Red Cloud, Great Lakota Warrior, Stateman & Orator
Updated: Sep 17, 2022
Ferocious in battle & one of the most victorious war chiefs, Red Cloud became a fierce champion of his people in their dark days of defeat
Red Cloud was a magnificent leader in war and even more ferocious in defeat. His long life was spent first fighting for his people on the battlefield, then fighting for their land, their livelihood, and their lives after the loss of their freedom. Even as a young man and war leader, he warned against trusting whites and refused to sign early treaties. Early on, he warned his people:
“Friends, it has been our misfortune to welcome the white man. We have been deceived. He brought with him some shining things that pleased our eyes; he brought weapons more effective than our own: above all, he brought the spirit water that makes one forget for a time old age, weakness, and sorrow. If you possess these things, you put away the wisdom of your fathers. You lay up food, and forget the hungry. When your house is built, your storeroom filled, you look around for a neighbor so you can seize all that he has! My countrymen, shall the glittering trinkets of this rich man, his deceitful drink that overcomes the mind, shall these things tempt us to give up our homes, our hunting grounds, and the honorable teaching of our old men? Shall we permit ourselves to be driven to and fro — to be herded like the cattle of the white man?”
Red Cloud was born in 1822 near the forks of the Platte River near modern-day North Platte, Nebraska, of an Oglala Sioux mother and a Brulé Lakota leader. Red Cloud lost his parents around the age of four and was raised by his maternal uncle, old Chief Smoke, who was head of the warrior society, Bad Faces. At a young age, Red Cloud fought with the Bad Faces against the Pawnee and Crow, rode on his first buffalo hunt at age 12, and became a leader of the Bad Faces himself, as a young man.
As a war leader, was a powerful figure. He was over six-feet tall with a powerful build, quietly strong, with a deep, resonant voice that commanded respect. He was an eloquent speaker with a compelling personality and a shrewd strategist. Red Cloud was central in organizing resistance against white expansion into Lakota territory. In the 1860s, the Bozeman Trail was being developed by John Bozeman as a shortcut to the Oregon Trail and newfound gold in Montana territory. The trail cut through Lakota lands.
In addition, the U.S. government was also building new forts along the trail. Red Cloud worked to unite many different Native tribes, especially the various branches of the Lakota and Cheyenne too defeat the soldiers from Fort Kearny. After two years of war against growing U.S. military forces, miners and settlers, Red Clous and his warriors forced the military to abandon their forts and stop building the trail.
When the government sent reinforcements to fight “Red Cloud’s War,” as newspapers across the country called it, the strength of his forces grew. A cocky captain, William J. Fetterman, perhaps as braggadocious as another young officer, George Armstrong Custer, boasted: “With 80 men, I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation.” That arrogance was common among the officer corps of the 1860s and 1870s, but would prove as disastrous in 1866 as the Little Big Horn would be ten years later. On December 21, 1866, less than a dozen Sioux warriors lured the vainglorious Captain and his force of about 80 men into an ambush of nearly 1,000 Native warriors. None of the troops survived and the Fetterman Massacre became one of many defeats levied against the U.S. military against Sioux, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne forces under the brilliant Red Cloud.
In a magnificent turn of events, ultimately the federal government begged for peace and requested that Red Cloud meet to discuss a treaty. Red Cloud presented his demands which included disassembling and abandoning all forts along the Boseman Trail, granting the Lakota a huge tract of land that included their traditional hunting grounds, and the Sacred Black Hills. In return, Red Cloud swore never to wage war again. Red Cloud kept his word, although the government, settlers, ranchers, and miners later violated every aspect of the treaty.
Like Sitting Bull, in war, Red Cloud was one of the Lakota’s most important leaders. During the Lakota’s tragic transition from their free lifestyle on the Plains to their imprisonment on the reservation system, Red Cloud was a steadfast and strategic leader for the Lakota. In 1874, Red Cloud met the famous palaeontologist and geologist Othneil C. Marsh from Yale University, who had first visited the Red Cloud Agency in 1874, and discovered that "the Indians suffered for want of food and other supplies because they were cheated out of annuities and beef cattle and were issued inedible pork, inferior flour, poor sugar and coffee and rotten tobacco.” Red Cloud became a lifelong friend of Dr. Marsh and visited several time at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, to advocate for the Lakota people’s civil right. Dr. Marsh became a strong ally.
In 1875, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and several other Lakota chiefs traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with President Grant to protest the dishonest Indian agent at Red Cloud Agency and horrific living conditions. Red Cloud succeeded in having the crooked Indian agent removed.
In the 1880s, Red Cloud traveled to meet with Dr. Marsh and other scholars several times to seek assistance and advice in improving the lot of the Lakota.
In 1887, Red Cloud vigorously but unsuccessfully opposed the Dawes Act which broke up communal tribal holdings and allocated 160-acre plots of land to heads of families on tribal rolls for subsistence farming. And in 1889, he publicly opposed a treaty to give up more Lakota land.
Late in life, Red Cloud became a very quiet and stoic man of few words but always a straight talker. At one point, he even cut his hair and wore white men’s suits when meeting with dignitaries to advocate for his people, thinking white leaders could relate to him better if he looked like them. But he was soon disabused of that thinking by the repeated duplicity of whites and returned to his old tribal ways and attire.
He died at Pine Ridge Reservation in 1909 at the very ripe old age of 88. Newspapers across the country heralded Red Cloud’s accomplishments and called him the most famous Native American leader of the 1800s, rivaling Sitting Bull.
Near the end of his life, he was quoted about his long, troubled relationship with whites: “The white man made us many promises---—more than I can remember. But he never kept but one. He promised to take our land, and he took it.”
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• “Sitting Bull, Immortal Native Icon”
“Red Cloud, Great Lakota Warrior, Statement and Orator” was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on August 15, 2021
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