On this day in 1867, more than 7,000 Southern Plains Indians gather near Medicine Lodge Creek, Kansas, as their leaders sign one of the most important treaties in the history of U.S.-Indian relations.
For decades, Americans had viewed the arid Great Plains country west of the 100th meridian as unsuitable for white settlement; many maps even labeled the area as the Great American Desert. Because of this, policy makers since the days of the Jefferson administration had largely agreed that the territory should be used as one big reservation on which all American Indians could be relocated and left alone to continue their traditional ways of life. This plan was followed for decades. Unfortunately, by 1865, the Indians, roaming freely over the Great Plains, had become a threat to the increasingly important communication and transportation lines connecting the east and west coasts of the nation. At the same time, new dryland farming techniques had led a growing number of white Americans to settle in Kansas and Nebraska, and many others were now eager to move even farther west.
Departing from a half-century of precedent, a federal peace commission began negotiating with the Plains Indians in 1867 with the goal of removing them from the path of white settlement and establishing a new “system for civilizing the tribes.” In the fall, the commission met with representatives from Commanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and other tribes, most of which proved willing to accept the American proposal, although many may not have fully comprehended the implications.
With the treaties signed on October 21 and 28, the old idea of a giant continuous Great Plains reservation was abandoned forever and replaced with a new system in which the Plains Tribes were required to relocate to a clearly bounded reservation in Western Oklahoma. Any tribal member living outside of the reservation would thereafter be in violation of the treaty, and the U.S. would be justified in using whatever means necessary to force them onto the reservation. Likewise, the new policy of “civilizing the tribes” meant that the U.S. would no longer allow the Indians to preserve their traditional ways, but would instead use schools and agricultural education programs to try and eradicate the old customs and assimilate Indians into white culture.
Although most of the major Plains Indian chiefs agreed to the treaty provisions, they did not necessarily speak for all of their people. The authority of chiefs was always highly provisional, and many bands of Plains Indians considered themselves free to accept or reject such treaties regardless of the wishes of their chiefs. When the full import of the Medicine Lodge Treaty became clear to them, some of these bands refused to abandon their hunting grounds and traditional ways, causing decades of violent conflict all across the West.