The Cheyennes Fight Back

The Cheyenne Fight BackChief 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.


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Red Cloud  

Crazy Horse

Fort Lyon, 1864: Black Kettle Attempts Peace

"To tame a savage you must tie him down to the soil. You must make him understand the value of property, and the benefits of its separate ownership"

-U.S. Secretary of the Interior, 1851


One-Eye and Eagle Head, messengers from Black Kettle, approach Fort Lyon. Three soldiers stop them and take firing positions. Quickly the two Cheyenne make hand signals of peace and show a letter from Black Kettle. The soldiers take them prisoner and turn them over to Major Edward W. Wynkoop. In his mid-twenties, with only one battle against the confederates under his belt, he is both afraid and suspicious. The letter says that Black Jettle wants the soldiers to come out to the Smoky Hill camp and wide th two thousand Cheyenne into the reservation, Suspecting a trap, Wynkoop delays a decision. Finally he decides to go.

Releasing the two prisoners, he tells them they are both guides and hostages. At the first sign of treachery from your people, I will kill you.

The Cheyennes do not break their word. If they do so I should not care to live longer, replies One-Eye.

On the march Wynkoop has the opportunity to have long conversations wiht the two Cheyenne. Later he writes:

I felt myself in the presence of superior beings; and these were the representatives of a race that i had heretofore looked upon without exception as being cruel, treacherous, and bloodthirsty, without feeling of affection for friend or kindred.

Black Kettle and the other chiefs hold a council with Wynkoop, telling him of the raids committed against their people. Wynkoop, promises to do everything possible to stop the fighting and takes the chiefs to Denver to meet the governor of the Colorado territory and Colonel Chivington.

At Denver, Governor Evans privately tells Wynkoop, I want no peace till the Indians suffer more. But wha shall I do with the Third Colorado Regiment if I make peace? They have been raised to kill Indians and they must kill Indians. Unknown to Wynkoop was Colonel Chivington's recent order to his soldiers: Kill all the Indians you come across. 

Because of his friendly attitude toward the indigenous, U.S. military officials replace Major Wynkoop with Major Scott Anthony as the comandar of Fort Lyon.

In late November, Colonel Chivington and his troops ride into Fort Lyon. In the officers' quarters, Anthony greets him warmly and Chivington talks of collecting scalps and wading in gore. Anthony is pleased, since he has been waiting for an opportunity to pitch into them.

The next day Lieutenant Cramer and a few other protest going out to Black Kettle's peaceful camp where their safety has been guaranteed. It would be murder in every sense of the word.

Chivington becomes violent, angrily slams his fist close to Lieutenant Cramer's head, and says, Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill them.

On the evening of November 28, Colonel Chivington and seven hundred men head out to Cheyenne encampment in a horseshoe bend of Sand Creek.

-Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 56-70


"One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk"

-Crazy Horse

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