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Native Americans and the frontier

From Plymouth Rock to the Trail of Tears

From the time of their arrival on the continent, English settlers sought territorial expansion at the expense of the Native population. At an early date, however, specific areas were set aside for exclusive Indian use. Virginia in 1656 and commissioners for the United Colonies in 1658 agreed to the creation of such reserved areas. After conflict between whites and Native American tribes in New England descended into the bloodshed of King Philip’s War (1675–76), the Plymouth Colony in 1685 designated for individual Indians separate tracts that could not be alienated without their consent.

In spite of these efforts by the separate colonies and English ministers to protect Indian lands, unauthorized entry and use caused constant friction through the colonial period. The startling success of the Ottawa chief Pontiac in capturing English strongholds in the old Northwest prompted King George III’s ministers to issue the Proclamation of 1763, formalizing the concept of Indian land titles for the first time in the history of European colonization in the New World. The proclamation reserved for the use of the tribes “all the Lands and Territories lying to the Westward of the sources of the Rivers which fall into the Sea from the West and Northwest.” Land west of the Appalachians might not be purchased or entered upon by private persons, but purchases might be made in the name of the king or one of the colonies at a council meeting of the Indians.

The first full declaration of U.S. policy was embodied in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which stated: “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians, their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.” The first major departure from this position came with the Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830. Coercion, particularly in the cases of the Cherokee and Seminole tribes, was adopted as official U.S. policy as a means of securing compliance. The Removal Act was not in itself coercive, since it authorized the president only to negotiate with tribes east of the Mississippi on a basis of payment for their lands. It called for improvements in the east and a grant of land west of the river, to which perpetual title would be attached. In carrying out the law, however, resistance was met with military force. An estimated 15,000 people died during the forced relocation to the West, an event that came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

How the West was won

The discovery of gold in California (1848) started a new sequence of treaties designed to extinguish Indian title to lands lying in the path of the overland routes to the Pacific. The sudden surge of thousands of wagon trains through the last of the Indian country and the consequent slaughtering of prairie and mountain game that provided subsistence for the Indians brought on the most serious Indian wars the country had experienced. For three decades, beginning in the 1850s, raids and sporadic pitched fighting—punctuated by atrocities visited on civilians—took place up and down the western plains. In 1862 hundreds of white settlers were killed and 38 Dakota warriors were hanged (the largest mass execution in U.S. history) during the Sioux Uprising (Dakota War) in southern Minnesota. Two years later, U.S. troops carried out the massacre of hundreds of surrendered and partially disarmed Cheyenne at the Sand Creek Massacre.

Although the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) guaranteed the rights to the Black Hills region to the Sioux and the Arapaho, the discovery of gold there in 1874 triggered a rush of thousands of white miners and speculators. Native American resistance led to the Black Hills War, a clash that reached its apotheosis in the Battle of Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876). The annihilation of a U.S. 7th Cavalry detachment under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer by a force led by Sitting Bull was a tactical victory for the Northern Plains tribes, but it triggered a massive retaliatory response. Federal troops flooded the region and forced the Native American population into submission.

Meanwhile, in the Oregon Territory, federal authorities were trying to force the Nez Percé, one of the largest and most powerful tribes in the Pacific Northwest, onto a reservation in Idaho. In June 1877 Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé responded by leading a band of his followers on a brilliant fighting retreat, covering some 1,600–1,700 miles (2,575–2,735 km) in an attempt to escape to Canada. For three months, Chief Joseph’s group eluded a U.S. force that outnumbered them at least 10 to 1. The Nez Percé were surrounded just 40 miles (64 km) from the Canadian border. Although they were promised a return to the Pacific Northwest, Chief Joseph’s band was instead sent to a malarial reservation in Indian Territory, where many sickened and died.

Chief Joseph, c. 1903

In the Southwest, resistance among the Apache coalesced around the Chiricahua chief Geronimo. Geronimo had carried out deadly raids against the Mexicans in the 1840s and ’50s, and when Americans asserted control of the region in the 1870s, his campaign was redirected against them. In 1882 Gen. George Crook was called to Arizona to suppress the violence. Geronimo surrendered in January 1884, only to take flight the following year. In March 1886 Crook finally succeeded in bringing Geronimo to a meeting at Cañón de Los Embudos, just south of the U.S.–Mexico border, wherein Geronimo and his warriors agreed to surrender if they would be taken to Florida where their families were being held. The terms were agreed to, but on the way back to the United States, Geronimo and a small band of followers escaped. Crook was replaced by Gen. Nelson A. Miles, who requested reinforcements that amounted to roughly a quarter of the total strength of the U.S. Army. During this final campaign, which lasted five months and covered more than 1,600 miles (almost 2,600 km), Geronimo’s band of some three dozen was pursued by no fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops, 3,000 Mexican troops, and perhaps 1,000 vigilantes from both sides of the border. Geronimo was finally tracked to the Sonora Mountains, and in September 1886 Miles induced him to surrender once again. Miles promised Geronimo that, after spending time in Florida, he and his followers would be allowed to return to Arizona. U.S. Pres. Grover Cleveland overrode these terms, and Geronimo and 14 companions were placed under military confinement at Fort Sill in Oklahoma Territory. He would never see Arizona again.

In 1889, as the frontier era came to a close, the second manifestation of the Ghost Dance religion arose out of the revelations of a young Paiute dreamer named Wovoka. He promised the Indians a return to the old life and reunion with their departed kinsmen. The songs and ceremonies born of this revelation swept across the northern plains, and the Sioux, already suffering harsh privations due to confinement to reservations and the depletion of game, embraced the messianic movement. Believing that the Ghost Dance was disturbing an uneasy peace, government agents moved to arrest Chief Sitting Bull. On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was killed while being taken into custody, and in response, a few hundred Sioux fled the reservation at Pine Ridge, hoping to seek refuge from federal troops in the Badlands. On December 28 the group surrendered to troops of the pursuing U.S. 7th Cavalry—the same unit that Sitting Bull had decimated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn—and they camped overnight at Wounded Knee Creek. The following morning, the Sioux were disarming when a scuffle broke out and a shot was fired. The cavalry troopers responded by firing into the crowd; more than 200 Sioux men, women, and children were killed. Fleeing Sioux were pursued, and some were killed miles from the camp site. The massacre at Wounded Knee effectively marked the end of the conquest of the North American Indian on the American frontier.

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