September 17, 2020 — In 1843, one thousand pioneers with more than a hundred wagons and 5,000 cattle set out from Independence, Missouri, and headed west along the Oregon Trail. This Great Migration signaled the start of an annual event, with thousands more making the trek each year. The discovery of gold in California a few years later did little to ease the influx of people moving west.

To protect settlers and maintain the peace, Fort Laramie, a military post, was established in 1849 at the junction of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers in present-day Wyoming. Over the next few years, 50,000 settlers passed through the fort annually. For the Native American population, their intrusion through Indian Territory brought diseases like cholera. They disrupted game and grasslands, decreasing the buffalo numbers and intensifying existing rivalries between Native American tribes.

Aware of the mounting tensions, Indian Agent Thomas Fitzpatrick secured funding from Congress to summon a treaty council. Nearly 10,000 Indians from a dozen tribes answered the call, descending on Fort Laramie in September of 1851. Setting aside rivalries, tribal representatives from the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara met with U.S. representatives to discuss peace terms.

On this day, September 17, 1851, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed. It established territorial boundaries between tribes in an attempt to restrain rivalries. According to the treaty terms, these lands would be protected by the United States from white intruders and the U.S. government would provide $50,000 in supplies and provisions annually for the next 50 years. This dollar amount would shortly be reduced by Congress. In return, each of the tribes agreed to remain on their allotted land and cease the conflicts amongst each other. They also agreed to recognize the right of the United States to establish roads and military outposts within their territories.

For the Native American peoples of present-day western North Dakota, this 1851 treaty set into motion a series of events with life-altering implications.

For the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations, the treaty defined a 12-million-acre reservation stretching across present-day North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. But over the next century, the Fort Berthold Reservation shrunk to less than one million acres, reduced by Executive Orders, allotments and the Garrison Dam project.

For the Lakota and Dakota of the western plains, the Fort Laramie Treaty defined territorial boundaries encompassing more than 60 million acres centered around the Black Hills, encompassing parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. But as early as 1868, following a second meeting at Fort Laramie, the territory was vastly reduced. Twenty-one years later, the Great Sioux Reservation was broken up into several smaller reservations, including the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation straddling North and South Dakota.

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