Native Americans: Conflict, Conquest and Assimilation During the Gilded Age

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  • 0:07 Into the West and Onto…
  • 2:23 Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce
  • 4:17 Famous Battles and the…
  • 6:38 The Dawes' Act and…
  • 9:26 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.

In the second half of the 19th century, the federal government attempted to control Native American nations. This led to violent conflicts known together as the Indian Wars. Learn about famous battles, and the attempt to 'civilize' tribes through various policies.

Into the West and Onto the Reservations

Although the North American continent was once filled with various Native American nations, by the end of the Civil War, most tribes had been forced west of the Mississippi River. But soon, white Americans wanted to live in the west, too.

The federal government began forcing tribes to sign treaties and live on reservations - that's land designated for each tribe. Often (but not always), tribes were given the worst land in a region, which was unable to meet the needs of their population. But if reservation land was found to be desirable - let's say there was gold there, or good farmland, or wild game or timber - white settlers would move in, and then complain to the federal government about being attacked while they were on Indian land.

Inevitably, the U.S. army would come riding out, full of Civil War battle-seasoned troops, and usually, it was the tribe who had to go, not the American settlers. Even when there wasn't fighting, many Indian nations suffered; more people meant fewer resources for everyone. Hide-hunters decimated the bison herds, on which many Plains Indians depended for survival. Resentment and mistrust brewed on both sides, and both were in the wrong on different occasions.

Some Native American nations, like the Pawnee, cooperated with the United States and protected railroad employees from attacks by the Sioux, who were known for sabotaging railroad construction. Other tribes, like the Apache in the American southwest, under the guidance of Geronimo, led murderous raids against settlers in their land. Both the whites and native tribes committed atrocities against the other side. These conflicts between Native Americans and the American government and citizens are known collectively as the Indian Wars.

Many nations accepted life on reservations because they felt it was the only way to end the conflict and save their way of life. In exchange, the United States typically offered peace, cash payments and/or supplies. But due to oversight caused by the Civil War, and because of some corrupt agents, much of these promises never came to fruition, leading to greater frustration and desperate conditions in some places.

Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce

The story of the Nez Perce is a sad example of many of these problems. For 20 years, the nation had lived peacefully on their reservation. But when gold was discovered, the Nez Perce were asked to relinquish 90% of their land, including an ancient burial ground. Most of the tribe accepted the new treaty and moved into the consolidated reservation. But others, like their new leader, Chief Joseph the Younger, protested. His father had made him promise that he would never sell the bones of their elders.

Chief Joseph and his followers tried to remain on the land that included the graveyard. But soon, even Chief Joseph realized that further resistance would only harm his tribe even more, and he began making plans to reunite his people in the relative safety of the reservation. Against his wishes, three frustrated Indians attacked white civilians one night.

Chief Joseph knew the young warriors had just provoked the U.S. army into a war he couldn't win. Yet he clearly couldn't stay where he was any longer, and he didn't want to break his word to his father and agree to the treaty that would sell the burial ground. So Chief Joseph decided on a different option: he would flee the country, along with 800 followers. But the U.S. was not content to let them escape into Canada; after all, there were murderers among them!

The Nez Perce fought off and evaded the Americans for nearly six months. Then, in December of 1877, just days from the Canadian border, they were trapped, outnumbered, cold, tired and hungry. Chief Joseph told his warriors he was ready to surrender, saying, 'I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.' The speech may be legendary, but it immortalized Chief Joseph and his fight to defend the tribe's freedom.

Famous Battles and the End of the Indian Wars

Throughout the Northern Plains, various tribes clashed with surveyors, travelers, gold prospectors, settlers and the U.S. army. In 1864, the U.S. army massacred the winter camp of a peaceful band of Cheyenne in the Battle of Sand Creek. Later that year, members of the Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Sioux nations began attacking travelers on the Bozeman Trail, which passed through their designated hunting grounds, and successfully shut it down for a time.

The U.S. government attempted to defeat the allied Indian force in the Powder River Valley Campaign, but they were unsuccessful. These conflicts prompted Crazy Horse and a small band of warriors from various tribes to ambush and completely wipe out 81 U.S. soldiers. Known as Fetterman's Massacre, this was the most significant U.S. defeat in the Indian Wars until the Battle of Little Bighorn, infamously known as Custer's Last Stand.

The federal government had redoubled its efforts to force the uncooperative Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe bands onto their reservations permanently. Under the guidance of Chief Sitting Bull, a combined force of Native American warriors had gathered on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. Colonel George Custer discovered them and attacked. It was a fatal mistake. Five of seven U.S. army units were completely destroyed, including Custer and every one of the men under his direct command. Many of the surviving Indians fled for Canada. Sitting Bull had been among them, but he returned to the U.S. in 1890, setting off a series of events that are widely considered the end of the Indian Wars.

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