Chief Black Bear played a prominent role in the Indian Wars in Wyoming even though he attempted for most his time as leader to find peace with the non-Indians. This did not mean, however, that he was as willing to give up his warring ways with enemy tribes.
In 1856, Black Bear was leading forty Arapaho warriors on the warpath. They were on the trail of “thieving Utes” and had been following them for 500 miles from the Platte River to the Black Hills when they met up with a troop of soldiers under Col. Johnston on the Utah Expedition. To show their willingness for peace, the warriors unsaddled their horses, turned them loose and sat down for a talk interpreted by Friday. Private John Pulsipher later wrote how impressed he was of these men and how well-dressed they were.
By 1859, Black Bear was one of the main chiefs at the Council of Deer Creek where the Northern Arapaho made a plea for their own reservation and farming equipment. They stated that the vast buffalo herds had been depleted and would not return to the same place after scenting a white man.
In 1860, the Northern Arapaho met with Governor Evans several times in an attempt to secure a reservation in the Cache la Poudre area. Governor Evans spoke of the folly of war and the chiefs agreed. Their bands by now were poor and hungry and continued to make a stand for peace towards the non-Indians. Black Bear was among the leaders of the Northern Arapaho who signed a statement that they would abide by any treaty made with the U.S. government. In exchange for their signatures, they were given rations for their families.
In late August of 1865, Black Bear and his camp were attacked at Tongue River and lost most their belongings to the U.S. army and Pawnee scouts. (See the blog post, Black Bear, Battle of Tongue River)
On April 29, 1868, Black Bear was one of the first signers of the Ft. Laramie Treaty. He, along with Medicine Man, Sorrell Horse and Little Shield agreed to accept as a “permanent home” some portion of the country set aside at Medicine Lodge or a portion of the reservation of the Sioux. Later in June, twenty-one other Northern Arapaho added their mark to the treaty, a treaty that was never fulfilled.
By February 17, 1870, Black Bear was instrumental in a peace treaty between the Shoshone and the Arapaho. Largely through his efforts and that of Medicine Man and Little Wolf, the Northern Arapaho could now travel unmolested in the Shoshone country. The Shoshones refused to permit the Arapaho to settle on their reservation and the Arapahos fully agreed.
Only two months later on April 8, 1870, Black Bear was fatally attacked. Bill Smith, a “daredevil miner” took seventy-five mounted men on a raid against the Arapaho. It was to avenge the killing in Atlantic City and St. Mary’s. It was assumed to have been done by the Northern Arapaho War Chief Little Shield and his men.
The small band of Arapaho who Smith came upon were being led by Black Bear, not Little Shield, and were on their way to Camp Brown (at the present site of Lander) to trade. They were unarmed and saw the company approach from the distance and did not try to run. Black Bear was killed along with two women and fourteen other men. His wife and child and seven other Arapaho children were captured – including Swiftest Runner who was renamed Sherman Coolidge and returned to his tribe many years later, educated and as a Christian missionary.
After Black Bear’s murder, as the Bureaus of Indian affairs classified it, the Arapahos became more bitter than ever and Medicine Man left the Wind River area. The tribe’s hope for a reservation near Fort Casper died with Black Bear. The threat of small pox forced Medicine Man to return to Ft. Fetterman and his own untimely end. It wasn’t until both leaders were gone, that the Northern Arapaho finally found a temporary home which eventually became their permanent reservation with the Shoshone on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.