Sioux War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Dakota, or Sioux, peoples, along with the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other indigenous peoples of the northern Great Plains, rose up in a mass armed rebellion against the U.S. government, the last great mass armed stand by the Sioux peoples to remain free. In the end, the U.S. government would prevail and the American Indian tribes of the plains were faced with a new life forced upon them.

Summary of Event

By the 1870’s, the American Indian tribes of the northern Great Plains were keenly aware of the fate of the eastern tribes that had been forced by the U.S. government to leave their traditional lands for reservations during white settlement in the West. The Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. , which had been the government agency established to protect the Indians, frequently violated agreements by failing both to deliver on promises of goods and to defend the interests of the tribes they were mandated to protect. Sioux War (1876-1877) Native American wars;Sioux Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] Crazy Horse Sitting Bull [kw]Sioux War (1876-1877) [kw]War, Sioux (1876-1877) Sioux War (1876-1877) Native American wars;Sioux Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] Crazy Horse Sitting Bull [g]United States;1876-1877: Sioux War[4850] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1876-1877: Sioux War[4850] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1876-1877: Sioux War[4850] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;1876-1877: Sioux War[4850] Terry, Alfred Custer, George A. [p]Custer, George A.;and Sioux War[Sioux War] Crook, George Miles, Nelson A.

The peace between the plains tribes and the federal government had been precarious. Under the Fort Laramie Treaty Fort Laramie Treaty (1851) (1851), white settlers were allowed safe travel across tribal lands in exchange for tolls and other considerations. Just three years into the agreement, the first of many conflagrations occurred when Lakotas killed a lame cow, thought to have been discarded by settlers. Troops who had been sent out to investigate the claims of the disgruntled settler were attacked. The U.S. Army responded with a punitive attack on the Lakotas, thus beginning a cycle of distrust, violence, hostility, and cultural misunderstandings that would last for generations.

During the early 1860’s, Minnesota’s Minnesota;Sioux four Dakota tribes, who had their lands confiscated, had been relocated to reservations in the West for waging war against settlers who violated treaties. As whites moved farther into the interior of the continent, they continued to encroach on Indian lands in violation of treaties.

U.S. troops deploying at the Battle of Wolf Mountain in January, 1877.

(Library of Congress)

Outraged by the construction of the Bozeman Trail Bozeman Trail , which traversed Lakota lands located between modern-day Omaha, Nebraska, and Montana—a blatant violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie—Oglala Lakotas, led by Crazy Horse, attacked federal forces near Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming in December of 1866. The ensuing conflicts led to many deaths, and the U.S. military had limited success in subduing the Lakota. Federal officials, whose will to fight had been depleted by years of fighting a civil war with the southern states, eventually capitulated, signing the Sioux Treaty of 1868 at Fort Laramie. Under the agreement, spearheaded by Lakota warrior Red Cloud and his fierce fights against U.S. troops during Red Cloud’s War, 1866-1868, the Oglala Lakota agreed to give up their weapons and move to a reservation in western South Dakota. In exchange, the federal government would abandon the Bozeman Trail and provide food and supplies to the Lakota. The sporadic violence continued as more settlers moved West.

The Gold rushes;Black Hills Black Hills gold rush discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory Dakota Territory;gold rush in 1874, however, accelerated to a frenzy the trickle of whites crossing into Indian lands. Gold prospectors, who were determined to cross these lands, did not care if doing so would be illegal, especially if doing so also meant getting a good mining claim before others beat them to it.

Almost overnight, the Black Hills area was teeming with miners. The vast bison herds, which had provided the Sioux with food, clothing, and shelter, were suddenly being emaciated in the course of buffalo hunting. The bison not only served as a food source for the new arrivals but also were fast becoming major resources, as demand for leather and hides fueled a hunting spree that all but eliminated the herds. The bison, a long-time primary source of food for the native plains people, suddenly had become scarce. By 1876 more than twenty-five thousand whites resided in the Black Hills Gold rushes;Black Hills Black Hills gold rush , competing with the Indians for the area’s already limited resources.

In response to the continued territorial violations as well as the destruction of their primary source of food and clothing, tribes of the northern Great Plains rose up in rebellion. Led by Sitting Bull, a chief and spiritual leader who had long spurned the promises and gifts of whites, and Crazy Horse, a force estimated at thirty thousand gathered in 1875 to make a stand. Efforts by representatives of the U.S. government to regain control of the situation proved futile. In December of 1875, the secretary of the interior ordered all Indians to return to their reservations, or face repercussions. When the warning was not heeded, the U.S. Army was called in to force the Indians to comply. General George Crook Crook, George sent several expeditions in early 1876, but with few results. A battle at Rosebud River against forces led by Crazy Horse seemed only to aggravate the situation.

A second expedition led by General Alfred Terry Terry, Alfred , assisted by Colonel George A. Custer Custer, George A. [p]Custer, George A.;and Sioux War[Sioux War] , a West Point graduate and veteran of the U.S. Civil War, led U.S. troops into what is now eastern Montana to try forcing the tribes into submission. On June 25, 1876, a detachment of troops led by Custer attacked the Sioux at the Little Bighorn River. Sitting Bull’s force easily overtook Custer and his soldiers, killing the entire detachment before reinforcements could arrive.

Emboldened by their victory over Custer, the Sioux and their allies attacked settlements throughout the northern Great Plains during the late summer and fall of 1876. As conditions deteriorated, white settlers became desperate. Local governments responded by offering bounties for Indians—captured dead or alive—who were found within local, non-Indian, jurisdictions. Miners and settlers in the Black Hills called upon the territorial governor and President Ulysses S. Grant Grant, Ulysses S. [p]Grant, Ulysses S.;and Sioux War[Sioux War] for protection from the new threat. In response, General Crook Crook, George established a camp at Bear Butte Creek, near Sturgis, which became known as Fort Meade. Colonel Nelson A. Miles Miles, Nelson A. led the Fifth Infantry in a relentless pursuit of Crazy Horse and his followers, wearing them down and making it difficult for them to rest or to obtain a regular supply of food.

In January of 1877, at Wolf Mountain in southern Montana, Crazy Horse led eight hundred men in a surprise attack against Miles Miles, Nelson A. and his troops. Facing howitzers disguised as wagons, Crazy Horse withdrew and, when counterattacked, retreated under the cover of a snowstorm. Unable to achieve victory, more and more of Crazy Horse’s allies surrendered. After receiving a promise from General Crook Crook, George that if he surrendered, his people would have a reservation of their own, Crazy Horse led some followers to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in the spring of 1877, where he was killed under questionable circumstances two months later.


Although a great victory for Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Custer’s Custer, George A. [p]Custer, George A.;and Sioux War[Sioux War] defeat increased the resolve of the United States. Many more treaties were signed at gunpoint, and the tribes were forced back on the reservations. The Black Hills were forcibly ceded by the tribes to the United States in February of 1877. Detachments of U.S. troops had flooded the Great Plains to find Sitting Bull and any followers who refused to live on the reservations. Sitting Bull eventually made his way to Canada, Canada;Native American immigrants where U.S. forces would not follow. He surrendered in 1881.

Confrontations with the U.S. government would continue, most notably with the controversial Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, but the Sioux War marks the last great mass armed stand by the Sioux people to remain a free people. In the end, the U.S. government would prevail and the American Indian tribes of the northern Great Plains would try to cope with their new lives. The resentment toward, and distrust of, the U.S. government continues.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen E. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. New York: Anchor Books, 1996. Ambrose, a historian who has written several popular biographies and military histories, examines the similarities between Crazy Horse and Custer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hyde, George E. Red Cloud’s Folk: A History of the Oglala Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957. The author does not address events after 1878. Detailed appendices, brief bibliography, illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Joseph M., III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking Books, 2004. A refreshing new perspective on Crazy Horse and the Lakota people, written from a Lakota perspective by a Lakota. Detailed bibliographical references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nylander, August. Survival of a Noble Race. Chamberlain, S.D.: St. Joseph’s Indian School, 1991. The authors, twenty-six-year veteran civil servants of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, offer a perspective that adds much to the literature. The chapters “History of Indian Policy” and “A Chronology and Summary of Indian Affairs” are wonderful synopses. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandoz, Mari. These Were the Sioux. New York: Hastings House, 1961. An interesting, albeit elementary, overview of Sioux social culture, with references to the effects of wars on soldiers. Illustrations by Amos Bad Heart Bull and Kills Two.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Utley, Robert M. The Last Days of the Sioux Nation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. The primary focus of this work is after 1877, and some statements are questionable, but the introductory chapters are worthy of review. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vestal, Stanley. Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969. As explained in the introduction, the book claims to be the first biography of the “American Indian soldier.” Detailed appendix, bibliographical essay, illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Warpath: The True Story of the Fighting Sioux Told in a Biography of Chief White Bull. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. The autobiography of Joseph White Bull, chief of the Lakota, as told to the author. Detailed appendix, bibliography, illustrations, index.

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Great American Buffalo Slaughter

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Battle of the Little Bighorn

Nez Perce War

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Categories: History