Indian Wars in the West: History & Timeline

Instructor: Tiffany Wayne
Between the 1850s and 1890s, the United States made a final claim for control of the North American continent. The push of westward settlement by European Americans into the Plains and Far West led to the final chapter in the Indian Wars.


In order to make way for western settlement, the U.S. government pursued a strategy of relocating Native Americans onto reservations (whether voluntarily or forcefully) throughout most of the 1800s. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 pushed the Cherokees and others onto the Trail of Tears from their homelands in Georgia and the Southeast to inferior lands in Oklahoma. After gold was discovered in California, miners, explorers, and settlers soon reached all the way to the Pacific. The federal government protected those white settlers with military enforcement, sending troops to remove and relocate local Indians. The Indian Wars were a result of resistance by native groups who did not want to be removed from their homelands.

A 19th-century painting shows U.S. troops in pursuit of Plains Indians.
U.S. cavalry chasing Indians

Indian Wars

The Indian Wars, or the Plains Wars, took place primarily between the 1860s and 1880s and impacted groups as diverse as the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Navajo, Ute, and Sioux. There was no one single experience for the numerous Plains, northwestern, and southwestern groups affected by the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century. Some tribal groups signed treaties giving away land or promising peace with white settlers, others were relocated to reservations under U.S. military pressure, while still others resisted and decided to fight for their lands and their culture.

Apache and Navajo

After the Mexican-American War in 1848 and the acquisition of territory in the southwestern areas of Arizona and New Mexico, federal military troops were ordered to push the Apaches and Navajos (their former allies) onto reservations to make room for white settlement.

During the Civil War, former Indian agent and U.S. army colonel Kit Carson led troops into Navajo villages, forcing people to leave by destroying their crops and animals. The Navajo in northern New Mexico resisted until 1866, when the last of the villagers completed the forced march to the reservation, known as the 'Long Walk' of the Navajo.

The Apache had also been forced onto reservations, where they endured disease, hunger, and hardship. In 1881, Geronimo rebelled by leading a group of his people off the reservation and into Mexico. They were pursued by U.S. troops, and Geronimo was forced to surrender and return to the U.S. in 1886.

Geronimo (right) and Apache warriors, 1886
Geronimo leads Apache warriors

Nez Perce

U.S. claims in the Oregon territory put pressure on groups such as the Nez Perce, Paiute, and Modoc after the 1850s. Rather than agree to forced relocation, in 1877 Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce led a group of 800 followers, including women and children, on a more than 1,000-mile journey bound for Canada. Like the Trail of Tears many years earlier, many died from hunger and exposure along the way, and others were killed by the U.S. military. Survivors were eventually relocated to Kansas, far from their homeland.

The Sioux and Battle of Little Big Horn

Sitting Bull led many Sioux who did not want to relocate onto the reservation in South Dakota. After years of pursuit, in 1876, Colonel George Armstrong Custer confronted this group at the Battle of Little Bighorn in the Montana territory. Custer himself was killed (thus the battle became known as Custer's Last Stand), along with 200 other U.S. troops. The victory at Little Bighorn was not the end of Sioux troubles with the United States, however. The U.S. government increased efforts to force the Sioux onto the reservation and stop the influence of leaders such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse (another Sioux leader killed in 1877), or Chief Joseph among the Nez Perce.

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