European immigrants are credited for “civilizing” the United States, but prior to their arrival America had long been inhabited by tribes of indigenous people. In the fifteenth century, when Christopher Columbus landed in what he presumed was the Indies, he began calling these inhabitants “Indians,” a label that would last centuries until the modern term “Native Americans” came into use.
Prior to white settlement, Indian tribes stretched from coast to coast across North America. Spanish explorers introduced horses to the Plains Indians during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which allowed the Indians to cover ground more rapidly and made them nomadic, able to follow their main source of food, clothing, and shelter—the buffalo—along its migratory path.
Indians were divided into tribes, or small societies. A chief served as the religious, moral, and political leader of each tribe. Tribes were divided into “bands,” with each band containing around 500 members, including men, women, and children. A governing council for each band, along with the tribal chief, served as the authority for members of the tribe. Only the males from the tribe were entrusted with governance responsibilities, and the men also provided food, shelter, and safety, while the women assumed domestic roles.
Tribal lines were typically strong. Men and women rarely married outside their tribe, and it was unusual for two tribes to work in cooperation. Young male tribe members were warriors who competed with warriors from other tribes for superiority, often in bloody battles. This lack of Indian unity contributed to the losses they suffered at the hands of the white society.
When European settlers began to inhabit the Atlantic Coast, Indians native to that region spread westward—often encroaching on other tribes. Still, the vast expanse of the western plains would have been adequate for a relatively peaceful existence for the Indians, but the white society followed them west.
By the early nineteenth century, the United States government had claimed most of North America as its own, either as states or territories. Initially, Indians were “allowed” to remain on this land, although the federal government made attempts to regulate their habitation. The U.S. government was not sure how to classify Indians who occupied U.S. territory, so tribes were considered to be both independent nations and wards of the state. This dual—albeit contradictory—perspective, required that treaties negotiated with Indian tribes be ratified by the U.S. Senate.
However, the ratification requirement did not ensure fair enforcement. White settlers recognized that the Indians inhabited land that could be beneficial to agriculture, settlement, and other endeavors. In an effort to obtain these native lands, tribes were often victimized, sometimes by the very people that the Senate had put in charge of protecting them. The desire to attain tribal lands often led people in power to ignore treaties and look the other way as Indians were unlawfully and unfairly removed from their locations.
In 1851, the United States government began to introduce a Concentration Policy. This strategy would provide white settlers with the most productive lands and relocate Indians to areas north and south of white settlements. Over the next decade, Indians were evicted from their land to make way for a white society.
However, the settlers were not satisfied with the Concentration Policy, and they sought to restrict Indians to even smaller areas through relocation. For example, the Sioux tribe, which had previously spread across the northern United States, was relocated to an area in Dakota Territory known as the Black Hills. Present-day Oklahoma became known as “Indian Territory” as additional tribes were relocated to reservations there. The federal government relocated hundreds of thousands of Indians under the guise of protecting them, when in truth the government’s primary goal was attaining the Indians’ lands.
The federal government established the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1836 to be in charge of the relocated Indians. Illustrating the government’s sentiment toward Indians, this bureau was initially placed under the Department of War, and one of its primary responsibilities was to prevent Indian military action against whites.
However, by the mid-nineteenth century, the BIA had shifted its focus to overseeing Indian concentration and relocation. It aimed to provide reasonable protection to the Indians—however, their lands were still fair game. Corruption by BIA leaders and agents further resulted in the destruction of the Indian lifestyle. Many agents were paid to look the other way as white men took land and game that rightfully belonged to the Indians. This flawed federal aid program furthered the Indians’ resentment toward white society and created an atmosphere of conflict.
Warfare was constant between whites and Indians in the late nineteenth century, as Native Americans fought to protect their land and their heritage from white encroachment. Although they had the benefit of state-of-the-art weapons (repeating rifles obtained from fur traders), they were up against formidable U.S. forces.
As the dust settled from the Civil War, soldiers from both sides of that conflict were ready to step into another fray. The battle to acquire U.S. territories from Indians was predominantly fought by Civil War veterans, including a significant number of black men who were assigned to a fighting group called the Buffalo Regiment. Under the guidance of Generals William T. Sherman, P.T. Sheridan, and George Custer, these “Buffalo Soldiers” advanced confidently and repeatedly against Indian tribes.
Although some battles against Indians were brutal on both sides, other conflicts were nothing but displays of dominance by U.S. troops. One such battle was the Sand Creek Massacre, which occurred in Colorado in 1864. At that time, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes inhabited the Sand Creek region after being forcibly relocated there due to the gold rush in 1861. Miners overtook their area and pushed the tribes into a desolate locale.
The approximately 400 Indians living in this area believed they had been granted immunity and protective custody by the United States government when Colonel J.M. Chivington’s troops arrived. Chivington ordered his troops to slaughter the Indian men, women, and children to flaunt their dominance over the natives.
The gold rush also led to another legendary conflict. The Sioux tribe, led by Chief Sitting Bull, had been relocated to the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory and had been living there in peace when miners determined the Black Hills to be another gold rush target in 1875. General Custer was called to lead troops to move the Sioux away from the area the miners sought to excavate. Undaunted, the Sioux pushed back in a clash that would become known as the Sioux War and would span from 1876 to 1877.
The warfare came to a head on June 25, 1877 at Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory. General Custer, seeking to overtake the ore-rich land for the miners, came across a settlement of over 7,000 Indians from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. Even though he realized the U.S. forces were largely outnumbered, Custer believed that the element of surprise would work to his advantage. Dividing his troops into three groups of approximately 200 men each, he directed the groups to encircle the camp and launch an attack.
However, before the attack could commence, Custer and his group found themselves surrounded by an Indian sneak attack led by famed war Chief Crazy Horse. The well-armed Indians attacked Custer and his men without mercy. In a two-hour battle, Crazy Horse’s 2,500 warriors massacred Custer and his 264 men. Winning the Sioux War did not ensure their safety, so Chief Sitting Bull led his Sioux to Canada, where they established themselves as peaceful and law-abiding residents.
While the Sioux were struggling in the northern plains, the Nez Perce tribe, led by Chief Joseph, was fighting a similar battle in the Pacific Northwest. This tribe was centralized in Oregon and Idaho after ceding large amounts of land to the United States in the name of peace. However, the United States made continued attempts to concentrate the Nez Perce into smaller and smaller areas. In 1877, the U.S. told the Nez Perce that they would be removed either by agreement or force from the Wallowa Valley. The tribe resisted this encroachment with several battles that reduced both U.S. and Nez Perce forces.
Chief Joseph had a reputation for being a humane and noble leader, and he did not wish for the bloodshed to continue. He decided to seek Chief Sitting Bull’s advice, but needed to travel to Canada to do so. He mobilized his troops and began the 75-day, 1,500 mile trip to Sitting Bull’s locale, only to be overcome by U.S. forces 30 miles from the Canadian border.
After first promising to return the tribe to their ancestral lands in Idaho, the U.S. government redirected the Nez Perce’s trek south, placing them in an Indian camp in Kansas. The camp was infected with malaria and over one-third of the Nez Perce died while in Kansas. Eventually, the remaining members of the Nez Perce tribe were relocated to Oklahoma. They would later be allowed to return to the northwest but were never allowed to return to the Wallowa Valley. These moves took their toll on the Nez Perce tribe, and by the time they were allowed to return to the northwest, they numbered only a fraction of the once-strong tribe.
The Apache was another tribe damaged by warfare. Although several Apache accepted the relocation effort and became relatively successful farmers and cattle ranchers in Oklahoma, many others firmly resisted relocation efforts. Led by Geronimo and Cochise, Apache warriors established a base in the Rocky Mountains, where they fought a nine-year guerilla war against U.S. troops. The U.S. eventually pushed the Apache further into the southwest and Mexico and captured Geronimo. Cochise surrendered and allowed his tribe to be relocated and concentrated.
There was one final event in the series of Indian Wars. An Indian named Wovoka, who also went by the English name Jack Wilson, dreamt that a supreme being would rescue the Indians from the opposing U.S. forces. Wovoka’s dream indicated that Indians could hasten the rescue by performing a “Ghost Dance” on the eve of each New Moon.
Indian tribes, especially the Sioux, placed their faith in the Ghost Dance and performed it with unprecedented fervor. White settlers, although not believing Wovoka’s prophecy, feared the atmosphere the Ghost Dance created and asked the federal government to make the religious ceremony illegal. Although the government never fulfilled that request, they watched Ghost Dance ceremonies with a cautious eye.
When a particularly passionate Ghost Dance raised concerns in 1890, authorities stepped in to control the furor by arresting the Chief. During the arrest, the Chief was killed, which only served to inflame the already resentful Indians. The atmosphere was tense.
The tension spilled over into conflict on the night of December 29, 1890. An accidental gunfire at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, caused both sides to mistakenly believe that warfare had begun. The result was a bloodbath, with over 200 Indians—men, women, and children—and a significant number of U.S. soldiers killed. The Indians harbored resentment for the massacre, but for the most part they sought an end to the Indian Wars and allowed themselves to be integrated into American society.
The cruelty inflicted on the natives during the Indian Wars was chronicled by Helen Hunt Jackson in her book “A Century of Dishonor,” which was published in 1881 and distributed by Jackson to every member of Congress. Jackson had become incensed at the harsh treatment of Indians during a lecture by Chief Sitting Bear of the Ponca tribe in 1879. Her mission to improve Indian conditions furthered the effort to assimilate Indians onto reservations “for their own good.”
By 1890, all Indian tribes were consolidated onto government-structured reservations. The government accepted the responsibility of establishing these reservations because they believed the cost of caring for the Indians would be less than the cost of fighting them. Once the reservations were established, the government played a miniscule role in their day-to-day management and provided little support.
The cost of the Indian Wars was great. In addition to the financial cost of sustaining troops and the loss of human life, the Indian Wars wreaked havoc on the country’s natural resources, particularly the buffalo. The government encouraged the slaughter of buffalo to eliminate the Indians’ food and housing resources to make them easier to fight. Buffalo had numbered over 50 million across the United States prior to the Indian Wars. That number was reduced to around 15 million by 1868, and less than 1,000 by 1885.
Amidst the many detriments of the Indian Wars, there was one positive result. The conflicts and the relocation of Indians benefited the newly established railroads by providing a steady steam of travelers. Troops rode the rails to and from battles, and Indians were loaded onto railway cars and shipped to reservations. The Indian Wars helped solidify the railroad as a necessary transportation source.
The effects of the Indian Wars on the Indians themselves were significant. The many skirmishes greatly reduced the number of Indians living within U.S. borders, and the wars also had a deep emotional impact on those Indians who survived. Many Indians felt dehumanized by the experience of being relocated to reservations, since the moves had not been by choice.
Although Indians living on reservations tended to socialize only with other Indians, they were forced to interact with non-Indian teachers, merchants, and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents. This contact was not always beneficial to the Indians. Physical interaction with white society—sometimes consensual, sometimes not—introduced diseases into the native population. It also introduced vices, including the over-consumption of alcohol. Thus far, attempts to contain the natives had only resulted in transference of the most negative characteristics of white society.
However, attempts to “civilize” the Indians continued. Recognizing that Native Americans were easier to deal with individually rather than by tribe, Massachusetts Senator Henry M. Dawes sponsored an act which provided Indians with land and U.S. citizenship. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, also known as the Allotment Act, gave the president authority to divide tribal lands and award 160 acres to each family head and lesser amounts to other tribe members.
In addition, the government would hold the property in trust for 25 years, and at the end of that time the Indians would be granted ownership of the land and United States’ citizenship. Although this act was beneficial for individual Indians, it was irreparably harmful to tribes. Essentially, it removed all tribal ownership of land. Two-thirds of the Indian lands were lost forever to the United States government. It also ended legal entity status for tribes. With the destruction of the tribal structure, it furthered the assimilation of Indians into white culture at the cost of devastating Indian culture. Indian children were sent to army-style boarding schools, where acts and discussions of Indian culture were prohibited.Although Indian culture was rapidly decaying, the end of the Indian Wars and the government-protected reservations allowed the Indian population to increase. In 1887, approximately 243,000 Indians lived within U.S. borders. Today, that number is over two million. However, modern leaders continue to fight the loss of Indian lands and the diminishing culture caused by the Indian Wars.