The Cheyenne tribe originally lived in the upper Mississippi River valley but early in the 18th century they migrated to the Great Plains. Once the Cheyenne tribe obtained good supplies of horses they became expert buffalo hunters.

In the 19th century the Cheyenne tribe split into two sections. One group moved south onto the Central Plains whereas the other group remained in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. Those in the north became involved in wars with the Sioux. The Cheyenne group in the south came into conflict with the Apache, Comanche and Kiowa. During these wars Cheyenne warriors developed a reputation for bravery.

In 1867 the Cheyenne joined forces with the Sioux to attack soldiers trying to protect the Bozeman Trail. On 2nd August, several thousand Sioux and Cheyenne attacked a wood-cutting party led by Captain James W. Powell. The soldiers had recently been issued with Springfield rifles and this enabled them to inflict heavy casualties on the warriors. After a battle that lasted four and a half hours, the Native Americans withdrew. Six soldiers died during the fighting and Powell claimed that his men had killed about 60 warriors.

Despite this victory the army was unable to successfully protect the Bozeman Trail and on 4th November, 1868, Red Cloud and 125 chiefs were invited to Fort Laramie to discuss the conflict. As a result of these negotiations the American government withdrew the garrisons protecting the emigrants travelling along the trail to Montana. Red Cloud and his warriors then burnt down the forts.

On 27th November, 1868, General George A. Custer and his 7th Cavalry launched a dawn attack on a Cheyenne village on the Washita River. Over 100 members of the tribe were killed including their leader, Black Kettle. Custer also ordered the killing of 800 Cheyenne horses making it difficult for the remaining tribal members to obtain enough food that winter. Many therefore agreed to be moved to the Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation in Oklahoma.

On 17th June 1876, General George Crook and about 1,000 troops, supported by 300 Crow and Shoshone, fought against 1,500 members of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. The battle at Rosebud Creek lasted for over six hours. This was the first time that Native Americans had united together to fight in such large numbers.

General George A. Custer and 655 men were sent out to locate the villages of the Sioux and Cheyenne involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek. An encampment was discovered on the 25th June. It was estimated that it contained about 10,000 men, women and children. Custer assumed the numbers were much less than that and instead of waiting for the main army under General Alfred Terry to arrive, he decided to attack the encampment straight away.

Custer divided his men into three groups. Captain Frederick Benteen was ordered to explore a range of hills five miles from the village. Major Marcus Reno was to attack the encampment from the upper end whereas Custer decided to strike further downstream.

Reno soon discovered he was outnumbered and retreated to the river. He was later joined by Benteen and his men. Custer continued his attack but was easily defeated by about 4,000 warriors. At the battle of the Little Bighorn Custer and all his 264 men were killed. The soldiers under Reno and Benteen were also attacked and 47 of them were killed before they were rescued by the arrival of General Alfred Terry and his army. It was claimed afterwards that Custer had been killed by his old enemy, Rain in the Face. However, there is no hard evidence to suggest that this is true.

The U.S. army now responded by increasing the number of the soldiers in the area. As a result Sitting Bull and his men fled to Canada, whereas Crazy Horse and his followers surrendered to General George Crook at the Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska. Crazy Horse was later killed while being held in custody at Fort Robinson.

The Cheyennes played an active role in the Indian Wars and historians have estimated that they suffered the heaviest casualties of all the tribes involved in this conflict.

In 1878 Cheyennes under Dull Knife and Little Wolf left their reservation in Oklahoma and headed north to their former tribal homeland. They were pursued by the army and a large number were killed. The rest were captured and imprisoned at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. During an attempt at a mass breakout Dull Knife was killed. Little Wolf and the rest of his men eventually reached Wyoming. Forced to surrender, those members of the Cheyenne tribe left alive were forced to live on a reservation on the Tongue River in Montana.

Primary Sources

(1) John C. Fremont, A Report of an Exploration of the Country lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains (1842)

At our evening camp, about sunset, three figures were discovered approaching, which our glasses made out to be Indians. They proved to be Cheyennes - two men, and a boy of thirteen. About a month since, they had left their people on the south fork of the river, some three hundred miles to the westward, and a party of only four in number had been to the Pawnee villages on a horse stealing excursion, from which they were returning unsuccessful. They were miserably mounted on wild horses from the Arkansas plains, and had no other weapons than bows and long spears; and had they been discovered by the Pawnees, could not, by any possibility, have escaped. They were mortified by their ill success, and said the Pawnees were cowards who shut up their horses in their lodges at night. I invited them to supper with me, and Randolph and the young Cheyenne, who had been eyeing each other suspiciously and curiously, soon became intimate friends. After supper we sat down on the grass, and I placed a sheet of paper between us, on which they traced rudely, but with a certain degree of relative truth, the watercourses of the country which lay between us and their villages, and of which I desired to have some information. Their companions, they told us, had taken a nearer route over the hills; but they had mounted one of the summits to spy out the country, whence they had caught a glimpse of our party, and, confident of good treatment at the hands of the whites, hastened to join company.

(2) Frances Roe, letter (January, 1873)

We have felt very brave since the camp has been established, and two days ago several of us drove over to a Cheyenne village that is a mile or so up the creek. But soon after we got there we did not feel a bit brave, for we had not been out of the ambulance more than five minutes, when one of their criers came racing in on a very wet pony, and rode like mad in and out among the tepees, all the time screaming something at the top of his voice.

Instantly there was a jabbering by all of them and great commotion. Each Indian talked and there seemed to be no one to listen. Several tepees were taken down wonderfully quick, and a number of ponies were hurried in, saddled, and ridden away at race speed, a few squaws wailing as they watched them go, guns in their hands. Other squaws stood around looking at us, and showing intense hatred through their wicked eyes. It was soon discovered by all of us that the village was really not attractive, and four scared women came back to the garrison as fast as government mules could bring them! What was the cause of so much excitement we will probably never know - and of course we should not have gone there without an officer, and yet, what could one man have done against all those savages!

We were honored by a visit from a chief the other day. He was a Cheyenne from the village, presumably, and his name was White Horse. He must have been born a chief for he was young, very dignified, and very good-looking, too, for an Indian. Of course his face was painted in a hideous way, but his leggings and clothing generally were far more tidy than those of most Indians. His chest was literally covered with polished teeth of animals, beads, and wampum, arranged artistically in a sort of breastplate, and his scalp lock, which had evidently been plaited with much care, was ornamented with a very beautiful long feather.

(3) Lewis Morgan, Kansas and Nebraska Journal (June, 1859)

On the death of a Cheyenne his brothers take his property, including his wives. The oldest brother has the first election and he can take them all, with the horses, etc. if he chooses. If he does not, the next brother and so on to the last. a woman may ask the privilege of choosing any of the brothers which she will take, which is always accorded her.

The Cheyennes bury on a scaffold and never in the ground except in the cases of a murdered man. After the flesh is gone they wrap them up in a package and the family carry them around for several years, as they are moving Indians without any settled home, and at some proper time they bring together all of these bones and bury them, not in one grave, but where they please.