Category Archives: economics

Confederate Elections of 1863

From Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War, by David Williams (New Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 87-88:

As early as November 1861, a committee assigned to consider revising Virginia’s state constitution called for more restricted suffrage and fewer popularly elected offices. In May 1863, the Reverend H.W. Hilliard, a former member of Congress from Georgia, spoke out publicly for a more restricted suffrage. When word of Hilliard’s remarks reached Athens, a local paper wrote that “the most unfeeling, unjust and cruel wrong we have ever witnessed, is this effort of designing politicians and juggling priests who are lying about home doing nothing, and worse than nothing, to disfranchise the brave and noble poor men who are fighting the battles of the country.”

Such efforts on the part of elites served only to inflame common folk and further undermine Confederate support. By 1863, many were openly demanding peace. In North Carolina, there were peace rallies throughout the mountain regions. In Georgia, the editor of Griffin’s Southern Union called for an end to the war, and reunification with the North. Several candidates for Georgia’s General Assembly from Gilmer and surrounding counties ran on the Union ticket. So did candidates in northern Alabama. In parts of Mississippi, so numerous were Union men that cavalry units were posted to keep them away from the polls. Still, armed bands of deserters showed up at Mississippi polling places defying arrest and demanding their right to vote. In Floyd County, Virginia, Confederates guarded every precinct to prevent deserters from voting. Nevertheless, so many local deserters’ relatives went to the polls that they elected a pro-Union sheriff, Ferdinand Winston, and several other Unionist county officials. In Mississippi’s Tishomingo County, Confederate officials were so worried about a Union victory at the polls that they suspended elections entirely.

Fear, intimidation, and despondency kept many alienated voters away from the polls. And because the Confederate Constitution gave the president a six-year term, Jefferson Davis was in no danger of losing his office. Even so, the election returns brought discouraging news for the Davis Administration. In North Carolina, candidates for the Conservative Party, composed mainly of longtime secession opponents, won nine of ten congressional seats—and eight of them were “reported to be in favor of peace.” George Logan of the Tenth District was nominated at a peace rally. Both of the state’s gubernatorial candidates were Conservative Party men.

In Texas, half the incumbent congressmen lost their seats. Of Georgia’s ten congressional representatives, only one was reelected. The state’s 90 percent freshman rate was the highest in the Confederacy. Eight of Georgia’s new representatives ran on an anti-Davis platform. Alabama voted out its staunchly pro-Davis governor. Four of the state’s new congressmen were suspected of being outright Unionists. The new legislature was made up mostly of men inclined to sue for peace. One Alabamian wrote that the election results showed a “decided wish amongst the people for peace.” In all, nearly half the old Congress was turned out. Two-thirds of the newly elected members had long opposed secession. The congressional freshman rate would likely have been much greater had it not been for the large bloc of returning members representing districts under federal occupation who were “elected” by refugees, by soldiers, or by general ticket in a given state’s districts still held by the Confederacy.

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Southern Reactions to Lincoln’s Election

From Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War, by David Williams (New Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 9-10:

A few weeks after Abraham Lincoln’s election, in the Confederacy’s future capital city, Virginia Unionists organized a mass meeting of the “working men of Richmond” to oppose secession. At a second such meeting, they upheld the federal government’s right to suppress secession by force if necessary. Anti-secession mechanics in Frederick County, Virginia, met to denounce the “folly and sinister selfishness of the demagogues of the South.” Workers in Portsmouth were equally stirred: “We look upon any attempt to break up this Government or dissolve this Union as an attack upon the rights of the people of the whole country.”

From western Virginia came word of Union meetings in Harrison, Monongalia, Wood, Tyler, Marion, and Mason counties. Preston County residents drew up a resolution declaring that “any attempt upon the part of the state to secede will meet with the unqualified disapprobation of the people of this county.” A resolution from Wheeling insisted that “it is the sacred duty of all men in public offices and all citizens in private life to support and defend the Constitution … the election of Abraham Lincoln … does not, in our judgment, justify secession, or a dissolution of our blessed and glorious Union.”

There were similar sentiments in the Deep South. In the heart of Georgia’s cotton belt, a large crowd of local citizens gathered at Crawfordville to declare: “We do not consider the election of Lincoln and Hamlin as sufficient cause for Disunion or Secession.” A mass meeting in Walker County expressed the same sentiment: “We are not of the opinion that the election of any man in accordance with the prescribed forms of the Constitution is sufficient cause to disrupt the ties which bind us to the Union.” In Harris County, the newspaper editor stated firmly that “we are a Union loving people here, and will never forsake the old ‘Star Spangled Banner.’” To stress the point, he printed the names of 175 local men, all pledged to “preserve the honor and rights of the South in the Union.

At Lake Jackson Church near Tallahassee, Florida, there assembled a crowd of 400 “whose heart beat time to the music of the Union.” A convention of laborers in Nashville, Tennessee, declared their “undying love for the Union” and called secessionist efforts “treason … by designing and mad politicians.” All across the South, thousands of worried southerners did their best to head off secession. While most had opposed Lincoln’s candidacy, a similar majority saw no reason to destroy the country over his election. Three-fourths of southern whites held no slaves and tended to believe that, as one Georgia man wrote, “this fuss was all for the benefit of the wealthy.”

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Effects of Cotton Gin and Indian Removal on Slavery

From Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War, by David Williams (New Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 18-19:

Aside from the moral issues involved, most Americans of that era [c. 1800] saw slavery as an economic dead end. The institution thrived only in the tobacco fields of the Chesapeake region and the rice country of coastal Carolina and Georgia. As the nation expanded, slavery would become proportionally less important to the nation’s economy and would eventually die a natural death. But the development of an efficient cotton engine, or “gin,” in the eighteenth century’s last decade changed all that. The cotton gin became the vehicle by which slavery was carried across the Deep South. Not surprisingly, attitudes toward slavery changed with the institution’s growing economic importance.

That change did not occur overnight. Antislavery sentiment in the South remained open and active through the early 1830s. As of 1827, 106 of the country’s 130 abolitionist societies were in the South. To discourage the use of slave labor, some of those societies paid above-market prices for cotton produced without slave labor. North Carolina Quakers and Methodists repeatedly petitioned their state legislature for emancipation. In 1821, a leading Georgia newspaper insisted: “There is not a single editor in these States who dares advocate slavery as a principle.” Far from advocating slavery, Alabama editor James G. Birney started an abolitionist newspaper. In 1827, the Alabama legislature passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves from other states, and at every session throughout the decade, members proposed legislation favoring gradual emancipation. As late as 1831, a proposal to end slavery was introduced in the Virginia state assembly.

But the early nineteenth century was also the era of Indian removal. In 1827, Georgia forced out its few remaining Creeks. Nine years later, Alabama did the same. The 1830s saw the Choctaws and Chickasaws driven out of Mississippi. And Georgia annexed Cherokee land following the 1829 discovery of gold there. In an effort that carried the hopes of all Indian nations with it, the Cherokees fought to keep their land through the court system. The United States Supreme Court finally responded in 1832 with its Worcester v. Georgia decision: by treaty obligation, by prior act of Congress, and by the Constitution itself, the Indians held legal title to their land. But President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling, and Congress declined to intervene. Georgia ignored the court order, and the Cherokees were driven westward on the Trail of Tears. A quarter of them died on that brutal forced march. In 1842, Florida’s Seminoles became the last of the southern nations to be violently relocated to land that they were promised would be theirs for “as long as grass grows or water runs.” At the time it was called Indian Territory. Today it is called Oklahoma.

Indian removal completed the transition in slaveholder attitudes begun a generation earlier. Slaveholders no longer viewed slavery as a temporary necessity but held it to be a positive good, divinely ordained, for the slaveholder, the slave, the nation, and the world. Though religion, racism, pride, and fear were all used to bolster slavery at home and justify it abroad, the driving force behind planters’ proslavery campaign was the same that caused their change of attitude in the first place—economic self-interest. Some planters, like Georgia’s Benjamin Harvey Hill, were candid enough to admit it: “In our early history the Southern statesmen were antislavery in feeling. So were Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Randolph, and many of that day who never studied the argument of the cotton gin, nor heard the eloquent productions of the great Mississippi Valley. Now our people not only see the justice of slavery, but its providence too.”31 It was cotton, along with tobacco, rice, and sugar, all cultivated by slave labor, that gave planters their economic power. And it was this power that gave planters the political strength with which to control the South’s lower classes and silence or exile slavery’s opponents.

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Defeated Lakota, 1880s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 374-375:

The army’s withdrawal only opened the door for another assault by the federal government, now in the form of assertive agents, missionaries, school teachers, and “civilization” programs. The agents no longer sought to reform the Lakota society; that policy had expired the moment Custer died. They now aimed to hollow out Lakota society and fill the void with white American values, norms, words, customs, and thoughts. Once tribalism was pulverized, so went the logic, Lakotas could be absorbed into the American society as individuals and nuclear families.

Some Lakotas accepted and actively embraced farming and schools, but most were horrified by the assimilationist zeal. After all, Lakotas had possessed an extensive reservation and dominated the vast northern plains only a year earlier; their fall from power had been shockingly fast and complete. The acreage under the plow increased across the reduced reservation, but so too did resentment and despair. Chiefs struggled to maintain their status in a strange world where government agents incited rivalries among them, mobilized the akíčhitas [= marshals, camp police] to control them, and withheld rations to weaken them. Former hunters and warriors were reduced to eking out a living by driving wagons, hauling freight, and cutting wood. Women’s traditional roles narrowed in the male-dominated reservation milieu and their standing as providers deteriorated as men took up farming and secured wage jobs. Children were removed from their families and taken to boarding schools where, separated from what was traditional and safe, they received an education geared to extinguish the Lakota culture.

The Great Sioux Reservation became a battleground for competing visions of the Lakota future. In 1881 Spotted Tail was killed by Crow Dog, a captain of the Indian police, who could not accept the old chief’s defiant traditionalism, persisting popularity, and multiple wives. That same year Sitting Bull, no longer able to hold on to his starving followers, crossed the medicine line [Canadian border] again and formally surrendered at Fort Buford with Crow King. He gave his rifle to his six-year-old son who handed it over to an army officer. “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle,” the fifty-year-old chief said. “This boy has given it to you, and now wants to know how he is going to make a living,” he said, intimating the struggles his son and others of his generation would face in the alien world the wašíčus [whites] imposed on the Lakotas. Crow King asked a Chicago Tribune correspondent for two dollars to buy dolls for his girls.

Sitting Bull was taken to Fort Randall on the Missouri River where he was held as a prisoner of war for nearly two years. He then settled in the Standing Rock Agency where James McLaughlin, a ruthlessly effective assimilation crusader, was tearing the fabric of the Lakota society apart by recruiting “boss” farmers, policemen, and judges among the Lakotas to educate, monitor, and punish other Lakotas. The rift between the Indian police and traditional spiritual leaders became particularly corrosive.

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Custer’s Black Hills Expedition, 1874

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle p. 342:

In 1874 the times were bad, spectacularly so, and when news arrived that rich veins of gold had been found in the Black Hills, it galvanized the nation. Gold had helped lift the nation from the material and moral ruins of the Civil War; now it could lift it from a debilitating depression.

The news came from one of the many small expeditions that the U.S. Army had sent in to find a suitable site for a fort near the Black Hills to protect the tracklayers of the blocked Northern Pacific Railroad. The fort, Sherman thought, would allow the army to deliver a crippling blow to the seemingly invincible Lakotas whom the national media now conflated with rebellious blacks, Chinese immigrants, disaffected farmers, and labor activists as an acute threat to the fragile industrial order. Sheridan, who had orchestrated total war against Native civilians during Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche campaigns in 1868–69, believed that Lakota hostility now amounted to “a general Indian war” and proposed to President Grant that military forts in the Black Hills would “make it a little hot for the [Lakota] villages and stock if these Indians attempted to raid on the settlements south.” Grant agreed, and Sheridan picked Custer, whose conduct during the Yellowstone Expedition had much enhanced his professional standing, to lead the Black Hills Expedition: one hundred covered wagons; more than nine hundred cavalry and infantry; sixty-one Arikara scouts; several guides, engineers, and “practical miners”; three Gatling machine guns; three journalists; a photographer; and a geologist, Newton H. Winchell from the University of Minnesota, all moving out of Fort Abraham Lincoln, skirting the Great Sioux Reservation and entering the hills from the north. In mid-August, after six weeks of travel, the convoy found traces of gold. Custer exaggerated the discovery, and the expedition delivered what he had geared it up for: it created a national event. Reporters dispatched excited press releases, newspapers picked up and magnified the story, and in the late fall of 1874 the Black Hills gold rush was a reality.

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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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