They chanted: “Paha Sapa is my land and I love it. And whoever interferes will hear this gun.” This threat was more overt than what had happened on opening day. But the Oglala leader Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses averted bloodshed by ushering away Little Big Man. Rattled, the council again dispersed.

The Allison Commission was up against a sharp division among the Indians that hindered negotiations. Some, including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, who refused to attend the grand council, opposed any agreement to lease or cede the Black Hills and were willing to fight for their sacred land. Others, including Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, realized their traditional way of life had come to an end and that they must cede the Black Hills and rely on the government for support and stability.

Many Sioux leaders and their followers left for home when they discovered the commissioners had come emptyhanded. Allison later admitted the omission of presents was a grave error that contributed to the failure of negotiations. Still, 20 of the leading chiefs, including Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, accepted an invitation to meet with the commissioners at the nearby Red Cloud Agency for a final attempt at accord.

The Sioux chiefs made proposals on September 27, 28, and 29. Red Dog began, “We want to be taken care of for seven generations ahead.” Red Cloud echoed, “There have been six generations raised and I am the seventh, and I want seven generations ahead to be fed.” Spotted Tail demanded, “As long as we live on this earth, we will expect pay.” Agents and missionaries had suggested $30 to $50 million as a fair price for the Black Hills. Their meddling undercut the commissioners’ ability to bargain.

On September 28, Spotted Tail asked the commissioners to state in writing what they would pay and how the payment would be distributed. The commissioners responded the next day. The government would either lease the Black Hills at $400,000 per year or purchase the land for $6 million in 15 annual installments. The Indians rejected both offers. The council had failed.

Upon his return to Washington, Senator Allison reported that the Sioux had turned down the government’s offer to lease or buy the Black Hills. The commissioners recommended that government officials instead set their own terms for buying the hills and then tell the Sioux of their decision.

Although intrusion into the disputed lands by miners remained unlawful, on November 3, 1875, President Grant decided the military would no longer try to keep the whites out. Furthermore, all the northern hunting bands of Indians would be required to take up settlement at one of the agencies. These two decisions would embolden the white miners and stoke the fires of Indian resistance.

Commanding General of the U.S. Army William Tecumseh Sherman predicted the likelihood of Indian warfare when he wrote Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan on November 20, 1875: “I know that the matter of the Black Hills was settled in all events for this year. In the spring it may result in collision and trouble.” He added that if miners were to invade the Black Hills, “I understand that the president and the Interior Department will wink at it.”

In January 1876, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Q. Smith declared that any Sioux or Cheyennes found away from their agencies were to be considered hostile. The U.S. military was authorized to suppress the Indian rebels. Six months later, on June 25, Colonel Custer and the 7th Cavalry attacked an encampment of noncompliant Indians on the Little Bighorn River and suffered a resounding defeat. Had the Allison Commission successfully negotiated the sale of the Black Hills, perhaps further conflict with the Plains Indians could have been averted. But considering how deeply the Indians felt about an area so important to their culture, the commission had been given an impossible mission. Its failure prompted the Grant administration into decisions that provoked the anger of Sitting Bull and his followers and resulted in the U.S. Army’s worst defeat to the Indians of the West.


Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here