Great Plains Indian Wars


Last Updated: 10 years

There were at least 19 major wars and numerous battles with the Plains Indians (including most of Texas, the rest of Texas is in the Southwest) in the westward expansion of the United States.

Initially relations between participants in the Pike’s Peak gold rush and the Native American tribes of the Front Range and the Platte valley were friendly. An attempt was made to resolve conflicts by negotiation of the Treaty of Fort Wise which established a reservation in southeastern Colorado, but the settlement was not agreed to by all of the roving warriors, particularly the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers.

During the early 1860s tensions increased and culminated in the Colorado War and the Sand Creek Massacre where Colorado volunteers fell on a peaceful Cheyenne village killing women and children which set the stage for further conflict.

The peaceful relationship between settlers and the Indians of the Colorado and Kansas plains was maintained faithfully by the tribes, but sentiment grew among the Colorado settlers for Indian removal. The savagery of the attacks on civilians during the Dakota War of 1862 contributed to these sentiments as did the few minor incidents which occurred in the Platte Valley and in areas east of Denver.

Regular army troops had been withdrawn for service in the Civil War and were replaced with the Colorado Volunteers, rough men who often favored extermination of the Indians. They were commanded by John Chivington and George L. Shoup who followed the lead of John Evans, territorial governor of Colorado.

They adopted a policy of shooting all Indians encountered on sight, a policy which in short time ignited a general war on the Colorado and Kansas plains, the Colorado War.

Raids by bands of plains Indians on isolated homesteads to the east of Denver, on the advancing settlements in Kansas, and on stage line stations along the South Platte, such as at Julesburg, and along the Smoky Hill Trail, resulted in settlers in both Colorado and Kansas adopting a murderous attitude towards Native Americans, with calls for extermination.

Likewise, the savagery shown by the Colorado Volunteers during the Sand Creek massacre resulted in Native Americans, particularly the Dog Soldiers, a band of the Cheyenne, engaging in savage retribution.

Dakota War

The Dakota War of 1862 (more commonly called the Sioux Uprising of 1862 in older authorities and popular texts) was the first major armed engagement between the U.S. and the Sioux.

After six weeks of fighting in Minnesota, lead mostly by Chief Taoyateduta (aka, Little Crow), records conclusively show that more than 500 U.S. soldiers and settlers died in the conflict, though many more may have died in small raids or after being captured.

The number of Sioux dead in the uprising is mostly undocumented, but after the war, 303 Sioux were convicted of murder and rape by U.S. military tribunals and sentenced to death. Most of the death sentences were commuted by President Lincoln, but on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, 38 Dakota Sioux men were hanged in what is still today the largest penal mass execution in U.S. history.

After the expulsion of the Dakota, some refugees and warriors made their way to Lakota lands in what is now North Dakota. Battles continued between Minnesota regiments and combined Lakota and Dakota forces through 1864, as Colonel Henry Sibley pursued the Sioux into Dakota Territory.

Sibley’s army defeated the Lakota and Dakota in three major battles in 1863: the Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake on July 26, 1863, the Battle of Stony Lake on July 28, 1863, and the Battle of Whitestone Hill on September 3, 1863.

The Sioux retreated further, but again faced an American army in 1864; this time, Gen. Alfred Sully led a force from near Fort Pierre, South Dakota, and decisively defeated the Sioux at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, 1864.

Colorado War, Sand Creek Massacre and the Sioux War of 1865

On November 29, 1864, the Colorado state militia responded to a series of Indian attacks on white settlements by attacking a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment on Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado.

Under orders to take no prisoners, the militia killed and mutilated about 200 of the Indians, two-thirds of whom were women and children, taking scalps and other grisly body parts trophies of the battle.

Following the massacre, the survivors joined the camps of the Cheyenne on the Smokey Hill and Republican Rivers. There, the war pipe was smoked and passed from camp to camp among the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho camped in the area and an attack on the stage station and fort at Julesburg was planned and carried out in the January 1865 Battle of Julesburg.

This successful attack was followed up by numerous raids along the South Platte both east and west of Julesburg and a second raid on Julesburg in early February. A great deal of loot was captured and many whites killed. The bulk of the Indians then moved north into Nebraska on their way to the Black Hills and the Powder River.

In the spring of 1865 raids continued along the Oregon trail in Nebraska and the Sioux, the Northern Cheyenne, and the Northern Arapaho together with the warriors who had come north after the Sand Creek massacre raided the Oregon Trail along the North Platte River, and in July 1865 attacked the troops stationed at the bridge across the North Platte at the present site of Casper, Wyoming in the Battle of Platte Bridge.

Sheridan’s campaigns

After the Civil War, all of the Indians were assigned to reservations; the role of the army was to keep them there. The reservations themselves were under the control of the Interior Department. Control of the Great Plains fell under the Army’s Department of the Missouri, an administrative area of over 1,000,000 mi.², encompassing all land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

Major General Winfield S. Hancock had led the department in 1866, but had mishandled his campaign, resulting in Sioux and Cheyenne raids that attacked mail stagecoaches, burnt the stations, and killed the employees. They also raped, killed, and kidnapped many settlers on the frontier.

Under pressure from the governors, Commanding General Ulysses Grant turned to Philip Sheridan. In September 1866, Sheridan went to Fort Martin Scott in Texas, taking three months to stop Indian raids. During his lifetime Sheridan was known as a fierce enemy of the Indians, and his approach to the Indians was encapsulated in the saying “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”, although he himself denied having said this when criticized by his political opponents.

In August 1867, Grant appointed Sheridan to head the Department of the Missouri and pacify the Plains. His troops, even supplemented with state militia, were spread too thin to have any real effect. He resorted to the usual strategy of winter warfare at a time when the Indians had to protect their food supplies.

In the Winter Campaign of 1868–69 he attacked the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes in their winter quarters, taking their supplies and livestock, forcibly relocating them to reservations. It was as part of this campaign that in 1868 Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer carried out the Battle of Washita River in which the winter camp of Cheyenne chief Black Kettle were attacked by Custer’s 7th Cavalry, and men, women and children were massacred.

Red Cloud’s War

Red Cloud’s War (also referred to as the Bozeman War or the Powder River War) was an armed conflict between the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho on one side and the United States in Wyoming and Montana territories from 1866 to 1868. The war was fought over control of the Powder River Country in north-central Wyoming.

In 1863, European Americans had blazed the Bozeman Trail through the heart of the traditional territory of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota. It was the shortest and easiest route from Fort Laramie and the Oregon Trail to the Montana gold fields. From 1864 to 1866, the trail was traversed by about 3,500 miners, emigrant settlers and others. The emigrants competed with the Indians for the diminishing resources near the trail.

The United States named the war after Red Cloud, a prominent Oglala Lakota chief who led his followers in opposition to the presence of the U.S. military in the area. He was allied with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. With peace achieved under the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, the Indians were victorious. They gained legal control of the Powder River country, although their victory would only endure for 8 years until the Great Sioux War of 1876.

Red Cloud’s War consisted mostly of constant small-scale Indian raids and attacks on the soldiers and civilians at the three forts in the Powder River country, wearing down those garrisons. The largest action of the war, the Fetterman Fight (with 81 men killed on the U.S. side), was the worst military defeat suffered by the U.S. on the Great Plains until the Battle of the Little Bighorn ten years later.

Black Hills War

In 1875, the Great Sioux War of 1876–77, the last serious Sioux war erupted, when the Dakota gold rush penetrated the Black Hills. The U.S. Army did not keep miners off Sioux (Lakota) hunting grounds; yet, when ordered to take action against bands of Sioux hunting on the range, according to their treaty rights, the Army moved vigorously.

In 1876, after several indecisive encounters, General George Custer found the main encampment of the Lakota and their allies at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Custer and his men—who were separated from their main body of troops—were all killed by the far more numerous Indians who had the tactical advantage.

They were led in the field by Crazy Horse and inspired by Sitting Bull’s earlier vision of victory. The defeat of Custer and his troopers as a popularized episode in the history of western Indian warfare was fostered by an advertising campaign by the brewery, Anheuser-Busch.

The enterprising company ordered reprints of a dramatic painting that depicted “Custer’s Last Fight” and had them framed and hung in many American saloons, helping to create lasting impressions of the battle and the brewery’s products in the minds of bar patrons.

Later, in 1890, a Ghost Dance ritual on the Northern Lakota reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, led to the Army’s attempt to subdue the Lakota. On December 29 during this attempt, gunfire erupted, and soldiers killed up to 300 Indians, mostly old men, women and children in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

The approximately 25 soldiers who died may have been killed by friendly fire during the battle. Long before this, the means of subsistence and the societies of the indigenous population of the Great Plains had been destroyed by the slaughter of the buffalo, driven almost to extinction in the 1880s by indiscriminate hunting.

Texas Indian Wars

In the 18th century, Spanish settlers in Texas came into conflict with the Apache, Comanche, and Karankawa, among other tribes. Large numbers of Anglo-American settlers reached Texas in the 1830s, and from that point until the 1870s, a series of armed confrontations broke out, mostly between Texans and Comanches. During the same period the Comanche and their allies raided hundreds of miles deep into Mexico.

The first notable battle was the Fort Parker massacre in 1836, in which a huge war party of Comanches, Kiowa, Witchitas, and Delaware attacked the settler outpost Fort Parker. Despite the small number of white settlers killed during the raid, the abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker caused widespread outrage among Texas’ Anglo settlers.

Once the Republic of Texas was declared and had secured some sovereignty in their war with Mexico, the Texas government under President Sam Houston pursued a policy of engagement with the Comanches and Kiowa. Ironically, since Houston had lived with the Cherokee, the republic faced a conflict called the Cordova Rebellion, in which Cherokees appear to have joined with Mexican forces to fight the fledgling country.

Houston resolved the conflict without resorting to arms, refusing to believe that the Cherokee would take up arms against his government. The Lamar administration, which followed Houston, took a very different policy towards the Indians.

Under Lamar, Texas removed the Cherokee to the west. With that policy in place, the Texas government sought to deport the Comanches and Kiowa. This led to a series of battles, including the Council House Fight, in which, at a peace parley, the Texas militia killed a number of Comanche chiefs and the resulting Great Raid of 1840 and the Battle of Plum Creek.

The Lamar Administration was known for its failed and expensive Indian policy; the cost of the war with the Indians exceeded the annual revenue of the government throughout his four-year term. It was followed by a second Houston administration, which resumed the previous policy of diplomacy. Texas signed treaties with all of the tribes, including the Comanche. The Comanche and their allies shifted most of their raiding activities to Mexico, using Texas as a safe haven from Mexican retaliation.

After Texas joined the Union in 1846, the struggle between the Plains Indians and the settlers was taken up by the federal government and the state of Texas. The years 1856–1858 were particularly vicious and bloody on the Texas frontier, as settlers continued to expand their settlements into the Comanche homeland, the Comancheria, and 1858 was marked by the first Texan incursion into the heart of the Comancheria, the so-called Antelope Hills Expedition, marked by the Battle of Little Robe Creek. This battle signaled the beginning of the end of the Comanche as a viable people, as, for the first time, they were attacked in the heart of their domain, in force.

The battles between settlers and Indians continued and in 1860, at the Battle of Pease River, Texas militia destroyed an Indian camp. In the aftermath of the battle, the Texans learned that they had recaptured Cynthia Ann Parker, the little girl captured by the Comanche in 1836. She returned to live with the Parkers, but missed her children, including her son Quanah Parker. He was the son of Parker and Comanche Chief Peta Nocona and would go on to be a Comanche war chief at the First Battle of Adobe Walls. As chief of the Quahadi Comanches, he finally surrendered to the overwhelming force of the federal government and in 1875 moved to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.

Major Great Plains Indian Wars

  • Fort Parker Massacre
  • Cordova Rebellion
  • Council House Fight
  • Great Raid of 1840
  • Battle of Plum Creek
  • Battle of Little Robe Creek
  • Battle of Pease River
  • First Battle of Adobe Walls
  • Dakota War of 1862
  • Sand Creek Massacre
  • Washita River Massacre
  • Marias Massacre
  • Black Hills War
  • Colorado War
  • Powder River Expedition (1865)
  • Red Cloud’s War
  • Great Sioux War of 1876–77
  • Battle of the Little Bighorn
  • Wounded Knee Massacre