In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was built across the Great Plains, bringing with it droves of buffalo hunters. Shooting from the trains, they quickly reduced the great bison herds. General Sherman, commander of the US Army, counted on the completion of the railroads to solve the “Indian problem.” With little success in battle, he believed that the white buffalo hunters, not the army, would force the Indians to become wards of the government. He once said that the US government would have to “Concede [to the Indians] a right to hunt buffaloes as long as they last, and this may lead to collisions, but it will not be long before all the buffaloes are extinct…” In slightly more than ten years, a continental herd of fifty million bison was reduced to a few thousand stragglers.
In the late 19th century, the Lakota spent much time in the Powder River region, in the western part of their territory. At the time, the region contained what may have been the largest remaining bison herd on the continent. Conquering the Powder River was a critical objective for the army, so they could then force the Lakota to move to reservations further east where there were no longer any bison.