April 29, 1868 – Treaty of Fort Laramie Granting (for a while) The Black Hills to the Sioux Nation

The Black Hills, the oldest mountain range in the United States, stretches across South Dakota and Wyoming. It was given the name by the Sioux because of the thick dark forest of pine and spruce trees covering the hills.

The Black Hills, South Dakota, United States image from space

Pursuant to the Treaty of Fort Laramie of April 29, 1868, 15 Stat. 635, 636, the United States confirmed in the Sioux Nation recognized title to all of the present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, and the government agreed to keep unauthorized persons out.

In 1874, George Armstrong Custer led a large expedition into the Black Hills, in direct violation of the Ft. Laramie Treaty. Unfortunately, gold was discovered near what later was Custer City, which led to a mad rush of prospectors and miners to the area.

Custer Expedition into Black Hills, 1874, photo by William H. Illingworth. Custer in light colored clothing to left of center.

President Ulysses S. Grant felt that even the army (not sympathetic to Native Americans in any event) could not hold back the greedy onrush, and he offered the Sioux $6 million if they ceded the Black Hills to the U.S. They declined the offer.

The Army in the area was commanded by William Sherman and Phil Sheridan. Sheridan, appointed by Grant in 1867 to head the Department of the Missouri and “pacify” the Plains, allegedly declared that “The only good Indians I know are dead.” Sheridan steadfastly denied ever saying that, but he wrote to Sherman, the Commanding General of the U.S. Army:

In taking the offensive I have to select that season when I can catch the fiends; and if a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers, but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack.”

Sherman responded to Sheridan:

I will back you with my whole authority… I will say nothing and do nothing to restrain our troops from doing what they deem proper on the spot, and will allow no mere vague general charges of cruelty and inhumanity to tie their hands, but will use all the powers confided to me to the end that these Indians, the enemies of our race and of our civilization, shall not again be able to begin and… carry out their barbarous warfare.”

An 1866 painted portrait of Sherman, by George P.A. Healy

Sherman was in fact in favor of total extinction of Native Americans. In 1866, Lieutenant Colonel William Fetterman and his troops in Wyoming were massacred by the Sioux in revenge for the Sand Creek Massacre of Native Americans by the Army in 1864. Sherman wrote to Grant:

We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children.”

Nevertheless, Sherman was part of the commission that signed the 1868 treaty with the Sioux in 1868.

Negotiations for the Treaty of Fort Laramie at Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory in 1868. Photo: Department of Defense / National Archives and Records Administration

As historian David Smits wrote for “The Western Historical Quarterly,” part of the treaty allowed the Sioux to hunt buffalo north of the Platte River, and Sherman hated the idea:

He was determined to clear the central plains region between the Platte and the Arkansas of Indians so that the railroads, stage lines, and telegraph could operate unmolested.”

Moreover, as Smits pointed out, Sherman knew that as long as the Sioux hunted buffalo, they’d never be satisfied with a life of farming on reservations. Thus he came up with the idea of killing off all the buffalo. To that end, the army sponsored hunting expeditions in the Great Plains, even accompanying hunting parties as escorts, teamsters, and cooks.

Officers at military posts issued hunting passes freely to troops to supplement their rations. Shooting buffalo was also a form of entertainment for the troops, and contests were held to see which individual or team could kill the most in a specified time. Smits observes, “The total number of buffalo killed by the frontier army in the post-Civil War period should not be underestimated.”

Sherman was right about the impact of the destruction of the buffalo on the Native Americans. Smits writes that “Of all the white people’s activities in Indian country none enraged and disheartened the Native Americans more than the destruction of their buffalo.” The Kiowa chief Satana said in a speech given at the Medicine Lodge Treaty council in October, 1867, “when I see it [the destruction of the wood and of the buffalo] my heart feels like bursting with sorrow.”

Photo from the 1870s of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer.

The combined effort by Sherman to rid the Plains of buffalo and facilitate the installation of railroads crossing the Plains sealed the fate of the Native Americans. As a “bonus” the Natives became totally dependent on the federal government for food, clothing, and other provisions, thus rendering them more pliant.

Grant had a more “compassionate” feeling toward Native Americans, expressing a desire to see them “civilized and Christianized.” Nevertheless, after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, he allowed his Secretary of the Interior, Columbus Delano, to write to Congress (Senate Documents, Volume 272) that the administration intended to “negotiate” with the Sioux “for the extinguishment of their right to the reservation embracing the Black Hills country, with a view to opening up the same to settlement…. at the earliest day practicable.”

Official Presidential portrait of Ulysses Simpson Grant, December 1874

On November 3, 1875, Grant presided over a secret meeting with General Sheridan and others at which they decided that since they could no longer prevent waves of miners invading the Black Hills, therefore Grant would relax the order keeping them out. The group also decided to force Sitting Bull, who had opposed the sale of the Black Hills, to relocate on agency land by January 31, 1876.

Grant authorized a military force to ensure Sitting Bull’s compliance, and after the deadline passed without it, Sheridan had his army march against Sitting Bull and his ally Crazy Horse. The force was led by George Armstrong Custer, who was known for his cruelty toward Native Americans. In the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25-26, 1876, commonly referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand,” Custer and his men were annihilated by the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors along the Little Bighorn River, and Custer’s body was mutilated. But the victory backfired; the backlash by whites against Native Americans, not only by white Americans but also by the government and the army, was fierce and devastating to them.

George Armstrong Custer poses with his Indian scouts during the Black Hills expedition of 1874. The man pointing to the map was named “Bloody Knife,” a member of the Cree tribe. Photograph by William Illingworth.

Specifically, Congress responded with The Agreement of 1877, also known as the Act of February 28, 1877 (19 Stat. 254). This Act officially took away Sioux land, ceding the Black Hills to the United States. This change flagrantly violated the 1868 treaty, which stipulated that its terms could not be changed unless three-fourths of the adult male Sioux population agreed. It also attached what the Sioux call the “sell or starve” rider (19 Stat. 192) to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876 (19 Stat. 176, enacted August 15, 1876), cutting off all rations for the Sioux until they terminated hostilities.

Article 5 of the Act was particularly egregious. It delineated specifics of a food allowance, but added “or in lieu of said articles the equivalent thereof, in the discretion of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.” This opened the door to outrageous abuse and graft in the Indian Department. Already in 1875, Grant had received a report of pervasive corruption at the Red Cloud Agency that furnished Sioux supplies in northwest Nebraska, near the Black Hills, with tales of putrid pork, inferior flour, rotten tobacco, and other shoddy goods foisted upon the tribe. Ron Chernow, Grant, p. 831)

The new 1877 Act also provided that “whenever schools shall have been provided by the Government for said Indians [mostly boarding schools off reservation and having the intent to strip the children of their culture], no rations shall be issued for children between the ages of six and fourteen years (the sick and infirm excepted) unless such children shall regularly attend school.”

3 Lakota boys before and after assimilation at a mandated school

The government operated as many as 100 boarding schools for Native Americans, both on and off reservations. Children were sometimes taken forcibly, by armed police. If parents wanted their children to have food, or even an education, federal schools were the only option; public schools were closed to Indians because of racism.

It was a grim fate, and continued to be so for many years. NPR reports:

. . . for decades, there were reports that students in the boarding schools were abused. Children were beaten, malnourished and forced to do heavy labor. In the 1960s, a congressional report found that many teachers still saw their role as civilizing American Indian students, not educating them. The report said the schools still had a ‘major emphasis on discipline and punishment.'”

And in fact, the 1877 punishment wasn’t the end of the government’s revenge. The Dawes Act of 1887 (also known as the General Allotment Act or the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887), adopted by Congress in 1887 (25 U.S.C. §331. Repealed. Pub. L. 106–462, title I, § 106(a)(1), Nov. 7, 2000, 114 Stat. 2007) authorized the President of the United States to survey American Indian tribal land and divide it into allotments for individual Indians. Those who accepted allotments and lived separately from the tribe would be granted United States citizenship. The Dawes Act was amended in 1891, in 1898 by the Curtis Act, and again in 1906 by the Burke Act.

Thus Indian landholdings were reduced from 138 million acres in 1877 to 48 million by 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act reversed the Dawes Act. Of this 48 million acres, according to Vine Deloria & Clifford Lytle, American Indians, American Justice at p. 10 (1983), “nearly 20 million were desert or semiarid and virtually useless for any kind of annual farming ventures.”

The Sioux Nation brought a number of legal actions related to the taking of their property in the Black Hills, but were largely unsuccessful. For one thing, as the Supreme Court held in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (187 U.S. 553, 1903) that Congress had absolute power to abrogate Indian treaties. It also upheld forced allotment without the need for obtaining the consent of the tribes. Most of the legal action initiated by the Sioux therefore had to do with the payment for the land and whether interest was awardable as part of their just compensation. The Courts also reviewed jurisdictional issues, and the matter of whether each new action brought constituted res judicata (same claim) or collateral estoppel (different claims).

After World War II, in part to show gratitude to American Indians who served as “code talkers,” Congress passed the Indian Claims Commission Act, signed into law by President Truman on August 13, 1946. The Act (60 Stat. 1050, 25 USC 70a et seq.) established a special, temporary commission to hear claims of ‘any Indian tribe, band, or other identifiable group of American Indians’ extending back to the American Revolution against the United States. In order to be valid, however, the claims had to be brought within five years of the passage of the Act. Any claims not brought before August 13th, 1951 would be forever barred by the statute. But the cases wound their way through the courts slowly long beyond that date.

In spite of not often ruling in favor of the tribes, courts were occasionally sympathetic. Most notably, the ruling in the U.S. Court of Claims case United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 518 F.2d 1298 (1975) inveighed against “the duplicity of President Grant’s course and the duress practiced on the starving Sioux,” opining:

A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history, which is not, taken as a whole, the disgrace it now pleases some persons to believe.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: