Lecture 4: The Latter Indian Wars and Settlement of the West


I. In the last lecture, I provided a sketch of the history of US Indian Policy and the background for the hostilities that took place after 1860. Today we will finish up the Indian Wars period. 

A. We will look at three main events—the Sioux War, the Apache Wars, and the Flight of the Nez Perce. We will conclude the segment with a brief look at the Ghost Dance Religion, the massacre at Wounded Knee, and the Dawes Act. If time permits, we will look at the various frontiers that comprised white settlement in the Plains region the mining frontier, the cattle frontier, and the agricultural frontier. 

II. There were two separate Sioux Wars, and both resulted from the discovery of gold on lands that was supposed to belong to the Indians. 

A. The 1st Sioux War broke out in 1864, a few years after gold was discovered in Colorado. Whites searching for gold streamed into an area that had clearly been given to the Indians. The US government did nothing to stop them and when conflict erupted, came to their support even though they were there illegally. It was the Sandy Creek Massacre that caused many Indians to choose war against the whites—a group of white settlers led by former army officers attacked an Indian encampment at Sandy Creek while most of the warriors were out hunting, killing 405 old men, women and children.  Other factors caused many of the tribes of the Northern Great Plains to fight—the US Military was planning to construct a road north from Laramie, Wyoming to Bozeman, Montana—right through the heart of the territory of the strongest Sioux tribes. Sioux warriors constantly raided the construction efforts and killed the teams the US sent to prepare for construction of the road. 

1. The 1st Sioux War was intense, and the Sioux stopped not only the construction of the road, but prevented virtually all movement by white settlers through their territory for two years. In the Fetterman Massacre (1866), 82 US soldiers sent to deal with the Sioux who were fighting the road construction were killed by an overwhelming force of Indians.  

2. This resulted in the US calling for peace negotiations, which were held at Fort Laramie (1868). In the treaty, the US actually promised to abandon the “Montana” Road, but it proved an empty promise. The Sioux were given a large grant of land (though much smaller than they had before) and were appeased. This was the beginning of the "Reservation Policy." It was also the beginning of the "Extermination Policy," as General Sherman notified the Indian tribal leaders that any Indian that did not go live on the tribes designated reservation would be considered hostile and be hunted down and killed.

B. The Second Sioux War broke out in January 1876 as a result of two events. First was the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad (1871), which followed the Yellowstone River (roughly the northern boundary of the Sioux territory). This aggravated the Indians of many different tribes in the region. Second was the alleged discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, at the center of the recently created Sioux Reservation. There was gold, but very little of it—the report of the discovery was made by General George Armstrong Custer. As in Colorado, whites flooded into the area, conflicts resulted, and the US army was forced to protect the whites.  

1. The Second Sioux War lasted only a couple of years, but included the single most written about event in American History, variously called, “The Battle of the Little Bighorn,” “Custer’s Last Stand,” or “The Custer Massacre.”  

a. On 25 June 1876, General Custer foolishly led 204 men in battle against the main encampment of hostile Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Big Horn River in southeastern Montana. The entire group was killed, and for the next few days, the Indians inflicted heavy damages on other regiments in the region. The Indians finally dispersed when reinforcements arrived from the north, with several bands escaping to Canada. 

2. The fighting continued into the fall, but the pursuit of the US Army proved relentless. The last of the hostiles finally surrendered in Fall, 1876, and the Sioux were forced to remain on and even smaller reservation in South Dakota. Reservations were also created for the Cheyenne and Crow in Montana.   

III. The Arizona Apache Wars 

A. The Apache Indians, located mainly in the American Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico) were considered the best fighters of all the Indians in America. They were notorious horse thieves and controlled the horse trade in the entire region—for this reason they were hated and feared by white and Mexican settlers as well as other Indian tribes in the area.   

1. Apache’s had prevented the Spanish from exerting control of much of the New Mexico/Arizona area for many years. 

2. Their first contact with US soldiers occurred in 1862, and was followed my many small battles and several massacres of both Indians and whites. 

a. In spring of 1871, tired of fighting and hiding, a group of 500 Apaches sought peace with the US military. However, animosity against the Apaches was so high among white and Mexican settlers in the area that on 30 April 1871, 144 Apaches, mostly women and children seeking a peace treaty were killed while sleeping in their camp (the raiding party was led by Americans, but included many Mexicans and even other Indians).  

B. The fiasco led to a shakeup in US military command--General George Crook replaced General George Stoneman as the leader of US forces fighting the Apaches. Crook was a highly skilled tracker and was very successful in his pursuit of the various Apache tribes. His skill and perseverance earned him the respect of many Apache warriors.         

1. In May 1872 new peace talks were called for and held. In December 1872 the Apache Indian Reservation was established. 

2. Many Apache tribes were pacified, but some remained at war with the US. 

3. Apache’s on the reservation were not happy. Conditions were terrible, many were confined to barracks as though they were in prison, and the food was bad. 

4.  Then in 1877—Apache’s under a tribal leader named Vittorio broke out from reservation and resumed the traditional life of raiding and horse stealing. The group was pursued relentlessly by both the US and the Mexican armies. 

a. Vittorio’s band of fighters terrorized the southwest until 1880 until his group was finally tracked down and killed, with only a few survivors. 

5. Shortly after, in the summer of 1881, a second group of Apache warriors under the leadership of Geronimo escaped from reservation and also tried to resume the old ways of life. Once again the group was hunted by both the US and Mexican Armies—but Geronimo proved to be a more skilful leader—he and his group eluded US and Mexican armies for almost 6 years. 

6. Finally, Geronimo surrendered on 4 September 1886. He was by this time a nationally known figure and even respected for his daring and bravery. After his capture he was transported to Oklahoma, where he died in 1909. 

IV. The Flight of the Nez Perce 

A. In 1855, as part of the Fort Laramie negotiations with the Indian tribes of the American west the US Government negotiated a treaty with the Nez Perce. 

1. Nez Perce were given 7, 000,000 acres of land most of which was in what is now the state of Idaho. Much of the land was agriculturally rich however and many whites moved into the area. 

2. By 1863, encroachment of whites on Indian lands led to conflict. The Nez Perce tried to solve the issue peacefully, but in the end, the government simply reduced the size of their reservation by 90%. 

3. Many Nez Perce rejected this new reservation and refused to sign the new treaty. 

4. This resulted in 10 years of sporadic (occasional) conflict, erupting finally in the Battle of White Bird Canyon, 17 June 1877 in which many whites were killed. 

5. The Nez Perce, under Chief Joseph, fled to Montana, believing that the Army simply wanted them out of Idaho. 

6. After a peaceful voyage through the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, US troops from Montana began their pursuit. Several battles were fought, with the Nez Perce winning all. 

7. Chief Joseph eventually led his people through some of the most difficult terrain in the US to the Bear Paw Mountains in Northern Montana He stopped just 30 miles from the Canadian Border, thinking he had made it to Canada. 

8. He and his people were surrounded there by the US Army. Some escaped to Canada, but most were captured and sent to Oklahoma. 

9. Within 2 years, almost all Nez Perce sent to Oklahoma were dead from starvation or disease. 

V. The role of the Railroads and Destruction of the Buffalo. 

A. Railroad construction through Indian territories led directly to conflict, but the role of the railroads overall was much more significant. 

1. First, of course the existence of railroads gave the US Army a huge logistical advantage—railroads could quickly deliver troops, weapons and supplies from the East Cost. They also delivered large numbers of white settlers. 

2. Second, buffalo, the foundation of life for the Plains Indians, proved to be a huge nuisance to railroads—their wandering across the plains led them to destroy railroad track and created an endless maintenance task for the railroads.  

3. To take care of the “buffalo problem,” the railroad hired Buffalo Bill Cody, who had earned a reputation as a buffalo hunter. Cody began killing buffaloes for pelts and sport and led huge groups of men on “safaris” on which they killed hundreds of buffaloes at a time, leaving their bodies to rot. 

4. As the Indian wars dragged on, the US government realized that the elimination of the buffalo would help greatly remove the problem of the Plains Indians—since the whole of Plains India society revolved around the buffalo, exterminating the buffalo would allow the government to subjugate the Indians.  

i. In one of the worst examples of environmental warfare in history, the US embarked on a deliberate effort to exterminate the largest mammal in North America. In 1800, there were about 65 million buffalo in the US. By 1865 there were still over 15 million. By 1891 only 551 remained.  

VI. The Dawes Act  

A. By the late 1880’s, virtually all the Indians of the West had been pacified and confined to reservations. The US Congress decided it was time to force the Indians to assimilate into mainstream culture. This was to represent the last stage if US Indian policy: Removal>>Concentration>>Reservation>>Extermination of those who wouldn’t accept reservation life>>Assimilation. 

1. The tool used by Congress to accomplish this was the Dawes Act.  

a. The Dawes Act or General Allotment Act, 1887, passed by the U.S. Congress, provided for the granting of landholdings (allotments, usually 160 acres/65 hectares) to individual Native Americans, replacing communal tribal holdings. Sponsored by U.S. Senator H. L. Dawes, the act sought to absorb tribe members into the national body politic. Allotments could be sold after a statutory period (25 years), and “surplus” land not allotted was opened to settlers. Within decades following the passage of the act the vast majority of what had been tribal land in the West was in white hands. 

b. Basically, the act eliminated the idea of tribal ownership, dispersing reservation land to individual Indians instead. They were free to sell the land after 25 years. 

c. In addition, Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations prohibited Indians from practicing traditional religious rituals and dances, and even from speaking their native languages. Schools were set up for the children and the adults were trained to farm, manage livestock, and perform other economically useful acts. 

B. It is a testament to the strength and resilience of Indian cultures that the Dawes Act did not, finally, destroy them. Indian ways were quietly preserved, and the worst features of the Dawes Act and BIA regulations were overturned under the New Deal Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

 VI. The Ghost Dance Religion 

A. In the years following their confinement on their reservations, a religious movement swept through the Sioux and other Indian tribes that was called the Ghost Dance Religion. 

1.The Ghost Dance Religion combined Christian imagery with ancient Indian legends and proclaimed that a new world was arising that would return the Indian world back to the way it was before the whites came, and would push the whites back to the country from which they had come, beyond the ocean. 

2. By doing a particular dance, it was believed, the new world could be enticed to arrive more quickly. 

3. The movement was particularly strong among the Sioux in South Dakota, and resulted in conflict there with the agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who regarded it as something of an uprising. Practice of the Ghost Dance was banned on reservations throughout the west. 

a. In December 1890, a group of Sioux Ghost Dancers was trying to evade arrest by US Army troops. They made it as far as Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, where they were trapped by the soldiers. Some 300 men and women were killed. 

b. The Wounded Knee Massacre ended the Ghost Dance Religion. It is widely regarded as the end of the Indian Wars, and many Americans at the time felt that the final capitulation of the Sioux Indians of South Dakota signaled an end to the Western Frontier.