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Tribal Historical Overview - Early Reservation Life (1866-1900)

Intro | Trade | Laws and Treaties | Early Reservation Life | Change | 1900s | Economic and Social Change | Present Day

Early Reservation Life (1866-1900)

Indian Agents

U. S. Government agents were assigned to various forts along the fur trading routes. These agents, who were former military officers, were entrusted to carry out federal policies put forth by treaties. Distribution of annuities, yearly cash payments, and provisions promised to the Three Tribes, were sometimes never received. They became more restricted in their range and their ability to live from hunting and became more dependent on the United States for subsistence.

The Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and the Sioux had been unfriendly for centuries. The Three Tribes, numbering 2,000, were at a disadvantage to the 40,000 Sioux. During the period of the early 1860s, several bands of the Sioux, deprived of their home by the flood of whites into what is now Minnesota, pushed westward onto the plains of the Upper Missouri.

When the Civil War started in 1861, military obligations in the Upper Missouri were neglected. Problems increased as whites passing through tribal lands to the gold fields caused restlessness among the Sioux. The military became lax in their obligations to the military forts along these territories. Because the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/ Sahnish remained friendly to the government and the whites, they were repeatedly attacked by Sioux. (Dunn, 1963, p. 201)

Only after Fort Berthold and the surrounding villages were burned by raids did the government see fit to move the fort 17 miles further east. The new military post, known as Fort Stevenson, was built in 1867, on the north bank of the Missouri River at the mouth of Douglas Creek, near present-day Garrison, North Dakota. At the same time as the Sioux signed several treaties to remain on friendly terms with the whites and other tribes, exploitation by Indian agents and fur traders continued cheating and depriving the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/Sahnish of their provisions from the government.

When the Arikara Chief, White Shield, refused to sign a receipt for goods he did not receive, Agent Mahlon Wilkinson was angry and declared White Shield removed as chief and declared him ineligible for his $200 annuity. Agent Wilkinson replaced White Shield with a younger man, Son-of-Star, as chief of the tribe.

Agent Wilkinson said to White Shield, “My friend, you are getting too old. Age troubles your brain and you talk and act like an old fool.” The honorable Indian replied firmly, “I am old it is true—but not so old as not to see things as they are. And even if, as you say, I were only an old fool, I would prefer a hundred times to be an honest red fool than a stealing white rascal like you.” (de Trobriand, Army Life)

A severe smallpox epidemic ravaged the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/Sahnish in 1866. Their fall crops were a failure. After being robbed of their annuities, the authorities refused them any assistance. De Trobriand stated that the agents of the Indian Bureau were nothing but a vast association of thieves who made their fortune at the expense of the Indians and to the detriment of the government.

Between 1866 and 1870, the Indian wars began to die out and the fur trade dwindled because of the scarcity of game. Immigration increased ten-fold and the railroads cross-cut the prairies, invading the homelands of the tribes.

In 1870, a group of Hidatsa and some Mandans who wanted to maintain their traditional way of life, left the village and moved 120 miles up river (outside the reservation boundary) and established themselves at Fort Buford, near what is now Williston, North Dakota. There were a number of reasons for the move, but one may have been a disagreement between Crow Flies High and government-supported leaders, Poor Wolf and Crows Paunch. Another was over the distribution of rations, and internal conflicts over leadership.

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