Graetz's Crow History Notes

From: Graetz, Rick, and Susie Graetz. Crow Country: Montana’s Crow Tribe of Indians. Billings: Northern Rockies Publishing Company, 2000.

While oral records indicate the first meeting of white men (Canadian) and Crow took place somewhere near present-day Hardin, Montana in about 1743, the first documented encounter was with a trapper named Menard on the Yellowstone River in 1795. A French-Canadian fur trader, Francis Antoine Larocque, made contact in June 1805 near the then confluence of the Little Missouri and Knife rivers in North Dakota, and William Clark, co-leader of the famous Corps of Discovery, met with the Crow at Pompey’s Pillar on July 25, 1806.

It’s significant to mention that throughout the various treaty discussions of the 1800s, the Crow, who split into two separate bands in 1830...the Mountain Crow that lived in and around the mountains of northern Wyoming and southern Montana and the River Crow who spent much of their time between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, were acted upon as one tribe. Contract negotiations seemed to take place for the most part with only the Mountain Crow in mind.

When the reservation idea was initiated, the River Crow were assigned to the Milk River Reservation in the north, but conditions there were less than ideal. It soon came to pass, that the River Crow had three choices: 1) To stand alone and starve. 2) To join their traditional enemies the Sioux and Arapaho, or 3) To reunite with their Crow kinsmen in southern Montana. There was to have been a separate reservation treaty with the River Crow, but it was never ratified by the US Senate. By the early 1870s, although not without much difficulty, both bands began uniting on the same reservation.

1825 Agreement

The Crow, like many other tribes in the upper Missouri River region signed an agreement of friendship with the United States via the Atkinson-O’Fallon Expedition. In essence, they accepted the sovereignty of the US Government and as well, territorial boundaries. It is important to note that throughout all of the so-called "Indian wars" and turmoil between white and red, the Crow people always remained friendly. They were never at war with the US Government and many of their members served as scouts for the US Army. In substance, this pact was more of an agreement with fur traders, namely the American Fur Trade Company, than a peace treaty. Eventually this action, helped escalate inter-tribal warfare in Montana and the Dakotas. Earlier, when the Indians realized that constant battles were resulting in too many deaths and there were plenty of bison for all to hunt, they began working towards peace amongst themselves. Art Alden Jr., of today’s Tribal Cultural Committee relates that tribes even exchanged children for a time so they would come to know each others ways. However, as fur traders and others moved into Indian Country, they began exterminating the bison and pushed the tribes into a more concentrated area. Guns that came with this so-called 1825 Treaty put the Indians into the arms race. Tensions again flared and inter-tribal warfare picked up and continued well into the late 1800s.

Smallpox Visits the Crow

The steamship Saint Peter, coming up the Missouri River in June of 1837, brought the smallpox virus with it. When it stopped to unload at Fort Union, in an area that would become the Montana/North Dakota border, the disease spread to those Indians who were camped in and around the trading post. Infecting many tribes, some such as the Mandans, were almost completely eliminated. It was reported that only about forty-three adults and seventy children survived. Other tribes lost close to fifty percent of their numbers. The Sioux (Dakota) for the most part avoided the epidemic. As word got out, the Crow left the area and were only lightly touched by the malaise. Later, other outbreaks, including scarlet fever, influenza and another smallpox epidemic, decimated the Crow. Numbers vary according to the records, but by the mid-1840s, the Crow population is estimated to have been between 6,000 to 8,000 strong; however, various ailments soon dropped that count to less than 1,000 survivors. The Crow’s enemy, the Sioux, being relatively untouched by illnesses, grew in numbers and as hostilities increased, became even more of a threat to the Crow existence.

1851 Fort Laramie Treaty

Convened as a peace council at Horse Creek, forty miles east of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, it concluded on September 17th with the signing of a "treaty.” The goals were to allow safer passage for Americans crossing Indian Territory on their way to Oregon, reduce inter-tribal warfare and establish boundaries for the tribes. The Crow “were given” more than thirty-eight million acres as their land to “keep forever.” After the agreement, Crow Country consisted of nearly the entire northern half of Wyoming (including the headwaters of the Tongue and Powder rivers and the Wind River Mountain Range), and southern Montana from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park, east through the Paradise Valley to the Powder River, and then north beyond the Crazy Mountains to the Musselshell River. The actual northeast boundary (the region where the River Crow lived) wasn’t quite clear.

The Bozeman Trail

In spite of promises, treaties, and supposed control over their own sphere, white invasion of Crow lands and those of the other Indians increased. Major mineral strikes had been made at Bannack, Alder Gulch, and Helena. The town of Bozeman was growing rapidly; people were being attracted to Montana. In 1865, to enable more settlers to reach this region, John Bozeman established a wagon route... The Bozeman Trail. Leaving the Oregon Trail that crossed Wyoming, it headed north on the east side of the Bighorn Mountains (through Crow domain) to just below the mouth of Bighorn Canyon. From there it pointed northwest to the Yellowstone Valley and then on to Bozeman. The presence of this road and the hordes of whites using it, incensed the Indian Nations, especially the Sioux. Their constant harassment of travelers forced the US Military to establish several strongholds along the route, including one at the site of today’s Fort Smith.

1868 Fort Laramie Treaty

Prompted by white pressure, the US Government, once again, attempted to sign “new treaties” with the Indians in order to further reduce “their territory.” The goal was to bring them into the white lifestyle and therefore “solve the nation’s Indian problem.” This time though, the Crow and other tribes, had demands of their own, including removal of all forts along the Bozeman Trail, and assurances that they be allowed to continue their nomadic way of life. On May 7, 1868, the treaty was signed and shortly thereafter the trail and forts were closed.

In the process, the Crow lost nearly thirty million acres of their land, while being “given” an eight million-acre reservation. Headquarters for the reserve, the first Crow Agency, was established at Mission Creek on the Yellowstone River east of Livingston. The Reservation Era in Crow history had commenced.

Successive Indian agents at Mission Creek made attempts to convert the nomadic Crow to agriculture, based on the hopes of these 1868 accords. In his 1879 annual report, then agent A.R. Kellar felt the efforts were a failure and that the Crow were still very much embracing their traditional ways. He wrote, “When the grass begins to grow in the spring they all sigh for the excitement of the chase, strike their tents, and, like a grand army, move out upon the broad prairies to engage in their summer hunt, which they keep up until mid-summer, when they return to the agency, dress their hides, make their lodges, and remain until fall, then they go out to kill the buffalo and secure robes and dry the meat, which constitutes their stock in trade. So soon as this hunt is concluded, which usually runs to the middle of January, they return to the agency, tan their robes, draw their annuities, and enjoy themselves singing and dancing, with a hilarity unknown to other people on the continent.”

Before 1868, Sioux attacks on the Crow were held back by the US military presence along the Bozeman Trail. The garrisons had served, for the most part, to keep the enemy to the east of the Little Bighorn River. Now, in the first half of the 1870s with the forts gone, the Sioux pushed west and intensified their assaults on the Crow, coming as far as Mission Creek.

This is not to say the Crow always lost out. In a large skirmish the summer of 1873, at the confluence of Pryor Creek and the Yellowstone River, Crow warriors aided by the Nez Perce, repulsed a Sioux attack and chased them off.

What the military presence failed to do was to keep the white intruders from violating Indian Territory. The Crow agent wrote, “whites were coming onto reservations by the hundreds, killing and driving game...destroying the best of their grazing country by bringing in herds of cattle and horses; roaming at will from one end to the other; searching for gold and silver mines...”

The White Man’s Attitude

Montana was now a territory and many settlers resented the Federal Government establishing large reservations for the Indians. On July 21, 1866, an editorial in the Montana Post, perhaps then the most prominent paper in the state, proclaimed, “the nonsense of trying to civilize the Indian, needs to be replaced by a more aggressive national policy.” Another article later that winter called for a halt to “sickly sentimentalism” that had been ruling Indian regulation. The paper proposed, “a more realistic policy would be to wipe them out,” contending that, “the Indian’s presence in Montana was a blockade to the increased civilization of the territory.” They wanted the Indians to leave or “suffer the consequences.” Governor Meagher (considered by many to be inept) also wanted the reservations to be closed down and demanded that the Indians “get out of the way of the white’s advancement.” There was a double standard in place. The Indians were expected not to stray from their reservation and to refrain from hunting on US lands. Yet ranchers and prospectors held that the Crow domain boundaries should not keep out whites. Agent Kellar reported in August 1881, that whites had “no respect” for the tribe and “deemed it no crime to kill an Indian, but rather an act of heroism.” It was a sad time in our state’s history.


Coercion from mineral seekers and politicians, the fact that a railroad was to be pushed through the Yellowstone Valley, and the desire to place the tribe on more favorable agricultural lands, led the government, in June 1875, to relocate the Crow Agency at Mission Creek to the Stillwater Valley, near present-day Absarokee. This site though, was close to the Sioux and almost immediately, raids on the new outpost for horses, food and guns began. Life here was not good.

Another Move

By the fall of 1883, more pressures were being brought upon the government’s Indian office. Politicians and stockmen solicited the federal agency to “recognize the destruction of the game population by seizing the new hunting territory and confining the tribe to a small agricultural reservation.” Crow agent Henry Armstrong wrote from the Stillwater Headquarters, “these people cannot hold such an extent of country as they now do very much longer.” In addition, Armstrong sensed that the tribe was on the “verge of starvation.” In the past few years, less than fifty Crow had spent the winter at the isolated Crow Agency. Now in early 1884, hostile whites and disappearing game forced most of them to stay close to the agency warehouse. Henry Teller, Secretary of the Interior, wanted the Indians to agree to be moved again. Agent Armstrong offered that the Indians should be governed by force with no say in their plight. In April, 1884, the Crow left the Absaroka Mountains and moved to the valley of the Little Bighorn River to a “permanent reservation” with headquarters at the present-day Crow Agency. It has been written that many of the leaders of the Crow wanted to cooperate with the relocation. They felt that without the help of the “Great White Father” there was no chance for survival, and Chief Plenty Coup sensed that ranching and farming might be an answer to the disappearance of game and bison from their traditional territory. No one could foresee the suffering that was to come to the Crow in the Little Bighorn Country.

1885 Allotments

The matter of individual land allotments on the “new” reservation, had mixed support from the Indians as it was mostly the white man’s idea. Agent Armstrong was convinced that allotments would “save great trouble, annoyance and discontent within the tribe by giving every Crow an opportunity to make his home his castle in every respect.” Others were also anxious to see this system adopted. Calculations showed that if 2,500 tribal members each received a 160-acre homestead, only fifty percent of the five million acres would be needed for the Indian’s use and the rest could be opened up to whites. The Billings Gazette, outspoken against the Crow in those years, said that “the sooner the Crows were allotted, the better for themselves and for the nation; particularly for the citizens of Montana.” Initially, the Indians went about removing allotment survey stakes and fought all efforts to establish them. Several government agents came and went, but were unsuccessful in trying to get the Crow to take possession of their "homesteads.” At the same time, whites continued to intrude on the reservation. The Billings Gazette stated that “the Crows were setting fire to their grazing lands to keep trespassing white stockmen off Crow ranges...another strong argument for settling the Crow on lands in severalty (individual units with no communal tribal land) and promptly reducing the reservation, which has become an intolerable nuisance and a constant menace to white settlers outside of its boundaries.” By 1886, most of the inter-tribal animosities were gone and the Crow and the Sioux began establishing friendships. In September 1886, Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, much to the dismay of the federal Indian agents, came to the reservation to beseech the Crows to fight off any efforts towards forced allotments.

Further Ceding of Crow Land

The Indian agency in Washington D.C., in September 1890 was authorized by Congress, to negotiate with the tribe for the sale of all of their lands west of Pryor Creek, the area that now serves part of the western boundary of the reservation. Within the tribe, there was opposition, as well as support for this idea. Chief Plenty Coups responded, “If you white men put in all your money to buy that land, you would not pay all it is worth...I don’t want to have bad feelings against Indians or whites, but I want my country to remain. The Great Father buys and buys from me and this time I won’t do it.” However, tribal members living in the eastern end of the reservation and those from the country of the Little Bighorn wanted the money and favored the government’s proposal. Referring to them, Plenty Coups said, “In my country (speaking of the western end of the reservation) you can’t find four young men you have had in prison. My people never pointed their guns towards the whites...these people on the Little Bighorn have always had trouble amongst themselves. Mine do not...I don’t want my people to get mixed up in such a crowd as this. The commissioners had better go home.” This resolute stand caused the meeting to be adjourned without action. Eventually, the land sale went through and the tribe received $900,000 plus other “benefits,” including a $12 per tribal member annuity-per-year for twenty years. In 1898, the Government returned once again with another “offer” to purchase “acreage that was being unused.” At a meeting with the land commissioners from the Washington D.C. Indian agency, Chief Plenty Coups, in his role as a leader, was the first to speak. He was absolutely opposed to any new discussions until the promises of the 1890 land sale were fulfilled (most of them were not). He stated, “When you have made these settlements to the Indians then you can come back and I and my people will talk to you about these lands that you now want.” This time Plenty Coups had the unanimous support of the tribe. He and other Crow leaders enlisted young Indian men, who had been sent to government schools off the reservation, to communicate. Spotted Horse told the commissioners...“Here gathered near me you see the boys we sent to school...they are young men now and can read and write; they are men that we look on with confidence.” The learned young men spoke of all the broken promises made in the past. The commissioners were dumbfounded and postponed discussions on the land sales until the spring of 1899. Those deliberations were also put off and a meeting was finally held on August 8, 1899. The commissioners were once more facing a united tribe adamant about having their demands met. Now, the government wanted to purchase the entire reservation lands south of Lodge Grass and to the north of the meeting of the Little Bighorn and Bighorn rivers. Their reasoning was “you would still have all of your most valuable land.” The commissioners listed their promises and on the second day of the meeting, Plenty Coups said “after the back payments are made, we will come back and we will talk to you about buying this land...I will have my boys...young fellows who are educated...see that all back payments are made...” As the proceedings went on, an Indian agent produced $10,000 in US Government drafts to take care of all the back payments owed the tribe. Flashing this money changed the flow of the meeting to discussions on price and what would be sold. It was agreed that the southern portion of the reservation would not be sold. Lands in and around present-day Hardin and north became the focus. The sales were completed in those last months of 1899; the government paid something on the order of one dollar per acre.

Life on the Reservation

In the 1880s times were hard and there was much discontent. At one point, a railroad company wanted a right-of-way across lands in the western end of the reserve. The tribe for the most part was agreeable, but Plenty Coups, head of the band of Indians living on the western district, told the white officer who was negotiating for them, “I want you to get all the pay you can for us.” Other leaders spoke up. Old Dog stated he wanted far less contact with the whites and said, “Don’t ask us for anything else...don’t ask us for anything more. We don’t want anymore roads on our land anywhere...we need larger rations...we don’t get enough.” Spotted Horse added, “We are issue us rations to last seven days and they don’t last half that time.” He then admonished the agent to view the Indian men before him...“You don’t see one fat one among them all.” More rations did come to the Crow, but tension continued to mount.


In 1806, Lewis and Clark estimated that there were a total of 3,500 Crow Indians in all of the bands. A census taken in the summer of 1887 listed 2,450 Crow on the reservation with 630 families accounted for. Ensuing census figures showed a decline in the population for sometime. In 1894, the numbers were 2,126, in 1903 - 1,941, in 1910 - 1,740, and in 1920 there were 1,714 counted. The first rise in population was shown in 1930 with a total of 1,963 Crow listed.

The US Government’s efforts to try and "civilize the tribe" by bringing them into the white man’s world was a large factor in the death of many young tribal members. Tuberculosis, diphtheria and typhoid fever brought on by unsanitary conditions took their toll as they spread throughout the reservation.

Agent Henry Armstrong wrote in 1884, “These Indians hate the white man’s way of life in their hearts.” In 1888, another agent said “hereditary disease and the abrupt change from a nomadic life and the meat diet, to living in houses and an almost vegetable diet, is causing an enormous death rate.”

The Crow people tried their best to hold on to their culture and as some visitors to the reservation in 1886 said, “they still cling with tenacity to all the traditions of the past, and have not deviated in dress, habits or pursuits of the tribe of fifty years ago.”

More Attacks

From 1907 through 1919, the Crow, using perseverance and a new found political savvy, fought off several attempts by outsiders to reduce the size of their property. Members of Montana’s Congressional delegation, viewing much of the reservation as “surplus lands,” intended to retrieve a good amount of it for white homesteaders.

Senator Joseph Dixon made the first assault in December 1907, by asking for 2.5 million acres, with payment to be made only as each parcel was sold. Leading the defense, Chief Medicine Crow advised sending Plenty Coups and several of the well educated tribal members to the nation’s capital to present their case and lobby for a positive resolution. Never giving up, by 1911 they had influenced the defeat of three such bills.

In 1915, Senator Henry Meyers took aim with a “compromise” bill. Robert Yellowtail, a young, well educated Crow from Lodge Grass, came into prominence when he made an eloquent plea to halt said bill and stated that tribal lands would never be taken without the consent of the Tribal Council. A united display and the political alliances formed by Plenty Coups and others began to pay off; the action never made it to the Senate floor.

At the end of World War I in 1919, yet another aggression was made to usurp Crow lands. This time, the ploy was...a promise that no legislation would be enacted without tribal approval, if, the Crows could agree to devise a way to end communal land ownership on the reservation. A split ensued. The older warriors like Plenty Coups, wanted no change whatsoever and felt a solid front could, once again, overcome Congress. The younger faction, influenced by Robert Yellowtail, sensed that the best choice of action was to divide the unallotted lands among themselves, thereby stopping the US Government from eventually giving it away. This would also diminish the effectiveness of the federal Indian office over their people.

After much discourse on both sides, Plenty Coups deferred to Yellowtail and stepped aside. The council drew up a bill, presented it to Congress and in a speech before the Indian Affairs Committee, Robert Yellowtail set the standard for future tribal leaders to follow. He admonished President Woodrow Wilson to remember that the American Indian did not enjoy the same rights as other citizens. Having just returned from the signing of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, President Wilson was about to present his principles for world peace, stressing a US resolution of self-determination for all people.

Likening his people to the “small and weak” of the world, the emerging Crow leader spoke, “Mr. Chairman, I hold that the Crow Indian Reservation is a separate, semi-sovereign nation in itself, not belonging to any State, nor confined within the boundary lines of any State of the Senator or anybody else, sofar as that is concerned, has any right to claim the right to tear us asunder by the continued introduction of bills here without our consent simply because of our geographical proximity to his State or his home, or because his constituents prevail upon him so to act; neither has he the right to dictate to what we shall hold as our final homesteads in this our last stand against the ever encroaching hand, nor continue to disturb our peace of mind by a constant agitation to deprive us of our lands, that were, to begin with, ours, not his, and not given to us by anybody.”

In April of 1920, the Crow Act was passed and a new era in Crow community building and politics came about.

Beyond 1920

This new legislation didn’t ensure the tribe would be free of interference. Now though, as more of the young Crow gained an education, they were better positioned to deal with a future that was to become more complicated. Section II of the Crow Act gave individual tribal members their own land bringing private property rights to the forefront. Land could now be sold, and was, to outsiders, resulting in a loss of some of the all important land base; although, since the early 1990s, more land than ever before is being returned to tribal ownership through exchanges and outright purchases. This segment of the 1920 law put a limitation on non-tribal land ownership; a stipulation that was to be enforced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA however was lax in complying and the regulation was constantly violated. As a consequence, the titles of an estimated 650,000 acres are currently clouded. A survey of Crow lands along the 107th meridian went astray, in some place up to one mile, and deleted reservation property. With the successful 1990 settlement of this boundary fiasco, the tribe received a portion of the land back, plus an additional 40,000 acres of school lands. Also they were granted a permanent eighty-five million dollar trust fund; the interest from which is used for economic development, education, and youth and elderly programs. Water rights have, until recently, been hazy. Early on, the tribe didn’t know how much they owned and lacked management authority over flows through the reservation. Notification that their water would be adjudicated by the state was given in the mid-1970s; and a negotiated settlement, rather than a court mandated measure, was reached in June, 1999, which by all appearances the Indians benefited from. The actual contract is not final until Congress and the tribe give approval. Negotiations are still under way to clear up some of the wrongs of the Crow Act and a state and tribe coal severance tax question tied to the water affair. When all of this is completed, the Crow stand to gain more resources. There have been, and continue to be, many other controversies and concerns since 1920, such as coal development and struggles with the National Park Service over Bighorn Canyon land and economic benefits. But the Crow People today are in a much stronger position to handle them. More dialogue is taking place and issues between white and red are being sorted out, in spite of ongoing prejudices and past injustices. The Tribal Council prefers mediations over court. A long history of friendship with whites is on record; they would like to continue in that spirit. Common sense dictates that partnerships work far better than confrontations. A victorious Crow delegation that defeated the efforts of a powerful US Senator in 1919 created a turning point in Crow history. Before this the Crow existed on the edge of US society. Afterwards they slowly became part of the nation’s mainstream and self-sufficiency increased. This course continues today as positive signs of progress appear at Crow Agency; at the same time the traditions and values of the past are not being dismissed. Strong leadership and education through the Crow’s own Little Big Horn College are leading the way.