American Plains Indians As Farmers

Summer 2011

John Eastman's "Guarding the Cornfields"
John Eastman’s “Guarding the Cornfields” shows Indian women scaring birds away from the crop.

The Dream That Might Have Been

By John Koster

American Mythology 101 holds that the Plains Indians had to be subdued and constrained to reservations because they were too proud or too lazy to take up farming. The myth permeates Hollywood Westerns and high school textbooks: The tribes needed a couple of bloody noses from massacred heroes such as George Armstrong Custer before they stopped chasing the vanishing buffalo and took up the plow, the hoe and the watering can.

Trouble is, it’s just not true. The Indians had an offer on the table in 1859 – before the goriest of the Indian Wars – to go back to the farming their ancestors had cultivated less than 100 years before.

The central figure in this untold story was Thomas Twiss, a deliberately forgotten American born in upstate New York who won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from Vermont. Twiss graduated in 1826, resigned from the Army in 1829 to become a college professor of philosophy and mathematics, rejoined the Army for the Mexican War, later worked as a railroad engineer, and was appointed the first Indian Agent to the Sioux in 1855.

Twiss – a farm kid of remote Irish and Scottish ancestry, second in his class at West Point, and several cuts above most of the politically-appointed West Pointers of his time – was sharp enough to see that the Indians were in a bind: In 1854, an Army officer had provoked the Cow War, in an argument with the Lakota (Sioux) Chief Conquering Bear. A young Indian had killed a cow, and Conquering Bear refused to hand the warrior over, although he agreed to pay for the cow. Conquering Bear and his brother were shot dead, along with two women, and the outraged Indians killed the 24 soldiers who shot them and fled. A year later, the Army attacked an Indian camp at Ash Hollow and slaughtered dozens of warriors, women and children. The clutch of circumstance was that free-roaming Indians retaliated against wagon trains, sometimes killed civilians, and were generally able to evade the troops sent to round them up – although they knew that they had neither the food base nor the numbers to resist the white invasion.

Twiss inherited this situation and he got to the point with the Indians he encountered: “My children, your Great Father directs me to say to you that as the buffalo and small game also are rapidly diminishing what do you propose to do to gain subsistence, where there is no longer any game for food, and prevent your old people and little children from dying by starvation? Will you labor like the white man, plant, hoe, and raise corn for food? Or will you die with hunger?”

The Lakota and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies conferred among themselves and designated Medicine Man, an Arapaho chief, as their spokesman. The Arapaho, perhaps alone among the Plains tribes, had a strong commercial ethic, so much so that their tribe was composed of age-related trading societies rather than family-related warrior societies; and ex-Confederate and Lakota friend Frank Huston thought they must be descended from the Phoenicians.

All three tribes knew that buffalo were on the wane. The size of the herds was already visibly reduced by hunting by white emigrants with guns and by brucellosis, introduced by the white man’s domestic cattle. The Lakota, the Cheyenne and the Arapaho argued and perhaps agonized among themselves and then sent Medicine Man back with an answer they had reached by consensus. “Our little children and our old people are hungry for many days, and some die… Our sufferings are increasing every winter… We want to live.”

The three tribes – destined to wipe out hundreds of soldiers and hundreds of settlers in the next two decades, and to be decimated themselves – accepted permanent reservations where they agreed to farm and accept government subsidies for tools, equipment and food until their agriculture started to produce crops. The Arapaho would settle “on small farms and live in cabins” on the Cache la Poudre River, the Northern Cheyenne on the Laramie River, the Oglala Lakota on Horse and Deer creeks and the Brule and other Lakota on the White River east of the Black Hills.

Twiss accepted the agreement in concept and agreed to provide $115,000 a year in annuities – goods, farming implements and money – “for a period of time at the discretion of the President of the United States.” The plan, Medicine Man agreed, was “the only one that will preserve us from extinction, and permit us to dwell for a long time on these beautiful prairie lands.”

Delegates from all three tribes signed the treaty in a single day. However, the U.S. Senate, which had to ratify all treaties with Indian tribes before 1871, refused to ratify the treaty that Twiss and the Indians had worked out in good faith. For the next two decades – in fact for a large part of the next century – the whites would argue that the Plains Indian wars had been necessary because the Lakota and the Cheyenne refused to take up farming and give up the buffalo hunt and the warpath. But that had not been the case in 1859; an opportunity for a lasting peace was missed.

A hundred years before Twiss tried to convince the Plains tribes to take up farming, the ancestors of all the tribes had been farmers who supplemented their crops with hunting and gathering. Every Plains tribe, except possibly the Blackfoot, had some sort of agricultural tradition. Seth Eastman, the Army officer who was the grandfather of Dr. Charles Eastman, had lived among the Dakota (Santee Sioux) and married a Dakota woman while the Dakota raised large fields of corn, supplemented with beans and squash – “the three sisters” as the Indians called them. To encourage corn germination and pollination, young girls were urged to walk around the cornfields naked at night, when prying eyes wouldn’t disrupt their vigil. Seth Eastman did a watercolor of this, which may be how he met Mrs. Eastman. The Nakota, or Yankton Sioux, were always farmers, and raised corn they sold to settlers and other Indians along the Missouri River. The Cheyenne kept ears of dried corn in their medicine bundles. The Arapaho farmed in Minnesota into the 1780s. The women did most of the hoeing and planting in farming tribes because women were seen as a nurturing and reproductive force, and the women in farming tribes often had outspoken rather than tacit power in the family.

The first blow to Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho farming came in the 1760s, when other tribes, armed with white men’s guns and fueled with white men’s liquor, drove the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho away from the Great Lakes and tributary rivers and onto the Plains. The dispossessed farmers arrived just when stray horses were proliferating. Indians had always ventured onto the prairies and used large wolf-life dogs to pull their travois, or A-frames loaded with small tepee covers and extra robes and food. The Lakota word for “horse” is tashunka, which means “big dog.” The Lakota developed a culture that revolved around big teepees that no dog could have pulled, and decorated their elk skin dresses or shirts with glass beads, originally made in Venice, later in Bohemia. These people were not merely sturdy and courageous – polygamous marriage to the best hunters ensured that the worst hunters didn’t breed much, as Francis Parkman noted when he lived with the Sioux in the later 1840s – but they were supremely adaptable.

The second blow came in 1837, “the year of the spotted head,” when a smallpox epidemic devastated the Western tribes, especially Indian farmers along the Missouri River who lived in large sedentary villages. The Mandan were reduced from 1,500 people to about 100, with many of the survivors disfigured and sterile. The Arikara and Hidatsa farmers also suffered huge attrition both in numbers and self-confidence. Plains Indian villages that were hit with smallpox were sometimes exterminated – the Blackfoot reportedly suffered almost as badly as the Mandan. But because the Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne were scattered into small bands, most of them escaped lethal contamination until smallpox had burned itself out.

In 1861, the people who ran the Indian Service – otherwise notorious as the most graft-ridden bureaucracy in the U.S. government – fired Twiss because of his common-law but very serious marriage to a Lakota named Mary Standing Elk while his white wife, an invalid, was still alive in New York state. Twiss then went totally Indian, except for his beard. He lived and hunted with the Lakota and the French and half-breed traders who had Indian wives, occasionally cropping up to deliver a lecture on how Napoleon’s catastrophic frontal assault on the Russians at Borodino had resembled Ulysses S. Grant’s awful blunders at Cold Harbor and The Crater a few years before. He may have had more than one Indian wife by this time – but the Lakota respected his integrity just as the whites respected his intellect.

Twiss died in 1871, and his three white and seven Indian children left 496 descendents in the 21st century. The Lakota, who honor his honest memory, point out that his ranking at West Point – second in his class – was a lot higher than Custer’s, who came in last in his class – dead last, as the Indian people say.

The peace Twiss wanted to build broke down twice in the 1860s, once after a Colorado militia sneak attack on the Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek in November of 1864 – the atrocities against dead woman and children were so horrible that Lincoln told Territorial Governor John Evans that his resignation was mandatory – and again after the Army built three forts on the Bozeman Trail in 1866. The latter, named Red Cloud’s War after the Lakota chief, ended with the signing of the Sioux Treaty of 1868. Again, the Indians asked for “a physician, carpenter, blacksmith, farmer, and engineer…seeds and agricultural instruments…” and a sawmill and gristmill to process the anticipated crops. The treaty also gave Indians the right to homestead personal 160-acre farms within the borders of the reservation. Unfortunately, the government moved some of the agencies three times in four years, aborting the Indians’ plowing and planting and discouraging further farming. Short rations at the agencies and the free flow of firearms from post traders led to another war in 1876 when the government tried to force the Sioux to sell the Black Hills.

Once the Lakota and Cheyenne were finally placed on reservations in the aftermath of Custer’s Last Stand, they encountered the third problem of independent agriculture: lack of rainfall. Colonial America had been the land where every healthy man could prosper on a European-style farm due to fertile soil and adequate rainfall. Rainfall at the time of the Plains Indian wars measured 44 inches at Boston, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., 30 inches around Milwaukee and 25 inches at Fort Snelling, the country where often chaste Dakota girls once walked naked around the massive cornfields and where Arapaho hoed. But the rainfall for Fort Randall in Lakota country was 16 inches, and at Fort Laramie, 15 inches. Without massive irrigation, the land wasn’t suitable for corn and beans, and even such grass crops as wheat and rye could be wiped out in a dry year.

The final seal was the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887. Concerned that the Indians weren’t becoming civilized fast enough, Congress surveyed the reservations, kicked off the white squatters unless they were married to Indians, and then grandly gave every Indian head of family personal title to 160 acres, with an extra 40 acres for grown children who lived with their parents, and 80 acres for single people and orphans. The rest of the land was, of course, sold to whites, and the Indian allotments – too small to be irrigated by one family, and soon to be broken up further by inheritance claims – were often leased to whites who could cluster them together and afford irrigation. Instead of the self-sufficient farmers they wanted to be in 1859, and the self-sufficient farmers their ancestors had been before 1760, the descendents of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes grew vegetables around their houses and collected meager lease money from white ranchers and farmers for generations.

Some Indians’ struggles to farm have persisted into the 21st century. The White Plume family of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, for example, raises cattle and tame buffalo. Alex White Plume has also tried to raise industrial hemp, permitted by his tribe’s sovereignty – but cut down by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, nevertheless.

Thomas Twiss cannot be blamed if Pine Ridge, the Oglala Sioux Reservation, is generally listed as is the poorest county in the United States. Twiss tried his best, but he just couldn’t get the treaty of 1859 through Congress.

John Koster is the author of “Custer Survivor.” Suzie Koster and Minjae Kim assisted with this article. Remi Nadeau describes the treaty attempt of 1859 in “Fort Laramie and the Sioux Indians.”

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