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Arapaho - Westward Expansion

Westward Expansion and Euro-Americans

Through the 1840s, pioneers along the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails disrupted the migratory patterns of the bison that the Arapaho hunted. Westward expansion quickly threatened the Arapaho way of life and became an unavoidable difficulty by the late 1800s. As Euro-Americans crossed the western plains en route to Oregon and California, they disrupted the ecosystem of the Arapaho hunting grounds, and consequently the Arapaho were driven to rely more on traders for sustenance. The Arapaho avoided attacks on wagon trains because it could end the flow of trade. As competition between tribes increased, eastern tribes were pushed west, and the Arapaho and their Cheyenne allies needed guns and ammunition to compete with the eastern tribes that had already obtained a larger supply of firearms. The Arapaho allowed safe passage for wagon trains in exchange for trade goods that they needed for defense. Guide books for the trails advised the settlers that the Arapaho were a friendly tribe.

Early Relations with the United States

Ten thousand Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Shoshone, and others met in council with representatives of the United States government on August 3, 1851, approximately 35 miles east of Fort Laramie on Horse Creek in present-day Wyoming. The council started with complications. The Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache of the Southern Plains refused to meet with the council, the Shoshone attended but had not been invited, and the Cheyenne attacked and killed two Shoshone warriors while en route to the council. Despite this, tribes in conflict remained peaceful at the council. The tribes signed a treaty on September 17, 1851, agreeing to disband war parties, cease attacks on United States citizens, and allow the United States military to construct posts on Indian lands. Each tribe was assigned a designated tract of land to serve as the tribe’s primary residence, but hunting and travel beyond the designated land was permitted. The tribes were given trade goods as part of the deal. The Arapaho were assigned to land between the North Platte and Arkansas Rivers through present-day eastern Colorado, south eastern Wyoming, northwestern Kansas, and western Nebraska.

Several tribal leaders, including one Arapaho leader, were invited east to meet President Millard Fillmore and were given flags and medals. The meeting was less a gesture of establishing relations and more of an ultimatum. The Arapaho were warned by the United States that if they offered any military opposition to westward expansion, they would be killed by a large force armed with more advance weapons. In addition, by the 1860s there were too few bison for the Arapaho to meet their needs, and consequently they became dependent on trade. The Arapaho had no choice but to maintain agreeable relations with the United States or suffer the potential demise of their culture.

Lust for Resources

By 1856, Euro-Americans started to establish permanent settlements along the Smoky Hill River valley, one of the last bison ranges for the Arapaho hunts. Euro-American hunters, as opposed to the Arapaho, were slaughtering bison at such a rate that the herds could not recover. Prospectors joined the gold rush to Colorado around Pike’s Peak in 1858. The city of Denver was founded and began to attract more settlers. The treaty of 1851 did not permit permanent settlements in Indian territories, only safe passage through them, but the United States made no efforts to enforce that aspect of the treaty. The United States was eager to benefit from the resources that were being discovered in the west. The Colorado gold rush is one of many examples of a catalyst for the devastation of colonialism. The native population was simply in the way of resources that the state wanted. As with colonialism on other continents, like Africa or South America, colonialism in North America was characterized by exploitation and pogroms to subdue people for profit.

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Entry: Arapaho - Westward Expansion

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.