The Indians of the Great Plains

The Indians of the Great Plains may be thought among the most remarkable of all the world’s warrior peoples. Between the middle of the seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth century, they acquired two quite disparate instruments of warfare, the horse and the gun, assimilated them into their culture, and combined their use into terrifyingly effective military practice. It is difficult to think of any other pre-literate ethnic group which has made so rapid and complete a transition from primitive to sophisticated warriordom in so short a space of time.

The nomadic peoples of the Euro-Asian steppe, Scythians, Huns, Magyars, Mongols, and Turks, learnt how to carry offensive warfare against the civilisations which surrounded its edge, Rome, Byzantium, the Islamic Caliphate, and Han China, using the horse and the composite bow—a weapon not inferior to early firearms—with deadly effect. The process by which the steppe dwellers evolved from marginal herdsmen to makers and breakers of empire was protracted and remains obscure. Before 2000 B.C. the horse of the Old World was a poor thing, valued by humans as meat rather than a mount. It was, indeed, too weak in the back to be ridden at all. About 2000 B.C. however, mutation and selective breeding produced an animal strong enough to pull a load, and soon afterwards appeared the ancestor of today’s riding horse. By about 1500 B.C. there also appeared the composite bow; but not until nearly a thousand years later did individual riders learn how to use the bow from horseback and so combine into a single man–horse weapon unit all the elements which make up what historians call “the cavalry revolution.” The process which was to lead to the overthrow by the world’s first true horse people, the Scythians, of the world’s first great empire, Assyria, was, therefore, nearly fifteen centuries long.

The process is not to be admired. The horse peoples in the two thousand years in which they flourished, between the Scythian onslaught in Assyria in the seventh century B.C. and the Turks’ victory over Byzantium at Constantinople in A.D. 1453, were the enemies of true civilisation. They were, nevertheless, a force in the world which no account of its history can ignore. Equally, no history of America can ignore that of its native inhabitants. Their fate was ultimately tragic, though sentimentality should not blind us to a record of savagery inflicted as well as savagery suffered; but their history is also one of extraordinary adaptation to the arrival of a civilisation which nothing in their past had prepared them to confront. From that confrontation they unerringly selected the two novelties best designed to facilitate their struggle for existence, in the Southwest the horse, in the Northeast the gun. When Indian horse culture and Indian gun culture met and overlapped, as they did on the Great Plains at the end of the eighteenth century, a warrior way of life was born which was to impede and distort the Manifest Destiny of Europeans to possess the continent for nearly a hundred years. It is the unparalleled rapidity with which America’s Indians brought a “cavalry revolution” to its military history which elevates them to a special place in that of the world.

The horse came twice to America, first at some irretrievable period before the opening of the Bering Strait separated it from Siberia, then when Cortés brought his seventeen chargers to Mexico in 1517. In the interim the ancestors of the Amerindians who crossed from Asia to Alaska twelve thousand years ago had hunted the native American horse out of existence, probably in the first millennium after their arrival. The disappearance of the American horse, supposing that it might have evolved into a riding animal, determined that the way of life of the continent’s earlier inhabitants moved nowhere faster than at foot’s pace and in many regions settled into sedentary forms. That was to be the case on the fertile lakeside and river valleys of Mexico and the Southwest. In the forests of Atlantic America, hunting, trapping, fishing, gathering, and scavenging provided subsistence, except where breaks in the tree cover permitted peripatetic agriculture. The pattern persisted also on the Pacific Coast and, in marginal forms, on the mountain slopes and the edges of the frozen northern hinterland. It was on the Great Plains, however, that there developed a way of life distinctively American, unlike any other in the inhabited world, for it was only there that was found game in the superabundance that the herds of buffalo represented.

Before the white man came to the plains, it has been calculated, they were roamed by thirty million buffalo, often forming herds which covered as much as fifty square miles of territory. Though large, slow, and small-brained, the buffalo had no natural enemies; unlike Africa, America sheltered no predator strong enough to pull down a ruminant on its grazing ground. Not even the Indian could be counted a real enemy, for the natives of the plains lived by small-scale parasitism on the herds. They were wholly dependent on the buffalo for life. A member of Coronado’s expedition of the early 1540s described how “with the skins they build their houses; with the skins they clothe and shoe themselves; from the skins they make rope and also obtain wool. With the sinews they make thread with which they sew their clothes and also their tents. From the bones they shape awls. The dung they use for firewood, since there is no other fuel in their land. The bladders they use as jugs and drinking containers. They sustain themselves on their meat, eating it slightly roasted and heated over the dung. Some they eat raw.” Though the Indians would, when they could, organise buffalo “drives,” a method of killing known to archaeologists from many regions and from as long ago as 100,000 years B.C., in which the hunters funnelled beasts into a dead end at a cliff’s edge, Indian numbers were so small on the plains—the Sioux, most feared of the plains people, seem to have formed no more than sixteen thousand in the 1860s—that even the most successful drive scarcely dented the buffalo stock. Hunting on foot against the flanks of a herd was laborious and time-consuming, requiring great skill in stalking and the use of bow and lance, and yielded even fewer carcasses.

The coming of the horse put the Plains Indian on more equal terms with his prey. By raising the speed of the hunt from four to over twenty miles an hour, it facilitated the “surround,” a hunting method in which a section of the herd was cut out by mounted men and ridden down to death by lance and bow. The Indian’s mythic relationship with his source of life continued to restrain, nevertheless, the number of buffalo he took, and that might have remained so even after the appearance of the gun. The ball fired by the flintlock musket may actually have been inferior to the arrow as a killing agent against the bulk of a body as large as the buffalo’s; and while that was not true of the conical bullet fired by the breech-loading rifle, the rifle did not change the Indian’s relationship with the great buffalo herds. They remained the biosystem from which he drew his subsistence, and so a stock to be conserved and valued above every other means of life on the Great Plains.

It was the arrival there of the rifle-bearing white man that changed everything: the white herdsman, driving the cattle columns north from Texas to the railroads, the white farmer staking out his claim on the grassland, above all the white buffalo hunter bent on collecting hides for the tanneries of trans-Mississippi America. The farmers simply wanted buffalo-free land; the herdsmen wanted the buffalo’s grass, not knowing or caring that without the buffalo’s droppings and eventual decomposition after death the grass would be progressively impoverished; but the hide-hunters wanted the buffalo itself and in the early 1870s were killing three million a year. Both ranchers and farmers applauded that, since the slaughter promised to empty the plains at no cost to themselves at all. It confronted the Indian with the threat of extinction of a way of life so old that he could not imagine a future without it. Herding, farming, hide-hunting: the combination meant war, and not merely war but war to the death.

War between white and Indian had been part of the history of North America since the Europeans had first arrived to settle in the seventeenth century. War had, of course, also been central to the way of life of many of the Indian tribes since time immemorial. Indian warfare, however, generally took forms quite different from those known to Europeans. Like most hunters, gatherers, and itinerant agriculturalists in other pre-literate, pre-metallic societies in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, the Indians had little conception of territorial acquisition, usurpation, or victory. They fought frequently over women, particularly where female infanticide was practised, sometimes over hunting rights, commonly for prestige and revenge. The very vastness of America and the sparsity of human population—there were only about 600,000 Indians in the future United States when the Pilgrim Fathers landed—imposed no need to fight for those reasons dear to anthropologists: competition for scarce resources or protein shortage. Some Indians fought very little; the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest, settled, village-dwelling farmers, scarcely knew war at all. The forest Indians of the Northeast fought tribe to tribe over farming and hunting grounds, which shifted as soils were temporarily exhausted or stocks of game hunted out, and sometimes with determination and discipline; both the Algonquins and the Iroquois wore bodily protection and came to close-quarter combat. A dominant motive in their style of warfare, however, was the taking of captives, to be adopted into the tribe as a replacement for a casualty if thought worthy, to be tortured to death if not; it was bravery under torture that usually determined the captive’s fitness for adoption. Out on the plains, Indian warfare seems, before the coming of the Europeans, to have been a tepid affair. Tribes were few and small in number. They practised the sun dance at the beginning of the year, which invoked a successful season; they raided for women and revenge; they staged ritual combats in which “counting coup,” the striking of a symbolic blow against an enemy, meant more than killing or wounding. In an almost infinite land, however, they did not fight for territory or wealth, because territory was effectively free and wealth was for anyone fit enough to hunt the buffalo.

Plains warfare was transformed by the coming of the horse. It provided an object worth fighting about, for wealth immediately came to be measured in horses, which braves set out to steal, stampede, or capture in combat. It also liberated the male from almost all activity except warriordom. The males in all horse societies appear to have been lazy; on the Central Asian steppe their days were spent idling on horseback as they supervised the grazing of their flocks. On the Great Plains the Indians were spared even that pastoral responsibility, since the buffalo herds needed no attention at all. Endlessly reproductive and threatened by no predator except man himself, they needed only to be followed along their grazing tracks to yield a livelihood. The buffalo hunt itself required skills of horsemanship and of the use of arms from the saddle. Such skills, however, were as much military as predaceous, and, once mastered, as they were by the beginning of the nineteenth century when the gun had found its way into the hands of the Plains Indians, they provided a potential for effective war-making not only in the stylised give-and-take of tribal rivalry but also in the defence of the hunting grounds against the white encroacher.

Encroachment was not initially a white policy. Indeed, the plains were first seen as the solution of the “Indian problem” east of the Mississippi, a region inhospitable to whites into which the tribes of the Old Northwest and the South could be decanted. In emulation of the Proclamation of 1763, United States policy in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth was to get the Indians out of the wooded East and across the Mississippi-Missouri on to the treeless levels where they would cease to be competitors for productive land. There were subordinate policies, including those of forcing hunters to become farmers, and of creating reservations, deemed to be permanent, within the 1763 Proclamation territory. The relentless desire of settlers for land, however, and their determination to take it even from Indians who were or became farmers, as did the Five Civilized Tribes—Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek—of the Southeast, reduced all Federal policy in the end to one of removal, through a succession of broken treaties and despite a series of Indian wars of desperation.

The policy became explicit in 1825 when John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War to President Monroe, proposed removing the eastern Indians west of the 95th Meridian, which meant across the Missouri, and of making room for them by displacing the Plains Indians further westward still. In 1830 the most notorious of the Indian laws, the Indian Removal Act, transplanted the Five Civilized Tribes to Arkansas, while treaties and bribes got the tribes of the Old Northwest into lands adjacent to Fort Leavenworth. The arrangement was not only high-handed. It also provoked trouble between the Indians themselves, for the easterners not unnaturally found the plains alien to their way of life, while the displaced westerners objected that the easterners were occupying their traditional hunting grounds. Moreover, they despised each other: the incomers thought the plainsmen to be primitive savages, the plainsmen thought the incomers to be interlopers and dependants of the white man. Far from solving the Indian problem, the creation of what was called the Permanent Indian Frontier merely shifted it. The administration of the Frontier required the establishment of new forts in Indian territory and a steady inflation of the number of troops stationed there.

The problem worsened as the settlers began to make their way across the Permanent Indian Frontier towards California and Oregon in the 1850s. Though they were not legally permitted and did not seek to stay in the Great American Desert, they did want secure through-routes, and that required the Indians to migrate either north or south of the California and Oregon trails. New agreements about reservations were made, and inevitably broken. Then the roadheads in what would be called Kansas and Nebraska were “organised” as Territories, soon to be states, further diminishing Indian land and opening a wedge into the plains which threatened to widen. The Sioux tribes were assured at Fort Laramie in 1857 of their permanent right to the Dakota lands, where they had particularly rich hunting grounds in the Black Hills, but even a corner of those had been usurped by 1860. “By alternate persuasion and force,” an agent of the Indian Bureau wrote, “some of those tribes have been removed, step by step, from mountain to valley and from river to plain, until they have been pushed half across the continent. They can go no further: on the ground they now occupy the crisis must be met.”

The crisis was postponed by the Civil War, which effectively interrupted the course of western expansion for nearly five years. Yet even by 1864, trouble was brewing again, largely because of the mining fever which had impelled the first rush to California in 1849. Now it was Colorado, immediately west of Kansas, where word said wealth was to be made, and the stampede of miners to the Rockies provoked the Cheyenne and Arapaho to war. The Colorado militia of locally enlisted irregulars, the sort of force which had made trouble for central authority ever since the Kirkes had taken Quebec from Champlain in 1629, put the tribes down with terrible ferocity in the Sand Creek massacre, the memory of which reverberated among the Indians of the Southwest throughout the next decade, kept them constantly on the warpath but broke the spirit of many individuals. News of the massacre, however, only inflamed the Sioux of the northern plains. Always the most warlike tribe of the region, as their neighbours knew and the French had found, they had already been driven out of Minnesota for rebelliousness. When mining fever engulfed Montana, in their current tribal heartland, in 1864 the Sioux resolved to fight. The immediate cause of trouble was a Federal decision to open a new spur from the Oregon Trail to supply the mining encampments around Bozeman. The Bozeman Trail branched off at Fort Laramie, the old fur-trading post where many of the dishonoured Indian treaties had been negotiated, and was guarded by three new forts, Reno, on the Powder River, C. F. Smith, on the Bighorn River, and Phil Kearny, in between.

Red Cloud, the leading Sioux chief of the time, warned that his people saw the road as a violation of treasured territory. The U.S. Army, which was constructing both it and the forts, nevertheless kept on with the work, though they were constantly attacked and their supply parties regularly ambushed. In December 1865, however, Red Cloud’s warning hit home. Lieutenant Colonel William Judd Fetterman, leading a punitive party of eighty-two soldiers against their Sioux tormentors, fell into a trap, and he and all his men were killed.

The Fetterman massacre, which the Indians may have seen as a tit-for-tat for the Sand Creek massacre, brought an end to fighting in the short term but in the long term presaged a greater crisis. The fighting, known as the Powder River War, was ended because Washington decided on yet another revision of its Indian policy. In March 1867, with the garrisons of the three forts virtually under siege, Congress voted to send peace commissioners to the plains with new proposals. Four civilians and three generals reached the West in August and agreed on the terms to be offered, first to the Indians of the southern plains, then to those of the north. In practice, the new policy was no more than a revision of the old—definition of reserves, compensation for land surrendered, and promise of material support to tide the Indians over the change of homeland—with the difference that the territories which the Indians were to hold would be even more constricted than those guaranteed under the previous treaties. The displaced eastern Indians, including the Five Civilized Tribes, were to be confined to the eastern half of what is now Oklahoma, displacing the indigenous Plains tribes, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche, to the western half. Feasts, smooth talk, and cash payments clinched the deal.

The commissioners then turned to the central and northern tribes. The Shoshoni and Bannock of Wyoming and Idaho, the Ute of Colorado, and the Navaho and Apache of Arizona and New Mexico accepted reservations in those states and territories. The Sioux agreed to proposals which gave them a permanent reservation centered on their cherished Black Hills hunting ground in what is now South Dakota, together with the country astride the Bighorn River in Montana as “unceded” Indian territory. In return the United States ceased work on the Bozeman Trail and abandoned the three forts guarding it.

The government conceived that the West was now pacified. As so often had proved the case before, however, deals concluded with chiefs could not bind their followers. Indian chiefdom was transient, Indian tribal structure fluid, Indian understanding of territorial ownership and alienation at variance with the legalism of the white world. Chiefs were commonly accorded chiefly status precisely because they could inspire young men to war, lead them to victory, and outwit the tribal enemies. Powers of diplomacy were valued in a leader only if they brought advantage. The treaties of 1867–68 made at Medicine Lodge, Fort Laramie, and elsewhere had brought the glister of cash and the white man’s goodwill, but on terms which the younger warriors recognised to be greatly to their disadvantage. On the plains, as anywhere else that settled people treated with nomads, two utterly irreconcilable styles of lite were brought into conflict. Settled people, particularly people of settled habits seeking to impose them over a nomadic zone, simply cannot comprehend the fulfilment that the roaming existence brings to the migrant pastoralist and the hunter. The settler is a creature seeking the certainties of boundaries, fixed habitation, mine and thine. The nomad, by contrast, relishes uncertainty, movement, adventure, random reward, chance wealth, and values no possession that does not serve his restless, rootless, irresponsible habits. To the incomprehension of the farmer, and even of the rancher who thinks of his stock and his spread as his own, the nomad regards himself as a superior being, because he enjoys the greatest of all human endowments, personal freedom and detachment from material burdens. Nomadism, anthropologists have concluded, is the happiest of all human ways of life; and because of the happiness it brings, those who enjoy it react with ruthless violence against outsiders who seek to limit or redirect it. Much of the history of the Old World concerns the feckless expectation of nomads that settled and civilised peoples should submit to their depradations, their determination to persist in nomad habits even when their military ruthlessness made them masters of civilised societies, and the equally stubborn determination of sedentary civilisations to beat nomadism back into the remoteness where it originated.

On a smaller scale, and in circumstances which preordained the nomads to defeat, the Old World history of conflict between nomadic horse peoples and sedentary civilisation was to be played out in the New World on the Great Plains in the two decades after the Civil War. In the aftermath of the Fort Laramie and Medicine Lodge treaties, the compromising chiefs who had signed the tribal lands away were disowned by their followers, who, by the traditionally shifting loyalties of tribal life, accepted the leadership either of unreconciled elders, like Chief Black Kettle, of the Cheyenne-Arapaho confederacy, or of younger chiefs with fire in their veins. In August 1868 the Southwest took flame and several thousand Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Apache rode gun in hand across Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, killing and burning. The greatest of Hollywood westerns, John Ford’s The Searchers, begins with the descent of a Comanche band on an isolated Texas farmstead at this time.

By March 1869 this outburst of nomadic violence had been quelled, largely through the efforts of the young Colonel George Custer, whose surprise attack on Chief Black Kettle in an encampment in the Washita Valley, in Indian territory in Oklahoma, on 27 November 1868, resulted in the chief’s death and that of a hundred of his followers, as well as the demoralisation of most of the other Indians who had taken the warpath that season. Two years later, however, trouble again broke out in Texas and rumbled on, with the usual bloody consequences of burnt homesteads and bushwhacked wagon trains, reaching a climax in 1874 with the deaths of sixty Texas whites. The army then resolved on concerted action, from its posts on the upper Red River—Forts Union, Sill, Griffin, and Concho and Camp Supply—and fought fourteen actions before winter and Indian exhaustion brought an end to the Red River War.

The tide was now turning decisively against the Indians. The army was protracting its punitive expeditions into the winter months, which “hostiles” did not regard as a campaigning season. Hostiles were becoming increasingly dependent on the handouts and cash payments distributed in the reserves, and though many would drift out of the reserves in the summer months when the temptations of the warpath overcame the force of the promises of good behaviour they had given, bad weather and military action usually drove them back again towards the end of the year. Above all, the bottomless resource of the buffalo herds which had supported their way of life since time immemorial was now running out. The penetration of the plains by the transcontinental railroads had split their grazing grounds, put hide-hunting on to a commercial basis, and accelerated slaughter to an industrial pace. The southern buffalo population was near extinction by the time of the Red River War; the northern population was in catastrophic decline also. Deforestation had been the necessary preliminary to settlement in the temperate United States; the buffalo holocaust was the equivalent precondition to the opening of the plains. It was immeasurably easier and it had the direct side-effect of forcing the Indians to choose between acceptance of dependency on the whites through the reservation system or increasingly desperate armed resistance.

In 1875 the Indians of the northern plains were confronted by just such a choice. Under the Fort Laramie treaty of 29 April 1868, the Sioux had agreed to abandon the warpath in return for the grant of a permanent reservation in the Dakota Black Hills, valued precisely because it carried rich stocks of other game than the disappearing buffalo, and the “unceded” territory in what is now Montana, around the Bighorn River and its tributaries, where the buffalo did roam. At the time the treaty lands were not thought valuable to whites. The Bighorn country was too remote for settlement, the Black Hills too steep and wooded for agriculture. By 1873, however, one of the now familiar gold rumours swept the States, identifying the Black Hills as a spot for instant fortune-making. Since it was nearly a decade since the last lucky strike, and the United States economy was temporarily in depression, the rumour had an electrifying effect.

Loners competed with syndicates to get to the Black Hills, only to find that the Federal government barred their way. Soldiers were few, however, prospectors many, and the cordon was broken by hundreds willing to risk Indian anger for the chance of quick riches. In the face of the gold rush, Washington decided on a novel means of observing its treaty obligations, which was to mount an expedition of its own that would explode the gold fable. The soldier chosen as leader was Colonel George Custer. Unfortunately the scientists attached to his column brought back news exactly contrary to that expected: the Black Hills were rich, not only in game but in gold-bearing lodes. It could not be kept secret. Efforts to exclude prospectors by legal proclamation did not work. The government found itself squeezed between its treaty obligations and the gold-lust of thousands of miners. Soldiers hustled them outside the frontiers of the reserve in hundreds, only to find them filtering in again when their backs were turned. By September the government concluded that it could regularise the situation only by prevailing on the Sioux to renegotiate the Fort Laramie treaty. In September 1875, agents conferred with tribes, offering money for the mining rights. The disheartened Sioux of the reservation, those who had chosen to settle for peace and handouts, were prepared to discuss terms. Against the government offer of $6 million, however, they demanded $70 million. The unreconciled Sioux, mainly from the Teton clan within the Sioux confederation, refused to barter at all. As the Fort Laramie treaty stipulated that three-quarters of all adult male Sioux had to assent to an instrument of sale, an impasse resulted.

The government’s response was twofold. Recognising, realistically, that it could not control the thousands of miners who ringed the Black Hills, it withdrew its soldiers from the approaches. Hoping, unrealistically, to overawe the Indians by threat of penalty, it ordered all the Sioux to report to the reservation, even from their external hunting grounds where they were legally at liberty to roam, by 1 February 1876. The miners poured through the passes to the Black Hills as soon as the soldiers left. The warrior Indians withdrew to the upper reaches of the Yellowstone River and its tributaries, the Bighorn and Little Bighorn, west of the reservation and outside the cordon of forts encircling their lands, Forts Laramie, Lincoln, Fetterman, Benton, and Ellis, to stockpile supplies and await the war they now knew was inevitable. The penultimate but decisive round of the struggle between red man and white in North America trembled on the point of outbreak.

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