Published on March 3, 2013 by Carol
By the early 1860s, relations between the Sioux and the United States on the northern Great Plains had deteriorated substantially (see 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 the 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 sliced the herds. The Colorado War marked the spreading of the trend among the Plains Tribes southward along 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.
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The Cheyenne and Arapaho had previously yielded a large area of the Eastern Plains in 1861 (largely to make room for the gold rush). The increased traffic in the area resulted in attacks by, most notoriously 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. 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 evidence was enough to force Congress to hold hearings on the brutality in the spring of 1865. 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 Arapaho, who were largely nonhostile 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 American presence remaining in the state was the Utes, regarding whom the U.S. recognized a 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 bands of the other). 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 presence, no matter how cooperative and benign