The Indian Wars - Part One (January 13, 2019)
The Arikara War of 1823
(The U.S. Army’s Punitive Expedition)
The Captain’s Book Shoppe maintains a vast stock of military history concerning the Indian Wars. If you are looking for an unbiased portrayal of the conflict between the Indians and the U.S. Army, a great beginning is William R. Nestor’s Book, The Arikara War- The First Plains Indian War, 1823. The abridged version of that conflict is the subject of this essay. The 1823 flare-up highlights the U.S. Army’s military technique of that time period called the punitive expedition.
The goal of any punitive expedition was to inflict punishment. The theory was simple. Its application was complicated. The army repeatedly found it difficult to identify the guilty and thus resorted to mass punishment. The army issued punishment to the Indians; not to the other side of the conflict, the non-Indians. Mobile warriors were hard to locate, but the villages were easier to find. Punishing the warrior often became targeting what the warrior needed, his logistical base of operations and the people working in and around it. The army resorted to destroying the warriors’ capacity to make war. Those things were food, horses, weapons, and shelter. Destroying an Indian camp had all those things. The one factor which the army employed to bring the Indians to a European linear style of battle was posturing to attack an Indian village. The warriors naturally came forth to stand between the village and the soldiers, creating a delaying action to allow their families to flee. Punitive expeditions were a type of total warfare. The entire Indian society was attacked and affected.
The first punitive expedition west of the Mississippi River by federal U.S. troops was led by Colonel Henry Leavenworth from Fort Atkinson. Five wounded trappers arrived at the fort on 18 June 1823 from the Yellowstone Packet keelboat. The boat also carried forty-three former Rocky Mountain Fur Company employees that had quit after an Arikara Indian attack up river on the 2nd of June. Fifteen trappers out of the original ninety had been killed along with nine wounded. The trappers expected federal army assistance in punishing the Arikara.
Two major periods of violence occurred during the Arikara war. The first was in early June of 1823 which historians Gregory and Susan Michno termed ‘Ashley’s Fight.’ The Arikara Indians soundly defeated the Missouri Fur Trading party of ninety frontiersmen and boatmen. The second period occurred on August 9-10, 1823 when the U.S. Army’s federal 6th Infantry, multiple armed groups from the Missouri Fur Company and allied Sioux Indians banded together in a punitive expedition against the Arikara Indians. None of the events rose to an irritation level within the U.S. Congress for them to declare war in accordance with the U.S. Constitution, but it became known as a war.
Punitive expeditions generally started from base camps such as forts. The forts were often a great distance from the Indians that required punishment. U.S. Army execution of punishment often took months to a few years after the decision was made to the point of execution.
President Trump is not the first U.S. President that acted upon an idea of fortifying the United States. President James Monroe and Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun in 1819 visualized a whole series of forts along the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. The forts were intended to ward off British interference with the American fur trade and what was believed as British incitement of the Indians against American interests. The only foothold the army made before Congress killed the project in 1820 was Cantonment Missouri. It stood approximately ten miles north of modern Omaha, Nebraska on the western bank of the river until the spring flood of 1820 washed it away. The flood prone site was established by Colonel Henry Atkinson prior to and during the winter of 1819. The military post was moved after the flood to the top of the bluffs overlooking the western side of the river and became known as Council Bluffs. The site was officially named Fort Atkinson in 1821. It was “the first U.S. military post west of the Missouri River.” It garrisoned two U.S. Army federal units. They were ‘the Regiment of the Rifle’ and the Sixth Infantry Regiment. Congressional mandated cost saving measures caused the discharge of troops from Fort Atkinson and the deactivation of the Regiment of the Rifle in 1821. The 6th Infantry remained at the fort until it was abandoned in 1827. The only combat the Fort Atkinson soldiers experienced was a short action referred to as ‘the Arikara War of 1823.’ It was the beginning of a recurring American military pattern west of the Mississippi River involving federal forts, punitive expeditions, federal troops, ad hoc civilian military companies, and allied Indians fighting in support of the U.S. Army.
The other fort of importance was Cedar Fort (Fort Recovery) in Sioux Indian Territory. It was a trading post established on American Island in the center of the Missouri River near present day Chamberlin, South Dakota. It is important to note; Cedar Fort was a privately funded business venture. The fort was not funded by the U.S. Government or built by the U.S. military.
The Arikara Indian villages sat approximately 150 miles north of Cedar Fort on the Missouri River. The Arikara Indians detested that the Sioux had a convenient trading post with the Americans to acquire weapons and gun powder which in turn was used upon the Arikara. A band of Arikara hunter-warriors that outnumbered the Missouri Fur Company employees surrounded the trappers near Cedar Fort in March of 1823. The Indians roughed up the traders, stole a few horses, their animal hides, left the trappers naked, but no one was seriously injured except for their pride. A few days later a larger Indian war party attacked Cedar Fort. The Missouri Fur Trading employees defending the fort killed two Arikara warriors and wounded an unspecified number of attackers. One of the killed Indians had been the son of Arikara Chief Grey Eyes. Chief Grey Eyes was a central figure in the Arikara War. What the trappers perceived as an attack on their fort, was actually the Arikara war party moving toward the fort to recapture Sioux female captives they had recently captured in a raid. As the raiding party neared the fort, the captives attempted an escape to the potential Sioux sanctuary inside the fort.
The ever-growing amount of proportional force and violence that began in the spring of 1823 was only part of the frictions. It was combined with the reality of the Arikara had more chiefs than Indians to lead. The tribe once occupied eighteen villages but had been reduced to three with forty-two chiefs by the time of Lewis and Clark (1804) due to Sioux raids and small pox. The Arikara were down to two villages by 1823. Historian Roger L. Nichols (Ph.D., 1964, University of Wisconsin) convincingly articulated how Arikara internal governance and foreign policy was broken by 1823 due to leadership turmoil. Indian societies were known for their democratic nature, and the Arikara were undergoing a crisis in democracy by 1823. Some were for warfare with the trappers, others were for trade, and others were noncommittal. The tension culminated when the man that had promised the Arikara a local trading post in 1822, William H. Ashley, arrived at the Arikara villages on May 30, 1823. As the saying went, the Arikara had a few bones to pick with the man of broken promises.
The Arikara was primarily an agricultural and fishing tribe with an estimated population of 2,000. “They raised corn, beans, pumpkins, and other food crops-not only for their own use, but for trade with the nearby hunting tribes.” They lived in wooden framed, brush walled, earthen-clay-encased structures along the Missouri River. The Arikara probably moved their villages every two years due to the shortage of fire wood along the river. Both villages were fortified with a palisade (fence of wooden poles) of unspecified height. Inside each hut the earth had been dug out in depth from two to four feet in order to allow people to stand inside the structure. Additionally, each hut contained a deeper cellar for storing food. This suggested the Arikara homes were unwittingly built to allow the occupants some amount of safety to sustain the effects of artillery shrapnel unless they took a direct hit. Most of the crops were outside of the palisade. They were middlemen traders between southern horse tribes and the tribes to the north which traditionally had guns. They bartered for horses, guns, hides, meats, and American or European made goods. Nichols termed the Sioux visits to the Arikara “as peaceful raiding expeditions” where the Sioux set its own prices for agricultural products. Arikara social status remained with the male’s hunting and warring abilities. They conducted one annual buffalo hunt, but still relied on trade with other tribes to provide the shortfall in hides and meats. Nichols hypothesized that the buffalo hunting in Sioux territory was one of the factors that created the animosity between the Arikara and Sioux. Unlike most buffalo hunting tribes, the Arikara were not known for vast herds of horses.
Ashley did not originally intend to stop at the Arikara villages located on the Missouri River where Mobridge, South Dakota now stands. His plans changed during his trip up the river. Ashley’s party came upon Jedidiah Smith. Smith had floated and paddled all the way down the river from the Rocky Mountains. He reported the white trappers in the mountains needed horses. Ashley knew of the recent violence with the Arikara. He believed he had little choice. He took the calculated risk. He decided that his two sixty-five feet long keelboats filled with armed men was enough force to keep things peaceful. Ashley was looking to get something that the Arikara did not possess in great quantities, horses.
The March 30th and 31st horse trading was an aggravatingly slow process. Ultimately, Ashley received 200 plus buffalo robes and nineteen horses. Ashley needed a total of forty horses, but there were still the Mandan villages up the river which would potentially fulfill the shortfall. The exchange cost Ashley trinkets, powder, shot and most importantly twenty-five muskets. Approximately forty of Ashley’s men camped on shore to guard the horses. Ashley intended to depart northward up the river on the 1st of June. The aftermath of an intense thunderstorm made the river current too fast and forced Ashley to wait one more day.
The Arikara were overtly peaceful toward the traders for two days and nights. Historians offered varying explanations regarding the cause of violence on the third night. It was clear that there was also a hostile faction within the Arikara from the beginning of the visit. That faction may have executed a ‘baited ambush’ by luring at least two of the traders into the village that night for sex with the females as an excuse to trigger violence. Another likely possibility was that interpreter Edward Rose who had lived with the Arikara for three years may have gotten into an altercation with someone in the tribe over a past grievance. Another slim possibility was that the traders’ actions became mortally offensive. Regardless of the intent, Aaron Stephens and others had gone to the villages for sex. He was killed sometime that night inside the village palisade. The incident was the tipping point for more violence.
An odd event may have occurred around 3:30 in the morning. The men upon the Rocky Mountain keelboat awoke due to three unwelcomed Arikara warriors that had snuck aboard. The warriors supposedly intended to kill Ashley in his sleep. The warriors were fought off and escaped. Political scientist and historian William R. Nestor wrote, “Whether it actually happened or not, the men onshore and on the keelboats were jolted awake around this time as an uproar exploded in the lower village.”
Ashley’s Arikara interpreter, Edward Rose, stumbled to safety. He reported that he nearly lost his life. The men on shore attempted to negotiate for the return of Stephens’ body in exchange for a horse. The Arikara negotiator from inside the palisade reported recovery of Stephens’s corpse was impossible due to mutilation and decapitation. Thus, no horse was provided to the negotiator.
The Arikara fired at dawn upon the horse camp from their fortified lower village. The first shots killed both horses and men. Ashley ordered his keelboat to maneuver closer to pick up the stranded men. The frightened men aboard the Rocky Mountain refused. The other keelboat Yellowstone Packet did attempt a rescue but lodged itself on a sandbar. Ashley then ordered the deployment of two skiffs. The first trip was successful in rescuing some of the men. The next trip was aborted after accurate Indian musket sharpshooters killed some of the oarsmen. Shots were traded back and forth between the Indians and traders for another long fifteen minutes. Seven men that attempted to swim for the keelboats were instead taken down river by the strong current. The remaining men finally swam aboard. The keelboats shoved off and floated down stream to safer waters. Ashley’s crew departed the area without a single horse. Nichols listed the engagement as thirteen traders killed and another eleven wounded. The Michnos’ summarized the casualty count as fifteen men killed and nine wounded. The difference in math was probably the categorization of died of wounds. The Arikara executed their successful battle without any known casualties.
The individualistic nature of Ashley’s party was highlighted during the battle. He issued orders that the men refused to execute, namely move under fire to rescue those on the beach. He resorted to asking for volunteers. Once the battle was over, only twenty-three of the seventy-six physically uninjured men were willing to continue. The battle broke the will of fifty-two men. Collecting $200 for a year’s work of hunting beaver in the Rocky Mountains lost its appeal to a large faction of Ashley’s men. They earned $16.60 a month for duties which included fighting Indians. The U.S. Army paid only $5 a month.
Ashley’s two keelboats floated five days down river for about seventy-five miles. They stopped and camped on an island at the junction of the Cheyenne and Missouri Rivers. He sent the Yellowstone Packet keelboat with the quitters and seriously wounded to Fort Atkinson. Missouri Fur Trade Company’s John Pilcher was a major competitor of Ashley’s. Both naturally monitored the others endeavors with great interest. The incident was perceived as not only a singular private commercial set-back, but an imminent danger to the entire fur trade along the Missouri River.
The story from the wounded survivors and quitters from the Ashley expedition in the keel boat Yellowstone Packet rapidly spread throughout the 500-person community at Fort Atkinson on June 18th. The federal army rapidly organized and loaded supplies which included two six-pounder howitzers into three keel boats for the expedition to the north and shoved off four days later. It took the Missouri Fur Trade Company two additional days to organize two more keelboats and fifty men, a howitzer and supplies for the punitive expedition. The federal rifle company and five regular infantry companies of the Sixth U.S. Infantry departed Fort Atkinson on June 22nd and marched forty-eight days before the 250 federal soldiers arrived at the enemy villages. Pilcher’s armed fur traders easily caught up with the federal expedition on the 27th of June. The expedition gained more strength on the 30th of June when it met up with Ashley’s traders on Cheyenne Island which in the interim had expanded to eighty men upon the arrival of Ashley’s partner, Andrew Henry. Along the way, Pilcher convinced approximately 500 Sioux warriors with 250 family members to join the expedition against the Sioux’s traditional enemy. The journey was not without mishap. One of Colonel Leavenworth’s keelboats sunk after hitting a sand bar causing the drowning death of seven men and loss of ammunition and supplies. The ammunition shortfall would affect later combat operations. Roughly 980 armed men with cannon amassed at the two Arikara villages to punish their common enemy.
Despite the vast array of allied combat power, the individualistic nature of most fighters created a piece-meal attack that degenerated into a dysfunctional command structure. Colonel Leavenworth had assigned the horse mounted Sioux the task of preventing Arikara escape. The plan had been for all six federal companies to be on the left with the trappers anchored in a line to the right side. Captain Bennet Riley’s rifle company was to array on the far left with the intention of attacking the Arikara working in the fields. The Sioux did what they had done for years to the Arikara villages. The mounted warriors rode into the fields and trampled the crops prior to federal dismounted infantry’s arrival and deployment into a skirmish line. The mounted Arikara met the Sioux in the corn fields and battle commenced between the Indians. The Americans claimed that the Sioux obstructed federal rifle fires. Additionally, the artillery was still miles downstream on the keelboats. The Sioux versus Arikara Indian melee lasted about an hour in the fields in front of the fortified villages. The Sioux had indeed prevented escape, but the intent had been for a unified, simultaneous attack. The initial melee resulted in two Sioux warriors killed in action and seven wounded in action. The Sioux inflicted an estimated ten to fifteen killed.
Once the federals and trappers were on scene