Blame it on climate change.
In the mid-19th century, the Little Ice Age receded, and the ecology of the Great Plains began to change. The rich, buffalo-supporting grasslands grew dry and the herds, already disrupted by the mass emigration of American wagon trains, migrated out of their usual haunts.
The Lakota felt the change in their very bones, and they cast their eyes toward a well-watered, ecologically robust pocket of the high plains east of the Big Horn Mountains in what is now north-central Wyoming and southeastern Montana: the Powder River Country.
The country belonged to the Absaroka — the Crow — both by tradition and by treaty. The 1851 Fort Laramie (Horse Creek) Treaty attempted to bring peace to the Great Plains in order to facilitate passage of emigrants along the Oregon Trail. The Treaty defined territories and spheres of influence for each of the great peoples of the region and the Powder River Country and points north and west was Absaroka, the Land of the Crows.
At the same time, the Lakota Sioux were engaged in a burst of imperial expansion, taking on rivals all across the Plains, attacking the Arikara along the Missouri River, the Pawnee in the Central Plains, the Shoshone to the west. In 1856, they turned the full fury of their formidable martial power upon an ancient enemy — the Crow.
This was much, much heavier than the traditional round of horse raiding, woman-stealing and counting of coup. This was not thrilling, dangerous sport. This was a real-deal war of conquest. It was brutal, and conducted on a scale that historians used to find hard to credit in their understanding of native warfare.
The Crow War of the late 1850s is an epic clash of peoples and it shaped the subsequent events along the Bozeman Trail.
Scholar John Monnett writes:
During the 1850s, wagon train migration took its toll on the fragile grasses along the Platte River Road, as well as affecting buffalo migration patterns. With an extended period of drought after circa 1846 at the end of the so-called Little Ice Age, the sustainability of the Platte River ecology and its effects on the Plains Indian economy would become challenged.
A significant clash with another expanding imperial people would also motivate events.
The Lakota had, in the first part of the 19th Century, sometimes fought with trappers who were allied with their rivals in the Rocky Mountains, but they’d never had a serious run-in with U.S. forces. In fact, in the 1820s, they allied themselves with the Americans in substantial fights with the Arikara who were blocking access to the fur country up the Missouri River.
In the mid-1850s, a portentous change occurred. On August 19, 1854, on the Plains east of Fort Laramie. Lt. John Grattan attempted to recover a migrant train’s cow which some Oglala Sioux had lifted. A confrontation ensued. A headman named Conquoring Bear was shot, and the enraged Lakota swarmed Grattan’s command, killing him, an interpreter and 29 soldiers.
Conflict with the U.S. put additional pressure on the Lakota.
Following the punitive military expedition in 1855 under General William S. Harney against the Lakotas for the killing of Lt. John Grattan the previous year, the band of Oglala known as the Smoke People decided to move north to the ecologically viable Powder River Country. There they joined with northern Lakotas and Northern Cheyenne allies, who moved north simultaneously from the Republican and Solomon Valleys in Kansas and Nebraska. They all wrested this coveted hunting ground from their enemies the Crows, whom the United States had recognized as suzerains in this territory by the Horse Creek Treaty of 1851.
The Crow War of 1856-59 became a brutal affair, with two large battles, Captive Hill and Rain (or Rainy) Hill, claiming more lives than any subsequent fights with Americans (emphasis added)‚. The drawings of Oglala Amos Bad Heart Bull illustrates the Captive Hill fight as being greater in scope and numbers than the Little Big Horn in 1876. Outnumbered and defeated, the Crows by 1859 retreated north of the Big Horn Mountains.
Red Cloud fought prominently in this epic struggle, and his prowess gave him military standing among the Oglala and their allies. Those allies included the Northern Cheyenne, who, while retaining their own cultural identity, were becoming very closely integrated with the Lakota. The two peoples traveled together and the Cheyenne language began incorporating Siouian words.
The Cheyenne shared in the conquest of the Powder River County, and one of their head men named Black Horse stated the case boldly to an American Army officer in 1866:
“We stole the hunting grounds of the Crow because they were the best. We wanted more room. We fight the Crow because they will not take half and give us peace with the other half.”
In the 1860s, when the Bozeman Trail to newly-discovered goldfields in Montana cut into this strategically, economically and ecologically vital region, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne resisted. They were not defending an ancient homeland; they were protecting land that they had recently earned through right of conquest, land where they had spilled much blood. They had won the Power River Country in an epic struggle, and they were ready to engage in another epic struggle to retain it.
Great piece. I can’t wait for the second part.
Recently started Empire of the Summer Moon about the Comanche. Conquest seems unfortunately part of human nature. It’s not limited to white civilization.
Conquest is certainly endemic. I don’t know that I consider it unfortunate, because that implies a negative choice among alternatives, and I don’t think we really can choose to act differently, at least in the long run. We “civilized” folk do seem acutely uncomfortable with it, so we rationalize and pretend it’s something else. I guess I prefer the Cheyenne: “We needed it; we wanted it; the Crows weren’t giving it up, so we took it.”
That, at least, has the benefit of honesty.
Saddle Tramp says
Jim, I must apologize in advance for editorializing with this comment, but It is something that has stuck in my craw. I absolutely enjoy the great artwork (as in this piece) and I always enjoy the history for what it is and for what it was. I say that knowing as you know better than I, that history is a continuing argument.
Real artifacts are important and meaningful, but must always be taken contextually. As I have said before , I always find history and it’s telling interesting, entertaining and fascinating. Everything is in flux though. What then becomes the real heroic journey and to what end. This is what guides my interest aside from mere curiosity. Barbarism (as an extreme example) is a reality, but is it worthy of aspiring to? I have been binge watching an old 1950’s TV western series called STORIES OF THE CENTURY that uses (loosely) historical newspaper accounts and such that brought to the screen a long list of the outlaws of the wild west. It can be quite entertaining and it includes a who’s who of those outlaws. Each episode is only 30 minutes long and the geography is repetitive and inaccurate. Oh well. It is still a entertaining way to get introduced to many outlaws you might not be unaware of and then dig deeper into them more seriously.
Speaking of digging, the most recent one I watched was a gruesome tale about KATE BENDER. She took what she wanted and buried the rest. Freedom that does not answer to a higher calling of universal truth is simply and purely freedom run amok. A freedom that is truly noble must answer not only to whom it benefits but also to whom it punishes, or it’s value becomes and is most certainly corrupted in the process. A cry for freedom cannot just stand alone on the mere word [freedom] itself or be allowed to rampantly trespass where it will or won’t. This could never be the standard bearer for a rightful cause of justice and freedom. If we lose our way with a lack of a considered interpretation of the word [freedom] wherever and however it is applied, we have lost the very heart of it. This instead turns it into a totalitarian weapon of oppression and abuse under the rubric of “might is right” rather than might defending a just freedom. It’s no doubt a tortuous path widely scattered with minefields of disagreement, conflict and dogmatic positions. Persuasion that resorts to this becomes threatening, militant and violent in it’s course of action. This is the worse case for a resolution, but an oh so very common one. These type of methods being employed all too often are resorted to either figuratively or literally. There are example after example of mankind’s historical past that is rife with this.
Does that mean this is the best example to follow? I would hope not, but it is always an existential threat. I can only say that it is an outright misappropriation of the word [freedom] for what is in reality a malignancy on mankind. It might be akin to try to justify genocide by examples in the Old Testament but not being guided by the New Testament (aside from the known abuses in the name of both). I mean this not necessarily in a religious meaning, but rather that of a historical narrative. The Old Testament is stock full of strange and violent passages (historical accuracy or not in question of course) that for my money does not necessarily try to glorify it or hold it up as a never ending example of moral rectitude, but rather as a flaw in humanity’s efforts to coexist. We should not erase this history. At one time there was much consideration given to eliminating the Old Testament in the Christian Faith for fear of it’s wild interpretations, which was just an early attempt at what we now call revisionist history. I view it in the same regard as to American history and how it should be recognized. We should not try to obliterate the past in order to control the present or future. How one construes this is of course subjective and up to a real education in order to truly understand it.
Jim, as you have so wisely stated before it is the “complexities of history” that must be weighed in. You should never elevate the harm or eliminate the good in the process or vice versa without properly explicating all the facts available. That is my issue when someone co-opts the evil of the past for their own malevolent purposes such as for racism, hate, divisiveness and violence. This does violate my sense of what we should be striving for and that being a civilized world. Anything else in my opinion is just a fall from grace. Much wiser men then me have informed my opinion on this. There you have it.
A line in the sand…
felonious monk says
“Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair;
if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand.
They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find our strength to
do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains”
“They were not defending an ancient homeland; they were protecting land that they had recently earned through right of conquest, land where they had spilled much blood.”
“BY THIS TOMAHAWK, I RULE!”
Well played, Deuce.
“Make the Black Hills Absaroka Again!”
Seriously, this is an excellent post, Jim. The illos are great.
“A Crow ledger painting depicting a Lakota — armed incongruously with a saber — smiting a Crow warrior in the epic fight for the Powder River Country in the late 1850s.”
Love the paintjobs on those warhorses! That saber rocks as well.
Terpning and Russell are great as always. I guess I wasn’t aware of Ayers until now. That first Crow illo is seriously powerful. I’ve known a couple of dudes with quite similar features, but then I’ve grown up near–and, at times, even lived in–Oklahoma.
Ugly Hombre says
Its not so strange to see a old west brave with a US Army saber..
They captured them and used them.
I have two photos in my files of Indians with Japanese Katana’s. One is a photo of a katana hanging on the wall of Chief Red Cloud’s cabin when he lived on a reservation.
And another is Indian Policeman in Canada with a Katana and a Remington revolver.
Shades of “Red Sun”.
Fascinating. I’d been reading about Samurai and their weapons lately.
Saddle Tramp says
I just happened to be watching several 70’s westerns not so long ago, including RED SUN with Bronson & Mifune.
I haven’t seen Red Sun but I want to. I mean it has both Bronson and Mifune. Also, I wonder when it was set since the Samurai caste had been abolished during the classical Old West part for the most part.
Saddle Tramp says
Try this Matthew and it will explain itself. Hope the link works:
Ugly Hombre says
Here is a article about the Katana with the photo.
Ugly Hombre says
“Three members of the Japanese Imperial Army visited the Red Cloud Agency in September 1876. Historians are unsure if they met with Chief Red Cloud, but if so, presenting him a high-quality samurai sword would have been proper etiquette. Mounted in handachi fittings, this katana was the type worn in battle. “
Thanks for the links. The katana story tickles the edges of my brain like I might have heard it before, but can’t place it. What a cool bit.
Dave Allen says
After reading Scott Momaday’s Way to Rainy Mountain in the early 70’s I couldn’t get enough reading material on the plains Indians,; Black Elk Speaks, Touch The Earth, etc. What I began to see was a trend to romanticize Indian life portrayed generally as a peaceful existence in harmony with nature. Partially true but most of the warring was left out or relegated to the “bad Indians” in the case of the Pawnee or the Blackfeet. This is where Costner’s movie Dances with Wolves was weak. His Sioux band was the victim and they only fought in retaliation for wrongs done to them.
The Powder River must have been prime country then. The Crow took it from the Kiowa before the Sioux took it from them!
Great post Jim!
Thanks Dave. Appreciate the support. Agree on Dances.
Ugly Hombre says
De nada Amigo-
Just when you think you know something about the old west- you run into something like the photo of Officer Dog Child holding a Japanese katana and looking like he knows how to use it.
It don’t stop there. Some time back it was reported that a 11th century Katana was found in a Arizona cave, along with a wicked looking Yari both wrapped in rotting raw hide.
How the hell did that happen?
Probley, we will never know…
What’s really baffling is the yari. I can see a katana being bought in the East and taken to the West, but who would take a yari? A spear?
If such artifacts WERE found–and I hope they were–it would lend weight to the Zuni-Japan Hypothesis.
Ugly Hombre says
Yes a spear- actually it was a spear head no shaft or maybe the shaft had rotted away, not able to track that one down yet and find a good link
“If I remember correctly the very early swords were not marked. Seems that the sword makers thought that if you didn’t know who made it by looking at it the you didn’t need to know.
Did a bunch of research on a sword found in a cave in Arizona about 1971. Sword was not marked but by tracing the heat treat pattern it looked like it was made around 1100. Sword was also found with a wicked looking spear head. Both the spear and sword were wrapped in rawhide that fell to dust when the sword and spear point were picked up.”
Posted on the Ruger forum 30 May 2016 thread ‘Chief Red Clouds Katana’
I did not follow up with the poster and get more info- looked all over hell for links etc so who knows?