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Arapaho - Origins and Migration

The Arapaho language belongs to the Algonquian language family. Algonquian speaking groups lived along the Atlantic coastline and west as far as the Great Lakes. This suggests that the Arapaho may have lived northeast of the Missouri River at some point. No records from European traders or explorers place the Arapaho east of the Missouri River, which supports the theory that the westward migration of the Arapaho tribe occurred prior to the late 17th or early 18th century. The Arapaho were well known and documented on the Great Plains by the 1840s.

The Arapaho acquired horses at some point after 1730, either through raiding or trading with southern tribes who raided Spanish settlements in present-day Texas or New Mexico. Horses allowed the Arapaho to hunt bison more effectively and engage in trade with farming tribes like the Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan of the upper Missouri River area for corn, beans, and squash. Jean Baptiste Trudeau left the first written records of the Arapaho in 1795, placing them in the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota. In the late 1700s the Arapaho lived in a range covering present-day southeastern Montana and eastern Wyoming as far as the Platte River headwaters in present-day northern Colorado.

The northernmost band of Arapaho was known as the Atsina or Gros Ventre. This band encountered the English in the mid-1700s near the Upper Saskatchewan River in Canada. Other tribes pushed the band into present-day Montana, where they lived between the Missouri and Milk Rivers by the mid-1800s. They settled on a reservation in northern Montana in 1878. This band’s history took them on a divergent path from the rest of the Arapaho.

Intertribal Conflict and Territory

The Sioux, who had taken control of the Black Hills region, and the Cheyenne drove the Arapaho southwest. The Arapaho controlled an area of present-day west-central Colorado by the early 19th century. They were at war with the Ute to the west, the Pawnee to the east, and the Crow to the north of the Platte River. They increased the frequency of their raids on the Kiowa and Comanche to the south to gain more horses. The Arapaho allied with their former rivals, the Cheyenne, to combat the Sioux north of the Platte River and the Kiowa and Comanche alliance to the south. This alliance with the Cheyenne successfully pushed the Kiowa and Comanche below the Arkansas River. The Arapaho slowly took control of the land between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers in present-day eastern Colorado.

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Entry: Arapaho - Origins and Migration

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.