Signed in 1851, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was made between the US government and several Indigenous nations of the Great Plains—including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota—who occupied parts of present southern Wyoming and northern Colorado. The treaty was part of the government’s efforts to protect a growing stream of whites heading west and to establish a military presence in the region. The treaty gave the Cheyenne and Arapaho sovereignty over the Platte River basin as long as the Indians allowed free passage of white migrants and allowed the government to build roads and forts on their land. However, the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 made the treaty obsolete, as whites moved onto Cheyenne and Arapaho land that was supposedly protected.
During the eighteenth century, disease outbreaks and conflicts over the fur trade disrupted the Indian nations of the upper Midwest, prompting some to abandon the region in search of a better life. The Arapaho and Cheyenne people moved from a relatively settled life in western Minnesota to a more nomadic life in pursuit of bison on the Great Plains. They reached present-day Colorado by the early nineteenth century, after being pushed westward by the Sioux, who also came to occupy the plains of Wyoming and Colorado around the same time.
In 1834, during the height of the fur trade in the American West, American traders William Sublette and Robert Campbell established what became Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming, at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux often gathered there to trade bison robes for weapons, iron cookware, coffee, and other American goods.
In the 1840s, increasing numbers of white migrants began traveling west to settle in the newly acquired territories of Oregon and California. Fort Laramie, then known as Fort John, became a popular waystation for migrants traveling the Great Platte River Road. Their wagon trains drove away game, trampled grazing grasses for bison, and consumed timber and other important resources on the Great Plains. This put the migrants in competition with the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other local Indians.
Initially, Plains Indians attacked the wagon trains, but after intentional shows of force by the US military, Indian leaders took a more diplomatic stance, allowing white travelers passage in exchange for food and gifts. Firearms, for instance, were a valuable gift because they allowed the Indians to more effectively battle their rivals and more efficiently hunt smaller game, as the bison herds were rapidly diminishing.
By 1849, with white migration ramping up during the California Gold Rush, the US government saw the need to establish treaties with Indian Nations across the Plains in order to secure peaceful passage for its citizens and set the stage for the American colonization of the interior West. That year, anticipating the need for a more robust military presence in the region, the government bought Fort John from the American Fur Company and renamed it Fort Laramie; it also pursued negotiations with the Utes, another Indian nation in what became Colorado.
Negotiations at Horse Creek
At the direction of superintendent of Indian Affairs D. D. Mitchell, Indian Agent Thomas Fitzpatrick spent most of 1850 traveling among the various Indian Nations along the Platte Rivers, delivering gifts and inviting leaders to a peace treaty council. The next year, on August 31, more than 9,000 Plains Indians representing nine nations came to the designated treaty campground on Horse Creek, about thirty-five miles east of Fort Laramie.
Negotiations began once Mitchell and Fitzpatrick arrived. Each Indian nation was asked to designate a federally recognized “chief” who would negotiate and sign treaties on behalf of his people. On September 17, the final Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed by leaders of the Arapaho, Arikara, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Shoshone, and Lakota nations. Each nation was assigned a territory that generally overlapped with where its people already lived and hunted, though all nations were permitted to hunt on each other’s land. In exchange for their continued sovereignty over their own affairs, Indian nations agreed to keep the peace between themselves and with Americans, and to allow the government to build forts and roads in their territories. As compensation for previous intrusions on Indian land, the government promised to distribute $50,000 in annuities among all nine nations for ten years, provided they adhere to the terms of the treaty. Each nation then selected delegates to tour the eastern United States; these trips were designed to showcase the wealth and power of the United States so that Indian nations would abide by the treaty.
After issuing a hefty parting gift of food and supplies to each Indian nation in attendance, Fitzpatrick and Mitchell must have thought that the Treaty of Fort Laramie would indeed bring, as the treaty promised, “effective and lasting peace” to the Great Plains. But whatever peace it did bring quickly unraveled over the ensuing decade. As more whites joined the westward migrations during the 1850s, bison and other Plains resources became even scarcer. The Plains Indians grew increasingly dependent upon annuity payments that often failed to materialize or were unevenly distributed among the nations, resulting in starvation and hostility.
The government’s failure to deliver the promised annuities undercut the treaty’s two fundamental goals: to preserve peace between Indian nations and between Indians and whites. As their food sources diminished and government annuities failed to supplement the loss, the Indian nations began to fight each other for the best hunting grounds and raid more wagon trains for supplies.
Colorado Gold Rush and Treaty of Fort Wise
Finally, the discovery of gold near present-day Denver in 1858 set off a new stream of white migrants to Cheyenne and Arapaho land at the feet of the Rockies. The Colorado Gold Rush brought fresh outbreaks of disease to both Indian nations and increased the stress on local resources. It also made the Treaty of Fort Laramie obsolete, as Americans now coveted territory that was supposedly protected under its terms.
To secure the gold fields and the routes leading to and between them, the US government renegotiated with the Cheyenne and Arapaho, who signed the Treaty of Fort Wise in 1861. Unlike the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which allowed Indian nations to retain some measure of sovereignty over extensive territory, the Treaty of Fort Wise relegated the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a much smaller tract in eastern Colorado, where they lived under government supervision.
The new arrangements caused a division within both tribes between those who wanted to fight for control of their land and those who preferred peace through negotiations, however unfair. This split contributed to the increase in hostilities between both tribes and the US military during the 1860s and to atrocities such as the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.