Sins of Omission

Red Cloud's War

The Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud is generally portrayed as someone who chewed up the U.S. Army in battle after battle.  He was, in the words of one author, “the first and only Indian leader in the West to win a war with the United States.”  This conclusion is based on the Army’s decision to abandon the Bozeman Trail and the three forts that protected it after a series of battles with Red Cloud.  Revisionist authors seem to delight in this—but there is something they don’t mention.

John Bozeman pioneered a trail from Virginia City, Montana, the site of a gold strike in 1862, eastward through a pass that bears his name in the northern Rockies, and then southeastward along the eastern side of the Big Horn Mountains to the North Platte River.  The trail quickly became the favored route for wagon and pack trains bound for the Montana goldfields.  Large wagon trains were usually safe from Indian attack, but smaller ones frequently suffered from Indian depredations.  This was especially true in the Powder River country at the southern end of the Big Horns.  The Teton Sioux, mostly the Oglala and Miniconjou bands, considered it their private hunting grounds.

In June 1866 a peace conference was held at Fort Laramie.  Several Sioux chiefs agreed to allow travel over the trail.  Others, including Red Cloud, refused.  Government agents were unimpressed by Red Cloud’s obstinacy,...

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