Gateway to the Classics: Boy's Book of Indian Warriors by Edwin L. Sabin
Boy's Book of Indian Warriors by  Edwin L. Sabin

Red Cloud Stands in the Way (1865–1909)

The Sioux Who Closed the Road of the Whites

The name Sioux comes down from a longer Chippewa word meaning "adder" or "enemy." The Indians who bore this name were the powerful Dakotas—the true Sioux of history.

The wide Nation of the Lakota, as these Sioux called themselves, was a league of seven council fires.

The four divisions of the Santees lived in Minnesota; the two divisions of the Yanktons lived between them and the Missouri River; the one large division of the Tetons lived in their Dakota country, west of the Missouri River.

The Santees, the Yanktons and the Tetons spoke their own dialects. They differed in appearance from one another. They were separated into tribes and bands.

Even as late as 1904 they numbered twenty-five thousand people in the United States. By mind, muscle and morals they have been rated as leaders of the Western red men. They roamed hither-thither, and depended upon the buffalo for food. They waged stout war.

The Tetons were the strongest, and formed half of the Dakota nation. It was chiefly they who fought the United States soldiers for so long. The war opened in 1855, over the killing of a crippled cow by a Min-icon-jou, at Fort Laramie of Wyoming, on the Oregon Trail of the emigrants.

The BrulÚs, or Burnt Thighs; the Og-la-las, or Scatter-one's-own; the Hunk-pa-pas, or Those-who-camp-by-themselves; the Min-i-con-jous, or Those-who-plant-beside-the-stream; the Si-ha-sa-pas, or Black-moccasins: these were the Teton Sioux who battled the hardest to save their buffalo and their lands from the white man.


Red Cloud

Red Cloud at first was chief of the Bad Faces band of Oglala Sioux. They were a small fighting band, but he was a noted brave. His count showed more coups, or strike-the-enemy feats, than the count of any other warrior of the Oglalas. Before he retired from war, his coups numbered eighty.

He was born in 1822. His Sioux name was Makh-pia-sha, meaning Red Cloud. In the beginning it probably referred to a cloud at sunrise or subset; later it referred to his army of warriors whose red blankets covered the hills.

When he was forty years old, there was much excitement among the white men to the west of the Sioux range. From the mines of Idaho the gold-seekers had crossed to the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains in western Montana. Mining camps such as Helena, Bozeman and Virginia City sprang up.

The Oregon Trail of the emigrants already passed through the Sioux country, and the Sioux had agreed to let it alone. Now the United States asked permission to make a new road, which from Fort Laramie of southern Wyoming would leave the Oregon Trail, and branch off northwest, through the Powder River and the Big Horn country of Wyoming, and on west across Montana, as a short-cut to the gold-fields.

This part of Wyoming really was Crow Indian country; but the Sioux had driven the Crows out, and with the Northern Cheyennes were using the region for a hunting ground. The white man's trails to the south had frightened the buffalo and reduced the herds; the Powder River valleys were the only ranges left to the Sioux, where they might hunt and always find plenty of meat.

Some of the Sioux chiefs did sign a treaty for the new road. The only Oglalas who signed were sub-chiefs. Red Cloud did not sign. The United States went ahead, anyway. Troops were sent forward, to begin the work of building the road. Red Cloud, with his Oglalas and some Cheyennes, surrounded them and captured them; held them prisoners for two weeks, until his young men threatened to kill them. Then he released them, with a warning.

"I shall stand in the trail," he said. Those were the words of Pontiac, to Major Rogers, one hundred years before.

United States officials were ordered to Fort Laramie, to talk with the angry Red Cloud. He declined to meet them.

But already a number of white gold-seekers had entered by this Bozeman Trail, as it was known. In June, of the next year, 1866, the United States tried again to get Red Cloud's name on the paper. A council was called at Fort Laramie.

During the last year, another fort had been located. It was Fort Reno—the first outpost of the new trail, at the Powder River, one hundred and sixty-seven miles along from Laramie.

Red Cloud, and his lieutenant, They-fear-even-his-horses, came in to talk with the United States, at Fort Laramie. A great throng of Indians was present, for Fort Laramie was a busy post.

Nothing could be done with the Red Cloud band. The United States was willing to promise that nobody should be allowed to leave the new road, or to disturb any game. Red Cloud only shook his head. He well knew that the white travelers would not obey the law. They would hunt and camp, as thy chose.

"Wah-nee-chee!" he said. "No good! Why do you come here and ask for what you have already taken? A fort has been built, and the road is being used. I say again, we will not sell our hunting grounds for a road."

But the United States had decided. The Government had been assured by the treaty makers that all the Sioux would finally yield. There was last fall's treaty, as a starter. The Sioux from every band had signed. Besides, the Government could not give up the right to open roads. A railroad had the power to take right-of-way through towns and lands; and a Government wagon road should have the same license.

So certain was the Government that the road would be opened, that even while the council with the Red Cloud Oglalas was in session, there arrived at Fort Laramie Colonel Henry B. Carrington of the Eighteenth Infantry, with seven hundred soldiers.

Red Cloud saw the camp.

"Where are those soldiers going?"

"They are sent to open the new road and build forts."

"The Americans seek to steal our land whether we say yes or no!" angrily uttered Red Cloud. "They will have to fight."

He and They-fear-even-his-horses (whom the white men called "Young-man-afraid-of-his-horses") seized their rifles, and rode away, and three hundred of their warriors followed them.

"Red Cloud means war," warned the Indians who remained. "The Great Father makes us presents, to buy the road; but the white soldiers come to steal it first. In two moons the white war chief will not have a hoof left."

An express sent after Red Cloud, to ask him to return, was whipped with bows and ordered to get out and tell the white chiefs that Red Cloud would not talk about the road.

Colonel Carrington marched on, into the forbidden land. The officers' wives were with them. Traders along the line insisted that the Indians were determined to fight; but some of the emigrant outfits bound over the trail to the mines were scornful of danger. One emigrant captain laughed, when the women were timid.

"You'll never see an Injun unless he comes in to beg for sugar and tobacco," he said. "I've been on the plains too long to be scared by such trash."

This was at Fort Reno. That very morning, in broad daylight Red Cloud's band ran off all the post sutler's horses and mules while the soldiers looked on. Eighty men pursued, and captured only one Indian pony loaded with goods obtained at Fort Laramie.

Colonel Carrington left a detachment here at the Powder River, to build a better Fort Reno. He marched on.

Meanwhile Red Cloud had been growing stronger. Sioux warriors were hastening to join him. Spotted Tail of the BrulÚs had declined to accept the treaty for opening the road—he waited for Red Cloud; but he was wisely staying at home. However, his Brute young men were riding away in large numbers, and he told the white people at Fort Laramie that if they "went far on the trail they had better go prepared to look out for their hair."

Red Cloud was watching the march of the soldiers. He did not attack; but when he saw them pushing on, and finally making camp to locate another fort, fifty miles northwest of Reno, on Piney Fork of Lodge-pole Creek, in the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming, he again sent a message, by a party of soldiers whom he met and turned back.

"The white chief must take his soldiers out of this country. Let him decide for peace or war. If he wants peace, he can go back to Powder River. The fort there can stay. But no forts shall be built farther on the road, and no soldiers shall march over the road which has never been given to the white people."

Red Cloud wanted an answer at once. He also asked that the white chief come to him with an interpreter, and settle matters in a council. But the messenger was held at the fort for a short time, and Red Cloud moved his warriors to a new place.

Colonel Carrington invited the Sioux to come to the camp; and went ahead building his fort. Some bands of Northern Cheyennes appeared for a talk. They said that Red Cloud had urged them to join the Sioux in keeping the white men out of the hunting grounds, and that he knew what the soldiers had been doing every hour since they left Fort Laramie.

The Cheyennes seemed a little fearful of the Sioux; but said that if they were given provisions, they would stay away from the white trail.

When the Cheyennes returned to the Sioux, Red Cloud asked them what the white chief had said. "Is he going back to the Powder River?"

"No," answered Black Horse, of the Cheyennes. "The white chief will not go back, and his soldiers will go on."

"What presents did he give you?"

"All we wanted to eat. He wishes the Sioux and the Cheyennes and all the other Indians to go to Fort Laramie, and sign the treaty, and get more presents. I think that we had better take the white man's hand and presents, rather than fight him and lose everything."

"No!" replied Red Cloud. "The white man lies and steals. My lodges were many; now they are few. The white man wants all. He must fight, and the Indian will die where his fathers died."

With that, the Sioux unstrung their bows and whipped the Cheyennes on the face and back, crying, "Coup!" as if they were striking the enemy.

So Black Horse sent word that the Sioux intended war.

The fort was named Fort Phil Kearney. It was built of timber cut in the pine woods seven miles distant, and was surrounded by a palisade or high fence of thick pickets set upright.

Saw mills were placed in the woods, and the wood-camps were protected by block-houses. Almost one hundred wagons were used, to haul the logs and boards.

One hundred miles onward, another fort was started: Fort C. F. Smith.

The Crows informed Colonel Carrington that Red Cloud had tried to enlist even them—that all the Sioux were uniting to drive out the white men from this region, and that in the fall there would be a "big fight" at the two forts.

White Mouth and Rotten Tail said that they were half a day in riding through the Sioux village; there were fifteen hundred lodges. In truth, Chief Red Cloud had over two thousand warriors, with whom to stand in the path.

And there he stood. Nobody might doubt that. His raiders watched every mile of the trail back to Powder River, and not an emigrant train got through. He himself, with two thousand warriors, guarded Fort Kearney, where the white chief lived.

Nobody might venture from it to hunt game. The wood wagons might move only when many together and well aimed. Not a load of hay could be brought in without strong escort. After a time no mail could be sent on to Fort Smith.

Colonel Carrington had five companies of infantry and one company of the Second Cavalry. The infantry was mostly recruits. Their guns were old style muzzle loaders; but the band had the new Spencer breech-loaders.

He asked for better guns and more ammunition. The Government was not certain that the Sioux could do much against soldiers of a country which had just been trained by a four years' war, and Carrington was left to prove it.

Chief Red Cloud had his first chance to prove the opposite on December 6. He had been amusing his warriors by letting them gallop past the fort and shout challenges to the soldiers to come out and fight; then when the cannon shot at them, they dodged the shells—but did not always succeed.

The big guns that shot twice surprised them.

On the morning of December 6 Red Cloud struck in earnest, and had planned to strike hard. He had a line of signal flags seven miles long, by which to direct his army. Then he sent a company to attack a wood train.

The attack on the wood train brought the troops out of the fort. One detachment of thirty-five cavalry and a few mounted infantry was commanded by Captain William J. Fetterman. He was very anxious to fight Indians; in fact, the officers all had set their hearts upon "taking Red Cloud's scalp."

Captain Fetterman rescued the wagon train, by chasing the Sioux away; but in about five miles Red Cloud faced his men about and closed. It was an ambuscade. The troopers of the cavalry were stampeded, and the captain found himself, with two other officers and a dozen men, surrounded by yelling warriors.

Colonel Carrington arrived just in time to save him; but young Lieutenant H. S. Bingham of the Second Cavalry was killed, and so was Sergeant Bowers.

When Captain Fetterman had returned to the fort he had changed his mind regarding the prowess of the Sioux, whom he had thought to be only robbers.

"I have learned a lesson," he remarked. "This Indian war has become a hand-to-hand fight, and requires great caution. I'll take no more risks like that of today!"

Red Cloud was not satisfied. His warriors had not done exactly as he had told them to do, He bided his time.

On the morning of December 21 he was again ready. His men were stationed, waiting for a wood train to appear. It appeared, starting out to chop timber in the pine woods, and haul the logs to the fort.

It was an unusually strong train—a number of heavy wagons, and ninety armed men.

Red Cloud let it get about four miles along, and ordered it attacked. He had spies upon a ridge of hills, to watch the fort.

When the attack was heard at the fort, soldiers dashed out. The Red Cloud warriors allowed the wagon train to think that it had whipped them. He withdrew, across the ridge.

The leader of the soldiers was Captain Fetterman, again. He had asked for the command. With him was Captain Fred H. Brown, who expected to go back to Fort Laramie, and wished, first, to get a scalp. He and Captain Fetterman were rivals for scalps and had almost forgotten the affair of December 6. They were gallant soldiers, but reckless.

Altogether the detachment numbered seventy-nine officers and men, and two scouts named Wheatley and Fisher.

Captain Fetterman was distinctly ordered by Colonel Carrington to do nothing but rescue the wagon train. He must not cross the ridge in pursuit of the Sioux.

Captain Fetterman did not move directly for the place of the wagon train. He made a circuit, to cut off the attacking Sioux, at their rear, or between the wagon train and the ridge to the north of it.

He had taken no surgeon, so Dr. Hines was hurried after him. The doctor came back in another hurry. He reported that the wagon train was on its way to the timber, without the captain; and that the captain had disappeared, over the ridge! Many Indians were in sight, and the doctor had been obliged to stop short.

Now, on a sudden, there was a burst of distant gun-fire. In twelve minutes a second detachment of soldiers was on the run, from the fort for the battle; wagons and ambulances and more men followed; and soon only one hundred and nineteen men remained.

The firing was very heavy, in volleys—then in fire-at-will; then it died down—quit. Not a sound could be heard, as the women and men in Fort Kearney strained their ears and eyes.

Presently a courier from the second detachment galloped headlong in. He said that the valley beyond the ridge was swarming with Sioux; they yelled and dared the soldiers to come down to the road there. But of the Captain Fetterman command, no trace could be sighted.

The soldiers and the reinforcements stayed out all the afternoon. They returned at dark; but of the eighty-one others, none came back. All of them, the entire eighty-one, had fallen to the army of Red Cloud.

Nobody was alive to tell the story of the fight. The signs on the field were plain, though; and of course the Red Cloud warriors knew well what had occurred.

Captain Fetterman had crossed the ridge, to chase the Sioux. Two thousand Red Cloud men were waiting for him. They permitted him to advance to the forbidden road. The white soldiers fought until their ammunition was almost spent. Then the Red Cloud men rushed. Only six of the white soldiers were shot; the rest were killed by hand.

The plan of Red Cloud and his chiefs had been laid to get all the troops out of the fort, together; kill them and seize the fort.

But the warriors had not waited long enough. Their victory was too quick, and they lost too many men, themselves, in the one fight: seventy, of killed and wounded, they said; sixty-five of killed, alone, said the red blotches on the field.

Still, Red Cloud had closed the road with the bodies of the soldiers. He had made his word good.

The garrison in Fort Kearney gave up all thought of glory by capturing Red Cloud; and this winter there was no more fighting. How many warriors Red Cloud had, to "cover the hills with their scarlet blankets," nobody knew; but the count ran from three thousand to five thousand.

The spring came, and the summer came, and the road had not been opened. In more than a year, not a single wagon had passed upon it, through the hunting grounds of the Sioux.

Another white chief had been sent to take command of Fort Phil Kearney. He was Brigadier General H. W. Wessels. All this summer the soldiers were having to fight for wood and water. The contractor in charge of the teams hauling lumber complained that he must have more protection or he would be unable to do the work.

Captain James Powell of the Twenty-seventh Infantry was ordered out to protect the lumber camps. He took Lieutenant John C. Jenness and fifty-one men. The wood choppers had two camps, about a mile apart. The captain detailed twenty-five of his men to guard the one camp, and escort the wagon trains to the fort; with the twenty-six others he made a fort of wagon boxes, at the second camp.

He arranged fourteen of the wagon boxes on the ground, in a circle. Some of the boxes had been lined with boiler iron. Two wagons were left on wheels, so that the rifles might be aimed from underneath. The boxes were pierced low down with a row of loop-holes. The spaces between the ends of the boxes were filled with ox-chains, slabs and brush. He had plenty of ammunition and plenty of new breech-loading rifles.

The little fort was located in an open basin, surrounded by gentle hills. He directed the men of the other camp to come in at the first sign of trouble.

The Sioux were at hand. Red Cloud had been merely waiting for the soldiers to march out and make it worth his while to descend. He was resolved to destroy Fort Kearney this year, before the snows.

It seemed to him that again he had the soldiers where he wanted them. Word of the flimsy little corral spread a laugh among his two thousand warriors. The squaws and old men were summoned from the allied Sioux and outlaw Cheyenne village, to come and see and be ready with their knives.

On the morning of August 2 he so suddenly attacked the unfortified wood camp that he cut it off completely. Two hundred of his men captured the mule herd; five hundred of them attacked the wagon train there, burned the wagons and drove the soldiers and teamsters and choppers who were outside the corral, in flight to Fort Kearney. Scalps were taken.

Now it was the turn of the puny corral, and the rest of the soldiers.

He could see only the low circle of wagon-boxes. They were covered with blankets; underneath the blankets there were soldiers—few and frightened.

The hill slopes around were thronged with his people, gathered to watch and to plunder. He felt like a great chief indeed, And at wave of his hand eight hundred of his cavalry dashed in a thundering, crackling surge of death straight at the silent circle.

On they sped, and on, and on, and were just about to dash against the circle and sweep over, when suddenly such a roar, and sheet of flame, struck them in the face that they staggered and melted. Now—while the guns were empty! But the guns were not yet empty—they belched without pause. Veering right and left around a bloody lane the warriors, crouching low, tore for safety from the frightful blast.

Red Cloud could not understand. His own men were well armed, with rifles and with muskets captured from the soldiers during the past year or supplied at the trading post. It seemed to him that there were more soldiers under those blankets than he had reckoned. But he knew that his men were brave; his people were watching from the hills; he had no mind for defeat.

In the corral Captain Powell had told his twenty-six soldiers and four civilians to fight for their lives. The poor shots were ordered to load guns and pass them as fast as possible to the crack shots.

Red Cloud rallied his whole force, of more than two thousand. He dismounted eight hundred and sent them forward to crawl along the ground, as sharp-shooters; they ringed the corral with bullets and arrows.

He himself led twelve hundred, afoot, for a charge. His young nephew was his chief aide—to win the right to be head chief after Red Cloud's death.

But although they tried, in charge after charge, for three hours, they could not enter the little fort. Sometimes they got within ten yards—the soldiers threw augers at them, and they threw the augers back—and back they reeled, themselves. The guns of the little fort never quit!

Red Cloud still could not understand. He called a council. In the opinion of his chiefs and braves, the white soldiers were armed with guns that shot of themselves and did not need reloading.

The squaws on the hills were wailing; his men were discouraged; many had fallen. So finally he ordered that the bodies be saved, and the fight ended. His braves again crawled forward, behind shields, with ropes; tied the ropes to the bodies, in spite of the bullets, and running, snaked the bodies away behind them.

"Some bad god fought against us," complained the Red' Cloud people. "The white soldiers had a great medicine. We were burned-by fire."

And all the Indians of the plains, heard about the mystery, when the breech-loading rifles rowed down the Sioux and the Cheyennes, spoke of the bad god fight that defeated Chief Red Cloud.

The Sioux reported that they had lost eleven hundred and thirty-five warriors. Red Cloud's nephew was sorely wounded in the charge. Captain Fetterman's loss was Lieutenant Jenness and two men killed, two men wounded. He said that when the reinforcements, with the cannon, arrived from Fort Kearney, while the Sioux were removing their dead, he was in despair. Another charge or two and he would have been wiped out.

But the road remained closed. Red Cloud remained in the path. This fall the Government decided that, after all, it had no right to open the road. In April of the next year, 1868, another treaty was signed with the Sioux and the Cheyennes, by which the United States gave up any claim to the Powder River and Big Horn country, and the Indians promised to let the Union Pacific Railroad alone.

Red Cloud did not sign. "The white men are liars," he insisted; and he waited until the three forts, Smith and Kearney and Reno, were abandoned. Then, in November, after his warriors had burned them, and all the soldiers were gone out of the country, he put his name to the treaty.

Thus he won out. He had said that he would close the road, and he had done it.

Through the following years he remained quiet. He had had his fill of fighting. His name was great. He was head chief of the Red Cloud agency, later called Pine Ridge. Spotted Tail of the BrulÚs controlled the other agency, later called Rosebud.

Red Cloud always closely watched the whites. He was at peace, but suspicious. When the Black Hills were finally demanded by the United States, he sent out men to count the buffalo. The number in sight was too small. Some day, soon, the Indians would have no meat on their hunting grounds. Therefore Red Cloud decided that the red men must begin to live by aid of the white man; and he favored the reservations—even the sale of the Black Hills so that his people would be made rich enough to settle down.

He was looked up to as a warrior and a councillor, but the United States did not trust him; and after a time, put Spotted Tail over him, in charge of the two agencies. This made bad feeling, and Red Cloud and Spotted Tail did not speak to each other. However, his own people, who rose under Sitting Bull, urged him to join with them, in vain.

Red Cloud lived to be a very old man. He became almost blind, and partly paralyzed. He stuck to his one wife. They were together for many years.

He died in December, 1909, in a two-story house built for him by the Government on the Pine Ridge agency in South Dakota. He was aged, eighty-seven. Five years before he had given his chief-ship over to his son, young Red Cloud, who carried the name. It is a name that will never be forgotten.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Strong Medicine of Konate  |  Next: Standing Bear Seeks a Home
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.