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American Indian Wars

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General Custer's last stand at the Little Bighorn.
The white man's burden
Icon imperialism.svg
The empires strike back
Veni, vidi, vici
The whites have driven us from the sea to the lakes. We can go no further… unless every tribe unanimously combines to give a check to the ambition and avarice of the whites they will soon conquer us apart and disunited and we will be driven from our native country and scattered as autumn leaves before the wind.
—Tecumseh, before creating his tribal confederation.[1]
When I think of our condition my heart is heavy. I see men of my race treated as outlaws and driven from country to country, or shot down like animals.
—Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce, 1879.[2]

The American Indian Wars were a long series of armed conflicts fought between colonial powers (British Empire, French Empire, United States) and various Native American tribes and alliances. Wars began in North America dating from the earliest European settlements there and lasted until the Twentieth Century. Clashes with Native Americans were an important aspect from American history, influencing vital events such as the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and even the American Civil War.

American independence increased the intensity of the Indian wars, but American victory over two huge coalitions of Native American tribes in the War of 1812 permanently sealed their fate. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to force Native Americans to move west of the Mississippi River, and subsequent years saw the US government continue to mercilessly force them westward. For Native Americans to be tolerated after this period, they had to go through a brutal system of forced education and assimilation.[3] American policy towards the First Peoples also involved outright massacres or even acts of genocide.

Despite their importance in shaping American history, the American Indian Wars are often minimized or outright ignored in American culture and history classes.[4][5] A disturbing amount of American academic resources for teaching history refer to Native Americans as existing only in the past and as having no relevance to the modern day.[6] Educational resources also generally treat the American Indian Wars as something that happened "nicely" and were dealt with reasonably and civilly by the American colonists.[6] Any informed person knows this is bullshit.

In a sense, the American Indian Wars are still happening. Tribes are battling mining and pipeline threats from multinational corporations, most well-known being the standoff at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota over the Dakota Access Pipeline.[7] Nowadays, Native Americans largely use nonlethal weapons like protest, self-determination and tribal rights laws, international human rights measures, and resources from tribal gambling businesses. Nonetheless, they are still struggling to protect their land from seizure by the United States.

Notable conflicts[edit]

Colonial era[edit]

1616 engraving of Pocahontas "Rebecca."

Anglo-Powhatan Wars (1609-1646)[edit]

Hostilities between British colonists and Native Americans began almost immediately after their arrival. Jamestown, Virginia was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, and it just so happened to have been built on the territory of Chief Wahunsunacawh, called Chief Powhatan by the English.[8] Wahunsunacawh was an immensely powerful native leader who ruled between 28 and 32 smaller native tribes, and he didn't appreciate having a bunch of white people spilling out of boats onto his shoreline.[9] The English, for their part, found it difficult to determine which tribes were which and where Wahunsunacawh's land began and ended. They also made things worse for themselves by assuming that Native American farms were vacant; the natives did not appreciate going forth to plant their crops in their ancestor's fields only to find a bunch of white people growing tobacco there.[10]

Wahunsunacawh was a crafty old bastard. He ordered an attack on Jamestown in order to test the limitations of the English muskets, and then he pretended not to have authorized the assault and gave a dubious offer of protection to the English.[9] Peace between the English and the Indians was thus uneasy. Matters reached a critical point in 1609, when a storm destroyed Jamestown's supply ship from England, forcing the colonists to improvise in order to survive. They attacked the Nansemond tribe for resources and, according to English captain George Percy, "burned their howses ransaked their Temples, Tooke downe the Corpes of their deade kings from their Toambes, and Caryed away their pearles Copper and braceletts wherewith they doe decore their kings funeralles."[11] This led to a diplomatic breakdown between the English and Powhatan's tribal confederacy. War followed. Rather than sacrifice his warriors to the English muskets, Wahunsunacawh instead wisely chose to lay siege to Jamestown and let the colonists' supply problems do the work for him. Unfortunately for them, a second English ship arrived with a year's worth of supplies, allowing the English to regroup and once again go on the offensive.[9] The two sides agreed to a truce in 1614.

Woodcut depicting the 1622 Jamestown massacre.

During this time, the English famously took Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas captive. She converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and spent the rest of her short life travelling to and from England and living as something of an early modern celebrity.[12]

Peace did not last, although the English successfully used it to grow their strength. Worried about this, the new leader of the tribal confederacy, Opechancanough, launched a massive series of surprise attacks in 1622 against the English settlements that had most directly infringed on their territory,[13] and infamously killed about 347 people in Jamestown.[14] It is almost certain that the Native Americans did not intend to destroy the English settlements, for if they wanted that then they would have done it. Instead, it seems more likely that the natives intended to intimidate the English into playing by the natives' rulebook, so to speak.

Regardless, the attacks created a dire situation for the English; they were forced to abandon many of their settlements and hunker down in what was left of Jamestown.[13] The English naturally assumed that the natives were trying to exterminate them. Colonist Edward Waterhouse expressed the general sentiment of the English by writing, "Our hands which before were tied with gentlenesse and faire usage, are now set at liberty. [We] may now by right of Warre, and law of Nations, invade their Country."[13] He also wrote about what the English hoped to gain from the war: to "enjoy their cultivated places" and reduce the natives to "to servitude and drudgery".[13] The second of the Anglo-Powhatan wars dragged on for a decade. The English had basically won by 1624, but they deliberately prolonged the war in order to destroy native settlements and steal their food.[13] By the time of the 1632 truce, the English had gained the upper hand in Virginia.

The Powhatan confederacy attacked again in 1644, killing several hundred people. Once again, the attack was not an attempt at total destruction. Anthropologist Frederick Gleach writes: "Like his earlier attack, the 1644 coup can be best understood as an attempt by Opechancanough to correct the colonists’ inappropriate behavior and to stay their ceaseless expansion."[10] The English colonists gained the advantage, and they even managed to capture the aged leader Openchancanough. While Virginia's governor considered sending him to London as a royal prisoner (the English considered Indian chiefs to be royalty, not understanding any of the concepts of Indian government), a trigger-happy soldier instead shot Opechancanough in the back, killing him.[10] After winning the war, the English sold their hundreds of prisoners into slavery and used the treaty to force the battered Powhatan Confederacy out of Virginia.[10]

King Philip's War (1675-1678)[edit]

English attack on the Narragansett fort.

This conflict, despite its relatively small size, has been called the most devastating war in the history of the United States due to the fact that more than 10% of the entire colonist population was killed.[15] The Native Americans managed to attack 52 of New England’s 90 towns, pillaging 25 and outright razing 17.[15]

The underlying cause of the war was land, of course. The immediate cause was when the English colonists executed three men loyal to Wampanoag chief Metacomet, who the English knew as King Philip.[16] Afraid that the Narragansett tribe would join Metacomet, the English colonists attacked their camp and murdered its roughly 1,000 inhabitants by burning it.[16]

Another thing that makes King Philip’s War remarkable is that some historians see it as more of a civil war than a colonial war.[17] The colonists recruited the Mohegans and the Mohawks to battle against Metacomet's coalition, thus pitting native against native. However, before the war the natives and the colonists had also merged into a singular community. Historian James Drake wrote in his book King Philip’s War: Civil War in New England that,[17]

The English and the Indians, as part of the same society with their polities interwoven, fought a civil war by fighting one another. Looking closely at the political culture of the Indians and the English, we see that Philip sought to preserve his people's sovereignty by incorporating them into the English political system. The English, in turn, viewed Philip and his followers as subjects, traitorous ones after they waged the war in 1675.

By 1676, the colonists had enraged the natives to such an extent that they were coming under constant attack. This was a wide, disorganized war, and both sides routinely launched raids and burned food stores.[15] The natives, however, eventually ran out of manpower due to taking heavier losses against the colonists' increasingly sophisticated warfare strategies. Metacomet himself was captured and killed in battle. His corpse was beheaded and his body quartered, with the quarters hung from trees in order to deny the "treasonous king" a proper burial.[15]

The war ended any possibility of future coexistence between the colonists and the natives. It wrecked New England's economy for the next 100 years,[15] but it also helped lay the seeds of an independent colonial identity. This was the first time the New England colonies had fought a war without assistance from England.

French and Indian wars (1688–1763)[edit]

Native musketeers ambush the British in what is now Pennsylvania, 1755.

Native Americans were also the backbone of the Seven Years' War American front, referred to by Americans as the French and Indian War. While the British had colonized the Hudson Bay area as well as the eastern seaboard of what would become the United States, the French Empire had colonized Quebec. Both colonial powers had separate reasons for colonization. The French sought to exploit the New World's wealth through trade, and they learned native languages and intermarried into the tribes.[18] The English sought land, and were thus far more aggressive towards the continent's native inhabitants. England's greater concern for building settlements and immigrating people over to the colonies meant that their colonial population was much higher than France's. This would be a decisive factor in the outcome of these colonial wars.

The two geopolitical rivals inevitably came into combat with each other. King William's War was the first of these conflicts and provides a useful case study for how they went. The Native Americans stuck between the English and the French successfully played the two sides against each other, and the English recruited the Iroquois Confederacy went to war with the French, who were allied with the Wabanaki Confederacy.[19] The war saw heavy use by both colonial powers of their native allies as manpower.

French and native attack on Fort Oswego in upstate New York, 1756.

England (which became Great Britain in 1707) and France clashed again during the War of the Spanish Succession; the New World theatre of this conflict is called Queen Anne's War. It ended with France being forced to cede the Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and Acadia (modern Nova Scotia).[20] These conflicts demonstrate how the two powers used Native Americans as both proxies and as buffer states.

The greatest of these conflicts came during the Seven Years War, and it's called the French and Indian War in the US. Great Britain and France fought immediately over the Ohio River Valley, but they more greatly sought to decide which colonial power would ultimately dominate inner North America. British colonies had rapidly expanded in population, and the colonists decided to move westward into areas that were theoretically owned by the French and the Native Americans.[21] The French retaliated by building a trade center called Fort Duquesne at what is now Pittsburgh inside what the British considered as their territory.[21] The British government sent a representative, 21-year-old George Washington, to demand that the French back off.[21] The French refused, and the war was on.

The French began the war with far more native allies than the British, in large part due to their less invasive colonial policies.[22] Ultimately, however, the British prevailed in North America and managed to take Quebec. Several key developments came during the peace. The British made peace with the Shawnee and the other French-aligned Ohio tribes (Wyandot, Ottawa, Ojibwa, Kaskaskia, Miami, and Potawatomi) by promising not to build settlements in the Ohio area.[22] The British also diplomatically vassalized the leader of the Ottawa, Chief Pontiac, on the condition that they treat him honorably.[18]

Pontiac's War (1763–1766)[edit]

Siege of Fort Detroit, 1763.

The British proceeded to not treat Pontiac honorably. While the French had welcomed their native allies into their forts, traded weapons with them, and intermarried with them, the British were not willing to do any of this.[23] From the Native's perspective, this was not only a breach of protocol, but an open insult to their nations and their leaders. In response to native unrest, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British forces, infamously inquired as to whether it was possible to deliberately distribute smallpox-infected blankets in order to exterminate the natives.[23] Essentially, it was only a matter of time before the Ohio natives united against the British.

Ottawa leader Pontiac assembled a coalition of the Ojibwas, Potawatomis, Huron, Miami, Weas, Kickapoo, Mascouten, Piankashaw, Delaware, Shawnee, Wyandot, Seneca, and Seneca-Cayuga against the British.[24] After the native coalition won a series of victories, the British implemented Amherst's plan of biological warfare. The British gave Native American delegations blankets and handkerchiefs infected with smallpox, and they also resorted to executing prisoners.[25] The resulting smallpox epidemic was devastating, and Pontiac's coalition soon collapsed.

A number of key developments were caused by the native uprising. In response to the outbreak of war, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763 which forbade westward expansion of the British colonists and placed the Ohio area under control of the recently-conquered French authorities in Quebec.[26] This was a major factor contributing to the beginning of the American Revolution.

Early United States[edit]

British-aligned Native Americans attack St. Louis, 1780.

American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)[edit]

See the main article on this topic: American Revolution

Native Americans played a huge role in the Revolution. The Declaration of Independence accuses George III of attacking the Americans by siding with the "merciless Indian Savages."[27] Apart from the "savages" part, this is actually true. The vast majority of Native American tribes sided with the British, as they were aware of the Proclamation of 1763 and aptly considered the Revolution in part a war for native land. Of those who sided with the Americans, most were of the New England tribes which had formed a deep cultural and economic connection with the American colonies.[28]

Both sides sought native allies in the struggle. The longstanding Iroquois Confederacy actually split over the issue, as the Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas remained loyal to their traditional ally Great Britain while the Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans.[28] Although they tried to avoid it, the Iroquois fell into a state of civil war. For them, there were times when brother literally killed brother.[29] This situation worsened when General John Sullivan led an American army through their lands, burning forty towns and destroying food crops.[28]

Natives in Ohio tried to stay neutral, but were forced to join the British after American forces attacked them.[28]

Ultimately, native participation in the Revolutionary War left a deep psychological impact on the Americans. Although the natives had fought only to protect their land, the Americans convinced themselves that the natives had backed monarchy and tyranny.[28] Thus, the newly-independent Americans would subsequently have no moral issue with usurping and killing the Native Americans in the future. For them, there was no paradox of liberty or "all men are created equal."

Northwest Indian War (1785–1795)[edit]

Native tribes in the Northwest Territory.

With American victory in the Revolution, there was nothing stopping the US from "settling" the Ohio region, subsequently renamed as the Northwest Territory by the Americans. The British, in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, had effectively sold the Native Americans up the river, although they would still maintain forts in the Ohio region in order to sell them weapons. In order to resist American expansionism, Native Americans located in the Northwest Territory formed a new and massive defensive coalition. The so-called Western Confederacy consisted of many tribes, including the Wyandot, the Miami, the Shawnee, the Lenape, the Potawatomi, the Ottawa, the Wabash Confederacy, Illini Confederacy, and the remnants of the Iroquois.[30]

Hostilities began with the signing of the unequal Treaty of Fort McIntosh with a small number of native representatives, which was rejected by most of the tribes because it carved out an Indian reservation and opened about 2/3 of the Northwest Territory to US colonization.[31] Kentucky militia under Benjamin Logan launched raids against the Shawnee, making no distinction in destroying hostile and neutral towns.[32] Captain Hugh McGary of the Kentucky militia even murdered an elderly Shawnee chief named Moluntha, who was friendly towards the United States and who had even hoisted a striped flag to welcome Logan's men.[33] Logan's methods included indiscriminate murder, mutilation, torture, and destruction of food supplies.[34] This devastated the Shawnee nation, as they struggled to survive the winter without their food.

In 1790, US president George Washington ordered General Josiah Harmar into the Northwest Territory to destroy the Western Confederacy, but almost all of the battles he fought in this campaign were great victories for the Native Americans and humiliating losses for the US.[35] These victories emboldened the Northwest natives. Washington then ordered Major General Arthur St. Clair, the military governor of the Northwest Territory, to launch a more vigorous offensive in 1791. St. Clair's forces were taken by surprise and dealt "the most decisive defeat in the history of the American military," prompting St. Clair to resign and Congress to launch its first-ever investigation of the executive branch.[36] Eventually, superior American manpower came into play, and General "Mad" Anthony Wayne assembled an army of professional soldiers as opposed to the disorganized militia the US had relied upon before.[37] The Americans won the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794,[38] forcing the natives to make peace with the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, in which they ceded much of what would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.[37]

Tecumseh's War (1811-1812)[edit]

The final US charge at Tippecanoe.

As American encroachments on native lands intensified, two leaders of the Shawnee tribe chose to make one last great effort to fight back. Chief Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa the Prophet, created a spiritual and political movement aimed at unifying all native tribes west of the Appalachian mountains.[39] Tenskwatawa argued that Native Americans had angered the "Master of Life" by becoming reliant on American-made goods. Thus, if the natives returned to the old ways, the Master of Life would reward them by granting divine assistance in driving the United States off of their lands. As you can imagine, this was mightily appealing to many of the Native American tribes, and many tribes gathered at the Shawnee's new capital of Prophetstown in the Indiana Territory.[39] Other tribes, however, especially those east of the Appalachians, weren't as impressed with Tenskwatawa's message.[39] Those tribes had largely embraced white culture and were perfectly fine being reliant on white trade goods, and they were furthermore unwilling to risk fighting the now greatly superior United States military. Thus, Tecumseh's Confederacy was powerful, but not as so much as it could have been.

In 1811, Major General William Henry Harrison led a seasoned military force (the US wasn't about to repeat the mistakes of the Northwest Indian War) into the Indiana Territory, defeated the Shawnee at the critical Battle of Tippecanoe, and razed Prohpetstown to the ground.[40] Although this ended the dream of a tribal confederacy in the Northwest Territory, it did not crush native resistance. Tecumseh and his brother fled to British Canada to ally openly with them. The British were soon at war with the Americans once more, and Tecumseh's effort at resistance became part of the greater conflict.

War of 1812 (1812-1815)[edit]

The death of Tecumseh.
See the main article on this topic: War of 1812

Although theoretically a war against the British, most of the major land battles fought by the US Army were fought against Native American enemies. The first native enemy was, of course, the remnants of Tecumseh's Confederacy. The second enemy was the Creek Confederation. The Creek, located in the American South, also joined the British war effort against the United States, but they faced internal divisions as a result.[41] In addition, the US recruited the Choctaw Nation and Cherokee Nation to help them fight against the Creeks.

The War of 1812 began poorly for the Americans. Tecumseh's forces launched numerous successful raids in the Northwest, killing many American colonists. The American attempt to invade Canada ended in disaster, as they were forced to retreat into Michigan and even lost Detroit to the British and Native American force.[42] In late 1813, however, the Great Lakes Campaign turned against the British after the US won the naval Battle of Lake Erie.[43] Tecumseh and the token British force led by Brigadier General Henry A. Procter were forced to leave Michigan, retreating under pursuit from Tecumseh's archnemesis William Henry Harrison. When the Americans finally caught up, they smashed the British and Native American army at the Battle of the Thames, capturing or killing most of the enemy combatant and bringing about Tecumseh's death in battle.[44] Tecumseh's Confederacy was no more.

In 1814, the Creek resistance in the South met its end as well. Major General Andrew Jackson led an American and allied native force that destroyed the Creek army at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Treaty of Fort Jackson, which forced the Upper Creeks to cede over 20-million acres to the United States, a big chunk of what is now Alabama.[45] Although no territorial changes were required by the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812, the British agreed to sever their diplomatic and military support for the Native Americans, cutting them off from all of the supplies they would need to resist American expansionism.[46] The War of 1812 was the last time the Native Americans would put up a significant fight against the United States.

Seminole Wars (1816–1858) and the Trail of Tears (1830-1850)[edit]

Results of the Adams–Onís Treaty.

Florida had been ceded back to Spain by Great Britain after the American Revolution, and Spain quickly went about encouraging Spanish, American, and even Native American settlers to establish themselves in the territory as a means of strengthening it against potential American privations.[47] African Americans escaping from US slavery also entered Florida to receive safe haven from the abolitionist Spanish. Immediately after the War of 1812, the Seminoles in Florida had become annoying enough to the Americans that Major General Andrew Jackson was ordered to lead raids into Spanish Florida in order to recapture slaves and hurt the tribe itself.[47] Spain couldn't afford to defend Florida from the Americans, so they agreed to transfer the territory to the United States as part of the Adams–Onís Treaty in exchange for a clarification of the US-New Spain border and $5,000,000.[48] This was very, very bad news for the Seminoles and the escaped slaves.

Hunting Seminoles with bloodhounds.

American colonists immediately rushed into Florida, and their racism and perception of the need for self-defense led to a desire to "rid Florida of Indians once and for all!"[49] The US government began pressuring Florida's Native Americans to get out. In order to speed this process, the new US president Andrew Jackson (known for beating the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend) signed the infamous Indian Removal Act into law in 1830, authorizing himself to either peacefully or forcibly relocate Native American tribes from their traditional homelands out into the western prairies.[50] Many tribes in the north went peacefully, but the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" (Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek) refused the offer. Jackson sent in the military and forced the roughly 100,000 indigenous people out of their homes and put them on a brutal forced march westward in which about 15,000 people died.[51]

The Seminole tribe resolved to fight it out, and this led to the Second Seminole War, a brutal and protracted guerrilla conflict in which the US military continually tried to suppress native resistance.[47] As the war dragged on, US commanders resorted to underhanded tactics like destroying native farms and towns and capturing tribal leaders Osceola and Coacoochee by seizing them while under a false white flag of truce.[47] No peace treaty or armistice was ever declared. Skirmishes between the US and the Seminoles continued until about 1858. The Trail of Tears relocations continued until 1850.[52]

Westward expansion[edit]

Photograph of Comanche warriors.
Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians.
—Col. John Milton Chivington, U.S. Army.[53]

Texas-Indian Wars (1820–1875)[edit]

From its time under the Spanish Empire to its time as part of Mexico to its time as an independent republic, Texas waged a near-constant series of wars against its native inhabitants, most notably the Comanche tribe. This led to a very historically significant policy by the Mexican government in which they encouraged immigration by white Americans into Texas in order to increase its population. This was done in order to deter Native Americans from taking hostile actions against the Mexico in the vast and sparsely-populated Texas region.[54] Eventually, Texas became a majority Anglo-American state, and Mexico's abolition of slavery led the whites to rise up against Mexican rule.[55] Yes, Texas ended up seceding from a country in order to preserve slavery not once but twice.

Kiowa art depicting a scene from the Red River campaign.

After Texas won its independence, its president Sam Houston focused on stabilizing the country, as Texas was in bad shape after its independence war and thus didn't have the resources to battle the Native Americans. Positive relations between the whites and natives were shattered when the Cherokee tribe sided with Texas' Mexican population in rising up for a return to Mexican rule.[56] Texas' second president, Mirabeau B. Lamar, focused his administration on driving the Cherokee and Comanche tribes out of Texas, even if that meant outright exterminating them.[57] From 1838-1841 the Texas Republic fought a bloody counter-insurgency against the natives, greatly harming the state's finances and creating a cycle of revenge. Upon his return to the presidency in 1841, Sam Houston managed to negotiate peace.

Texas allowed itself to be annexed by the US, and tensions between the US and Mexico led to the Mexican-American War. As part of the treaty to end that war, the US promised to wipe out the Comanche and Arapaho tribes, which were causing trouble along the US-Mexico border.[58] Violence exploded throughout Texas, and the Comanche used the American Civil War as an opportunity to push the Texans back.[59] The US, however, made a comeback afterwards, and forced the various Texas tribes to sign the Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867, which confined the Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes to reservations in Oklahoma.[60] After this, the US fought the Red River campaign until 1875, an effort to enforce the treaty.[61] This was the end of free-roaming Native Americans in the southern Great Plains.

Sioux Wars (1854–1891) and other Great Plains conflicts[edit]

Massive pile of bison skulls.
Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.
—Unnamed US Army officer, 1867.[62]
I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces … With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors … By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops …
—John S. Smith, witness to the Sand Creek Massacre, Congressional Testimony of Mr. John S. Smith.[53]

The Great Plains were the last area in the Lower 48 where Indians lived independently.[63] As the US became more keenly interested in colonizing the Great Plains in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, they came into a prolonged series of conflicts with the various subgroups of the Sioux people. US colonization of the region was fueled by several factors. Firstly, the US started to receive huge amounts of immigration from Europe after the US Civil War, providing the US with the manpower needed to send settlers.[63] The Civil War itself had created a westward rush, as President Abraham Lincoln's signings of the Morrill Act and Homestead Act were motivated by a desire to bring the Great Plains under control before the Confederacy could.[63] Finally, and most importantly, the US discovered gold in the Rocky Mountains and around Pike's Peak, creating a political incentive to unilaterally dissolve the native reservations there and force them somewhere else.[53]

US cavalry charge in the Great Plains.

US expansion into the Great Plains caused American strategy towards Native Americans to become even more overtly genocidal. As natives interfered with railroad construction and settlements, the US Army responded by sending out teams of hunters to wipe out as many bison as possible. The idea came from Major-General Phillip Sheridan, who had learned a few lessons from Sherman and Grant's total war strategies during the American Civil War.[62] By killing bison, the US was killing the Plains Indians' primary source of protein. It was a deliberate attempt to cause mass starvation. But only communist countries do that! This strategy was enormously effective. Over the next decade, bison numbers declined from about 30 million to just a few hundred. The slaughter of the animals was so thorough and rapid that witnesses described how the stench would permeate the air for miles and how the whole great region looked like a massive graveyard.[62]

Mass grave for the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre.

In 1862, the Dakota War began, when Dakota natives attacked US settlements and the US resulted by conducting the largest mass execution in its history.[64] The US won within several months and expelled the Dakota to reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota. The Colorado War began a year after this in 1864, and this saw US forces commit the Sand Creek Massacre in which about 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho noncombatants were mercilessly butchered.[65][53] The city of Denver threw a macabre victory parade for the soldiers, in which they hung male and female genitalia and other body parts around their necks and carried torn-out fetuses as trophies.[63] The Sand Creek Massacre destroyed whatever prior trust existed between Plains Indians and the American government, and, counter-productive to American goals, discouraged many natives from moving onto reservations since they naturally feared they’d be killed if they surrendered.

When white Americans discovered gold under the Black Hills region in South Dakota, hostilities intensified again, becoming the Black Hills War of 1876. The Lakota, Sioux, and Cheyenne tribes united against the United States; their most notable leaders were the iconic heroes Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.[66] This conflict also saw one of the most famous defeats in US history: the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Under command of Philip Sheridan, the US Army moved against the natives, but plans went awry when Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, on his own initiative, tried to attack with his 7th Cavalry.[67] He died and lost his whole unit in the resulting engagement. Although suffering this setback, the US still returned with a vengeance and managed to force the hostile tribes onto reservations.

The last Sioux resistance ended around December 1890, with the most significant event being the Wounded Knee Massacre, when the US military murdered about 300 noncombatant Lakota natives.[68]

Apache Wars (1861-1924)[edit]

Apache warrior prepares an ambush.
We had one war with Mexico to take Arizona, and we should have another to make her take it back.
—Gen. William T. Sherman.[69]

The Apaches were a fairly large culture of natives located in and around modern-day Arizona. They fiercely resisted Western colonialism from the earliest Spanish presence in the region up to Mexico's attempts to suppress them. The Apaches were initially spared from American brutality because the Treaty of Guadelupe-Hildago failed to include a big chunk of southern Arizona in the land cession to the US, precisely the area the Apaches considered their homeland. When land prospectors later discovered that southern Arizona was actually prime real estate for building railroads, the US convinced Mexico to sell the land for $15 million.[69]

Although initially convinced that they had made a bargain, the Americans later realized they'd bitten into a poison apple. Southern Arizona was then a deadly environment, and even deadlier people thrived there. The Apaches had survived Spain's attempt to exterminate them by hiding in the mountains, and other native cultures feared them as Viking-like raiders.[69] Americans who met them generally found the Apaches willing to accommodate the United States so long as the US treated them honorably. The issue was that the US often did not treat them honorably. First came a series of US forts on Apache territory, then came a gold rush that brought inconsiderate prospectors to the region.[70] However, Apaches generally got along with Americans, or the "White Eyes," as they called them, generally reserving their animosity for other native tribes as well as the hated Mexicans.[71] Things fully went sour when the US started living up to a set of obligations in the treaty with Mexico that obligated them to protect Mexico from Apache raiders based in what was now US land.[72] Having the Americans suddenly start siding with their former Mexican oppressors very much pissed the Apaches off, and open warfare began not too long after.

Geronimo and his warriors in 1886.

The Apaches proved to be very effective at waging their guerrilla campaign against the US. One of the Apache leaders became perhaps the most famous Native American in US history, the medicine man Goyaałé, better known as Geronimo.[73] His parents were murdered by the Mexicans, and after the Americans confined him and several thousand other Apaches to a desolate reservation in the desert, he led his fellow Apaches off the reservation and against the US.[74] His resistance was a thorn in the US' side for decades. Even though he and his followers would occasionally surrender, dishonorable treatment at the hands of the US would convince them to resume the fight.

That last issue brings up another defining feature of the Apache Wars and indeed overall US policy towards the Indians: the truly despicable actions of the federal government. Many soldiers were knowledgeable about the Apache's culture, situation, and motivations, but their more compassionate outlook clashed with and was overruled by officers and politicians who wanted the Apache exterminated.[75] US forces routinely disregarded the existence of the Mexican border when chasing the Apache across it, which is somewhat amusing and depressing considering the country's current fixation on the issue. One disgusting incident saw US President Grover Cleveland invite a delegation of Apache leaders to the White House only to turn around and order them arrested once they arrived.[71] Geronimo, meanwhile, had become famous among the American people. After capturing him for the final time, the US Army paraded him around to the public as a trophy, although the wily Geronimo managed to use their attempts to humiliate him as an opportunity to sell pictures of himself for some cash.[73] Geronimo even got to attend the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt.

Even after Geronimo's last stand, skirmishes between Apaches and Americans continued for decades. Notable events include the Kelvin Grade incident in 1889, when nine imprisoned Apaches escaped during a transfer and killed two sheriffs,[76] and the Cherry Creek campaign, when the US tried to hunt down some Apaches who attacked a train.[77] The final Apache raid against the US occurred in 1924.[78] Ultimately, most of the Apache were either killed, suppressed, or confined to reservations.

Consequences and aftermath[edit]

Garbage dump on a Lakota reservation.
See the main article on this topic: American Indian genocides

The consequences of the Indian Wars were multifold. They resulted in the defeat of different indigenous tribal groups, none of which are now sovereign nations. The population of American Indians collapsed in the 19th century and for a time extinction seemed likely. In the 20th century the population rebounded. The majority of American Indians no longer live on reservations[79] and are fairly well adjusted to the modern United States. However, severe disparities in socioeconomic status with other Americans and the memories of broken treaties and conquered territory remain controversial and sensitive issues.


Due to a lack of written records there is no way of knowing the exact number of people living in what is now the United States of America before the colonial period when census data was first taken. Forensic anthropologist Douglas H. Ubelaker estimated approximately 2.17 million people living in North America north of Mesoamerica in a 1976 study which he later revised down slightly to 1.89 million in a 1988 paper.[80][81] Archeologist George R. Milner and anthropologist George Chaplin concluded there were about 1.2 to 6.1 million people living north of Mesoamerica around 1500, with a best estimate of roughly 3.8 million they based on population densities taken from archeological remains and environmental carrying capacity.[82] By the 1880's there were only 306,504 Native Americans counted by the US census bureau.[83] This dramatic decline was largely the result of diseases, social collapse, lowered birth rates, and possibly migration to Canada or Mexico.

The United States government own research from 1894 found that 30,000 American Indians had been killed in conflicts with the government and settlers since 1789, although they semi-arbitrarily suggest adding an extra 50% to be on the safe side. They also estimated that amongst white American soldiers and civilians(men, women and children) there had been about 19,000 deaths over the same period.[84] Estimates using Bayesian analysis suggested somewhat higher casualty figures of 50-60,000.[85]

The 2010 United States Census found only 2,932,248 Americans who identified themselves as being American Indian or Alaskan Native, which makes up about 0.9% of the US population.[86] This number increases to about 5.2 million, or about 1.7% of the US population if people with partial ancestry are included.[87] Indeed, Native Americans now have the highest rate of interracial marriage in the United States.[88]


Despite recent improvements in the quality of life American Indians experience they still lag behind the non-Hispanic whites on a number of key indicators. Life expectancy of American Indians and Alaskan Inuits in 2015 was 77.5 compared to the non-Hispanic white average of 79.8. The median household income for American Indian and Alaska Natives is $45,448, as compared to $65,845 for non-Hispanic white households. 21.9 percent of American Indians live at the poverty level, as compared to 9.6 percent of non-Hispanic whites, in 2017. In 2017, 83.8 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives alone or in combination had at least a high school diploma, as compared to 92.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites.[89] Suicide and alcoholism remain major public health issues for American Indian men.[90]

The USA instituted a program of forced reeducation in order to "civilize" the Native Americans in harsh boarding schools. These schools were designed to disconnect them from their own cultures, especially by violent means.[91][92] Many of American Indians still live on US Indian reservations, where quality of life is similar to what one might experience in a developing nation. There is a scarcity of jobs, lack of housing, and startling lack of access to healthcare.[93] Although things got better due to Native American advocacy in the 1970s, reservations must still cope with their legacy of forced relocation, forced reeducation, enforced poverty, tribal corruption, and persistent lack of opportunity.[94] Some reservations have become desperate enough to turn to waste disposal deals, where nuclear and other toxic waste may be buried in their lands in exchange for cash.[95]

See also[edit]


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  3. See the Wikipedia article on American Indian boarding schools.
  4. Native Americans push schools to include their story in California history classes. Edsource.
  5. An Incomplete History: Representation of American Indians in State Social Studies Standards. Wayne Journell. Journal of American Indian Education. Vol. 48, No. 2 (2009), pp. 18-32.
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  8. Glenn, Keith (1944). "Captain John Smith and the Indians". Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 52 (4): 228–248. JSTOR 4245316.
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  11. Primary Source: The First Anglo-Powhatan War Begins; an excerpt from "A Trewe Relacyon of the procedeings and ocurrentes of Momente which have hapned in Virginia" by George Percy. Encyclopedia Virginia.
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