Author Archives: Joel

Lakota Hunting Grounds, 1870s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 332-335:

The railroad did eventually come, ushering in U.S. troops and U.S. authority, but well before it came Lakotas. Raids into the Crow country and American settlements in the Gallatin Valley became a routine with Sitting Bull serving as a gravitational force…. Suddenly all American settlements “within the reach of the Sioux hunting-grounds” were in danger. The Carroll Trail, a crucial transportation line connecting Helena to the Missouri River, was in risk of being cut off. At times it seemed it was Crows who protected Americans against Lakotas rather than vice versa. Both settlers and soldiers saw the Crows as an extra “regiment of cavalry.”

But the Crows were Lakotas’ primary target, for they stood between them and the bison. Crows were at times forced to flee their reservation in the face of massive Lakota war parties seeking game, horses, mules, and cattle, and their powerless agent seemed to accept “the annual Sioux invasion” as a fact of life. Such was the Lakota pressure that Crow chiefs were rumored to be considering “an offensive and defensive alliance with the Sioux as against the whites.” There could be no such alliance, of course—the game was too scarce and the hatreds ran too deep—and Crows remained close allies of the United States. Before long, Lakotas occupied “the larger and most fertile portion of their reservation.”

Like Crows, Shoshones looked to Americans for protection against Lakotas and their allies. But unlike Crows, they managed to put distance between Lakotas and themselves. Decades of fighting over hunting rights had left them debilitated, and they had accepted a reservation in the lee of the Wind River Range, far to the southwest of the Lakota sphere of operations. Yet, even there, fear of Lakota attacks forced them to periodically flee. Eventually, they ceded a mineral-rich section of their reservation to secure the government’s goodwill and protection. This, in the minds of U.S. agents, was a sign of supreme wisdom: they “are among the most intelligent and best disposed of any Indians on the plains,” gushed the governor of the Wyoming Territory. “Wash-a-kie, their chief, is in all respects a superior Indian.” Their agents reported a growing consumption of government rations—beef, bacon, flour, and sugar—which indicated that Shoshones were giving up the hunt.

So were Utes. They had secured a large eighty-seven-thousand-square-mile reservation in the new Colorado Territory in 1861, but in 1868 they were compelled to accept a much-reduced domain. Five years later the government imposed another reduction, which broke Ute power. Lakota-Arapaho-Cheyenne war parties pushed deep into Ute territory, and growing numbers of Ute hunters began to frequent Denver, expecting to be fed, much to the exasperation of the city’s inhabitants and the territory’s Indian agents: “Even were they ever so well able to pay for hotel accommodations, they are not a desirable class of customers to the proprietors of any of our public-houses.” In the summer of 1873 Ute hunters wished to parade enemy scalps on the streets of Denver: they had killed three Lakota warriors while hunting along the Republican. The Indian agent banned the parade, and Utes celebrated their surprising victory outside the city for a week. It was clear that there would not be many more. Agents reported “improved industrial habits,” larger crops, and a growing willingness to live in houses.

Establishing control over shrinking bison herds was the paramount motive of Lakota warfare in the early 1870s, and it spawned a sprawling raiding hinterland that extended from the Canadian plains into the Rockies and deep into the American Southwest. Closer to home, Lakotas waged a sporadic raiding war against the Arikaras, Hidatsas, and Mandans who now shared a reservation along the Missouri and Little Missouri Rivers. Lakota war parties raided the reservation for horses and corn with growing confidence, sometimes coming with women and often informing their agents of their intentions and successes. Arikaras retaliated by raiding Lakotas at their Grand River and Cheyenne River Agencies, but their agent wanted to move them to Indian Territory, farther away from Lakotas. He was promptly rebuffed: “they fear that it is too warm for them. . . . Besides they love their own country; their dead are buried here; the Government probably would not redeem its promises better there than here.” For Arikaras the U.S. Indian policy was a demoralizing exercise in hypocrisy. “‘The hostile Sioux have all they want from the Government without removal from their country,’” their chiefs protested. “‘Why cannot the Rees [= Arikaras], who have been so friendly and faithful these many years?’” The Arikaras stayed put, their numbers slowly declining in the shadow of an overpowering Lakota-U.S. alliance.

As their rivals yielded ground, Lakotas emerged, in many ways, more powerful than ever. Never before had they ranged over more territory or reached so far. Their core area—their homeland—exceeded the Great Sioux Reservation by tens of thousands of square miles, and their hunting and raiding domain stretched from Lake Winnipeg in the north to the Republican Valley in the south and from the Missouri Valley in the east to the Continental Divide in the west. They had thousands of Indigenous allies on their orbit and diplomatic and commercial ties to Canada and Washington, D.C. They had several handsomely stocked government agencies at their disposal, and they went to war with cutting-edge military technology. Formidable, flexible, and ubiquitous, they commanded the attention of the U.S. government like no other Indigenous nation.

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U.S. Reconstruction: Southerners and Sioux

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 267-268:

The United States emerged from the catastrophic war not as a nation but as an empire. The rebelling states remained on maps as before the war, but in reality they were captive territories under military occupation and governance. Acting without any political precedent—how does a failed republican state reunite?—the federal government set out to reconstruct the South after its own image. This was the era of authoritative government agents tasked to impose industrial capitalism, yeoman farming, democracy, and Christian civilization on a vast canvas. “We are to have the charge of this continent,” declared the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. “This continent is to be from this time forth governed by Northern men, with Northern ideas, and with a Northern gospel.” It was a formula for a comprehensive reconstruction that would simultaneously target both the Southerners and Native Americans. There would two reconstructions, one focused on the rebuilding and reforming the South, the other on pacifying the Indigenous West.

The reconstruction of Indigenous America had to start with the rebellious Lakotas and their allies, and the first challenge was to agree how to achieve it. Several generals insisted that force alone would make Indians give up raiding and settle down, but many eastern politicians and philanthropists, sickened by the Sand Creek massacre, argued that moral education was the only justifiable course. Congress sided with the humanitarians and appointed, in March 1865, Senator James R. Doolittle, a staunch Baptist and patriot, to lead a joint special committee to investigate the state of Indian-white affairs in the West. It authorized commissions to negotiate new treaties with the plains tribes, including the Sioux. The Sioux commission was headed by Newton Edmunds, governor of the Dakota Territory, who was desperate to put an end to the Indian wars that hindered white settlement in his territory, blocking its path to statehood. Pressure came also from Nebraska to the south, where the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad was poised to start in Omaha, making Lakota appeasement a matter of national importance.

Repeatedly humbled by nomad warriors over the years, generals denounced the congressional version of the Indigenous reconstruction as lily-livered and misguided. Sully and Sibley wanted to keep the pressure on the Lakotas, and Pope, in charge of military operations in the Dakota Territory, was deeply cynical of the logic of offering new treaties to the plains tribes. How will they understand treaties and annuities he asked, if “the violation of former treaties and the murder of whites are to be thus compensated?” As he saw it, treaties actually boosted Lakota raids. “It is a common saying with the Sioux, that whenever they are poor, and need powder and lead, they have only to go down to the overland routes and murder a few white men, and they will have a treaty to supply their wants.” Pope was not entirely wrong. Since the opening of the Oregon Trail in the mid-1840s, Lakotas had tolerated overland traffic because it yielded resources, whether secured through trading, raiding, extortion, or, as Pope now claimed, through treaty goods.

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U.S. View of the Great Plains c. 1850

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 211-212:

Viewed from Washington, Mexico seemed a natural addition to a nation that was exploding toward the Pacific by way of Louisiana and Texas; the question was the exact size of the appendix. There was a broad consensus that the Nueces strip and San Francisco Bay should be included, and 37° N was quickly established as a new northern boundary. But opinions differed widely on the southern one. Most in the room insisted on a direct line from the mouth of the Rio Grande to the Pacific along 26° N—a thousand-mile-wide chunk of land that would have turned ten Mexican states into U.S. soil. Some argued that they should simply take the whole of Mexico. In the end cooler heads prevailed, and the United States annexed only New Mexico and Alta California. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo transferred half of Mexico to the United States.

There was a direct mental strand between the Indian Removal Act and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, between the debates over the Indian Removal and the debates over the Mexican annexation. Key U.S. policymakers had developed an imperial mindset, a collection of attitudes, convictions, and habits that allowed them to see humans, nations, and entire societies as pawns on an immense geopolitical chessboard. Jackson, Polk, and their officials poured over maps and drew new lines on them, rearranging the world into a new shape. Indian Territory in the West was now the home of removed southern Indians and El Paso was now a U.S. town because they had drawn the lines so. It was in many ways but a reiteration of the centuries-old European imperial ethos which had pushed Spain, Portugal, France, and Britain to carve up the world into empires, but it was new to Americans, and many of them reveled in it. Washington’s dream of an expanding empire of liberty, Jefferson’s utopian schemes for Louisiana, and Monroe’s famous doctrine had been early versions of the imperial mindset, but it was only in the 1840s that Americans possessed the means—sufficient administrative capacity and an ability to borrow money on a vast scale—to start turning imperial abstractions into reality through state-sanctioned violence.

The continental grasslands figured only marginally in these designs. Policymakers in Washington looked straight through the plains nomads into New Mexico and California where the imperial stakes were highest. Seemingly devoid of extractable wealth (except for furs) and securely embedded within U.S. borders, the Great Plains became a kind of halfway house where the Natives could learn the arts of civilization in splendid isolation under the tutelage of a select group of missionaries and government agents. A line of forts running down from Fort Snelling to west-central Louisiana marked a “permanent Indian frontier,” demarcating a sizable reserve in the heart of the continent where the Indians could safely modernize themselves.

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U.S. Blind to Lakota Expansion c. 1860

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 239-240:

The well-organized and well-mounted Crows had reigned over a sizable domain that disguised their relatively small population of about five thousand. The upshot was that Crows had placed relatively little pressure on the bison, which remained so numerous that they considered hunting a routine that required neither great numbers nor elaborate planning. Much of that animal bounty now belonged to Lakotas whose expansion had secured them five fertile river valleys—the Tongue, Rosebud, Little Bighorn, Bighorn, and Yellowstone—each filled with bison and enveloped by lush grass. When women and children joined men in the West, bringing in tipis, belongings, and horses, these valleys became home. It was there that Pretty Owl, Red Cloud, Snow-on-Her, Red Woman, Sitting Bull, and many others raised their families, securing their world for generations to come.

The Lakota expansion into the Crow country violated the Horse Creek Treaty, but the government did next to nothing to quell it. Lakotas, after all, were pushing the Crows high up the northern Rockies where that “insolent” tribe posed no threat to America’s overland arteries and hegemonic pretensions. The same applied to the Eastern Shoshones, Assiniboines, and even Mormons whom Lakotas began raiding as the Crows retreated. Soon Lakotas were ranging west of the Bighorns and north of the Yellowstone.

But elsewhere Lakota policies were a direct affront to the United States. In 1853 Cheyennes carried “the pipe around to invite other tribes to war against the Pawnees,” and many Lakotas responded to the call. They killed more than one hundred. Lakotas also raided plains villages along the Missouri and south of the Platte, taking horses and captives and corn and trying to monopolize access to the bison. As if to assert their prerogative to deal with their Native neighbors as they saw best, in the spring and summer of 1860 Lakotas and their allies attacked the Pawnee reservation on the Loup eight times, each strike a blatant violation of the treaty that granted them annuities on the condition of keeping peace. The United States allowed Lakotas to stage raids, wage wars, and expand their empire in its midst without taking effective action to stop them. This passivity is one of the great puzzles in the history of U.S.-Indian relations.

Gold, once again, was at the heart of things. In 1858 rich veins had been discovered in the Rocky Mountain foothills in western Kansas Territory. A hundred thousand “fifty-niners” rushed in along the Solomon, Smoky Hill, and Arkansas Rivers, heading toward Pikes Peak where their shared dreams converged. About half of them returned home the same year, crossing the plains back east. The two-way mass migration left behind wrecked river valleys with pulverized banks almost devoid of game, grass, and timber. Those valleys belonged to Cheyennes and Arapahos, their sanctity guarded by the proudly militant Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. As tensions mounted along the trails, the army sent in soldiers to keep order. The continuing flow of gold through the central plains became a priority for the federal government, and Lakotas slipped into a liberating blind spot. The already limited military oversight shrunk to almost nothing.

The blind spot only grew when the United States descended into civil war. In 1860, pressured by federal agents, moderate Cheyennes and Arapahos accepted a reservation on the Arkansas River, signing away most of their lands. The Dog Soldiers declared the treaty unlawful and began killing anyone—Indians, ranchers, Union freighters—who competed for diminishing resources. Terrified that the Confederates in New Mexico might join with the Dog Soldiers to invade the Colorado goldfields, the Union built a frontier army out of volunteer regiments and assigned it to punish militants across the central plains. Chasing the ultra-mobile nomad warriors absorbed the bulk of the resources the Union could make available in the West. Every raid, fight, and flight the Dog Soldiers staged worked directly to Lakotas’ benefit by keeping the Union preoccupied. Lakotas had a virtual free rein to arrange the world as they saw fit. It was not a coincidence that they were raiding all over the place and enjoying best hunts for a long time during the early years of the Civil War.

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Lakota Elites, c. 1850s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 184-185:

In the early nineteenth century Lakota men were born into an increasingly competitive world with an uneven playing field. Boys were raised to be brave and ambitious in war, hunting, horsemanship, and courtship, and aspiring young men had to participate in several raiding expeditions to accumulate enough horses for a dowry. Many accomplished this in their late twenties after which they could settle down to family life, gradually give up raiding, and assume the role of an elder. As their families grew, they could marry off their daughters to other prominent men, receive handsome bride prices, and embed their families into expansive kinship networks that brought prestige, prosperity, and security. The most successful men—those who had become wiča, complete men—could sponsor extravagant feasts and giveaways in their sons’ name, paving their way within the fiercely competitive male sphere. Many celebrated Lakota leaders were born into this kind of privilege and were in turn able to bestow their sons with similar benefits. If competent, their sons could succeed them as hereditary chiefs and assume their names. They Fear Even His Horses the Younger and American Horse the Younger belonged to old and highly esteemed lineages, their names both a privilege and an obligation.

If not quite aristocracy, such men nonetheless possessed decisive advantages over others. Sitting Bull was born into a long line of chiefs and raised by two powerful uncles—Four Horns, a prominent band leader, and Looks-For-Him-in-A-Tent, a renowned war leader—whose eminence reflected on him, propelling his rise among aspiring Hunkpapa men. Camp heralds publicized his exploits as a hunter and a warrior—he earned his first military honors at fourteen, chasing a fleeing Crow on horseback and bringing him down with a hatchet-blow to the head—a position of advantage that blended with his innate spiritual prowess, physical courage, and quiet charisma to elevate him above rivals. He had a powerful dream in a vision quest at a young age and became the leader of the prestigious Strong Hearts warrior society in his mid-twenties.

Curly Hair was the son of Crazy Horse, who was the headman of the leading Hunkpatila band of the Oglalas, which traced a proud lineage of elders and holy men. At the time of Curly Hair’s birth in 1840, his father’s band included over ten tipis of blood relatives and in-laws, all of whom looked to Crazy Horse for spiritual and political leadership. Curly Hair was a child of privilege who grew up having his first steps and words celebrated with public feasts and gifts to the poor. Through his Minneconjou mother Curly Hair found another set of supportive kin relations and a further source of esteem: his family was the key proponent of an Oglala-Minneconjou alliance that shaped Lakota politics for a generation. His family promoted solidarity in both oyátes through giveaways, accruing admiration and followers; High Backbone, an ambitious Minneconjou headman, adopted Curly Hair as his protégé, engaging him in two-way character-hardening play fights and equestrian feats. When Curly Hair became a man and assumed his father’s name, he was primed for success. Young women wanted him for a husband, fathers wanted their daughters to marry him, young men wanted to be his kȟolá, and warriors were willing to follow him into war.

Men like the young Crazy Horse inevitably overshadowed less privileged men who lacked their kin connections, family wealth, and fame. For them the path for social recognition was paved with toil, anxiety, and violence—relentless raiding that gradually, often after several years, yielded enough clout to court women and enough horses and robes to pay bride prices. Lakotas raided and fought several neighboring groups in the mid-nineteenth century, but they did not do so as a monolith. Elite men raided horses to augment their possessions, but, backed with wealthy relatives, they could also afford to focus on collecting coups—war honors earned through audacious exploits like touching the enemy with a hand or a coupstick in the midst of hot battle—which further solidified their credentials as leaders. For other men raiding was an economic necessity that could consume their lives into early middle age. Some of them succeeded in turning themselves into warrior-traders with several wives, but many died trying. Their raw, anguished ambition to become men of substance was a latent impetus behind the expansion that made Lakotas the masters of the northern plains. Red Cloud, who lacked the pedigree of some of his rivals, spent nearly twenty years raiding before he dared to make a formal bid for chieftainship.

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The Crow vs. Lakota Long War

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 192-193:

In the winter of 1830 Lakotas killed some twenty Crows at Matȟó Pahá (Bear Butte) about twenty miles north of the fabled Racetrack. Crows had attempted to surprise a Lakota camp in an unusually snowy winter, but Lakota herders had detected them. Numerous winter counts recorded the battle, underscoring its importance: it marked the beginning of a war that would last, with short respites, for nearly half a century between Lakotas and Crows—the longest known war in the history of North America.

That the battle took place at Bear Butte was significant. Lakotas had banished Crows from the Black Hills in the 1820s, but the violence persisted, turning a vast arc stretching from the hills toward the North Platte, the Big Horn Mountains, and the Yellowstone into a battleground. At stake were spiritually significant places like Matȟó Pahá and Matȟó Thípila Pahá (Devil’s Tower) where Crows, Lakotas, and Cheyennes gathered to hold ceremonies and seek visions. At stake were also robes, protein, carbohydrates, and timber. The contested terrain, an alluring mosaic of steppes and mountains punctuated by a series of lush and well-forested river valleys, was rich in bison and wild plants and made for some of the best horse pastures in the Great Plains. The fighting became unyielding, bringing violence to the doorstep of the Lakota villages. An 1837 Oglala winter count reported one such incident: “Black-face, who painted half his face black from the nose down, camped away from the circle and was killed by the Crow, he and his whole family.”

The Crow war presented a singular challenge for Lakotas: it was their first full-blown conflict with other horse nomads. Crows were formidable warriors who had acquired horses long before Lakotas, possessed more animals per capita, and were generally known as superior equestrian fighters. They were also well integrated in the fur trade. They visited Fort Union near the Missouri-Yellowstone confluence every year and also rendezvoused with Rocky Mountain trapper-traders who considered the quality of Crow beaver pelts second to none. From both outlets guns, powder, and lead flowed into the Crow country. The experienced fur trader Denig considered the Crows “cunning, active, and very intelligent in everything appertaining to the chase, war, or their own individual bargaining.” Powerful and confident, they looked the part to Denig’s nineteenth-century sensibility. “The warrior class is perhaps the handsomest body of Indians in North America. They are all tall, straight, well formed, with bold, fierce eyes, and as usual good teeth. These also dress elegantly and expensively.”

The Crow-Lakota conflict was an uncompromising tug-of-war over the control of the borderlands that separated the Black Hills from the Crow country to the west. This meant that Crows were fighting in terrain they knew intimately and that Lakotas were entering foreign lands to face an enemy that matched or surpassed their firepower and horsemanship. But Lakotas had a number of advantages that compensated for their weaknesses. Their population dwarfed the five-thousand-strong Crows, and their clustering in Pahá Sápa allowed them to coordinate military action at an unprecedented scale. At the moment the Black Hills became home, they also became a front line.

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Lakotas Arrive in the Black Hills, 1830s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 167-169:

Oglalas and Sicangus were the first to turn west, ascending the White and Bad [rivers] which offered reliable water and wood, serving as superb passageways. As they inched upriver, they clashed with Kiowas and Crows, pushing the former to the south and the latter to the west. Sicangus joined forces with Cheyennes against the Kiowas, while Oglalas spearheaded campaigns against Crows under the leadership of Bull Bear whose boldness and resolve seemed to have given their operations particular sharpness. By the late 1820s Crows had retreated from the Black Hills into the Powder River country a hundred miles to the west, and Oglalas and Sicangus established themselves on Pahá Sápa’s eastern side. By that time Sans Arcs, Minneconjous, Two Kettles, Sihasapas, and Hunkpapas had also begun to shift west, establishing the Cheyenne and Grand [rivers] as entryways.

Lakotas had turned west, decisively, but they remained people of river valleys first and people of the plains second. They ventured into the western grasslands and Pahá Sápa from multiple points along timbered river valleys and moved back regularly along those same valleys to the Mníšoše [Missouri R.], which remained vital to their cosmology and economy. Essentially protrusions of the Missourian riparian woodlands, the White, Bad, Cheyenne, and other tributaries provided Lakotas with safe and familiar pathways into the West. When they began pulling away from the Missouri, they were not so much casting themselves loose on the open plains but extending their old riverland world into the West.

This tripartite pattern—a trunk line in the east, an elevated, magnet-like anchor in the west, and a row of arterials in between—formed the core of the Lakota world from the 1830s onward. It was in those three places where Lakotas spent most of their time—cooking, eating, sleeping, socializing, smoking, praying, raising children, tending horses, preparing hides, making clothes, tools, and weapons—and where most of them entered and left this world. This was the homeland Lakotas would defend against invaders and, when needed, expand.

The western tributaries were keys to land and wealth and power, but they were also conduits into a perilous new world, for they carried Lakotas toward greater aridity. The western Great Plains lie in a long rain shadow cast by the Rocky Mountains. Pacific winds pump moist maritime air eastward, but the air sheds much of its moisture while climbing up the Rockies. The shadow effect is strongest in the west, the 98th meridian marking a default line where evaporation exceeds precipitation and the soil starts to go dry. The grass cover reflects this, becoming shorter toward the west. Around the 105th meridian densely tufted blue grama and buffalo grasses become dominant and the plant canopy shrinks down to a few inches. The bison had adapted over the millennia to these semi-arid conditions, thriving on the stunted short-grasses that retained protein in their dry stalks, making them ideal winter forage. Tens of millions of them lived in the plains, their huge bodies a hunter’s delight.

That was when the Black Hills began to loom large in a material sense. When severe droughts struck the grasslands, the bison tended to seek relief in the high-altitude microclimate around the Black Hills where summers were cooler, rainfall higher, and pasture more lavish. Lakotas did the same. This introduced a new dimension to Pahá Sápa’s allure: it became a sanctuary and a meat pack. Lakotas gathered there to sit out droughts and subsist on buffaloes that seemed to give themselves up—just like the White Buffalo Calf Woman had promised. The control of Pahá Sápa became a spiritual and material imperative without which nothing in the world was secure—not its unearthly bounties, not the hunt, not the survival of Lakotas as a people. Hand paintings on Pahá Sápa’s rocky planes—red spots marking slain enemies—bespeak of the violent struggle that turned the mountain range into an exclusive domain of Lakotas and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies. By the late 1820s Lakotas were wintering in Pahá Sápa. The Black Hills belonged to them.

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Fall of the Dakotas after 1815

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 155-156:

In the summer of 1815, seven months after the Treaty of Ghent, U.S. officials invited the western Indians to a council at Portage des Sioux just north of St. Louis. Two thousand Indians showed up, and Americans made treaties with Lakotas, Mdewakantons, Wahpekutes, Sissetons, Wahpetons, and Yanktons. The pithy compacts pardoned past aggressions and brought the Sioux under the protection of the United States. The Americans understood the last article as a corroboration of U.S. jurisdiction over the Sioux, but the seventy-two Sioux delegates who touched a pen probably understood it as a confirmation of the prewar status quo whereby Americans traded with them without dictating to them. When U.S. soldiers began building an unauthorized fort at Prairie du Chien a year later, Mdewakanton chiefs approached British agents in the upper Great Lakes, pleading for help in preventing their “final extinction.” It was only when the agents refused them that the chiefs realized that they would have to face the United States without British counterweight. Their fall from power was shockingly fast.

Left alone to face the Americans, Dakotas were soon reeling. In 1818 Benjamin O’Fallon, a newly appointed U.S. agent for the Sioux and William Clark’s nephew, led two heavily armed keelboats up the Mississippi and Minnesota to stop Canadian incursions and establish American authority in the region—an enterprise that echoed his uncle’s famous expedition fourteen years earlier. O’Fallon found the Sioux divided and quarrelling over trade. At a Mdewakanton village, chief Shakopee, “ferocious and savage,” complained that his warriors lacked guns and could not contain their Chippewa enemies. O’Fallon urged them to “be always last in war” and place their faith in “the Great Spirit.”

Cut off from the British trade and political support, the Mdewakantons accepted O’Fallon’s gifts—a little whiskey and some goods—and demands. Within a year the U.S. Army started planning a military fort at the Mississippi-Minnesota junction on lands Pike had purchased fourteen years earlier.

O’Fallon had succeeded where Lewis and Clark had failed. While the Corps of Discovery had inadvertently prompted Lakotas to strengthen their hold of the Missouri and its peoples, O’Fallon had extorted from Dakotas a tacit acceptance of a military fort on their lands. Fort Snelling was in operation by 1820 and was soon accompanied by St. Peter’s Indian agency. The complex marked the beginning of a growing American presence in Dakota lives. It became a hub for the growing fur trade, which soon cut into the region’s animal populations, creating food shortages and entangling Dakotas into chronic wars over hunting privileges with Chippewas and Ho-Chunks [aka Winnebago]. Indian agents tried to mediate, but they lacked the know-how to be effective. Things came to head in 1827 when Mdewakantons and Wahpetons killed two Chippewas in a council at Fort Snelling under a U.S. flag. The fort commander, Josiah Snelling, imprisoned several Dakota warriors and demanded the culprits be turned over to him in return for their release. He was given a few men whom he handed over to Chippewas. Chippewas let them run before shooting them down. Then they scalped them in front of the shocked American officials.

A century earlier, less than fifty miles downriver from Fort Snelling, the French had built Fort Beauharnois to serve Dakotas. That trading fort had been the focal point of a deep Dakota-French accommodation that stabilized the upper Mississippi Valley, fueled the expansion of the fur trade west of the Great Lakes, and made the Dakotas the dominant power in the interior. Now the region’s dominant fort was a military establishment that heralded U.S. sovereignty over the Mississippi Valley, monitored the Dakotas, and staged U.S.-sponsored public executions of Dakota people.

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Great Plains Migrations, 1812-1815

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 153-154:

Lakotas stayed out of the War of 1812, but the war years were a dynamic time for them. There were exhilarating advances in equestrian technology: several winter counts record how Lakotas captured their first wild horses with lariats somewhere in the western plains. The practice signaled a larger expansion of the horse culture across the grasslands. Herds of wild mustangs had multiplied in the southern plains to the point where animals began spreading into colder northern latitudes, and Lakotas may have adopted the use of the lariat from their more experienced Cheyenne allies.

There were also far-reaching political developments. Lakotas fought with Crows in the west, clashing over horses and hunting rights, while also engaging in active diplomacy with Pawnees and Kiowas to the south. The talks were often tentative, rendered so by the very dynamism of the rising horse nations of the plains. Comanches, Kiowas, Crows, and other plains nomads were now rapidly accumulating horses, their ambitions growing along with their herds. They were jockeying for position in the western steppes, competing for the richest hunting grounds, the best riverine pasturelands, and key trade corridors.

Though still bound in the Mníšoše [Missouri R.], Lakotas were not exempt from these rivalries. Most of their oyátes had begun regular bison hunts in the West where, at the edge of the Black Hills, they sometimes wintered with Cheyennes. The western excursions drew them into conflict with Kiowas, who were in a habit of traveling to the Black Hills from their southern homelands around the Arkansas, where they lived in an alliance with the powerful Comanches. Lakotas could ill afford a war with Kiowas, who had become prominent middlemen, carrying Comanche horses to the North Platte where they traded with Cheyennes. In 1815 a Lakota delegation traveled there to hold a peace council with Kiowas. It went badly. A Kiowa tried to steal Lakota horses, and a Sicangu warrior buried a hatchet in his head. Lakotas drove the Kiowas all the way into the Rockies. It was a major event, recorded in numerous winter counts, for it anticipated Lakota expansion into the West.

Lakotas were not plains nomads yet. They ventured into the grasslands to hunt and trade and raid, but they did not feel safe out in the open. They were still building up their horse herds, and the Black Hills were dominated by Crows and Cheyennes who commanded the western grasslands from the rocky bastion. In around 1815 Sans Arcs astonished other Lakotas by building dirt lodges at Peoria Bottom above the Bad River. They then did something even more unexpected: they built large wooden houses, which they occupied for at least two years. The pictographs of the boxy structures appear at once cozy and utterly alien on the buffalo hides.

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Lakotas vs. Lewis and Clark

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 144-145:

Lewis and Clark had traversed the Missouri Valley one imperial expansion too late and found it hard to accept. When they returned from their arduous and exhilarating journey to the Pacific sixteen months later, they once again plunged into the Lakota Meridian, which had only grown stronger during their absence. Mandans and Hidatsas were reeling. Whooping cough had ravaged their villages, and Lakotas had intensified their raiding. Lewis and Clark made one more bid to check the Lakota ascendancy. They invited Mandan leaders to visit Washington. The president, they promised, would listen to their troubles, send traders among them, and protect them.

The offer was as unrealistic as it was alluring. Black Cat of the Mandans wanted to see “his Great Father” but said that Lakotas would “certainly kill him if he attempted to go down.” Lakota hold of the upper Missouri seemed now nearly absolute, confining the villagers to the north. Clark asked René Jusseaume, a Canadian trader who had lived among Mandans and Hidatsas for fifteen years, to coax the villagers. He did find one headman, Sheheke, willing to go. What resulted was hardly the kind of embassy Lewis and Clark had in mind: one chief, a few women and children, and Jusseaume, a Canadian, braving Lakotas’ river hegemony. When the Corps set out downriver on August 17, all Mandan headmen saw them off, crying. As Clark was about to embark, the chiefs asked him to sit “one minit longer with them.” They wanted to talk about Lakotas. It was more a lamentation than anything else. After the Americans left, they said, Lakotas would come and “kill them.” Clark told them to fight.

By late August the expedition neared Sicangu [= Brulé] territory, and the explorers grew anxious. They spotted some eighty armed warriors on the northeast bank and hoped they were Yanktons, Poncas, or Omahas. Clark walked toward them on a sandbar, and three Indians swam to him. They were Black Buffalo’s Sicangus. Painful memories flushing over him, Clark had an interpreter tell them they were “bad people.” American traders were arriving soon, he warned, and were “sufficiently Strong to whip any vilenous party who dare to oppose them.” Sicangus told him to cross so they could kill them all. Clark and his men resolved to stare at the Sicangus, thinking that it “put them some Agitation as to our intentions.” Then, quietly, they continued downriver. Twenty-four days later they arrived in St. Louis, finding the city bubbling with expectation, ambition, and opportunism.

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