Battle of Little Bighorn: 03 – Forts, Gold Rushes, and Treaties

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"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

Until the mid-1840s about the only protection for travelers, anywhere near the Oregon Trail, was Fort Leavenworth in present-day Kansas. Its major function, however, was to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.

Fort Leavenworth

Fort Laramie was located many treacherous miles away in Wyoming. It became the closest thing to civilization for the multitude of travelers along the Oregon, and eventually the California and Mormon Trails, in the years following 1849 and the discovery of gold in California.

Fort Laramie

Previously, in 1847, Fort Kearny was built in Nebraska and also intended to protect the Oregon Trail.

Fort Kearny

The Plains Indians were amazed, then enraged, by the number of whites that crossed the plains in those early years. Their anger increased as the migration of the buffalo was interrupted, prairie grasses were trampled and depleted by oxen and mules, and cholera, smallpox, and many other white mans’ diseases made a deadly introduction to the Indians.

Then gold was discovered in Colorado and by 1858 a mining camp had taken root along the banks of Cherry Creek. The rush was now on for Pike’s Peak and one year later, in 1859, gold was discovered in Nevada.

Pike’s Peak Map

Due to the increase of white travelers along the Oregon Trail, in 1851, the government negotiated a treaty with the Plains Indians in order to clear the westward routes of ‘marauding savages.’ Some ten thousand Sioux, Crows, Cheyennes, and Arapahos signed this treaty, agreeing to relocate to reservations.

The Oregon Trail

Previously, due to the outcome of the war with Mexico, the United States had gained rights to a considerable area of land. In addition, because of the agreement with Great Britain over the boundaries of Oregon, the United States had gained additional vast areas of land. The possibilities for settlement were now unlimited. But safe routes had to be established to induce settlers to move to these new areas. Therefore, the treaty of 1851 also required that the Indians give unrestricted traveling rights to whites on the westward trails and that the government would also be allowed to establish forts along these routes.

When these Indians signed this treaty, the payment to them was to be $50,000 each year for fifty years, about $5.00 per Indian per year. Sometime later the government broke this treaty agreement by reducing the total year span to fifteen instead of fifty, without the Indians’ consent.

A situation that continued to be a source of grievance with the Indians was that those Indians who did sign the treaty could only speak for the members of their own individual bands. No one signer could do so as a representative of the entire Indian nation. And not all of the chiefs of these bands signed, therefore they did not consider themselves or their group liable under the terms of the treaty. This was a situation that the whites never understood.