Born c. September 20, 1822
Died December 10, 1909
Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota
Native American (Lakota) tribal leader and warrior
"I was born a Lakota and I have lived a Lakota and I shall die a Lakota. Before the white man came to our country, the Lakotas were a free people.… The white men made the laws to suit themselves and they compel us to obey them."
Red Cloud was leader of the most successful war involving Native Americans and the United States. His success is not measured in the number of people killed or the amount of territory taken. Instead, Red Cloud is credited for stopping, at least for a few years, the loss of land and way of life of his tribe. From 1866 until the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, Red Cloud and his warriors frustrated U.S. government attempts to build a road for miners and settlers that led across Lakota (Sioux) lands and into Montana. The treaty led U.S. troops to abandon three forts built to protect the road, and Sioux sovereignty (authority) over the territory was recognized. The treaty was compromised by the early 1870s, as Red Cloud lobbied in vain to have the agreement honored by the United States. Red Cloud found it increasingly difficult to please his people or the government.
Red Cloud (Makhpiya-Luta) was born in 1822 near the Platte River and what is now North Platte, Nebraska. His father, Lone Man, belonged to the Brulé tribe of Teton Sioux and his mother, Walks as She Thinks, was an Oglala related to Chief Smoke (also called Old Smoke). His father died while Red Cloud was a young boy, so Red Cloud was raised by his mother and Chief Smoke. Tribes in the area were often at war, and Red Cloud became a warrior against the neighboring Pawnee and Crow tribes. During a fight among Oglalas in 1841, he killed one of Chief Smoke's primary rivals, Bull Bear, chief of the Koya Oglalas. Not yet twenty, Red Cloud became a leader of a Sioux band in territorial wars against other tribes. He married Pretty Owl in 1842 and they had at least two children, including a boy named Jack Red Cloud.
The Lakota and the Sioux
The Native American people who call themselves the Lakota became known to colonizers and then in history books as the Sioux. They were called Naduesiu by Father Paul le Jeune, a French missionary, in papers dating back to 1640. Sioux is an abbreviation of the French name for the people. Although the Sioux were comprised of many bands, the Sioux nation, which combines all the bands, was relatively united, and bands spoke the same language in three principal dialects: Santee (spoken by eastern bands located in the Minnesota region); Yankton (spoken by bands located in Iowa and the eastern portions of North and South Dakota); and Teton (spoken by western bands located primarily in Missouri, Nebraska, and Wyoming).
Lakota and Sioux, then, are interchangeable names—they refer to the same, large group of people. When Red Cloud was born, Sioux controlled virtually all of the territory in present-day Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming, and portions of surrounding states. Different bands of the Sioux mentioned in this entry include the Oglalas, the Brulé tribe of Teton Sioux, the Koya Oglalas, and the Eastern Lakota.
Little is known about Red Cloud's life from 1842 to 1851, when he was in his twenties. During that time, Americans increasingly settled in the Plains and passed further west—to cross the Rocky Mountains after the United States acquired western land stretching to the Pacific Ocean. On the Plains where Red Cloud lived, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming were not yet states. As more settlers began arriving in these areas, representatives from Plains tribes met with U.S. government agents at Fort Laramie in Wyoming in 1851. A treaty was negotiated that allowed settlers to pass through the territory in return for payments to the tribes. The U.S. government attempted to organize the area by assigning territorial boundaries to the tribes, a policy that provoked hostility.
Skirmishes between Native Americans and settlers and military personnel occurred regularly, but full-scale battles broke out during the 1850s. The first major battle between the Sioux and American troops occurred in 1854, near Fort Laramie. In the Grattan Massacre, Lieutenant J. L. Grattan and eighteen of his men were killed. Later that year, U.S. troops killed Conquering Bear, chief of the Sioux, and in 1855, General William S. Harney (1800–1889) attacked a camp of Brulé Sioux near Ash Hollow, Nebraska, and killed nearly a hundred of them. In 1854, Kansas and Nebraska were organized as territories and began the process for becoming states. Minnesota became a state in 1858. So many settlers had traveled across the Plains and Rockies to reach Oregon that it qualified for statehood in 1859.
During the Civil War (1861–65), regular army troops were withdrawn from the Plains and replaced by state and territorial militia. When the state of Minnesota forced the Eastern Lakota out of the area in 1862 and 1863, Red Cloud envisioned a similar fate for his people. The U.S. Army had begun to construct forts along the Bozeman Trail, which ran from the South Platte River in present-day Colorado through Wyoming and into Montana, where gold had been discovered. Caravans of miners and settlers began to cross Sioux land. Late in 1863, the Oglala and Brulé joined forces under Red Cloud and Spotted Tail (a Sioux leader in favor of a non-violent resolution to the disputes with white settlers), respectively, and allied with the Cheyenne. From 1863 to 1865, while the U.S. military was divided and fighting each other in the Civil War, the coalition of tribes ruled much of the Plains. But in Colorado, militia under Colonel John H. Chivington killed 130 Cheyenne at Sand Creek in 1864.
Red Cloud's War
Under Red Cloud's leadership beginning in 1866, the Sioux and their allies began a series of assaults on forts. Peace negotiations began in the spring of 1866, but Red Cloud refused to participate after more American soldiers arrived in the region. Several tribes signed a treaty with the U.S. government, but their lands were not affected by the Bozeman Trail, which ran through the hunting ground of Red Cloud's Sioux tribe. After engaging in a few assaults on forts, Red Cloud led a devastating attack in December 1866 just outside of Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming that killed or scattered eighty men. Red Cloud informed the U.S. government that no new roads or posts could be built in Sioux country.
Forts continued to be attacked and soldiers were kept on constant watch in what became known as Red Cloud's War. A peace commission was established and a treaty was negotiated and signed at Fort Laramie during the spring of 1868. Roads running from Wyoming into Montana and three forts built to protect them were to be closed. Red Cloud did not sign the treaty until U.S. troops had withdrawn.
The U.S. government planned to build a new road to Montana west of Fort Laramie and in undisputed lands. By August 1868, the forts along the Bozeman Trail were abandoned and Red Cloud agreed to stop fighting. He settled on a reservation called the Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska.
Red Cloud had signed the treaty after stating several objections, and the Sioux considered his objections part of the treaty. The treaty called for the government to provide building, medical, and other supplies to the Sioux, distributing them from Fort Randall on the Missouri River. Red Cloud objected and wanted Fort Laramie as the base for distribution. The conflict led Red Cloud on a journey to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77; see entry) to negotiate for trading rights at Fort Laramie. While trading rights were granted, settlers continued to pour into the region and railroad lines were being constructed to bring more settlers to the frontier.
When several new posts were built to protect the railroad and settlers, Red Cloud led the Teton Sioux in an alliance with the Cheyenne and part of the Arapaho in isolated acts of rebellion. Meanwhile, in 1873, General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) was ordered to the region. As hostilities continued, Custer explored the Black Hills of South Dakota and reported that gold was present. A new rush of miners came to the region. Towns were established in land guaranteed by treaty to the Sioux. Red Cloud again traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with President Grant in 1875. Unwilling to try to force settlers to stop moving into the area, Grant offered $25,000 to the Sioux if they would give up their rights to hunt along the Platte River in Dakota Territory. The offer was refused by Red Cloud and two other chiefs representing their people.
In January 1876, Custer began aggressive action against Native Americans found in lands outside the territorial boundaries defined by treaties. On June 25, 1776, Custer discovered an Indian camp of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho bands at Little Big Horn in Montana. He split his troops into three columns to encircle the camp, with just over two hundred men following him in. Custer and his men were quickly surrounded by well-armed Native Americans, who routed Custer's force—killing all of them. Red Cloud did not participate in the battle, but he was accused of supporting the campaign and was later arrested.
Custer had been under orders to wait for additional troops. Those troops soon arrived and many battles were fought in 1876 and 1877 after the Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. It was the beginning of the end of Native American power on the Plains and in the far west. Representing his people, Red Cloud negotiated with government officials over relocation of agencies. Red Cloud refused to move his people to a location in Nebraska on the Missouri River and finally compromised in 1877 to a location in southwestern South Dakota named the Pine Ridge Agency.
Losing a way of life
Throughout the 1880s, Red Cloud struggled for autonomy (right to self-governance) with Pine Ridge Indian agents (government supervisors assigned to specific locales). He fought to preserve the authority of chiefs, opposed leasing Lakota lands to whites, and resisted the Dawes Act (1887), which allotted plots of land on Native American reservations to individuals. Much of the land ended up being sold, stolen, or swindled away from Native American control. The 1890 battle at Wounded Knee Creek (commonly called the Wounded Knee Massacre) on the Pine Ridge Agency, in which 150 Lakotas were killed, was effectively the last battle of the frontier and the end of a unique way of life for the Sioux.
By the time of the Wounded Knee Massacre, Red Cloud had lost support for not backing what proved to be a final stand by the Sioux. He lived the rest of his life at Pine Ridge, where he was occasionally visited by historians interested in his life and the events in which he participated. He told Warren K. Moorehead in an interview published in the Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society that the U.S. government in Washington, D.C., "took our lands and promised to feed and support us. Now I, who used to control 5000 warriors, must tell Washington when I am hungry. I must beg for that which I own."
Red Cloud converted to Roman Catholicism late in life. He died December 10, 1909, and was buried in the cemetery at Holy Rosary Mission with the full rites of the Catholic Church. A simple monument marks his grave.
For More Information
Larson, Robert W. Red Cloud: Warrior-Statesman of the Lakota Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
Paul, R. Eli. Red Cloud. Helena: Montana Historical Society, 1997.
Red Cloud. "I Was Born a Lakota." In Lakota Belief and Ritual, by James R. Walker. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
"New Perspectives on the West: Red Cloud." PBS.http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/i_r/redcloud.htm (accessed on July 23, 2004).
Ohiyesa. "Red Cloud." Big Eagle' Y-Indian Program Medallions.http://www.y-indianguides.com/pfm_x_redcloud.html (accessed on July 23, 2004).
Chief of the proud Oglala Sioux tribe, Red Cloud (1822-1909) saw his people defeated and forced onto United States reservations.
Born on a tributary of the North Platte River in Nebraska, Red Cloud early distinguished himself as a warrior. By the 1860s Makhpiyaluta (his Native American name) was leading his own band of warriors and had gained an important reputation. In the Sioux War of 1865-1868 he was war chief of all the Oglala. In 1866 he learned of the U.S. government's intention to build the Bozeman Trail and to construct three forts along it; this road would run through land guaranteed by treaty to the Sioux. Red Cloud gathered 1,500 to 2,000 warriors and in December lured Capt. W. J. Fetterman and 80 soldiers into a trap and massacred them. Only the severe cold of winter prevented his overrunning the post itself.
Though at the famous Wagon Box Fight of August 1867 Red Cloud saw the deadly accuracy of the U.S. Army's new rifles, the government conceded defeat in 1868. The Bozeman Trail was closed and the forts abandoned. The Sioux happily set fire to these forts while Red Cloud went to Ft. Laramie, Wyo. Here on Nov. 6, 1868, he signed a treaty that, unknown to him, provided for reservations and the cession of certain tribal lands. Finding out the terms of the treaty, angry young warriors turned more and more to the militant leader Crazy Horse. In 1870 Red Cloud journeyed to New York and Washington, D.C., to clarify the treaty and to speak in defense of the Sioux. His speeches aroused public opinion to the extent that the government revised the treaty. A special agency for the Oglala Sioux was created on the North Platte River.
Thereafter Red Cloud counseled his people to remain peaceful. He frequently charged the government agents with fraud, graft, and corruption, but he advised the Oglala to be loyal to the U.S. government. During the final Sioux War, of 1875-1876, though he opposed the war faction led by Crazy Horse, he refused to cede the Black Hills. In 1881 Red Cloud was removed as chief. Thereafter he declined in prestige and importance. His tribe was moved to the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota following the final Sioux War. He became blind in his later years and died at the Pine Ridge Agency on Dec. 10, 1909.
The best account of Red Cloud is James C. Olson, Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem (1965). Still excellent is Earl A. Brininstool, Fighting Indian Warriors (rev. ed. 1953; original title, Fighting Red Cloud's Warriors, 1926). An assessment by a contemporary of Red Cloud is James H. Cook, Fifty Years on the OldFrontier as Cowboy, Hunter, Guide, Scout, and Ranchman (1923; new ed. 1957). □
In the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), the government conceded to Red Cloud's demands that the Bozeman Trail forts be abandoned. Thereafter he adopted a more conciliatory stance, apparently convinced that his people stood little chance of winning a war against the United States. Made a “chief” by federal officials, he was in 1876 stripped of this position, only to regain government recognition the following year after helping to convince Crazy Horse to surrender. Red Cloud sought to maintain traditional ways among his people while demanding that the U.S. government honor its treaty obligations. Controversial for both his decision to abandon military methods and his stubborn determination to preserve tribal customs, his diplomacy was aimed at mitigating the effects of the Oglalas' transition to reservation life.
[See also Plains Indians Wars.]
James C. Olson , Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem, 1965.
Robert W. Larson , Red Cloud: Warrior‐Statesman of the Lahota Sioux, 1997.