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Red Cloud’s War




The First Nations who lived beyond the Great Lakes were spared mass migration of Europeans into their lands until the mid 19th century, thanks to the vast distance and hostile nations further east. However the foreigners’ influence could still be felt thanks to the Fur Trade. The Ojibwe, armed with guns and steel by their French business partners, pushed west from the shores of Lake Superior in search of fresh hunting grounds. Thanks to their technological advantage, Ojibwe The Lakota's ancestors originally lived around the Great LakesThe Lakota's ancestors originally lived around the Great Lakes bands defeated or displaced any nations who violently opposed their westward migration. Among the displaced peoples were the ancestors of the Lakota. Despite their exile, the Lakota adapted to life on the plains, made even easier by the introduction of the horse in the 1730s. As they grew in size and power, the Lakota began to expand their territory west. Their migration provoked wars with the neighbouring peoples, many of whom were displaced. By 1776, their battle hardened warriors pushed the Cheyenne out of the Black Hills, which became the centre of the Lakota world.

However the Lakota’s dominant position on the Plains would face a serious challenge in the mid 1800s, when yet another well armed rival emerged from the east: the United States of America. Though the two nations both attempted to use diplomacy to resolve differences between them, by the 1840s an increasing number of American settlers began passing through Lakota territory in search of gold and land further west. In 1851, the Americans invited chiefs from many nations to sign a treaty at Fort Laramie, hoping it would end the Indigenous rivalries which threatened their interests. As skirmishes began to break out between the Lakota and the settlers, the American army started to impose their laws and sense of justice on the First Nations. These intrusions into Lakota life would end in bloodshed. By 1866 between the Americans the First Nations of the Plains grew so intense that the Lakota allied with their former rivals, the Cheyenne and Arapaho, to create a united front against the Americans. In this time of turmoil, Chief Red Cloud emerged as the foremost leader of Lakota resistance.



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Conflict Category: Regional War



Flag for Lakota

After being driven from their woodland home in Minnesota by bands of well armed Ojibwe, the Lakota had adapted to life on the Great Plains and thrived. During the 18th century, they conquered their way west and claimed the sacred Black Hills as part of their territory. By 1860 however, Lakota power was being eclipsed by the United States of America and their allies the Crow.


United States of America

Flag for United States of America

In 1803, the United States purchased France’s claim to a vast territory to their west, called Louisiana. This epic land deal began a prolonged period of violent expansion by the American republic. After they failed to take Canada from Britain during the War of 1812, the United States set their sights on Mexico’s northern territories, and the Indigenous peoples who called Louisiana home.



  • Cheyenne
  • Dakota
  • Arapaho

United States of America

  • Crow
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Pivotal Battle

The Fetterman Fight — Dec 21 1866
Dec 21 1866

Even though the United States had thousands of soldiers at their disposal and a massive industrial capacity, the Lakota posed a significant threat to American expansion. Highly mobile and accustomed to surviving off the land, the Lakota could out manoeuvre the American army and isolate their scattered forts until they were starved into surrender. Lakota leaders like Red Cloud also learned how to use the American army’s sense of superiority against them. On December 21st, Red Cloud lured eight American troopers out of Fort Phil Kearny with a decoy party led by Crazy Horse, a future Lakota resistance leader. When the troopers, led by Captain Fetterman, rode out to hunt the Lakota down, they ran straight into Red Cloud and two thousand allied warriors. The Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho encircled and overwhelmed the Americans, scalping and mutilating their bodies as retribution for an American perpetrated massacre at Sand Creek, Colorado.


Following the Fetterman Fight, the American government struggled to protect railroad construction and send expeditions to punish the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Though the Americans were able to score a minor victory at the Wagon Box Fight in the summer of 1867, the Lakota and their allies continued to raid and ambush any targets of opportunity. As they would during the Vietnam War, the American army faced domestic opposition over the indiscriminate killing of civilians. By 1868, the Americans, the Lakota and their allies were ready to seek peace.

At Fort Laramie the warring parties negotiated a new treaty, in which Washington agreed to respect Indigenous control of the Black Hills and Powder River regions, shut the Bozeman trail to settlers and dismantle several forts protecting the route.

It seemed as though Red Cloud had succeeded in ensuring a bright future for the Lakota and their allies, but the lure of gold would end the peace just eight years later. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the ensuing rush of settlers provoked the Great Sioux War, the final conflict between the Lakota and the United States.

Notable Commanders

Red Cloud

During the 1860s, Lakota chief Red Cloud proved he was one of the greatest threats to American dominance, when he led a coalition of former rivals. A charismatic leader and skilled diplomat, Red Cloud also proved himself to be a cunning commander, when he engineered a devastating ambush called the Fetterman Fight. This devastating loss, combined with a sustained guerrilla campaign, would force the Americans to sign a new treaty respecting Lakota land and autonomy.

United States of America
William Fetterman

Rewarded for his gallantry during the Civil War, William Fetterman’s service did not prepare him for Red Cloud’s War. Confident he could “ride through the Sioux nation” with just 80 men, Fetterman fell for Red Cloud’s trap outside Fort Phil Kearny. Fetterman and his entire command of 79 men were encircled by 2000 warriors and annihilated. The Death of Fetterman and his man was a serious blow to the American war effort and just two years after his death, Red Cloud’s War was over.

Key Weapons

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