Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter 2002, pp. 35-51.
In 1867, in an effort to avoid the high costs of war and protect overland transportation routes, Congress passed a bill authorizing a commission to establish peace with the Plains Indians. In less than two years, what proved to be the last major commission sent out by the government to treat with the Indians met and signed treaties with the Kiowa, Comanche, Kiowa-Apache, Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, Crow, Navajo, Eastern Shoshone and Bannock, and the Brule, Oglala, Miniconjou, Yanktonai, Hunkpapa, Blackfeet, Cuthead, Two Kettle, Sans Arc, and Santee bands of Lakota Sioux. Their efforts helped end Red Cloud's War upon the Northern Plains, and, as a result of their reports and recommendations, they greatly influenced federal Indian policy. Yet, despite these accomplishments, Congress failed to quickly fulfill the treaty stipulations, and instead of initiating an era of peace, the commission commenced a decade of war and bloodshed throughout the Plains.1
The origins of the Peace Commission can be traced to the early morning hours of 29 November 1864, when the Third Regiment of Colorado Volunteers, led by the reckless Col. John M. Chivington, massacred a friendly band of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along the banks of Sand Creek in eastern Colorado. As military and newspaper accounts spread concerning the nature of the attack and the horrific mutilation of the bodies that followed, several governmental agencies launched investigations into the incident.2 One such investigation, created by Congress in March 1865, called for a special joint committee, headed by Sen. James R. Doolittle, to inquire into the condition of the Indian tribes and the actions of the civil and military authorities of the United States.
The "Doolittle Report," as it came to be called, took nearly two years to complete and contained a mass of documents over 500 pages in length. Among its findings, the committee described in detail the deterioration of the Indians' condition and the causes of Indian hostility, which they believed could largely be traced to the "aggressions of lawless white men." The report also condemned the actions of Chivington at Sand Creek and called for the creation of five boards of inspection of Indian affairs that could annually visit the Indian tribes within their districts in an effort to better comprehend their conditions and avoid future military conflicts.3
In July 1867, while Congress brewed over Doolittle's findings, they received a report from another special investigating committee regarding the annihilation of Lt. William J. Fetterman's command near Fort Phil Kearney on 21 December 1866 and Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's destruction of a Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux village in April 1867.4 Fort Phil Kearney was one of three forts located along the Bozeman Trail, a route that intersected the Powder River Basin as it took miners to the goldfields of Montana. Both the fort and trail existed on Indian lands set aside by treaty and were in the heart of the last remaining hunting grounds in the Northern Plains. Along with documenting Fetterman's loss and criticizing General Hancock's actions, the report called for the creation of two reservations where the Indians could be induced to take up pastoral and agricultural pursuits. Just how this was to be accomplished was the problem.