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  • Arapaho and Cheyenne PerspectivesFrom the 1851 Treaty to the Sand Creek Massacre
  • Loretta Fowler (bio)

The 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek massacre occurred in 2014. Attempts to understand why the massacre happened have ignored or misrepresented the role of the Cheyennes and Arapahos in the events leading up to it. Studies have focused instead on the responsibility for it borne by individuals or the larger bureaucratic structures of the Indian Office or the army command. We can better understand what happened at Sand Creek and why it happened also by considering Cheyenne and Arapaho goals and political strategies. The analysis must begin with the 1851 treaty, which both reflected and molded Native perspectives on their relations with Americans for more than a decade.

agreeing to the treaty of 1851

Arapahos and Cheyennes realized that the massive immigration to California and Oregon beginning in 1842 had damaged the buffalo range and reduced the size of the herds. And the influx of large numbers of Lakota Sioux in the North Platte country put more pressure on resources. The tribes needed trade goods and provisions from Americans to compensate for the reduction in game. They bought food from traders and also insisted that the federal agent responsible for dealing with them distribute food and trade goods, including metal tools, blankets, and cloth. They approached immigrant trains on the Overland Trail for tolls in coffee and sugar and sometimes robbed the wagons on the Santa Fe Trail. The fear that the massive immigration and the construction of forts occupied by troops would prove disastrous led the Cheyenne leader Slim Face to travel east in 1844 to see for himself the huge numbers [End Page 364] of Americans. In 1849 the Arapaho leader Two Mountains met with Agent Thomas Fitzpatrick’s superior D. D. Mitchell in St. Louis and also saw the large number of soldiers.1

The United States, concerned about raids on travelers, had first attempted to intimidate the Arapahos and Cheyennes by establishing forts along the immigrant routes. Fitzpatrick complained that army officers would not cooperate with him, and he feared trouble from soldiers making “wanton and uncalled for attacks on Indians.” By 1849 the Indian Office, wanting to avoid war, had begun to try to get congressional consent for a peace treaty.2

Superintendent Mitchell emphasized that a treaty council had to be viewed as legitimate by the tribes, that is, given sacred validation by “ancient Indian custom.” Fitzpatrick had met tribal leaders, feasted them, and given them gifts that they could distribute, and he succeeded in getting their promise to attend a council to discuss the government’s payment for damages caused by the immigrants. Fitzpatrick was a former trapper-trader married to the daughter of trapper-trader John Poisal and his Arapaho wife, Shoshone Woman. Fitzpatrick explained to officials in Washington that it was the “custom of the country” to feast and give gifts in order to initiate or maintain a friendship with Native people. He also accepted the Arapaho and Cheyenne custom of paying reparations for thefts, injuries, or deaths in order to avoid retaliation. For example, in June 1851 at Fort Atkinson on the Arkansas River, a soldier attacked the Cheyenne warrior Lean Bear for touching his wife. In order to prevent the Cheyennes from exacting revenge, Fitzpatrick arranged for a payment to Lean Bear.3

By late August 1851 there were about ten thousand Native people on Horse Creek (thirty-six miles from Fort Laramie), including almost all the Southern and Northern Cheyennes, most of the Northern and Southern Arapahos, and many Lakota Sioux (mostly Brule and Oglala). Fitzpatrick and Mitchell, with dragoons and other officials, met them there. Participants followed Native custom with regard to peace councils. Mitchell held talks with each tribe and distributed food and gifts to the leaders. The women constructed an arbor and council lodge. Their participation validated the peaceful purpose of the council. A soldier’s wife was seated with the dragoons as a guarantee of peaceful intent on the part of the commissioners. All participated in a ceremonial smoking ritual that served, in the Native view, as an oath for truthfulness and a guarantee [End Page 365...


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