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The Indian Wars: Struggle Between Native Americans and Settlers

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  • 0:05 The Indian Wars
  • 2:26 The Lakota
  • 4:29 The Nez Perce
  • 6:12 The Apache
  • 7:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

As America expanded into the West, whites often encroached on Indian land and resources. Many Native Americans defended their territory, leading to a series of conflicts known as the Indian Wars.

The Indian Wars

The Indian Removal Act transplanted most Native Americans to areas west of the Mississippi.
Indian Removal Act Map

Congratulations! You just won a contest and have been awarded the deed and the keys to a brand new house. Upon opening the door, however, you realize that another person already lives there. What do you do? You could simply walk away. But hey, it's a nice house, it's free, and you've got the deed right in your hands. Why should you have to give it up? You could try to convince the current resident to leave, or you could take him to court. Then again, you could always fight him for it!

Does this scenario seem a little absurd? It's actually pretty similar to the dilemma that thousands upon thousands of Western settlers faced. In the 1800s, Americans viewed the West as a frontier of undiscovered, unoccupied land. What they failed to recognize was that the land had, in fact, been home to generations of Native Americans. So as eager settlers moved into the new territory, they often found that someone was already in the house.

By the 1860s, most Native Americans had been transplanted west of the Mississippi River as a result of the Indian Removal Act 30 years earlier. But while this might have relieved the white Americans on the east side of the river, it caused problems for all those natives in the West. Whole tribes were forced onto reservations in exchange for promises of peace, cash payments, and supplies - a lot of which never even reached some tribes due to corruption in the system and because of oversight caused by the Civil War. More and more people now depended on less land and fewer resources. White settlers further depleted natural resources like farmland, water, and game, especially American bison (commonly called buffalo) that were hunted nearly to extinction for their hides. Millions of Plains Indians who had depended on the herds for their survival now faced extinction themselves.

Some Native American nations cooperated with the United States, while others attempted to resist. In many instances, people on both sides were in the wrong, but it shouldn't be too hard to imagine the frustration felt by many tribes. The violence spread and escalated throughout the West in a series of conflicts collectively referred to as the Indian Wars in the late 1800s, immortalizing names and places like Wounded Knee, Geronimo, and Crazy Horse in American folklore.

The Lakota

Members of the Lakota Sioux tribe led well-known attacks against settlers and the U.S. Army.
The Lakota Photograph

Several of the most legendary names and places of the Indian Wars involved the Lakota Sioux, whose experience perfectly exemplifies the struggles of this time period. For example, gold prospectors and settlers blazed the Bozeman Trail right through their land and helped themselves to whatever resources they wanted. In response to the inevitable conflict, the U.S. army came in 1866 to remove the Indians, not the whites. A small party of warriors, including Crazy Horse, organized an ambush and killed every one of the American soldiers in what is now called Fetterman's Massacre. Crazy Horse's victory challenged many Americans' assumption that the army would always win.

Over the next ten years, the Sioux clashed with railroad surveyors, settlers, gold prospectors, and any troops who accompanied them. In 1876, the federal government was trying to force the 'uncooperative' natives onto their reservations permanently. As villages were destroyed, various Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe tribes banded together under the guidance of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull near the Little Bighorn River. When Colonel George Custer discovered their settlement, he attacked. The ensuing battle is infamously known as Custer's Last Stand, as the allied tribes wiped out five of the seven army units they faced, including Colonel George Custer and all of his men. Many of the Sioux, including Sitting Bull, fled for Canada.

By 1890, Sitting Bull had returned to America, and agents supposed that arresting him and other chiefs might help quell a religious movement called the Ghost Dance. But his supporters protested his arrest, and in the chaos, Sitting Bull was shot and killed accidentally, along with eight other Indians and six police officers. His supporters were captured but not immediately disarmed while being led to a camp near Wounded Knee Creek. But in the morning, uncertainty and miscommunication led to a massacre in which U.S. soldiers gunned down at least 150 Sioux. The massacre at Wounded Knee is considered by many historians to be the last battle of the Indian Wars.

The Nez Perce

Over 150 Sioux were killed during the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
Massacre Wounded Knee Photograph

Over in the Pacific Northwest, the Nez Perce tribe faced similar problems. In 1855, Chief Joseph the Elder signed a treaty with the United States and the Washington Territory establishing a 7.7 million-acre reservation. Then, gold was discovered in their new home, and the tribe was forced to relinquish nearly 90% of the reservation, including traditional burial grounds. The new treaty caused a rift in the tribe, with some members moving into the consolidated reservation while others, including Chief Joseph, refused to sell their ancestral graveyard and remained at the site.

But after several years of increasing pressure, broken promises, and mistreatment, a new chief, Joseph the Younger, struggled to hold the so-called 'non-treaty' band together. As he resigned himself and his people to the reservation, three frustrated warriors took revenge on white civilians. Rather than fight a losing war or dishonor his father's wishes, Chief Joseph the Younger decided on a third option: he and about 800 followers took flight in 1877, hoping to join the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull who was hiding in Canada. The U.S. army was hot on their heels.

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