General Patrick Connor

The Cheyenne Fight Back

Chief Black Kettle

In 1851, the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Crow, and other tribes met with U.S. representatives at Fort Laramie. The United States wanted access to indigenous lands for roads, forts, and telegraph lines. The tribes granted the access, while not giving up their right to fish, hunt, or roam over the same lands.

Gold had been discovered in California in 1848, and again in the Colorado Territory ten years later. Thousands of miners came to Pikes Peak, building the village of Denver City in the process.

In 1860, the United States was on the brink of a civil war. The war slowed down the westward march of the whites, but did not stop it. That same year the first pony express rider reached California. The U.S. Congress also passed the Pre-emption Bill, which provided free land to settlers in western territories. Before the year was out a man named Spencer invented the repeating rifle.

In 1864, Black Kettle, a Cheyenne chief, heard of white soldiers killing Cheyenne without provocation. Black Kettle wanted “to be peaceable and friendly and keep my tribe so.” He always camped under the American flag that Colonel Greenwood had given him for protection.

The cavalry raids continued. Officers under the command of Colonel Chivington were ordered to “kill Cheyenne whenever and wherever found.” Clashes increased and the younger Cheyenne leaders, members of the Hotamitanio, or Dog Soldier Society, wanted to fight back.

After the Sand Creek Massacre the Cheyenne and the Sioux united to keep the whites out of the Powder River country. They called themselves The People, the last hope to save their ancestral hunting grounds. They were led by Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Dull Knife, and Roman Nose.

In the summer of 1865, a few months after the end of the Civil War, General Patrick Connor invaded the Powder River territory with four columns of troops. Conner built a fort and named it after himself; later it would be called Fort Reno.  Connor in 1863, had surrounded a camp of Paiute and massacred 278 of them. On this mission he was heard to say that the Indians had to “be hunted like wolves.” His orders to his men: “Attack and kill every male Indian over twelve years of age.” Conner’s goal was to open up the Bozeman Trail to give the whites more roads to the West.

Red Cloud and the other chiefs were angry because the whites had not asked permission to build forts and more roads through their country. That summer, the Sioux and Cheyenne killed hundreds of soldiers and cost the U.S. government millions of dollars. It was one of the worst military defeats at the hands of the Indigenous up to that time.

The next spring (1866) the whites wanted to talk peace. While Red Cloud and the others were negotiating, an army troop arrived at the fort with orders to build forts up and down the Bozeman Trail with or without treaties. Red Cloud denounced the peace commission and stormed out, taking everyone with him.

A guerrilla war followed. Crazy Horse developed a tactic of luring soldiers out of their defensive positions and into ambushes. It took great riding skill and courage, and earned him high respect from his comrades. The greatest victory was at Fort Phil Kearny, where Crazy Horse drew the soldiers from the fort and the combined forces of the Sioux and Cheyenne annihilated them.

Finally in 1868 the army gave up. Even General Sherman, who had led the Union march to the sea, could not subdue the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The United States agreed to abandon the forts. Red Cloud, not trusting the whites, replied that he would not sign a peace treaty until the forts were actually abandoned. As the troops left, the warriors set fire to the forts. Red Cloud still waited to sign, worrying the whites even more. It was one of the few treaties whose terms were dictated by the indigenous.