This is what Wikipedia’s This Day in History page told me yesterday afternoon when I looked at January 31, hoping to find some grist for my blogging mill:

1876 – The United States orders all Native Americans to move into reservations.

Which made me sit up and take notice. I thought to myself: “Self, how do you not know about this?” So I started digging. And I found nothing. Weird. I know a bit about Native American history. And the years surrounding the Civil War and Reconstruction are my specialty. I’ve got all the relevant books in my office and everything. But still: nothing. That would have been the right time to move on. Not me, though, I’m too stubborn dedicated to high-quality blogging.

So I walked down the hall and asked my colleague, Louis Warren, who knows more about Western and Native American history than I do, if he had ever heard that the federal government ordered “all Native Americans to move into reservations” on January 31, 1876. “Nope,” he said. And then, after thinking for a minute, he added: “I bet that had something to do with the Sioux.” My reply? “Oh. Right. Probably.” At the same time, I thought to myself: “Self, why are you so stupid? 1876 + Indians = Little Bighorn. Always and evermore. Self, you’re a fool.”

Then I left Louis’s office and got back to work. He was right. I learned that in December 1875, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered the Lakota people — among others — of the Powder River Country to return to their reservations by this date in 1876. Oddly enough, I couldn’t figure out which Commissioner of Indian Affairs issued that order. Because two men named Smith served in that post back-to-back: E.P. Smith and J.Q. Smith. And the latter Smith took over from the former Smith in mid December of 1875. Right around the time one of them handed down the order. So, without knowing the exact date that it was handed down, I couldn’t figure out who — which Smith, in other words — was responsible. I’ve got one source that says that it was December 3 and another that says December 6. I’m pretty sure that both dates can’t be right; it’s possible neither are.

Then I remembered that this is a blog. And in case you haven’t noticed, precision history isn’t exactly the order of the day around here. So, instead of specifics, I decided that I would rely on context. Which was also lucky, because it was easy enough to figure out why Chairman Smith issued the order. Gold. When it comes to Western history, it’s always gold. Right? Except when it’s the railroad. Nuance! In this case, though, it was gold, which had been found in 1874 in the Black Hills, in Dakota Territory. Army explorers commanded by, wait for it, George Armstrong Custer, had found the gold. Because if the category is Western history, and the asnwer isn’t gold or the railroad, it’s gotta be Custer.

In this case, we’re talking about the same gold the foul-mouthed miners look for on Deadwood. Not Bullock, though, he’s not foul-mouthed. Just boring. Anyway, the Black Hills strike jeopardized an uneasy peace that had settled over the region following the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868. That document ostensibly guaranteed the Lakota people perpetual control over a vast territory, including the Black Hills. Which, at the time, whites had believed were worthless.

Oops. After it turned out that there was gold in the hills, whites wanted them back. Not just for mining, but also for settlements that would mine the miners, providing them with goods so that they could pull gold from the earth. Again, as seen on Deadwood: Bullock’s and Sol’s store. At least in Season One. Which is as far as I’ve gotten. Things might have changed in Season Two and beyond.

Regardless, in 1874 and 1875, thousands of whites arrived in Dakota Territory. The Lakotas, pointing to the Fort Laramie Treaty, asked the federal government to protect their land. And when that didn’t happen, they resisted the incursions. That’s a polite way of saying they began raiding white settlements, and, occasionally, killing the people who lived in them. This process, it’s worth mentioning, echoed almost exactly what had happened in Colorado Territory after the gold strike there in 1858. So the experience wasn’t new for the Lakotas, whose allies, the Cheyenne and the Arapaho people, had already been driven out of Colorado because of gold.

In November 1875, President Grant abandoned the Fort Laramie Treaty and began protecting land-hungry whites. The next month, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (a man whose surname, it’s safe to say, was Smith) issued his order: Lakotas who returned to their reservation would be safe; all others would be treated as “hostile.” So that’s the end of the mystery, which wasn’t really all that mysterious.

But the story continued. Many Lakota and Cheyenne bands refused to return to their reservations. The Army finally arrived in February to restore the peace. And the fighting that resulted dragged on into summer, culminating in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. See, I told you the answer would be Custer. It always is. Except when it’s gold. Or the railroad. Or, as in this case, two out of the three.

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