Digital History

Tragedy of the Plains Indians

A Thirty Years War Next
Digital History ID 3499



Beginning in the 1860s, a 30 year conflict arose as the government sought to concentrate the Plains tribes on reservations. Philip Sheridan, a Civil War general who led many campaigns against the Plains Indians, is famous for saying "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." But even he recognized the injustice that lay behind the late 19th century warfare:

We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this that they made war. Could anyone expect less?

Violence erupted first in Minnesota, where, by 1862, the Santee Sioux were confined to a territory 150 miles long and just 10 miles wide. Denied a yearly payment and agricultural aid promised by treaty, these people rose up in August 1862 and killed 500 white settlers at New Ulm. Lincoln appointed John Pope, who had commanded Union forces at the second Battle of Bull Run, to crush the uprising. The general announced that he would deal with the Sioux "as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made." When the Sioux surrendered in September 1862, about 1,800 were taken prisoner and 303 were condemned to death. Lincoln commuted the sentences of most, but he authorized the hanging of 38, the largest mass execution in American history.

In 1864, warfare spread to Colorado, after the discovery of gold led to an influx of whites. Because the regular army was fighting the Confederacy, the Colorado territorial militia was responsible for maintaining order. On November 29, 1864, a group of Colorado volunteers, under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington, fell on Chief Black Kettle's unsuspecting band of Cheyennes at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado, where they had gathered under the protection of the governor. "We must kill them big and little," he told his men. "Nits make lice" (nits are the eggs of lice). The militia slaughtered about 150 Cheyenne, mostly women and children.

Violence broke out on other parts of the Plains. Between 1865 and 1868, conflict raged in Utah. In 1866, the Teton Sioux, tried to stop construction of the Bozeman Trail, leading from Fort Laramie, Wyoming to the Virginia City, Wyoming, gold fields, by attacking and killing Captain William J. Fetterman and 79 soldiers.

The Sand Creek and Fetterman massacres produced a national debate over Indian policy. In 1867, Congress created a Peace Commission to recommend ways to reduce conflict on the Plains. The commission recommended that Indians be moved to small reservations, where they would be Christianized, educated, and taught to farm.

At two conferences in 1867 and 1868, the federal government demanded that the Plains Indians give up their lands and move to reservations. In return for supplies and annuities, the southern Plains Indians were told to move to poor, unproductive lands in Oklahoma and the northern tribes to the Black Hills of the Dakotas. The alternative to acceptance was warfare. The commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ely S. Parker, himself a Seneca Indian, declared that any Indian who refused to "locate in permanent abodes provided for them, would be subject wholly to the control and supervision of military authorities." Many whites regarded the Plains Indians as an intolerable obstacle to westward expansion. They agreed with Theodore Roosevelt that the West was not meant to be "kept as nothing but a game reserve for squalid savages."

Leaders of several tribes--including the Apaches, Arapahos, Cheyennes, Kiowas, Navajos, Shoshones, and Sioux--agreed to move onto reservations. But many Indians rejected the land cessions made by their chiefs.

In the Southwest, war broke out in 1871 in New Mexico and Arizona with the massacre of more than 100 Indians at Camp Grant. The Apache War did not end until 1886, when their leader, Geronimo was captured. On the southern Plains, war erupted when the Cheyennes, Comanches, and Kiowas staged raids into the Texas panhandle. The Red River War ended only after federal troops destroyed Indian food supplies and killed a hundred Cheyenne warriors near the Sappa River in Kansas. This brought resistance on the southern Plains to a close. In the Pacific Northwest, the Nez Perce of Oregon and Idaho rebelled against the federal reservation policy and then attempted to escape to Canada, covering 1,300 miles in just 75 days. They were forced to surrender in Montana, just 40 miles short of the Canadian border. Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce leader, offered a poignant explanation for why he had surrendered:

I am tired of fighting....The old men are all killed.... The little children are freezing to death....From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.

After their surrender, the Nez Perce were taken to Oklahoma, where most died of disease. The best-known episode of Indian resistance took place after miners discovered gold in the Black Hills--land that had been set aside as a reservation "in perpetuity." When thousands of miners staked claims on Sioux lands, war erupted, in which an Indian force led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull killed General George Custer and his 264 men at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. "Custer's Last Stand" was followed by five years of warfare in Montana that confined the Sioux to their reservations.

Several factors contributed to the defeat of the Plains Indians. One was a shift in the military balance of power. Before the Civil War, an Indian could shoot 30 arrows in the time it took a soldier to load and shoot his rifle once. The introduction of the Colt six-shooter and the repeating rifle after the Civil War, undercut this Indian advantage. During the 1870s, the army also introduced a military tactic--winter campaigning. The army attacked Plains Indians during the winter when they divided into small bands, making it difficult for Indians effectively to resist.

Another key factor was the destruction of the Indian food supply, especially the buffalo. In 1860, about 13 million roamed the Plains. These animals provided Plains Indians with many basic necessities. They ate buffalo meat, made clothing and tipi coverings out of hides, used fats for grease, fashioned the bones into tools and fishhooks, made thread and bowstrings from the sinews, and even burned dried buffalo droppings ("chips") as fuel. Buffalo also figured prominently in Plains Indians' religious life. After the Civil War, the herds were cut down by professional hunters, who shot 100 an hour to feed railroad workers, and by wealthy easterners who killed them for sport. By 1890, only about 1,000 bison remained alive. Government officials quite openly viewed the destruction of the buffalo as a tool for controlling the Plains Indians. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano explained in 1872, "as they become convinced that they can no longer rely upon the supply of game for their support, they will return to the more reliable source of subsistence...."

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