The Red River War, 1874-1875: What Were the Events that Led to the Uprising

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The tribes which inhabited the southern plains of the United States, aptly called the “Buffalo Indians,” all originated in another region of North America. As the 19th century progressed, these groups of people were well adapted and thrived in their environment. The middle of the century; however, proved to be increasingly challenging to the Native American tribes as the U.S. government sought to contain, if not eliminate, these nomadic hunters in order to exploit the region and its resources for the advancement of westward expansion. In 1865 the American Civil War had at last come to an end, thus allowing for an increased military presence in Texas and the Southern Plains region. Further, the intercontinental railroad was completed in 1868, which increased the rate of the transportation of goods to the East and migrant settlers to the West.

The threat of civilians encountering hostile Native tribes was prevalent; therefore, in order for the U.S. government to promote white settlement in the Southern Plains, the “Indian Problem,” needed to be swiftly addressed. The Indian Bureau and Native Americans of the region agreed to treaties, which skewed largely in favor of the government and were scantily enforced. Native elders saw little choice but to sign the treaties as they were aware of the might of the Federal Army and understood that without the pacts, the possibility of a war was likely. When the treaties went unenforced and the Native Americans got little of the relief promised by the government, war did in fact follow. The Red River Uprising of 1874-1875 pitted the South Plains tribes against the U.S. Army and proved to be the final Indian war in the region. Tensions had risen in the region over several decades; however, the outbreak of war in 1874 was due to the encroachment of white buffalo hunters onto Native American soil, the lack of enforcement of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, and the attitudes of military leaders toward Native Americans.

Mexican-American War

Samuel Houston became the second president of independent Texas and attempted to affect territorial compromises with the Plains tribes. Relative peace ensued until his successor, Mirabeau Lamar, assumed the office in 1839, whereupon he sought “‘an exterminating war upon their [South Plains tribes] warriors; which will admit no compromise and have no termination except in their total extinction or total expulsion.’”[1]Within seven years of Lamar’s statement, the U.S. became embroiled in a war with Mexico that was directly impacted by the South Plains Indians.

In order to arrive at the theater of war, federal troops needed to traverse Indian territories along the Santa Fe Trail. In order to ensure the safety of his army, President James K. Polk invited chiefs from all of the tribes to Washington City. Forty-one chiefs made the trip to the nation’s capital and reached an agreement with Polk. The native tribes agreed to allow the military forces to pass unscathed in exchange for food and provisions supplied by the federal Government and a guarantee from Polk that the United States, which had annexed Texas in 1845, would not interfere with the tribal raids into Old Mexico. A similar agreement; however, was made with Mexico at the conclusion of the war.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was agreed upon in 1848 by both governments after the United States claimed victory in the Mexican-American War. The most significant outcome of the treaty was the new boundaries established for each nation. More importantly to the native tribes was a promise of the U.S. delegates to prevent Native American raids into Mexico; this was a direct contradiction to the promise made two years earlier to the tribal chiefs. As the United States deemed the relationship with Mexico of greater importance than that of its relationship with the South Plains tribes, military forts and outposts arose in Texas for the purpose of patrolling the newly established national borders. Further, with the increased military presence the soldiers were also able to guard the boundaries of the southern and western frontiers from the South Plains tribes.
  1. Quoted in James L. Haley, The Buffalo War (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 4-5.