Plains Indians


During most of its early history, Fort Laramie was a social and economic center for several tribes of Plains Indians. The Native Americans came to trade, to visit, and later to sign treaties and receive annuities.

Early relations between the traders at the Fort and the Indians were amicable, but as the tide of emigrants swelled along the Oregon Trial, resentments and friction began to emerge. In an effort to end hostilities, a council attended by representatives of the United States and more than 10,000 Indians was called near Fort Laramie in 1851. The council give birth to the Treaty of 1851 that was signed by the United States and tribal representatives. In return for $50,000 per year of annuities, the Indians agreed to stop harassing the wagon trains.

The Treaty was not effective, however, and subsequent incidents resulted in deaths of Native Americans, emigrants, and soldiers alike. The Bozeman Trail, which headed North to the gold fields of Montana, was soon swarming with emigrants who passed through the prime bison hunting lands of the Sioux and the Cheyenne tribes. The Army constructed three Forts along the Trail to provide for the safety of the travelers. The Native Americans resented the intrusions, and the high plains were soon aflame with conflict. A new treaty, the Treaty of 1868 was signed in which the Army agreed to withdraw from the Bozeman Trail and evacuate the forts along it. It addition, the treaty provided a reservation for the Indians along with rights to their traditional hunting grounds.

The Treaty of 1868 did not bring a lasting peace to the high plains. In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills and miners soon flocked to the area. Attempts by the U.S. Army to keep prospectors out of the area were unsuccessful. The influx angered the Sioux, because the Black Hills region was a sacred area and it was also part of the reservation lands guaranteed to the Indians by the Treaty of 1868. Under leaders such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, they fought the Army in engagements such as the ones at the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn. Hostilities reached their peak in the Summer of 1876 and did not end until the Native Americans were forced onto their reservations.

The Tribes
There were three tribes of Native Americans that called the high plains around Fort Laramie home: the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho.

The Sioux
The dominant tribe on the high plains near Ft. Laramie were the Sioux. The name Sioux refers to a large group of Native Americans speaking a common or similar language. They are often divided into three groups based on their geographic distribution. In the 1800’s the Western group, called the Lakota or Teton Sioux, were the dominant tribe in the region around Fort Laramie. They were represented by several bands, the Oglala Sioux, the Brule Sioux, the Hunkpapa Sioux, and the Minneconjou Sioux. The Lakota Sioux were a nomadic people who hunted the buffalo that roamed the high plains in huge herds. The buffalo provided them with food, clothing, the covering for their dwellings, and the raw material for many of their tools. The Sioux could be peaceful or, when the occasion demanded, they could be formidable warriors. The spiritual power, Wakan, and the Summer Sun Dance ceremony played important parts in their lives.

The Cheyenne
The Cheyenne were another well-known tribe that played a part in the pagent of Ft. Laramie. Originally from what is now northern Minnesota, they had migrated to the high plains by the early 1800’s and ranged from the Missouri River in the North to the Arkansas River in the South. They were divided into two branches, the Northern Cheyenne and the Southern Cheyenne. The Northern group spent much of their time on the high plains of Colorado and Wyoming, not far from Fort Laramie.

Like the Sioux, with whom they were often allied, the Cheyenne were horsemen and buffalo-hunters who obtained most of their physical needs from the shaggy bison. Also, like the Sioux, they celebrated the Summer Sun Dance, in which men would dance for several days in a ritual of spiritual cleansing and empowerment.

The Arapaho
The Arapaho, although a distinct tribe, were very similar to their close allies, the Cheyenne. Like the Cheyenne, they spoke an Algonquin language and were originally from what is now northern Minnesota. They migrated westward and divided into Northern and Southern branches. The Northern branch lived on the high plains and were more relevant to the historical events played out at Fort Laramie. The Arapaho were mounted bison-hunters who depended on the buffalo for much of their livelihood. They also celebrated the Sun Dance.

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