The history of the United States is littered with broken treaties between the federal government and Native American nations. The significance of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie is one that would have lasting impacts on the future of the Great Plains and Sioux nation.
As the 19th century progressed the Native American nations of the Great Plains, particularly the Sioux nation, increasingly clashed with encroaching settlers. The westward expansion of the United States, or Manifest Destiny, was to come at the expense of the natives already living on those lands.
The opening of western lands for settlement including the California gold rush of 1849 sent scores of settlers heading west. Many others took the Oregon Trail and other offshoots to settle among various locations.
The horde of settlers increasingly encroached upon Native American lands and traditional hunting grounds. The influx of settlers also disrupted the survival of the American bison, an essential food source for the plains nations.
Hostilities were inevitable and various skirmishes and massacres between white settlers and natives riddled the landscape. Tensions boiled over with Red Cloud’s War from 1866-1868.
At the time the United States was distracted with the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the violent period of Reconstruction. The Indian Peace Commission was thus created by the US Government to negotiate an end to the hostilities.
The resulting 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie ended Red Cloud’s War and defined the boundaries for the Great Sioux Reservation and additional hunting grounds.
In the following years the federal government would yet again break another treaty, this time seizing lands in the sacred Black Hills of the Sioux. The dispute over land ownership in the Black Hills continues to this day.
Background of the Treaty
With Manifest Destiny in the minds of Americans, the federal government had a vested interest in ensuring the safety of the pioneers traveling westward. It was with this in mind that the US government brokered the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Known as the Horse Creek Treaty by Native American nations, the treaty ended hostilities between various plains nations and allowed for safe passage of settlers through native territory. It also allowed the US government to build roads and outposts in their territories in return for an annuity payment in a sort of land lease agreement.
The 1851 treaty would not last due to several issues. Firstly, the treaty was in English and there was a fundamental lack of understanding from native nations regarding what exactly they agreed to.
In addition, similar to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois nation), many plains nations operated by rule of consensus. In effect, every tribe member must agree for a treaty to become valid. This is in stark contrast to the elected representatives the federal government follows.
Thus, even though local chiefs signed the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, they could not control all of their tribe members to follow the guidelines if they weren’t in agreement.
The native nations were also plagued through long-standing feuds over territorial hunting grounds. Conflict resumed, especially between the Sioux and Crow nations, shortly after the treaty.
As more and more settlers flooded the region, hostilities ensued. The Bozeman Trail through Sioux territory became particularly contested as scores of prospectors traversed the area to reach the gold fields of Montana.
Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Sioux sparked a full fledged conflict known as Red Cloud’s War in 1866. He aimed to close the Bozeman trail and force the US Army to abandon its outposts located on Sioux territory.
What is the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie?
Faced with an escalating Native American threat, President Ulysses S Grant authorized the creation of the Indian Peace Commission. The goal of the commission was to bring an end to Red Cloud’s War and bring peace to the region.
The resulting 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie did just that, if only for a brief period of time. The treaty consisted of seventeen articles, nine of which provided incentives for converting to a more agrarian lifestyle. The Sioux largely ignored these provisions.
The more significant terms of the treaty revolved around the United States’ recognition of the Great Sioux Reservation among territory that included the sacred Black Hills of the Sioux.
Importantly, white settlers required native permission to “pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory.”
In addition, it created a vast amount of “unceded Indian territory” that allowed the Sioux to use as hunting grounds and outlawed settlement from white settlers. The treaty also required the United States to close the Bozeman Trail and abandon/destroy all forts along its path.
Enforcement of the treaty resided with the United States who also agreed to keep white settlers off native lands.
Another key stipulation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie stated that no future treaty for the cessation of any Sioux reservation lands included in the treaty should have any validity “unless executed and signed by at least three-fourths of all the adult male Indians.”
Essentially, in the instance of any future cessation of Sioux reservation lands created by this treaty, the future treaty would only be valid if signed by 75% of adult male Sioux.
While the significance of the treaty brought about temporary peace, empty promises by the US government doomed the Treaty of Fort Laramie to fail.
Why did the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie Fail?
Ultimately, the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie failed due to the US government reneging on its promises in the treaty. There was also no consensus among the natives as to what terms they signed up for.
Many native leaders felt deceived. Chief Red Cloud traveled east and petitioned the US government and citizens over what native leaders believed they agreed upon vs what they actually signed.
“In 1868 men came out and brought papers. We could not read them and they did not tell us truly what was in them. We thought the treaty was to remove the forts, and that we should then cease from fighting. But they wanted to send us traders on the Missouri. We did not want to go on the Missouri but wanted traders where we were. When I reached out to Washington the Great Father explained to me what the treaty was, and showed me that the interpreters had deceived me. All I want is right and justice.”
Chief Red Cloud’s speech at Cooper Union Institute in New York City, June 17, 1870
The US government did not like that the Sioux rejected the transition to a more farming-based lifestyle and continued to roam the newly-created unceded Indian territory hunting bison. Per the treaty the Sioux were well within their rights to continue this practice.
In response, the US government officially sanctioned an expedition by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer into the Black Hills. This was in direct violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie as the Sioux did not give their permission for the expedition on Sioux reservation lands.
The illegal Custer Expedition discovered gold in the Black Hills and soon thousands or prospectors swarmed upon the Black Hills.
President Grant refused to honor the agreement and enforce the boundaries of the Sioux Reservation, instead offering to buy the land. The Sioux refused and war sprung yet again.
Under the Act of February 1877, the US government forced a treaty upon the Sioux to cede the territory including the Black Hills despite not receiving 75% of Sioux concurrence. Once again the US government did not honor their prior agreements.
The Significance of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie
The significance of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie lies in the fact that it created the Great Sioux reservation and provided incentives for the Sioux to a more agrarian lifestyle. The treaty is also notable as the US once again reneged on their promises to Native American nations.
Despite agreeing to stay off Sioux reservation lands, the Custer Expedition was a deliberate violation of the treaty. In this case the US government’s failure to honor and comply with its own treaty became a massive liability.
The Sioux nation believed that the US violated the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie and unjustly seized their sacred lands in the Black Hills in 1877. This would occur two more times in 1889 and 1910, each time the Sioux losing more and more land.
By the 20th century the Sioux took their fight to the US Court system. In 1920 the Sioux nation won the right to file a lawsuit against the United States in US Claims Court.
After decades of court battles their case made it to the Supreme Court in 1980. In United States vs Sioux Nation on Indians the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 that the United States government indeed violated the treaty protections and in turn the seizure of the Black Hills constituted an illegal seizure of property under the 5th Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruled that the US government needed to pay the Sioux nation fair market value for their lands, plus 5% annual interest. The land was valued at $17.5M in 1877 and 103 years of interest translated to an additional $100M.
However, the Sioux nation refused the payment. They argued that the land was never for sale and thus the lands should be returned to them instead. To this day the federal government still owes payment to the Sioux.
It has continued to earn interest every year, and by 2011 had ballooned to over $1 billion. For the sacred Black Hills of the Sioux, no payment will likely ever be of enough value for them.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.