Six Sioux Chiefs in the Jail Yard
Part Two: Custer

Pile of bison skulls to be ground into fertilizer. Photo: Wikicommons

During the 1870s, the Plains Indians had seen their homeland transformed. The traders had arrived first and slaughtered the buffalo for profit. Then the railroads slaughtered them for the right of way and the government issued homesteading rights to settlers to farm the buffalo grazing lands. Finally, the government began to slaughter the buffalo as a way of starving out the Native Americans. Between the senseless slaughter, settlement, and natural events, the buffalo population had dwindled from an estimated 50 million to fewer than 500 in less than a century. With fewer bison to hunt, more and more tribes had no choice but to surrender to the Department of the Interior where they would be assigned to reservations and given rations as a means for survival. On the reservations, they could no longer fend for themselves, but would, for all intents and purposes, be dependent upon the government for survival.

Cheyenne Chiefs Little Wolf and Dull Knife in Washington DC, 1873 Photo: Library of Congress

In 1873, several Indian chiefs from different tribes traveled to Washington DC to negotiate with President Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, and Commissioner of Indian Affairs Edward P Smith. Grant had formally defined the official government policy on Indian Affairs, and using Smith’s reports, Delano made putting all Indians on reservations a primary focus.

In his annual report, there were six “hinderances” in Indian policy that needed special attention. These were: 1. The issue of treating the sixty-five independent Indian nations as sixty-five separate sovereign nations while maintaining dozens of different treaties and supervising each of them individually; 2. The cash annuity system; 3. Individual property rights (Delano believed that communal living would lead to the destruction of society) 4. The importance of living within a system of laws; 5. Those who refused to stay on their reservations; and 6. Intertribal warfare in which government issued guns and ammunition (intended for hunting) had been used for violence. Grant’s ultimate goal was to convert the Indians to Christianity in order to prepare them for citizenship and integration into American culture.

In the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1873, Acting Agent JW Daniels recommended that the Northern Cheyenne be given their own agency/reservation because going south to “join their people was impracticable” and that they should be drawing rations and living separately from the Sioux. The Northern Cheyenne were under the impression that they would remain in the north with the Sioux at the Red Cloud Agency in the Black Hills. For generations, the Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne had commingled. For generations, the two tribes had shared the same lands, intermarried, and had many of the same customs and rituals. They shared family, and family was of the utmost importance to them and their culture. The fact that the Commissioner of Indian Affairs put this in his report illustrates that there was a clear misunderstanding on this detail.

Officers and scouts of Custer’s 1874 expedition of the Black Hills. Image: True West Magazine.

George Armstrong Custer

In 1874, General George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills under the guise of setting up a military post. However, the presence of geologists (and journalists) in the massive expedition party suggested otherwise. Gold was discovered, and it was advertised to the public in newspapers across the country. The Sioux and Cheyenne were greatly upset by this turn of events. The Black Hills were sacred to them. This intrusion was against the treaties that had been agreed upon, and they were angry.

Not surprisingly, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills led to a rush of prospectors to the region. Initially, the government tried to stop the massive rush of miners into Indian Territory, but the large numbers proved to be overwhelming. Rather than trying to forcibly remove more than fifteen thousand miners from the land, the US government tried to purchase the land and renegotiate the terms of the treaty. The government then attempted to negotiate an annuity to guarantee the safety of prospectors and settlers. Again, they were denied. The Indians would not allow their sacred lands to be bought out from under them.

Map of the sacred Black Hills, with details for prospectors, published by Rand McNally. Image: Library of Congress

Meanwhile, Indians were attacking miners and settlers, miners and settlers were attacking Indians, and outlaws were attacking everyone. The Washington officials saw only one option: to protect American citizens. With that, the previous treaties were abandoned and the Commissioner on Indian Affairs ordered all Indians onto reservations and out of the Black Hills. He set a deadline: January 31, 1876. Any Indian not on a reservation by that date would be deemed hostile and treated as such. Since it was winter, the Indians were scattered throughout the territory and not everyone heard the news. And many that did hear the new simply did not case—they were standing their ground. Troops were ordered in to force them to comply.

The Battle of Little Bighorn

By the spring, bands of Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho joined Sitting Bull in Montana, united in their in defiance of the order. In one of American history’s most infamous battles, this unified group of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho stood up to General George Armstrong Custer and the seventh Cavalry in an epic battle. Every American soldier on the field that day was killed, the US forces were beaten soundly by the Native Americans. News of the Battle of Little Bighorn (Custer’s Last Stand, Custer’s Massacre, Battle of Greasy Grass) spread quickly to the Eastern states, and additional troops were immediately deployed to the region. With a renewed vigor, the government was more determined than ever to contain Indians on the reservations. This was the beginning of their final campaign.

Artists depiction of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Image: Pinterest

Northern Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf knew there would be military retaliation for their participation at Little Big Horn (Dull Knife himself hadn’t participated, but members of his tribe had). On November 26, 1876, nearly six months after the battle, Chief Dull Knife’s village was attacked and taken over by the US Army. The Northern Cheyenne ran off into the mountains for cover,  eventually making their way to Crazy Horse’s winter village on the Powder River.

Powder River
The Powder River in Montana near where the Northern Cheyenne camped with the Sioux before their surrender. Wikipedia

By the spring of 1877, Dull Knife told his people that they were outnumbered. Their only hope for survival in the future was to try to live in peace with the Americans. A prolonged fight against the Army was a losing battle, and surrendering was their only option. The more they resisted, the more the Army would fight back, and the harder the fight would become.

Dull Knife assumed that his people would be allowed to stay in their homeland on the Northern Plains— it was his understanding that this had been part of the 1873 treaty. At about the same time, Crazy Horse and the Sioux surrendered to the government and their people had been relocated to the Red Cloud Agency. Military officials informed Dull Knife and the Northern Cheyenne that they would be assigned to a different reservation. They would be joining the Southern Cheyenne at the Darlington Agency near Ft Reno, Oklahoma.

Chiefs Dull Knife, Little Wolf, and the other tribal leaders told the government officials that they did not want to go to the south— they couldn’t leave their homeland. They explained that it was their understanding that they wouldn’t be forced to leave the North; the agents insisted that this was never part of the agreement. Finally, after much discussion, Dull Knife was told that if— after one year in Oklahoma—they were unhappy, officials might reconsider giving them permission to return north. But for the time being, they had no choice.

Besides, they were told, the Darlington Agency in Oklahoma was much better than the crowded Red Cloud Agency. At Darlington, there was more food, plentiful game, and life down south would be much more like the old days.

Reluctantly, they agreed to go.




© Julie Dirkes Phelps; Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller. © Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask me. I try to make sure to attribute all images to the appropriate sources, but sometimes I inadvertently post an image from an incorrect source (or the image is incorrectly cited from my source), get images mixed up, or accidentally leave something out. Please email me at with any corrections or concerns. Thanks.