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Plains Indian Wars

Plains Indian Wars (1854–90).The wars between the Indian tribes of the Great Plains and the U.S. Army grew out of the westward movement of Americans. The territorial accessions of the Mexican War of 1846–48, followed by the discovery of gold in California, set off a migration across the plains that ended only in the final decades of the nineteenth century as farmers and stockmen began to occupy the plains themselves. Plains warfare, however, centered mainly on securing the transcontinental travel routes and protecting travelers rather than actual residents from Indian aggressions. Indian hostility arose from resentment over the inroads of travelers on such Indian resources as game, timber, and grass. Typically, the major wars with the Plains tribes followed treaties negotiated by government commissioners that bound the Indians to settle on a designated reservation. The military was then called in to make them go, or to make them return once they had moved, discovered the misery of reservation life, and bolted.

The Plains tribes that fought the United States most intensively were the Sioux (Lakota), Cheyenne, and Arapaho on the northern plains and the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche on the southern plains. All these tribes had traditions of constant warfare with other tribes—the Sioux and Cheyennes against the Crows and Shoshones, for example. Thus, military operations occurred against a backdrop of constant intertribal fighting, with Indians often serving as scouts or auxiliaries for the federal troops.

Army and Indian warred in different styles. The army maintained a system of forts at strategic locations and fielded heavy offensive columns burdened by slow‐moving supply trains. The Indians fought with hit‐and‐run tactics that exploited environmental factors and avoided open engagement unless the risk was small. The individual warrior excelled over the typical regular in virtually every test of combat proficiency, but in open battle this was offset by military organization, discipline, command, and firepower. In general, the army prevailed when the Indians abandoned their orthodoxy and fought by white rules, or when commanders abandoned their orthodoxy and fought by Indian rules.

After the Mexican War, Indian wars erupted along the Oregon‐California Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, and the various trails across Texas. Sioux and Cheyennes slipped into hostilities in 1854–55. Near Fort Laramie, the Grattan Massacre of 19 August 1854, caused by the imprudent actions of a young officer, led to Brig. Gen. William S. Harney's campaign of 1855. At the Battle of Bluewater, 3 September 1855, Harney destroyed a Sioux village and killed Chief Little Thunder. To the south, Kiowas, Comanches, and Cheyennes threatened the commerce with Santa Fe and raided deep into Texas.

The Civil War years intensified fighting, with federalized volunteer units replacing the regulars. The Minnesota uprising of 1862 spread west into Dakota Territory, where Sioux resented gold seekers crossing their homeland to newly opened mines in western Montana. In the summers of 1863, 1864, and 1865, Brig. Gen. Henry H. Sibley and Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully fought successful engagements with the Sioux. Most notable was Sully's victory over Sitting Bull and Inkpaduta at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, 28 July 1864.

On the central plains during the summer of 1864, Indian unrest threatened the trails from the east to Denver, Colorado, and led to the tragic and treacherous attack by Col. John M. Chivington on Black Kettle's Cheyenne village at Sand Creek, 29 November 1864. Sand Creek set off a general war that spread over the plains country in 1865. A three‐pronged offensive on the northern plains directed by Brig. Gen. Patrick E. Connor failed when columns encountered bad weather and ran out of supplies.

With the end of the Civil War, regulars returned to the plains. Red Cloud's Sioux closed the Bozeman Trail to the Montana mines and besieged the three forts erected to protect travelers. On 21 December 1866, warriors wiped out an eighty‐man force under Capt. William J. Fetterman near Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. The following summer, however, in the Wagon Box and Hayfield fights, new breech‐loading rifles helped beat back massed Indian assaults. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 ended the Red Cloud War and provided for abandoning the three forts along the Bozeman Trail.

On the southern plains, a war in 1868–69 forced Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Comanches to new reservations. The highlight of this conflict was the Battle of the Washita, 27 November 1868, in which Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer fell on the Cheyenne village of Black Kettle, who had survived Sand Creek but now died. In 1874, these tribes, discontented with reservation life, fled to the west. The Red River War of 1874–75, featuring operations by Col. Nelson A. Miles and Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, ended warfare on the southern plains and along the Texas frontier.

On the northern plains, new tensions arose as railroads aimed for the Sioux country and gold was discovered in the Black Hills, part of the Sioux reservation. The Great Sioux War of 1876 resulted, as the army sought to force Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other chiefs to go to the reservation. Three columns converged on the Sioux hunting grounds under Brig. Gen. George Crook, Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry, and Col. John Gibbon. Riding with Terry was Custer and his Seventh Cavalry Regiment. On 25 June 1876, Custer attacked a great village of Sioux and Cheyennes on Montana's Little Bighorn River. He and the force under his immediate command, 212 men, were wiped out. The Custer disaster so stunned Americans that large armies took the field, and by the spring of 1877, most of the Sioux and Cheyennes had surrendered. Sitting Bull sought refuge in Canada, but gave up in 1881.

The Red River War and the Great Sioux War ended major warfare on the Great Plains, although fighting went on elsewhere in the West until the final surrender of the Apache Geronimo in 1886. One final bloodletting occurred at the Battle of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on 29 December 1890. This was hardly war, however, but rather a spiritual revival that blew up in unintended and unexpected violence. Wounded Knee was the last important encounter between U.S. soldiers and American Indians and coincided with the passing of the western frontier.
[See also Native American Wars.]


Robert M. Utley , Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848–1865, 1967.
Robert M. Utley , Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1890, 1974.

Robert M. Utley

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