Five Reflections on the Indian Wars for the American West


After my recent kick of history books on World History and early American History, I found myself drawn to the settling of the American West. Outside of films and video games, this is a time period that has long been a bit of a blank spot in my mind. Were the movies and games about the West accurate? How should I think about what the Americans did to the Indians? To try and bring some light into these questions I picked up Peter Cozzens 2018 book The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. The book is an excellent read filled with tons of detail on the people, places, and events that shaped American interaction with the Indians as they settled the West. While Cozzens is not afraid to editorialize and qualify when needed, the book is more concerned with painting the picture than judging it. This won't be a book recommendation (although I do recommend it), instead the following blog will feature five broad reflections about the time period that struck me as I learned the sweep of these details. These are developing thoughts (thinking out loud), so feel free to interact with them and help me develop them. I hope they are helpful to you as you think about this time period and how it can influence us in our own.

1. The Basic Cycle of American and Indian Interaction: The scope of the book covers interactions with Native Americans in the Southern and Northern Plains, Apacheria, and the Northwest Pacific. While each encounter with the tribes in these regions can be considered unique they also seemed to follow a general pattern that can be helpful to outline.
  • Encroachment: The first step is American encroachment on Indian lands. Americans emigrated West to settle the land (farming, homesteading, ranches), search for resources (game, gold, copper, silver, etc.) or just for travel to another destination (trails and railroads). For example:
    • Gold Rush: “In August 1848, gold was discovered in California’s American River. The following year saw a mass migration unequaled in the young nation’s history. Within a decade, there were more whites in California than there were Indians in the entire West. Genocidal gold seekers decimated California’s peaceable small tribes, and the growth of white settlements in the newly organized Oregon Territory alarmed the stronger northwestern tribes.” (16)
    • Homestead Act: “In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act. Beginning January 1, 1863, and U.S. citizen or intended citizen, including free slaves and female heads of household, would receive title to 160 acres of federal land west of the Mississippi River, provided the claimant had improved the property, had resided on it for five consecutive years, and had never taken up arms against the United States…The population boom led to the creation of six territories between 1861 and 1864: Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, Dakota, and Colorado, which grew fastest of them all.” (25)
    • Buffalo Hunting: “With hunters in high demand, practically anyone capable of handling the deadly accurate .50 caliber buffalo rifle and mounted telescope was hired, and in the Mooar brothers’ wake came scores of misfits, miscreants, outlaws, and fugitives, drawn to the vast Kansas herds like flies to putrefying buffalo carcasses. Fort Dodge, in southwestern Kansas, became the center of the trade. In just three years, railroad cars hauled a staggering 4,373,730 hides to eastern markets. The Southern Plains tribes abhorred the wanton slaughter, but so long as the hunters remained north of the Arkansas River, the Indians had no recourse, short of war.” (156)
  • Skirmishes: Second, as the Americans emigrated West they engaged with the Indians – sometimes peacefully intermingling, but often leading to skirmishes of offense and defense. Sometimes naked aggression or simple defense is claimed on either side. The Indian tribes were not usually united in their response to this encroachment and still saw other tribes as their greatest threat, not the “white man.”
  • Peace Policy: In response to these skirmishes, the American government gets involved by protecting settlers, travelers, or business interests (railroad, hunters, ranchers, etc). They create forts to maintain control, order, protect travelers/settlers and extend their presence throughout the West. They generally sought to protect their migrating citizens by punishing Indian war raids on settlers/travelers, and closing off Indians to their own territory through a system of treaties and agencies/reservations. This policy is known as concentration – removing Indians from land whites wanted to some far-off land. Some tribes respond immediately with surrender and receive mostly peaceful treatment. Others are not sure how to respond and do so with mixed interest, others are not interested at all. Once on these concentrated lands, the job of turning Indians into Christian farmers would begin.
  • Breakdown into Violence: Whether by overzealous settlers/miners, corrupt agency officials, genuine miscommunication, deep seated mistrust, uncontrolled war raids on white settlers/travelers, or any number of issues – peace, trust, and treaties are constantly broken. The army is called in to police, raid, and sometimes destroy Indian groups deemed outlaws, rebellious, or not amenable enough to the treaty/reservation life. The U.S. frontier army is poorly funded, understaffed, undersupplied, and composed of poorly educated and skilled men. The existence of a solider in this era was tough and typically wound up filled with drinking, whoring, gambling, or deserting. The officer corp. was at best a fractious group filled with grudges and ambitions. When they could, the Army would smartly use enemy tribes as scouts and allowed them to lead battles and kill without mercy. Any battle won by the Army was devastating to Indian unity and confidence whereas any battle won by Indians (think Little Big Horn) was met with such shock by the American populace that it only meant renewed men and resources were thrown at the issue. Continually encroaching whites, broken treaties, boredom, loss of game (the Buffalo), not accepting a farming existence, disunity among the tribes, incompetent or corrupt generals, officials, and chiefs all lead to a series of raids, battles, and massacres across the West reduced the Indian tribes of the West to the loss of their existence or to subsistence and dependence on government rations on a reservation.
  • American Dominance & Indian Destruction: In each area of the West the story might be a bit different, but the story is consistent: each tribe is ultimately taken out of existence or removed to a small reservation area, often not of their choosing. Their existence on the reservation is often at subsistence levels and exploited by corrupt officials and bootleggers. “In the blink of an eye, the Ute culture had vanished. An army captain marveled at the sudden transformation of the Ute country. ‘As we pushed the Indians onward, we permitted the whites to follow, and in three days the rich lands of the Uncompahgres were all occupied, towns were being laid out, and lots being sold at high prices. In short order the Uncompahgre Valley – previously a desert – became the garden spot of Colorado, covered with bountiful farmland and orchards.’” (356)

2. Law and Order:
The stories of tracking down Indian outlaws who raided American settlements seemed oddly familiar to the early 1900's FBI tracking down the outlaws and gangsters who “raided” banks and other places for survival, for fun, for pride or whatever reason they mustered. Story after story could be told of authorities hearing of a raid, unrest, warriors hiding out on reservation land, or of influential leaders that could lead uprisings, and a (mostly) well-meaning proactive arrest or meeting with Indian leaders/warriors could spark a violent conflict due to misunderstandings and frustrations and distrust. In this way, many of these moments read like police reports about arrests gone bad and neighborhoods violently responding in kind. As I think back on such events, like the botched arrest of Sitting Bull and the chaotic beginning to the Wounded Knee battle (massacre?), I am reminded at how difficult it is to find peace and unity when both sides harbor fundamental distrust of the other. On another level, this isn’t just about distrust, but about different ways of living.

3. A Clash of Civilizations: This is a story not fundamentally of law and order vs outlaws or good natives vs evil imperialists (though there are strong elements of that), but a story of the clash of emigrant people with different ways of life. The story of the American West being settled can be read as the reactionary death throes of the Indian way of life being stamped out by another. The arrival of Europeans into the North American continent and their interactions with the Native tribes forever altered them. Horses, guns, religion, and disease introduced by the white European changed Indian culture forever.
  • “In the two and half centuries between the settlement of the Jamestown colony in Virginia and Lincoln’s cautionary words to the Cheyenne chief, a relentlessly expansionist white population had driven the Indians westward without regard to treaty obligations or, sometimes, even simple humanity. The government of the young American Republic had not intended to exterminate the Indians. Nor had the founding fathers simply coveted Indian land. They had also wanted to ‘enlighten and refine’ the Indian, to lead him from ‘savagery’ to Christianity, and to bestow on him the blessings of agriculture and the domestic arts – in other words, to destroy an incompatible Indian way of life by civilizing rather than by killing the Indians.” (13)
Most of the tribes of the American West were hunters and gatherers and moved periodically with the game (mostly buffalo) they hunted and the seasons of the year. It is important to understand that the Native tribes of the plains cannot be summarized by the “noble savages” stereotype that often predominates our memory (this is typically a trope used to contrast against the evil American). The Indians of the plains had a strong war culture that took a central role in their life. It was normal to go to war against other tribes and raid them for the best horses, women, and hunting grounds. From an early age, young boys were trained up to become warriors:
  • “…the patterns of tribal government and warfare among the Rocky Mountain and Plains tribes were strikingly similar. Fathers raised their sons to aspire to great martial deeds, and training for a warrior’s life began early. At age five or six, boys were made to run long distances and to swim streams and were regularly deprived of food, water, and sleep – all with a view to toughening their bodies. Between the ages of seven and ten, boys received their first bow and arrows and were taught to shoot first for distance and then for accuracy. By the time a boy reached adolescence, his riding skills were unparalleled; he was, to quote Colonel Dodge, not only the finest soldier but also ‘the best rough rider and natural horsemen in the world.’ By age eighteen, a young man was expected to have counted coup, stolen a horse, and taken a scalp. At age twenty, he had perhaps shown enough ability to lead a small war or raiding party. By twenty-five, he might be a sub-chief. If he had been successful, he could expect to have won many war honors and stolen many horses and perhaps even have two lodges (tipis) with a wife and children in each.” (48)
The Indian tradition of “scalping” and mutilation of the dead in war horrified the whites and was seen as an example of the savagery of the Indian. Additionally, many warriors did kidnap, rape, and mutilate innocent women and children during their raids. While this is true, it’s also helpful to see these actions from the view of the Indians:
  • “Indian scalps counted more than those of whites, whom most Indians considered inferior opponents. At the Fettermen Fight, warriors contemptuously tossed the scalps of soldiers on the ground besides their victims. The mutilation of enemy dead was a common Plains Indian practice in which both sexes indulged. Westerners considered it conclusive proof that Indians were irredeemable savages; for their part, the Indians believed that disfiguring an enemy’s corpse protected the killer from the dead man’s spirit in the afterlife.” (49)
  • “The Pawnees did most of the killing at Summit Springs, and they killed without mercy. The Cheyennes expected as much. ‘I do not belittle the Pawnees for their killing of women or children because as far back as any of us could remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child they could run across of the Pawnee,’ said a Dog Soldier survivor. ‘Each tribe hated each other with a deadly passion and savage hearts [that] know only total war.’ Sherman and Sheridan’s notion of total war paled beside that of the Plains Indians.” (110-111) 
As Americans moved West, two ways of life clashed. The Western way of life centered on owning and working the land, building permanent cities, and instilling secular governmental authorities to oversee law and order could not have been more different from a nomadic hunting and gathering way of life that saw war and raiding on neighbors as part of life. This brief reflection should not be intended to justify American or Indian actions, just to note that at a fundamental level, their engagement involves a clash of civilization and not just a clash of ambition.

4. The Randomness of Massacre: The term “massacre” is loaded with baggage. As I read story after story of battles in the Indian Wars, it became clear that the motive behind “massacre” can sometimes be hard to pin down. The easy thing to do is point fingers at the indiscriminate killing of women and children – and yes this went on in both American victories and Indian victories. I am not here saying both sides are equally guilty nor am I knowledgeable enough to say which side was worse. I simply want to share the reflection that it seems surprisingly easy to go from “orderly” war to massacre – much easier than we’d like to think. For instance, after the Battle of Wounded Knee, the author Cozzens shares this anecdote:

“The search for survivors began. Combing the field, a humane private came across a dead woman and her baby, who was sucking on a piece of hardtack. He picked up the child and cradled it in his arms. Continuing on, he found another dead woman with a baby still alive beside her. Her carried both infants to the hospital tent, where a number of Indian women had gathered. As he neared the tent, the private encountered a burly sergeant, who suggested he smash the babies against a tree; otherwise, the sergeant said, ‘someday they’ll be fighting us.’ The soldier recoiled in disgust. ‘I told him I would rather smash him than those little innocent children. The Indian women were so glad that I saved the papooses that they almost kissed me.’” (458)

Imagine if that “humane private” had got caught up in other business and was not the one to deliver the babies and the burly sergeant’s desire had won the day? The difference here between a story of good-hearted humanity and a cold-blooded murder of babies turned on such utter randomness. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t praise or judge either character because they are decision-less pawns, just that if someone else had randomly been there the outcome might be horrifically different - and our judgment of the sides would be irrevocably altered. How many “massacres” turn on these random moments: A weak person doesn’t stand up to a sadist, a miscommunication leads to chaos, a good intention is misconstrued, etc? We want to judge, and we should judge, but our measurement of the actions of others in the heat of war and death should always reflect the insight that given the right circumstances we are capable of monstrous atrocities.

5. What Else Could Be Done: Perhaps the most haunting thought I had while reading this book was simply, “If I could go back and be a leader of the American expansion, could I have done any better? What else could have been done?” The easy route is to simply judge the American actions and they deserve tons of righteous judgment. However, when one is required to not just judge their actions but then get into the nitty gritty of alternative actions, then one is forced into some very difficult questions. For instance, with the remove of a hundred and fifty years it’s easy to say we should have left the Indians alone and let them have states/territories of their own. However, was that politically feasible? Remember that with the gold rush of 1848, more people poured into California than Indians populated the entire West! How do you hold back the active and growing population of Americans? Do you use the army to police them and kill them from expanding into lands that are little occupied and little exploited? Remember, you just fought an exhausting Civil War that led to the deaths of half a million Americans. If you do use force, how quickly are you thrown out of power and your protest amounts to nothing else? Think of the furor that arose from Indian raids that resulted in murders, kids being kidnapped, and women raped – how do you respond to that? Peaceful and lawful is the obvious response, but what do you do when the warriors responsible are being harbored by a peaceful tribe that won’t give them up? What do you do when genuine mineral resources that can be used to the betterment of society and social wealth just sits fallow because it's part of a large area of "hunting grounds" for a tribe? These are real issues.

None of this is to excuse horrific behavior, but it is helpful to understand the context in which it arose. Additionally, think of the perspective of the Native American – how were you to react? Could they have reacted better? Would it have mattered? Colonel John Gibbon put it thusly, “Put yourself in his place and let the white man ask himself this question: What would I do if threatened as the Indian has been and is? Suppose a race superior to mine were to land upon the shores of this great continent, trade or cheat us out of our land foot by foot, gradually encroach upon our domain until we were finally driven, a degraded, demoralized band into a small corner of the continent, where to live at all it was necessary to steal, perhaps to do worse? Suppose that in a spirit of justice, this superior race should recognize the fact that it was in duty bound to place food in our mouths and blankets on our backs, what would we do in the premises? I have seen one who hates an Indian as he does a snake, and thinks there is no good Indian but a dead one, on having the proposition put to him in his way, grind his teeth in rage and exclaim, ‘I would cut the heart out of everyone I could lay my hand on,’ and so he would; and so we all would.” (221-222)

I mentioned before that a fundamental element of this story is a clash of civilizations and I wonder if it was possible for the growing Western culture of the Americans to peacefully co-exist with the hunter-gatherer culture of the Indians: could they have lived in two peaceful countries of their own if cooler and more peaceful heads prevailed? Would one culture have to give way to the other? Would it have been possible for the Indian leaders or American leaders to restrain their warriors/settlers/miners from invading the space of the other and causing problems?

I have no idea. It could be that given the right leaders, we’d live in a vastly different and more peaceful world today with a thriving Indian population. Or, and this is a historical judgment not a spiritual/moral one, it could be that the Indian population fared better at the emigrating Americans of the 1700’s-1800’s who did as much as their current worldview allowed than they would have from any other expanding civilization in history up until that time. I don’t know and that is haunting.

What I do know is how I can act in my day and age. An understanding of how American ambition, power, and limited/corrupted moral worldview influenced their historical relations with the Indians in the settlement of the West should inform us today in how we interact with each other. We must be more willing than our ancestors at calling out current injustices and at using our moral convictions to restrain the ambitions of our neighbors (and our own) that infringe on the rights of others. We must always remind ourselves of the cycle of violence and how revenge is sweet in the short term but leads to broken communities of mistrust and disunity in the long term. These communities are easy to exploit and destroy. With the same moral conviction we use to call out the unjust ambitions of our neighbors we must forgive our enemies. We should be wise in our critique of the historical actions of our ancestors with an eye for how their failures (and successes) can inform us today. The historical circumstances are never the exact same (making all comparisons an art more than a science), but that doesn’t mean we cannot grow wise from reflection that begins with the question, “What else could be done?”

“Less than a generation had passed since Red Cloud had won his war on the Bozeman Trail forts but then gradually lost the peace. The Lakotas had held the Crow lands they had conquered for less than a decade. It had been just fifteen years since the great but ultimately Pyrrhic Indian victory at the Little Bighorn. Now nothing remained. The Lakotas, the Cheyennes, the Arapahos, the Nez Perces, the Utes, the Modocs, the Apaches, and even some Texan-hating Kiowas and Comanches had tried to coexist amicably with the white man, but he would not be peaceably contained. Tribes had divided bitterly over the issue of war or peace. The Indians who had gone to war against the government had usually done so reluctantly, and they had lost their land and their way of life anyway. Accommodation had failed. War had failed. And the bullet-riven Ghost shirts buried with their wearers in the mass grave on the lone knoll above Wounded Knee Creek were ample proof that religion too had failed the Indians. There was no room left for the Indians in the West but what the government saw fit to permit them. One elderly chief who had witnessed the march of events from the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 to the tragedy at Wounded Knee four decades later saw nothing remarkable in what had transpired. ‘The government made us many promises,’ he told a white a friend, ‘more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.’” (466)