The Treaty of Fort Wise was an agreement between the US government and the Cheyenne and Arapaho people who lived on the western Great Plains in present-day Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The treaty was signed in 1861 and reduced the territorial lands previously granted to the Cheyenne and Arapaho under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
The Fort Wise treaty established the Reservation of the Arapaho and Cheyenne of the Upper Arkansas, and revised their claim to include an area between the Arkansas River and the Sandy Fork of the Arkansas River (now known as Sand Creek). The treaty was in response to increased conflicts between the Indigenous nations on the Great Plains and early Colorado settlers and was an antecedent to one of the most horrific events in Colorado history, the Sand Creek Massacre.
By 1860 eastern Colorado (then comprising parts of the Kansas, Nebraska, and New Mexico Territories) was a popular place. Gold was discovered on Little Dry Creek along the Colorado Front Range in 1858, and along Clear Creek and in South Park shortly thereafter. The appeal of easy gold lured many immigrants who sought their fortunes in the Rocky Mountains. Under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were granted the lands between the Arkansas and North Platte Rivers (including most of the Colorado Front Range) in exchange for allowing safe passage to travelers along the Oregon Trail. The treaty did not grant travelers authority to settle or mine for gold within the designated Native American area. Since the continuous influx of miners onto their lands caused tensions and conflicts, the territorial administrators pressured the US government to renegotiate the 1851 treaty and redefine Cheyenne and Arapaho lands to allow for continued settlement of the gold-rich Rocky Mountains without fear of violence.
To this end, the US government sent Alfred Burton Greenwood, the commissioner of Indian affairs, to Bent’s New Fort in the fall of 1860 to negotiate the treaty. After gathering the local Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs from their villages, Greenwood insisted negotiations begin. Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, however, protested since under Cheyenne political doctrine all tribal and military leaders (most of whom were not in attendance) must be consulted before the treaty could be consummated. Despite these objections, the treaty was signed at Fort Wise, a military fort less than a mile west of Bent’s New Fort, on February 15, 1861. In attendance that day were several US officials, including later Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart and eleven Native American leaders, among them Little Raven, Storm, Shave-Head, Left Hand, and Big-Mouth (Arapaho), and Black Kettle, White Antelope, Lean Bear, and Little Wolf (Cheyenne).
The treaty itself contains twelve articles and outlines the specific terms of the agreement. In effect, the United States agreed to establish the Reservation of the Arapaho and Cheyenne on the Upper Arkansas and provide the tribes with the funds and resources in exchange for their abandonment of their hunting and gathering livelihoods in favor of an agricultural economy. The United States also agreed to protect the Cheyenne and Arapaho, their persons and property, during periods of “good behavior.”
The Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs in attendance signed the treaty, though many would later say they did not understand the terms, and did not intend to cede the lands granted them under the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. The majority of the Cheyenne and Arapaho did not move to the reservation, and conflicts between settlers and Indigenous people continued, ultimately reaching a boiling point with the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864.