Conquering Bear was born around 1800, during one of the darkest periods in American history. He was a Brulé Lakota (Sioux). At the Fort Laramie treaty council in 1851, the Americans demanded the name of the head chief of each tribe who could sign for his people. However, none of the tribes responded with a single name of a leader, so the white men arbitrarily picked chiefs for them. Conquering Bear was chosen to represent the Lakota.
Conquering Bear was a man of peace, but that did not prevent his death at the hands of a U.S. Army officer. Little is recorded about his life until the time surrounding the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The advent of the Europeans (white men) into the Native American ancestral homeland was at first just a nuisance to the original inhabitants. The Indians only wanted to live in peace and tolerated the first white men. Given the encroachment of white settlers with their wagon trains and disease, the Native Americans feared the loss of their way of life and culture.
Repeatedly, the Indians signed the white man's treaties, in hopes of mitigating the flow of whites into their lands. Seeking only peace and the continuation of their way of life, the Indians signed “peace" treaties that gave the whites the “legal" authority to take Indian land while controlling the lives of free and nomadic peoples.
Keeping to themselves
Conquering Bear and his people were living near Fort Laramie in a state of strained peace, adhering to the treaties as they understood them. Misunderstanding and racism were common realities in the relationship between the two cultures. Even in the process of maintaining peace, life was uncertain for the Indian.
With the white man overwhelming the Indian’s sacred hunting grounds, the Indians' normal food sources were dwindling, and the Indians lived in a constant state of hunger. In August 1854, a lame and sickly cow wandered from a Mormon wagon train traveling along the Mormon trail on the North Platte River in Wyoming. The old cow roamed around and finally strayed into Conquering Bear's encampment.
A deteriorating situation
Unfortunately, the wayward cow was killed and eaten by a hungry Miniconjou Lakota warrior and his family who were visiting Conquering Bear’s camp. The Mormons reported to the army at Fort Laramie that the animal had been stolen by the Indians. Conquering Bear attempted to negotiate compensation for the cow, offering several of his own horses in exchange. The Mormons refused, and the fort’s commanding officer demanded that Conquering Bear turn over the guilty warrior. Conquering Bear refused.
The commander of the garrison then ordered Lieutenant John Grattan, a new graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, to take men to the Indian camp and arrest the offending brave. On August 19, 1854, accompanied by 30 men, an interpreter, and two cannons, Grattan set out for the Brulé camp to take the brave into custody.
A fateful confrontation
With cannon trained on the Indian encampment, the fragile peace was about to shatter. Lieutenant Grattan ordered Conquering Bear to surrender the Miniconjou Lakota warrior. Conquering Bear refused, turned, and began to walk away. A shot rang out and Chief Conquering Bear lay on the ground, dying. Angered by the shooting, the Lakota rose up and counterattacked the troopers. With the aid of warriors like Spotted Tail, the Lakota surrounded and killed the entire detachment.
While on a visit to his mother’s people, a young native boy named Curly witnessed the cavalry arrival and the carnage that followed. That was a memory he would keep as he grew into the Lakota warrior known as Crazy Horse.
Out of respect, the Brulé took the dying Conquering Bear out into the vast prairie, far away from white people, to die with dignity. It was there on his prairie that they buried him, laying to rest a leader, warrior, and peacemaker.