Suspicion and hostility, stemming from technological and cultural differences as well as mutual feelings of superiority, have permeated relations between Native American and 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.
Francis Paul Prucha, The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783-1846 (1969; reprint, 1977); Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891 (1973).
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.
Native American and Non-Indian Relations
Indian-white relations in the period following the arrival of Columbus can be seen variously as the continuation of a normal process of migration by humans from one part of the world to another, as a genocidal assault by more powerful intruders upon weaker, more "primitive" peoples, or as the process by which Western civilization and Christianity were transferred from the Old World to the New. Whichever perception is adopted will be in accordance with one's cultural, epistemological, and emotional preconceptions.
The Europeans who followed Leif Eriksson's Norsemen at the turn of the tenth century (and gave us the first recorded account of European relations with the native peoples of North America) and those who followed Columbus at the end of the fifteenth century were greeted warily by the native population (in a friendly fashion in the case of Columbus's first voyage), but relations soon turned to hostility and war. In the Spanish case at least, the source of the hostility was Spanish cruelty and greed spurred by the realization that those living in the Caribbean basin were unable to defend themselves from the technologically superior newcomers. This conclusion derives from the evidence provided by the Spanish themselves, however much these accounts were exploited by Spain's rivals in the New World, whose hypocrisy often concealed similar cruelty and greed.
Spain and Portugal had a century's head start on France, England, Holland, and Sweden in establishing relations with the peoples of the newfound world; thus the two countries had first choice of which lands to conquer, colonize, and exploit. Although we tend to think of Latin America today as a poor third world area, in the sixteenth century these lands were considered the richest and most desirable because of their valuable resources and their extensive populations who were soon forced to serve the Europeans as slaves, servants, or dependent trading partners. The present areas of the United States and Canada were considered by the Iberian powers the least desirable portions of the New World, hardly worth colonizing except to prevent northern European nations from establishing bases from which to harass the Spanish and Portuguese.
Because of the absence of both mineral wealth and subservient populations in the areas north of Mexico, the English, French, Dutch, and Swedish set up colonies at the beginning of the seventeenth century that were primarily extensions of their own societies and dealt only intermittently with the surrounding native populations. The natural growth of these colonies provided increasing military and economic power vis-à-vis the Indians, whose numerical superiority in the first half-century in almost every colony was lost in the second half-century as European diseases and warfare took their toll.
Cruelty and greed were prevalent in the early history of all the northern European nations' dealings with the Indians, but the picture was not entirely one-sided: treachery and cunning existed on both sides. Cultural differences--the failure of each side to understand the assumptions of the other--led to frequent misunderstandings that in turn led to warfare. One of the most elementary forms of misunderstanding, for example, was the anger felt by the Indians over the colonists' allowing their cattle and hogs to roam in unfenced freedom. The consequence was often the destruction of the Indians' corn, which led to the Indians' killing the offending animals, which led to retaliation by the settlers upon the Indians who had killed the animals, and so on. And too often those retaliating failed to discriminate between the Indians who were responsible for the "offense" and those who were not.
While Spain and Portugal exploited the labor (through slavery and serfdom) of the large populations of the areas they settled, the northern Europeans made only limited use of Indian labor. Rather, they wanted land; if it had not been acquired through war or simple occupation, they sought to purchase it. But often the Indians assumed they were conferring on Europeans only the right to use the land without losing their own right to continue to use it for hunting, fishing, or gathering food. Northern European governments soon prohibited their colonists from making such purchases for fear that the contracts would compromise the royal assertions of ultimate sovereignty over all the lands.
With the destruction or subordination of most of the coastal tribes, England and France, the two most successful of the northern European colonial powers, extended their jurisdiction into the interior, the English across the Appalachian Mountains hemming in their coastal settlements, and the French down the St. Lawrence River and up the Mississippi. The French, from their interior position, hoped to confine their English rivals to the coastal regions. The French were more adept at forging alliances with the powerful Indian nations in the interior, though they were not averse to wars of extermination, such as that against the Natchez in the Mississippi valley. Because the French had few- er settlers than the English, they tended to rely on a network of military and trade alliances with the Indians rather than developing agricultural and commercial settlements to match those of the English.
With the destruction of French power in the great war for empire that raged across North America and Europe during the 1750s and 1760s, the situation of the Indians was weakened. They were no longer able to play off one European power against another but had to confront England directly. Only with the coming of the American Revolution did they recover the opportunity to play a balancing role. But, unfortunately, most tribes chose to side with the loser, and the victorious Americans treated the Indian nations who had fought with the British as defeated foes. Great Britain made no attempt to secure Indian rights in treaty negotiations with the Americans, and even the objections of Spain (America's wartime ally) that the area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River remained Indian territory were dismissed by the victorious revolutionaries. But treating the Indians as defeated enemies was not an entirely successful tactic. After the tribes of the Old Northwest had inflicted a number of stinging setbacks upon the U.S. Army, the new American nation formulated a more moderate policy toward the Indians. The United States recognized the right of the Indian nations to exist as autonomous entities but sought to buy as much of their land as possible. Even the Indian allies of the Americans were pressured to sell off large portions of their lands.
As the United States grew in power in the early nineteenth century, several Indian nations such as the Cherokee were overwhelmed and sent on forced marches to the so-called Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) with significant loss of life. The "Trail of Tears" of the Cherokee migration to the Indian Territory in the 1830s became an enduring symbol of white injustice toward the Indians, particularly since the removal was carried out despite the Cherokee Nation's legal victory over the state of Georgia in the Supreme Court. Most of the Indians in the eastern United States now moved West, either voluntarily or under duress, with a few remaining in small pockets near their original homelands.
The health and longevity of the Indians had suffered a steady decline since the arrival of the Europeans, for the whites carried diseases, such as smallpox and measles, for which the Indians had no immunity. The diseases and the numbers affected by them is a subject of intense debate among scholars. Estimates of Indian population before the arrival of whites have increased over the years, sometimes by as much as ten times the earlier estimates. Henry Dobyns put the number at some 10 to 12 million in North America north of Mexico and 90 to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. Most scholars have discounted such high estimates, although conceding that earlier estimates (such as the traditional figure of about 1 million for the present area of the United States) were probably too low. In any event, the steady decline of the Indian population in the United States reached its low point of 228,000 in 1890.
This decline coincided with the loss of tribal lands and tribal authority, particularly under the General Allotment Act (Dawes Severalty Act) of 1887. This act imposed a system of individual land ownership upon many of the Indian tribes with the government selling off the surplus lands to white settlers for the presumed benefit of the tribes (some western tribes were exempted or not forced to comply). Contemporary Indians often cite the Dawes Act as legislation that could and should have been avoided, but that is probably an unrealistic assessment. The vast landholdings of small impotent tribes simply could not have been maintained against the millions of well-armed whites moving west. The land rush in 1889 into the Indian Territory (which became Oklahoma as a result) is an example. Even the staunchest friends of the Indian were convinced that the tribes could not survive unless they gave up much of their land claims and secured a portion in severalty (individual allotments) with the security of a "white man's [fee simple] title."
Although the popular impression during those years was that the Indians were a "disappearing race," the twentieth century saw a dramatic reversal of almost all indexes of decline. Health problems came under increasing control, and diseases like tuberculosis were nearly eliminated. But alcoholism, or alcohol-related events such as car accidents, became the principal cause of death among Indians: no one has determined why Indians seem to be so susceptible to alcoholic stress, and the debate between those favoring a genetic explanation and those a cultural one continues.
The gradual loss of Indian tribal authority was suddenly reversed in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, which addressed the strengthening of tribal life and government with federal assistance. Although it was subject to bitter debate both at the time and later, the evidence is conclusive that the act, the product of the thinking of John Collier, commissioner of Indian affairs, put Indian communities, then nearing political and cultural dissolution, on the road to recovery and growth. Collier, struck by the strength and viability of Indian communal societies in the Southwest (e.g., the Hopis) and appalled by the destructive effects on tribal societies of the allotment system, sought to restore tribal structures by making the tribes instrumentalities of the federal government. In this way, he asserted, tribes would be "surrounded by the protective guardianship of the federal government and clothed with the authority of the federal government." Indian tribal governments, as Collier foresaw, now exist on a government-to-government basis with the states and the federal government. Although they are financially and legally dependent upon the federal government, they have been able to extend their political and judicial authority in areas nineteenth-century politicians would have found unimaginable.
American Indians, now a rapidly growing minority group, possess a unique legal status (based on treaties and constitutional decisions) and are better educated, in better health, and more prosperous than ever before (despite the persistence of high levels of unemployment, poverty, and disease). The causes of this "Indian Renaissance" have been the subject of much dispute, some attributing it to the well-publicized activities of Indian radicals, others to the commitment and decency of the larger society. Nevertheless, the popular stereotype of the impoverished, drunken, abused Indian has continued to cloud Indian life.
Contemporary issues being fought out in the courts, legislatures, and tribal councils have concerned Indian religious freedom, water rights, and land claims. Demands in the 1980s and 1990s for the return of Indian skeletal remains in museum collections pitted some white museum administrators and archaeologists against Indian religious and political leaders. The Indians seemed to be winning, as the Smithsonian Institution, Stanford University, and other groups promised the repatriation of Indian remains and accompanying grave goods to the tribes claiming them. Water rights continued to be a bitter issue affecting western tribes, but Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s dampened the more optimistic Indian hopes for an increased portion of the limited water resources in the West. Land claims, although settled for the most part by the defunct Indian Claims Commission, were occasionally reasserted in specific instances in the 1980s, as among the Iroquois of New York State.
It has often been assumed that acculturation was a one-way street--that Indians were shaped by whites and not the other way around. But it is clear that the process was one of "transculturization," as the anthropologist Irving Hallowell put it. Not only did whites adopt aspects of Indian material culture (e.g., maize, moccasins), but spiritually and psychologically the transplanted European society acquired an Indian cast, particularly a taste for individual freedom and a distaste for the constraints of civilization, as D. H. Lawrence, James Adair, Carl Jung, and James Fenimore Cooper all noted. It was not because Indians were despised but because they were admired that their symbolic powers were often appropriated and celebrated by their former foes.
James Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (1981); Francis P. Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians, 2 vols. (1984); Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Indian in America (1975).
WILCOMB E. WASHBURN
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.
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