Distrust and Retaliation: Tracing the Roots of the Arikara War

Distrust and Retaliation: Tracing the Roots of the Arikara War

An Arikara warrior, by artist Karl Bodmer

In August of 1823, the U.S. Army, along with their Sioux allies, attacked villages of Arikara (Sahnish) located near the confluence of the Grand and Missouri Rivers. The attack was launched in response to an attack led by the Arikara on a group of fur traders months earlier. Called the Arikara War, it marked the first time in which the United States Army was deployed for operations west of the Missouri River on the Great Plains.

The origins of the Arikara War can be traced back to 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through Arikara lands. While the expedition was preparing to continue west from Fort Mandan, they were met by a group of Arikara who said they were considering relocating near the Mandans and Hidatsas for the benefit of mutual protection. They also said that they wished to travel to Washington D.C. to meet with the President. 

An Arikara expedition to Washington D.C., led by Ankedoucharo, was quickly arranged. The Arikara expedition arrived in Washington in February 1806 and met with President Thomas Jefferson. They continued on to Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. But then, on April 7, 1806, Ankedoucharo died of illness. President Jefferson quickly composed a letter of condolence to the Arikaras over the loss of their leader, but the Arikaras believed the death had not been properly explained. This set off a period of mistrust between the Arikaras and the United States Government. 

“He (Chief Ankedoucharo) consented to go towards the sea as far as Baltimore and Philadelphia. He said the chief found nothing but kindness and good will wherever he went, but on his return to Washington he became ill. Everything we could do to help him was done but it pleased the Great Spirit to take him from among us. We buried him among our own deceased friends and relations. We shed many tears over his grave.”

President Jefferson’s eulogy to the Arikara over the death of their leader, Ankedoucharo

By 1823, the Arikara could no longer depend on their traditional lifeways of agriculture and hunting for their survival. Like many Native American tribes, their numbers dwindled due to disease and they became more and more dependent on non-traditional trade networks provided by large fur trading companies. At the time, General William Ashley of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was setting up a huge trapping and trading network that relied on the transportation of the Missouri River. The Arikara asked Ashley to set up a permanent post near their settlements, but Ashley said he would only ship goods up the Missouri from St. Louis, essentially cutting the Arikara out of the trade network and threatening their survival. It seems that the Arikara may have also resented the fact that the Sioux, their traditional enemies, had such trading posts while they did not. 

Then, on June 2, 1823, the Arikara attacked boats belonging to General William Ashley. The Arikara killed between fourteen and twenty trappers, wounding several others, and taking all trade goods from the boats. This attack was portrayed in the 1954 biographical novel Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred and then later in the 2015 film The Revenant. The U.S. responded in August of 1823, sending Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth and a combined force of 230 soldiers of the 6th Infantry, 750 Sioux allies, and 50 trappers and other company employees. On August 9 an assault of Sioux cavalry was launched against the Arikara. The initial assault was successfully repelled by the Arikara and on August 10 Leavenworht ordered a military bombardment. When this was ineffective, Leavenworth ordered an infantry attack. All attacks failed and on August 11 Leavenworth negotiated a truce with the Arikara. But, that night, fearing another attack, the Arikara left their village and the following day it was burned to the ground by resentful members of the Missouri Fur Company. 

Hostilities between the U.S. and Arikara officially ended on July 18, 1825, when a peace treaty was signed between the two nations. Although the conflict was brief, it was representative of the growing conflicts and changing alliances that would lead to the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862 and the Sioux Wars that followed.  


Wikipedia contributors, “Arikara War,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Arikara_War&oldid=1211808759 (accessed March 12, 2024).

Wikipedia contributors, “Arikara,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Arikara&oldid=1204765265 (accessed March 12, 2024).

“Section 4: The Arikara War,” North Dakota Studies, https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr8/content/unit-ii-time-transformation-1201-1860/lesson-4-alliances-and-conflicts/topic-2-diplomacy-trade-and-war/section-4-arikara-war (accessed March 12, 2024).

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