The Colorado War


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The Colorado War was an Indian War fought from 1863 to 1865 between the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations and white settlers and militia in the Colorado Territory and adjacent regions.

The Kiowa and the Comanche played a minor role in actions that occurred in the southern part of the Territory along the Arkansas River, while the Sioux played a major role in actions that occurred along the South Platte River along the Great Platte River Road, the eastern portion of the Overland Trail.

The United States government and Colorado Territory authorities participated through the Colorado volunteers, a citizens militia while the United States Army played a minor role. The war was centered on the Colorado Eastern Plains.

The Colorado War was fought over the ability of the North American Plains tribes – mainly the Cheyenne and Arapaho – to maintain control of the bison migration grounds on the Great Plains in the upper valleys of the South Platte, Republican, Smoky Hill and Arkansas River valleys, at the edge of the plains where they met the Rocky Mountains.

1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise

In the first Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851), the Eastern Plains between the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers had been designated as lands inhabited by the Cheyenne and Arapaho, leaving out all of the territories inhabited by the Northern Cheyennes (now designated as Lakota or Crow lands) as well as the Sutaio and Hotamitaniu hunting grounds between the Pawnee Fork, the Smoky Hill, the Solomon and Republican Rivers in what would later become Kansas, now designated as Pawnee lands.

Ignoring much of the actual territorial claims of the various tribes which were often overlapping, the 1851 treaty acknowledged that the tribes did not abandon any further territorial rights not mentioned in the treaty and gave US citizens a right of passage through tribal territories but no right to settle there.

The area was of little use to the American colonists before 1859, when the Colorado Gold Rush brought the first large numbers of settlers to the Colorado Piedmont along the mountains, inundating the designated Native American lands with settlers and prospectors.

The new settlers, in fact illegal squatters, demanded that the US government extinguish the still existing Native American title, and in the autumn of 1860 federal agents reopened negotiations with factions of the two tribes at a council on the Arkansas River. At the council, in the Treaty of Fort Wise, some of the Cheyenne and Arapaho agreed to accept a small Indian reservation along the Arkansas River between the northern boundary of New Mexico and Sand Creek. The tribes would be converted from nomadic hunters to a farming lifestyle.

The new reservation, instead of being an open hunting territory, would be surveyed and divided among the tribal members, with each member receiving 40 acres (160,000 m²) of land. The federal agents also promised that each tribe would receive a US $30,000 subsidy for 15 years, as well as a grist mill, saw mill, and schools.

The leader of the Cheyenne who signed the treaty was Black Kettle. The treaty text, which the Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs could not read, stipulated that the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations surrender all their lands except for said small reservation. The chiefs clarified that they could only speak for their bands but not for their nations as a whole.

Later US attempts to obtain the signatures of additional chiefs failed when the initial signatories stated they had never known that the treaty said they surrendered their title to their lands and that the treaty was a swindle.

The policy of promoting a peaceful transition to farming, to which the tribes supposedly agreed, was thwarted in many cases by mismanagement and malfeasance of the politically appointed federal agents. One notorious example was Samuel Colley, the federal agent of the Upper Arkansas during the early 1860s, who became known for his misappropriation of tribal goods, which he sold through his son Dexter, who was a trader.

The conflict occurred during the last two years of the American Civil War. The same units of the 1st Colorado Volunteers of the US Army that fought in this war also spearheaded the Union counterattack in the New Mexico Campaign against the Confederate Army.

The war was initiated in April, 1864 without warning by the whites, for the purpose of driving the Indians into a reservation by force, but following minor successes against small bands of surprised Indians it became a defensive battle against intense Cheyenne and Arapaho attacks on travelers on the Overland Trail along the South Platte.

Dakota War of 1862

By the early 1860s, relations between the Sioux and the United States on the northern Great Plains had deteriorated substantially resulting in the Dakota War of 1862.

Prior to this time, white emigrants passed relatively harmoniously through the area (known scornfully as the Great American Desert) on their way along the California, Mormon, and Oregon Trails. After 1860, the discovery of gold in the Rockies, as well as the growing westward encroachment of homesteaders across the 100th meridian west, led the Sioux and their related tribes to progressively resist further white use of the area.

Especially troublesome from their vantage point was the slicing up of the bison herd by the increasingly heavily used trails, as well as the development of new ones that further fragmented the herds. The Colorado War marked the spreading of the trend among the Plains Tribes southward along the Rockies, to the area passed by the trails.

As a result, the United States Army, by then charged with overseeing the emigration routes, shifted the trails southward along the South Platte across present-day northeastern Colorado, then crossing up to the Laramie Plains along the trail followed by the Overland Stage Line.

The increased traffic in the area resulted in attacks by the Kiowa, who were regarded as historically one of the most antagonistic tribes to white encroachment of any kind. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, a pair of closely related Algonquian-speaking tribes who migrated westward from the Great Lakes area in the 18th century, were regarded as not as interested in conflict with the whites. They were somewhat caught in the crossfire of the war, but ironically suffered the most notorious losses.

Tensions further increased between the settlers and the Indians. The discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains prompted more and more white men to settle into the territory; many of whom were armed and had formed militias to defend themselves.

The Indians, particularly the Cheyennes, replied by creating their own war parties such as the infamous Dog Soldiers. This was seen by many as a violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie that strained the Indian-white relationships. Soon Indian war parties started raiding white settlements, and with little military intervention, the militia took it into their own hands to defend themselves.

The Sand Creek Massacre

In November 29, 1864, a 675-man unit of federal troops, consisting of armed white men from Colorado led by John Chivington, crossed into Cheyenne and Arapaho territory in Southern Colorado.

Black Kettle’s village was not involved in the raids on white settlements and believed themselves to be at peace with the US troops. Nevertheless, Chivington’s Colorado Volunteer troops attacked Black Kettle’s village early in the morning while they were sleeping, and flying a white flag, and killed over 200 Indians including unarmed women and children.

The attack was so vicious, that some of his own men refused to participate. Afterwards, they paraded Indian body parts through nearby towns.

The participation of the U.S. Army in the war came to be seen as particularly brutal, forcing the Congress to take an official position condemning the actions of Colonel John Chivington of the Colorado Volunteers.

Initial reports in the Rocky Mountain News had hailed Chivington as a great hero. Later more accurate accounts of the battle by survivors on the Cheyenne-Arapaho side reached the U.S. press. The Native American version was corroborated by a white Indian agent who survived the battle, whose testimony was printed in the Congressional Review as one of the most critical pieces of such testimony entered into the public record. The evidence was enough to force Congress to hold hearings on the brutality in the spring of 1865. 

While Congress formally condemned the actions of Colonel Chivington and his volunteers, no further punishment was carried out.

Indian retaliation

In response to the attack on Black Kettle’s village, many Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians joined the Dog Soldiers and mobilized war parties to attack settlements and military outposts throughout Colorado.

January 7, 1865, a war band consisting of 1000 warriors surprised and attacked Camp Rankin, at present-day Julesburg, Colorado, killing numerous soldiers and civilian volunteers. In Point of Rocks, Indians attacked a train filled with soldiers from the Colorado Cavalry.

The Indians also focused their attacks on the ranching business in Colorado. They raided isolated ranches, farms and cattle drives in the territory in order to gather resources such as horses.

One raid occurred in January 14, 1865, where a 100-men Indian party attacked Bill Morris’ ranch which housed his family and five of his cowboys. The family got separated, and only Bill, his wife and one of his son survived the ordeal. Bill was harassed and tortured after being captured and his wife was abducted.

Another attack happened on January 15, in which the Godfrey Ranch, owned by Holon Godfrey was attacked by a band of 130 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Unfortunately for the Indians, Godfrey, his family, and his ranch hands, had fortified their ranch before the attack. When Indian warriors attacked the ranch, they were met by gunfire from the cowboys stationed inside.

The battle lasted from night untill morning. The Indians used various tactics such as trying to burn the house with flaming arrows to kill the men inside, which failed. By morning the Indians finally left, taking with them Godfrey’s horses and cattle. Godfrey claimed that the Indians left the bodies of 17 of their dead comrades. Godfrey’s ranch, which was then christened as “Fort Wicked”, was one of the few ranches to survive the January attacks.

Military intervention

The Arapaho, who were largely non-hostile throughout the war, were forced to give up their last territory within the State of Colorado, as were the Kiowa and Comanche. The tribes were forced to Indian territory in present-day Oklahoma. As a result, the only Native Americans remaining in the state were the Utes, which the U.S. recognized as holding claim to all lands west of the Continental Divide.

U.S. Army operations during the war were conducted largely out of Fort Laramie, the regional headquarters of the Army. In the fall of 1863 the fort was commanded by Lt. Colonel William O. Collins of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. His son Caspar Collins (for whom Fort Caspar was named) would later be killed in action against the Sioux nearby along the North Platte River in present-day Wyoming.

Upon the initial relocation of the stage and emigrant routes southward to Colorado, relations were relatively peaceful between the U.S. and the intermixed tribes of the Arapaho and Cheyenne (they tended to live in bands of their own tribes, but in mixed proximity of camps of other bands). The Arapaho wintered in large villages along the Cache la Poudre River where it emerges from the Laramie Foothills.

The mountains just to the west were the firm possession of the Utes, who were descendant of the Uto-Aztecan people who had occupied the area for over a millennium.

The Army established Camp Collins, named for the Fort Laramie commander, on the banks of the Poudre near present-day Laporte in early 1864. After a devastating flood in June, the Army relocated their camp southeast to high ground on the Poudre at present-day Fort Collins.

The camp was initially occupied by the 11th Ohio Volunteers, and later by elements of the Kansas Volunteers, both of which were shifted to other duties. The Colorado Volunteers later occupied the post and would see much action in the southeastern areas of the state. The attacks on the stage routes led to a general hostility among the whites in the new Colorado Territory against all Native American presences, no matter how cooperative and benign.