Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Story of Red Cloud

The Heart of Everything That Is, by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

The subject of this book, Red Cloud, is less known than Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, though they fought in some of the same battles against US forces. This history captures the period of time starting in 1851 when the tribes came to Fort Laramie to parlay with Congressional representatives, up to Red Cloud’s emergence as a pre-eminent warrior and war chief through his victory against the Cavalry in Wyoming at Fort Phil Kearny in 1866.

Unlike most of the Indians, who preferred to ride in fast, steal horses or kill braves or kidnap women, then go back home, Red Cloud studied the strategies of the whites and applied them in battles against them. He did not trust the whites. At one point he said, “They kept only one of their many promises to us. They said they would take our land, and they did.” Some he respected as warriors, but for the most part he recognized that the tribes would always be overmatched: the whites seemed in neverending supply, and they had better guns.

Red Cloud was an upstart. His father was an alcoholic, and this disadvantaged him in tribal culture. But he was brave and adept, and earned the respect of his band despite enduring slights that must have rankled. The first part of the book chronicles his development into a leader, and his relationships with young Crazy Horse, the better-connected Sitting Bull, and other chiefs.

The meat of the story, however, is the US Army’s establishment of the Bozeman Trail, threading from Fort Laramie north and west, through the Bighorn Mountains of north central Wyoming, to the gold fields in Montana. Prospectors and the merchants who followed used this route, but without Army protection were being killed in lands previously ceded to the Sioux. So the Army drew their map, and situated Fort Phil Kearny in the Bighorns. From the start the outpost was understaffed, undersupplied, and its recruits, fresh from the Civil War, unprepared for harsh winters or isolation.

The officers in command, Colonel Carrington, who took a defensive posture against the Sioux, and Captain Fetterman, fresh from Civil War service and eager for battle and promotion, who preferred attack over waiting to be picked off, underestimated Red Cloud again and again. When they did finally muster to ride out against the tribes, most of the post’s men were massacred.

The authors are sympathetic to the Indians, describing the introduction of smallpox, cholera, and measles; liquor; and slaughter of the buffalo, making clear the genocidal character of white advancement westward. Attempts to appease the tribes were only stopgaps until they could be subdued by starvation, disease, and some of the harshest winters in recent centuries. Every treaty was broken when whites found reason to covet lands ceded to the Indians, including the “Heart of Everything That Is,” Paha Sapa: the Black Hills. Red Cloud beat the whites at their own game for a while, but he too was eventually pushed onto Pine Ridge Reservation. Read it and weep.