Red Cloud’s War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In one of the most successful episodes of Native American resistance to white encroachments, the Sioux chief Red Cloud organized a pantribal coalition that forced the federal government to abandon its forts along the newly opened Bozeman Trail. However, Red Cloud’s success merely hastened the process of forcing his people onto reservations.

Summary of Event

In 1862, John M. Bozeman sought a more direct route to connect the newly discovered goldfields around Virginia City, Montana, with the east. After leaving Virginia City, he located a pass that led him to the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, then went southeast, along the eastern flank of the Bighorn Mountains, where he traversed the headwaters of the Bighorn, Tongue, and Powder Rivers. Continuing to the southeast, he intersected the Oregon Trail Oregon Trail along the North Platte River seventy miles west of Fort Laramie. This new trail, which became known by Bozeman’s name, cut directly through the best hunting grounds of the Teton Dakota Sioux—Red Cloud’s people. Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868)[Red Clouds War (1866-1868)] Sioux;Red Cloud’s War[Red Clouds War] Red Cloud Native American wars;Sioux Bozeman Trail Red Cloud Carrington, Henry Beebee Dakota Territory;Red Cloud’s War[Red Clouds War] [kw]Red Cloud’s War (June 13, 1866-Nov. 6, 1868) [kw]War, Red Cloud’s (June 13, 1866-Nov. 6, 1868) Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868)[Red Clouds War (1866-1868)] Sioux;Red Cloud’s War[Red Clouds War] Red Cloud Native American wars;Sioux Bozeman Trail Red Cloud Carrington, Henry Beebee Dakota Territory;Red Cloud’s War[Red Clouds War] [g]United States;June 13, 1866-Nov. 6, 1868: Red Cloud’s War[3960] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;June 13, 1866-Nov. 6, 1868: Red Cloud’s War[3960] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 13, 1866-Nov. 6, 1868: Red Cloud’s War[3960] Bozeman, John M. Connor, Patrick E. Fetterman, William Judd Crazy Horse

The Powder River country that the new Bozeman Trail traversed was a hunter’s paradise, home to the great northern bison herd. Guaranteed to the Sioux by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty (1851) , it was the site of Sioux people’s free-ranging lifestyle, and the Sioux meant to keep it. However, in responding to growing pressure from miners and settlers, the federal government was keenly interested in securing the Bozeman Trail but was uncertain of the best method to achieve that goal. Using force to subjugate or exterminate native peoples was a popular idea in the West. Alternatively, an approach based on peace through justice gained support, especially in the East after the Civil War (1861-1865), when humanitarians who previously had been devoted to the abolition of slavery turned their attention to the so-called Indian problem. This East-West rift led to a schizophrenic policy toward American Indians, in which both approaches were tried, often at the same time.

Pursuing an aggressive policy, the federal government built a string of three forts along the Bozeman Trail. Fort Reno was the first, built seventy miles up the Bozeman Trail in late summer of 1865 by General Patrick E. Connor Connor, Patrick E. . Best known for his slaughter of 273 Paiutes Paiutes;massacre of at Bear Creek in 1863, Connor issued the directive to “accept no peace offers and kill any male over twelve.” However, with the help of his Cheyenne Cheyennes;and Sioux[Sioux] Sioux;and Cheyennes[Cheyennes] and Arapaho Arapahos;and Sioux[Sioux] Sioux;and Arapahos[Arapahos] allies, Red Cloud mauled Connor’s columns. The columns then withdrew, but the fort remained. On July 10 of the following year, Colonel Henry Beebee Carrington established Fort Phil Kearny forty miles north of Fort Reno at the fork of the Piney Creeks. In early August, he built Fort C. F. Smith ninety miles beyond that.

The peace process was tried also. On October 28, 1865, a commission under Governor Newton Edmunds Edmunds, Newton of Dakota Territory announced peace with the Sioux, producing a treaty signed by chiefs already friendly to the settlers. None of the Powder River chiefs signed, however, as they were all fighting Connor Connor, Patrick E. . Red Cloud did go to Fort Laramie Fort Laramie the next spring to discuss peace, trade, and Fort Reno. In the middle of peace negotiations, Colonel Carrington arrived at Fort Laramie on June 13, 1866, in a masterpiece of bad timing. He had seven hundred troops, more than two hundred wagons, and orders to build his Bozeman forts. Red Cloud then accused the commissioner, E. B. Edwards, of having already stolen what they were negotiating. Red Cloud and his entire camp were gone the next morning.

Meanwhile, Edwards collected the signatures of some other chiefs and blithely informed Washington that a satisfactory treaty had been concluded with the Sioux. While Colonel Carrington went on to build his forts, Red Cloud was galvanizing opposition with stunning oratory:

Hear Ye, Dakotas! . . . before the ashes of the council fire are cold, the Great Father is building his forts among us. You have heard the sound of the white soldier’s axe upon the Little Piney. His presence here is an insult and a threat. It is an insult to the spirits of our ancestors. Are we then to give up their sacred graves to be plowed for corn? Dakotas, I am for war!

After Red Cloud assembled a coalition of three thousand warriors, his war against the Thieves’ Road began in earnest.

Red Cloud and other Sioux and Arapaho leaders in an undated picture of an Indian delegation. From left to right, seated: Yellow Bear, Red Cloud, Big Road, Little Wound, Black Crow; standing: Red Bear, Young Man Afraid of His Horse, Good Voice, Ring Thunder, Iron Crow, White Tail, and Young Spotted Tail

(Library of Congress)

Within days of their completion, Carrington’s forts were beset with unrelenting guerrilla warfare. During the first five weeks, the colonel reported thirty-three whites killed. By December, ninety-six soldiers and fifty-eight civilians had been killed, many were wounded, and nearly one thousand oxen, cows, mules, and horses had been lost. Carrington reported fifty-one separate attacks on Fort Kearny alone.

The worst loss came on December 21, 1866, when the command of Captain William Judd Fetterman Fetterman, William Judd was completely annihilated. Having once boasted that he could ride through the whole Sioux nation with eighty good men, Fetterman led exactly eighty soldiers out of Fort Kearny to relieve an embattled party of woodcutters. In direct violation of Carrington’s orders not to ride out of view of the fort, Fetterman could not resist chasing Chief Crazy Horse Crazy Horse , who, acting as a decoy, lured Fetterman’s contingent into an ambush by two thousand Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahos. In the ensuing Battle of One Hundred Slain, Fetterman’s arrogance handed the U.S. Army its worst defeat in the Plains Wars to that date.

On August 1, 1867, the Cheyennes attacked hay cutters at Fort Smith. On the next day, Red Cloud’s Sioux attacked a woodcutters’ camp at Fort Kearny. Although these Hayfield and Wagon Box fights were standoffs, the federal government began to understand that the treaties negotiated by Edmunds and Taylor were meaningless. John Bozeman Bozeman, John M. himself had been caught in 1867 by Blackfoot warriors and killed on his own road.

In 1867, Red Cloud rebuffed major peace initiatives from the federal government. He persistently refused to sign anything until the forts were gone. Concerned about the cost of a full military campaign and the safety of the new railroads then moving westward, Congress decided to concede the Bozeman overland route. On July 29, 1868, soldiers left Fort Smith. Fort Kearny was abandoned a month later, and Fort Reno a few days after that. Jubilant Indian warriors then burned the three forts to the ground, and the Bozeman Trail was closed. On November 6, 1868, Red Cloud signed the Sioux Treaty of 1868 at Fort Laramie. Red Cloud had won his war.

In 1870, Red Cloud and other Sioux were invited to Washington, D.C., to discuss the treaty. There Red Cloud heard for the first time of provisions calling for permanent Sioux settlements on a reservation. Although deeply upset, he was persuaded to make an address at the Cooper Institute in New York City before an audience of social reformers. At noon on June 16, he began with a prayer to the Almighty Spirit, then recited wrongs done to his people, and asked for justice. Praised for its piety, charisma, and sincerity, the speech was an immense success.


Red Cloud’s growing influence with the eastern peace and reform circles allowed him to extract future concessions for his people from the government. The treaty articles that had not been explained to him, however, hastened the movement of the Sioux toward becoming “reservation Indians.” Nevertheless, the success of Red Cloud’s implacable opposition to the Bozeman Trail has made his name an appropriate eponym for Red Cloud’s War.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Charles Wesley. Autobiography of Red Cloud: War Leader of the Oglalas. Edited by R. Eli Paul. Helena, Mont.: Montana Historical Society Press, 1997. First publication of an autobiography narrated by Red Cloud in 1893, a quarter of a century after he waged war over the Bozeman Trail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Virginia Irving, comp. I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1971. Collection of Native American orations that includes Red Cloud’s 1866 Powder River exhortation and his 1870 Cooper Institute speech in New York City.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Impassioned overview of the nineteenth century wars from the Native American point of view that includes a chapter on Red Cloud’s War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodyear, Frank H., III. Red Cloud: Photographs of a Lakota Chief. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. Collection of more than eighty photographs of Red Cloud by Mathew Brady, Edward Curtis, and others. Red Cloud allowed himself to be photographed many times because he believed that photographs helped him serve as a mediator between his people and the federal government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hyde, George E. Red Cloud’s Folk: A History of the Oglala Sioux Indians. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976. Originally published in 1937 and revised in 1957, this book is considered to be a definitive history of the Oglala Sioux. It includes extensive background for the events on the Bozeman Trail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lazarus, Edward. Black Hills, White Justice: The Sioux Nation Versus the United States, 1775 to the Present. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. History of Sioux struggles against the federal government that includes the full text of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDermott, John D. “Price of Arrogance: The Short and Controversial Life of William Judd Fetterman.” Annals of Wyoming 63, no. 2 (Spring, 1991): 42-53. A look at Fetterman’s character and its fatal consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________, ed. “Wyoming Scrapbook: Documents Relating to the Fetterman Fight.” Annals of Wyoming 63, no. 2 (Spring, 1991): 68-72. Gives details of the most significant Army loss in the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olson, James C. Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. The best and most complete account of Red Cloud. Except for some background information on the Lakota and Red Cloud’s early life, it begins with the period immediately after the Civil War and ends with the death of Red Cloud in 1909.

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