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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.[1]

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.”[2] 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.’[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] The incident was the tipping point for more violence.

An odd event