History of Wyoming/Native American "Wyoming" to 1868

1866 Johnson Map of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nebraska and Dakota



Before Wyoming became a series of borders within the map of the United States, the land was part of a large expanse known as the great plains. This land was inhabited and traversed by many native tribes before the appearance of European settlers. To assume that all the tribes were the same is a mistake as each tribe had their own culture, rituals, and understanding of nature and life. Some evidence of very old tribes remains in rudimentary cave drawings found in various locations across the state.

Native Wyoming Prior To European Contact


Early Migration


The first people to settle in North America came from Asia by way of the Bearing Strait around twenty-thousand years ago. Archaeological findings date back to eleven thousand years ago for evidence of human inhabitation in the Wyoming area. The Native Americans of Wyoming were nomadic people and moved to where food sources were available, living as hunters and gatherers. By the time the first European settlers came to the area there were around thirteen different tribes such as the Arapaho, Arikara, Bannock, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Nez Perce, Sheep Eater, Sioux, Shoshone, and Ute. Some of the tribes were in conflict over resources, therefore establishing different groups and alliances.

Medicine Wheel

Archaeologists have discovered the Medicine Wheel in Wyoming which was built as a shrine by the Native Americans and gives us an insight into their religious practices. From these findings we can conclude that the tribes were well established and had formed societies complete with chiefs, warriors, and religion before the "white men" arrived.

The first large tribe to make their way into the area of Wyoming was the Shoshone tribe, who entered before the 18th century. Coming from what is now Nevada, it was not until the 1800s that their vast war power was diminished enough for the tribe to be pushed back into the western part of Wyoming (as well as eastern Idaho and southern Montana ). Following the Shoshone, coming from the north-east, were the Arapaho, Crow, and Cheyenne in the 1700s. The final addition to the Wyoming Native Americans was the Lakota Sioux; another vast warrior population, this group allied with both the Arapaho and Cheyenne.

The Cheyenne Tribe

Cheyenne sun dance

The Cheyenne were a nomadic group who moved frequently in pursuit of buffalo. These sudden shifts in location allowed the Cheyenne tribe to view the entire land as a home, which provided food and shelter. The buffalo were their primary source of survival and were used not only as a source of food, but for clothing, shelter and trade. This lifestyle was not easy as the tribe would travel for miles, tracking down the buffalo. Once they had found them, there was a true danger and difficulty in killing them. The Cheyenne people used the lay of the land to their advantage in the hunt. The men would drive the buffalo into a pen made under a bank or a bluff to trap them and then shoot them with their arrows once they had been corralled. Once the killing was done the women had to work fast as the stark heat in the open expanse of land quickly spoiled the meat. As soon as the Buffalo had been butchered, the meat was either dried as jerky or cooked in pots and the hides stretched on pegs to be preserved by the sun. Each part of the buffalo was used and valued. The great plains land also provided other sources of food for the tribe as they travelled. The women would go out to gather wild berries and forage in the ground for root vegetables. The roots were eaten, but were also sold and used for trade. In this way the prairies provided for the tribe.Furthermore the tribe respected the natural elements that sustained their lives.

Among the historical accounts made by white European men there have been conflicting representations of the stability of the political nature of these tribes, with particular reference to the Cheyenne. With such varying reports, it becomes more prudent to focus upon what is fact. As with many large Native tribes, the Cheyenne was broken up into bands. Since the Cheyenne were a matriarchal society a child became part of the band their mother was living in at the time of their birth. It was not uncommon for a child to belong to a different band than their mother. With relation to marriage, a Cheyenne was not allowed to marry within their own band, and once married, the husband would come to join the bride's band.

Establishing Trade


While most tribes functioned prominently as hunter-gatherer societies, Native Americans of the Great Plains were also craftsmen and artisans. The articles produced were for daily use and also for religious practices. As previously stated, the buffalo herds were bountiful in the Wyoming region before the arrival of European settlers. Buffalo represented a great resource to the Native Americans because they were used as a source for food, clothing and shelter. With the arrival of European settlers, trading became an essential aspect of life for the Native Americans, and trading routes gave way for other settlers to discover America. Some of the Native Americans became guides for traders and trading with other European settlers became a very important element in the Indian way of life. Beaver pelts and buffalo hides were the main products that were traded in exchange for horses, weapons and other articles that would be of benefit to the Native Americans. Because the beaver and buffalo products were in high demand across Europe the animal resources in Wyoming and across North America became exploited and came close to extinction.

The Last of the Buffalo

Since the trading of animal hides declined, other resources such as mineral resources found on the land invited more white European men to come and settle the area thus encroaching on the land of the Native Americans.

After the Civil War ended in the United States, the Great Plains experienced a great migration of people coming to settle Native American lands. This led to incidents of violence becoming more prominent on the Great Plains, where Native Americans would attack travelers and steal their possessions. As many more settlers arrived in the Great Plains, the violence started to escalate between the white men and the Natives. As a result of these conflicts the government of the United States decided to call the tribes’ chiefs in to meet as a council and agree to the terms of a peace treaty. One of these treaties was held at Fort Laramie in September 1851. During this particular treaty the Native Americans promised to end the violence against the white men, accepted the government of the United States and allowed for territories to be drawn up in exchange for the government’s protection and $50,000 in goods for fifty years. The United States government did not comply with the agreed upon conditions of the Fort Laramie treaty and many other treaties and eventually rounded up the Indians who had survived and placed them onto reservations.

American Expansion Into The West


In the centuries following the European discovery of North America, European influence as far west as Wyoming was dominated by the French. They maintained the best relations with Natives, and had ventured the farthest west in search of trade. Following the conclusion of its conquest of New France in 1763, Britain attempted to limit westward expansion by promoting an Indian buffer-zone west of the American colonies. When trading companies still began to move west, Britain promoted French-Canadian voyageurs over their American counterparts, and forbade Americans “the fruits of their success in the Ohio Valley.” These traders’ presence in Wyoming remained limited for decades, for despite the American Revolution, Spanish authority over the Louisiana territory restricted American influence. It was only following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 that Americans gained access to Wyoming. Although large-scale settlement would not occur until later in the century, the American presence in Wyoming following the Louisiana Purchase was significantly unlike that of earlier French or English influences in the area.

Wyoming after the Louisiana Purchase

Map of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase gave Americans unrestricted access to the west, which meant for a much stronger influence over Wyoming than the European fur-trade ever had. It also had allowed Americans to explore out towards the west where despite their trials and tribulations that would result from the elements, animals, the Sioux chiefs and other vigilantes many Americans undertook this harrowing journey. The 1803 “treaty with France did not contain any [definite] boundaries for Louisiana,” and this led to several expeditions to map out the West. In 1807, John Colter left the Lewis-Clarke Expedition to help found a jumping-off for the fur trade in Wyoming. From there he became the first American to “bring back account[s] of the Yellowstone Park Area.” Settlement would not occur for decades, and Wyoming country’s main significance remained as a route connecting the East to the West, especially following the discovery of South Pass and Oregon Trail, which were routes through the Rockies. Wyoming's lack of development during this period is demonstrated by accounts of lone caravans traveling across the Laramie River in 1834 just to rendezvous for the fur-trade.

The first Americans saw ‘wild’ bands of Shoshonis, Crows, Cheyenne, and Arapahos. The 1830s brought the final Indian migration into the area, when in 1834 American trader Robert Campbell invited the Sioux to move into the vicinity of Fort Laramie; this shows that Americans had already claimed political authority over the region. Tension and violence began to emerge in the 1840s as more Americans began making the trip across the Rockies, and rogue Sioux began attacking them. Sioux chiefs explained that they had no control over their younger warriors. These tensions led to a peace council commissioned by the US government and involving over 10,000 Indians on the 1st of September, 1851. High Plains Indians agreed to some fixed boundaries and would allow Americans to build roads. Despite the peace treaty however, violent skirmishes frequently erupted. These were often due to military officers attempting to arrest local Indians for perceived injustices, which then escalated into bloodier conflicts. This periodic violence would gradually culminate into widespread Indian resistance to US encroachment. This resistance is shown by one particular instance in 1864, when thousands of Sioux grouped together to block further caravan travel over the Plains.

Horse Creek Conference

A Meeting for a Later Treaty (Fort Laramie 1868)

Throughout the 1800s the fur trade and western migration began to bring more whites into "Wyoming", leading to growing hostilities as contact between the whites and natives grew more frequent. Forts and roads began to pass through the area and, in 1851, one of the first obvious moves of white control came in what is known as the "Horse Creek Conference". A government-funded conference, co-commissioned by David Mitchell and Thomas Fitzpatrick, the goal of the conference was to create defined 'property' lines for each tribe within the 'Wyoming' area. From the beginning, the conference, set to start on the first of September at Fort Laramie, was plagued with problems. A severe lack of buffalo and no wagon train meant that food at the treaty council would be in short supply for both the natives and the United States representatives. The Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache tribes had refused to come, while the uninvited Shoshone tribe came in great numbers. While en route, the Cheyenne had attacked and scalped two Shoshone warriors, adding to the already hostile relationship that the two tribes shared. Fitzpatrick and Mitchell also feared that the 300 men stationed at Fort Laramie would not intimidate the natives and would be unable to defend the un-walled fort on the open plain if it were to come under attack. These many difficulties caused - among other things - a change of location (30 miles east, at the mouth of Horse Creek on the North Platte River) and a seven day delay.

It was decided that the Platte’s north bank was to be designated for tribal encampments and Horse Creek’s west side to the traders and interpreters. The east side of Horse Creek was then established as the meeting grounds. After smoking from the peace pipe, Commissioner Mitchell informed the council that the government “do not come to you as traders,” and “do not want your land, horses, robes, nor anything you have, but have come to advise with you, and to make a treaty with you for your own good.” After much deliberation over the designated tribal territories, twenty-one chiefs representing the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Assiniboine signed the Horse Creek Treaty on September 17th. Each tribe was meant to select a chief and a couple of tribal men that the government would recognize, and in return the government would give each tribe 50 000 dollars in goods for fifty years, a time frame they changed to ten years after the original contract was signed. As an example of white control over the conference (and by extension the natives) not only were all the boundary lines created with no input from the people from which they would be enforced upon, but when the Sioux had yet to select a single chief, claiming it went against their politics, Mitchell selected one for them. Although the boundary lines were not reservations and, according to Mitchell, were "not intended to take any of [the Natives] lands away or to destroy [their] rights to hunt, or fish, or pass over the country”,this was inevitably the beginning of the white man's control over the lives of these Natives and it would not be long before further freedom was lost. Many more disputes were created later, not only over land, but over the white men not relinquishing the money and gifts that they had promised.

Fort Laramie

Alfred Jacob Miller - Fort Laramie

William Sublette and Robert Campbell established Wyoming’s first trade post, Fort William, in 1834 at the bottom of the Laramie River and the North Platte Rivers. Fort William spanned over 800 miles and became crucial as it was strategically placed geographically, serving as a vast port during the buffalo and fur trade to the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. In 1836 Fort William was sold to an American fur company and subsequently sold in 1849 to the military, which became the Fort Laramie. During its tenure as a military headquarters many people migrated to Fort Laramie causing tensions with Indian Groups to increase. After many years of coinciding with each other, friction between these two parties resulted in the Grattan Massacre.

"Old Fort Laramie."

In 1854 a group of soldiers invaded a large Sioux colony with the intention of arresting a man accused of taking a local cow. After attempted negotiations with the soldiers, Sioux Chief Conquering Bear refused to complete such requests. During a stalemate due to the lack of Indian Agent, a soldier shot Chief Conquering Bear instigating the Lakota and Sioux to retaliate. This invasion was a violation of the Laramie Treaty of 1851, which states any matters in regards to the detainment of a Sioux must involve the local Indian agent on behalf of the United States government. Among other soldiers, the battle resulted in the death of Lieutenant John Grattan, dubbing it the “Grattan Massacre”. The following September, Lieutenant William Harney organized a fleet of combatants to seek out revenge on the Sioux and Lakota people, resulting in the Battle of Ash Hollow. The Grattan Massacre amplified tensions between the military and the Great Plains Indians. This incident, among others, caused warfare in the Great Plains.

A path along the Powder River was created in 1863 by John Bozeman, acting as the most direct route for workers with the prospect of gold. In 1864, due to the massacre of 150 women and children, the Lakota and Arapaho tribes were forced to migrate. The outraged tribe members attacked white settlements along the Powder River in repent for what had been taken from them, eventually creating camps. In 1866 a treaty agreement was called at Fort Laramie in order to secure the safe passage of travellers through the Bozeman Trail, however also gave the U.S. military 700 troops along the Powder River. Insulted, leader of the Lakota tribe Red Cloud declined this treaty beginning a series of attacks known as Red Cloud’s War. The Council’s attempts to bring peace were finally acknowledged in 1868 when the final Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed. The Treaty surrendered Fort Laramie to the military, however it granted the Lakota tribe the Black Hills in order to guarantee the well being of the people.

The South Pass



Markers were situated along the South Pass differentiating the varying paths running through it. This boulder located at the summit of the Pass distinguishes the famous Oregon Trail.

Located along the Continental Divide in Wyoming, the South Pass was absolutely crucial in American history as it created a manageable pathway for settlers and emigrants to travel west. Without its existence, the Northern Pacific of the US would have most likely fallen under control of the British permanently. Not only that, but the southern regions of the country would have similarly remained a part of Mexico. Without the South Pass it is hard to imagine the United States in its present manifestation and ultimately might never have risen as the superpower it has become.

Search For An Alternative Route West


If the United States were to be successful in their expansion west of the Mississippi, a route expediting the tasking journey through the Rocky and Bitterroot Mountains was absolutely imperative. During the early 19th century the only option in moving west was to traverse these mountains directly. This daunting journey nearly ruined the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark. Having run from 1804-1806, Lewis and Clark were forced through the elements, fighting both starvation and the extreme cold. It was clear that a new passage was needed if the US was going to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Discovery Of The South Pass


In 1812, a group of seven men led by Robert Stuart traveled through the South Pass. This represented the first time it had been crossed by those of European descent. The South Pass is a gap between the Central and Southern Rocky Mountains running through the Continental Divide of Wyoming. Stuart and his men used local native knowledge of the Pass to successfully discover and navigate through it. The Pass had been used by local aboriginal groups for millennia prior, but was completely unknown to settlers before 1812. These astorians finished their campaign through the south of the Sweetwater valley, a route that would eventually become the Oregon Trail. Despite Stuart's discovery, the South Pass didn't become widely known and many fur traders continued heading west by way of northern routes.

Rise To Prominence


In 1832, as the Pass was still relatively unknown, Captain Benjamin Bonneville lead the first group to take wagons over the Continental Divide. Following this, in 1836, Marcus Whitman and a number of fellow missionaries, including his wife, traveled across the South Pass, marking the first time a white woman had ever crossed the divide. Within only a few years the South Pass transformed into a emigration highway as it became integrated through a number of prominent trails, most notably the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail was the primary route in travelling between Missouri and Oregon and became very important during the Civil War. The South Pass continued to develop as time passed, becoming an essential route for freight and stage coaches as well. Both the famous Pony Express, delivering mail from Missouri to California, and the transcontinental telegraph line utilized the South Pass. During its peak, from 1841-1869, it is recorded that between 350,000 and 500,000 emigrants passed through the South Pass. Also, the discovery of gold in the South Pass created a temporary boom in the surrounding area mining as much as $15,000 worth of gold in a period of two years. However, the mines were exhausted within only a few years and South Pass City quickly followed suit.

Red Cloud's War




Red Cloud’s War, or the Bozeman War, was a violent conflict that occurred in northern Wyoming from 1866 to 1868. The war occurred between a coalition of native Sioux peoples and the United States government. The allied Sioux forces of the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, and Oglala Lakota peoples initiated hostilities when, during peaceful negotiations with the American government, the US army sent 700 soldiers under Colonel Henry B. Carrington into native territories inside the Powder River Basin. This betrayal of trust offended many in the coalition, who mobilized warriors to punish the offenders. After a crushing military defeat, the United States government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, ceding the entire northeastern section of Wyoming to the Sioux.


John Bozeman, blazer of the Bozeman Trail that would spark Red Cloud's War

In 1863, a pioneer by the name of John Bozeman blazed the Bozeman Trail to connect the well-established Oregon Trail to the gold rush occurring in Montana. Although the most direct route, the trail cut through Arapaho and Lakota hunting grounds. The intrusion aggravated the tribes. The first waves of whites through the trail in 1864 provoked harassment from the American Indians. To crush the native resistance, Colonel John M. Chivington was sent into the region with Colorado volunteer troops that same year. As Chivington and the volunteer troops made their way across the Bozeman trail, 150 peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahos were massacred near Sandy Creek, Colorado. Incensed by this brutality, small conflicts erupted across the Bozeman trail. In an effort to negotiate passage for settlers and prospectors along the Bozeman Trail, the U.S. Interior Department assembled thousands of Oglala Lakota and Brule at Fort Laramie in 1866. Simultaneously, the U.S. War Department sent Colonel Carrington’s men down the Bozeman Trail to construct a series of forts along it. This outraged Red Cloud, an Oglala Lakota leader, who took his people and allies to war against the intruders.

The Conflict


Red Cloud and his men ruthlessly attacked travelers along the Bozemen Trail. The northernmost forts of Phil Kearny and Smith were harassed, with lumber gatherers and livestock being frequent victims. On December 21, 1866, a captain under Carrington, William J. Fetterman, was sent out of Fort Kearny with 80 men to aid an assaulted supply caravan. Despite orders to the contrary, Fetterman pursued Lakota decoys into an ambush that resulted in the total slaughter of him and his men. After the defeat, Carrington was relieved of his command by President Grant. The following year was marked by small, indecisive skirmishes such as the August 2nd Wagon Box Fight. In 1868, Red Cloud and his coalition began negotiations with the US government at Fort Laramie. The Treaty of Fort Laramie was a resounding victory for the native peoples, securing the entire northeastern section of Wyoming as their undisputed territory. The Forts of Kearny and Smith were razed by the coalition after the American forces retreated outside the new borders.



The land was viewed as a living entity that met the fundamental needs of the people and was not an object to be possessed or divided. The tribes did, at times, wage war with one another but it was never because of land disputes. Land was not defined by boundaries until the migration of white settlers to the great plains. It was at this time that the land became politically defined. Modern day Wyoming, with its borders and boundaries, came into existence and little by little the native tribes saw what was once a free expanse of land, divided, sold and made inaccessible to them. The migration patterns of the buffalo were changed by the white settlements, and numerous tribes were forced onto reservations, but the descendants of these tribes preserve the memory of a time when the land was undefined, an endless expanse, a border-less home.