Throughout the world, gold has been a symbol of wealth and power. It has been revered, worshiped, and sought after for thousands of years. Gold was among the earliest metals used by humans. It is relatively easy to work, and, unlike many other metals, it can be found in a pure state. Gold’s initial use was probably ornamental. Gold, of course, was one of the powerful motivators of the European invasion of the Americas, the extermination of Native Americans, and the establishment of Indian reservations in the United States.
In the 1860s, the discovery of gold in Montana brought an invasion into American Indian lands. While the treaties between the Indian nations and the United States clearly indicated that reservations had been set aside for the exclusive use of Indians, the United States government had more empathy for the trespassing miners and generally ignored the law. Indian people, on the other hand, were sometimes less than passive about the destruction of their lands and animals and defended themselves by attacking some of the miners.
In 1862, gold was discovered in Montana’s Blackfoot country. In his book Mission Among the Blackfeet, Howard Harrod reports:
“The prospectors invading the country increased the Blackfoot hatred of whites and confirmed their fears of white designs upon their land.”
In his 1936 Master of Arts thesis History of the Blackfeet Indians Until 1907 for the University of Oklahoma, Charles Forbes reports:
“In the summer of 1862 between five and six hundred white persons passed through Fort Benton. Many of them were unfriendly toward the government, and fostered a similar prejudice among the Indians.”
Also in 1862, gold was discovered on Grasshopper Creek and soon American miners were invading Indian territory despite treaty agreements that were intended to keep non-Indians out. The gold discovery resulted in heavy traffic along the Montana Trail between Salt Lake City and the gold fields. The Trail passed through Shoshone territory in Utah and Idaho. In his book Chief Pocatello, Brigham Madsen reports:
“The Indians resented the new intrusion and were intrigued by possibilities for plunder of the relatively small and unprotected miners’ parties.”
In response to the surge of miners, the town of Bannack, Montana was established and about 500 miners spent the winter there. Several lodges of Lemhi Shoshone under the leadership of Chief Snag camped near the town.
By 1863, the miners were seeking an easier, faster way to reach the lucrative Montana gold fields. Prospectors coming from the east had to travel by boat to Fort Benton and then overland to the gold camps. Travel along this route was limited to only a few months during the summer. One solution was the Bozeman Trail, also called the Bozeman Road, a route promoted by John Bozeman and John Jacobs. The Bozeman trail started at the Great Overland Trail to Oregon near the present-day town of Douglas, Wyoming and ran north into Montana. While livestock grazing and water were scarce along this route, it was the fastest way to the gold fields. The American prospectors and the road’s promoters were unconcerned that it cut through the buffalo hunting grounds of the Lakota, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne. In his book Autobiography of Red Cloud, War Leader of the Oglalas, Eli Paul writes:
“This incursion into their prime, undisturbed hunting grounds was intolerable.”
Sporadic raids against the American invaders began making travel hazardous. In his book Lost Fort Ellis: A Frontier History of Bozeman, Thomas Rust puts it this way:
“Travel over the Bozeman Trail had agitated local tribes of Sioux and Cheyenne and brought attacks on the settler wagon trains. In response, the army built a series of forts along the trail in Wyoming, but the hostile activities continued.”
By 1865, the gold fields of Virginia City were connected with points east through the Niobrara-Virginia City Wagon Road. The road cut through the hunting grounds of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes.
In 1866, Sioux leader Red Cloud and others met with U.S. officials at Fort Laramie, Wyoming to discuss the Bozeman Trail. General Sherman provided the Indians with goodwill gifts of powder, lead, and food. According to historian Richard Dillon, in his book North American Indian Wars:
“The Government asked permission for emigrants to cross lands recently granted to the Sioux and Cheyenne, but the General also sought permission for three forts to be built on the Bozeman Trail connecting the Platte River with Montana’s mines.”
Red Cloud broke off negotiations because the United States had brought in soldiers to use as a threat of force. In the months that followed, the Oglala and other Sioux tribes engaged in guerrilla war along the Bozeman Trail, making it dangerous to travel.
The army, under orders to protect the gold seekers, established Fort Reno, Fort Phil Kearny, and Fort C.F. Smith along the Bozeman Trail. The army was determined to make the Bozeman Trail a major thoroughfare to the Montana gold fields. The United States government was reeling under the immense financial strain of the Civil War and saw the Montana gold fields as one answer to the financial problems. Jerry Keenan writes:
“Angered by the white presence in Wyoming’s Powder River country, the Sioux raided and harassed wagon trains, army patrols, and civilian employees who operated out of the forts.”
In 1866, the army moved Fort Union, North Dakota downstream on the Missouri River and renamed it Fort Buford. Historian Robert Larson, in his book Gall: Lakota War Chief, writes:
“Although it could be argued that the fort was strictly a defensive military post guarding a possible route to the Montana gold fields, many northern Lakota felt its construction was not in harmony with the treaties drawn up at Fort Rice.”
In 1867, the army established Fort Shaw in Blackfoot territory to provide protection for the American emigrants (i.e., miners and prospectors). In his University of Montana M.A. thesis, The Territorial Governor as Ex-Officio Superintendent of Indian Affairs and the Decline of American-Indian Relations, William Roche reports:
“Fort Shaw’s position on the Sun River crossing near the Mullan Road, enabled the military to intercept any hostile Blackfeet Indians who intended to raid the southern mining camps.”
The building of the fort angered many of the Blackfoot.
Red Cloud’s War—the war between the Sioux and the U.S. Army over the Bozeman Trail, ended in 1868 as the army abandoned all its forts except for Fort Fetterman in Wyoming. The Sioux burned all of the abandoned forts. Writing about the destruction of the abandoned Fort C.F. Smith by Red Cloud and his warriors, James Olson, in his book Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem, reports:
“They were concerned only with destroying the hated symbol of the white man’s invasion of their country, and they did not molest the McKenzie and Story freight train still camped in the vicinity.”
According to the U.S. Constitution, American Indian tribes are considered sovereign nations and during the 1860s Montana gold rush, the United States attempted to establish peace and acquire the rights to the gold by negotiating treaties with the various Indian nations.
In 1865, American negotiators met with the Crow, Gros Ventre, and Assiniboine at Fort Union, North Dakota in an attempt to negotiate a treaty which would provide for a secure road west of the Missouri River to the gold mine fields of Montana and Idaho.
That same year the United States met with the Blackfoot and the Gros Ventre in treaty council in an attempt to convince them to move their southern boundary north to the Teton River in order to allow American settlers, primarily miners and prospectors, to move in. The Americans promised the chiefs that they would be paid an additional annual sum for signing the treaty. After signing the treaty, Little Dog, the head chief of the Piegan Blackfoot, said:
“We are pleased with what we have heard today... The land here belongs to us, we were raised upon it; we are glad to give a portion to the United States, for we get something for it.”
As with all Indian treaties, the Americans assumed that it was immediately binding for the Indians, but it had to be ratified by the Senate before it would become binding to the United States. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, in retaliation for Blackfoot and Blood war parties which killed miners who were trespassing in Indian territory, refused to recommend ratification to the Senate. When the government refused to ratify the treaty, the Blackfoot decided that the government had lied to them.
In 1868, the American treaty negotiators met with representatives from the Blackfeet Confederacy, Gros Ventre, and River Crow at Fort Benton, Montana. The reason for the new treaty, according to the Montana Post, was that the current treaty needed to be changed “because the gold discoveries created valuable assets which should be taken from the Indians.” While the Montana press lauded the treaty as being advantageous to the Americans, transferring wealth from Indians to non-Indians, John Lepley, in his book Blackfoot Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri, writes:
“Again, the Indians were left disgusted with the terms they were forced to accept.”
While they negotiated a series of land sessions, the treaties were not ratified by the Senate. The annuities promised to the Indians were never delivered.
More American Indian histories
Indians 101: Suppressing Indian religions in Montana in the nineteenth century
Indians 101: Religion on the Fort Hall Reservation, 1869 to 1899
Indians 101: The Methodists Run the Siletz Reservation
Indians 101: The Lame Cow War
Indians 201: The Puget Sound War
Indians 101: The Fur Trade in Northwestern Montana, 1807-1835
Indians 101: A Crow Uprising
Indians 101: The Kickapoo and the War Against Texas