The Western Indian Wars
The Western Indian Wars that took place from the 1860s to 1890 are often novelized and publicized in westerns, some with the Indians as the so called, “bad guys”. But is this really the case? Were the Americans the glorified heroes who were fighting against “uncivilized savages” who raided them? Or was it vice versa? In this essay we will go over a prelude to the wars, the people fighting in the wars, why the wars were started, the Great Sioux War, famous people on both sides of the conflict, and then draw a verdict which will conclude this essay.
Before the more famous Western Indian Wars, there were a series of wars in the Eastern part of the United States, not too surprisingly called the Eastern Indian Wars. These wars were from 1815 to the 1840s, and ultimately ended in the Trail of Tears, a trail covering land and water for over 2,000 miles across the Mississippi River to what is now Oklahoma. The worst atrocity came with the Cherokee, when a secret meeting between a minority group of Cherokee who wanted to leave arranged an official delegation so that their whole tribe would be forced to go. The trail wasn’t safe either, and thousands died on the journey. Most of the people in the Cherokee tribe didn’t want to leave their homeland but were forced to by the Americans. Some tribes, like the Chickasaw, who actually got paid $3,000,000, left peacefully, but the Seminole were the total opposite. During the Second Seminole War, the Seminole Chief, named Osceola, fought a seven year guerilla war against the Americans by hiding in the Everglades. Over 2,000 Americans died in this bloody conflict before Osceola was captured and the Seminoles left the area.
An important tribe to deal with when mentioning the Western Indian Wars is the Lakota. The Lakota, or Sioux, were a loose confederation of seven tribes across the Great Plains. The word Lakota translates into “allies” or “friends”, which makes sense since the seven tribes were all allies. Each tribe in the confederation had similar ancestry but each tribe was still its own. The Lakota are usually remembered as a nomadic tribe in search for buffalo, the most valuable possession on the plains, but the Lakota used to build small villages on the Missouri River before white intervention. The Lakota lived in what are now the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, and due to their size, were the dominant tribe on the Great Plains. However, the Lakota weren’t a tribe without enemies; in fact, they had many enemies, especially the Crow and Assinboin tribes, who often encroached on Lakota land. The Lakota raided those tribes to show they were dominant. Horses were also used by the Lakota, but only after the Europeans gave some to the Lakota in order to hunt buffalo. In addition, many of their tales focused on buffalo. Besides buffalo, the Lakota ate corn, particularly blue corn, and other game such as elk. The Lakota language can be confusing to English speakers and even some who know the language, since vowels can sound different depending on what gender the person that’s being addressed is.
The war’s roots were in an ideology called Manifest Destiny, which is the belief that Americans, specifically white Americans, should be able to colonize the whole North American continent, regardless of whether Native Americans like the Lakota, or the Mexicans, wanted it or not. This Manifest Destiny drove the Americans to take land from these tribes, even after they promised them land, as you will see more than once throughout the essay. Manifest Destiny also drove the Homestead Acts into place. The Homestead Acts were a series of federal legislations that stated if Americans could settle on a patch of land and prove they were making a home and living on it, that they would get the land for either a very cheap price or for free. A last cause of these wars was Gold Rushes, a direct influence on the Great Sioux War, when gold had been found in the Black Hills of South Dakota that had been reserved for them; the Americans took the land for themselves.
The Great Sioux War was the most famous of the Indian Wars in the West, and was fought from 1876 to 1877 between the U.S. Army and the Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne Tribes. In addition, the Crow and Shoshone, enemies of the Lakota, also fought alongside the U.S. The war began when in 1875 Americans began settling and mining in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which was a violation of a treaty that the Americans signed, which granted the Lakota the Black Hills in South Dakota. Infuriated, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other Lakota and Cheyenne started putting up a force against the Americans. What infuriated them even more was being ordered by Brigadier General George Crook move onto a reservation. Sitting Bull and the others refused, and so the Great Sioux War began. On June 17, 1876, a war party of Lakota and Cheyenne Indians ambushed General Crook and his armies with great success.
The Battle of the Rosebud, as it was called, was fought in Rosebud Creek, Montana. General Crook was planning a three-pronged assault on the Lakota for a quick and decisive victory, but it didn’t work so well. Crook, for one, thought that all the Indians were in a stationary village, and that if he met them they would flee. Crook’s Shoshone and Crow allies warned him that the Lakota were too smart to let Crook attack a stationary village. They thought the Lakota would attack the area with Chief Crazy Horse as their leader. They knew that Crazy Horse was an excellent general as well. Crook, being a typical American, ignored them, an unwise decision for the general. While travelling to find the Lakota, Crook decided to stop in a creek to wait for the rear of his army to catch up with him. His horses were allowed to graze while he and his men enjoyed the fresh air. Then out of nowhere around 8 AM, the Lakota in huge numbers began to converge on the small American force. Crook and his men were unprepared, and they would have been destroyed if it weren’t for Crook’s allies, who were prepared and bought him enough time to organize and fight with them. The Lakota, nevertheless, still inflicted damage on Crook’s army, and 28 men were killed, not to mention another 58 seriously wounded, whereas the Lakota only lost 13 men. However, worse fate was to come eight days later at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The Battle of Little Bighorn was a complete disaster for the Americans. There weren’t just a lot of American casualties, there were completely American casualties. In other words, every American on that battlefield was killed in record time. The Battle of Little Bighorn was Custer and his 7th Cavalry, numbering at 268 men, faced 3,000 Indians led by both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and lost the battle. Within an hour Custer and his men were killed. The battle sparked outrage in the East, Americans labeled the Indians as bloodthirsty, when, actually, the Americans were attacking the Indians out of greed and the Indians were simply protecting their home. Of course, the Indians couldn’t protect it long, and Sitting Bull devised that the Indians flee in bands to Canada, where they would have more freedom. The last insurrection occurred in 1890 and ended in a massacre.
To understand why Sitting Bull fought the Americans, a short biography has been put into this essay. Sitting Bull was born in 1831 and lived the typical life of a Lakota boy, and often participated in raiding the Lakota’s enemies, and gained popularity for his skill on the battlefield. He was then named Sitting Bull since he stood and fought like a bull. When a neighboring tribe had been sent to live on a reservation, Sitting Bull heard what life was like on a reservation and didn’t like it. From that moment onward, Sitting Bull would do his best to keep the Americans away from the Lakota people. Beginning in 1865, Sitting Bull skirmished with American soldiers and learned their ways of fighting. After Red Cloud, the most popular Lakota Chief, signed a treaty with the Americans forcing the Lakota to go into a reservation, Sitting Bull became popular and started attracting followers. Sitting Bull had also gotten Chief Crazy Horse’s allegiance, which served a good purpose since Crazy Horse was an excellent general. Sitting Bull fought at Little Bighorn, but after that, he fled to Canada and stayed for four years. He went into Blackfoot Territory, which was in enemy territory, but instead of teaching the Blackfoot a lesson, which the starving Sitting Bull had no resources to do so anyway, he came to make peace. The Blackfoot chief, Crowfoot, gladly accepted. Sitting Bull was very fond of Crowfoot, but despite peace, life was very rough in Canada. The buffalo herds were much smaller, and food for everyone was hard to find, so four years later Sitting Bull turned himself in as a prisoner of war. Sitting Bull was allowed to live at the reservation two years later, and a year after that, in 1885, he was asked to premiere on the Wild West Show, which he accepted. Sitting Bull, after starring on the show, lived the rest of his life on the reservation. During the last years of his life, the rise of a new religion called Ghost Dance predicted all whites would die and the buffalo killed would be resurrected. The U.S. didn’t like this and since Sitting Bull did nothing to stop the new religion, he was arrested. Sitting Bull resisted and a follower of his shot the man who was leading the arrest. That man, just before he died, shot Sitting Bull in the chest. Another policeman shot Sitting Bull in the head, and he fell off the horse he was ordered to get on, on December 15, 1890.
A mere 14 days later, the last of the Indian insurrections occurred. On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army came to Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota to disarm the Native Americans there. The Native Americans did not want to have their arms taken away (you could say it’s a violation of the Second Amendment), and the Americans opened fire upon the Indians, killing over 200 men, women, and children. This was the last of the Indian revolts and is considered the end of the Indian Wars. However, this was a terrible atrocity, and today it is called the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Before concluding this essay, it is important to look at two more figures that made serious contributions to the Indian Wars. Those two men are Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and Geronimo of the Apache. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe was the son of his father, Joseph the Elder. He was one of the first Native American chiefs to convert to Christianity. However, when the U.S. took lands they promised they wouldn’t, Joseph the Elder denounced his friends and destroyed his Bible. When Joseph the Elder died, his son, Joseph, took over (it was common for a son to bear his father’s name), in 1871. After agreeing to the reservation treaty, another Nez Perce chief, who also agreed to the treaty, attacked American settlers. Joseph saw the best way to save his people was to retreat to another nation, Canada. The journey was 1,710 miles, and it was very hard to complete, but, it was never completed. Within just 40 miles south of the Canadian border, Chief Joseph surrendered, starving and hungry. He then gave a famous speech, which is written below here; “I am tired of fighting,” he said. “Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are–perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” His retreat was made up of mostly women and children, and is considered one of the greatest retreats in military history. Joseph and his tribe never saw their home again, and were sent to the Indian Territory, which is now the state of Oklahoma.
Geronimo was an Apache chief who resisted American settlement in the west, particularly his home in the Southwest. Geronimo was born in 1829 and was a gifted hunter. At 17 he fell in love with a woman named Alope and the two had 3 children together. While on a trading mission, Geronimo’s family was slaughtered, and Geronimo spent most of his life avenging their deaths. According to a tale, Geronimo went into the wilderness, crying, and heard a voice saying, “No gun will ever kill you. I will take the bullets from the guns of the Mexicans … and I will guide your arrows.” Geronimo rounded up 200 Apache and started pursuing the men who slaughtered his family, until the U.S. got Apache land from the Mexican-American World. Geronimo’s attacks on the Americans started to occur soon after, especially when they settled in Apache lands. The Americans began hunting down Geronimo and was captured in 1877 and sent to a reservation, but in 1881, four years later, he escaped. For five more years Geronimo kept attacking, but, surrendered in 1886 and became a prisoner of war. Geronimo became popular, however, and published his biography in 1905, the same year he unsuccessfully pleaded his case to Theodore Roosevelt to let his people return to Arizona. In 1909, while riding a horse, Geronimo was thrown off in the middle of the night and died six years later, saying, “I should never have surrendered,” “I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”
The Indian Wars in the West had a significant impact on America today. For one, the wars basically bulldozed tribal lands, allowing for populous cities like Phoenix and Seattle to emerge, as well as paving the way for the Interstate Road System to expand westward. These wars, however, were morally wrong, and the needless bloodshed of Indians occurred. Although America may be the lone superpower today, but it’s past wasn’t all bright and sunny, and this is one of those examples of American atrocities.