In 1867, a peace commission was
dispatched to by lawmakers in Washington to report on the state of
the plains Indian. The commissioners, including
generals Harney and Terry, were assisted by Pierre deSmet, and met
with chief's Gall, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull.
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commissioners told Congress, "Here our civilization made its
contract and guaranteed the rights of the weaker party. We
did not stand by those guarantees. The treaties were broken,
but not by the savage." In other words, as treaty scholar
Paul Prucha has written, "The treaty process had developed into a
"convenient and accepted vehicle for accomplishing what United
States officials wanted to do," whenever it wanted to do it.
The end of
Andrew Johnson's impeachment did not restore order to
Washington. Pressures from the Indian Office forced Congress
to ratify the Medicine Lodge treaties in 1867, but on July 27,
1868, Congress turned against the peace commission.
Appropriating $500k to implement the treaties with the plains
tribes, Congress specified that the funds be spent under the
direction of Sherman. In other words, writes historian S.J.
Killoren, "Congress…handed the Plains tribes over to the army."
approach to managing the tribes was Big Stick diplomacy
(threats of force). When a few Cheyenne and Sioux went on the
Smokey Hill trail, Sherman declared: "No better time could possibly
be chosen than the present for destroying or humbling those bands
that had so outrageously violated their treaties and begun a
desolating war without one particle of provocation... I will
solicit an order from the president declaring all Indians who
remain outside of their lawful reservations to be declared
'outlaws,' and commanding all people - soldiers and citizens - to
proceed against them as such."
General Phil Sheridan agreed on a winter offensive, and "like
Georgians and Virginians four years earlier, the Cheyenne and
Arapahos would suffer total war." Sherman wrote to Sheridan
that he had his full support, and if the winter campaign "results
in the utter annihilation of these Indians, it is but the result of
what they have been warned again and
of Indian country were expressed in his annual report to Congress -
"they must necessarily yield," just as Andrew Jackson had said
thirty years earlier - and the peaceful coexistence promised in the
1851 Horse Creek treaty was now viewed as a pipe dream.
President Grant's attitude toward Indians was, in the beginning,
similar to Jackson's: "even if it meant the extermination of the
race, the Great Plains were to be secured for emigrants." But
that would change with his peace commission.
By the fall of
1868, the peace commission was completely dysfunctional as a
governmental entity. Taylor, the president of the commission,
was faced with a mutiny. Nobody, including the president of
the U.S., wanted to promote a peace program.
Sherman, Harney and Terry were carried over the dissenting votes of
Commissioner Taylor and Tappan. Sherman's policy of "peace
within the reservations, war without" had been
accepted. Before the commission adjourned Sherman
concluded his power sweep. The commissioner resolved that
Taylor, as spokesman for their group, should transmit the
commission's resolutions to Grant. Among those proposals was
the recommendation that "the Bureau of Indian Affairs be
transferred from the Interior Department to the War
Commissioner Taylor submitted his annual report with a searing
rejoinder of Sherman's last demand, writing with great
"If you wish to exterminate the race, pursue them with the
ball and blade; if you please, massacre them wholesale, as we
sometimes have done; or, to make it cheap, call them to a peaceful
feast, and feed them on beef salted with wolf bane; but, for
humanity's sake, save them from the lingering syphilitic poisons,
so sure to be contracted about military posts."
through their country of a continuous stream of emigrants,
dispersing or destroying the buffalo, is one of the causes of great
discontent and suffering with them. Treated thus, and no
adequate compensation being made to them for what they have yielded
up or lost, their resources of subsistence and trade diminished,
with starvation in the future staring them in the face, the wonder
is that there prevails any degrees of forbearance on their part,
with such provocations to discontent and retaliation."
instructed Sheridan to chase down the wandering tribes and
"prosecute the war with vindictive earnestness till they are
obliterated or beg for mercy." His orders were followed
by a young colonel named Custer, who, almost four years to the day
after Sand Creek, wiped out Black Kettle's peaceful camp of women,
children, and old people, in a massacre at the Washita River.
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