How the West was Won


*At the end of the Civil War, about 250,000 American Indians lived in the Great American Desert.  Many were nomadic Plains Indians, but some lived more settled lives and practised agriculture, primarily cultivating corn, beans, and squash.  Although white people saw them all as Indians, they saw themselves as many different cultures, but cultures with the first claim on the land and its resources.

*At first the American government tried to limit who could trade with the Indians and settle in the west, but this was futile as the discovery of gold and a desire for land made people rush west.  Instead, Indians were forced onto reservations, usually on poor land without sufficient access to buffalo and other game (much of which was hunted nearly to extinction by settlers and railroad builders, thanks in part to the development of new rifles and heavy bullets with a large charge of gunpowder specifically designed for buffalo hunting).


*From the days of Manifest Destiny in the 1840s, Americans had moved across the Great Plains and through the Rockies to reach the West Coast.  After the end of the Civil War, white settlers poured west, not only to the Pacific Coast, but also to fill up the plains and Rockies Mountains, particularly after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

*This disrupted the traditional way of life for many American Indians, and eventually they fought back.  However, like all earlier Indian attempts at resisting white settlement, they failed because the Indians did not unite against white encroachment.  Furthermore, they now faced veterans of the Civil War, including such generals as Oliver Otis Howard, Phil Sheridan, and William Tecumseh Sherman (who became Commanding General of the US Army after Grant became president—Sherman was later replaced by Sheridan).  Many of those generals, particularly Sherman, made a point of driving the buffalo to extinction in order to starve the Indians.

*The Indians made many savage attacks on white settlers, killing, scalping, and kidnapping men, women, and children.  They also attacked wagon trains, and stole supplies and horses. 

*In Texas, settlers fought with the Comanche Indians from the days of the Spanish empire in Mexican Texas until after the Civil War. 

*One of the most famous fights between Texans and the Comanche was in 1840, when Comanche leaders came to negotiate and end to fighting and the creation of an independent Comancheria.  However, as an act of good faith, they released one captive white girl, who had been raped, tortured, and mutilated (her entire nose was burnt off), which infuriated the Texans, as did the knowledge that the Comanche had other hostages whom they had not released.  This led to a fight at the peace negotiations known as the Council House Fight.

*To fight the Comanche, the Texas Rangers were formed.  They specialised in mounted wilderness warfare, and as they acquired revolvers and repeating rifles, overwhelmed the Comanche and other Indians in Texas, until by 1875, all Indians in Texas were on reservations.

*In Colorado, there were tensions between settlers and Indians during the Civil War.  The Denver newspaper printed a front-page editorial advocating the "extermination of the red devils" and urging its readers to "take a few months off and dedicate that time to wiping out the Indians."  The territorial government responded to with a policy of shooting Indians on sight.  The man most responsible for implementing this policy was Colonel John Chivington (who supported killing Indian children with the statement that nits make lice).

*The Colorado War (1864-1865) was fought between the Colorado Territory and the Cheyenne Indians (particularly the faction of Cheyenne known as the Dog Soldiers, who traditionally pinned themselves to the ground where they planned to fight by sticking a long arrow through the back apron of their breechcloth)—as well as a few other Indian tribes allied with the Cheyenne such as the Arapaho and the Sioux. 

*The war began with a Coloradan incursion into Indian lands (partly in response to Indian horse thievery).  Some Cheyenne leaders, particularly Black Kettle, realised there was no way to fight the United States, and tried to make peace. 


*However, Colorado soldier continued burning of Indian towns and attacking Indian camps.  The most infamous attack was called the Sand Creek Massacre, in which Chivington’s men slaughtered helpless women, children, and old men led by Black Kettle who were trying to negotiate a peace.  When Chivginton’s men attacked, Black Kettle flew the American flag and a white flag, but many of his people were cut down anyway, and scalps and other body parts were cut off as souvenirs.

*This united many Indians against the Americans (and turned many Americans against warfare against the Indians when the details—including the collection of Indian scalps by white soldiers—became known).  Soon Colorado was fighting a defensive war, with towns and even military forts being raided before the Indians withdrew into Nebraska to fight again another day.


*Later, some Cheyenne continued to fight under the leadership of Roman Nose, a war leader with a magic war bonnet that protected him from white bullets as long as he avoided all white tools.  Before the Battle of Beecher Island (17 September, 1868), an Indian woman had stuck an iron fork into his food, so he was reluctant to fight because he had not had time to purify himself.  However, he finally did so, leading a charge against the US Army in which he was killed. 


*This was part of a campaign to crush the Cheyenne by General Phil Sheridan.  In November, 1868, he sent George Custer to pursue Cheyenne warriors into their winter camps along the Washita River.  There was a fierce battle along the Washita, during which some Indian women picked up weapons, which gave Custer’s soldiers in the 7th Cavalry an excuse to shoot down women and children alongside the men (both armed and unarmed).  Black Kettle and his wife were among those killed in the Battle of Washita.


*When a small group of Custer’s men rode off in pursuit of one group of Indians and did not return, Custer made no effort to find them, angering some of his men (including an officer named Frederick Benteen, who later did not hurry to support Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn).


*The next summer, the Cheyenne were forced onto reservations, although some would go on the warpath again to fight Custer alongside the Sioux in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

*The Sioux of Minnesota and the Dakota Territory were another enemy of the United States, and had been since the 1850s.  They allied with the Cheyenne after the Sand Creek Massacre, as they had already been fighting the US Army on their own lands.  Although they had been temporarily defeated in 1862 (and had 38 of their warriors hanged in the largest mass execution in US history), they continued to fight the US Army off and on throughout the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. 


*In 1866, Red Cloud and his Sioux led Captain William Fetterman into an ambush and killed him and his men.

*The largest of these conflicts was the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877.  It is sometimes also known as the Black Hills War, as it centred around white intrusions into the Black Hills of South Dakota, where gold had recently been discovered, partly by an Army expedition led by George Custer.  When Sioux leaders complained, President Grant offered them $25,000 to move to Oklahoma, which they refused.  In response, Grant agreed that the Army could stop evicting white settlers from the Black Hills, officially opening the area to a gold rush.

*The Sioux fought back under the leadership of Sitting Bull, a respected medicine man, and Crazy Horse, a war chief.  When George Custer attempted to attack an Indian settlement led by Sitting Bull, he fulfilled Sitting Bull’s prophecy that the US Cavalry would come into their settlement and be killed.  Custer had been misinformed by the local US Indian Agent about how many hostile Indians were in the area (because many Indians had left their reservations and so were hard to count), and other troops meant to reinforce him had been delayed by Crazy Horse.  With poor information, no support from other forces, and an inflated sense of his own abilities, Custer rode into a trap on the Little Bighorn River in Montana.

*On 25 July, 1876, Custer and half his men in the 7th Cavalry were killed (including two of his brothers) in Custer’s Last Stand.  Although it was not as bad a defeat as St Clair’s defeat in 1791, it was romanticised for the rest of the 19th century, as Custer’s widow and popular Wild West shows told the story of his heroism rather than his foolishness.  Despite this, the US Army soon overwhelmed the Sioux, ending the Great Sioux War in 1877.  Crazy Horse died under arrest by the US Army not long afterwards, but Sitting Bull went on to become a celebrity among his own people and white society.

*In the Pacific Northwest, the Nez Perce Indians had been granted the right to live in Northeastern Oregon in 1873, but in 1877 the US government changed its mind and ordered the Nez Perce remaining in the area to move to Idaho.  Although one of the Nez Perce’s main leaders, Chief Joseph, told US General Oliver Otis Howard that he did not think ‘the Great Spirit Chief gave one kind of men the right to tell another kind of men what they must do,’ he agreed to the removal.  Some of his people, including other important chiefs, though, fought back, and eventually the whole tribe attempted to flee to Canada.

*Howard and General Nelson Miles chased them through the mountains in retribution for the death of a few white men, and the Nez Perce’s supposed Allies turned against them, helping the US Army in exchange for money.  Finally Chief Joseph was forced to surrender, sending (at least according to legend) a famous message to General Howard:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.

*In the American Southwest, particularly Arizona, the Apache had resisted white encroachment since the late 1600s by stealing their property and massacring isolated settlers, travellers, and miners.  Although the Apache were considered some of the cruellest of all Indians in their treatment of white prisoners (whom they often killed), they were treated cruelly as well—Mexico placed a bounty on Apache scalps in 1835, and in 1863, the Apache chief Red Sleeves was captured under a flag of truce and killed ‘while trying to escape.’  His head was then cut off, boiled, and sent to the Smithsonian Institution.  For the rest of the 1860s and into the early 1870s, Cochise led the Apache against the United States (and Confederate States). 

*After his death, many Apaches were forced onto reservations, but in 1881, 700 of them fled for Mexico under the leadership of Geronimo.  He returned the next year and helped many more Apache escape the reservation.  He led raids on Mexican and American towns until the US Army brought in over 5,000 regular soldiers and thousands more militia to hunt him down.  He finally negotiated a surrender with soldiers under the command of General Miles in 1886, and along with many of his warriors, was sent to Florida.  Although he was eventually allowed to reunite with his wives and children and even to travel some (and even became a minor celebrity, selling signed photographs of himself at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair), he was never allowed to return to his homeland, and died as a prisoner of the United States.


*Although to many Americans, Custer was a martyr and Howard and Miles were heroes, some had always criticised America’s Indian policies.  One of the most successful critics was Helen Hunt Jackson, who had met a western Indian chief, Standing Bear, when he came to Boston to describe how his people had been forced from the Black Hills after the discovery of gold there and to ask for better treatment for his people in 1879.  In 1881, she published A Century of Dishonor, describing the mistreatment of America’s Indians since colonial times.  She sent copies to members of Congress at her own expense, and many people began to become a little more sympathetic to the Indians—of course, it was easy to do so now when all the Indians but Geronimo had been defeated, and he was on the run.

*Finally the government decided that the only way the Indians could get along with settlers was if they settled down on farms and lived as whites did.  This was known as assimilation and was eventually promoted by the Dawes Act of 1887 (although the idea was not new then).  The Dawes Act let Indians have reservation land: 160 acres to farm—plenty of land back east, but not enough in the arid West.  Reservation land that was not needed for this could be opened to settlement by whites.  Indians were also encouraged to attend schools like the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania to learn to act, dress, speak, and think like whites.

*As the frontier closed, some Indians on the reservations turned to the teachings of a Paiute Weather Man named Wovoka, who (after receiving visions from God) taught that Indians who led a pure life and rejected white ways of living could bring about a return of a West full of wild game and peaceful living, and be guaranteed a reunion with dead family members in the afterlife.  God would allow the President of the United States to continue ruling in the East, but the Indians would again rule the west.  A major outward part of Wovoka’s teachings was performing a religious circle dance, known among the Sioux as a Spirit Dance and to white as the Ghost Dance.

*Some Ghost Dancers wore shirts that they thought would protect them from bullets, and some Ghost Dancers refused to follow order to leave their lands as Sioux lands, partly because they believed that their dancing would renew the Earth in the coming spring.  Among the Indians who refused to leave the land they thought was reserved for them was Sitting Bull, and many people believed he was behind the movement and that it was a secret plot against the United States and white settlement.

*Sitting Bull was arrested and shot in the process on 15 December, 1890.  Two weeks later, as the last Sioux who had refused to move surrendered, troopers from the 7th Cavalry surrounded them at Wounded Knee Creek.  When the Indians were ordered to surrender their rifles, one of their medicine men began dancing and told his followers to put on the shirts that would make them immune to bullets.  A deaf Indian refused to give up a gun he had paid for and could not understand the orders that were given to him.  Soldiers tried to take the gun away from him, but he resisted, and someone fired a shot.  Soon the soldiers began shooting into the crowd, even though most of them were unarmed. 200 Indians were killed or wounded, as were 69 soldiers.

*Many people (including Nelson Miles, one of the highest ranking officers in the Army) believed this was a deliberate massacre of the Indians, but this was never proven.  The Battle of Wounded Knee is generally considered the last battle of the Indian Wars.

This page last updated 15 October, 2018.