Published on August 10, 2010 by Christian
Red Cloud (1822 – December 10, 1909) was a war leader of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux). One of the most capable Native American opponents the United States Army ever faced, he led a successful conflict in 1866-1868 known as Red Cloud’s War over control of the Powder River Country in northwestern Wyoming and southern Montana. After the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), he led his people in the important transition to reservation life. Some of his US opponents thought of him as overall leader of the Sioux, but this was mistaken. The large tribe had several major divisions and was highly decentralized. Bands among the Oglala and other divisions operated independently, even though some individual leaders such as Red Cloud were renowned as warriors.
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Red Cloud was born close to the forks of the Platte River, near the modern-day city of North Platte, Nebraska. His mother was an Oglala and his father was a BrulÃ©, two of the major seven Lakota divisions. As was traditional among the matrilineal Lakota, Red Cloud was partly raised by his maternal uncle, Chief Smoke, who played a more prominent role in his life than did his father. At a young age, he fought against neighboring Pawnee and Crow, gaining much war experience.
Red Cloud settled at the agency with his band by the fall of 1873. He soon became embroiled in a controversy with the new Indian agent, Dr. John J. Saville.
In 1874, General George Armstrong Custer led a reconnaissance mission into Sioux territory that reported gold in the Black Hills, an area held sacred by the local Indians. Formerly, the Army tried to keep miners out but did not succeed; the threat of violence grew. In May of 1875, Sioux delegations headed by Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, and Lone Horn traveled to Washington, D.C. in a last-ditch attempt to persuade President Grant to honor existing treaties and stem the flow of miners into their lands. The Indians met on various occasions with Grant, Secretary of the Interior Delano, and Commissioner of Indian Affairs Smith, who finally informed them on May 27th that Congress was ready to resolve the matter by giving the tribes $25,000 for their land and resettling them into Indian Territory. The delegates refused to sign such a treaty, with Spotted Tail responding to the proposition by saying: â€œWhen I was here before, the President gave me my country, and I put my stake down in a good place, and there I want to stay . . . You speak of another country, but it is not my country; it does not concern me, and I want nothing to do with it. I was not born there… If it is such a good country, you ought to send the white men now in our country there and let us alone.
Although Red Cloud was unsuccessful in finding a peaceful solution, he did not take part in the Lakota war of 1876-1877 led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.
In the fall of 1877 the Red Cloud Agency was removed to the upper Missouri River. The following year it was removed to the forks of the White River, in present-day South Dakota, where it was renamed the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Red Cloud continued fighting for his people, even after being forced onto the reservation. In 1889 he opposed a treaty to sell more of the Sioux land. His steadfastness and that of Sitting Bull led government agents to obtain the necessary signatures for approval through subterfuge, such as obtaining the signatures of children. He negotiated strongly with Indian Agents such as Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy. In 1887 he opposed the Dawes Act, which allocated plots of land to heads of families and broke up communal tribal holdings, generating “excess land” which the US government sold to emigrant settlers.
Red Cloud became an important leader of the Lakota as they transitioned from the freedom of the plains to the confinement of the reservation system. His trip to Washington, DC had convinced him of the number and power of European Americans, and he believed the Oglala had to seek peace.
He outlived all the other major Sioux leaders of the Indian Wars. He died in 1909 at the age of 87 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he was buried. Announcements of his death and recognition of his contributions were made in major newspapers across the country. As had been typical of the US perception during Red Cloud’s prominence in war, the article in The New York Times mistakenly described him as leader of all the Sioux bands and tribes. While he was a prominent leader, the Lakota were highly decentralized and never had one overall leader, especially of the major divisions, such as Oglala and BrulÃ©.
Red Cloud was among the Indians photographed by Edward S. Curtis. In 2000, he was posthumously selected for induction into the Nebraska Hall of Fame. He has been honored by the United States Postal Service with a 10Â¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.