July 13, 2008
One of the last military engagements on the Plains happened in 1907 just ten or twelve miles from Thunder Butte near the junction of the Moreau River and Thunder Butte Creek and the present day Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation community of Thunder Butte. Today, the incident is probably long forgotten by most people, including those with long ties to the area. Yet, when it happened, it prompted coverage in the New York Times and other newspapers across the country.
The episode began when about 400 Utes began a trek across Utah, Wyoming, and Montana in 1906. They were rounded up by the U.S. Cavalry and taken to Fort Meade in the Black Hills, where they were interned until plans for their resettlement in South Dakota were made. Ultimately, the Federal government attempted to resettle the Utes on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation at the Thunder Butte substation. However, from the beginning, the conditions of resettlement proved irksome for the Utes and there were threats of an armed rebellion.
One of the complaints of the Utes was that the government’s promise of rations was not met. Instead, the government was requiring that work be exchanged for “payment” of rations. Commissioner Leupp of the Bureau of Indian Affairs commented to the New York Times, “This office believes in applying the same rule to the Indians that is applied to poor and ignorant men of any race. We believe in finding work for them, and then in permitting them to go hungry if they will not accept the opportunity to make a living. These Utes contemptuously declined to work….” Ute leaders may have been contemptuous of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but they were adamant in their belief that the government had reneged on a promise of regular provisions as a condition of settlement on the reservation.
Another issue for the Utes was that their children were taken away and placed in boarding schools instead of being allowed to stay at home or attend school nearby. Federal policies of the time attempted to strip away Native American culture by, in effect, removing children from families, prohibiting them from speaking in their native tongues, and initiating them into the values of the white American culture.
When negotiations between the Utes and the Federal Indian Agent, Thomas Downs, failed, the Utes took up positions at the entrance to the Thunder Butte substation and threatened the use of force. At this point, about 1,000 troops were called in from Nebraska and the Utes were forced to settle. About 100 Ute men, women, and children decamped for Rapid City and a promise of a life and jobs off of the reservation. The remainder stayed on for the winter with inadequate rations and shelter and then began the long trek back to Utah under Federal supervision in June 1908.