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The Colorado War (1863?1865) was an armed conflict between the United States and a loose alliance among the Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes of Native Americans (the last two were particularly closely allied). The war was centered on the Eastern Plains of the the Colorado Territory and resulted in the elimination of all Native American presence from present-day Colorado and their removal to present-day Oklahoma The war included a particular notorious episode in November 1864 in known as the Sand Creek Massacre. The battle, initially hailed by the U.S. press as a great victory, was later learned to be an of genocidal brutality. The resulting hearings in the United States Congress regarding the malfeasance of the U.S. Army commander John Chivington were a watershed in the white views of the Indian Wars at the close of the American Civil War. In 1868 the U.S. Army, led by George Armstrong Custer, renewed the conflict against the Arapaho and Cheyenne at the Battle of Washita River.
The war was fought over the ability of the Plains tribes to maintain control of the bison migration grounds on the High Plains in the upper valleys of the South Platte, Republican, Smoky Hill and Arkansas River valleys, at the edge of the plains where they meet the Rocky Mountains. In the first Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851), the Cheyenne and Arapaho had agreed to accept as their designated hunting grounds the Eastern Plains between the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers.
The area was of little use to white settlers before 1859, when the Colorado Gold Rush brought the first large numbers of settlers to the Colorado Piedmont along the mountains, inundating the designated Native American lands with settlers and prospectors. The new settlers demanded that federal government extinguish the Native American claims,and in the autumn of 1860, federal agents openened negotiations with factions of the two tribes at a council along the Arkansas River. At the council, the Cheyenne and Arapaho agreed to surrender all their former hunting lands except for a triangular reservation, the Sand Creek Reservation, between the Arkansas River and Sand Creek. Moreover, the tribes would be converted from nomadic hunting to a farming lifestyle. The new reservation, instead of being an open hunting territory, would be surveyed and divided among the tribal members, with each member receiving 40 acres (160,000 m?) of land. Moreover, the federal agents promised that each tribe would receive a 30,000 USD subsidy for 15 years, as well as a grist mill, saw mill, and schools.
The policy of promoting a peaceful transition to farming, to which the tribes agreed, was thwarted in many cases by mismanagement and malfeasance of the politically-appointed federal agents. One notorious example was Samuel Colley, the federal agent of the Upper Arkansas during the early 1860s, who became known for his misappropriation of tribal goods, which he sold through his son Dexter, a trader.
The conflict occurred during the last two years of the American Civil War. The same units of the Colorado Volunteers of the U.S. Army fought in both this war and as well as spearheaded the Union counterattact in the the New Mexico Campaign against the Confederate Army.
The leader of the Cheyenne during this time was Black Kettle. Friday was a leader of the Arapaho centered around the Cache la Poudre River near present-day Laporte. The war was seen by the whites as a counterattack in retaliation for Cheyenne and Arapaho attacks on the Overland Stage routes and emigrant parties along the South Platte. The Plains tribes, prevented from going further west into the mountains by the Utes, regarded it as a last-ditch effort to retain control of a sufficient hunting area of bison and other game.
By the early 1860s, relations between the Sioux and the United States on the northern Great Plains had deteriorated substantially (see Sioux Uprising). Prior to this time, white emigrants passed relatively harmoniously through the area (known scornfully as the Great American Desert) on their way along the California, Mormon, and the Oregon trails. After 1860, the discovery of gold in the Rockies, as well as the growing westward encroachment of homesteaders across the 100th meridian west, led the Sioux and their related tribes to progressively resist further white use of the area. Especially troublesome from their vantage point was the slicing up of the bison herd by the increasingly heavily-used trails, as well as the development of new ones that further sliced the herds. The Colorado War marked the spreading of the trend among the Plains Tribes southward along Rockies, to the area passed by the trails. As a result, the United States Army, by then charged with overseeing the emigration routes, shifted the trails southward along the South Platte across present-day northeastern Colorado, then crossing up to the Laramie Plains (the Overland Trail).
The Cheyenne and Arapaho had previously yielded a large area of the Eastern Plains in 1861 (largely to make room for the gold rush). The increased traffic in the area resulted in attacks by, most notoriously by the Kiowa, who were regarded as historically one of the most antagonistic tribes to white encroachment of any kind. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, a pair of closely related Algonquian-speaking tribes who migrated westward from the Great Lakes area in the 18th century, were regarded as not as interested in conflict with the whites. They were somewhat caught in the crossfire of the war, but ironically suffered the most notorious losses. The participation of the U.S. Army in the war came to be seen as particularly brutal, forcing the Congress to take an official position condemning the actions of Colonel John Chivington of the Colorado Volunteers. Initial reports in the Rocky Mountain News had hailed Chivington as a great hero. Later more accurate accounts of the battle by survivors on the Cheyenne-Arapaho side reached the U.S. press. The evidence was enough to force Congress to hold hearings on the brutality in the spring of 1865. The Native American version was corroborated by a white Indian agent who survived the battle, whose testimony was printed in the Congressional Review as one of the most critical pieces of such testimony entered into the public record.
The Arapaho, who were largely nonhostile throughout the war, were forced to give up their last territory within the State of Colorado, as were the Kiowa and Comanche. The tribes were forced to Indian territory in present-day Oklahoma. As a result, the only Native American presence remaining in the state was the Utes, regarding whom the U.S. recognized a claim to all lands west of the continental divide.
U.S. Army operations during the war were conducted largely out of Fort Laramie, the regional headquarters of the Army. In the fall of 1863 the fort was commanded by Lt. Colonel William O. Collins of the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. His son Caspar Collins (for whom Fort Caspar) was named) would later be killed in action against the Sioux nearby along the North Platte River in present-day Wyoming. Upon the initial relocation of the stage and emigrant routes southward to Colorado, relations were relatively peaceful between the U.S. and the intermixed tribes of the Arapaho and Cheyenne (they tended to live in bands of their own tribes, but in mixed proximity of camps of bands of the other). The Arapaho wintered in large villages along the Cache la Poudre River where it emerges from the Laramie Foothills. The mountains just to the west were the firm possession of the Utes, who were descendant of the Uto-Aztecan people who had occupied the area for over a millennium.
The Army established Camp Collins, named for the Fort Laramie commander, on the banks of the Poudre near present-day Laporte in early 1864. After a devastating flood in June, the Army relocated their camp southeast to high ground on the Poudre at present-day Fort Collins. The camp was the initially occupied by the 11th Ohio Volunteers, and later by elements of the Kansas Volunteers, both of which were shifted to other duties. The Colorado Volunteers later occupied the post and would see much action in the southeastern areas of the state. The attacks on the stage routes led to a general hostility among the whites in the new Colorado Territory against all Native American presence, no matter how cooperative and benign.
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