For the Sioux the Black Hills, Paha Sapa, are the center of the world, the place of the gods, where the warriors would go to wait for visions and to speak to the Great Spirit. In 1868, a treaty was signed which granted Paha Sapa to the Indians forever.
However, in 1872 miners began to invade the Black Hills in a search for gold. In 1874 the Army ordered a reconaissance mission. The Indians were not even notified, much less asked for permission. George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were sent on this mission. Custer reported that the hills were filled with gold "from the grass roots down." This unleashed a horde into the Black Hills and the track cut by Custer's supply train became known as the Thieves' Road. In the spring of 1875, with the hills full of miners, the Army sent General Crook, in a nominal effort to comply with the treaty, to notify the miners that they were in violation of the treaty. However, he made no effort to enforce the law.
Red Cloud and Spotted Tail protested strongly to Washington, realizing that the young warriors would soon take matters into their own hands if the chiefs did nothing. The response from Washington was to send out the usual commission formed of politicians, traders, missionaries and the military to negotiate the "purchase" of the Black Hills from the Sioux. Runners were sent to invite Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and other non-agency chiefs to the talks. As could have been expected, they were both strongly opposed to the sale of any of the Sioux lands. Crazy Horse sent Little Big Man as an observer for the free Oglalas.
The Commissioners had a much different reception than they probably expected. When they arrived at the meeting site, between the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies on the White River, they found the Plains covered with the lodges and the pony herds of the Indians as far as they could see. The Sioux from the Missouri River in the east to the Bighorn Mountains in the west, as well as their Cheyenne and Arapaho supporters, had come to make their feelings known, 20,000 strong.
On September 20, 1875, a shelter to provide shade was constructed by stringing a large tarpaulin under the lone cottonwood at the site. The commissioners congregated under the tarpaulin on chairs facing the multitude of Indians. A troop of 120 cavalrymen, all on white horses, filed in to form a line behind the commissioners. Red Cloud had said that he would not attend. Spotted Tail arrived by a wagon. A few other chiefs arrived. Then, charging in in a cloud of dust, a band of Indians, dressed for battle, came over a rise at full gallop directly toward the commissioners. They circled the shelter and commissioners, firing their rifles into the air and uttering war whoops, before moving to form a line behind the cavalrymen. Before they were settled, the next band of Indians was charging in. This continued until the commissioners were surrounded by several thousand warriors on horseback. Then the chiefs stepped forward, secure in the knowledge that the commissioners could not feel at ease.
In the few days that they had been at Fort Robinson, the commissioners had already realized that the Sioux would not sell the Black Hills. They decided to negotiate for the mineral rights. The Sioux chiefs found this idea ludicrous. They had already had sufficient experience with the white man to know that anything "loaned" to them was as good as gone. The commissioners also had the audacity to ask for the last of the Sioux hunting grounds, the Powder River country. At this point, a messenger from Red Cloud relayed the message that Red Cloud wished a recess so that the chiefs could confer. This wish was granted. The question of the Powder River country was not even discussed by the Indians; there was no question that they would not negotiate their last good hunting ground away. Some chiefs argued that they should get the best price they could for the Black Hills because the Army would not keep the miners our. Others were adamant that, what the Army would not do, the young warriors would.
On September 23, the commissioners returned to the council ground, riding in Army ambulances and accompanied by a larger troop of cavalry than before. Red Cloud protested the larger military presence. As he was preparing to deliver his opening statement to the commissioners, a group of about 300 Oglalas arrived from the Powder River country, firing their rifles as they rode in. One Indian, Little Big Man, stripped for battle and wearing two revolvers, forced his way through the group to the front. He came as Crazy Horse's envoy and stated "I will kill the first chief who speaks for selling the Black Hills," dancing his horse back and forth before the commissioners. Little Big Man was surrounded and escorted away by a group of unoffical Sioux policemen led by Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses. Nonetheless, the commissioners decided to return to the safety of Fort Robinson at this point. A few days later a meeting was arranged between the commissioners and twenty chiefs at the Red Cloud Agency. In three days of speeches, the chiefs made it quite clear that the Black Hills would not be sold. Red Cloud did not even appear for the final meeting. Spotted Tail spoke for all the Sioux when he rejected unconditionally both the sale and the lease offer.
The commissioners returned to Washington, reported their failure to negotiate for the Black Hills, and recommended that Congress ignore this result and appropriate a sum that they regarded "as a fair equivalent of the value of the hills." The forced purchase would be presented to the Sioux as their only choice.
This decision then began the chain of events that led to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The plans were begun for a winter campaign against the Sioux living off the agencies. Runners were sent out to the villages to tell them to come in to the agencies by January 31. A very rough winter made it impossible to comply with this order, had they even wished to. This failure to come in, despite the weather, was deemed reason to institute a military campaign against the Sioux winter villages. But the bad winter also delayed the military campaign. The only significant action before the arrival of spring was a dawn attack on March 17 on a peaceful camp of Northern Cheyennes and Oglala Sioux in the Powder River country. The soldiers killed many and burned the lodges and winter supplies after driving the Indians from the village, capturing the entire horse herd. After dark, the warriors stole into the soldiers camps and recovered the horse herd. The Indians then travelled the few miles to the camp of Crazy Horse where they found food and shelter.
Over the next few months the Indians gathered in the Powder River country where, ultimately, Custer found them. After this big victory, they knew that the Army would not allow their defeat to be the final word. Despite the treaty, the Black Hills would be lost.
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© 1995 Karen M. Strom