Modern history

Conquest of the Frontier

American pioneers may have thought they were moving into a wilderness, but the West was home to large numbers of American Indians. Before pioneers and entrepreneurs could go west to pursue their economic dreams, the U.S. government would have to remove this unwelcome obstacle to American expansion. Through treaties—most of which Americans broke—and war, white Americans conquered the Indian tribes inhabiting the Great Plains during the nineteenth century. After the native population was largely subdued, those who wanted to reform Indian policy focused on carving up tribal lands and forcing Indians to assimilate into American society.

Indian Civilizations

Long before white settlers appeared, the frontier was already home to diverse peoples. The many native groups who inhabited the West spoke distinct languages, engaged in different economic activities, and competed with one another for power and resources. The descendants of Spanish conquistadors had also lived in the Southwest and California since the late sixteenth century, pushing the boundaries of the Spanish empire northward from Mexico. Indeed, Spaniards established the city of Santa Fe as the territorial capital of New Mexico years before the English landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The United States then acquired the New Mexican and California territories as spoils of the Mexican-American War in 1848.

MAP 15.2

The Indian Frontier, 1870 Western migration posed a threat to the dozens of Indian tribes and the immense herds of bison in the region. The tribes had signed treaties with the U.S. government recognizing the right to live on their lands. The presence of U.S. forts did not protect the Indians from settlers who invaded their territories.

By the end of the Civil War, around 350,000 Indians were living west of the Mississippi. They constituted the surviving remnants of the 1 million people who had occupied the land for thousands of years before Europeans set foot in America. Nez Percé, Ute, and Shoshone Indians lived in the Northwest and the Rocky Mountain region; Lakota, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Crow, and Arapaho tribes occupied the vast expanse of the central and northern plains; and Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, Navajos, and Pueblos made up the bulk of the population in the Southwest. Some of the tribes, such as the Cherokee, Creek, and Shawnee, had been forcibly removed from the East during Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1830s. The tribes each adapted in unique ways to the geography and climate of their home territories, spoke their own language, and had their own history and traditions. Some were hunters, others farmers; some nomadic, others sedentary. In New Mexico, the Apaches, including Geronimo, were expert horsemen and fierce warriors, while the Pueblo Indians built homes out of adobe and developed a flourishing system of agriculture. The lives of all Indian peoples were affected by the arrival of Europeans, but the consequences of cross-cultural contact varied considerably depending on the history and circumstances of each tribe (Map 15.2).

Given the rich assortment of Indian tribes, it is difficult to generalize about Indian culture and society. Pueblo Indians cultivated the land through methods of irrigation that foreshadowed modern practices. The Pawnees periodically set fire to the land to improve game hunting and the growth of vegetation. Indians on the southern plains gradually became enmeshed in the market economy for bison robes, which they sold to American traders. Indians were not pacifists, and they engaged in warfare with their enemies in disputes over hunting grounds, horses, and honor. However, the introduction of guns by European and American traders had transformed Indian warfare into a much more deadly affair than had existed previously. And by the mid-nineteenth century, some tribes had become so deeply engaged in the commercial fur trade with whites that they had depleted their own hunting grounds.

Native Americans had their own approach toward nature and the land they inhabited. Most tribes did not accept private ownership of land, as white pioneers did. Indians recognized the concept of private property in ownership of their horses, weapons, tools, and shelters, but they viewed the land as the common domain of their tribe, for use by all members. “The White man knows how to make everything,” the Hunkpapa Lakota chieftain Sitting Bull remarked, “but he does not know how to distribute it.” This communitarian outlook also reflected native attitudes toward the environment. They considered human beings not as superior to the rest of nature’s creations, but rather as part of an interconnected world of animals, plants, and natural elements. Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Percé Indians, explained to whites who tried to encroach on his land: “The country was made without lines of demarcation, and it’s no man’s business to divide it. . . . I see whites all over the country gaining wealth, and see their desire to give us lands that are worthless. . . . The earth and myself are of one mind. The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies are the same.” According to this view, all plants and animals were part of a larger spirit world, which flowed from the power of the sun, the sky, and the earth.

The bison played a central role in Indian religion and society. By the mid-nineteenth century, approximately thirty million bison (commonly known as buffalo) grazed on the Great Plains. Before acquiring guns, Indians used a variety of means to hunt their prey, including bows and arrows and spears. Some rode their horses to chase bison and stampede them over cliffs. The meat from the buffalo provided food; its hide provided material to construct tepees and make blankets and clothes; bones were crafted into tools, knives, and weapons; even bison dung served a purpose—after it dried and hardened, “buffalo chips” became an excellent source of fuel. It is therefore not surprising that the Plains Indians dressed up in colorful outfits, painted their bodies, and danced to the almighty power of the buffalo and the spiritual presence within it.

Indian hunting societies contained gender distinctions, primarily around the use of horses to pursue bison. The task of riding horses to hunt bison became men’s work; women waited for the hunters to return and then prepared the buffalo hides. Nevertheless, women refused to think of their role as passive: They saw themselves as sharing in the work of providing food, shelter, and clothing for the members of their tribe. Similarly, the religious belief that the spiritual world touched every aspect of the material world gave women an opportunity to experience this transcendent power without the mediation of male leaders, including the revered medicine men.

Changing Federal Policy toward indians

The U.S. government started out by treating western Indians as autonomous nations, thereby recognizing their stewardship over the land they occupied. In 1851 the Treaty of Fort Laramie confined tribes on the northern plains to designated areas in an attempt to keep white settlers from encroaching on their land. A treaty two years later applied these terms to tribes on the southern plains. Indians kept their part of the agreement, but white miners racing to strike it rich did not. They roamed through Indian hunting grounds in search of ore and faced little government enforcement of the existing treaties. In fact, the U.S. military made matters considerably worse. On November 29, 1864, a peaceful band of 700 Cheyennes and Arapahos under the leadership of Chief Black Kettle gathered at Sand Creek, Colorado, supposedly under guarantees of U.S. protection. Instead, Colonel John M. Chivington and his troops launched an attack, despite a white flag of surrender hoisted by the Indians, and brutally scalped and killed some 270 Indians, mainly women and children. A congressional investigation later determined that the victims “were mutilated in the most horrible manner.” Although there was considerable public outcry over the incident, as evidenced by the congressional investigation, the government did nothing to increase enforcement of its treaty obligations. In almost all disputes between white settlers and Indians, the government sided with the whites, regardless of the Indians’ legal rights.

The duplicity of the U.S. government was not without consequences. The Sand Creek massacre unleashed Indian wars throughout the central plains, where the Lakota Sioux led the resistance from 1865 to 1868. In 1866 they killed eighty soldiers under the command of Captain William J. Fetterman in Wyoming. After two years of fierce fighting, both sides signed a second Treaty of Fort Laramie, which gave northern tribes control over the “Great Reservation” set aside in parts of present-day Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Another treaty placed the southern tribes in a reservation carved out of western Oklahoma.

One of the tribes that wound up in Oklahoma was the Nez Percé. Originally settled in the corner where Washington, Oregon, and Idaho meet, the tribe was forced to sign a treaty ceding most of its land to the United States and to relocate onto a reservation. In 1877 Chief Joseph led the Nez Percé out of the Pacific Northwest, directing his people in an excruciating but daring march of 1,400 miles over mountains into Montana and Wyoming as federal troops pursued them. Intending to flee to Canada, the Nez Percé were finally intercepted in the mountains of northern Montana, just thirty miles from the border. Exhausted by the incredible journey, they surrendered. Subsequently, the government relocated these northwestern Indians to the southwestern territory of Oklahoma. In 1879 Chief Joseph pleaded with lawmakers in Congress to return his people to their home and urged the U.S. government to live up to the original intent of the treaties. His words carried some weight, and the Nez Percéreturned under armed escort to a reservation in Washington.

The treaties did not produce a lasting peace. Though most of the tribes relocated onto reservations, some refused. The Apache chief Victorio explained why he would not resettle his people on a reservation. “We prefer to die in our own land under the tall cool pines,” he declared. “We will leave our bones with those of our people. It is better to die fighting than to starve.” General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the military forces against the Indians, issued orders to “push his measures for the utter destruction and subjugation of all who are outside the reservations in a hostile attitude.” He went on to propose that the army “shall prosecute the war with vindictive earnestness against all hostile Indians till they are obliterated or beg for mercy.” In November 1868, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer took Sherman at his word and assaulted a Cheyenne village, killing more than one hundred Indians. Nearly a decade later, in 1876, the Indians, this time Lakota Sioux, exacted revenge by killing Custer and his troops at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana. Yet this proved to be the final victory for the Lakota nation, as the army mounted an extensive and fierce offensive against them that shattered their resistance.

Among the troops that battled the Indians were African Americans. Known as “buffalo soldiers,” a name given to them by the Indians but whose origin is unclear, they represented a cross section of the postwar black population looking for new opportunities that were now available after their emancipation. One enlisted man recalled: “I got tired of looking mules in the face from sunrise to sunset. Thought there must be a better livin’ in this world.” Some blacks enlisted to learn how to read and write; others sought to avoid unpleasant situations back home. Cooks, waiters, painters, bakers, teamsters, and farmers signed up for a five-year stint in the army at $13 a month. A few gained more glory than money. In May 1880, Sergeant George Jordan of the Ninth Cavalry led troops under his command to fend off Apache raids in Tularosa, New Mexico, for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Indian Defeat

By the late 1870s, Indians had largely succumbed to U.S. military supremacy. The tribes, as their many victories demonstrated, contained agile horsemen and skilled warriors, but the U.S. army was backed by the power of an increasingly industrial economy. Telegraph lines and railroads provided logistical advantages in the swift deployment of U.S. troops and the ability of the central command to communicate with field officers. Although Indians had acquired firearms over the years from American traders as well as from defeated enemies on the battlefield, the army boasted an essentially unlimited supply of superior weapons. The diversity of Indians and historic rivalries among tribes also made it difficult for them to unite against their common enemy. The federal government exploited these divisions by hiring Indians to serve as army scouts against their traditional tribal foes.

In addition to federal efforts to subdue Indians, other disasters devastated native peoples in the second half of the nineteenth century. Even before the Civil War, many Indians had died of diseases such as smallpox, cholera, scarlet fever, and measles, for which they lacked the immunity that Europeans and white Americans had acquired. Moreover, Indian policy was fundamentally flawed by cultural misunderstanding. Even the most sensitive white administrators of Indian affairs considered Indians a degraded race, in accordance with the scientific thinking of the time. At most, whites believed that Indians could be lifted to a higher level of civilization, which in practice meant a withering away of their traditional culture and heritage.

The wholesale destruction of the bison was the final blow to Indian independence. As railroads pushed their tracks beyond the Mississippi, they cleared bison from their path by sending in professional hunters with high-powered rifles to shoot the animals. Buffalo Bill Cody built his reputation by working as a crack sharpshooter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. At the same time, buffalo products such as shoes, coats, and hats became fashionable in the East. By the mid-1880s, hunters had killed more than thirteen million bison. As a result of the relentless move of white Americans westward and conspicuous consumption back east, bison herds were almost annihilated.

Faced with decimation of the bison, broken treaties, and their opponents’ superior military technology, Native Americans’ capacity to wage war collapsed. Indians had little choice but to settle on shrinking reservations that the government established for them. The absence of war, however, did not necessarily bring them security. In the late 1870s, gold discoveries in the Black Hills of North Dakota ignited another furious rush by miners who swooped into the sacred lands supposedly guaranteed to the Lakota people. Rather than honoring its treaties, the U.S. government forced the tribes to relinquish still more land. Government officials continued to encourage western expansion by white settlers despite previous agreements with the Indians. General Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was part of the military force trying to push Indians out of this mining region, when it was annihilated at the Little Big Horn in 1876. Elsewhere, Congress opened up a portion of western Oklahoma to white homesteaders in 1889. Although this land had not been assigned to specific tribes relocated in Indian Territory, more than eighty thousand Indians from various tribes lived there. This government-sanctioned land rush only added to the pressure from homesteaders and others to acquire more land at the expense of the Indians. A decade later, Congress officially ended Indian control of Indian Territory.

Reforming indian Policy

As reservations continued to shrink under expansionist assault and government acquiescence, a movement arose to reform Indian policy. Largely centered in the East where few Indians lived, reformers came to believe that the future welfare of Indians lay not in sovereignty but in assimilation. In 1881 Helen Hunt Jackson published A Century of Dishonor, her exposé of the unjust treatment the Indians had received, including broken promises and fraudulent activities by government agents. Roused by this depiction of the Indians’ plight, groups such as the Women’s National Indian Association joined with ministers and philanthropists to advocate the transformation of native peoples into full-fledged Americans.

From today’s vantage point, these well-intentioned reformers could be viewed as contributing to the demise of the Indians by trying to eradicate their cultural heritage. Judged by the standards of their own time, however, they truly wanted to save the Indians from the brutality and corrupt behavior they had endured, and they honestly believed they were acting in the Indians’ best interests. The most advanced thinking among anthropologists at the time offered an approach that supported assimilation as the only alternative to extinction. The influential Lewis Morgan, author of Ancient Society (1877), concluded that all cultures evolved through three stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Indians occupied the lower rungs, but reformers argued that by adopting white values they could become civilized. In effect, this would mean the cultural extermination of the Indians, but reformers such as Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian School, stressed salvation as their motive. “Do not feed America to the Indian, which is tribalizing and not an Americanizing process,” he wrote, “but feed the Indian to America, and America will do the assimilating and annihilate the problem.”

Reformers such as Pratt faced opposition from white Americans who doubted that Indian assimilation was possible. For many Americans, secure in their sense of their own superiority, the decline and eventual extinction of the Indian peoples was an inevitable consequence of what they saw as Indians’ innate inferiority. For example, a Wyoming newspaper predicted: “The same inscrutable Arbiter that decreed the downfall of Rome has pronounced the doom of extinction upon the red men of America.” And it warned: “To pretend to defer this by mawkish sentimentalism . . . is unworthy of the age.”

Reformers found their legislative spokesman in Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. As legislative director of the Boston Indian Citizenship Association, Dawes shared Christian reformers’ belief that becoming a true American would save both the Indians and the soul of the nation. “Soon I trust,” Dawes remarked, “we will wipe out the disgrace of our past treatment and lift the [Indian] up into citizenship and manhood and cooperation with us to the glory of the country.” A Republican who had served in Congress since the Civil War, Dawes had the same paternalistic attitude toward Indians as he had toward freed slaves. He believed that if both degraded groups worked hard and practiced thrift and individual initiative in the spirit of Dawes’s New England Puritan forebears, they would succeed. The key for Dawes was private ownership of land.

Passed in 1887, the Dawes Act ended tribal rule and divided Indian lands into 160-acre parcels. The act allocated one parcel to each family head. The government held the lands in trust for the Indians for twenty-five years; at the end of this period, the Indians would receive American citizenship. In return, the Indians had to abandon their religious and cultural rites and practices, including storytelling and the use of medicine men. Whatever lands remained after this reallocation—and the amount was considerable—would be sold on the open market, and the profits from the sales would be placed in an educational fund for Indians.

Unfortunately, like most of the policies it replaced, the Dawes Act proved detrimental to Native Americans. Indian families received inferior farmlands and inadequate tools to cultivate them, while speculators reaped profits from the sale of the “excess” Indian lands. A little more than a decade after the Dawes Act went into effect, Indians controlled 77 million acres of land, down sharply from the 155 million acres they held in 1881. Additional legislation in 1891 forced Indian parents to send their children to boarding schools or else face arrest. At these educational institutions, Indian children were given “American” names, had their long hair cut, and wore uniforms in place of their native dress. The program for boys provided manual and vocational training and that for girls taught domestic skills, so that they could emulate the gender roles in middle-class American families. However, this schooling offered few skills of use in an economic world undergoing industrial transformation. The students “found themselves in a twilight world,” one historian claimed. “They were not equipped or allowed to enter American society as equals, yet they had been subjected to sufficient change as to make returning to the reservations difficult and sometimes traumatic.”

Indian Assimilation and Resistance

Not all Indians conformed to the government’s attempt at forced acculturation. Some refused to abandon their traditional social practices, and others rejected the white man’s version of private property and civilization. Many displayed more complicated approaches to survival in a world that continued to view Indians with prejudice. Geronimo and Sitting Bull participated in pageants and Wild West shows but refused to disavow their heritage. Ohiyesa, a Lakota also known as Charles Eastman, went to boarding school, graduated from Dartmouth College, and earned a medical degree from Boston University. He supported passage of the Dawes Act, believed in the virtues of an American education, and worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At the same time, he spoke out against government corruption and fraud perpetrated against Indians. Reviewing his life in his later years, Eastman/Ohiyesa reflected: “I am an Indian and while I have learned much from civilization . . . I have never lost my Indian sense of right and justice.”

Disaster loomed for those who resisted assimilation and held on too tightly to the old ways. In 1888 the prophet Wovoka, a member of the Paiute tribe in western Nevada, had a vision that Indians would one day regain control of the world and that whites would disappear. He believed that the Creator had provided him with a Ghost Dance that would make this happen. The dance spread to thousands of Lakota Sioux in the northern plains. Seeing the Ghost Dance as a sign of renewed Indian resistance, the army attempted to put a stop to the revival. On December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old regiment, chased three hundred ghost dancers to Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in present-day South Dakota. In a confrontation with the Lakota leader Big Foot, a gunshot accidentally rang out during a struggle with one of his followers. The cavalry then turned the full force of their weaponry on the Indians. When the hail of bullets ceased, about 250 Native Americans, many of them women and children, lay dead.

The message of the massacre at Wounded Knee was clear for those who raised their voices against Americanization. As Black Elk, a spiritual leader of the Oglala Lakota tribe, asserted: “A people’s dream died there. . . . There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.” It may not have been the policy of the U.S. government to exterminate the Indians as a people, but it was certainly U.S. policy to destroy Indian culture and society once and for all.


• How and why did federal Indian policy change during the nineteenth century?

• Describe some of the ways that Indian peoples responded to federal policies. Which response do you think offered their greatest chance for survival?

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