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The Cheyenne Indian Tribe

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                    


Our first treaty with the Cheyenne was made in 1825, at the mouth of the Teton River. It was merely a treaty of amity and friendship, and acknowledgment on the part of the Cheyenne of the " supremacy " of the United States. Two years before this, President Monroe reported the "Chayenes" to be "a tribe of three thousand two hundred and fifty souls, dwelling and hunting on a river of the same name, a western tributary of the Missouri, a little above the Great Bend." Ten years later, Catlin, the famous painter of Indians, met a "Shienne" chief and squaw among the Sioux, and painted their portraits. He says, "The Shiennes are a small tribe of about three thousand in number, living neighbors to the Sioux on the west of them, between the Black Hills and the Rocky Mountains. There is no finer race of men than these in North America, and none superior in stature, except the Osage: scarcely a man in the tribe full grown who is less than six feet in height." They are "the richest in horses of any tribe on the continent; living where the greatest herds of wild horses are grazing on the prairies, which they catch in great numbers, and sell to the Sioux, Mandans, and other tribes, as well as to the fur-traders.

"These people are the most desperate set of warriors and horsemen, having carried on almost unceasing wars with the Pawnees and Blackfeet. The chief was clothed in a handsome dress of deerskins, very neatly garnished with broad bands of porcupine-quill work down the sleeves of his shirt and leggings. The woman was comely, and beautifully dressed. Her dress of the mountain sheepskin tastefully ornamented with quills and beads, and her hair plaited in large braids that hung down on her breast."

In 1837 the agent for the "Sioux, Cheyenne, and Ponca" reports that "all these Indians live exclusively by the chase;" and that seems to be the sum and substance of his information about them. He adds, also, that these remote wandering tribes have a great fear of the border tribes, and wish to avoid them. In 1838 the Cheyenne are reported as carrying on trade at a post on the Arkansas River near the Santa Fe road, but still depending on the chase.

In 1842 they are spoken of as a "wandering tribe on the Platte;" and in the same year, Mr. D. D. Mitchell, Supt. of Indian Affairs, with his head-quarters at St. Louis, writes: "Generations will pass away before this territory" [the territory in which the wild tribes of the Upper Mississippi were then wandering] "becomes much more circumscribed; for if we draw a line running north and south, so as to cross the Missouri about the mouth of the Vermilion River, we shall designate the limits beyond which civilized men are never likely to settle. At this point the Creator seems to have said to the tides of emigration that are annually rolling toward the West, ' Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther.' At all events, if they go beyond this, they will never stop on the east side of the Rocky Mountains. The utter destitution of timber, the sterility of sandy soil, together with the coldness and dryness of the climate, furnish obstacles which not even Yankee enterprise is likely to overcome. A beneficent Creator seems to have intended this dreary region as an asylum for the Indians, when the force of circumstances shall have driven them from the last acre of the fertile soil, which they once possessed. Here no inducements are offered to the ever-restless Saxon breed to erect their huts. * * * The time may arrive when the whole of the Western Indians will be forced to seek a resting-place in this Great American Desert; and this, in all probability, will form a new era in the history of this singular and ill-fated race. They will remain a wandering, half civilized, though happy people. ' Their flocks and herds will cover a thousand hills,' and will furnish beef and mutton for a portion of the dense population of whites that will swarm in the more fertile sections of the great valley of the Mississippi."

This line, recommended by Mr. Mitchell, runs just east of Dakota, through the extreme eastern portion of Nebraska, a little to the east of the middle of Kansas, through the middle of Indian Territory and Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico. Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico, all lie west of it.

The records of the War Department for 1846 contain an interesting account of a visit made to all the wild tribes of the Upper Missouri Agency-the Yankton Sioux, the Arrikaree, Mandan, Assinaboine, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and others. In reply to the agent's remonstrance's with one of the Sioux chiefs in regard to their perpetual warring with each other, the chief "was very laconic and decided, remarking ' that if their great-grandfather desired them to cease to war with their enemies, why did he not send each of them a petticoat, and make squaws of them at once?' "This same chief refused to allow the boys of his tribe to 'go to the Choctaw schools, saying, "They would return, as the few did who went to St. Louis, drunkards, or die on the way."

The Cheyenne and other Indians living on the Platte complained bitterly of the passage of the emigrants through their country. They said they ought to be compensated for the right of way, and that the emigrants should be restricted by law and the presence of a military force from burning the grass, and from unnecessary destruction of game. They were systematically plundered and demoralized by traders. Whiskey was to be had without difficulty; sugar and coffee were sold at one dollar a pound; ten-cent calico at one dollar a yard; corn at seventy-five cents a gallon, and higher.

In 1847 a law was passed by Congress forbidding the introduction of whiskey into the Indian country, and even the partial enforcement of this law bad a most happy effect. Foremost among those to acknowledge the benefits of it were the traders themselves, who said that the Indians' demand for substantial articles of trade was augmented two hundred per cent.: "They enjoy much better health, look much better, and are better people. * * * You now rarely ever hear of a murder committed, whereas when whiskey was plenty in that country murder was a daily occurrence." These Indians themselves were said to be "opposed to the introduction of ardent spirits into their country; * * * but, like almost all other Indians, will use it if you give it to them, and when under its influence are dangerous and troublesome." There were at this time nearly forty-six thousand of these Upper Missouri Indians. Five bands of them "the Sioux, Cheyenne, Gros Ventre, Mandans, and Ponca" were "excellent Indians, devotedly attached to the white man," living "in peace and friendship with our Government," and "entitled to the special favor and good opinion of the Department for their uniform good conduct and pacific relations."

In 1848 it was estimated from the returns made by traders that the trade of this agency amounted to $400,000. Among the items were 25,000 buffalo tongues. In consequence of this prosperity on the part of the Indians, there was a partial cessation of hostilities on the whites; but it was still a perilous journey to cross the plains, and in 1849 the necessity for making some sort of treaty stipulations with all these wild tribes being to be forced emphatically upon the attention of the United States Government. A safe highway across the continent must be opened. It is a noticeable thing, however, that, even as late as this in the history of our diplomatic relations with the Indian his right to a certain control as well as occupancy of the soil was instinctively recognized. The Secretary of the Interior, in his report for 1849, says: "The wild tribes of Indians who have their hunting-grounds in the great prairie through which our emigrants to California pass; have, during the year, been more than usually pacific. They have suffered our people to pass through their country with little interruption, though they travelled in great numbers, and consumed on their route much grass and game. For these the Indians expect compensation, and their claim is just."

The Secretary, therefore, concurs in the recommendation of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that treaties be negotiated with these tribes, stipulating for the right of way through their country, and the use of grass and game, paying them there for small annuities in useful articles of merchandise, and agricultural implements, and instruction. "The right of way "- "through their country." A great deal is conceded, covered, and conveyed by such phrases as these. If they mean anything, they mean all that the Indians ever claimed.

The Indians were supposed to be influenced to this peaceableness and good-will more by a hope of rewards and gifts than by a wholesome fear of the power of the Government; and it was proposed to take a delegation of chiefs to Washington, "in order that they may acquire some knowledge of our greatness and strength, which will make a salutary impression on them, and through them on their brethren," and "will tend to influence them to continue peaceful relations."

It begins to dawn upon the Government's perception that peace is cheaper as well as kinder than war. "We never can whip them into friendship," says one of the superintendents of the Upper Missouri Agency. A treaty "can do no harm, and the expense would be less than that of a six months' war. * * Justice as well as policy requires that we should make some remuneration for the damages these Indians sustain in consequence of the destruction of their game, timber, etc., by the whites passing through their country."

"Their game, timber," "their country," again. The perpetual recurrence of this possessive pronoun, and of such phrases as these in all that the Government has said about the Indians, and in all that it has said to them, is very significant.

In 1850 the Indian Commission writes that "it is much to be regretted that no appropriation was made at the last session of Congress for negotiating treaties with the wild tribes of the 'plains. These Indians have long held undisputed possession of this extensive region; and, regarding it as their own, they consider themselves entitled to compensation not only for the right of way through their territory, but for the great and injurious destruction of game, grass, and timber committed by our troops and emigrants."

The bill providing for the negotiation of these treaties was passed unanimously bye the Senate, but "the unhappy difficulties existing on the subject of slavery" delayed it in the House until it was too late to be carried into effect.

All the tribes had been informed of this pending bill, and were looking forward to it with great interest and anxiety. In 1849 they had all expressed themselves as "very anxious to be instructed in agriculture and the civilized arts." Already the buffalo herds were thinning and disappearing. From time immemorial the buffalo had furnished them food, clothing, and shelter; with its disappearance, starvation stared them in the face, and they knew it. There can be no doubt that at this time all the wild tribes of the Upper Missouri region-the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho-were ready and anxious to establish friendly relations with the United States Government, and to enter into some arrangement by which some means of future subsistence, and some certainty of lands enough to live on, could be secured' to them. Meantime they hunted with greater diligence-than ever; and in this one year alone had sold to the fur-traders within the limits of one agency $330,000 "'worth of buffalo-robes, and "furs, peltries, and miscellaneous goods to the amount of $60,000. What they thus receive for their furs, robes, etc., would be ample for their support," says Hatton,"were it not that they have to give such exorbitant prices for what they purchase from the whites."

In the winter and spring of 1850 all these tribes were visited by an agent of the Government. He reported them as "friendly disposed," but very impatient to come to some understanding about the right of way. "This is what the Indians want, and what they are anxious about; having been told long since, and so often repeated by travelers passing (who care little about the consequences of promises so they slip through safely and unmolested themselves), that their ' Great Father' would soon reward them liberally for the right of way, the destruction of timber, game, etc., as well as for any kindness shown Americans passing through their country."

In the summer of 1851 this much desired treaty was made. Seven of the prairie and mountain tribes gathered in great force at Fort Laramie. The report of this council contains some interesting and noticeable points.

"We were eighteen days encamped together, during which time the Indians conducted themselves in a manner that excited the admiration and surprise of every one. The different tribes, although hereditary enemies, interchanged daily visits, both in their individual and national capacities; smoked and feasted together; exchanged presents; adopted each other's children, according to their own customs; and did all that was held sacred or solemn in the eyes of these Indians to prove the sincerity of their peaceful and friendly intentions, both among themselves and with the citizens of the United States lawfully residing among them or passing through the country."

By this treaty the Indians formally conceded to the United States the right to establish roads, military or otherwise, throughout the Indian country, "so far as they claim or exercise ownership over it."

They agreed "to maintain peaceful relations among themselves, and to abstain from all depredations upon whites passing through their country, and to make restitution for any damages or loss that a white man shall sustain by the acts of their people."

For all the damages, which they had suffered up to, that time in consequence of the passing of the whites through their country, they accepted the presents then received as payment in full.

An annuity of $50,000 a year for fifty -years to come was promised to them. This was the price of the "right of way."

"Fifty thousand dollars for a limited period of years is a small amount to be distributed among at least fifty thousand Indians, especially when we consider that we have taken away, or are rapidly taking away from them all means of support," says one of the makers of this treaty. There would probably be no dissent from this opinion. A dollar a year, even assured to one for fifty years, seems hardly an adequate compensation for the surrender of all other "means of support."

The report continues: "Viewing the treaty in all its provisions, I am clearly of opinion that it is the best that could have been made for both parties. I am, moreover, of the opinion that it will be observed and carried out in as good faith on the part of the Indians as it will on the part of the United States and the white people thereof. There was an earnest solemnity and a deep conviction of the necessity of adopting some such measures evident in the conduct and manners of the Indians throughout the whole council. On leaving for their respective homes, and bidding each other adieu, they gave the strongest possible evidence of their friendly intentions for the future, and the mutual confidence and mood faith which they had in each other. Invitations were freely given and as freely accepted by each of the tribes to interchange visits, talk, and smoke together like brothers, upon ground where they had never before met except for the purpose. of scalping each other. This, to my mind, was conclusive evidence of the sincerity of the Indians, and nothing but bad management or some untoward misfortune ever can break it."

The Secretary of the Interior, in his report for this year, speaks with satisfaction of the treaties negotiated with Indians during the year, and says: "It cannot be denied that most of the depredations committed by the Indians on our frontiers are the offspring of dire necessity. The advance of our population compels them to relinquish their fertile lands, and seek refuge in sterile regions, which furnish neither corn nor game: impelled by hunger, they seize the horses, mules, and cattle of the pioneers, to relieve their wants and satisfy the cravings of nature. They are immediately pursued, and, when overtaken, severely punished. This creates a feeling of revenge on their part, which seeks its gratification in outrages on the persons and property of peaceable inhabitants. The whole country then becomes excited, and a desolating war, attended with a vast sacrifice of blood and treasure, ensues. This, it is believed, is a true history of the origin of most of our Indian hostilities.

"All history admonishes us of the difficulty of civilizing a wandering race who live mainly upon game. To tame a savage you must tie him down to the soil. You must make him understand the value of property, and the benefits of its separate ownership. You must appeal to those selfish principles implanted by Divine Providence in the nature of man for the wisest purposes, and make them minister to civilization and refinement. You must encourage the appropriation of lands by individuals; attach them to their homes by the ties of interest; teach them the uses of agriculture and the arts of peace; * * * and they should be taught to look forward to the day when they may be elevated to the dignity of American citizenship.

"By means like these we shall soon reap our reward in the suppression of Indian depredations; in the diminution of the expenses of the Department of War; in a valuable addition to our productive population; in the increase of our agriculture and commerce; and in the proud consciousness that we have removed from our national escutcheon the stain left on it by our acknowledged injustice to the Indian race."

We find the Cheyenne, therefore, in 1851, pledged to peace and good will toward their Indian neighbors, and to the white emigrants pouring through their country. For this conceded right of way they are to have a dollar a year apiece, in "goods and animals;" and it is supposed that they will be able to eke out this support by hunting buffaloes, which are still not extinct.

In 1852 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs writes: "Notwithstanding the mountain and prairie Indians continue to suffer from the vast number of emigrants who pass through their country, destroying their means of support, and scattering disease and death among them, yet those who were parties to the treaty concluded at Fort Laramie, in the fall of 1851, have been true to their obligations, and have remained at peace among themselves and with the whites."

And the superintendent writes: "Congress made a very liberal appropriation of $100,000 to make a treaty with the prairie and mountain tribes. A very satisfactory treaty was made with them last fall at Fort Laramie, the conditions of which, on their part, have been faithfully observed-no depredations having been committed during the past season by any of the tribes parties to the Fort Laramie treaty. The Senate amended the treaty, substituting fifteen instead of fifty years as the period for which they were to have received an annual supply of goods, animals, etc., at the discretion of the President. This modification of the treaty I think very proper, as the condition of these wandering hordes will be entirely changed during the next fifteen years. The treaty, however, should have been sent back to the Indians for the purpose of obtaining their sanction to the modification, as was done in the case of the Sioux treaty negotiated by Commissioners Ramsey and Lea. It is hoped this oversight will be corrected as early as practicable next spring, otherwise the large amounts already expended will have been uselessly wasted, and the Indians far more dissatisfied than ever."

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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