The Medicine Lodge Treaties were a series of three treaties between the US government and the Comanche, Kiowa, Plains Apache, Southern Cheyenne, and Southern Arapaho American Indian nations, signed in October 1867 along Medicine Lodge Creek, south of Fort Larned, Kansas. By treating with multiple tribes at once, the government hoped to reestablish peace across the Great Plains so that the transcontinental railroad could be completed without costly military campaigns. The Indian nations, suffering from disease outbreaks, internal political crises, and diminishing bison herds, sought supplies and protection from the government, even if they did not wish to give up their lands.
The treaties at Medicine Lodge created two new reservations in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) for the above-mentioned five nations. After the treaties, the Cheyenne and Arapaho largely withdrew from Colorado’s plains and mountains, where they had lived since the late 1700s. The treaties also forced Indian children to attend boarding schools, a practice that became more widespread over the next eighty years. Although the treaties removed American Indians from the path of the railroad, they failed to establish peace and had disastrous effects on the lives and culture of Indigenous people on the Great Plains.
The 1860s was a period of intense conflict between whites and Plains Indians, as whites repeatedly invaded Indian homelands. The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 drew gold seekers and other white immigrants to the region, while in 1862 the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railroad Act spurred even more immigrants as well as construction of a transcontinental railroad across the Great Plains. These incursions diminished critical resources on the Plains, especially the bison, upon which the Plains Indians depended.
Other political and economic developments exacerbated tensions between whites and Indians. Kansas (1861) and Nebraska (1867) both gained statehood during the decade, and Colorado Territory continued to grow thanks to new technology that revived its mining industry. The end of the Civil War in 1865 also allowed the government to divert more resources to the development and conquest of the American West.
Indigenous nations were divided on how to respond to increased pressure from white immigrants and the US military. Some leaders, including the Cheyenne chief Moketaveto (Black Kettle) and the Arapaho Hosa (Little Raven), believed that maintaining peace was necessary in the face of a superior fighting force. Others, including the Cheyenne chief Tall Bull and the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, believed that the Americans could not be trusted to preserve peace and must be violently resisted.
Treaties and Conflicts
In 1861 the Treaty of Fort Wise assigned the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho a reservation in eastern Colorado Territory. That changed after US cavalry slaughtered more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho as they camped at Sand Creek, on the edge of the reservation, in late 1864. In 1865 the Little Arkansas Treaty promised reparations for the massacre and sought to move both tribes to a reservation spanning northern Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) and southern Kansas.
However, the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers never agreed to this treaty, and tensions only increased after the US military built two new forts near important Cheyenne sites in Kansas. To intimidate the Indians into another treaty, General Winfield Scott Hancock was sent to western Kansas in the spring of 1867. When his troops arrived at a Cheyenne-Lakota camp near Fort Larned, the Indians fled, fearing another Sand Creek Massacre. Hancock, who had little experience with Indians, was insulted and ordered the abandoned camp burned. Reprisals from Indigenous nations—a series of conflicts dubbed “Hancock’s War”—finally prompted the government to send a peace commission to Fort Larned in the fall of 1867.
The peace commission’s goal was to “establish security for person and property along the lines of railroad now being constructed to the Pacific.” Leading the negotiations would be acting Indian affairs commissioner Nathaniel G. Taylor, Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri, General William T. Sherman, and Christian reformer Samuel F. Tappan, among others. Numbering 165 wagons, 600 men, and 1,200 horses and mules, the US government’s treaty delegation reflected a sizable investment in peace instead of warfare. For about two weeks in October 1867, the government supply train fed a camp of more than 5,000 Indians along Medicine Lodge Creek, southeast of Fort Larned.
The government could afford to be generous because it was the most powerful player in the negotiations. The military had already established forts in the region, the tribes were fractured along lines of peace and warfare, and the bison herds were diminishing so rapidly that the tribes would likely be open to securing government annuities to help them survive.
The tribes shared the same difficult position, but each pursued its own objectives at the negotiations. Kiowa and Apache leaders, for instance, pointed to their peoples’ peaceful relations with Americans to lobby for annuities and to avoid being sent to reservations. Comanche leaders objected to the reservations but were willing to sign as long as the government fulfilled its promises; otherwise, as the Comanche leader Tosahwi said, they would “return with our wild brothers to live on the prairie.”
By October 21, two agreements had been reached with bands of Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa. Several days later, the Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs arrived, signing their own treaty on October 28. The treaties created two reservations in western Indian Territory—one for the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache, and one for the Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne. Tribes would be allowed to hunt off the reservations, but only as long as the bison existed—a cruel caveat, as the bison were on the brink of extinction. The Indian nations.} also had to “compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years” to attend US boarding schools, “to insure the civilization of the tribes.”
The treaties provided for Indian agents who would distribute annuities, including a full set of clothes for every Indian each year, as well as more than $20,000 in additional provisions for thirty years. As a final token of goodwill, the US peace commission distributed more than $150,000 in gifts to the assembled tribes, including clothes, blankets, weapons, tools, and tobacco.
The Medicine Lodge Treaties achieved the government’s main objective of moving the Plains Indian nations out of the way of the transcontinental railroad. However, they did not bring peace to the plains, for two main reasons: government agents and Indian leaders interpreted the treaties differently, and not all Plains Indians were represented at the Medicine Lodge council.
For starters, the Cheyenne and Arapaho either misinterpreted or disagreed with the location of their new reservation, and so for two years they did not have one. In a letter to the interior secretary in August 1869, new Indian affairs commissioner Ely S. Parker wrote that the tribes not only “did not understand the location of the reservation,” but also “had never been upon said reserve” and “did not desire to go there.” Instead, Parker recommended another location that the Indians selected along the North Fork of the Canadian River. President Ulysses S. Grant immediately approved the new reservation.
In addition, although the treaties provided for blacksmiths, agricultural equipment, and housing on the reservations, most Plains Indians neither wanted nor intended to use any of those resources. Most considered the reservation or agency to be a seasonal gathering place instead of a permanent home. Kiowa and Comanche, for example, continued to live off the reservation, hunting bison and taking cattle and other livestock from white settlements.
Meanwhile, by the time of the Medicine Lodge Treaties, the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers’ strong alliance with the Lakota had made them into the region’s premier fighting force. They had no interest in a peace treaty; neither did the Kwahada band of Comanche, who still held some power on the southern plains.
Having failed to control the Plains Indians by treaty, the government again used force. In 1869 it built Fort Sill, a military post in southern Indian Territory, in an attempt to discourage raiding. Later that year, the army decisively defeated the Dog Soldiers at Summit Springs in northeast Colorado.
By then, however, President Grant was pursuing a “peace policy,” preferring cultural warfare over military campaigns. Mandatory boarding-school education, as described in the Medicine Lodge Treaties, played a central role in what was in effect the government’s campaign of cultural genocide.
While their children were sent off to schools to be stripped of their culture, American Indians saw their reservation lands further reduced under the Dawes Act of 1887 and in the runup to the creation of the state of Oklahoma in 1907.
Today, the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho people continue to live on the reservation established for them in the aftermath of the Medicine Lodge Treaties.