"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


The Sioux nation was the strongest Indian nation in the West. Its people roamed the country from the forests and lakes of northern Minnesota across the plains of North and South Dakota to the mountains of Wyoming and southward over the plains of western Nebraska as far as the Republican River. There were many tribes and bands of the Sioux nation. Two of these tribes, the Brule and Oglala, among the most warlike of the Sioux nation, claimed western Nebraska as their hunting ground and home. They also claimed western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. Each of these tribes numbered about seven or eight thousand. In the summer they hunted buffalo in the valleys of the Platte and the Republican rivers and in the winter they found shelter, fuel and game in the region of the Black Hills and Big Horn Mountains.

Two great chiefs, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, of the Oglala and Brule tribes, stand out above all others in the history of the Sioux nation. Their names are forever famous in the story of Nebraska. Their lives covered the critical periods in the annals of their people, from early contact with fur traders, through the great wars to the final settlement of the Sioux nation in its present home.

Red Cloud was born at Blue Creek in what is now Garden county, Nebraska, in May, 1821. Spotted Tail was born in 1823, in Wyoming. Red Cloud's family belonged to the Bad Face band of the Oglala tribe. Spotted Tail was a member of the Brule tribe. Both began life as common warriors and became chiefs through superior qualities of mind and body.

Red Cloud

The history of the Oglala and Brule Sioux since they were first known to white men may be divided into three periods. The first period extends from the earliest exploration of their country by the white men to their first treaty with the United States at Fort Laramie in 1851, and covers the childhood and youth of Red Cloud and of Spotted Tail. The second period extends from the Fort Laramie treaty of 1851, to the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868, and covers the mature manhood of each of these two great chiefs. The third period reaches from the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868, to the death of Red Cloud December 10, 1909, and covers the old age of each of these noted Indians.

During the first period the Oglalas and Brules were at peace with the white people but were at war with nearly all the Indian tribes around them. The Sioux were new-comers in that beautiful region where the mountains and plains meet and were driving out the earlier inhabitants, the Crows, the Snakes, the Utes and the Pawnees. In these early wars with their Indian neighbors Red Cloud and Spotted Tail became leaders. At the age of sixteen Red Cloud went on his first war party and came back victorious. During the next ten years both young men made names for themselves not only for daring, but for good luck, which counts for much more in an Indian camp.

Two events of this period gave Red Cloud fame in the camps of the Sioux. The first was in 1849, when he crossed the Rocky Mountains, as Caesar and Napoleon crossed the Alps, leading a war party into the heart of the Shoshoni country and bringing back many scalps and ponies. The other was in 1850, when an old quarrel broke out anew in the Bad Face band and Red Cloud, who was a leader of the younger men, shot and killed Bull Bear, then the most noted chief in the band.

At this time a new and strange experience came into the lives of the Brule and Oglala Sioux, overshadowing all their future and filling the minds of their wisest chiefs with anxious concern. This was the great migration over the Oregon Trail to Oregon, California, and Utah. At first there were only occasional trains of a few wagons each. After the discovery of gold in California the trail became crowded with thousands of wagons, and with men, women and children. These emigrants shot the buffalo and other game without asking leave of the Indians. It was evident that if the white men kept coming, the game after a time would be gone and the Sioux, who lived entirely by hunting, would starve.

To prevent trouble the first council with the Oglalas, Brules, and other plains tribes was held on Horse Creek near Fort Laramie in 1851. A treaty was made by which the United States confirmed to each tribe the land occupied by it. All the tribes agreed to the division of the land made by this treaty, so that for the first time in the history of the plains Indians all the great hunting ground between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains was divided among them. All the Indians agreed that "The Great Road" along the Platte and across the mountains should be free and open for the white people, and the United States agreed to pay to the Indians fifty thousand dollars in goods each year for fifty years for the use of this road through their country. The Indians agreed not to rob or attack the white people upon this road, and the United States agreed to keep the white people from going elsewhere in the Indian country without permission of the Indians. When the treaty was sent to Washington the United States Senate changed the payments of the fifty thousand dollars from fifty years to ten years. The Indians never agreed to the change. The white people continued to use the great road and the United States sent out each year the fifty thousand dollars in goods to pay the Indians for the use of it. Neither Red Cloud nor Spotted Tail signed this first treaty with the Oglalas and Brules. They had not yet become chiefs.

The first goods to pay for the use of the Oregon Trail under this treaty arrived near Fort Laramie in the summer of 1854. All the plains Sioux assembled to receive their portion. Before the agent came from St. Louis to distribute the goods, peace between the white people and the Sioux was broken by the affair of the Mormon cow and the killing of Lieutenant Grattan and party, the story of which is told elsewhere in this book. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail were in the great Sioux camp at that time and shared in the general feeling of indignation among the Oglalas and Brules at the killing of their great chief, The Bear, by Lieutenant Grattan. In later years Red Cloud often referred to this incident, saying that the white men made The Bear chief of all the Sioux and then killed him, hence it was not safe for any one to hold that office.

General Harney punished the Brule Sioux severely at the battle of Ash Hollow or Blue Creek in what is now Garden County, September 3, 1855, for the killing of Lieutenant Grattan and his party. Quiet was restored on the frontier. Emigrant travel went on over the Oregon Trail and the goods to pay for its use were sent each year to Fort Laramie and there given out to the Indians. The Sioux continued the wars against their Indian enemies, especially the Pawnees on the east and the Crows on the west. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail both grew in reputation as leaders.

Gold was found near Pike's Peak in 1859. Soon thousands of gold hunters filled the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, driving out the game. All the Indians were restless at the invasion of their hunting grounds. In 1862 came the great Sioux uprising in Minnesota. The Oglala and Brule Sioux were hundreds of miles away, but their hearts were with their kinsmen in the north. They knew that a great war was going on between the white men of the North and the white men of the South. They were urged by messengers to go on the warpath and drive all the white men out of their country before they became too strong to be driven out. Councils of all the plains Indians were held in 1862 and 1863. The greatest of these was held May 1, 1863, on the old council ground at the mouth of Horse creek near the Nebraska-Wyoming line. There were plenty of Indians who favored a general massacre of the whites, but the plan was postponed for another year.

Spotted Tail.
(From photo collection of A. E. Sheldon.)

In August, 1864, the Sioux and Cheyenne war broke out all along the frontier of Nebraska and Kansas. All of the plains tribes were in sympathy with the war, but not all were active in it. While this war was going on a new gold field was found in Montana. The most direct route to the new gold mines was over the Oregon Trail to Fort Laramie and from Fort Laramie north through the Powder River country to the mines. A commission came from Washington to Fort Laramie in the summer of 1866, to make a bargain with the Sioux for this new road. Spotted Tail and the Brules were willing to make the agreement. They did not hunt in that region. Red Cloud and the Oglalas refused because the Powder River country was their best buffalo hunting ground. They had conquered it from the Crows. They had seen the white people pouring in everywhere, the Union Pacific Railroad was being built, the buffalo were being killed off and even while they were holding the council at Fort Laramie regiments of soldiers arrived there who were to make the new forts on the new road. The Oglala chiefs rose to leave the council. As they did so Red Cloud placed his hand upon his rifle and said, "In this and in the Great Spirit I put my trust." The new roads were opened and the forts were built in the summer of 1866. Red Cloud became the leader of the war against the whites. Every day came news of fighting on the road to the Montana mines. December 21, 1866, Red Cloud and his warriors drew Colonel Fetterman and ninety-six soldiers into an ambuscade near Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming, and every white man was killed.

There was an outcry in the country against the invasion of Red Cloud's country without his consent. A great commission was named at Washington with General Sherman at its head. This commission came to Fort Laramie in 1868, and made the treaty called "The Great Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868." For more than forty years this treaty was regarded by the Sioux as the great charter of their rights. The Sioux orators knew it in their own language by heart and repeated it in all their speeches in the great councils or around the tepee fire. It has been to them what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are to the American people. The treaty of 1868 provided that every Sioux over four years of age should receive from the United States every year one suit of clothes, ten dollars in money, and rations at the rate of one pound of meat and one pound of flour for each day. To every Indian who began farming, the United States would issue one cow, one yoke of oxen, and twenty dollars in money. The new road through the Powder River hunting grounds was to be given up and all the soldiers from there withdrawn. The Sioux were to have the right to hunt upon the Platte and Republican as long as buffalo were there. Schools were to be established for all the Sioux children. On their part the Sioux agreed to keep peace with the whites and to permit the Union Pacific road to be built.

The treaty of 1868 was regarded as a great victory for Red Cloud. He had beaten the white men in battle. They had abandoned their forts and left him his hunting grounds. Yet Red Cloud was one of the last of the Indians to sign the treaty. Spotted Tail and other Brule chiefs "touched the pen," as the Indians call it, on April 29,1868. May 25th many of the Oglala chiefs, including Sitting Bull, Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses and American Horse, signed. Red Cloud sent word that he would not sign until the soldiers were sent away. In August, the forts were abandoned and on November 6, 1868, Red Cloud signed the treaty with Father De Smet as a witness.

Ruins of Old Red Cloud Agency, 1911.
(From photograph by A. E. Sheldon.)

The signing of the treaty of 1868 ended the Sioux wars for Red Cloud and Spotted Tail. From that time each of these chiefs tried to secure the rights of his people in council rather than in war. Since the two tribes were now to be fed and clothed by the government, a place was to be selected where this should be done. The chiefs visited Washington in 1870, and met President Grant. In 1871 the old Red Cloud Agency was located on the north bank of the North Platte River near the Nebraska-Wyoming line about a mile from where Henry, Nebraska, now is. Here the Oglalas and Brules were fed in 1872.

In 1873 the Sioux Indians moved from the valley of the North Platte to the beautiful White River valley in northwestern Nebraska. Here two agencies were established, one called Red Cloud Agency near the present site of Fort Robinson, the other called Spotted Tail Agency about forty miles northeast, near the junction of Beaver Creek with the White River. For the next five years the valley about these two frontier posts was the scene of more exciting events than was any other part of Nebraska.

Gold was found in the Black Hills in 1875. By the treaty of 1868 the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux and white men were to be kept out. White men would not be kept out after gold had been discovered. Many of the Sioux under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse went on the warpath again. The Sioux under Red Cloud and Spotted Tail were fed by the United States. The two old chiefs remained at peace, but hundreds of their young men took rations from the United States and then slipped away under cover of night to join the hostile Sioux in the north. In 1875, Congress voted not to feed the Sioux according to the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 unless they remained north of the Niobrara River. In May of that year, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail went to Washington again and made an agreement for $50,000 a year to give up their hunting privilege south of the Niobrara. Only half of this sum was paid. Red Cloud was urged many times by the warriors who had fought under him ten years before to lead them again against the whites. He steadily refused. He had been in the East and seen the cities full of white people. He had sent his young men over all the hunting grounds and he knew that there were not enough buffalo to feed his people through another campaign.

June 25, 1876, was the date of the greatest victory over the whites in the history of the Sioux nation. General Custer, the boldest Indian fighter in the country, with 260 men was cut off at the battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana. The news was brought into the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies by Indian runners. There was intense excitement among the Oglalas and Brules and it was feared that all would join the hostile Sioux. Commissioners came from Washington. A great council was held in the White River valley in August and September. A new treaty was made September 23, 1876, signed by Red Cloud and Spotted Tail and the other chiefs. The Black Hills were sold to the white people and the United States agreed to issue the Indians more beef, more flour and coffee, sugar and beans, until they were able to support themselves. The Sioux agreed to give up all their claims to Nebraska and to remove to South Dakota, where new agencies would be established. In spite of the signing of this new treaty by Red Cloud, General Crook ordered the camp of Red Cloud on Chadron Creek to be taken by surprise on October 24th. All the ponies of Red Cloud's band were taken and driven away where the owners never saw them again. This was the hardest blow Red Cloud received in his long career. It was an act of war in violation of agreements by the government. Its object was to keep Red Cloud's warriors from helping the hostile Indians.

Ft. Robinson, Sioux County, Nebraska. Site of Red Cloud Agency and Scene of Important Incidents in Sioux Indian War.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)

The Sioux soon had reason to see Red Cloud's wisdom in refusing to go again on the warpath. General Crook gave the hostile Sioux no time to hunt, eat or sleep. In March, 1877, Spotted Tail went on a mission to the camp of the hostile Sioux and over 2,200 of them came in and surrendered at Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies. In May of the same year Crazy Horse, with his band of 889 ragged and starving followers, joined them.

Crazy Horse was killed on September 5th, by a bayonet-thrust while resisting an attempt to put him into prison. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail made their third trip to Washington in the same month to arrange for the future welfare of their people.

On October 27,1577, the Sioux bade a final farewell to Nebraska as their home. A great caravan of over 5,000 Indians, with 2,000 cattle and two companies of cavalry started, on its march down the White River valley for its winter camp on the Missouri River in South Dakota. While on the march 2,000 of the hostile Sioux who had surrendered, carrying the corpse of Crazy Horse in a buffalo robe, broke into the line and tried in vain to stampede the Oglalas and Brules.

The new Brule agency established in 1878 was named Rosebud, and that for the Oglalas established in 1879 was named Pine Ridge. It was significant that they were not named for the chiefs, as the old agencies had been. A new era began which was one of struggle between the Indian agents and the old chiefs. It was the agents' aim to break down the power and authority of the chief and to deal directly with each Indian. This struggle lasted for twenty-five years. Spotted Tail saw its end sooner than did his great fellow chief, for on August 5,1881, he was killed by Crow Dog, an Indian of his own tribe. The agent at Rosebud, who had just been engaged in a contest with Spotted Tail, wrote of him these words: "Spotted Tail was a true friend to the whites. His influence was always on the side of law and order, and to him is greatly due the peace which now exists."

Red Cloud survived his old comrade for many years. He was never reconciled to the new system which broke down the authority of the chief. He opposed many of the new ways and the little frame house a mile from the Pine Ridge agency buildings was the scene of many earnest councils during the years which followed.

Red Cloud's Tent at Pine Ridge, 1904.

He lived to see his people throw off the blanket and adopt the white men's clothes. He lived to see the Sioux sun dance abolished in 1884. He lived to see the Oglalas and Brules settled in log and frame houses, each family on its own land. He lived to see all the Sioux children going to school, speaking both the English and Sioux languages. He lived to take part in 1889 in another great council with the United States and to sign a new agreement, which gave cattle, tools and seed to all Indians who would farm. He lived long enough to receive, in 1889, $28,000 for the ponies taken from his band in 1876 by General Crook. He lived to see the ghost dancing of 1890 and to hear the echoes of the last Sioux battle at Wounded Knee in December of that year. He lived to see an order sent out in January, 1902, stopping the rations of all able-bodied Sioux men and requiring them to go to work on the roads and irrigation ditches at $1.25 for an eight-hour day. He lived to see this order enforced in spite of the orators who pointed to the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868. He lived to see the great Sioux reservation surveyed and separate farms of 320 acres each chosen by heads of Indian families, with l60 acres for each child over 18 and 80 acres for each child under 18. He lived long enough to have his eyesight fade away, leaving him in total darkness. He lived long enough to know that nearly all of the friends of his youth and early manhood were gone before, to know that the old ways were changed. He reached the end of his long earthly sojourn December 10, 1909, the last of the long line of famous Indian chiefs who, in council and on the warpath, had struggled bravely against the inevitable advance of the white man upon this continent.


  1. What right had each tribe of Indians to the land it claimed?
  2. What is "good luck" and why did the Indians believe so strongly in it?
  3. Why did the Sioux oppose the settlement of their country by the white men? Why they more than the Pawnee or Omaha?
  4. How could the white men and the Sioux have lived at peace with each other?
  5. What do you think of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868? Was it fair to both Indians and white men?
  6. Which do you more admire, Spotted Tail or Red Cloud? Why? Compare them.
  7. Did the United States keep its treaties with the Sioux?
  8. Why did the government try to break the power of the chiefs and deal directly with each Indian?
  9. In what sense are the Sioux Nebraska Indians?