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The Powerful Sioux
In 1832, a band of Sioux hunters entered Fort Pierre on the upper Missouri River. They said they had some products they wanted to trade, and proceeded to dump 1,400 fresh buffalo tongues on the ground. This trade fetched the Sioux several gallons of whiskey, which they consumed on the spot.
By the mid-19th century, both American officials and other Indian tribes accepted that the Sioux dominated the northern plains. By cornering the buffalo market, the Sioux came to control the best hunting grounds, and they monopolized the trade in buffalo robes, buffalo pemmican, and buffalo tongues. Isolated American forts and settlements respected the power of the Sioux and appreciated the trade in buffalo products. Sioux lands incorporated a large territory--from the Minnesota River in the east to the head of the Yellowstone River in the west, and from the Missouri River in the north to the Republican River in the south. Essentially, they controlled large portions of the Dakotas, Nebraska, western Minnesota, and eastern Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.
U.S. officials also recognized the power of the Sioux. A federal agent remarked, 'The day is not far off when the Sioux will possess the whole buffalo region, unless they are checked.' Soon this issue of Sioux power and American expansion came to a head.
The California Gold Rush and the Treaty of Fort Laramie
When gold was discovered in California in the late 1840s, thousands of white men traveled west with dollar signs in their eyes. These men hoped to strike it rich by panning for gold in shallow streams and river beds, or the easier approach of simply stumbling across large gold deposits. In their travels, however, they crossed through Sioux territory. This was the first time large numbers of Americans had encroached on Sioux land. As the Sioux disrupted this migration and attacked American settlements and wagon trains, U.S. officials knew they had to respond.
The response came in the form of a peace conference at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1851. This fort was built to protect migrants heading west along the Oregon Trail. The conference was a grand event, with dozens of Indian tribes represented, and about 10,000 Indian attendees in all. Their horses stripped the grass across miles in all directions. Both the American officials and the Indians understood the Sioux were the most powerful presence in the northern plains.
U.S. representatives urged the Sioux to stay north of the Platte River to avoid coming into contact with American gold seekers. Sioux leader Black Hawk refused. However, the conference did produce the Treaty of Fort Laramie. The Treaty ushered in a brief period of peace between the United States and the Sioux, and it reinforced the territorial claims between the Sioux and other Indian groups. And though the Sioux refused to relinquish their control over the large region of the Great Plains, they did offer to cease attacking American migrants heading west through Sioux land holdings.
However, this rough peace didn't last long. By the early 1860s, the Pikes Peak and Denver gold rushes brought tens of thousands of Americans into Sioux lands in eastern Colorado. Unlike the California gold rush, in which gold seekers merely passed through Sioux land, this time the settlers were there to stay. It was this situation, and the violence it produced, that would eventually lead to another Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. This so-called Second Treaty of Fort Laramie would split the Sioux between those willing to accept reservation life and those who wanted to continue fighting, and it ultimately resulted in Custer's Last Stand at Little Big Horn.
As migrants streamed west to search for gold in California, they crossed Sioux territory in the northern plains. Clashes between the Sioux and gold seekers led to the Fort Laramie Conference in 1851. Here, U.S. officials and the Sioux sketched out a rough agreement and a short-lived peace called the Treaty of Fort Laramie. When gold was discovered in Colorado, however, this peace was shattered and led to escalating clashes between the Sioux and American settlers. The Treaty of Fort Laramie was soon forgotten, and the Sioux and Americans had to reassess their relationship.
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