Category Archives: Treaties

Were There Native American Reservations By The Time Custer Died?

Most people believe that Native American reservations were a concept established by the United States of America — but that’s not true. We simply took the concept and ran fast and hard. It was actually the British Empire that first decided to subjugate, assimilate, or push the Native Americans onto small parcels of land. They did this through treaties that would never have seemed “fair” to the Native Americans — and which were destined to be broken by European settlers anyway. 

The first reservation ever established was the Brotherton Indian Reservation in New Jersey. This was a 3,284 acre piece of land “given” in August 1758. A few years later, plans were drawn up that would determine how future purchases would be made. The idea was always to consult with the Native Americans first, but settlers would generally push onto Native American lands first, become violent, and then the Native Americans would understandably fight back. Then a new treaty would be made, only for the cycle to begin anew some years later. This would keep going for about 200 years.

By 1824, the famous John C. Calhoun conceived the Office of Indian Affairs to formally adopt treaties for the purchase of land or granting of reservations. 38 such treaties were adopted quickly.

Southern California tribes were forced to sign treaties that pushed them onto reservations during a 41-year period between 1851 and 1892. But Congress wouldn’t ratify the treaties, which meant their signing was swept under rug until 1896, when the Bureau of American Ethnology declassified them for the first time.

Toward the end of Custer’s life (he was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876), President Ulysses S. Grant was doing his best to avoid more violence with Native American tribes. He failed pretty miserably. His 1868 “Peace Policy” aimed to reorganize the Indian Service to “relocate” tribes. If the goal was to avoid violence, forcibly moving people from their ancestral homes was likely a bad way to go about it.

Somehow, he thought the idea would be received better if the men in charge were Christian officials nominated by the Church itself. You might have guessed that this too was a horrible idea.

The Native American tribes routinely ignored or fought back against the relocation orders (why wouldn’t they?) which forced the U.S. government to deploy the army to watch Native American movement. This led to the Sioux War (during which Custer was killed) and the Nez Perce War. President Rutherford B. Hayes decided to scrap the “Peace Policy” by 1877, and smartly asked the Christian officials to relinquish their posts. They acquiesced completely by 1882.  

The Indian New Deal (also called the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 or the Howard-Wheeler Act) guaranteed new rights for Native Americans, gave them back sovereignty of their own lands, and provided them with the authority to manage their own lands. Of course, by this point in time, “their own lands” were all reservations.

What Was George Armstrong Custer’s Role During Sheridan’s Civil War Campaign?

Custer was well known for his flamboyant actions and flare for the melodrama. After losing more men in a Union cavalry brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War — 257, to be exact — he stated: “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry.” He was awarded a promotion for his role in the battle, but you already know how much of the rest of his career went — at least at the end. 

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was a pivotal site for the Civil War, and many battles were fought there — including a few led by Custer himself. 

Philip Sheridan was a cavalry commander for the Army of the Potomac, and commanded many of the forces that took part in the regional battles within the valley. Much of his military command during this time was subdued because of the presidential election of 1864, where a defeat might then lead to the end of Lincoln’s presidential campaign. Custer, however, ravaged the area with his “Wolverines” in the 3rd Division, defeating Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early.

After a number of fierce battles, Custer joined Sheridan to chase Robert E. Lee, who was in the process of fleeing to the renowned Appomattox Court House. Custer was successful in blocking Lee on the day the Confederate forces finally surrendered — and, in fact, Custer was the one to accept the first flag of truce.

Custer was reported to have said, “In the name of General Sheridan I demand the unconditional surrender of this army.”

Longstreet noted that he did not have the authority to make such a surrender, and that he certainly wouldn’t parley with Sheridan even if he were. Regardless of the antics at that particular battlefield, Custer joined the others where the surrender was finally signed (the aforementioned Appomattox Court House) — and he was even gifted the table on which the signing took place.

The Agreement of 1877

As a result of the Great Sioux War (also known as the Black Hills War), the United States government enforced legislation upon the defeated Lakota Sioux known as the Agreement of 1877. On the surface, this legislation was a cessation of the Black Hills territory from Lakota control into United States occupation following the Lakota’s ceasing of hostilities at the end of the Great Sioux War. It also relocated the Lakota from the Black Hills into predesignated reservations and modified the borders of Native American land that had been established by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

Preceding this act, the United States and the Lakota Sioux had come to terms in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 that had originally prohibited American activity in the Black Hills as it was considered sacred land by the Lakota (as well as other tribes such as the Cheyenne). Intrusion into the Black Hills had instigated aggression and hostilities between the Lakota and American traders and debtor protectors, spurring the Federal government to action. While a peace had been struck, much speculation had centered around the Black Hills themselves as holding stores of gold within the earth. American prospectors and minors, despite Federal legislation outlawing it, continued to trespass in the Black Hills in search of this gold, further inciting Lakota to retaliate. This aggressive act, once met with peaceful legislation, now caused the United States to resort to arranging an expeditionary force led by General Custer in 1874 to consider the possibility of a fort in order to protect American citizens.

During the expedition, the rumors of gold were confirmed and the hostilities eventually led to a war between the tribes of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho against the United States military. The ensuing conflict ended with the Lakota defeat and cessation of the Black Hills. Many Lakota referred to this legislation as a “sell or starve” amendment to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876, as it allowed the United States to blockade supply rations to the Lakota until they ceased all hostilities and formally ceded the Black Hills.

Despite the formality of the Agreement of 1877 that supposedly ratified the Black Hills annexation to the United States, there is much controversy that surrounds the transfer of such land even up to the present day. While the legislation itself apparently makes note that the Black Hills were purchased and paid for by the United States, there is no evidence of such a transaction actually taking place. In fact, the Lakota Sioux of the present day make note that they consistently refuse to accept payment for land they consider sacred, despite the United States Supreme Court awarding upwards of $106 million to the Sioux nation in 1980 as recompense for the United States effectively violating the fifth amendment in their seizure of the Black Hills. Many members of the Sioux nation believe that accepting such payment even now would only finalize the formality that attempted to be set in motion in 1877, and that the Black Hills would be properly sold to the United States, along with the Sioux culture and identity.

Indian Appropriation Of 1876

To say that the U.S. government and the various Indian tribes on the continent have had a contentious relationship might be one of the great understatements of American history.

That’s akin to saying the American Civil War was a “skirmish.”

As the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” was taking hold on the country, expansion plans to the west were already taking place. In the wake of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the California Gold Rush, the fledgling United States was growing as a rapid pace. Settlers were packing up their safe, city lives in the United States and moving west to grab more land for their families and to be the first pioneers in the new frontier.

We Were Here First

American Indians populated much of the western frontier, and there were conflicts over land and resources as white settlers moved into the areas. Indian warriors often defended their lands by attacking white settlements. After forced “removals” of Indians under President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, even more bad blood ensured, making the pioneer spirit in the West an even more dangerous and risky proposition than dreamed of before.

It came to a head with the passage of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851, which was the first official act that established Indian reservations in the United States, with the first one to be located in Oklahoma. During this entire time until this Act, the federal government had entered treaties with the various Indian tribes, respecting each as their own sovereign nation with self-determination. But establishing reservations and relocating tribes was the first time that the previously recognized sovereignty was being compromised, though at first the Indians were not forced to the reservations but were encouraged or asked to relocate.

So Much for Sovereignty

The reservation system that was established was causing more problems than they were meant to solve, as the goal was to “save” the tribes from having to assimilate or surrender to white settlement. For various reasons, tensions continued to flare, and finally in 1871 a new Indian Appropriations Act was passed that officially eliminated tribal sovereignty and essentially put all tribes under the auspices of government agencies. Reservations were now considered lands of the federal government which were “allotted” to the Native Americans – often, land that the settlers were not using because it was considered uninhabitable.

An Update to 1871

As Indian sovereignty was taken away and reservation borders were being drawn, a gold rush happened in the Dakota Territory, which impacted the sacred lands of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes of the area. The settlers’ stress on the land and mining of natural resources led to the start of the Great Sioux War when the federal government tried to forcibly restrain the Sioux and Cheyenne to the Black Hills area of the Dakota Territory to work out a sale of the Black Hills themselves so gold mining can resume.

In 1876, just after General Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn – the Indians’ greatest triumph of the Sioux War, though it lasted about 18 months longer – the federal government extended its authority powers over the tribes by re-drawing the lines for the Sioux and Cheyenne people, taking the Black Hills away from their designated lands and leaving them open for settlement and mining without negotiation with the tribes. The sacred mountains of the Great Plains Indians were ripped away without any compensation.

Needless to say, that further engendered animus from the Indians toward the federal government, and conflicts continued in various forms until the 1890s. Two more Indiana Appropriations Acts were passed, in 1885 and 1889, to finally put at least a legislative end on the conflicts and to bring the tribes to heel while America kept adding states.

In the end, a 1990 Supreme Court decision established that the Black Hills did rightfully belong to the Sioux and Cheyenne people, but three generations of culture were compromised in the meantime and has not been fully repaired.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and its Legacy

When we study the Native American tribes we must acknowledge that their customs and traditions, lands, etc.–their very way of life–had persisted for millennia before settlers ever sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to colonize the continent. Most Native Americans viewed the land as a source of abundance for all to share, and few of them understood the concept of ownership until Europeans taught them. Those settlers, purposeful or not, infringed on everything the Native American tribes knew and respected. As you can see here, it was for this reason they sought to preserve what little they had left centuries later, when Americans began a mad push for expansion in the late 1800s.

That purpose was really all they fought for, and it was to be a fight in vain.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, sometimes also called the Sioux Treaty, was drafted between the Sioux Nation and the United States government. The treaty set aside lands for the Sioux–called reservations–in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. The treaty was abundantly clear in its promise to the Sioux Nation: the lands were theirs, and would be used by and for no one else.

The treaty was conceived after a period of study conducted by a congressional committee in 1865. This “Report on the Condition of the Indian Tribes” was made available in 1867, and made recommendations on how the United States might avoid future conflicts with the Native Americans after nearly a decade of violent skirmishes. What it really did was suggest that the U.S. government offer a rather sharp compromise: in return for giving up the vast majority of their sacred lands, the Sioux and other Native American tribes could at least hold on to a small portion of what was already under their control.

In order to maintain their way of life and try to avoid further conflict, many of the tribes acquiesced. So, too, was the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 forged under the same promise.

Although these treaties paved the way for the expansion that made the United States the massive economic and military behemoth it remains today, the treaties and preceding violence are still acknowledged as some of the most shameful acts committed by the still young, nearly century old country. Sadly, the worst was yet to come.

Not even a decade later, the Black Hills Expedition effectively nullified the treaty in 1874. It sought to find new avenues to and from the region, implant a firm military stronghold, and mine for gold if there was any to be had. When Americans got word of the expedition, they surged into the area in droves in order to strike it rich on their own. This was illegal under the Fort Laramie Treaty, but the U.S. government quickly halted its initial policy of evicting civilians who ventured there for fortune.

The Sioux Nation recognized that the treaty was no longer upheld by the U.S. government and, when the U.S. military began to protect civilians coming into the Black Hills region, all hell broke loose. Skirmishes between both sides lasted for years to come. Most notable of all was the moment when Custer–the leader of the Black Hills Expedition–and hundreds of his men were slaughtered at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

Sadly, ownership of the region is under legal dispute between the remaining Sioux and the U.S. government.

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