Red Cloud

Red Cloud was a very strong war leader and a chief of the Oglala Lakota.

War Leader and Chief

Red Cloud (1822 – December 10, 1909) was a very strong war leader and a chief of the Oglala Lakota. He led as a chief from 1868 to 1909. One of the most capable Native American opponents the United States Army faced, he led a successful campaign in 1866–1868 known as Red Cloud’s War over control of the Powder River Country in northeastern Wyoming and southern Montana.

Red Cloud Born

Red Cloud was born circa 1822 close to the forks of the Platte River, near the modern-day city of North Platte, Nebraska. His mother, Walks As She Thinks, was an Oglala Lakota and his father, Lone Man, was a Brulé Lakota chief. These were two of the major seven Lakota divisions.

As was traditional among the matrilineal Lakota, in which the children belonged to the mother’s clan and people, Red Cloud was mentored as a boy by his maternal uncle, Old Chief Smoke (1774–1864). Old Chief Smoke played a prominent, major role in the boy’s early-mid life and brought him into the Smoke household when his parents died around 1825. At a young age, Red Cloud fought against neighboring Pawnee and Crow, gaining much war experience.

Red Cloud's War

The name the US Army gave to a series of conflicts fought with American Indian Plains tribes in the Wyoming and Montana territories. The battles were waged between the Northern Cheyenne, allied with Lakota and Arapaho bands, against the United States Army between 1866 and 1868. In December 1866, the Native American allies attacked and defeated a United States unit in what the whites would call the Fetterman Massacre (or the Battle of the Hundred Slain), which resulted in the most U.S. casualties of any Plains battle up to that point.

Following this battle, a US peace commission toured the Plains in 1867 to gather information to help bring about peace among the tribes and with the US. Finding that the American Indians had been provoked by white encroachment and competition for resources, the commission recommended assigning definite territories to the Plains tribes. The Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho bands, and others settled for peace with the US under the Treaty of Fort Laramie. The US agreed to abandon its forts and withdraw completely from Lakota territory.

Treaty of 1868 - Making of the Great Sioux Reservation

The treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation, covering the territory of West River, west of the Missouri River in present-day Nebraska (which had been admitted as a state in 1867), and including parts of South Dakota. Uneasy relations between the expanding United States and the natives continued. In 1870, Red Cloud visited Washington D.C., and met with Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ely S. Parker (a Seneca and U.S. Army General) and President Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1871, the government established the Red Cloud Agency on the Platte River, downstream from Fort Laramie. As outlined in the Treaty of 1868, the agency staff were responsible for issuing weekly rations to the Oglala, as well as providing the annually distributed supply of cash and annuity goods. The agent and Washington officials would determine how much of the annuity was to be paid in cash or goods, and sometimes the supplies were late, in poor condition, inadequate in amount, or never arrived at all.

Great Sioux War of 1876-77

In 1874, General George Custer led a reconnaissance mission into Sioux territory that reported gold in the Black Hills, an area held sacred by the local Indians. Formerly, the Army tried to keep miners out but did not succeed; the threat of violence grew. In May 1875, Lakota delegations headed by Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, and Lone Horn traveled to Washington, DC in an attempt to persuade President Grant to honor existing treaties and stem the flow of miners into their lands. The Indians met on various occasions with Grant, Secretary of the Interior Delano, and Commissioner of Indian Affairs Smith. He told them on May 27 that Congress was ready to resolve the matter by paying the tribes $25,000 for their land and resettling them into Indian Territory. The delegates refused to sign such a treaty, with Spotted Tail saying about the proposal:

“When I was here before, the President gave me my country, and I put my stake down in a good place, and there I want to stay…. You speak of another country, but it is not my country; it does not concern me, and I want nothing to do with it. I was not born there…. If it is such a good country, you ought to send the white men now in our country there and let us alone.”

Red Cloud's Last Days

Red Cloud became an important leader of the Lakota as they transitioned from the freedom of the plains to the confinement of the reservation system. His trip to Washington, D.C. had convinced him of the number and power of European Americans, and he believed the Oglala had to seek peace.

In 1884 he and his family, along with 5 other chiefs, converted and were baptized as Catholic by Father Joseph Bushman.

Red Cloud continued fighting for his people, even after being forced onto the reservation. In 1887 Red Cloud opposed the Dawes Act, which broke up communal tribal holdings, and allocated 160-acre plots of land to heads of families on tribal rolls for subsistence farming. The US declared additional communal tribal lands as excess, and sold it to emigrant settlers. In 1889 Red Cloud opposed a treaty to sell more of the Lakota land. Due to his steadfastness and that of Sitting Bull, government agents obtained the necessary signatures for approval through subterfuge, such as using the signatures of children. He negotiated strongly with Indian Agents such as Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy.

He outlived all the other major Lakota leaders of the Indian Wars. He died in 1909 at the age of 88 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he was buried. He is quoted as saying in his old age, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they kept but one–They promised to take our land…and they took it.”