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Warrior Diplomat

Red Cloud's definitive untold story.

By 12.11.13

Platte River, NE USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Flikr Creative Commons)
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The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend
By Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
(Simon & Schuster, 432 pages, $30)

The Sioux hold a special place in the minds of Indian enthusiasts. They are the quintessential Plains Indians. Historical determinism dictated migration in the 17th century from the woods of present Minnesota and onto the plains, where they promptly rendezvoused with the arrival of the horse from the south. They were numerous (divided into three divisions: Lakota, Nakota, Dakota, and further subgroups such as Oglala, Hunkpapa, Brulé, etc.) and soon savagely dominated neighboring tribes. A two centuries’ mounted-nomadic heyday culminated with the martyrdom of George Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876, thus shining the historical limelight on Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. But the most important Sioux leader of the 19th century was the Oglala chief Red Cloud. He’s the subject of Bob Drury’s and Tom Clavin’s fine biography, The Heart of Everything That Is (the title a reference to the “Paha Sapa”, the Black Hills). 

Red Cloud (“Mahpiya Luta”) was born in 1821 (some scholars believe 1822) at the forks of the Platte River in present Nebraska. His father Lone Man managed to drink himself to death on white traders whiskey when the future chief was but four years old. This early shock made Red Cloud a lifelong  teetotaler with a lucid view of the motivations of white expansion and the Indian predicament in his time. Early on he sought to reject all white influence on the Sioux way of life. If he had a paternal figure in his life, it was his mother’s brother the Oglala chief “Old Smoke,” who influenced the child and helped make the man.

At sixteen Red Cloud distinguished himself as young Sioux men sought to do, by killing a Pawnee, and helped to steal fifty horses in the same fight. He was the hero of a group of young Oglalas who called themselves the “Bad Faces,” who enthusiastically fought and raided the Pawnees, Crows, Shoshones, and other tribes (almost ninety incidents). Red Cloud “was the living embodiment of the maxim that war is the best teacher of war,” write Drury and Clavin.

Red Cloud succeeded Old Smoke as chief of the Oglalas. His ascension coincided with increased white settlement on the Great Plains followed by the discovery of gold in western Montana in 1863. This last resulted in the advent of the Bozeman Trail, a 500-mile route from Fort Laramie to the Montana goldfields, and guarded by three U.S. Army posts in the Powder River region of present Wyoming and Montana. It was land prized by the Sioux as a buffalo hunting ground.

From 1866 to 1868 the Red Cloud War showcased the Sioux leader’s military expertise, and his guerilla tactics are still studied today. In a series of skirmishes Red Cloud succeeded in closing the Bozeman Trail and forced the U.S. government — in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie — to close the offending military outposts. The most effective of these engagements was the Fetterman Massacre of December 1866.

Fort Phil Kearney stood on the banks of Big Piney Creek as it guarded a remote section of the Bozeman Trail. Colonel Henry Carrington commanded a thousand troops and civilians, including Captain William Fetterman, a headstrong Civil War veteran. The fort was subject to Sioux harassment and it was dangerous to send hunters and woodcutters out to perform essential duties. The area overseen by the post had sustained 150 fatalities and the theft of 800 horses and cattle in the preceding months. Some of Carrington’s subordinate officers — including Fetterman — were itching for a fight.

On December 21, Carrington sent Fetterman out with eighty men to scare off a small party of Indians nearby, this contrary to the sage advice of Jim Bridger, the aging ex-mountain man now employed as an army scout. Bridger keenly understood Indians and believed this situation probably hid more than met the eye. Nevertheless, Fetterman — vainglorious in the George Custer mold — led his small command four miles from the fort with the aim of hunting down the Indians. In a scenario that could have foretold the result Little Bighorn a decade later, Fetterman was surprised by Red Cloud’s intertribal force of 2,000 Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors, who —scholars estimate — rained 40,000 arrows down on Fetterman’s troops, probably wiping them out in less than a half hour. The Indians suffered fourteen casualties. A Carrington’s behest, a messenger named John “Portegee” Phillips rode 200 miles through a blizzard to deliver the tragic news to Fort Laramie, a set piece as exciting as any in the book.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie closed the forts on the Bozeman Trail, and the exultant Sioux burned the abandoned posts. But the treaty was a chimera. Red Cloud the realist knew this was the beginning of the end of the Sioux’s free life on the Plains. The final struggle was left to the younger generation personified by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Red Cloud would never again participate in future hostilities in a direct way. “I shall not go to war any more with whites,” was his blunt answer to such pleas from bellicose fellow tribesmen.

In 1872 he participated in a peace mission to Washington, and met President Grant and other dignitaries. The meetings were cordial, yet resulted in more concessions from the Sioux. Red Cloud agreed to move his people to what was at the time called “The Great Sioux Reservation,” a large block of land in the present states of South Dakota and Nebraska. If — after seeing much of the country and the great capital city — Red Cloud harbored any further illusions concerning American power and the white tide flooding  the Plains, he discarded them. To a white audience he said: “Now we are melting like snow on the hillside, while you are growing like spring grass.”

In 1893 Red Cloud dictated his Autobiography (the manuscript was finally published by the Montana Historical Society in 1997 and remains in print). In it he told an interviewer: “They [the whites] made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.” He lived on as a “reservation Indian” until passing on at 88 in 1909.

This was a man born when James Monroe was president, and who lived the wild, hunter-gatherer life. One spanning a time of swift horses and Crow scalps to the age of the automobile and the airplane. Drury and Clavin have written the definitive biography of a neglected American legend.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.