Treaty of Fort Laramie Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From the beginning of European colonization in the Americas, conflict with the American Indian tribes that inhabited the land was constant. As Americans spread into the western frontier in the nineteenth century, that conflict increased, especially when the trails that immigrants took to the West passed through territory inhabited by Indians. In 1868, the federal government sent out a peace commission, whose job it was to sign treaties with the tribes in order to facilitate their move onto reservations, out of the way of settlement. One of the groups that had proven most troublesome to settlers was the Lakota Sioux, led by Red Cloud. During the years 1866–68, Red Cloud had fought against the US Army because the government had blazed the Bozeman Trail through Lakota hunting grounds without permission. In spring 1868, a treaty conference was held at Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, to end the war and convince the Lakota to settle on the reservation in Dakota Territory.

Summary Overview

From the beginning of European colonization in the Americas, conflict with the American Indian tribes that inhabited the land was constant. As Americans spread into the western frontier in the nineteenth century, that conflict increased, especially when the trails that immigrants took to the West passed through territory inhabited by Indians. In 1868, the federal government sent out a peace commission, whose job it was to sign treaties with the tribes in order to facilitate their move onto reservations, out of the way of settlement. One of the groups that had proven most troublesome to settlers was the Lakota Sioux, led by Red Cloud. During the years 1866–68, Red Cloud had fought against the US Army because the government had blazed the Bozeman Trail through Lakota hunting grounds without permission. In spring 1868, a treaty conference was held at Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, to end the war and convince the Lakota to settle on the reservation in Dakota Territory.

Defining Moment

After the Civil War concluded in 1865, many Americans headed west, as the construction of railroads and the passage of the Homestead Act in 1863 had made establishing a farm an attractive option for many living in the East. At the same time, the discovery of gold in Montana started a rush of people looking to come west to find their fortunes. This influx of settlers meant that more and more Americans were passing through territory used by Indian tribes, such as the Sioux tribes and the Arapaho. From 1865 to 1867, a congressional committee studied the so-called Indian problem and recommended that a peace commission be sent out to negotiate treaties that would result in the Indian tribes being confined to reservations in order to allow non-Indian settlement to proceed unimpeded.

While this was happening, the Montana gold rush was beckoning settlers up the Bozeman Trail, through the Sioux and Arapaho hunting grounds near the Powder River in north-central Wyoming. During the 1850s, mountain man Jim Bridger had warned that a trail through the region was a bad idea, but in 1863, John Bozeman, acting with the approval of the federal government, blazed a trail directly through the Powder River Basin. The tensions heightened with the news that Colonel John M. Chivington's troops had massacred about 150 Arapaho and Cheyenne peacefully camped on Sand Creek in Colorado Territory in November 1864.

Warfare began in the region with the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors attacking Platte Bridge Station in June 1865, killing twenty-six American troops. Three columns under the command of Brigadier General Patrick Connor were dispatched, but arrived at what they dubbed Fort Connor in poor condition and demoralized by their trip through the Dakota Territory's Badlands. In 1866, the federal government called for a peace conference at Fort Laramie, but at the same time sent Colonel Henry B. Carrington with 1,300 troops, which only angered Red Cloud and convinced him to continue fighting. In December, Red Cloud and war leader Crazy Horse defeated Captain William J. Fetterman and his eighty troops, but the following summer saw a change in the Sioux fortunes, as the US troops were outfitted with new quick-firing breech-loading rifles. After a number of poor showings, Red Cloud and his people agreed to meet with the peace commission, under the leadership of General William T. Sherman, at Fort Laramie.

For the Sioux tribes, the central point of the treaty would be that they would be allowed to settle in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. To the Sioux, there is no more sacred spot on earth than the Black Hills. For the federal government, the central point of the treaty would be that peace would be established and the Sioux and other tribes would not be able to leave their reservations, thus allowing western immigration to continue.

Author Biography

General William Tecumseh Sherman, the hero of the Civil War March to the Sea, was commander of the Missouri District, encompassing the region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, after the war. He was convinced that the only practical policy of the United States toward Native American peoples was to confine them all to reservations and make war against any Indians that dared leave. As the highest profile member of the peace commission that had negotiated the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 and was now sent to make peace with Red Cloud at Fort Laramie, the influence of Sherman's ideas is plainly visible in the treaty, with its strict conditions that the Sioux remain on their reservation in the Dakota Territory and no longer venture into their former hunting grounds or otherwise disrupt the continued immigration of easterners and that the Sioux be assimilated through education of children in boarding schools and conversion to Christianity.

Historical Document

ARTICLES OF A TREATY MADE AND CONCLUDED BY AND BETWEEN

Lieutenant General William T. Sherman, General William S. Harney, General Alfred H. Terry, General O. O. Augur, J. B. Henderson, Nathaniel G. Taylor, John G. Sanborn, and Samuel F. Tappan, duly appointed commissioners on the part of the United States, and the different bands of the Sioux Nation of Indians, by their chiefs and headmen, whose names are hereto subscribed, they being duly authorized to act in the premises.

ARTICLE I.

From this day forward all war between the parties to this agreement shall for ever cease. The government of the United States desires peace, and its honor is hereby pledged to keep it. The Indians desire peace, and they now pledge their honor to maintain it.

If bad men among the whites, or among other people subject to the authority of the United States, shall commit any wrong upon the person or property of the Indians, the United States will, upon proof made to the agent, and forwarded to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Washington city, proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States, and also reimburse the injured person for the loss sustained.

If bad men among the Indians shall commit a wrong or depredation upon the person or property of nay one, white, black, or Indian, subject to the authority of the United States, and at peace therewith, the Indians herein named solemnly agree that they will, upon proof made to their agent, and notice by him, deliver up the wrongdoer to the United States, to be tried and punished according to its laws, and, in case they willfully refuse so to do, the person injured shall be reimbursed for his loss from the annuities, or other moneys due or to become due to them under this or other treaties made with the United States; and the President, on advising with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, shall prescribe such rules and regulations for ascertaining damages under the provisions of this article as in his judgment may be proper, but no one sustaining loss while violating the provisions of this treaty, or the laws of the United States, shall be reimbursed therefor.

ARTICLE II.

The United States agrees that the following district of country, to wit, viz: commencing on the east bank of the Missouri river where the 46th parallel of north latitude crosses the same, thence along low-water mark down said east bank to a point opposite where the northern line of the State of Nebraska strikes the river, thence west across said river, and along the northern line of Nebraska to the 104th degree of longitude west from Greenwich, thence north on said meridian to a point where the 46th parallel of north latitude intercepts the same, thence due east along said parallel to the place of beginning; and in addition thereto, all existing reservations of the east back of said river, shall be and the same is, set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named, and for such other friendly tribes or individual Indians as from time to time they may be willing, with the consent of the United States, to admit amongst them; and the United States now solemnly agrees that no persons, except those herein designated and authorized so to do, and except such officers, agents, and employees of the government as may be authorized to enter upon Indian reservations in discharge of duties enjoined by law, shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article, or in such territory as may be added to this reservation for the use of said Indians, and henceforth they will and do hereby relinquish all claims or right in and to any portion of the United States or Territories, except such as is embraced within the limits aforesaid, and except as hereinafter provided.

ARTICLE III.

If it should appear from actual survey or other satisfactory examination of said tract of land that it contains less than 160 acres of tillable land for each person who, at the time, may be authorized to reside on it under the provisions of this treaty, and a very considerable number of such persons hsall be disposed to comence cultivating the soil as farmers, the United States agrees to set apart, for the use of said Indians, as herein provided, such additional quantity of arable land, adjoining to said reservation, or as near to the same as it can be obtained, as may be required to provide the necessary amount.

ARTICLE IV.

The United States agrees, at its own proper expense, to construct, at some place on the Missouri river, near the centre of said reservation where timber and water may be convenient, the following buildings, to wit, a warehouse, a store-room for the use of the agent in storing goods belonging to the Indians, to cost not less than $2,500; an agency building, for the residence of the agent, to cost not exceeding $3,000; a residence for the physician, to cost not more than $3,000; and five other buildings, for a carpenter, farmer, blacksmith, miller, and engineer-each to cost not exceeding $2,000; also, a school-house, or mission building, so soon as a sufficient number of children can be induced by the agent to attend school, which shall not cost exceeding $5,000.

The United States agrees further to cause to be erected on said reservation, near the other buildings herein authorized, a good steam circular saw-mill, with a grist-mill and shingle machine attached to the same, to cost not exceeding $8,000.

ARTICLE V.

The United States agrees that the agent for said Indians shall in the future make his home at the agency building; that he shall reside among them, and keep an office open at all times for the purpose of prompt and diligent inquiry into such matters of complaint by and against the Indians as may be presented for investigation under the provisions of their treaty stipulations, as also for the faithful discharge of other duties enjoined on him by law. In all cases of depredation on person or property he shall cause the evidence to be taken in writing and forwarded, together with his findings, to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, whose decision, subject to the revision of the Secretary of the Interior, shall be binding on the parties to this treaty.

ARTICLE VI.

If any individual belonging to said tribes of Indians, or legally incorporated with them, being the head of a family, shall desire to commence farming, he shall have the privilege to select, in the presence and with the assistance of the agent then in charge, a tract of land within said reservation, not exceeding three hundred and twenty acres in extent, which tract, when so selected, certified, and recorded in the “Land Book” as herein directed, shall cease to be held in common, but the same may be occupied and held in the exclusive possession of the person selecting it, and of his family, so long as he or they may continue to cultivate it.

Any person over eighteen years of age, not being the head of a family, may in like manner select and cause to be certified to him or her, for purposes of cultivation, a quantity of land, not exceeding eighty acres in extent, and thereupon be entitled to the exclusive possession of the same as above directed.

For each tract of land so selected a certificate, containing a description thereof and the name of the person selecting it, with a certificate endorsed thereon that the same has been recorded, shall be delivered to the party entitled to it, by the agent, after the same shall have been recorded by him in a book to be kept in his office, subject to inspection, which said book shall be known as the “Sioux Land Book.”

The President may, at any time, order a survey of the reservation, and, when so surveyed, Congress shall provide for protecting the rights of said settlers in their improvements, and may fix the character of the title held by each. The United States may pass such laws on the subject of alienation and descent of property between the Indians and their descendants as may be thought proper. And it is further stipulated that any male Indians over eighteen years of age, of any band or tribe that is or shall hereafter become a party to this treaty, who now is or who shall hereafter become a resident or occupant of any reservation or territory not included in the tract of country designated and described in this treaty for the permanent home of the Indians, which is not mineral land, nor reserved by the United States for special purposes other than Indian occupation, and who shall have made improvements thereon of the value of two hundred dollars or more, and continuously occupied the same as a homestead for the term of three years, shall be entitled to receive from the United States a patent for one hundred and sixty acres of land including his said improvements, the same to be in the form of the legal subdivisions of the surveys of the public lands. Upon application in writing, sustained by the proof of two disinterested witnesses, made to the register of the local land office when the land sought to be entered is within a land district, and when the tract sought to be entered is not in any land district, then upon said application and proof being made to the Commissioner of the General Land Office, and the right of such Indian or Indians to enter such tract or tracts of land shall accrue and be perfect from the date of his first improvements thereon, and shall continue as long as be continues his residence and improvements and no longer. And any Indian or Indians receiving a patent for land under the foregoing provisions shall thereby and from thenceforth become and be a citizen of the United States and be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of such citizens, and shall, at the same time, retain all his rights to benefits accruing to Indians under this treaty.

ARTICLE VII.

In order to insure the civilization of the Indians entering into this treaty, the necessity of education is admitted, especially of such of them as are or may be settled on said agricultural reservations, and they, therefore, pledge themselves to compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to attend school, and it is hereby made the duty of the agent for said Indians to see that this stipulation is strictly complied with; and the United States agrees that for every thirty children between said ages, who can be induced or compelled to attend school, a house shall be provided, and a teacher competent to teach the elementary branches of an English education shall be furnished, who will reside among said Indians and faithfully discharge his or her duties as a teacher. The provisions of this article to continue for not less than twenty years.

ARTICLE VIII.

When the head of a family or lodge shall have selected lands and received his certificate as above directed, and the agent shall be satisfied that he intends in good faith to commence cultivating the soil for a living, he shall be entitled to receive seeds and agricultural implements for the first year, not exceeding in value one hundred dollars, and for each succeeding year he shall continue to farm, for a period of three years more, he shall be entitled to receive seeds and implements as aforesaid, not exceeding in value twenty-five dollars. And it is further stipulated that such persons as commence farming shall receive instruction from the farmer herein provided for, and whenever more than one hundred persons shall enter upon the cultivation of the soil, a second blacksmith shall be provided, with such iron, steel, and other material as may be needed.

ARTICLE IX.

At any time after ten years for the making of this treaty, the United States shall have the privilege of withdrawing the physician, farmer, blacksmith, carpenter, engineer, and miller herein provided for, but in case of such withdrawal, an additional sum thereafter of ten thousand dollars per annum shall be devoted to the education of said Indians, and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs shall, upon careful inquiry into their condition, make such rules and regulations for the expenditure of said sums as will best promote the education and moral improvement of said tribes.

ARTICLE X.

In lieu of all sums of money or other annuities provided to be paid to the Indians herein named under any treaty or treaties heretofore made, the United States agrees to deliver at the agency house on the reservation herein named, on or before the first day of August of each year, for thirty years, the following articles, to wit:

For each male person over 14 years of age, a suit of good substantial woollen clothing, consisting of coat, pantaloons, flannel shirt, hat, and a pair of home-made socks.

For each female over 12 years of age, a flannel shirt, or the goods necessary to make it, a pair of woollen hose, 12 yards of calico, and 12 yards of cotton domestics.

For the boys and girls under the ages named, such flannel and cotton goods as may be needed to make each a suit as aforesaid, together with a pair of woollen hose for each.

And in order that the Commissioner of Indian Affairs may be able to estimate properly for the articles herein named, it shall be the duty of the agent each year to forward to him a full and exact census of the Indians, on which the estimate from year to year can be based.

And in addition to the clothing herein named, the sum of $10 for each person entitled to the beneficial effects of this treaty shall be annually appropriated for a period of 30 years, while such persons roam and hunt, and $20 for each person who engages in farming, to be used by the Secretary of the Interior in the purchase of such articles as from time to time the condition and necessities of the Indians may indicate to be proper. And if within the 30 years, at any time, it shall appear that the amount of money needed for clothing, under this article, can be appropriated to better uses for the Indians named herein, Congress may, by law, change the appropriation to other purposes, but in no event shall the amount of the appropriation be withdrawn or discontinued for the period named. And the President shall annually detail an officer of the army to be present and attest the delivery of all the goods herein named, to the Indians, and he shall inspect and report on the quantity and quality of the goods and the manner of their delivery. And it is hereby expressly stipulated that each Indian over the age of four years, who shall have removed to and settled permanently upon said reservation, one pound of meat and one pound of flour per day, provided the Indians cannot furnish their own subsistence at an earlier date. And it is further stipulated that the United States will furnish and deliver to each lodge of Indians or family of persons legally incorporated with the, who shall remove to the reservation herein described and commence farming, one good American cow, and one good well-broken pair of American oxen within 60 days after such lodge or family shall have so settled upon said reservation.

ARTICLE XI.

In consideration of the advantages and benefits conferred by this treaty and the many pledges of friendship by the United States, the tribes who are parties to this agreement hereby stipulate that they will relinquish all right to occupy permanently the territory outside their reservations as herein defined, but yet reserve the right to hunt on any lands north of North Platte, and on the Republican Fork of the Smoky Hill river, so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase. And they, the said Indians, further expressly agree:

1st. That they will withdraw all opposition to the construction of the railroads now being built on the plains.

2d. That they will permit the peaceful construction of any railroad not passing over their reservation as herein defined.

3d. That they will not attack any persons at home, or travelling, nor molest or disturb any wagon trains, coaches, mules, or cattle belonging to the people of the United States, or to persons friendly therewith.

4th. They will never capture, or carry off from the settlements, white women or children.

5th. They will never kill or scalp white men, nor attempt to do them harm.

6th. They withdraw all pretence of opposition to the construction of the railroad now being built along the Platte river and westward to the Pacific ocean, and they will not in future object to the construction of railroads, wagon roads, mail stations, or other works of utility or necessity, which may be ordered or permitted by the laws of the United States. But should such roads or other works be constructed on the lands of their reservation, the government will pay the tribe whatever amount of damage may be assessed by three disinterested commissioners to be appointed by the President for that purpose, one of the said commissioners to be a chief or headman of the tribe.

7th. They agree to withdraw all opposition to the military posts or roads now established south of the North Platte river, or that may be established, not in violation of treaties heretofore made or hereafter to be made with any of the Indian tribes.

ARTICLE XII.

No treaty for the cession of any portion or part of the reservation herein described which may be held in common, shall be of any validity or force as against the said Indians unless executed and signed by at least three-fourths of all the adult male Indians occupying or interested in the same, and no cession by the tribe shall be understood or construed in such manner as to deprive, without his consent, any individual member of the tribe of his rights to any tract of land selected by him as provided in Article VI of this treaty.

ARTICLE XIII.

The United States hereby agrees to furnish annually to the Indians the physician, teachers, carpenter, miller, engineer, farmer, and blacksmiths, as herein contemplated, and that such appropriations shall be made from time to time, on the estimate of the Secretary of the Interior, as will be sufficient to employ such persons.

ARTICLE XIV.

It is agreed that the sum of five hundred dollars annually for three years from date shall be expended in presents to the ten persons of said tribe who in the judgment of the agent may grow the most valuable crops for the respective year.

ARTICLE XV.

The Indians herein named agree that when the agency house and other buildings shall be constructed on the reservation named, they will regard said reservation their permanent home, and they will make no permanent settlement elsewhere; but they shall have the right, subject to the conditions and modifications of this treaty, to hunt, as stipulated in Article XI hereof.

ARTICLE XVI.

The United States hereby agrees and stipulates that the country north of the North Platte river and east of the summits of the Big Horn mountains shall be held and considered to be unceded. Indian territory, and also stipulates and agrees that no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the same; or without the consent of the Indians, first had and obtained, to pass through the same; and it is further agreed by the United States, that within ninety days after the conclusion of peace with all the bands of the Sioux nation, the military posts now established in the territory in this article named shall be abandoned, and that the road leading to them and by them to the settlements in the Territory of Montana shall be closed.

ARTICLE XVII.

It is hereby expressly understood and agreed by and between the respective parties to this treaty that the execution of this treaty and its ratification by the United States Senate shall have the effect, and shall be construed as abrogating and annulling all treaties and agreements heretofore entered into between the respective parties hereto, so far as such treaties and agreements obligate the United States to furnish and provide money, clothing, or other articles of property to such Indians and bands of Indians as become parties to this treaty, but no further.

In testimony of all which, we, the said commissioners, and we, the chiefs and headmen of the Brule band of the Sioux nation, have hereunto set our hands and seals at Fort Laramie, Dakota Territory, this twenty-ninth day of April, in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-eight.

Document Analysis

Written on April 29, 1868 and signed by the Ogallala Lakota on May 25, 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which ended Red Cloud's War and established the Great Sioux Reservation in Dakota Territory, set forth the terms under which the Ogallala Lakota Sioux, along with the Arapaho, Brulé Sioux, Miniconjou Sioux, Yanctonais Sioux, would settle on the reservation and promise not to leave nor make war against the US Army or settlers who were coming across into what had been their territory.

The treaty sought to guarantee peace between the United States and the tribes by setting forth the reservation's boundaries; encouraging the Indians to take up settled agriculture by guaranteeing individual Indians land; and promising the establishment of an agency to oversee the following: the reservation, a school and other facilities, distribution of the annual goods and cash annuity for the next thirty years, and the provision that Indian children be compelled to attend school and receive agricultural instruction. In return, the Indians agreed: not to oppose the construction of railroads across the Plains, so long as they did not cross their reservation; not to attack any settlers proceeding west; not to kidnap white women or children or scalp or otherwise harm white men; and not to oppose the presence of military forts south of the North Platte River.

The Great Sioux Reservation, which encompassed nearly the entire western half of present-day South Dakota and included the sacred Black Hills, was guaranteed to the Sioux tribes forever. The treaty gave the Sioux a degree of sovereignty, with the federal government promising that nobody “shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in [this] country.” Additionally, any lands in the Great Sioux Reservation could not be sold unless the sale was approved by three-fourths of the adult men of the tribes. Any Indians or non-Indians who violated the terms of the treaty were to be arrested and punished. However, it also took away much of the autonomy the Sioux had always prized, as they now could not leave the reservation without being subject to warfare at the hands of the US Army, and they now promised “to compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to attend school.” Further, the treaty mandated that nearly all of the Sioux would engage in settled agriculture, which was nearly the antithesis of their prior semi-nomadic, hunting-based culture.

Essential Themes

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 had an impact largely because of the events that followed. Though the Lakota and other tribes settled on the reservation, it only took until the discovery of gold in the Black Hills for the terms of the treaty to be ignored by the federal government. Six years after the treaty was signed, reports of gold in the Black Hills began to filter through to Washington, DC. In response, the US Army sent Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer with an expedition to find out for sure. When Custer's expedition verified the stories, a gold rush was on—into Sioux territory. The non-Indian miners demanded the protection of the Army from the people whose lands they were now invading.

As of January 1, 1876, the federal government declared any Sioux bands off of the reservation to be hostile, including the band headed by Sitting Bull and war leader Cr, and sent Custer and his Seventh Cavalry to intercept them. The resulting Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 saw the death of Custer and the vast majority of his men in one of the greatest Sioux victories over the US Army. However the resultant national outrage over the “massacre” of Custer and his men led to a resolve on the part of the Army to make sure all Sioux were confined to the reservation.

The federal government sent a treaty commission to attempt to negotiate for the sale of the Black Hills, but only 10 percent of Sioux adults—far short of the Treaty of Fort Laramie's stipulation of 75 percent—agreed. However, Congress took unilateral action and seized the Black Hills in 1877. It was not until nearly 100 years later that the US Supreme Court upheld the Sioux claim that the Black Hills were taken by the federal government in bad faith. Though the federal government has offered monetary reparation for the seizure of the Black Hills, the Sioux have declined, insisting upon their return. This seems unlikely, however, given the presence of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in their midst.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Bantam, 1970. Print.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. Print.
  • ________. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984. Print.
  • Wilkinson, Charles F. American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in a Modern Constitutional Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1987. Print.
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