From the moment English colonists arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they shared an uneasy relationship with the Native Americans (or Indians) who had thrived on the land for thousands of years. At the time, millions of indigenous people were scattered across North America in hundreds of different tribes. Between 1622 and the late 19th century, a series of wars known as the American-Indian Wars took place between Indians and American settlers, mainly over land control.
Colonial Period Indian Wars
On March 22, 1622, Powhatan Indians attacked and killed colonists in eastern Virginia. Known as the Jamestown Massacre, the bloodbath gave the English government an excuse to justify their efforts to attack Indians and confiscate their land.
In 1636, the Pequot War over trade expansion broke out between Pequot Indians and English settlers of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut. The colonists’ Indian allies joined them in battle and helped defeat the Pequot.
A series of battles took place from 1636 to 1659 between New Netherlands settlers in New York and several Indian tribes (Lenape, Susquehannocks, Algonquians, Esopus). Some battles were especially violent and gruesome, sending many settlers fleeing back to the Netherlands.
The Beaver Wars (1640-1701) happened between the French and their Indian allies (Algonquian, Huron) and the powerful Iroquois Confederacy. The fierce fighting started over territory and fur trade dominance around the Great Lakes and ended with the signing of the Great Peace Treaty.
King Philip’s War
King Philip’s War (1675-1676), also known as Metacom’s War, began after bands of Indians led by Wampanoag Chief Metacom (later called King Philip) grew frustrated with their dependence on the Puritans and attacked colonies and militia strongholds throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The attacks ignited a series of battles for power along the Connecticut River Valley between Metacom’s warriors and a large colonial militia and their Mohawk allies. The war ended with Metacom’s beheading and the near decimation of the Native Americans in his coalition.
Queen Anne's War
Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) occurred between French and English colonists and their respective Indian allies on several fronts including Spanish Florida, New England, Newfoundland and Acadia. The war ended with the Treaty of Utrecht, but the Indians were not included in peace negotiations and lost much of their land.
During the Tuscarora War (1711-1715), Tuscarora Indians burned North Carolina settlements and randomly killed colonists over treaty disputes. After two years of bloody fighting, North Carolina defeated the Indians with the help of South Carolina’s militia.
In 1715, Yamasee Indians - frustrated with the loss of their hunting grounds and the high debts they owed white settlers of South Carolina - formed a confederacy with other local tribes and forced many settlers to flee, devastating South Carolina’s economy.
French and Indian War
As France expanded into the Ohio River Valley from 1754 to 1763, it fought with Britain for control of North America. Both sides forged alliances with Indians to help fight their battles. Known as the French and Indian War, the struggle ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
In 1763, Pontiac Indians of the Ohio River became incensed upon learning King George III expected them to become British loyalists. During Pontiac's War, the Ottawa Chief Pontiac rallied support among other tribes and laid siege to Britain’s Fort Detroit. When a British retaliatory assault plan on Pontiac’s village was discovered, the Indians attacked and killed many British soldiers during the Battle of Bloody Run on July 31.
The Battle of Fallen Timbers happened on August 20, 1794, along Ohio’s Maumee River between regional Indians (Miami, Shawnee, Lenape) and the United States. The well-trained U.S. Army decisively defeated the Indians and the battle ended with the adoption of the Treaty of Greenville.
In 1759, a series of battles known as the Cherokee Wars began from the valleys of Virginia to North Carolina and southward. Two peace treaties forced the Cherokee to give up millions of acres of land to settlers, provoking them to fight for the British in the Revolutionary War, hoping to keep what land they had left.
Early American Indian Wars
Indians had to choose sides or try to stay neutral when the American Revolution broke out. Many tribes such as the Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee and Creek fought with British loyalists. Others, including the Potawatomi and the Delaware, sided with American patriots.
But no matter which side they fought on, Native Americans were negatively impacted. They were left out of peace talks and lost additional land. After the war, some Americans retaliated against those Indian tribes that had supported the British.
Cherokee Chief Dragging Canoe led bands of Indians against white settlers in the South from 1776 through 1794. At the Battle of the Bluffs, he led 400 warriors to destroy Fort Nashborough in Tennessee, but a pack of unleashed hunting dogs forced them back during the battle.
At the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh formed a coalition to slow the flow of settlers into Illinois and Indiana. Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison led a force of soldiers and militia to destroy the Shawnee’s village but agreed to a temporary cease-fire. Tecumseh’s brother, “The Prophet,” ignored the cease-fire and attacked. Harrison prevailed, however, and the Shawnee retreated north.
The War of 1812 was fought between Britain and the United States and their respective Indian allies. Tecumseh’s defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe led him to support the British. At the Battle of Thames (one of many battles in the War of 1812) along the Thames River in Ontario, British troops and Tecumseh’s coalition were outnumbered and easily defeated again. Tecumseh died in the battle, leading many Indians to abandon the British cause.
By 1814, pro-American Creeks (Lower Creeks) and Creeks who resented Americans (Upper Creeks) were fighting a civil war. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama on March 27, American militia fought alongside Lower Creeks to defeat Upper Creeks. The battle ended with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson and the Creeks ceding almost two million acres of land.
In the First Seminole War (1816-1818), the Seminoles, assisted by runaway slaves, defended Spanish Florida against the U.S. Army. In the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the Indians fought to retain their land in the Florida Everglades but were almost wiped out. The Third Seminole War (1855-1858) was the Seminole’s last stand. After being outgunned and outnumbered, most of them agreed to move to Indian reservations in Oklahoma.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, allowing the U.S. government to relocate Indians from their land east of the Mississippi River. In 1838, the government forcibly removed around 15,000 Cherokee from their homeland and made them walk more than 1,200 miles west. Over 3,000 Indians died on the grueling route, known as the Trail of Tears. The involuntary relocation fueled the Indians’ anger toward the U.S. government.
In 1832, Chief Black Hawk led around 1,000 Sauk and Fox Indians back to Illinois to reclaim their land. The battle, known as the Black Hawk War, was a disaster for the Indians who were greatly outnumbered by the U.S. Army, militias and other Indian tribes.
Sand Creek Massacre
The Sand Creek Massacre (1864) occurred after about 750 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho led by Chief Black Kettle were forced to abandon their winter campsite near Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado. When they set up camp at Sand Creek, volunteer Colorado soldiers attacked, scattering them while slaughtering 148 men, women and children.
Red Cloud’s War (1866) began as the U.S. government developed the Bozeman Trail through Indian territory to allow miners and settlers access to gold in Montana Territory via the Powder River. For two years, an Indian coalition led by Lakota Chief Red Cloud attacked workers, settlers and soldiers to save their native lands. Their persistence paid off when the U.S. Army left the area and signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.
The treaty established the Black Hills of western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming as part of the Great Sioux Reservation. After the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, however, the U.S. government began setting up Army posts there, leaving angry Sioux and Cheyenne warriors - led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse - determined to defend their territory.
Battle of the Little Bighorn
At the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer led 600 men into the Little Bighorn Valley, where they were overwhelmed by approximately 3,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse.
Custer and his men were all killed in the battle, known as Custer’s Last Stand. Despite the decisive Indian victory, the U.S. government forced the Sioux to sell the Black Hills and leave the land.
The U.S. Army fought multiple skirmishes during the Red River War (1874-1875) against Southern Plains Indians who had left their reservations to reclaim former hunting grounds in the Texas Panhandle. The war ended after intense pressure from the U.S. Army forced the Indians to return to their reservations.
Driven by revenge for the slaughter of his family and the need to protect Apache native lands in northern Mexico and Southwest U.S. territory, the warrior Geronimo led his men in brutal attacks against Mexican troops, white settlers and the U.S. Army from 1850 until his capture in 1886.
In the late nineteenth century, Indian “Ghost Dancers” believed a specific dance ritual would reunite them with the dead and bring peace and prosperity. On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army surrounded a group of Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee Creek near the Pine Ridge reservation of South Dakota.
During the ensuing Wounded Knee Massacre, fierce fighting broke out and 150 Indians were slaughtered. The battle was the last major conflict between the U.S. government and the Plains Indians.
By the early 20 century, the American-Indian Wars had effectively ended, but at great cost. Though Indians helped colonial settlers survive in the New World, helped Americans gain their independence and ceded vast amounts of land and resources to pioneers, tens of thousands of Indian and non-Indian lives were lost to war, disease and famine, and the Indian way of life was almost completely destroyed.
History of Queen Anne’s War. History of Massachusetts Blog.
Native Americans in the Revolutionary War. History of Massachusetts.
Red River War (1874-1875). Oklahoma Historical Society.
Seminole Wars History. Seminole Wars Foundation.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Tuscarora War. North Carolina History Project.