American-Indian Wars

Introduction

Suspicion and hostility, stemming from technological and cultural differences as well as mutual feelings of superiority, have permeated relations betweenNative Americanand non-Indians in North America. Intertribal antagonisms among the Indians, and nationalistic rivalries, bad faith, and expansionist desires on the part of non-Indians exacerbated these tensions. The resulting white-Indian conflicts often took a particularly brutal turn and ultimately resulted in the near-de-struction of the indigenous peoples.

Warfare between Europeans and Indians was common in the seventeenth century. In 1622, the Powhatan Confederacy nearly wiped out the struggling Jamestown colony. Frustrated at the continuing conflicts, Nathaniel Bacon and a group of vigilantes destroyed the Pamunkey Indians before leading an unsuccessful revolt against colonial authorities in 1676. Intermittent warfare also plagued early Dutch colonies in New York. In New England, Puritan forces annihilated the Pequots in 1636-1637, a campaign whose intensity seemed to foreshadow the future. Subsequent attacks inspired by Metacom (King Philip) against English settlements sparked a concerted response from the New England Confederation. Employing Indian auxiliaries and a scorched-earth policy, the colonists nearly exterminated the Narragansetts, Wampanoags, and Nipmucks in 1675-1676. A major Pueblo revolt also threatened Spanish-held New Mexico in 1680.

Indians were also a key factor in the imperial rivalries among France, Spain, and England. In King William’s (1689-1697), Queen Anne’s (1702-1713), and King George’s (1744-1748) wars, the French sponsored Abnaki and Mohawk raids against the more numerous English. Meanwhile, the English and their trading partners, the Chickasaws and often the Cherokees, battled the French and associated tribes for control of the lower Mississippi River valley and the Spanish in western Florida. More decisive was the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The French and their Indian allies dominated the conflict’s early stages, turning back several English columns in the north. Particularly serious was the near-annihilation of Gen. Edward Braddock’s force of thirteen hundred men outside of Fort Duquesne in 1755. But with English minister William Pitt infusing new life into the war effort, British regulars and provincial militias overwhelmed the French and absorbed all of Canada.

But eighteenth-century conflicts were not limited to the European wars for empire. In Virginia and the Carolinas, English-speaking colonists pushed aside the Tuscaroras, the Yamasees, and the Cherokees. The Natchez, Chick asaw, and Fox Indians resisted French domination, and the Apaches and Comanches fought against Spanish expansion into Texas. In 1763, an Ottawa chief, Pontiac, forged a powerful confederation against British expansion into the Old Northwest. Although his raids wreaked havoc upon the surrounding white settlements, the British victory in the French and Indian War combined with the Proclamation of 1763, which forbade settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, soon eroded Pontiac’s support.

Most of the Indians east of the Mississippi River now perceived the colonial pioneers as a greater threat than the British government. Thus northern tribes, especially those influenced by Mohawk chief Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), generally sided with the Crown during the American War for Independence. In 1777, they joined the Tories and the British in the unsuccessful offensives of John Burgoyne and Barry St. Leger in upstate New York. Western Pennsylvania and New York became savage battlegrounds as the conflict spread to the Wyoming and Cherry valleys. Strong American forces finally penetrated the heart of Iroquois territory, leaving a wide swath of destruction in their wake.

In the Midwest, George Rogers Clark captured strategic Vincennes for the Americans, but British agents based at Detroit continued to sponsor Tory and Indian forays as far south as Kentucky. The Americans resumed the initiative in 1782, when Clark marched northwest into Shawnee and Delaware country, ransacking villages and inflicting several stinging defeats upon the Indians. To the south, the British backed resistance among the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Choctaws but quickly forgot their former allies following the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1783).

By setting the boundaries of the newly recognized United States at the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, that treaty virtually ensured future conflicts between whites and resident tribes. In 1790, Miami chief Little Turtle routed several hundred men led by Josiah Harmar along the Maumee River. Arthur St. Clair’s column suffered an even more ignominious defeat on the Wabash River the following year; only in 1794 did Anthony Wayne gain revenge at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Yet resistance to white expansion in the Old Northwest continued as a Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, molded a large Indian confederation based at Prophetstown. While Tecumseh was away seeking additional support, William Henry Harrison burned the village after a stalemate at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.

Indian raids, often encouraged by the British, were influential in causing the United States to declare war on Great Britain in 1812. The British made Tecumseh a brigadier general and used Indian allies to help recapture Detroit and Fort Dearborn (Chicago). Several hundred American prisoners were killed following a skirmish at the River Raisin in early 1813. But Harrison pushed into Canada and won the Battle of the Thames, which saw the death of Tecumseh and the collapse of his confederation. In the Southeast, the Creeks gained a major triumph against American forces at Fort Sims, killing many of their prisoners in the process. Andrew Jackson led the counterthrust, winning victories at Tallasahatchee and Talladega before crushing the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

Alaska and Florida were also the scenes of bitter conflicts. Native peoples strongly contested the Russian occupation of Alaska. The Aleuts were defeated during the eighteenth century, but the Russians found it impossible to prevent Tlingit harassment of their hunting parties and trading posts. Upon the Spanish cession of Florida, Washington began removing the territory’s tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River. But the Seminole Indians and runaway slaves refused to relocate, and the Second Seminole War saw fierce guerrilla-style actions from 1835 to 1842. Osceola, perhaps the greatest Seminole leader, was captured during peace talks in 1837, and nearly three thousand Seminoles were eventually removed. The Third Seminole War (1855-1858) stamped out all but a handful of the remaining members of the tribe.

In the United States, the removal policy met only sporadic armed resistance as whites pushed into the Mississippi River valley during the 1830s and 1840s. The Sac and Fox Indians were crushed in Black Hawk’s War (1831-1832), and tribes throughout the region seemed powerless in the face of the growing numbers of forts and military roads the whites were constructing. The acquisition of Texas and the Southwest during the 1840s, however, sparked a new series of Indian-white conflicts. In Texas, where such warfare had marred the independent republic’s brief history, the situation was especially volatile.

On the Pacific Coast, attacks against the native peoples accompanied the flood of immigrants to gold-laden California. Disease, malnutrition, and warfare combined with the poor lands set aside as reservations to reduce the Indian population of that state from 150,000 in 1845 to 35,000 in 1860. The army took the lead role in Oregon and Washington, using the Rogue River (1855-1856), Yakima (1855-1856), and Spokane (1858) wars to force several tribes onto reservations. Sporadic conflicts also plagued Arizona and New Mexico throughout the 1850s as the army struggled to establish its presence. On the southern plains, mounted warriors posed an even more formidable challenge to white expansion. Strikes against the Sioux, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches, and Kiowas during the decade only hinted at the deadlier conflicts of years to come.

The Civil War saw the removal of the Regulars and an accompanying increase in the number and intensity of white-Indian conflicts. The influence of the Five Southern, or “Civilized” Tribes of the Indian Territory was sharply reduced. Seven Indian regiments served with Confederate troops at the Battle of Pea Ridge (1862). Defeat there and at Honey Springs (1863) dampened enthusiasm for the South, although tribal leaders like Stand Waite continued to support the confederacy until the war’s end. James H. Carleton and Christopher (“Kit”) Carson conducted a ruthlessly effective campaign against the Navahos in New Mexico and Arizona. Disputes on the southern plains culminated in the Sand Creek massacre (1864), during which John M. Chivington’s Colorado volunteers slaughtered over two hundred of Black Kettle’s Cheyennes and Arapahos, many of whom had already attempted to come to terms with the government. In Minnesota, attacks by the Eastern Sioux prompted counterattacks by the volunteer forces of Henry H. Sibley, after which the tribes were removed to the Dakotas. The conflict became general when John Pope mounted a series of unsuccessful expeditions onto the plains in 1865.

Regular units, including four regiments of black troops, returned west following the Confederate collapse. Railroad expansion, new mining ventures, the destruction of the buffalo, and ever-increasing white demand for land exacerbated the centuries-old tensions. The mounted warriors of the Great Plains posed an especially thorny problem for an army plagued by a chronic shortage of cavalry and a government policy that demanded Indian removal on the cheap.

Winfield S. Hancock’s ineffectual campaign in 1867 merely highlighted the bitterness between whites and Indians on the southern plains. Using a series of converging columns, Philip Sheridan achieved more success in his winter campaigns of 1868-1869, but only with the Red River War of 1874-1875 were the tribes broken. Major battlefield encounters like George Armstrong Custer’s triumph at the Battle of the Washita (1868) had been rare; more telling was the army’s destruction of Indian lodges, horses, and food supplies, exemplified by Ranald Mackenzie’s slaughter of over a thousand Indian ponies following a skirmish at Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, in 1874.

To the north, the Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, and Arapahos had forced the army to abandon its Bozeman Trail forts in Red Cloud’s War (1867). But arable lands and rumors of gold in the Dakotas continued to attract white migration; the government opened a major new war in 1876. Initial failures against a loose Indian coalition, forged by leaders including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, culminated in the annihilation of five troops of Custer’s cavalry at the Little Bighorn. A series of army columns took the field that fall and again the following spring. By campaigning through much of the winter, harassing Indian villages, and winning battles like that at Wolf Mountain (1877), Nelson A. Miles proved particularly effective. The tribes had to sue for peace, and even Sitting Bull’s band returned from Canada to accept reservation life in 1881. Another outbreak among the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes, precipitated by government corruption, shrinking reservations, and the spread of the Ghost Dance, culminated in a grisly encounter at Wounded Knee (1890), in which casualties totaled over two hundred Indians and sixty-four soldiers.

Less spectacular but equally deadly were conflicts in the Pacific Northwest. In 1867-1868, George Crook defeated the Paiutes of northern California and southern Oregon. In a desperate effort to secure a new reservation on the tribal homelands, a Modoc chief assassinated Edward R. S. Canby during an abortive peace conference in 1873. Canby’s death (he was the only general ever killed by Indians) helped shatter President Ulysses S. Grant’s peace policy and resulted in the tribe’s defeat and removal. Refusing life on a government-selected reservation, Chief Joseph’s Nez Percés led the army on an epic seventeen-hundred-mile chase through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana until checked by Miles just short of the Canadian border at Bear Paw Mountain (1877). Also unsuccessful was armed resistance among the Bannocks, Paiutes, Sheepeaters, and Utes in 1878-1879.

To the far southwest, Cochise, Victorio, and Geronimo led various Apache bands in resisting white and Hispanic encroachments, crossing and recrossing the border into Mexico with seeming impunity. Many an officer’s record was scarred as repeated treaties proved abortive. Only after lengthy campaigning, during which army columns frequently entered Mexico, were the Apaches forced to surrender in the mid-1880s.

The army remained wary of potential trouble as incidental violence continued. Yet, with the exception of another clash in 1973 during which protesters temporarily seized control of Wounded Knee, the major Indian-white conflicts in the United States had ended. Militarily, several trends had become apparent. New technology often gave the whites a temporary advantage. But this edge was not universal; Indian warriors carrying repeating weapons during the latter nineteenth century sometimes outgunned their army opponents, who were equipped with cheaper (but often more reliable) single-shot rifles and carbines. As the scene shifted from the eastern woodlands to the western plains, white armies found it increasingly difficult to initiate fights with their Indian rivals. To force action, army columns converged upon Indian villages from several directions. This dangerous tactic had worked well at the Battle of the Washita but could produce disastrous results when large numbers of tribesmen chose to stand and fight, as at the Little Bighorn.

Throughout the centuries of conflict, both sides had taken the wars to the enemy populace, and the conflicts had exacted a heavy toll among noncombatants. Whites had been particularly effective in exploiting tribal rivalries; indeed, Indian scouts and auxiliaries were often essential in defeating tribes deemed hostile by white governments. In the end, however, military force alone had not destroyed Indian resistance. Only in conjunction with railroad expansion, the destruction of the buffalo, increased numbers of non-Indian settlers, and the determination of successive governments to crush any challenge to their sovereignty had white armies overwhelmed the tribes.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Article Details:

American-Indian Wars

  • Author

    History.com Staff

  • Website Name

    History.com

  • Year Published

    2010

  • Title

    American-Indian Wars

  • URL

    http://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/american-indian-wars

  • Access Date

    October 23, 2014

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    A+E Networks