Part I--Westerward Expansion
Most of the worlds nations have grown slowly if at
all, with boundaries changing only gradually over time. The
United States has not been like that. From her very beginnings,
America has grown at an incredibly rapid pace. Such growth is not
quite unprecedented, but it is very, very rare in history.
In general, growth is the sign of a healthy,
prosperous society—the sign of a confident society. But the
tendency of the United States to expand its boundaries has from time to
time had its negative aspects as well. Both the positives and
negatives of U.S expansion are clear in the 1865-1200 period.
In general, the pattern of American expansion was
westward (where else could it go?). The 13 original colonies were
on the east coast. Interestingly, the Peace of Paris that ended
the Revolutionary War *also* gave the newly formed U.S territory to the
immediate west. And then the Louisiana purchase a few years later
doubled the size of the U.S. and its territories. And we were not
yet done! Many, if not most, Americans came to accept an idea called
Manifest Destiny, the idea that is the manifest, obvious, destiny of
America to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. By 1850,
after some negotiations over disputed territory with Britain and the
Mexican War, America’s “manifest destiny” had been
fulfilled—sort of. America theoretically controlled a vast
territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific, but only a part of that
territory had been settled. Or—rather—only part of
that territory had been settled by whites. There were settlement
up to the Mississippi and in Oregon and California. In between,
particularly in the Plains, were the Comanche, Sioux, Pawnees,
Blackfeet, Crow, Osage, Kiowa, Iowa and Omaha, Navahos and Apaches,
Hopi and Zuni.
The 1865-1900 period is the last great period of
white expansion into what had been Indian territory—and, I think,
a good example of some of the negatives of U.S. expansion.
From the beginning of our nations history, the relationship of the
United States to the native peoples was a troubled one. The main
attraction of America to many European settlers was the availability of
free or cheap land, and, as the original east coast areas of settlement
filled up, there was a strong desire to somehow continue that wonderful
opportunity and to expand westward. The British government had
tended to restrain colonists from pushing into new territory.
Conflicts with Indians were expensive, and the British govt. did what
it could to prevent such conflicts. Also, Native Americans had
chosen badly in conflicts among the Europeans. Many had sided
with the French in the French and Indian War, and then sided with the
British during the Revolution. This latter was a really bad
mistake, since the British did nothing at all for their allies when
negotiating peace with the colonists. The Treaty of Paris that
ended the revolutionary war ceded to the Colonists, not only the
colonies themselves, but considerable additional territory to the
west… Indian territory! Negotiating away territory
belonging to your allies is hardly fair dealing.
Within the original 13 colonies and in the additional territories,
there were many different tribes, all of which had legitimate claims to
territory whites coveted. The United State government did feel,
in general, a responsibility to protect Indian rights. The
Northwest Ordinance of 1787, for instance, says this:
Art. 3. Religion, morality, and knowledge,
being necessary to good
government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of
education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall
always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall
never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property,
rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless
in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in
justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing
wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with
Nice principles, but not enforced well. The basic pattern was
frontiersman would move into Indian land. The government would do
nothing. Indians would take matters into their own hands.
Whites would retaliate. The government would then step in, and
there would be a “just and lawful war authorized by
Congress.” Or maybe a not so just and lawful war, but,
regardless, the war would end with a treaty ceding the disputed land
and promising Indians other land instead. But then this new land
would be coveted by frontiersmen, and the whole process would start
Complicating matters were disputes among the Indians themselves.
Leaders, often mixed bloods, and often artificially designated as
leaders by whites, couldn’t agree among themselves on what could
and could not be negotiated, and these disagreements often led to
violence and murder.
One of the most tragic stories is that of the
Cherokee. The original home of the Cherokee was northern Georgia.
They were one of the five so-called civilized tribes, Native Americans
who worked to adopt much of white culture for their own. The
Cherokee produced figures like Sequoia, a mixed blood who put the
Cherokee language into written form. The Cherokee adopted
European-style technology. They had their own newspapers. They
often adopted white fashions. And they intermarried at a very
high rate. Many, if not most, of their leaders were mixed bloods
with white as well as traditional names. Surely if any Native
American group could be successfully assimilated, it would be the
But whites coveted their land and other native land, and, under Andrew
Jackson, Congress passed (in 1830) the Indian Removal Act. The
state of Georgia began confiscating Cherokee land, but, ultimately, the
Supreme Court said no (Worcester vs. The State of Georgia, 1832).
But President Jackson refused to intervene on behalf of the
Cherokee. “John Marshall has made his decision. Now
let him enforce it.”
There was no agreement among the Cherokee on exactly what to do.
Some voluntarily went west. Others debated on how and what to
negotiate. In the end, 21 Cherokee signed on to the Treaty of New
Echota which gave away all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi.
They had no authority to do so, and other Cherokee petitioned Congress
not to ratify the treaty. By a single vote, the Senate ratified
it anyway, and Cherokee removal began. Bad enough, but the way
the removal was carried out was worse. In the Fall of 1839,
15,000 Cherokee were rounded up, not given time to sell their property
or make proper preparations, and then they were marched, mostly on
foot, 1200 miles, west toward Oklahoma. Winter set in.
Temperatures dipped below freezing. Food was short. Four
thousand died on the march, with more deaths before and after, perhaps
as many as 8,000—almost half the Cherokee population.
Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, said the U.S. government
had been, “just and friendly throughout; our efforts for their
civilization constant, and directed by the best feeling of humanity;
its watchfulness in protecting them from individual frauds
unremitting.” And if that doesn’t bring you to tears,
How about the aftermath? Whites soon wanted Oklahoma too, and, in
1889, most of that land too was opened up to homesteaders and the
Cherokees and other Native Americans lost that too.
For the Sioux, initial contacts with whites were relatively little
problem—almost the reverse. The Spanish had brought horses
to the new world, and, in the 16th century, Plains Indians (like the
Sioux) took advantage of this innovation with incredible
rapidity. With horses, the Sioux could move more rapidly than
ever before, and their hunting areas increased. By 1750, the
Sioux were traversing the range from Texas to Canada and from the
Mississippi to the Rockies. Trade also brought luxuries like
coffee and sugar.
But there was a bit of a problem too. The traditional Sioux
enemy, the Ojibway (Chippewa) traded more extensively with the
Europeans and had a lead on the Sioux in firearms. They were
ultimately able to push the Sioux out of their traditional hunting
areas in the east.
However, this wasn’t a huge problem, since there was plenty of
land to the west. The Mandans and Omaha who had lived in that
region were devastated by exposure to European diseases. For some
reason, the Sioux weren’t hit as hard, and they now moved into
territory left relatively empty by the deaths of so many Mandans and
And for 100 years, it looked like whites would be no problem for the
Sioux. The 1750-1850 periods is, in some ways, the height of
Lakota civilization, and it certainly looked like the Lakota and other
Plains Indians would continue successful.
Whites realized that taking on the warlike Indians of the plains was
going to mean trouble.
“I am ready, without hesitation, to pronounce the Comanches the
most extraordinary horsemen that I have seen yet n all my travels, and
I doubt whether any people in the world can surpass them.”
Not only were the Plains Indians excellent horsemen, they excelled at
the bow. One observer reported that, at 30 yards, galloping at
full speed, they could keep six to eight arrows in the air and on
target, all with enough force for the entire shaft to penetrate the
body of a buffalo.
By the 1850’s, Plains Indians had plenty of guns as well.
Pretty formidable—and better left alone. And for some time, the
plains Indians were left alone.
Whites weren’t interested in Plains Indian land, and certainly
not Sioux land. Maps of the 19th century labeled most of the land
west of the Mississippi “The Great American Desert.”
An 1856 survey said:
“We may as well admit that Kansas and
Nebraska, with the
exception of the small strip of land upon their eastern borders, are
perfect deserts, with a soil forever to unfit them for the purposes of
agriculture. We may as well admit that Washington, Oregon, and
Utah, and New Mexico are, with the exception of limited areas, composed
of mountain chains and unfruitful plains, and that, whatever route is
selected for a railroad to the Pacific, it must wind the greater part
of its length through a country destined to remain forever an
As long as most whites believed this was the case, the whole of the
plains was left to the Native Americans. It’s no wonder that, in
1825, the U.S. government was willing to sign a treaty declaring the
land west of the Mississippi Indian country “for as long as the
grass shall grow and water run.”
But as it became apparent that the land wasn’t so worthless
after all, all of a sudden the grass quit growing and the water stopped
running. There was increasing pressure on the government to
permit encroachment on this land as well.
But the first problem for the Lakota was not white annexation of
land. No, the first problems came from whites headed to
California and Oregon. The trail west headed across Sioux hunting
grounds, and pioneer parties made an awfully tempting target for Sioux
raids. Problems increased with the Mormon migration to Utah and
even more with the California gold rush.
Still, it seemed an amicable settlement could be reached. In
1851, several tribes including the Sioux signed on to the Laramie
Treaty. [Both the 1851 and 1868
treaties are called "The Fort Laramie Treaty." Differentiate them by
adding the year.] This
treaty gave the Sioux and other tribes $50,000 a year for 50 years and
a wagon train of
gifts in return for allowing safe passage through their land.
Both sides agreed to compensate the other if there were treaty
violations. Well and good.
But the U.S. Senate changed the treaty unilaterally, cutting the
compensation period to 10 years and compensating the Sioux in ways
to their own liking (e.g., farm implements instead of cash).
The Sioux also ignored portions of the treaty. The Powder Rive
area had been given to the Crow, but the Sioux thought they had won it
fair and square and should keep it.
Not surprisingly, the treaty didn’t last long. A dispute
over an animal belonging to a wagon train (and taken for dinner by an
enterprising brave), led to what was essentially the murder of
Conquering Bear, a Sioux Chief who had been trying to negotiate in good
faith. This led to a general uprising of the Sioux against
whites. Colonel William Harney set out to pacify things, and, at Ash
Hollow, wiped out a band led by Little Thunder who was trying to
But then the real trouble began. In 1862, four young Santee Sioux
living in Minnesota attached some white settlers, killing and scalping
a 16 year old girl, murdering a man while his wife watched, and then
murdering her as well. As the news spread, fear of white
retaliation made some of the Santee decide that they had better get the
whites before the whites got them. This was what caused the
Minnesota uprising. 750 whites
were killed, and many of the deaths were
especially brutal. Whites were killed, and scalped, their bodies
left mutilated. Women were routinely raped and dismembered while
children had their brains dashed out.
Many Santee had become Christians, and many of the Santee did their
very best to try to prevent these atrocities
and to save the whites of the region: and that seems to me to be
another of the real tragedies of this whole situation—that so
many on both sides wanted to act in good faith and couldn’t
overcome those who wouldn’t.
And, also, it’s tragic how polarizing the actions of a few can
be. The Minnesota uprising led to growing sentiment that the only
settlement of the Indian problem was out and out genocide. In
Colorado, John Chivington (a leader of confederate forces in the west
wanted a time-out from the civil war to deal with a more pressing
problem. "The Cheyennes will have to be roundly whipped --
or completely wiped out -- before they will be quiet.”
Well, Chivington was a man of action. In 1864, he led a massacre
of peaceful Cheyenne at Sand Creek, Colorado. He and his men
murdered innocent women and children, mutilating their bodies, and
slicing open pregnant women.
But it wasn’t just such atrocities that made white/native
relations difficult. There were real issues at stake. The
Sioux wanted whites off the Bozeman trail, for instance, since it
really interfered with their hunting. And, in 1866, this led to
war. Red Cloud’s War (1866-68). The outstanding even
of this war, Fetterman’s Massacre (or, the Battle of 100
Slain). Crazy Horse, using the fake-retreat strategy, lured about
80 U.S. cavalry into a trap where they
were killed by Red Cloud’s warriors. Well the bodies were
mutilated, but really this is a battle, not a massacre.
The Sioux win Red Cloud’s War, but now there was a new Fort Laramie
Treaty, the Treaty
of 1868. The U.S. agreed to abandon Bozeman trail. All of
west river wa declared Sioux land. Food and supplies were also
Sioux. Particularly important, the Treaty of 1868 said that any
further treaty would have to be approved by 75% of Sioux men or it was
of no effect.
As good as it gets? Maybe. But changed economic conditions
were going to play havoc with Lakota way of
life no matter what the treaty was. The elimination of the
Buffalo herds was a major factor. But there was a new
source of trouble.
George Armstrong Custer took an expedition into the Black Hills (Sioux
Territory) and brought with him surveyors. And, lo and behold,
they discovered gold. This was played up big, and soon
prospectors were heading into the Black Hills where they certainly
No matter. The U.S. government wasn’t going to keep them
out. The government tried to buy the land at bargain basement
prices ($6 million…Homestake alone produced 40 million ounces of gold
worth at least $500 million).
But this wasn’t attractive. The Black Hills was sacred to
the Sioux, and they weren’t going to sell. The Black Hills is my
land and I love it, said little big man, and whoever interferes will
here this gone.
Ok. The Sioux won’t sell. So…provoke a war.
“Hostile” Indians were given the order to report to reservations (Dec.
1875). Just try and move through SD in winter! By
January 1876, troops under Sheridan and Custer were moving in to compel
compliance. Mid March, soldiers attached Low Dog’s Village,
plundering and killing. Those who escaped took refuge with
Crazy Horse. And, next time, the Sioux were ready.
At the Battle of Rosebud, Crazy Horse withdrew, found favorable ground,
then attacked, winning an impressive victory. But even more
impressive, the Battle of Little Big Horn (Greasy Grass).
Custer had been winning victories against women and children in
undefended villages. Crazy Horse tricked him into dividing his
forces, and drew him into a trap. Custer and 200 bluecoats
killed. Custer Massacre. But not the real massacre of
Anyway, this was all the excuse needed for govt. to pour resources into
subduing Sioux and negotiating a new treaty (1876) which ceded Black
And much hunting ground. This:
1. Destroyed way of life
2. Disrupted leadership
3. Destroyed economy
4. Destroyed religon
5. Created conflicts among Indians themselves.
In 1877, Crazy Horse reluctantly agreed to what he thought were going
to be negotiations. As he saw prison bars, he struggled to get
away, and was killed.
Sitting Bull too gave up, attempting to lead people into Canada, and
But: a faint glimmer of hope, not just for Sioux, but for all NA.
Started with a Paiute Indian named Jack Wilson, Wovoka. He fell
sick, had a vision. The dead buffalo would all come back, and the
whites would depart. He combined elements of Christianity,
Mormonism, and Native tradition into a celebration called by whites the
Ghost Dance. This spread rapidly among NA’s, and reached
the Sioux. There, the Ghost Dance seemed particularly ominous to
whites, like a war dnce, and they tried to surpress it.
But Lakota danced anyway. In 1890, groups of Lakota were
gathering together for the Dance. Sitting Bull invited to join
the dancers, but he was killed before he could do so.
At Wounded Knee Creek, and band under Big Foot, coming together to do
Ghost dance, was surrounded by 7th Cavalry—Custer’s old
unit. The were cooperating, surrendering their weapons.
Apparently, a brave fired a single shot: and that was enough for the
7th. Struggle led to fighting, but Sioux were badly
outnumbered. Most were women and children. The 7th turned
their guns (Hotchkiss guns?) on all. Over 150 killed including
young boys and girls and at least 7 babies under two. Many
wounded were left to die on the snow-covered ground.
And that is the end of the Sioux Wars and of the Indian Wars in general.
Well, was there anything positive to come out of
this? Well, certainly westward expansion brought opportunities
The government did its best to allow farmers to get themselves
established in the west. The Homestead Act gave farmers 160 acres
for $10. Not a bad bargain seemingly…160 acres enough for
a good farm in the east. But not so good in the plains where
conditions were different. The government was, as some said,
betting 160 acres against your $10 that you would go belly up.
In 1873, the government added to the Homestead provisions a measure
giving farmers and extra quarter section if they would put 40 acres of
it into trees. In 1877, the government added a measure giving you
more land at a good price if you would irrigate it. And then, in
1878, another measure, the Timber and Stone Act let you buy land
“unfit for cultivation” at a bargain rate.
But, as so often, the big winners from this legislation were wealthy
people of one type or another. Ranch owners expanded their
ranches by pouring a pitcher of water over land and saying they had
irrigated it. Lumber companies bought up large portions of
forested land as “unfit for cultivation.” Well, it
was—but the lumber on that land was worth a fortune!
It’s hard to argue that the ultimate result wasn’t
good. The American West over the last hundred years has been a
wonderful place to live, and millions have found opportunities here for
a good life. But the negative are there too and shouldn’t