The History of The Great Sioux War

The Great Sioux War of 1876 is also known to many historians as the Black Hill  War. It was a series of both negotiations and battles that collectively took place in 1876 and 1877. These events transpired between the government of the United States and the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux.

The primary cause of the dispute stemmed from the United States government desiring ownership over the Black Hills. There had been a discovery of gold there, and settlers were encroaching into what were at the time Native American lands. The Cheyenne and Sioux refused to cede their ownership of their lands to the United States.

Traditional interpretation of the events by many historians and United States military scholars put an emphasis on the Lakota as a central player in this story, particularly given the numbers they had involved. However, some of the Native American populace hold the belief that the United States campaign was targeted at the Cheyenne.

Many skirmishes and battles took place during this war. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was perhaps the most famous, alternatively known popularly as “Custer’s Last Stand,” as it is easily the most storied of multiple encounters between Plains Indians and the United States army. Even though Indian forces won that particular incident, the United States was able to capitalize on its access to national resources.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was a decided loss, and it was preceded by the Battle of the Rosebud. That early event is widely considered to be the first notable violence of the war; it was at least a tactical draw, but perhaps a strategic victory for the Indians. Both were followed by the Battle of Slim Buttes, which was a minor victory. Following the mixed results, the Army changed tactics and started bringing in many more troops and commanding officers, one of whom wound up commanding the whole Army during the United States-Spanish War.

The Indians involved were eventually forced into surrender. This happened mainly due to attacks that destroyed their property and encampments and caused great injury to their soldiers. Two presidents were in office during the Great Sioux War. The first was Ulysses S. Grant, and the second was Rutherford B. Hayes. On February 28, 1877, the Agreement of 1877 was formally enacted. It established permanent Indian reservations and annexed Sioux lands.

Military campaigns were not the only efforts to bring a resolution to the conflict. After Custer fell, Congress passed a ‘sell or starve’ rider that terminated Sioux rations until they ceased hostilities and gave the Black Hills to America. Also, a delegation including Northern Cheyenne and Oglala men went to various encampments in January of 1877 to see if any bands were interested in surrendering. Other Indian agencies sent out similar peace delegations in the following February, March, and April.

The combination of military campaigns and intense diplomacy yielded effective results. Starting in the early spring months of 1877, many of the northern bands started to surrender en masse. This was not without incident, though. The famous Oglala leader known as Crazy Horse was feared by the Army as someone who might break away. An attempt to arrest him lead to a struggle that ended in his death. Also, some bands simply fled into Canada. However, buffalo depletion and tensions with native tribes already in Canada lead most of these bands to return and surrender in the early 1880s.

The Great Sioux War of 1876-77 is often contrasted with the previous Red Cloud’s War of roughly ten years earlier. In that conflict, the leaders of the Lakota were heavily supported by their various bands in terms of fighting. However, between the two wars, over half of the Lakota population had chosen to settle at various Indian agencies. They did this to gain subsistence and rations, and these bands neither supported nor participated in the Great Sioux War.

For more information on The Great Sioux War and other Sioux wars, check out this video: