By the middle of the 1840s, Plains Indian tribes felt the impact of increasing traffic on the Overland Trail. Game was harder to find. Travelers used up grass for their horses and timber for their campfires. Anglo-American travelers, however, saw Indian tribes as an obstacle to the expansion of the United States across the continent.
In 1851, the U. S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs decided to conduct a Grand Council with the Plains tribes. The Superintendent of Indian Affairs, David Mitchell, sent messengers to invite the tribes to a meeting at Fort Laramie on the North Platte River. The council began on September 9.
It was a huge gathering. There were 7,000 lodges of Assiniboines, several bands of Lakotas (Sioux), Crows, Cheyennes, Blackfeet, Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. In addition to the Superintendent, interpreters, and Army officers, there was one white woman, Mrs. W. L. Elliott. Her presence demonstrated that the council was to be peaceful.
This was the first time the tribes had met in such a large and diverse group to discuss treaties with the U. S. government. Mr. Mitchell spoke to the gathering in English (See Document 1).
Document 1. Superintendent Mitchell spoke to the tribal leaders at Fort Laramie in 1851. He announced that their lives, traditions, and customs would change with this treaty.
In order that justice may be done to each nation, it is proposed that your country shall be divided into geographical districts – that the country and its limits shall be designated by such rivers, mountains, and lines, as will show what country each nation claims and where they are located. In doing this it is not intended to take any of your lands away from you, or to destroy your rights to hunt, or fish, or pass over the country, as heretofore. But it will be expected that each nation will be held responsible for depredations committed within its territory, unless it can be clearly shown that the people of some other country committed them, and then that nation will be held responsible – Your Great Father only desires to punish the guilty and reward the good, when a horse is stolen, or a scalp taken, or a woman or child carried off, or any other wrong done, he wants to find out who did it, and punish the bad men or nation; and the nation will be held responsible for the acts of its people.
Your condition is now changed from what it formerly was. In times past you had plenty of buffalo and game to subsist upon, and your Great Father well knows that war has always been your favorite amusement and pursuit. He then left the question of war and peace to yourselves. Now, since the settling of the districts West of you by the white man, your condition has changed, and your Great Father desires you will consider and prepare for the changes that await you.
He desires and it is now necessary that you should make and maintain peace between nations and bands as well as with the whites. Diseases, famine and the vices of bad white men are carrying your people off fast enough without the aid of war. Your Great Father desires to drive the bad white men out from amongst you, and I therefore expect you will freely give me the names of any bad men in your country.
His words were translated for each tribe. Each tribe had some time to speak to the council. Later, each tribe spoke individually with Superintendent Mitchell.
Mr. Mitchell asked each tribe to identify a “chief” who would sign for that tribe. The Lakotas objected, saying one man could not sign for them. Most tribes did not have a single chief. However, each tribe chose someone to have the honor of signing. Tribes usually made decisions in council after discussion or according to tradition. However, the treaty stated that the tribes agreed to faithfully follow their “chiefs” (“bind themselves to sustain said chiefs.”)
The “chief” and the representatives of the government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 on September 17. The treaty was written in English. The federal representatives signed their names in English; the Indians made a mark next to the name they had given to the clerk (See Document 2).
Document 2: Treaty of Fort Laramie 1851
Document 2. This is the full text of the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851. One treaty divided the lands of the western plains among several tribes.
Treaty of Fort Laramie, 1851
Articles of a treaty made and concluded at Fort Laramie, in the Indian Territory, between D. D. Mitchell, superintendent of Indian affairs, and Thomas Fitzpatrick, Indian agent, commissioners specially appointed and authorized by the President of the United States, of the first part, and the chiefs, headmen, and braves of the following Indian nations, residing south of the Missouri River, east of the Rocky Mountains, and north of the lines of Texas and New Mexico, viz, the Sioux or Dahcotahs, Cheyennes, Arrapahoes, Crows. Assinaboines, Gros-Ventre Mandans, and Arrickaras, parties of the second part, on the seventeenth day of September, A. D. one thousand eight hundred and fifty-one.
The aforesaid nations, parties to this treaty. having assembled for the purpose of establishing and confirming peaceful relations amongst themselves, do hereby covenant and agree to abstain in future from all hostilities whatever against each other, to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.
The aforesaid nations do hereby recognize the right of the United States Government to establish roads, military and other posts, within their respective territories.
In consideration of the rights and privileges acknowledged in the preceding article, the United States bind themselves to protect the aforesaid Indian nations against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States, after the ratification of this treaty.
The aforesaid Indian nations do hereby agree and bind themselves to make restitution or satisfaction for any wrongs committed, after the ratification of this treaty, by any band or individual of their people, on the people of the United States, whilst lawfully residing in or passing through their respective territories.
The aforesaid Indian nations do hereby recognize and acknowledge the following tracts of country, included within the metes and boundaries hereinafter designated, as their respective territories, viz:
The territory of the Sioux or Dahcotah Nation, commencing the mouth of the White Earth River, on the Missouri River: thence in a southwesterly direction to the forks of the Platte River: thence up the north fork of the Platte River to a point known as the Red Bute, or where the road leaves the river; thence along the range of mountains known as the Black Hills, to the head-waters of Heart River; thence down Heart River to its mouth; and thence down the Missouri River to the place of beginning.
The territory of the Gros Ventre, Mandans, and Arrickaras Nations, commencing at the mouth of Heart River; thence up the Missouri River to the mouth of the Yellowstone River; thence up the Yellowstone River to the mouth of Powder River in a southeasterly direction, to the head-waters of the Little Missouri River; thence along the Black Hills to the head of Heart River, and thence down Heart River to the place of beginning.
The territory of the Assinaboin Nation, commencing at the mouth of Yellowstone River; thence up the Missouri River to the mouth of the Muscle-shell River; thence from the mouth of the Muscle-shell River in a southeasterly direction until it strikes the head-waters of Big Dry Creek; thence down that creek to where it empties into the Yellowstone River, nearly opposite the mouth of Powder River, and thence down the Yellowstone River to the place of beginning.
The territory of the Blackfoot Nation, commencing at the mouth of Muscle-shell River; thence up the Missouri River to its source; thence along the main range of the Rocky Mountains, in a southerly direction, to the head-waters of the northern source of the Yellowstone River; thence down the Yellowstone River to the mouth of Twenty-five Yard Creek; thence across to the head-waters of the Muscle-shell River, and thence down the Muscle-shell River to the place of beginning.
The territory of the Crow Nation, commencing at the mouth of Powder River on the Yellowstone; thence up Powder River to its source; thence along the main range of the Black Hills and Wind River Mountains to the head-waters of the Yellowstone River; thence down the Yellowstone River to the mouth of Twenty-five Yard Creek; thence to the head waters of the Muscle-shell River; thence down the Muscle-shell River to its mouth; thence to the head-waters of Big Dry Creek, and thence to its mouth.
The territory of the Cheyennes and Arrapahoes, commencing at the Red Bute, or the place where the road leaves the north fork of the Platte River; thence up the north fork of the Platte River to its source; thence along the main range of the Rocky Mountains to the head-waters of the Arkansas River; thence down the Arkansas River to the crossing of the Santa Fé road; thence in a northwesterly direction to the forks of the Platte River, and thence up the Platte River to the place of beginning.
It is, however, understood that, in making this recognition and acknowledgement, the aforesaid Indian nations do not hereby abandon or prejudice any rights or claims they may have to other lands; and further, that they do not surrender the privilege of hunting, fishing, or passing over any of the tracts of country heretofore described.
The parties to the second part of this treaty having selected principals or head-chiefs for their respective nations, through whom all national business will hereafter be conducted, do hereby bind themselves to sustain said chiefs and their successors during good behavior.
In consideration of the treaty stipulations, and for the damages which have or may occur by reason thereof to the Indian nations, parties hereto, and for their maintenance and the improvement of their moral and social customs, the United States bind themselves to deliver to the said Indian nations the sum of fifty thousand dollars per annum for the term of ten years, with the right to continue the same at the discretion of the President of the United States for a period not exceeding five years thereafter, in provisions, merchandise, domestic animals, and agricultural implements, in such proportions as may be deemed best adapted to their condition by the President of the United States, to be distributed in proportion to the population of the aforesaid Indian nations.*
It is understood and agreed that should any of the Indian nations, parties to this treaty, violate any of the provisions thereof, the United States may withhold the whole or a portion of the annuities mentioned in the preceding article from the nation so offending, until, in the opinion of the President of the United States, proper satisfaction shall have been made.
In testimony whereof the said D. D. Mitchell and Thomas Fitzpatrick commissioners as aforesaid, and the chiefs, headmen, and braves, parties hereto, have set their hands and affixed their marks, on the day and at the place first above written.
D. D. Mitchell
Mah-toe-wha-you-whey, his x mark.
Mah-kah-toe-zah-zah, his x mark.
Bel-o-ton-kah-tan-ga, his x mark.
Nah-ka-pah-gi-gi, his x mark.
Mak-toe-sah-bi-chis, his x mark.
Meh-wha-tah-ni-hans-kah, his x mark.
Wah-ha-nis-satta, his x mark.
Voist-ti-toe-vetz, his x mark.
Nahk-ko-me-ien, his x mark.
Koh-kah-y-wh-cum-est, his x mark.
Bè-ah-té-a-qui-sah, his x mark.
Neb-ni-bah-seh-it, his x mark.
Beh-kah-jay-beth-sah-es, his x mark.
Arra-tu-ri-sash, his x mark.
Doh-chepit-seh-chi-es, his x mark.
Mah-toe-wit-ko, his x mark.
Toe-tah-ki-eh-nan, his x mark.
Mandans and Gros Ventres:
Nochk-pit-shi-toe-pish, his x mark.
She-oh-mant-ho, his x mark.
Koun-hei-ti-shan, his x mark.
Bi-atch-tah-wetch, his x mark.
In the presence of—
A. B. Chambers, secretary.
S. Cooper, colonel, U. S. Army.
R. H. Chilton, captain, First Drags.
Thomas Duncan, captain, Mounted Riflemen.
Thos. G. Rhett, brevet captain R. M. R.
W. L. Elliott, first lieutenant R. M. R.
C. Campbell, interpreter for Sioux.
John S. Smith, interpreter for Cheyennes.
Robert Meldrum, interpreter for the Crows.
H. Culbertson, interpreter for Assiniboines and Gros Ventres.
Francois L'Etalie, interpreter for Arick arees.
John Pizelle, interpreter for the Arrapahoes.
B. Gratz Brown.
Edmond F. Chouteau.
*This treaty as signed was ratified by the Senate with an amendment changing the annuity in Article 7 from fifty to ten years, subject to acceptance by the tribes. Assent of all tribes except the Crows was procured (see Upper Platte C., 570, 1853, Indian Office) and in subsequent agreements this treaty has been recognized as in force.
The treaty did not assign the tribes to reservations.A reservation is an area of land “reserved” by or for an Indian band, village, or tribe (tribes) to live on and use. Reservations were created by treaty, by congressional legislation, or by executive (that is, presidential) order. Before the 1850s, many tribes agreed to live and hunt in a specified territory, but these were not necessarily reservations. The Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 assigned territory, not reservations. A reservation had legal status and usually meant that an official agent of the federal government would be present to manage reservation and tribal affairs. However, the treaty did map the locations assigned to each tribe for their villages and hunting. According to the plan of the federal representatives, the tribes were to stay within their territory and not enter the lands of another tribe to hunt or raid. They were to live in “peaceful relations amongst themselves.” The tribes that signed the treaty agreed to allow the federal government to establish roads within these territories.
In exchange for their agreement to the terms of the treaty, the tribes were supposed to receive $50,000 per year for 50 years. When the United States Senate reviewed and ratified (approved) the treaty in 1852, the term of annuity payments was reduced to 10 years. The President was given the responsibility to send supplies for farming and other use (“merchandise”) as he believed the tribes might need.
This treaty gave each tribe of the northern Plains a separate territory in which the tribe remained “sovereign.” The tribes were protected from white settlement and did not have to submit to the territorial or state government. Their limited sovereignty, however, was supervised by the federal government which now had an official relationship with each of the tribes that signed the paper.The Treaty of Fort Laramie was collected along with dozens of other important documents concerning Indian Affairs by Charles J. Kappler (1868–1946.) Kappler was the son of German immigrants. His father was a shoemaker. Kappler studied law and became a staff member of the Committee on Indian Affairs in the United States Senate. As a lawyer he argued important cases on Indian law before the Supreme Court. Kappler compiled all the treaties between the federal government and various Indian tribes into a five-volume series titled Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties (1904.) This compiled work was the most “authoritative” source for information on Indian law and treaties. Kappler’s work for the tribes was so important that he was adopted by the Crow tribe.
For many years, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs asked Congress to fund the research work that would allow the Commissioner to access all the treaties. Finally, in 1902, the Senate agreed to support the research.
The promises of peace in the treaty were soon broken by the federal government, the tribes, and settlers. The Treaty of Fort Laramie was the first, but not the last, treaty to be written and broken as the lands of the Lakotas, Mandans, Arikaras, and Hidatsas were changed to suit the needs of towns, railroads, farmers, and the government.
The Treaty of Fort Laramie tried to change the culture of leadership among the Plains tribes. However, the tribes did not change their culture or political customs because the federal government asked them to.
Though the treaty did not establish reservations, the territories assigned to the tribes would later be used to establish reservations that were eventually reduced in size.
Why is this important? The Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 made many changes in both the culture and the territory of Plains Indian tribes. Some tribes, such as the Hidatsa, were assigned to their traditional homelands. Others, such as the Assiniboine, were sent to land that was unfamiliar to them.