Treaty of Fort Laramie: The beginning of the end for tribes of the high plains

A slightly altered version of this article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise (8/19/07).

Back before DIA and I-25, before skiing and mountain climbing and hiking trails, before Denver and Boulder and Colorado Springs, before Colorado itself, back when this region was still a “howling wilderness,” there was the Treaty of Fort Laramie.There were actually two Fort Laramie treaties— one in 1851 and a second in 1868. The one that impacted the Front Range of Colorado was signed on September 17, 1851 at Fort Laramie, Wyoming.

Early painting of Fort Laramie

Present at the signing were Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho (or “Arrapahoes”), Crow, Shoshone, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations, along with the U.S. Superintendent of Indian Affairs, an Indian agent and a number of translators. The territory covered by the treaty included much of today’s Montana, Wyoming, eastern Colorado (including the Front Range), and the Dakotas.

The purpose of the treaty, from the U.S. perspective, was to ensure safe passage for pioneers heading west to the Oregon territory and other lands newly acquired as a result of the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American war. Gold and silver had not yet been discovered in the treaty territory so the U.S. felt little pain in signing.

The gist of the deal was that each tribe was assigned to a specific section of territory. The tribes would allow whites to build forts and roads and would allow safe passage of all persons traveling through. (Said persons weren’t supposed to stay.) For a period of 50 years, the U.S. would pay each tribe $50,000 per year as an annuity.

Attendees hadn’t figured out that they needed a tent full of lawyers, as they would today, so the details of the treaty are incredibly sketchy. The whole thing is less than 1,200 words. Of special interest to us is the single paragraph in Article 5 that covers the region of eastern Colorado:

“The territory of the Cheyennes and Arrapahoes, commencing at the Red Bute, or the place where the road leaves the north fork of the Platte River; thence up the north fork of the Platte River to its source; thence along the main range of the Rocky Mountains to the head-waters of the Arkansas River; thence down the Arkansas River to the crossing of the Santa Fe road; thence in a northwesterly direction to the forks of the Platte River, and thence up the Platte River to the place of beginning.”

1851 treaty map drawn by Father Pierre de Smet

That north fork of the Platte River starts in southern Wyoming (near Laramie) and heads east into Nebraska. The Arkansas flows across Southern Colorado, through Pueblo. In a nutshell, this paragraph assigns the territory east of the Divide to the Arapaho and Cheyenne Nations.

Unfortunately for them, 1858 saw the discovery of gold and silver in the Front Range. By 1861, a mere ten years after the treaty was signed, 100,000 whites had arrived in the Arapaho and Cheyenne territory and started to dig. Within a couple years, the outnumbered tribes had been forced out, a situation that culminated in the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, but that’s another story.

For more about the Cheyenne and Arapaho, see Forgotten Heroes and Villains of Sand Creek (June 11, 2010).

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