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Red Cloud's War

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Red Cloud's War

While the American Civil War was finally coming to a close in the east, new tensions were brewing in Montana and Wyoming in the west. The Native American Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes were defying westward expansion, attacking expeditions that were traveling through their territory. Led by the infamous Lakota Chief Red Cloud, the Native Americans emerged victorious against US military reinforcements. But how did Red Cloud's War end in a Native American victory when so many other conflicts in the American Indian Wars ended in defeat?

Red Cloud's War Timeline

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.

-Red Cloud

Red Cloud's War was a period of intense military engagements among a long history of conflicts in the American Indian Wars during the 19th century. While Red Cloud's War mainly took place from 1866 to 1868, Red Cloud's story and the history of US westward expansionism extend far beyond those three years. The outline below highlights important events leading up to and included in Red Cloud's War:

  • 1863: The Bozeman Trail is established in the territories of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.

  • 1865: A US military expeditionary force led by Major General Dodge is unsuccessful in routing the defensive tribes.

  • 1866: Attempted US negotiations with the Native tribes led by Red Cloud end in failure.

  • June 1866: A US expeditionary force led by Colonel Harrington presses into Native territory.

  • December 1866: The Native Americans defeat US forces in the Fetterman Massacre.

  • August 1867: The Native Americans are defeated at the Hayfield Fight and Wagon Box Fight.

  • November 1868: Red Cloud signs the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, ending the war and recognizing the Native American control of the contested territories.

Red Cloud's War Summary

The Native Americans in Red Cloud's War mostly engaged through guerilla tactics, but there were some instances in which a large number of Indians organized a large coordinated offensive. The Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, as well as the subgroups within the tribes, often conflicted in war strategy or in general politics. Red Cloud was a respected leader and warrior, becoming the face of Native resistance in the Powder River Country (in Northern Wyoming). The map below displays the territories and battles of Red Cloud's War, as well as the cause of the war itself: the Bozeman Trail.

Red Cloud's War Map Study SmarterMap depicting Red Cloud's War. Source: Naawada2016, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Red Cloud's War Facts:

Historians estimate that Red Cloud commanded up to 2,000 American Indians during his war against the roughly 1,000 men under Colonel Carrington's command. Although Red Cloud's forces outnumbered the US military and possessed knowledge of the territory, the Native tribes were often divided on how to organize their offensive. Additionally, the Native Americans did not have a dedicated military; men still needed to hunt and provide for their families that lived in the Powder River Country. The US also faced disadvantages; a general lack of supplies and a majority of their army being new recruits.

Red Cloud's War Causes

Miners from the United States struck gold in Montana, and the word spread to the east. Desiring to establish a quick route from Fort Laramie on the Oregon Trail to the new gold mines in Montana, John Bozeman scouted the territory of Powder River Country and established the Bozeman Trail. Although the trail was efficient and surrounded by plentiful resources, it ran directly through territories under control by the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Native American tribes.

Red Cloud's War Chief Red Cloud Study SmarterPhotograph of Red Cloud (center) and two Native American Chiefs. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Native tribes attacked US emigrants and caravans traveling on the Bozeman Trail, preserving their claim to the Powder River Country and its resources. The US responded in 1865, dispatching Major General Dodge and over two thousand soldiers to secure the territory. The expedition failed; Native Americans saw victory on the battlefield and continued their raids of the trail.

In 1866, US representatives invited Native American leaders to Fort Laramie to discuss a treaty. Among them, the experienced Lakota Chief Red Cloud was unconvinced. Witnessing the arrival of US Colonel Carrington and thousands of military reinforcements, Red Cloud refused to sign the treaty. Everyone present in Fort Laramie knew that this meant war.

The works of Red Cloud:

Red Cloud was born to a Lakota tribe in 1822 in modern-day Nebraska. Growing into a leadership position in his tribe, Red Cloud gained clout among the Native Americans in his victories against the Pawnee and Crow tribes. After the success of Red Cloud's war, the Lakota leader and diplomat engaged in political discourse with the US during the Great Sioux War of 1876. Although unsuccessful, Red Cloud gained respect from many US citizens and politicians.

Red Cloud's War Battles

Carrington's expeditionary force established three fortified positions along the Bozeman Trail. Native American parties attacked wagon trails passing between forts, often stealing more cattle and resources than killing. On occasion, the Natives attacked the US forts but were not successful in routing the defending garrisons.

The Fetterman Massacre

Red Cloud's War Fetterman Massacre Study SmarterArt depicting the Fetterman Massacre. Source: Kim Douglas Wiggins, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

In December 1866, the US military experienced its greatest military defeat of the American Indian Wars until the Battle of Little Bighorn. Under the command of Officer Fetterman, a relief force of 80 US military men charged into a trap set by the Native Americans. Defying orders to not cross the Lodge Trail Ridge, Fetterman pursued the small group of taunting Indians into the Peno Valley. Thousands of hidden Native Americans encircled and killed the 81 men in what is now known as the "Fetterman Massacre". Colonel Carrington was relieved of duty.

The Hayfield Fight and Wagon Box Fight

Taking place just a day apart, the Hayfield Fight and Wagon Box Fight of 1867 fared differently for the Native Americans. Hundreds of Indians engaged in attacks on US military men and civilians in each fight and were defeated in both instances.

The newly introduced Springfield Model 1866 was more effective than the previous US weapons and far superior to the Native American bows (the Native Americans also had guns, but far less than they had bows). The Natives incurred heavy casualties in these battles, but raids on wagon trains and pipelines still succeeded after these losses.

Red Cloud's War Outcome

Desperate to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, the US opened negotiations at Fort Laramie once more in 1868. Red Cloud demanded that the US abandon the newly established forts along the Bozeman Trail, or else he would not engage in further negotiations. The US acceded to Red Cloud's demands, pulling troops from the forts.

Red Cloud's War Red Cloud Photograph Study SmarterClose-up photograph of Red Cloud. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Respecting this act of good faith, Red Cloud arrived in Fort Laramie in November 1868. Red Cloud was offered a peace treaty with favorable provisions: the Native Americans would formally acquire the Powder River Country as Indian territory, and US citizens would no longer be allowed to travel through or settle in the territory without the permission of the Natives. Accepting these terms, Red Cloud signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, ending his war.

Red Cloud's War Importance

The US promises in the treaty lasted for 8 years until the initiation of the Great Sioux War of 1876. Once again, Native American victory was short-lived. Red Cloud continued to fight against westward expansionism, but not as a warrior. Red Cloud attempted to use US law as a tool against unjust expansion. Red Cloud's War signified an unusually successful resistance against the powerful and militaristic United States. The Lakota leader Red Cloud lived until 1909, having witnessed many years of battle in the American Indian Wars against westward expansionism.

Red Cloud's War - Key takeaways

  • Red Cloud's War transpired from 1866 to 1868; under the leadership of Lakota Chief Red Cloud, the Native Americans were victorious against the US military forces in the Powder River Country.
  • Red Cloud's War was caused by Native American reaction to the establishment of the Bozeman Trail, a trail between Fort Laramie and new gold mines in Montana that ran straight through Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho territory.
  • The US military faced its greatest defeat of the American Indian Wars at Fetterman's Massacre, until the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
  • Wishing for a peaceful solution, the US abandoned its forts along the Bozeman Trail and offered official recognition of Native American sovereignty in Powder River Country to Red Cloud. Red Cloud accepted this treaty, ending the war.
  • The Native Americans retained control of the Powder River Country until 1876 with the beginning of the Great Sioux War.

Frequently Asked Questions about Red Cloud's War

The Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed in 1868, in which the US abandoned its fortresses along the Bozeman Trail and conceded control of the territory to Red Cloud and the Native American tribes. 

It is estimated that a couple hundred men were killed on both the Native American and US military sides during the war, not counting civilian casualties. 

Red Cloud's War was caused by Native American reaction to the establishment of the Bozeman Trail, a trail between Fort Laramie and new gold mines in Montana that ran straight through Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho territory. 

Red Cloud organized effective raids and ambushes against US wagon trains rather than trying to openly seize US forts in major battles. Red Cloud's men outnumbered the US forces and were successful in implementing guerilla tactics in the war. 

Red Cloud's War lasted 3 years, from 1866 to 1868. 

Final Red Cloud's War Quiz

Question

Where did Red Cloud's War take place? 

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Answer

In Powder River Country (Northern Wyoming and parts on Montana)

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Question

What was NOT a Native American tribe involved in Red Cloud's War? 

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Answer

Iroquois 

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Question

What was the name of the trail that led from Fort Laramie to new gold mines in Montana (the trail that sparked the conflict of Red Cloud's War)?

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Answer

The Bozeman Trail

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Question

How successful was Major Dodge's US Military expedition into the Powder River Country? 

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Answer

Not successful; attacks on wagon trains continued well after his efforts in the region.

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Question

How did Red Cloud respond to treaty negotiations at Fort Laramie in 1866? 

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Answer

Red Cloud was resistant to the treaty, not trusting the word of the US representatives. 

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Question

How did Red Cloud respond to treaty negotiations at Fort Laramie in 1868?

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Answer

Red Cloud accepted the treaty conditions following a show of good faith by the US military in abandoning their forts along the Bozeman Trail. The treaty conditions were favorable for the Native Americans.

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Question

How did the Native Americans largely conduct war during Red Cloud's War?

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Answer

The Native Americans utilized guerilla warfare tactics and quick hit-and-run raids on US wagon trains to stunt the US's war effort in the Powder River Country region.

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Question

What happened at the Fetterman Massacre? 

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Answer

81 US military men fell into a trap and were slaughtered by thousands of attacking Native Americans.

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Question

What happened at the Hayfield Fight and Wagon Box Fight? 

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Answer

The organized Native American raids were defeated by a smaller number of US military men and citizens wielding superior rifle weapons. 

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Question

How long did the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie last? 

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Answer

8 years, until the initiation of the Great Sioux War of 1876, in which the US defied the terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. 

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