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Arapaho - Great Divide

Crowding around Denver split the Arapaho into the Northern and Southern Arapaho. The divisions became politically independent by 1855. The Northern Arapaho allied with the Northern Cheyenne and the Sioux and were able to hunt in present-day Wyoming and Montana. In this region, overcrowding was not yet a threat. For a time they were able to avoid the Euro-American settlers.

The Southern Arapaho had been pushed south of Denver in present-day Colorado and Kansas. The Southern Arapaho were outnumbered by settlers by a ratio of 10 to 1. After the Sioux and Cheyenne fought with the United States military in 1854 and 1856, all tribes had to worry about attacks from United States troops or armed settlers. The Southern Arapaho did anything they could to keep peace because they needed to maintain trade to survive. For a while this strategy worked, and distinguished Southern Arapaho leaders were even invited to parties with leaders and officials in new towns. When Southern Arapaho men left to fight the Ute, they left camps near the Euro-American settlements for safety. 

Southern Arapaho relations with settlers started to sour in 1860 as the tribe’s leaders realized that settlers would continue to expand their settlements, threatening the tribe’s survival. Southern Arapaho leaders wanted to seek a treaty that would give them land of their own, safe from settlers. The Northern Arapaho wanted to stay in their territory north of the Southern Arapaho. The Northern Arapaho numbered approximately 750 and the Southern Arapaho numbered about 1,500 in 1861. Both had suffered massive population decreases due to cholera and smallpox epidemics and starvation.

A Prelude to Trouble

Albert Gallitin Boone served as the Arapaho Indian Agent from 1859 to 1861.A council of a few Cheyenne and a few bands of Southern Arapaho met with Albert Boone on February 18, 1861. Boone was serving as the Arapaho Indian agent for the United States and reported that the Arapaho consented to cede the majority of their land to the United States and would have a reservation on Sand Creek in Colorado to share with the Cheyenne. The Arapaho interpreter was not present, and the agreement would have provided no lands suitable for hunting bison, so it is doubtful that the Arapaho understood the full treaty. The Northern Arapaho did not consent to land cession. The United States did not distinguish between the Northern and Southern Arapaho when making agreements for land cessions.

The bison were so few in number that some Arapaho were forced to steal livestock from settlers in 1862. The Southern Arapaho tried to encourage the Cheyenne to adopt the policy of remaining at peace with Euro-Americans. Conflict erupted in the spring of 1864 when troops from Colorado destroyed a Cheyenne village, killing all the women and children. In a separate incident, two friendly Cheyenne chiefs were killed. The Cheyenne started a retaliatory campaign against Colorado settlements. The officials in Colorado resolved to either drive all Indians out of the region and away from travel routes or to exterminate them all. The United States Army started attacking all Cheyenne villages, even those that remained peaceful with the United States. The Arapaho could no longer maintain a policy of peace or convince their allies to adopt a policy of peace.

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Entry: Arapaho - Great Divide

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: September 2015

Date Modified: December 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.