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Arapaho - Wars with United States

Era of Indian Extermination

Colorado’s territorial governor, John Evans, ordered that all friendly Indians occupy designated areas near military posts where they would be protected, while all Indians who did not comply would be hunted down and killed. Army officers frequently ordered the Indians who tried to comply with the order away from the posts. The Southern Arapaho chief, Left Hand, approached Fort Larned with a white flag but was attacked. A large group of Arapaho and Cheyenne, led by Black Kettle, were ordered to camp near Sand Creek by Fort Lyon. They pledged peace and surrendered arms. Left Hand also was camped there. Altogether there were roughly 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho at the camp.

Colonel John Chivington led the Colorado militia in a sneak attack on the camp on November 29, 1864. More than 130 Indians were killed, primarily women and children. Left Hand was killed during the attack as well. The majority of the Southern Arapaho under Little Raven, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were camped farther away from Sand Creek. Little Raven’s group escaped to seek refuge in Kiowa and Comanche territory. After news of the massacre spread, many Arapaho men joined with the Cheyenne in a full-scale assault on the Euro-Americans that lasted through the spring of 1865.

Southern Arapaho Negotiations for Peace and Land

Drawing of United States troops burning a Cheyenne village near Fort Larned, Kansas by Theodore Davis originally printed in Harpers Weekly April 19, 1867.

Arapaho leaders attempted to arrange for peace and create a reservation to ensure that the tribe could live undisturbed by Euro-American intrusions in the summer of 1865. A meeting between United States officials, Southern Arapaho, and Southern Cheyenne was held on October 11. The Southern Arapaho attempted to disassociate with the Northern Arapaho and the Cheyenne because they thought that it might help them gain a reservation and maintain peace. The Cheyenne fought with the United States Army through the winter of 1866 and 1867. This put the Arapaho at risk because the army did not distinguish between hostile and friendly tribes. Many Southern Arapaho stayed below the Arkansas River to escape the hostilities.

Drawing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 by J. Howland originally printed in Harper?s Weekly November 16, 1867.

The Southern Arapaho attended the council at Medicine Lodge approximately 60 miles south of Fort Larned in Kansas in 1867. Although the Southern Arapaho wanted a reservation in Colorado, they eventually accepted a reservation in Kansas between the Cimarron and Arkansas Rivers. The tribe was not pleased with the area and petitioned officials to grant them land on the North Canadian River in present-day Oklahoma. The tribe felt unsafe on the Arkansas River while the Cheyenne and United States were fighting because the United States Army still attacked friendly tribes. Many members of the tribe moved to the Wichita Mountains in present-day Oklahoma to evade the United States Army.

Little Raven (left) is posed for a photograph with William Bent,  Little Raven?s sons Archer and Manimick,  and a young girl believed to be his granddaughter at Fort Dodge, Kansas in 1867.

Little Raven arrived at Fort Sill in present-day Oklahoma in the winter of 1869 to renew peace with the United States by surrendering to the army in exchange for government protection for his people. President Ulysses S. Grant issued an executive order, granting the Arapaho and Cheyenne a shared reservation in present-day Oklahoma on the Canadian River in 1869. The Southern Arapaho now numbered between 1,100 and 1,500 and moved to the new reservation while hoping to disassociate with the Cheyenne. The Southern Arapaho’s attempts to disassociate with the Cheyenne failed. Even when the two tribes adopted different strategies or policies regarding the United States government, the United States seldom distinguished between different tribes when forming its policies regarding Indians.

The Northern Arapaho War and Alliance with the United States

The Northern Arapaho had moved north of the Platte River, thereby avoiding conflict and hunting bison in present-day Montana and Wyoming. They allied with the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne to protect their hunting grounds from rival tribes and Euro-American settlers. Hostilities grew slowly. The discovery of gold in Montana in 1862 led to the formation of settlements and military posts. This wave of intruders and the Sand Creek Massacre sparked a war with the United States that lasted from 1865 to 1868.

At the end of the war, President Grant sent a peace commission to the allied tribes. The Northern Arapaho had taken heavy losses in the war and eventually agreed to move to reservations with either the Sioux in the north or the Southern Arapaho in Oklahoma. The United States agreed to shut down military posts and ban new settlements in the tribe’s hunting grounds. The Northern Arapaho still wanted their own reservation separate from the Sioux. In order to further this cause, the tribe forged new alliances.

Two Northern Arapaho leaders, Black Bear and Medicine Man, concentrated their efforts to established relations between the tribe and the United States Army. Tribal members served as scouts for the army by 1868. The tribe also managed to make temporary peace with their longtime rivals, the Shoshone, who had a reservation in Wyoming. Army officers attempted to help the Northern Arapaho gain their own reservation in Wyoming, and much of the tribe was temporarily living on the Shoshone reservation. Intermittent conflicts with settlers and miners occurred as they intruded into Indian lands on the Popoagie and Sweetwater Rivers. Black Bear was killed by a group of settlers in an ambush. Medicine Man led the tribe back to Fort Fetterman to try again for a Northern Arapaho reservation. At this point there was not enough game to hunt, and the tribe became highly dependent on rations from the military. Medicine Man died in 1871 and was succeeded by Black Coal.

United States’ Attempts at Breaking the Black Hills Tribes

An alliance of Shoshone and United States troops attacked a Northern Arapaho camp in Central Wyoming in 1874. The horses were killed or stolen, tipis destroyed, and winter rations taken. Following the attack, the Northern Arapaho were absolutely reliant on rations, but they received only enough rations to last four days once every ten days. Exposure and illnesses devastated the tribe between 1875 and 1876. The tribe was particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Before the winter of 1876, the United States called for negotiations with the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho in Nebraska. The United States was well aware that the tribes were suffering heavy losses and were dependent on the rations that the United States intentionally kept below the tribes’ needs. With winter rapidly approaching, they used this to their advantage to demand the cession of the Black Hills region of Wyoming and South Dakota. The tribes had to sign the agreement or face certain death. Black Coal told the United States representatives that the Northern Arapaho would refuse to relocate to the Southern Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma. This decision was a gamble that came at a price for all of the Black Hills tribes but may have set the Northern Arapaho on the best course for survival into the 20th century.

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Entry: Arapaho - Wars with United States

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: September 2015

Date Modified: December 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.