Battle of Little Bighorn: 08 – Peace Commissions and Massacres

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

On July 20, 1867, Congress passed a bill authorizing a new commission to make peace, or at least to make an attempt, with the plains tribes. However, many agreed with Senator John Henderson of Missouri when he stated that “If nothing else but extermination will do, we cannot permit the Indians to stand in the way of civilization and his termination must come.”

Capt. William Fetterman

This consensus stemmed, in part, from the December 21, 1866, massacre of Captain William Fetterman and his troops by the Sioux, led by Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, not far from Fort Phil Kearney. That these Sioux and other Indian tribes were aggrieved because of the forts that had been erected right in the midst of the buffalo range along the Bozeman Trail made little difference, at least for now.

Crazy Horse

However, in September, this new peace mission met with nine bands of Sioux at North Platte, Nebraska. Very few of these Indians were members of the hostiles from the Powder River area. And at that, the so-called friendlies were not especially agreeable. The fact that this meeting was held at the end point of the Union Pacific Railroad and that the white men alighted from a gleaming railroad car was enough to give the ‘friendlies’ a negative attitude right from the start. Evidently, this situation did not escape the attention of General Sherman who was a member of the peace commission. He minced no words when he informed the Indians that “The railroads are coming and you cannot stop them any more than you can stop the sun or the moon.”

Spotted Tail and his Wife

Spotted Tail was also straight with his words when he informed the commission that “The country which we live in is cut up by the white men, who drive away all the game.” Sherman countered by telling these Indians that “Without peace, the Great Father who, out of love for you, withheld his soldiers, will let loose his young men and you will be swept away. Do the best you can for yourselves. We shall be here again in November.”

Red Cloud

When the commission returned in the fall not only did Red Cloud not show up as the commissioners hoped, but even the peaceful Sioux stayed away. Making their absence even more pronounced, Red Cloud sent the commissioners a message.

If the Great Father kept white men out of my country, then peace would last forever. The Great Spirit has raised me in this land and has raised you in another land. What I have said I mean. I mean to keep this land.

And in the true spirit of Red Cloud’s words, he and Crazy Horse, Rain-in-the-Face, Gall, Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses, along with Little Big Man and the seven-foot Touch-the-Clouds, followed by their enormous band of warriors continued their war along the Bozeman Trail.

Gall

What Red Cloud wanted was for the forts built along the Bozeman Trail to be abandoned by the white soldiers.