Ancient America: Wyoming 6000 BCE to 2500 BCE

About 8,000 years ago (6000 BCE), the American Indian cultures of the Northern Plains began undergoing a series of major changes. There was a decrease in dependence on big game hunting as the people engaged in a wide range of hunting and gathering patterns. This is a period which archaeologists call the Archaic Period (also called the Middle Precontact Period by some archaeologists).

At about 5000 BCE, the Great Plains began to enter into a climate period known as the Altithermal. This was a hot, dry episode that lasts for about 2,500 years. During this time, the bison had to shift their ranges and subsequently Indian people either moved with them or changed to other game. In his Columbia University Ph.D. Dissertion on the MacHaffie Site, Richard Forbis reports:

“During the Altithermal period, climatic conditions appear to have forced bison from the Plains to the northerly regions. Man does not seem to have occupied the Plains in the Altithermal period. Man did, however, occupy other areas of North America then.”

The lack of moisture during this period meant that the production of grasses needed to sustain bison herds was restricted. Archaeologist Douglas MacDonald, in his book Montana Before History: 11,000 Years of Hunter-Gatherers in the Rockies and Plains, writes:

“Humans adapted to the changing climate and decreasing bison by increasing the breadth of their diets, changing their technology, exploiting new resources, and living in different places.”

In his book Prehistory of the Americas, archaeologist Stuart Fiedel writes:

“It seems that the bison deserted much of the Plains; some of them may have taken refuge in stream valleys or peripheral foothill areas where the water shortage was less severe.”

In his book Indians in Yellowstone National Park, anthropologist Joel Janetski writes:

“It is characterized by a greater reliance on plant foods, especially small seeds, and the increased hunting of smaller animals, although the modern large animals—deer, mountain sheep, and bison—continued to be important.”

Briefly described below are some of the Wyoming sites between 6000 BCE and 2500 BCE.

Buffalo Kill: about 6000 BCE, near Casper, Wyoming, hunters used a parabolic sand dune with steep sides to capture a herd of about 100 bison during a hunt in late autumn. The bisons’ hooves sank into the loose sand and immobilized them, which allowed the hunters to move in and kill them at close range.

James Allen: by 5900 BCE, Indian people are occupying the James Allen site (48AB4). The stone used to make the tools found at the site are from a site a hundred mile or so to the north-northeast.

48JO303: by 5850 BCE, Indian people are now occupying sit 48JO303 in the southern Big Horn Mountains. The site is located at an elevation of 7000 feet and consists of a small group of rockshelters. One of these rockshelters, designated as Shelter Three, faces west onto a steep drainage. Don Grey, in a report in the Wyoming Archaeologist, writes:

“Shelter Three had about 300 square feet of floor space under an overhanging ledge, and opened onto a large flat area thirty to forty feet wide and a hundred feet long.”

The stone projectile points in the site include McKean-like materials.

Southsider Cave: by 5700 BCE, people were occupying the Southsider Cave (48BH364). The occupants dug two cache pits about 58 centimeters in diameter and about 45 centimeters deep. The cache pits, when uncovered by archaeologists, were filled with trash. According to George Frison, in an entry in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“However, in order to preserve a cache pit of this nature for reuse once it is emptied, it must be filled with something or the sides will collapse within a short period. The easiest way to preserve them was to fill them with trash, which was removed when the pit was reused.”

Mummy Cave: by 5680, Indian people were occupying Mummy Cave (48PA201) in northwestern Wyoming.

Trappers Point: by 5580 BCE, Indian hunters camping at Trappers Point were killing pronghorn antelope and other animals. The pronghorn were corralled, killed, and then butchered. All parts of the animals are used

Chittendon Bridge: by 5000 BCE, Indian people were using the Chittendon Bridge site east of Mammoth Hot Springs on the Gardner River in present-day Yellowstone National Park.

Deadman Wash: by about 4890 BCE, Indians were occupying the Deadman Wash Site (48SW1455) in southwest Wyoming.

Helen Lookingbill: by 4800 BCE, Indian people were using the Helen Lookingbill site (48FR308) which is located at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet the Absoroka Mountains. Archaeologist Douglas MacDonald writes:

“Several bighorn sheep are represented at the site, but no bison. Local cherts were quarried at the site, suggesting a tethered settlement pattern around known resources in this rugged setting.”

Hawken: by 4340 BCE, the Hawken site (48CK303) in northeast Wyoming was used as a communal buffalo kill site. This was an arroyo trap. The bison were killed in the winter. The bison bones at the site are intermediate in size, between the extinct Bison antiquus and the modern Bison bison.

Fishing Bridge Point: By 3870 BCE, Indian people were using the Fishing Bridge Point site in present-day Yellowstone National Park. Archaeologist Douglas MacDonald writes:

“The presence of Early Archaic sites on the Yellowstone Plateau shows that Early Archaic hunter-gatherers moved into the uplands, at least during the warmer months, to hunt animals and collect the plethora of plant resources available around the shores of Yellowstone Lake.”

Twin Creek Valley: about 3260 BCE, Indian people began using a camp site in the Twin Creek Valley. Among the tools they were using were obsidian projectile points from Malad, Idaho (about 135 km to the northwest).

Hogsback: by 3330 BCE, Indian people are now occupying a pithouse at the Hogsback site (48UT2516). The pithouse is of moderate size: slightly more than 4 meters by slightly less than 4 meters. The structure was repeatedly occupied as a seasonal camp for several years. Roasting pits at the site appear to be used for cooking meat. Archaeologist Summer Moore, reporting in the Wyoming Archaeologist, writes:

“Analysis of faunal remains from the site indicates animal use was primarily focused on the procurement and processing of large game animals such as pronghorn, although the significant proportion of rabbit-sized faunal remains also suggests small animals were captured, as well. Pronghorn antelope appear to have been transported to the site as whole carcasses, possibly suggesting a trapping location or otherwise advantageous hunting site was situated nearby.”

The site was occupied during the period which archaeologists call the Opal Phase in the Wyoming Basin. This phase is characterized by a decrease in mobility due to the availability of large game animals.

House Structure: by 3250 BCE, Indian people at site 48CO1712 in the Powder River Basin constructed a house. The people at this site were gathering wild plants, such as goosefoot, and hunting mule deer and pronghorns.

McKean: by 2590 BCE, Indian people were occupying the McKean site (48CK7) near the Belle Fouche River in northeastern Wyoming. They were hunting bison as well as deer, rabbit, and pronghorn.

Scoggin: about 2540 BCE, a small band of Indian hunters used the Scoggin site (48CR304) as a bison impoundment area. The impounded buffalo were killed by using a thrusting spear. This site is located in south central Wyoming near the North Platte River.

Dead Indian Creek: by 2500 BCE, Indian people were hunting deer between October and March near the Dead Indian Creek site (48PA551) in northwestern Wyoming. This suggests that this high elevation site was occupied during the winter. Features at the site suggest that the Indian people here had constructed a housepit. Anthropologists Peter Nabokov and Lawrence Loendorf, in their book Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park, report:

“They ate mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, processed collected seeds, possibly making flour to thicken soup or to bake a mealy, unleavened bread, and survived at elevations where winter temperatures can drop to life-threatening lows.”

Mule deer skull caps at the Dead Indian site were arranged with their antlers attached which suggests ceremonial treatment. While sheep were an important source of food, there is no evidence of ceremonial treatment for these animals.

Medithermal Period: about 2500 BCE, the Medithermal period began with temperatures declining to modern levels. With regard to the Plains area, Richard Forbis reports:

“The Medithermal marked a return of cooler temperatures. Probably its effect on the Plains was a reduction in the number, intensity, and duration of drought periods and a gradual westward and southward return of the grasslands. And with the grasslands, capable of supporting year-round grazing, bison reappeared in great numbers; man followed the buffalo. All bison of the Medithermal period appear to be modern species.”

Note: the information in parenthesis following the name of the site is the Smithsonian Designation System. In this system of recording archaeological sites, the first number refers to the state; this is followed by letters which refer to the county; and then a number indicating its order in being recorded. Thus 5LP 10, means that the site is in Colorado (5th state when the states are listed alphabetically), La Plata County (LP), and was the 10th site recorded in La Plata county in the State Archaeologist’s office.

Grizzly Bears

While Grizzly bears were once found throughout much of the American West, today there are two primary locations where Grizzly bears are abundant: Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Although at one time there were an estimated 50,000 Grizzly bears in North America, the current population is estimated at about 1,800. At the present time, federal wildlife officials are considering lifting protections for the Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area. This would allow trophy hunting of Grizzly bears outside of the Park. A number of American Indian tribes are protesting this possible decision, citing the spiritual importance of Grizzly bears to traditional Native religions. For many American Indians, the Grizzly bear is a sacred animal.

Indians and Bears:

In general, American Indian people have seen themselves as being in harmony with nature and animals, such as the bears, are spoken of not only as people, but as relatives. Some examples of the importance of bears to Native American spirituality are described below.

Among the Ute, the veneration of the bear is expressed ceremonially. Anthropologist Bertha Dutton, in her book The Ranchería, Ute, and Southern Paiute Peoples: Indians of the American Southwest, reports:

“The bear is regarded as the wisest of animals and the bravest of all except the mountain lion; he is thought to possess wonderful magic power. Feeling that the bears are fully aware of the relationship existing between themselves and the Ute, their ceremony of the bear dance assists in strengthening this friendship.”

The Bear Dance is a traditional Ute ceremony which is performed in the Spring. During the 10-day ceremony, a group of men play musical rasps (notched and un-notched sticks) to charm the dancers and propitiate bears. According to oral tradition, this dance was given to the Ute by a bear. The circular dance area represents a bear cave with an opening to the south or southeast. Traditionally, the dance area was enclosed with timbers and pine boughs to a height of about seven feet.

In the Ute Bear Dance, women choose male partners and the women lead in the dancing. Spiritual leader Eddie Box, quoted in Nancy Wood’s book When Buffalo Free the Mountains: The Survival of America’s Ute Indians. says:

“Bear Dance is a rebirth, an awakening of the spirit. It’s a time of awareness. You come to learn from the past in order to arrive at the present with an understanding of the harmony of things.”

Historian Richard Young, in his book The Ute Indians of Colorado in the Twentieth Century, describes the Bear Dance this way:

“Probably the oldest of the Ute Dances, the Bear Dance was a festive, social dance that had always been held in the spring before winter camps disbanded and family groups went their separate ways in search of food.”

The Utes are not the only tribe with a bear dance: the Shoshone, who are linguistically related to the Ute, also have a bear dance. This was originally a hunting dance, which had nothing to do with hunting bears. Men and women would face each other in two long lines and dance in a back-and-forth manner. In one form of the dance, a drum is used while in another form an upside-down basket is scraped by a rasp stick.

In the Dakotas, the Arikara, an agricultural nation with villages along the Missouri River, also had a bear ceremony. Among the Arikara, the bear-medicine men would put on a ceremony to gain the bear’s help in hunting. The ceremony was conducted in an earth lodge where seven elders would sing a number of songs. A young man would then be instructed to go out and get a certain kind of clay. From this clay, the bear-medicine men would make little figures of men, horses, and buffalo. They would then have the little men hunt and finally have them jump into the fire.

The bear also has important spiritual significance for many other Indians.

 Non-Indians and Bears:

When the English began their invasion of North America, they tended to view the Americas as a wilderness, a frightening concept with strong religious overtones. Edwin Churchill, the chief curator at the Maine Museum, writes in his chapter in American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega:

“They viewed the wilderness as a place where a person might lapse into disordered, confused, or ‘wild conditions’ and then succumb to the animal appetites latent in all men and restrained only by society.”

The English world-view tended to reflect the ethnocentric notion that they were divinely commanded to subdue the earth. According to Frank Waters, in his book Brave are My People: Indian Heroes Not Forgotten:

“They leveled whole forests under the axe, plowed under the grasslands, dammed and drained the rivers, gutted the mountains for gold and silver, and divided and sold the land itself. Accompanying all this destruction was the extermination of birds and beasts, not alone for profit or sport, but to indulge in a wanton lust for killing.”

For the English, taming the wilderness and claiming their dominion over the land involved the eradication of many predators, such as wolves, bears, and (in their minds) Indians. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Americans continued the policy of extermination. Even within national parks, government hunters sought to kill as many wolves and bears as possible.

With regard to Grizzly bears, the extermination policy was nearly successful. One display sign in the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana indicates:

“Although the Grizzly inspires fear and can pose real danger to people, human beings are powerful natural enemies of this bear. Through killing this animal and competing for the use of its habitat, humans have eliminated the Grizzly from most of its original range.”

The Current Situation:

Protections for Grizzly bears were imposed in 1975 and since that time the bear population has rebounded. According to one newspaper report:

U.S. wildlife officials and their state counterparts in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming contend the region’s 700 to 1,000 bears are biologically recovered. They’ve been pushing for almost a decade to revoke the animal’s threatened status, a step that was taken in 2007 only to be reversed by a federal judge two years later.

Removing federal protections for Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region would mean that the animals would be under state management. This would allow the states—Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming—to allow hunting of them. Wildlife officials in these states have been advocating bear hunts as a way to deal with problem bears.

Grizzlies have killed six people in and around Yellowstone National Park since 2010. In addition, they have regularly mauled both domestic livestock and hunters outside of the Park. The ranching industry has lobbied for eliminating protections for the Grizzly bears.

Under the Endangered Species Act, decisions regarding the Grizzly bear should be guided by “best available science,” but federal officials have indicated that they will take tribal views into consideration. Consultation with the tribes is required by Presidential Executive Orders and, according to tribal officials, by treaty obligation. Federal officials report that they have consulted with five tribes and have discussions scheduled with two more. In addition, letters have been sent to more than 50 tribes inviting them to participate in the discussions.

Tribal leaders from several tribes have opposed the removal of Grizzly hunting restrictions. The Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho is the home of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes. Tribal Vice-Chairman Lee Juan Tyler has stated:

“These are our treaty lands, our ancestral homelands. Too many times in our relationship with the federal government we have surprises. … We want the grizzly bear protected with those lands, and the grizzly bear returned to areas where we can co-manage them.”

Federal officials are expected to rule on lifting protections for the Grizzly bear sometime in the next several months. This decision would impact only the bears in the area around Yellowstone National Park. The area around Glacier National Park would not be impacted by this decision.

Ancient America: Wyoming Before 6000 BCE

Although the region of North America known today as Wyoming first entered into the written Euro-American histories in the early nineteenth century with the exploits of fur traders, trappers, and non-Indian adventurers, Indian people had been living in the area for many millennia. Archaeologists often refer to the era prior to 6000 BCE as Paleo-Indian. This appears to have been a time when the people specialized in the hunting of big game.

Yellowstone National Park:

While Indian people had utilized the resources and unique geological features of what is now Yellowstone National Park for thousands of years, when the fur traders first began describing the region to non-Indians, they were met with disbelief.

By 9600 BCE, Indian people were camping at Osprey Beach on Yellowstone Lake in present-day Yellowstone National Park.

By 8000 BCE, Indian people were living along the shores of Yellowstone Lake in present-day Yellowstone National Park. The stone tools which they were using resemble those of the complex which archaeologists call Cody (see below).

By 7400 BCE, Indian people using Cody Complex tools at the Osprey Beach site in present-day Yellowstone National Park were hunting a variety of game, including bear, deer, bighorn sheep, bison, and rabbit. They may have been exploiting the resources of Yellowstone Lake using boats.

Hell Gap:

By 9450 BCE, Indian people were beginning to occupy the Hell Gap site (48GO305) in southeastern Wyoming. They were making large, wide, un-stemmed, and lanceolate points with a long, slender tip and a wide, concave base.   In his entry on Hell Gape in A Dictionary of Archaeology, William Billeck writes:

“The Hell Gap site consists of a stratified series of short-term campsites where bison was the predominant animal represented.”

By 7600 BCE, the cultural tradition which archaeologists call the Hell Gap Complex moved into the Northern Plains. Hell Gap people were big game hunters with a primary emphasis on bison. In some areas, Hell Gap is associated with bison procurement using a parabolic dune entrapment method.

Clovis:

 Clovis culture, which is actually a stone tool technology complex, is one of the earliest well-documented archaeological cultures in North America. The signature artifact of the Clovis people is an atlatl point. The Clovis point is a finely made stone projective point with a characteristic flute which helps in attaching the point to an atlatl dart. Clovis points have lateral indentations (or flutes) which allow them to be efficiently tied to a shaft. The shafts were thrown with the aid of a throwing stick or atlatl. Archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, in their book Across Atlantic Ice: The Origins of America’s Clovis Culture, report:

“Fluted projectile points are the most readily identifiable Clovis artifacts, but there are many other items that make up the Clovis inventory. Among these are tools made from blades and flakes struck from specialized cores, plus bi-facially flaked knives and adzes.”

With regard to Clovis in Wyoming, in 9330 BCE, Clovis hunters drove a mammoth into the muck of a bog where it became trapped. They killed it and butchered it, taking the meat to their hunting camp on higher ground.

By 9280 BCE, Clovis people were occupying the Union Pacific site.

By 9250 BCE, Clovis people were occupying the Colby site. The people stacked mammoth bones in what may have been a meat cache. The stone chopper which was used at the site had been made from granite which was not from the area.

By 9200 BCE, Clovis people were camping at the Sheaman site.

Folsom:

About 11,000 years ago, the climate changed: it became warmer (by about 13 degrees Fahrenheit) and drier. There was also an increase in the seasonal extremes: summers were warmer and winters were colder. For Indian people, this difference meant that their cultures had to change so that they could adapt to the new environment.

Folsom people are known for their fluted spear points which were smaller and more delicate than the Clovis points. Their flutes are also longer than Clovis. In his book Bones, Boats, and Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America, Archaeologist James Dixon writes:

“The hallmark of Folsom culture is the Folsom projectile point, which is recognized throughout the Americas for its unique design, exceptional workmanship, and the high-quality raw materials from which they are manufactured.”

Geographically, Folsom culture spread eastward from the Rocky Mountains across the Great Plains. It extended from North Dakota to Mexico. It seems to have been centered, however, along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

With regard to Wyoming, by 8830 BCE, Folsom hunters were camping on the floodplain of an arroyo in Agate Basin. They trapped, killed and butchered eight buffalo. They lived in hide-covered structures which used bison ribs as tent pegs.

By 8750 BCE, Folsom people were occupying the Hanson site in the northern Bighorn Basin. The people were living in circular structures. The floors of the lodges were covered with a layer of sand. In his book Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains, George Frison reports:

“The site was apparently a campsite and suggests that many of the usual campsite activities were going on. The most obvious activity was flint knapping and the site provides evidence—from core reduction to tools and finished projectile points—of all the basic processes.”

Frison also reports:

“Projectile point manufacture involved bi-face reduction to a final stage characterized by a blunt, ground distal end and a concave base with a carefully prepared striking platform for channel flake removal.”

Careful striking would then remove the long flake and provide the point with the characteristic Folsom groove. Archaeologists have found evidence of many failures in the final production of Folsom points at this site.

In 7950 BCE, Indian people who were using Folsom tools are occupying the Rattlesnake Pass site (48CR4520).

Cody Complex:

The Cody complex is found in the Northern Great Plains area. In his entry on the Cody Complex in A Dictionary of Archaeology, William Billeck writes:

“The tool assemblage consists of projectile points, flake tools, scrapers, gravers, wedges, choppers, bi-faces, hammer stones, and bone tools that are often found in bison kill and processing sites.”

By 8500 BCE, Indian people from the Cody Complex were spending the warmer months in the Rocky Mountains. Here they repaired and manufactured tools which were used for hunting and for cleaning hides. In the winter, they moved to lower elevations. They were hunting bear, bighorn sheep, deer, and rabbit. According to anthropologist Carroll Riley, in Rio del Norte: People of the Upper Rio Grande From Earliest Times to the Pueblo Revolt:

“Cody stone technology suggests more diverse hunting of a variety of small game.”

By 7076 BCE, Indian people using Cody complex tools were using the Horner site. This was a buffalo kill site or a butchering area. The bison were killed in the fall using a corral at the river’s edge.

Agate Basin:

 By 8480 BCE, Indian people were using the Agate Basin site for buffalo hunting. Bison in groups of 10 to 20 animals were apparently driven into the arroyo bottom. The hunters would be stationed at strategic points above the animals in order to harvest them.

By 8000 BCE, the cultural complex which archaeologists call Agate Basin extended into the Northern Plains region. These Agate Basin people were big game hunters whose subsistence strategies included bison trapping. The Agate Basin points were long, narrow, unfluted lanceolate forms. The quality of the lithic work was very good. Archaeologist Sandra Morris, in her University of Montana M.A. Professional Paper Prehistoric Cultural Resources of the Whitetail Pipestone Area, Jefferson County, Montana: An Overview and Implications for Cultural Resource Managers, reports:

“The Agate Basin projectile point morphology is distinct: the form is a long and narrow leaf shape, with no notches.”

Agate Basin appears to be a continuation of Goshen and Folsom in which bison is the economic mainstay.

By 8000 BCE, Indian people at the Agate Basin site had a dog-wolf hybrid.

Two Moon Shelter:

By 8060 BCE, Indian people were using the Two Moon Shelter (48BH1827) in the Bighorn Mountains. In an article in Mammoth Trumpet, Floyd Largent explains:

“A rockshelter is basically a rocky overhang that lacks an extensive interior cave system.”

The Two Moon rockshelter has a protected interior of about 45 square meters with another 30 square meters of flat area just outside of the dripline.

Medicine Creek Lodge Site:

By 7500 BCE, Indian people are now occupying the Medicine Lodge Creek site (48BH499) on the western flanks of the Bighorn Mountains. The site is located at an elevation of 4,800 feet. Indian people at the Medicine Creek Lodge site were hunting small mammals -–mostly bushy-tail wood rats commonly known as packrats (Neotoma cineria). They were also hunting some deer, mountain sheep, and buffalo. They were also using grinding stones to process gathered plant foods.

By 7360 BCE, the people at the Medicine Creek Lodge site were using a Cody Complex tool tradition (see above).

Mummy Cave:

By 7280 BCE, Indian people had begun to live in Mummy Cave (48PA201), a west-facing natural room. This site is located in northwest Wyoming. They were using a side-notched projectile point. Archaeologist Douglas MacDonald, in his book Montana Before History: 11,000 Years of Hunter-Gatherers in the Rockies and Plains, writes:

“Hunters of bighorn sheep utilized the cave during the entire span of its use.”

Nets may have been used to trap the sheep.

Sheep Mountain:

By 7000 BCE, at Sheep Mountain in the Absaroka range Indian people were using nets to harvest game, including mountain goats, deer, and rabbit. They were using a net that was 200 feet long and 6 feet high made from two-ply cord twisted from juniper bark fibers. In his book The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians: Before the Coming of the Europeans, Philip Kopper reports:

“The hunters who made the Sheep Mountain net probably used it by stringing it across a game trail in the rugged mountains and waiting for animals to pass, or by hanging it across a natural bottleneck and driving game into it.”

Granite Creek Rockshelter:

By 6000 BCE, Indian people were using the Granite Creek rockshelter (48BH330) in the Bighorn Mountains. The rockshelter is 85 feet long and 18 feet deep at its deepest point. This was an animal processing area which was used repeatedly by hunting groups for several thousand years. Most of the stone tools at this site were made from local materials.

Note: the information in parenthesis following the name of the site is the Smithsonian Designation System. In this system of recording archaeological sites, the first number refers to the state; this is followed by letters which refer to the county; and then a number indicating its order in being recorded. Thus 5LP 10, means that the site is in Colorado (5th state when the states are listed alphabetically), La Plata County (LP), and was the 10th site recorded in La Plata county in the State Archaeologist’s office.

 

The Lame Cow War

In the 1840s a massive migration of non-Indians began in which long wagon trains would cross the Great Plains bringing new settlers into Utah, Oregon, and California. The people in the wagon trains were generally oblivious to the fact that they were trespassing on Indian land and using Indian resources. As they crossed the Plains, their oxen, cattle, and horses grazed on the grass, depleting the resources needed for Indian horses and for the bison on which Plains Indian lives depended. Many of the non-Indians viewed Indians as a part of the wildlife, like coyotes and wolves, destined to be exterminated before the relentless push of Manifest Destiny. The Indians, on the other hand, viewed the intruders as thieves stealing grass and game.

In 1845, Joel Palmer, who was leading a wagon train to Oregon, met with a group of about 100 Oglala Sioux at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. One Sioux leader, whose name was not recorded, told Palmer:  “This country belongs to the red man, but his white brethren travels through, shooting the game and scaring it away. Thus the Indian loses all that he depends upon to support his wife and children. The children of the red man cry out for food, but there is no food.”

Ignoring the fact that the Indians had just pointed out that wagons trains like his were stealing from the Indians, Palmer informed them that they were compelled to pass through Indian territory on their way to the coast.

In 1850, the U.S. Army at Fort Laramie tallied the wagon trains that passed through. They counted: 7,472 mules, 30,616 oxen, 22,742 horses, 8,998 wagons, and 5,270 cows. All of these animals were, of course, eating Indian grass for which the tribes were never reimbursed. With regard to the buffalo, generally regarded as a primary food source for Plains Indians, the hunters from the wagon trains would shot buffalo regularly, taking only the choice cuts of meat and leaving the rest for the wolves, coyotes, and buzzards. Unlike the Indians, they had no interest in preserving any meat for future use.

In 1854, a Mormon wagon-train was crossing Wyoming on its way to Utah when it abandoned a lame cow. When a hunting party of Sioux came across the cow on what they felt was their land, they killed it for food. Chief Pretty Voice Eagle explained it this way:  “They had with them a cow which was lame, and they left it. The Indians thought they had thrown it away, and killed it. We killed this cow not for subsistence but because it was lame and we felt sorry for it.”

When the Mormons complained about the killing of the cow, the Indians offered them a horse worth double the cow as a trade, but the Mormons refused and later filed a formal complaint with the army. A young army officer and 20 troops, described by Father De Smet as “armed to the teeth and with a cannon loaded with grapeshot,” were sent out to bring back the Indian responsible for killing the cow. According to Lakota Sioux writer Charles Eastman, in his book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains: “It would seem that either the officer was under the influence of liquor, or else had a mind to bully the Indians, for he would accept neither explanation or payment, but demanded point-blank that the young men who had killed the cow be delivered up to summary punishment.”

The officer then fired his cannon into the Indians, killing chief Conquering Bear and a number of men. The Indians defended themselves and the army unit was annihilated. The non-Indian press declared that a state of war existed with the Sioux and called for reinforcements. The focus was not on justice, but on retaliation and punishment. Father DeSmet, the Belgian-born Jesuit who spent 32 years among the Indians and often aided the Americans in holding Indian councils, wrote that a lame cow was   “the origin of a fresh war of extermination upon the Indians which is to be carried out in the course of the present year.”

George W. Manypenny, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, felt that the whole incident could have been avoided if Indian funds had been used to pay for the cow. In his annual report, Manypenny noted:  “No officer of the military department was in my opinion authorized to arrest or try the Indian for the offense charged against him.”

Mannypenny, while the government official responsible for Indian Affairs, expressed no concern over the depletion of Indian resources nor did he suggest that Indians be compensated for these losses.

 

The Bozeman Trail

In 1851, the United States called a treaty council at Fort Laramie, Wyoming which was attended by 8,000 – 12,000 Indians from the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone, Crow, Assiniboine, Arikara, Gros Ventre, Mandan, and Hidatsa tribes. The purpose of the council and of the resulting treaty was to establish peace between the United States and the tribes, including a promise to protect Indians from European-Americans, and to stop the tribes from making war with one another. At the Fort Laramie Treaty Council, each tribal area was defined.  

The Council ignored the participation of the Shoshone and assigned their northeastern hunting range to the Crow.  As there were no River Crow at the Council, the Mountain Crow version of their geographic rights and hunting areas was used and was assumed by the Americans to be binding to all of the Crow tribes.

The Sioux received the rights to the Black Hills and other lands claimed by the Northern Cheyenne.

Signing the treaty for the Yankton Sioux was Smutty Bear who complained about the destruction of grass and trees by travelers on the Overland Trail and about the subsequent scarcity of game. Smutty Bear’s complaint turned out to be prophetic. Over the next decade more tribes were pushed out onto the Plains where they were supposed to depend on the buffalo for subsistence. At the same time the buffalo herds decreased due to a combination of over-hunting, destruction of grazing by cattle herds and immigrant wagon trains, and the destruction of the environment by the railroads. Consequently, the Sioux had to hunt in lands farther west. The tyranny of the map laid down by the Americans during the Treaty of Fort Laramie was soon obsolete and did not reflect the new reality of the need to find food and clothing.

The United States has always maintained a working policy of transferring potential wealth-minerals, petroleum, timber, good farmlands-from Indians to non-Indians. Thus in 1862, when gold was discovered on Grasshopper Creek in Montana, all treaty agreements about keeping non-Indians out of Indian territory were ignored. Soon the miners were invading Indian territories with the support of the United States government. The gold discovery resulted in heavy traffic along the Montana Trail between Salt Lake City and the gold fields. The Trail passed through Shoshone territory in Utah and Idaho. On the one hand, the Indians resented the new intrusion, but they were also intrigued by the possibilities for plunder of the relatively small and unprotected miners’ parties.

In 1863, American miners and others seeking a faster way to the Montana gold fields created the Bozeman trail. The trail started from the Oregon Trail near present-day Douglas, Wyoming and ran north into Montana. While livestock grazing and water were scarce along this route, it was the fastest way to the gold fields. The Americans were unconcerned that it cut through the buffalo hunting grounds of the Lakota, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne. The Indians, however, found this illegal incursion into their prime hunting grounds to be intolerable. In response they began a series of sporadic raids against the American emigrants.

In 1865, the gold fields of Virginia City, Montana were connected with points east through the Niobrara-Virginia City Wagon Road. The road cut through the hunting grounds of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes.

That same year, the Sawyers Expedition-a civilian road-building group with military escort-entered the Powder River country in Wyoming. The group of 143 men, including 118 cavalry, reached Pumpkin Buttes near present-day Wright without any Indian opposition. Here they were attacked by a war party of 600 Southern Cheyenne, Northern Cheyenne, and Sioux warriors.

After several hours of fighting, the Indians called for a truce. Dull Knife, Bull Bear, Red Cloud, and Charlie Bent met with the Americans and George Bent acted as interpreter. The Cheyenne explained to the Americans that peace would be possible on only one condition: the hanging of Colonel Chivington, the American leader in the Sand Creek massacre. The Cheyenne felt that they were strong enough to fight the U.S. troops.

Over the objections of the military officer, the civilian leader of the expedition offered the Indians bacon, sugar, coffee, flour, and tobacco in exchange for safe passage. The peace was short-lived as two troops were killed when they wandered out among the Indians.

The 12th Missouri Cavalry and the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery then entered the Powder River Country from Nebraska to wage war against the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. The cavalry was armed with Spencer repeating carbines which had an effective range of 900 yards. Camped in the area, but unknown to the army, were 1,000 Sioux and Cheyenne lodges with 6,000 people.

After several encounters with Indian war parties in which the army had the advantage of superior fire power, the army decided to turn back and head for Fort Laramie. For several days a running battle was fought with Cheyenne warriors armed with bows, lances, and a few trade guns. Roman Nose, riding a white war horse, rode in front of the troops, demonstrating his bravery and prowess. While his horse was hit, Roman Nose escaped injury and the fight became known as “Roman Nose’s Fight.”

Roman Nose

Roman Nose is shown above.

In 1865, an army force of 558 soldiers and 179 Indians (95 Pawnee and 84 Winnebago and Omaha) set out to attack the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho in the Powder River area where the Indians were holding their traditional summer ceremonies.

The army encountered an Arapaho village under the leadership of Black Bear and Medicine Man. By the time the army reached the village most of the warriors were mounted on their horses and the women and children had already begun their march to a new camp. For an hour, the army howitzers pounded the village and the Indian scouts killed Arapaho men, women, and children indiscriminately. As the soldiers entered the village to engage in fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the Arapaho women fought beside the men. Many of the Arapaho reached a high point near the village. The army destroyed the Arapaho village and their supplies. Eight Arapaho women and 13 children were captured; 65 Arapaho were killed; 250 lodges burned; and 500 horses captured.  

In 1866, Sioux leader Red Cloud and others met with U.S. officials at Fort Laramie to discuss the Bozeman Trail.  General Sherman provided the Indians with goodwill gifts of gunpowder, lead, and food. The Government asked permission for emigrants to cross Sioux and Cheyenne lands. In addition, General Sheridan sought permission for three forts to be built on the Bozeman Trail connecting the Platte River with Montana’s mines. Red Cloud broke off negotiations because the United States had brought in soldiers to use as a threat of force. In the months that followed, the Oglala and other Sioux tribes engaged in guerrilla war along the Bozeman Trail, making it dangerous to travel.

Red Cloud

Red Cloud is shown above.

The army, under orders to protect the gold seekers, established Fort Reno, Fort Phil Kearny, and Fort C.F. Smith along the Bozeman Trail. The army was determined to make the Bozeman Trail a major thoroughfare to the Montana gold fields. The United States government was reeling under the immense financial strain of the Civil War and saw the Montana gold fields as one answer to the financial problems.

In one battle near Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming, Captain William J. Fetterman and 80 soldiers were killed by Oglala and Cheyenne warriors. The Cheyenne were under the leadership of Little Horse, a contrary. The soldiers in the fort prepared to blow it up if the Indians broke through their defenses and the message from the fort was

“We are fighting a foe that is the devil.”

Montana Territorial Governor Thomas Meagher wrote in 1866:

“As for the Sioux, and their allies and accomplices, it is my clear and positive conviction that they will never be reduced to friendly and reliable relations with the whites but by the strong and crushing hand of the military power of the nation.”

In Montana, Oglala leader Red Cloud visited the Crow, bringing them gifts of tobacco, horses, and ammunition. The Oglala asked the Crow to join them in their fight against the Americans. The Crow, who had long been Oglala enemies, declined to join them.

A war party of 3,000 Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho warriors was formed to attack the army station on the Platte River Bridge, near present-day Casper, Wyoming. The army station was protected by a wooden stockade and a company of soldiers.

The Cheyenne warriors were led by Dull Knife, White Bull, and Roman Nose. The Sioux warriors were led by Old Man Afraid of His Horses, Young Man Afraid of His Horses, and Red Cloud. A small group of warriors acted as decoys and a detachment of soldiers was sent out to drive them off. Before the ambush trap could be closed, however, the soldiers were ordered back and returned without loss.  

The following morning 25 soldiers were sent out to escort a military wagon train back to the fort. They were attacked and four soldiers killed. The war party then attacked the wagon train, killing over 20 soldiers. At least seven Cheyenne were killed.

From the Indian perspective, these limited attacks were worthwhile as individual warriors accomplished heroic deeds. The war party had attained sufficient glory for one day and the warriors returned home without attacking the army station.

In 1867, the Sioux and Cheyenne continued their battles against the building of the Bozeman Trail. Dull Knife and Two Moon led the Cheyenne against soldiers near Fort C. F. Smith. Red Cloud attacked woodcutters near Fort Phil Kearny. In Montana, a war party of 700 Sioux warriors attacked a group of 19 soldiers and six civilians who were working in a hayfield. The Americans had the advantage of newer and better guns-rapid-firing, breech-loading 50 caliber Springfield rifles and repeating rifles. After several hours of battle, the Sioux withdrew.

In 1867, the Northern Arapaho under the leadership of Medicine Man met with the Americans at Fort Fetterman in an attempt to reestablish peaceful relations. Medicine Man told the Americans that they did not want to be involved in the Sioux and Cheyenne raids, nor did they want to go to the Sioux Reservation or to Indian Territory. He told them that the Arapaho wanted to stay in the north, in Montana and Wyoming.

The war over the Bozeman Trail, also known as Red Cloud’s War, officially ended in 1868 with the Treaty of Fort Laramie which established the Great Sioux Reservation and preserved the Powder River and Big Horn country as un-ceded Indian territory. The reservation, according to article 2, was

“set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians”.

No cession of the reservation would be valid without the signatures of three-fourths of the adult males.

The treaty was signed with 10 Sioux tribes – Brulé, Oglala, Miniconjou, Yanktonai, Hunkpapa, Blackfeet, Cuthead, Two Kettle, Sans Arcs,  Santee- and with the Arapaho.

The Indians were promised that they could continue to use their hunting grounds outside of the reservation for “so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase.” The American government, however, was confident that the buffalo would soon be exterminated and thus the Sioux would be confined to the reservation.

The Indians promised that they would withdraw all opposition to the construction of railroads; that they would not attack the people of the United States; that they would not capture white women or children; that they would not kill or scalp white men.

From a Sioux perspective, the treaty was a success as it forced the abandonment of the Bozeman Trail through their hunting grounds and the three forts that guarded the trail.

The Arapaho felt that they had little choice but to sign the treaty. They agreed to settle on a reservation within one year: either with the Sioux or with the Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho in Oklahoma or with the Crow in Montana. Signing the treaty for the Arapaho were Black Bear, Medicine Man, Little Wolf, Littleshield, and Sorrel Horse.

Following the treaty council the army abandoned all of its forts except for Fort Fetterman in Wyoming. The Sioux burned all of the abandoned forts. The burning of the forts was a symbol of their victory against the American invasion of their country.