In 1851, the US government and many tribes of the plains Indians signed what was known as the Treaty of Fort Laramie (also known as the "Horse Creek Treaty") near the current Nebraska-Wyoming border. In it, the government was to allow the Indians vast amounts of territory in the Great Plains (centering on the Black Hills)—in effect, giving them sovereign status. The various tribes were to have partitioned land allotted to them and were promised yearly " annuities" of
the sum of fifty thousand dollars per annum for the term of ten years, with the right to continue the same at the discretion of the President of the United States for a period not exceeding five years thereafter, in provisions merchandise, domestic animals, and agricultural implements, in such proportions as may be deemed best adapted to their condition by the President of the United States, to be distributed in proportion to the population of the aforesaid Indian nations.
Also, the army promised to "protect the aforesaid Indian nations against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States."

In return, the Indians were to promise not to harm any whites moving through the Great Plains (Fort Laramie was a stopping site for both the Oregon trail and the Mormon trail), not to fight amongst themselves, and to recognize the government's right to "establish roads, military and other posts, within their respective territories."

This seemed to work fairly well (we'll forget "fairness" or about whether the government had any right to do this or whether it reneged on its promises). The Indians were largely left alone and the inflow of settlers were not harmed.

Unfortunately it didn't last very long.

The incident
In August 1854, a Mormon wagon train was moving through the area. At the same time, large groups of Indians were camped not far from Fort Laramie, waiting for their provisions. A reportedly weak and/or sick cow wandered away from the group. Its owner followed it toward a Brulé Lakota encampment but withdrew, apparently wary and possibly afraid of the Indians. The Indians, having seen the man "abandon" the animal, killed it and ate it.

The owner went to Fort Laramie to complain about the incident (reported as a theft). The representative for the tribe, a man named Conquering Bear, met with authorities about the matter. Lieutenant Hugh B. Fleming, commander of the post, demanded the Indian come and face charges. This was a problem, Conquering Bear explained, since besides the killing being a misunderstanding, the one who had killed the cow was a guest from another tribe (High Forehead, a Minneconjou), and cultural rules would not let them turn him over to be arrested.

As compensation (which was allowed for in the terms of the 1851 treaty), the chief offered for the Mormon to come to the camp and have his choice of one of his own ponies (a significant thing for a Lakota to offer—and from the Indian's point of view more than generous). The offer was refused. The next day, he was told, soldiers would come to the camp and arrest the indian.

The confrontation and massacre
The next day, Lieutenant John L. Grattan and a contingent of 30 men (some sources say 27, 28, or 29—on the other hand, he is supposed to have once boasted that he could "subdue all the Indians on the Great Plains with only 30 men"), a reportedly drunken interpreter (with a dislike for Indians), and two 12-pound howitzer cannons arrived at the camp.

The commander of Fort Laramie said later that "there is no doubt that Lt. Grattan left this post with a desire to have a fight with the Indians, and that he had determined to take the man at all hazards."

Once there, Conquering Bear again refused to give up the accused. And again offered compensation—this time offering their pick of five ponies from the various tribes. Again the offer was refused. Negotiations broke down and Conquering Bear turned to leave.

At which point he was shot.

Outraged at what to them seemed akin to an act of war, the Indians retaliated and in a short time, killed all but one of the arrest party (the survivor died later from wounds incurred). Though some suggested that they continue the fight on to Fort Laramie, the group chose to move North to avoid confrontation with the soldiers.

A few notes:

  • The one who killed the cow escaped uninjured.
  • The dealings and refusals were with the army authorities. There seems to be no evidence of whether the Mormon was even part of the negotiations, nor whether he would have accepted Conquering Bear's terms.
  • This was quickly labeled a massacre which is not surprising, since most confrontations with the Indians resulting in casualties where the soldiers (or settlers) lost ended up with that name. This became more common as the years went on and hit something of a fever pitch in Colorado near the time of the Sand Creek Massacre (which, to note, at the time was called a "battle"—the Indians lost).
The army was, needless to say, upset and wanted to avenge the deaths. About a year later, under the command of Brigadier General William S. Harney (who had previously been heard to say "By God, I'm for battle—no peace") 600 soldiers attacked an Indian encampment at the Blue Water Creek consisting of 250 Brulé, including women, children, and the elderly. The apparent excuse was that they were Brulé and the chief, Little Thunder (a known proponent of peace), had taken Conquering Bear's position as leader of the group (though it's tempting to just call it revenge).

The Indians initially thought there was no reason for alarm and didn't attempt escape. The chief and a few of his men went to meet the soldiers with white flags. They were fired upon (Little Thunder died). The soldiers wiped out the camp, killing at least 86 people and capturing many more (only suffering a few minor casualties themselves). Some of the Indians hid among the rocks around the creek resulting in "indiscriminate" shooting by the soldiers and the deaths of women and children. After a few retreats by the Indians, the soldier turned back with their prisoners.

Because of this action, Harney came to be referred to as "butcher" by the Indians.

Case in point: this basically indefensible action on the part of the army became to be known as "Battle of Blue Water." [italics, mine]

The entire incident, while not attempting to attribute too much cause-effect, did set the stage for and taint Indian-army relations for years to come.

(Apparently a witnessafter the fact—was a young boy who grew up to be Crazy Horse)


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