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Red Cloud

Red Cloud

Red Cloud is the English name of Makhpiyaluta (Scarlet Cloud), which also may be spelled Mahpiua-Luta. Red Cloud was the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) chief who, more than any other Lakota chief, is associated with the Plains Indians' transition from free warrior nomads to subjugated peoples. As a ferocious combat commander and political leader, Red Cloud fought bravely, but unsuccessfully, to save his people and their land from the white man’s invasion of the Indian homeland by the U.S. military. He led Native American warfare against the establishment of the Bozeman Trail. On the battlefield, Red Cloud’s leadership brought many successes in his resistance against the U.S. government and the Army’s cavalry, which marked him as one of the most important Lakota leaders of the 19th century.

Birth and childhood

Red Cloud was born in 1822, on the placid banks of the wide, slow-flowing Platte River near what is now North Platte, Nebraska. Red Cloud’s mother was a member of the Oglala Sioux, and his father, who died in Red Cloud's youth, was a member of the Brulé Sioux. Red Cloud was reared in the household of his maternal uncle, Chief Smoke.

Although the story of his youth is unknown, Red Cloud probably grew up in the traditional loving environment that surrounded Sioux children. During his formative years, the tribe spent much time fighting territorial wars with the neighboring Pawnee, Crow, Ute, and Shoshone tribes. As Red Cloud was growing up, he was shown numerous games that taught him how to be a skilled fighter. Red Cloud also possessed an important ability to tell tales in a lively and convincing manner.

Early career

Much of Red Cloud's early life was spent at war, first and most often against the neighboring Pawnee and Crow, and at other times, against other Oglala. Red Cloud proved his medicine was powerful at age 16 when he survived a near-fatal arrow wound in his ribs. He counted coup* more than 80 times, and coaxed 4,000 warriors from various tribes to ally with him against the white men. In 1841, Red Cloud killed one of his uncle's primary rivals; the slaying caused dissension among the Oglala that persisted for years to come. He gained enormous prominence within the Lakota nation for his leadership in territorial wars against the Pawnees, Crows, Utes, and Shoshones.

Young Red Cloud developed a reputation for both bravery and cruelty. His stature among the Oglala Sioux rose early, his having acquired a reputation as a fierce warrior and a man of pronounced ruthlessness to enemies of his people, particularly in campaigns against the Pawnees.

The Bozeman Trail, forts, and gold

When white men discovered gold in Montana in the early 1860s, they began to build a road, soon called the Bozeman Trail, that ran through the heart of Lakota territory from Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming, to the gold fields. They also constructed a series of forts to protect the road.

The first small detachment of troops sent out to begin construction work were intercepted by Red Cloud with a large party of Oglala Lakota and Cheyenne. They prevented the soldiers from moving for many days, but they eventually were allowed to leave. In the fall of 1865, commissioners went to parley with the Oglala for permission to build the road, but Red Cloud forbade the negotiations and refused to attend the council.

Marriage and later career

Red Cloud took only one wife during his lifetime; her name was Pretty Owl. Their marriage lasted more than half a century.

By the middle 1860s, Red Cloud was a leading Oglala warrior and was recognized by the whites as a chief. Beginning in 1865, Red Cloud led the Oglala and the Cheyenne in a war against the white interlopers on the Bozeman Trail. He launched a series of assaults on the forts. Red Cloud had seen the army drive the eastern Lakota from their land in Minnesota during bloody battles in 1862 and 1863. Unwilling to allow his people to suffer being pushed off their land, he led a series of attacks on the forts along the trail — the single most successful offense ever carried out by an Indian nation.

Red Cloud's principal military achievement lay in forcing the United States to abandon the Bozeman Trail between the North Platte River and the goldfields of Montana. In June 1865, following a failed U.S. Army campaign to bring about a lasting peace through force, the U.S. Government's Indian policy changed from military pacification to one of negotiation.

In June 1866, a peace conference was held with such leaders as William T. Sherman, great chiefs chief Dull Knife, chief Spotted Tail, and Red Cloud in attendance, to negotiate what was to be the first Fort Laramie Treaty, but it was never signed. Red Cloud repeated his refusal to endanger his people's hunting grounds. The chief angrily left the council, and the Indians halted virtually all civilian travel on the trail. The little forts — Reno, Phil Kearny, and C.F. Smith — that the army had established to protect travelers could hardly protect their own garrisons.

In 1866, Red Cloud watched the army build forts along the Bozeman Trail into Montana gold country. Miners and squatters came, first in a trickle, then in a great deluge of wagon trains that cut deep ruts into the land. Red Cloud headed the opposition for his tribe, which resisted in the belief that the influx of travel along the trail would destroy the best remaining buffalo hunting grounds.

On December 21, 1866, Red Cloud staged an ambush. He tricked a calvary officer by the name of Fetterman, who was dispatched from Fort Phil Kearny to protect a party sent out to gather wood. He selected 10 warriors, including the 19-year-old Chief Crazy Horse, to be decoys. The group of 10 warriors attacked the woodcutters to lure the soldiers in. Fetterman led some 80 men against the 10 warriors; 2,000 warriors then attacked his flank. The regiment was defeated. Not one trooper survived. The Fetterman battle dramatized the failure of the army's Indian policy and gave new impetus to calls for negotiating peace with the Sioux — particularly with Red Cloud. Red Cloud, however, refused to negotiate until the army abandoned the forts along the Bozeman Trail.

Red Cloud's strategy was so successful that by 1868, the U.S. Government agreed to draft the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The document's remarkable provisions mandated that the army abandon its forts along the Bozeman Trail and guarantee the Lakota possession of what is now the western half of South Dakota, including the Black Hills, along with much of Montana and Wyoming.

The army abandoned the forts in August 1868, but Red Cloud did not arrive at Fort Laramie to discuss peace until some time later. In finally signing the treaty on November 6, Red Cloud accepted conquered status for all of his people, in exchange for gifts, the promise of annuities, and other benefits. He agreed to abandon the warpath and relocate his people on a large reservation north of the state of Nebraska and west of the Missouri River. The treaty of 1868 was a long and complicated document that the Indians found difficult to understand. The peace, of course, did not last.

A fragile peace

Red Cloud kept the peace he had agreed to at Fort Laramie in 1868. He recognized the folly of going to war, but he tried to win as many concessions as possible. Red Cloud lived in peace with the whites, although he was later charged with duplicity by encouraging hostile Native Americans. Various reform groups admired him and considered him to be a celebrity, but he was a thorn in the flesh of those who were trying to carry out the government's "peace policy."

George A. Custer's 1874 Black Hills expedition again brought war to the northern Plains, a war that would mean the eventual subjugation of independent Indian nations. Red Cloud did not join Chief Crazy Horse, Chief Sitting Bull and other war leaders in the following Lakota War of 1876-77. He opposed the movement of gold seekers and settlers to the Black Hills, for example, but he did not participate in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He lent encouragement to the "hostiles," however, and his son Jack was in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Red Cloud also retained some influence with Crazy Horse. It was Red Cloud that the government used in 1877 to persuade the noted war chief to surrender, come in to Fort Robinson, and accept defeated status. As a reward, General Crook allowed Red Cloud to resume his leadership of the Oglalas. It was a sad success for Red Cloud; not only was Crazy Horse slain while in Army custody, but Red Cloud would helplessly witness the slow erosion of his people's way of life over the next 30 years.

Finally, in 1878 Red Cloud agreed to relocate his people to the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota.

In the 1880s, Red Cloud waged a political battle with Pine Ridge Indian agent, Valentine McGillycuddy, over the proper distribution of government food and supplies, some of which was not finding their way into the teepees and bellies of the Indian people. At last, he forced McGillycuddy’s dismissal.

Latter days

Red Cloud was removed as war chief in 1881, and he lived thereafter in retirement on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

In 1890, the old chief discouraged participation in the warpath Ghost Dance, attempting to avert the troubles that had led to the Wounded Knee massacre. As the years wore on, Red Cloud experienced increasing difficulty with members of the tribe who wanted to resume the warpath. They felt that he no longer was an effective leader.

At the same time, there were those who felt that he was an obstructionist who impeded his people's progress along the white man's road. He fought without success against the Dawes Act of 1887, which carved reservations into individual tracts.

Until his death in 1909 at the great age of 87, Red Cloud continued to lobby from the Pine Ridge Reservation for tribal control of their lands and keeping power in the hands of the chiefs. He was a central figure in the conflict between the army and the Interior Department over who should have authority over the Plains Indians.


*A feat of bravery performed in battle, especially touching an enemy's body without causing injury.
See also the Kiowa chief-
Santana and the Oglala chief - American Horse, the Elder .

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