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Red Cloudfree

(1822–10 December 1909)
  • Catherine Price

Red Cloud.

Photographic print, late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-91032).

Red Cloud (1822–10 December 1909), Oglala Lakota war leader and chief, whose tribal name was Mahpiya Luta, was born on the Smoky Hill River in Kansas, the son of Lone Man and Walks As She Thinks. Two loose associations of Oglala bands ( tiyospaye), nominally led by Bull Bear and Smoke, Red Cloud’s uncle, frequented the Upper Platte River valley in the 1830s, trading buffalo robes for Euroamerican goods at Fort William (Laramie). Petty rivalries that had been simmering between the two groups came to a boil in November 1841 with the murder of Bull Bear at the hands of Red Cloud. Some accounts contend that Red Cloud plotted Bull Bear’s murder in order to assume the older man’s status as chieftain; this implication is plausible only if it is true that the Oglalas willingly followed a small governing elite. Documentary evidence indicates that although Bull Bear’s constituency was large, his supporters remained with him only as long as he could promote their best interests. At the time of Bull Bear’s demise, Red Cloud would have been a young warrior not yet twenty years of age, hardly old enough to have won widespread recognition and respect as an Oglala band chief—a symbolic father whose primary responsibilities included redistributing wealth and providing for the welfare of the poor and sick.

The death of the influential chief Bull Bear generated an unprecedented schism in Oglala society. Oglala bands divided into two major divisions, eventually dominated by the Kiyuksa band (Bull Bear supporters) to the south and the Bad Faces band (Smoke supporters) to the north. Shortly after Bull Bear’s death, Red Cloud began to lead his first war parties against the Pawnees, Shoshonis, and Crows, and by 1861 he had become a prominent Oglala war leader (blotahunka). The band had not yet acknowledged him as a tiyospaye chief, however.

In 1863 Americans constructed the Bozeman Road, linking the old Oregon Trail to the mining settlements of the Montana Territory. This invasion into some of the best Powder River hunting grounds prompted a number of Lakota (also known as the Teton Sioux) bands to advocate armed resistance against the intruders. The U.S. Congress had earlier awarded a construction contract to James A. Sawyer for an additional wagon road north of the Upper Platte River, and in the summer of 1865 Red Cloud attracted the attention of U.S. leaders by strongly warning Sawyer not to enter the Lakotas’ northern hunting grounds.

The U.S. government sent the Taylor Commission to settle the matter in June 1866. Assembled at Fort Laramie, these federal emissaries met with representatives of various Lakota bands, hoping to obtain their consent to the construction of roads and posts through their Powder River domains. During the formal treaty proceedings, tribal councilors discovered that Colonel Henry B. Carrington, commanding several hundred troops of the Eighteenth U.S. Infantry, had already been dispatched to the disputed territory. Presuming that Carrington’s detail had entered Sioux land to build roads and garrisons without tribal permission, the Lakota war faction, led primarily by Red Cloud, became enraged. Rejecting the proposed peace treaty, Red Cloud and several chiefs withdrew immediately from the council arena and led approximately one thousand warriors to the Powder River country. Six months later, a Lakota war party annihilated eighty soldiers under the command of Carrington’s subordinate Lieutenant Colonel W. J. Fetterman.

After the war faction had departed, the Taylor Commission concluded a treaty primarily with southern Oglalas and Brulés, who consented to the erection and occupation of three posts along the Bozeman Road: Fort Philip Kearny, Fort C. F. Smith, and Fort Reno. However, the treaty was never ratified and failed to prevent warfare from resuming on the northern Plains. For almost two years after the Fort Laramie council, several Lakota bands successfully prosecuted what many historians have termed “Red Cloud’s War,” finally forcing the United States to abandon the Bozeman posts in the summer of 1868. Lakota customs permitted warriors to decide individually when, where, and with whom they wished to fight. Moreover, the warriors often sought the advice and cooperation of tribal elders during periods of protracted warfare. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Red Cloud alone masterminded the entire two-year conflict. Clarence Three Stars, an Oglala interpreter, claimed in the late 1800s that while Red Cloud’s reputation as a fearless warrior was unchallenged, his social status at this juncture did not equal that of Young Man Afraid of His Horse, the most prominent of the northern Oglala chiefs. American leaders, however, singled out Red Cloud as the “head chief” of the Sioux, who they believed wielded considerable decision-making authority over all Sioux bands.

In the wake of “Red Cloud’s War,” American leaders drafted a new peace treaty, which included a provision for the establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. At several independent councils convened throughout 1868, a number of Lakota chiefs, headmen, and renowned warriors, including Red Cloud, signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Although many Oglala councilors did not consider Red Cloud a tiyospaye chief, they accepted his new role as principal Oglala spokesman for the treaty bands during subsequent negotiations with the United States. In these negotiations, Red Cloud frequently expressed his desire for peace but repeatedly explained that his duties as primary council spokesman did not empower him to make unilateral decisions for all the bands or to control Lakota warrior societies. However, since many American citizens viewed Red Cloud as the personification of Sioux leadership, they believed he could compel the Oglalas to accept reservation life and to undergo the process of “Americanization.”

While employees of the Office of Indian Affairs endeavored to settle the Oglalas on the reservation during the early 1870s, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills generated waves of Euroamerican migration into Lakota country. In 1875 federal negotiators attempted to persuade the Sioux to sell the Black Hills and failed, and by the following year, tensions between the Lakotas and the United States had erupted into another full-scale war, culminating in Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn. Although Red Cloud did not participate in the Sioux War of 1876, military top brass contended that he had turned against the United States. Thus, Brigadier General George Crook ordered Colonel Ranald Mackenzie to disarm and dismount Red Cloud’s band along with the followers of Red Leaf, a Brulé chief. The general also tried, though unsuccessfully, to “depose” Red Cloud by denouncing him as a traitor to the American people and decreeing that the president of the United States would no longer honor him as “head chief” of the Sioux.

The surrender of the young war leader Crazy Horse in the fall of 1877 marked a turning point in the Lakotas’ relationship with the United States. With their military might smashed, the Oglala Sioux were confined to the Pine Ridge agency, and in March 1879 they met their new government agent, Valentine T. McGillycuddy, a former army surgeon. Within months, a political struggle had developed between McGillycuddy and Red Cloud, whom McGillycuddy identified as the leader of the “nonprogressives”—a caucus highly critical of the government’s program of acculturation. By this time, Red Cloud claimed supporters not only among the Bad Faces but also among several other reservation bands. Between 1879 and 1886, Chief Red Cloud convened numerous councils and initiated several petitions in his persistent attempts to oust McGillycuddy.

Federal policymakers had decided by 1882 that the Great Sioux Reservation contained more land than the Lakota people needed. Thus, they advocated dividing it into six smaller reserves and negotiating for the cession of “surplus” lands to the public domain. Moreover, the six Lakota reservations would be further divided into individual plots of land under the Dawes Act of 1887. During his protracted dispute with agent McGillycuddy, Red Cloud, with the steadfast support of his wife Wetamahecha (Mary), apparently the chief’s only spouse, continued to challenge these policies. So fervidly did Red Cloud fight for the preservation of Lakota lands that American officials labeled him an “obstructionist.” However, despite opposition from Red Cloud and other prominent Lakota leaders, Congress proceeded in 1889 with its program to break up the Great Sioux Reservation, to force allotments on the Lakotas, and to open up “surplus” lands to homesteaders. Red Cloud and many of his peers resisted allotment for years, but in 1905, frail and virtually blind, the chief finally accepted an individual plot of land.

In April 1897 Red Cloud paid the last of several personal visits to Washington, D.C. Speaking in behalf of his followers, Red Cloud informed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that his people opposed the policy of land allotment. Although the U.S. government no longer considered him an influential chief, Red Cloud’s kinsfolk, including many of his former detractors, had grown to respect him for his devotion to protecting Oglala land.

On 4 July 1903, Red Cloud ceremoniously bestowed his chieftainship on his son, Jack, the most well known of Red Cloud’s five children. Six years later Red Cloud died at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and was buried at Holy Rosary Mission cemetery with the full rites of the Catholic church, some of whose teachings he had incorporated into traditional Lakota beliefs.


Manuscript sources on Red Cloud are at the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln and the National Archives. Pertinent secondary works include George E. Hyde, Red Cloud’s Folk: A History of the Oglala Sioux (1937), and James C. Olson, Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem (1965). An obituary is in the New York Times, 11 Dec. 1909.