The Battle of Powder River

It is said the love of money is the root of all evil.

When it comes to the Great Sioux War between Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and the U.S. military, this could reasonably be seen as the cause for all of the harm that an 18-month war brought to bear on both sides.

All over a bunch of gold rocks.

Negotiations Gone South

As the Black Hills Gold Rush was on in 1875, white settlers from the East were flowing into the area to find their piece of prosperity, but they were broaching Sioux and Cheyenne lands around the Black Hills. The U.S. government had negotiated land for the Sioux people with the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which included the Black Hills, considered highly sacred ground to the American Indians in the area.

Settlers and prospectors were not part of the original deal, and the Sioux were not real happy. The government wanted to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux in order to mine the gold. The government asked the tribes to meet at their local agencies by January 31, 1876, to negotiate sales terms. Several bands of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne did not comply with the request, and the order was given to the military to “enforce” an order that would drive the “hostile” American Indians away from the Black Hills and onto reservations.

The Powder (River) Keg

By March of that year, events were coming to a head with the first major confrontation of the Great Sioux War. Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne were in a village near the Powder River, where U.S. military scouts spotted them. After a long trek through winter blizzards and chilling cold, the U.S. military had finally caught up to a camp of these “hostiles.”

The attack plan of the U.S. forces was to split up into two groups, one to attack the village and the other to secure about 1,000 horses belonging to those in the village. The group that attacked the village was split up, with part of the group going into the village itself and the other meant to stay on the ridge to prevent escape.

Poor Execution

But at the time that attack was commenced, fewer than 50 soldiers (out of about 300) made it to the camp; the rest were delayed by terrain and weather as the village was a full mile farther than initially reported. The key group delayed was the one meant to be on the ridge; the ridge was captured by the Indians. The village and all the supplies were burned while the Indians had a raid party take back most of its animals.

No Winner?

The U.S. military had twice as many men in the battle as the Lakota and Cheyenne did but one could argue that the battle was a draw, if not a win by the Indians. Despite losing the entire village, the Indians had one killed and one wounded in the battle, while the military had four deaths and six wounded, and ultimately gained only about 100 horses – and ended up killing them anyway. The military withdrew to base rather than chasing the Indians to where Crazy Horse was located – one of the military’s primary targets, along with Sitting Bull.

Having that attack executed poorly essentially prolonged the Great Sioux War, as the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors were able to survive and keep fighting for 18 months, when most of the “resistance” could have been subdued by that one encounter along the banks of the Powder River. The Powder River, in effect, caused Custer’s Last Stand three months later.

You can watch a famous movie about it here or view various websites: