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Some History: Kansas and the American Indian Wars of the 1860s

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May 12, 2013 by mtteaton

George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer

This post originally appeared on the Dickinson County Historical Society’s blog on September 15, 2011.

During the mid-1800s and especially following the events of the Civil War, a different type of war was being fought on the plains of Kansas and surrounding states and territories.  This war had been long in the making, ever since immigrants came to the New World to settle and claim territory.  Leading up to the mid-1800s, many Native Americans had been affected by pioneers settling on their former land.  The spread of smallpox and other diseases were deadly to many tribes, and in several cases, Native Americans were forced away from their land onto newly formed territory.  However, as emigrants moved west and the western United States population grew, Indian Territory became smaller and smaller in size.  By the mid-1800s, many tribes were infuriated by the treatment dealt to them by the United States. Plains tribes such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa, Comanche, and Pawnee greatly resisted the emigrant invasion of their land.  In many cases, this resistance was violent.  

For new western settlers, frontier defense became a necessity.  Many had seen their families and homes attacked by Native American groups in an effort to drive the settlers away.  Many Kansas Forts were established to offer protection to emigrants from the American Indian resistance.  Forts Hays and Wallace were both established to protect the Smoky Hill Trail, which passed through Kansas Indian hunting land, including portions of Dickinson County. For many Native American tribes, the railroad was viewed as a great threat.  Since it allowed for ease of travel, the railroad greatly contributed to an influx of people, which in turn led to the further use and destruction of many resources such as the buffalo.  Some plains tribes attacked railroad construction crews or targeted their efforts toward the destruction of the rails themselves.  On August 1, 1867, six men of a railroad work party of seven were killed by Native Americans approximately ten miles east of Fort Hays.

While fighting was common, there was another side to relations between the United States and Native American groups.  Peaceful negotiations did occur, however the success rate for these discussions was generally low.  Early negotiations in 1866 with the Cheyenne and Sioux began poorly when General Winfield Scott Hancock ordered the burning of an abandoned village in the midst of peace talks.  In October 1867 the Medicine Lodge Treaty was signed by several chiefs of different Plains Indian tribes.  According to the treaty, the agreeing tribes would relinquish all land north of the Arkansas River for the promise of federal aid and hunting rights south of the river.  While this may have sounded like a beneficial and easy to manage agreement on paper to both parties, this was not the reality.  The individuals of a nation rarely agree with every decision their leaders make, and this was the case for many tribal nations after the signing of the treaty.  Many individuals within tribes refused to leave their land and agree to the terms.  Additionally, many Native Americans that did agree with the Medicine Lodge Treaty were soon disappointed when the federal aid promised to them came slowly or not at all.  By early 1868, many tribes returned to their former land to hunt and raid.

George Armstrong Custer is likely the most recognizable face of the United States Military during the Indian Wars on the Plains.  Custer led the Seventh Cavalry through several successful campaigns against Plains Indians during this turbulent era.  One of the first substantial victories for the United States during the Indian Wars was the Battle of Washita River.  In this battle, Custer and his men fought and killed several Cheyenne warriors.  As was common during these types of battles, several Cheyenne women and children were killed as well.  The precise number of casualties is unknown.  Custer claimed that his men killed over one hundred warriors, but the actual number may have been significantly lower. Shortly after this battle, Custer and the Seventh Cavalry met with members of the Nineteenth Kansas Cavalry to pursue a group of Cheyenne.  Among the ranks of the Nineteenth Kansas Cavalry were Andrew and Calvin Freeman, sons of Dickinson County’s first permanent settler, George Freeman.  The reason for the cavalry’s pursuit of this group of Cheyenne was to rescue two women who were held as captives.  The women, Miss Brewster and Miss White, had been captured eight months before.  After the cavalry had made their approach to the Cheyenne camp, three chiefs visited with Custer to make peace.  Custer and his men decided to hold the chiefs captive until the women were released.  According to John McBee, a member of the Nineteenth Kansas Cavalry, Custer threatened the chiefs by showing them a tree and rope, and stating that they would be hanged by sundown if the women were not safely returned.  Soon after this, the women were brought to Custer’s camp.  Custer did not release the three Cheyenne chiefs, but escorted them to Fort Hays, where they found over fifty of their tribe’s women and children already being held.

Since peaceful negotiations between both sides were poor or non-existent, and Native American raids on emigrant settlements became a common occurrence in parts of Kansas, many settlers were afraid that they might be attacked next. The United States Military could not always be counted on to offer defense for settlers in remote areas.  Many armed themselves with weapons to protect their families and property.  

Battles between the United States and Native Americans continued on the plains in the 1870s, but began to occur frequently less.  Tribes did have incredible victories such as the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, in which a united encampment of Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota Native Americans killed Custer and all of his command in Montana Territory. However, many tribes had been forced onto reservations by this time.

During this remarkable era, both the United States and Native American nations had instances of glory, honor, and triumph.  However, these events were equally paired with instances of despair, fear, and reckless aggression.  Neither side could easily reach an agreement, or understand the other’s ideas and culture.  The average United States cavalry member and the average Native American warrior did not believe they had much in common with one another, while this was far from the truth.  Both sides fought to protect their families, resources, and property.  Both wanted to see their nation prosper.  Additionally, both committed atrocious acts to further their cause.  The slaughter of civilians, women, and children was knowingly carried out by both groups of people.  For every emigrant settlement raided and fort attacked, there were burnings of tribal encampments and attacks on peaceful Native American nations.  No matter whom a person was, life on the plains was met with great difficulty.

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