Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Arikara War (1823)

Arikara War (1823)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Arikara and Blackfeet vs. the
U.S. Army, trappers working for the Rocky Mountain Fur
Company, and Sioux

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Upper Missouri River in the Dakotas


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Arikara, worried by
the erosion of their role in the fur trade and hostile over
the protection white traders afforded the Sioux, attacked
a group of traders after one of them had been caught and
killed for slipping into the Arikara camp to visit a young
Indian woman; Colonel Henry Leavenworth mounted a
punitive expedition against the Arikara and the Blackfeet,
who had meanwhile ambushed some trappers.

OUTCOME: Leavenworth’s forces pounded the Arikara
villages into submission, but the Indians then slipped
away and continued to raid, effectively closing the
Upper Missouri to the fur trade.

United States, 233 soldiers; 800 Sioux allies; 120
trappers. Arikara: Numbers unknown

CASUALTIES: 18 trappers, 11 soldiers, and 2 Sioux killed;
Arikara losses unknown


In the spring of 1822, Andrew Henry (1775–1832), fur
trader and lieutenant governor of Missouri, and his partner,
William Ashley (1778–1838), built a fort at the mouth
of the Yellowstone. On May 30 of the next year, the fur
traders arrived at two Arikara Indian villages near the present-
day North and South Dakota state line. The villages,
which consisted of earthen houses contained within palisaded
walls and ditches, were fortresses. Hostile for
decades to white encroachment on their role in the fur
trade, the tribe was especially incensed over recent protection
afforded their ancient enemies, the Sioux, by white
traders. Yet they were willing to sell badly needed horses to
the Ashley party, and Jedediah Strong Smith (1798–1831)
was dispatched with a party of 40 men to camp near one of
the villages and negotiate the purchases. The first day he
was successful, buying some 20 mounts.
The night that followed was stormy, but despite the
weather one of Smith’s men ventured into one of the
Arikara villages seeking female companionship. Somehow,
this provoked the Arikaras to attack the traders on June 2,
1823. A total of 14 of Smith’s men died, and nine were
wounded, including the famed trapper Hugh Glass (d.
1833). The French Canadian in charge of Ashley’s keelboat
refused to risk a rescue attempt. Some men got away
in smaller boats. Some swam for it.
Colonel Henry Leavenworth (1783–1834), commander
of Fort Atkinson, retaliated on June 22, 1823, setting
out with six companies of infantry and an artillery detachment:
223 soldiers, joined by some 800 Sioux allies and
120 trappers. When the column reached the Arikara villages,
the Sioux engaged the Arikaras first, killing 13 (two
Sioux died). Leavenworth positioned his forces around the
villages but declined to attack until his artillery could be
brought to bear. The colonel exhausted his ammunition
on the earthen towns, delayed attacking with the balance
of his forces, and was deserted by his Sioux allies—from
whom he now feared attack from the rear. He therefore
opened negotiations with the Arikaras, who promised to
return horses they had stolen from Ashley and to fight no
more. That night, the Arikaras slipped out of the two villages.
They did not return the horses. In the first punitive
expedition against a Plains Indian tribe, Leavenworth had
not only been humiliated, but, by failing to control the
Arikaras, had lost the traditional river routes into the

Further reading: Alan Axelrod, Chronicle of the Indian
Wars: From Colonial Times to Wounded Knee (New York:
Prentice Hall Reference, 1993); LeRoy R. Hafen, ed., Fur
Traders, Trappers, and Mountain Men of the Upper Missouri
(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

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