In the last part of the 19th Century, the U.S. Army's chief enemy was the scores of Native American tribes who still roamed America's Great Plains and dominated the American Southwest, among other places. As sporadic attacks against settlers in those regions increased, the U.S. government decided it had to act. By the dawn of the 20th Century most of the tribes had capitulated and resigned themselves to their reservations.
And it all started with a lame cow.
Lameness describes an injury to the cows foot that adversely affects its life.
A cow can become lame for any number of reasons, such as a toe abnormality, something getting embedded in its hoof, or even just walking long distances regularly. When a cow's hoof becomes bruised or worn down, the animal spends more time laying down and tends to eat less, adversely affecting its condition. A cow with this condition passed through Fort Laramie, Wyoming one day in 1855 along with a group of Mormon immigrants.
While the group of settlers rested at Fort Laramie, their lame old cow wandered off by itself. Eventually, it came across a group of Mniconjou tribesmen who were waiting for an annuity from the U.S. government. It was late, the men were starving and had no means to procure food for themselves. Naturally, once the cow was in sight, it became dinner.
The cow was allegedly worth four dollars, but when the Natives tried to trade a good horse for the lame cow (the one they already ate), the offer was rejected. Instead, the settlers demanded for the cow. At first, the Army was willing to brush the incident off as trivial and stupid, but the officer of the post was no fan of the Indians. He set out with some 30 troops and departed for one of the Indian Camps to confront them about the cow. After brief words were exchanged by a drunken translator that was also really bad at his job, the soldiers began to fire into the Indians.
The Indians fought back. By the end of it, the leader of the Lakota was dead along with all the Army soldiers. The Army retaliated by gathering 600 troops and assaulting the Lakota where they lived. The Plains Wars just began in earnest. The Army struck a number of tribes over the next few years, as President Ulysses S. Grant decided he'd had enough of the natives and it was time to pony up the resources to get them onto reservations.
All because of one lame cow.
The fighting began with the Lakota, then came the Cheyenne, the Kiowa, Apache, Arapaho, and eventually, even the dreaded Comanche tribe were systematically subdued by the Army and forced onto reservations. One by one the tribes were forced to abandon their traditional lands and ways of life, for life on the reservations. Most of the Indians never received anything promised by the government and fought on until they were forced to capitulate.