Lecture 3: The Conquest of the Indians Part 1: Background


I. Background to Hostilities

A. There were many differences between the American/European settlers and the native peoples of North America. It is possible that even under the best of circumstances it would have been impossible for them to coexist peacefully.

1. A central problem had plagued white/Indian relations since the beginning—conflicting concepts of land ownership.

a. Indian tribes held land communally—there were nor individual owners. In fact, the idea that a person could “own” land was alien to the Indian way of thinking. Land could merely be borrowed and used—it belonged to the earth.

b. Europeans, of course, and especially those descended from the dominant British ancestry, had a very strong sense of property rights. Not only could an individual own property, property ownership was a key sign of social status (only property owners could vote, for example—in England and the US until just before the Civil War)

c. This fundamental difference had, since the earliest colonial times, been the source of conflict and war between the two groups.

2. Differences in language, religion, ways of life, and view of nature also created huge problems for the idea of whites and Indians living peacefully side by side.

a. Indians believed that humans were a part of nature and had to strive to live in harmony with it—whites believed that humans were above nature and were destined to use it for their exclusive benefit.

b. Indians were “unambitious” from the white point of view—they worked just hard enough to live and no harder. The men hunted and the women grew food, so the dominant values were those of bravery and hunting skills. Whites, of course, believed that hard work and material success was the measure of a man’s life and his social worth—productivity was highly valued in white society.

c. Indians were animists who saw nature in a spiritual way, while whites were predominately Christians who believed that they had been created in the image of God—and were thus above nature.

d. Because of these differences, both groups regarded the other as uncivilized. Unfortunately for the Indians, the white way of life produced technology that they could not respond to—and in conflict, gave whites the power to force the Indians to do what they wanted.

3. Though by the 1820s relations between Indians and whites had stabilized east of the Mississippi—with the Indians taking a subservient role , President Andrew Jackson, a famous Indian Fighter who became president in 1828, inaugurated a campaign against Indian society that culminated in the near destruction of most Indian cultures. The Indian Wars—the near genocide of native peoples and their cultures was and remains one of the darkest episodes of American history.

B. The Indian Removal Act - 1830 - Andrew Jackson decided, for the benefit of the Indians, that all Indians living to the east of the Mississippi River should be relocated to the west of it, particularly, in the territory of Oklahoma. He argued that Indians living so close to whites would not be able to preserve their culture, so they should be moved west so they would not be contaminated. It was a ridiculous argument, because at the same time, he advocated teaching the Indians how to farm, the value of private property and other white values.

1. Indians were asked and expected to voluntarily leave, but in fact, only two tribes agreed to do so. Over the next 8 years, some 60,000 Indians were forcibly marched westward and deposited in the barren state.

2. The most well known of the forced relocations. the "Trail of Tears," was that of the Cherokee tribe, which lived, in peace with its white neighbors, in various locations in the American South East.

a. The Cherokees had done everything they could to adapt to the dominant white culture—they had written a constitution based on that of the US, they had school systems had were mainly Christian, they had their own legal system complete with a police force and court system.

b. because the Cherokee were able to send well-regarded representatives to Washington DC to plead their case, they became   a popular cause among eastern liberals. Although the US Supreme Court eventually ruled that they should be allowed to stay, Jackson insisted that they be moved—and they were. Some 11,500 Cherokees were forced-marched to the Oklahoma border—a trip of almost 3000 kilometers. Nearly 4,000 lost their lives on the journey.

c. This was just the first of a series of atrocities that would befall America’s Indians. 

C. The Indian Removal Act essentially viewed the Great Plains, the area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, as one big “reservation.” In the 1830s this area was viewed as uninhabitable by whites—they saw no real use for it agriculturally or otherwise. However, as the region was explored and traversed by settlers going to Oregon or California (20,000 whites crossed it in 1849 alone, after gold was discovered in California), conflict between Indians and whites grew.

1. In 1850, after California became a state, the US government recognized the need to make peace with the 225,000 Indians of the Great Plains Region—many Americans were passing through the region on their way to California and some were being attacked. Others had settled in Colorado and Utah in search of gold or to set up farms.

2. The Fort Laramie Council was held in 1851. The US government negotiated peace treaties with most Plains Indians tribes, including the Sioux, Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Nez Perce.

3. What resulted from the Fort Laramie Council was what was called the “Concentration Policy.” Essentially, the goal was to concentrate each major tribal group into a defined area—an area well away from white settlers and the main migration routes whites used to cross the Great Plains. It was a reservation system, but the reservations promised to the Indians were very, very large.

a. The Concentration policy was doomed to failure from the outset.

i. The Plains Indian lifestyle was based on the buffalo. The Indians used the buffalo for food, they made their clothing and tents out of buffalo, they used buffalo bones as tools and house wear, and they worshipped the buffalo. To survive, they had to follow the buffalo wherever it went—and that meant going outside their reservations from time to time.

ii. The Plains Indians were highly mobile. Since the horse had been introduced by the Spanish in the 1500s, they had become skilled horsemen. The increased mobility had led to increased tribal contact and of course, conflict.

iii. Numerous tribal wars were conducted to steal horses and to prove individual worth, but they were not wars that aimed at the destruction of other tribes or at the acquisition of their land. This practice was not stopped by the Fort Laramie agreement.

iv. Finally, the discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858, in land that had been given explicitly to the Indians of that area by the Fort Laramie agreement brought a new surge of whites into the area. The gold hunters were followed quickly by farmers and ranchers. Although the US government disapproved of these settlements it did little to stop them—and when conflict erupted between Indians and whites, it naturally came to the defense of the Americans.

b. The Civil war postponed major conflict between the Plains Indians and the US, but beginning shortly after the war ended, Washington turned its attention to the “Indian Problem” in the West.