1867 - Great Peace Commission looks for war

General William T. Sherman

        In 1867, a peace commission was dispatched to by lawmakers in Washington to report on the state of the plains Indian.   The commissioners, including generals Harney and Terry, were assisted by Pierre deSmet, and met with chief's Gall, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull.

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          The commissioners told Congress, "Here our civilization made its contract and guaranteed the rights of the weaker party.  We did not stand by those guarantees.  The treaties were broken, but not by the savage."  In other words, as treaty scholar Paul Prucha has written, "The treaty process had developed into a "convenient and accepted vehicle for accomplishing what United States officials wanted to do," whenever it wanted to do it.

         The end of Andrew Johnson's impeachment did not restore order to Washington.  Pressures from the Indian Office forced Congress to ratify the Medicine Lodge treaties in 1867, but on July 27, 1868, Congress turned against the peace commission.  Appropriating $500k to implement the treaties with the plains tribes, Congress specified that the funds be spent under the direction of Sherman.  In other words, writes historian S.J. Killoren, "Congress…handed the Plains tribes over to the army."

Sioux Tipis On The Plains

         Sherman's approach to managing the tribes was Big Stick diplomacy  (threats of force).  When a few Cheyenne and Sioux went on the Smokey Hill trail, Sherman declared: "No better time could possibly be chosen than the present for destroying or humbling those bands that had so outrageously violated their treaties and begun a desolating war without one particle of provocation... I will solicit an order from the president declaring all Indians who remain outside of their lawful reservations to be declared 'outlaws,' and commanding all people - soldiers and citizens - to proceed against them as such."

         Sherman and General Phil Sheridan agreed on a winter offensive, and "like Georgians and Virginians four years earlier, the Cheyenne and Arapahos would suffer total war."  Sherman wrote to Sheridan that he had his full support, and if the winter campaign "results in the utter annihilation of these Indians, it is but the result of what they have been warned again and again."    

         Sherman's views of Indian country were expressed in his annual report to Congress - "they must necessarily yield," just as Andrew Jackson had said thirty years earlier - and the peaceful coexistence promised in the 1851 Horse Creek treaty was now viewed as a pipe dream.  President Grant's attitude toward Indians was, in the beginning, similar to Jackson's: "even if it meant the extermination of the race, the Great Plains were to be secured for emigrants."  But that would change with his peace commission.

         By the fall of 1868, the peace commission was completely dysfunctional as a governmental entity.  Taylor, the president of the commission, was faced with a mutiny.  Nobody, including the president of the U.S., wanted to promote a peace program. 

             Proposals of Sherman, Harney and Terry were carried over the dissenting votes of Commissioner Taylor and Tappan.  Sherman's policy of "peace within the reservations, war without" had been accepted.   Before the commission adjourned Sherman concluded his power sweep.  The commissioner resolved that Taylor, as spokesman for their group, should transmit the commission's resolutions to Grant.  Among those proposals was the recommendation that "the Bureau of Indian Affairs be transferred from the Interior Department to the War Department."

         Indian Commissioner Taylor submitted his annual report with a searing rejoinder of Sherman's last demand, writing with great eloquence:

 "If you wish to exterminate the race, pursue them with the ball and blade; if you please, massacre them wholesale, as we sometimes have done; or, to make it cheap, call them to a peaceful feast, and feed them on beef salted with wolf bane; but, for humanity's sake, save them from the lingering syphilitic poisons, so sure to be contracted about military posts."

         "The passing through their country of a continuous stream of emigrants, dispersing or destroying the buffalo, is one of the causes of great discontent and suffering with them.  Treated thus, and no adequate compensation being made to them for what they have yielded up or lost, their resources of subsistence and trade diminished, with starvation in the future staring them in the face, the wonder is that there prevails any degrees of forbearance on their part, with such provocations to discontent and retaliation."

         Sherman instructed Sheridan to chase down the wandering tribes and "prosecute the war with vindictive earnestness till they are obliterated or beg for mercy."   His orders were followed by a young colonel named Custer, who, almost four years to the day after Sand Creek, wiped out Black Kettle's peaceful camp of women, children, and old people, in a massacre at the Washita River.

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