By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
While the end of the American Civil War opened a new chapter in the history of the region, much of the preparatory work for expansion was done during the 1850s and early 1860s. At an earlier Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851, the United States tried to clear the way for expansion by convincing the Lakota, Nakota, Dakota, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara to live in peace with one another and to stay within prescribed territories.
Treaty of Fort Laramie
According to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Sioux territory covered most of present-day North Dakota and South Dakota, as well as parts of Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming—some 134 million acres in all. The Mandan and Hidatsa were to live east of the Yellowstone; the Crow west of the Powder River; the Blackfeet in northwestern Montana; and the Cheyenne and Arapaho between the North Platte and Arkansas Rivers, along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.
US treaty commissioners insisted that non-Indians be allowed to travel along the overland trails that wended their way through Indian country and secured permission to build more roads, as well as a string of military forts and trading posts along them.
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The Winter of the Big Distribution
In return, Native people were promised protection from those who brought trouble into their country, while both sides agreed to provide restitution should there be conflict. And finally, the government pledged annuities of $50,000 per year for 10 years, which were to take the form of food, plows, hoes, and other farm implements.
The 1851 treaty council closed with the distribution of wagonloads of gifts, including glass beads, small hand mirrors, butcher knives, blankets, and rolls of cloth. So important was this dimension of the proceedings that Lakota winter counts, or pictorial calendars, record it as the winter of the big distribution.
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Encouraging Westward Migration
But, the United States did even more than sign treaties that defined more restrictive boundaries, acquired tribal land, and established rights-of-way and forts. The US Congress passed in 1862 alone the Morrill Land Grant Act, the Pacific Railway Act, and the Homestead Act—all of which encouraged westward migration through federal support for education, commerce, and land acquisition. These measures intended to accelerate settlement in the West, and they worked.
Consider this, the total population recorded in the United States census in 1860 was approximately 31 million. Of this number, about 1.4 million US citizens resided West of the Mississippi River. Thirty years later, in 1890, the latter number had increased six-fold to 8.5 million.
The Influx of ‘Whites’
The influx of non-Indians into the West was fine by many Plains people—so long as they kept on moving. But, of course, they didn’t. Instead, the newcomers stayed. Whites started going places they weren’t supposed to. They started taking things, like scarce timber for fuel, which didn’t belong to them. They hunted on tribal lands without permission, and their livestock consumed precious spring grasses.
These newcomers also introduced diseases, and the increased traffic on the overland trails running through tribal hunting grounds drove the all-important bison herds further and further away. For these reasons, treaties, like the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, seemed destined to fail. But those weren’t the only reasons.
The Lakota Tribe
It’s important to note how contrasting ideas about political organization and authority came into play. While impatient US treaty commissioners arbitrarily appointed head chiefs to sign on behalf of the tribes as if they were nation states, Native communities didn’t see things the same way.
Consider the Lakota. The Lakota, one of the three divisions of the Sioux Nation, actually consist of seven tribes or oyate. Running north to south, they are the Hunkpapa, Blackfoot, Two Kettles, Miniconjou, Sans Arc, Oglala, and Brulé. Each oyate organized itself according to bilateral kin-based bands or tiyospaye. And these small related family groups, in turn, provided the primary basis for Lakota personal, social, and political identity.
Although the extended family groups might cooperate with each other to hunt, trade, and raid their enemies, they were considered politically autonomous, and there was no overarching governing or representative structure for the Lakota as a whole.
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The Problem of Agreement and In-fighting
So, returning to the example of the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, this begs the question, just who agreed to its terms, anyway? Well, it turns out that some Brulé, Two Kettles, and Yankton leaders did, while Sans Arc, Hunkpapa, Minneconjou, Blackfoot, and Yanktonai did not. For the Lakota, then, only the people from the bands whose leaders assented to the treaty by touching the pen could be seen as beholden to it.
But there was still another complicating factor. The late 18th and early 19th centuries had seen an increase in the frequency and severity of fighting among Native people on the Plains, due in large measure to the introduction of horses, guns, and diseases.
Clearly, the increased volume of white migrants and settlers had made a bad situation worse. And so, too, did a disagreement over the distribution of the annuities called for in the treaty. The last straw was yet to come. Without prior consultation, the US Senate reduced the payments from 50 years to 10 years before ratifying the treaty. Thus, it practically guaranteed the failure of the treaty. Predictably, what followed was violence and the northern Plains were once again at war.
Common Questions about the Treaty of Fort Laramie
The 1851 Fort Laramie treaty council closed with the distribution of wagonloads of gifts, including glass beads, small hand mirrors, butcher knives, blankets, and rolls of cloth.
The coming of newcomers, among other issues, introduced diseases in the Native population and increased traffic on the overland trails running through tribal hunting grounds, driving the bison herds further away.
Some Brulé, Two Kettles, and Yankton leaders agreed to the terms of the Fort Laramie treaty while Sans Arc, Hunkpapa, Minneconjou, Blackfoot, and Yanktonai did not.