Indian Removal and Response

views updated


The incursion of European imperial powers into North America initiated an almost relentless assault on American Indian territorial claims and prompted military conflicts that continued until near the end of the nineteenth century. Most of the American Indian wars began with increased tensions caused by European or American encroachment onto tribal territories; the hostilities usually resulted in disastrous defeats for the tribes and the confiscation of their land.

revolutionary era

A widespread pattern of encroachment, unrest, war, and dispossession prevailed throughout the colonial and revolutionary periods. After the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress informed American Indian tribes that the United States had acquired dominion over their people and lands. The westward movement of settlers across the Appalachians and Alleghenies into American Indian country antagonized tribes along the United States' western frontier. In an attempt to foster peace with its American Indian neighbors, the Continental Congress negotiated a series of treaties with various tribes, ceding land to the United States. In 1787 Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which provided an orderly process for the organization, survey, and sale of land between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The legislation promised that the United States would recognize the rights of the American Indian tribes of the region and treat them with "utmost good faith."

During George Washington's presidency, Henry Knox, the secretary of war, implemented a policy in which the United States recognized the sovereignty of the tribes and paid for tribal cessions. Knox also instituted a "civilization program" designed to prepare American Indian people for their assimilation. Native political and spiritual leaders rejected this indoctrination and forged alliances to confront the expanding influence of Anglo-American culture and the predatory encroachments of American settlers. The United States responded to these uprisings with military force and used the wars that resulted to seize tribal land.

forced removal and the "trail of tears" (1803–1842)

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson's administration concluded the Louisiana Purchase and began encouraging tribes in the East to surrender their land and migrate to the newly acquired territory. While most tribes rejected Jefferson's entreaties, between 1808 and 1820 a few thousand Cherokees moved westward beyond the Mississippi River. In the War of 1812, the United States destroyed two major Native American forces and eliminated the possibility of successful American Indian resistance in the East. In the Old Northwest, the United States crushed a major pan-American Indian uprising at the Battle of the Thames (1813) and killed Tecumseh, the leader of the Native resistance. In the South, American forces put down a nativist Creek revolt at Horseshoe Bend (1814). After the battle, General Andrew Jackson forced the Creeks to surrender over twenty million acres of their national territory. Soon after the war, Jackson urged President James Monroe to abandon the policy of recognizing American Indian title and sovereignty and adopt Jefferson's idea of relocating eastern tribes. From that point forward, the southern states, led by Georgia, began pushing the federal government to remove the tribes. In 1828 Jackson was elected president; in 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to negotiate cession and removal treaties with the Indian nations in the East.

The state of Georgia had moved to extend its jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation even before the adoption of the Removal Act. The Cherokees filed suit to enjoin Georgia's attempt to expropriate their land. Although the United States Supreme Court declared that the Cherokees comprised a sovereign nation possessing a right to their territory in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Jackson and Congress refused to enforce the decision. In 1835 a dissident faction of Cherokees signed a treaty (New Echota) in which they putatively ceded their nation's lands and pledged that their people would remove to the "Indian Territory" Congress had established west of the Mississippi River. In 1838 the U.S. Army rounded up almost all the Cherokees and marched them along the "Trail of Tears" to their new home.

One nation, the Seminoles, opposed removal by force. In 1835 their warriors began attacking settlements and plantations in Florida. The United States sent troops to put down the uprising and resorted to ruthless tactics to subjugate the Seminoles, including the capture of Seminole leader Osceola under a flag of truce. Finally, in 1842, the United States Army captured all but a few hundred Seminoles and relocated them to the Indian Territory.


The Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 effectively ended Native American resistance to the encroachment of white invaders on the North American continent.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, most Native Americans knew that the Wasichu, or invading whites of European heritage, were too powerful to defeat by conventional means. By the 1880s Native tribes were largely sequestered on reservations managed by the Indian Bureau of the United States government. Some Plains tribes followed traditional nomadic ways and were dealt with—confined to reservations or wiped out—as they came into contact or conflict with government interests.

A millennial religious movement, The Ghost Dance, spread among the remaining Plains tribes, beginning with a Paiute holy man named Wovoka. The Ghost Dance was believed to have the power to defeat the foreign invaders, bring back the buffalo, and restore the Sioux nation. Unlike most Sioux rituals, it was practiced by women as well as men, and was unaccompanied by music. It consisted of slow dancing and chanting, often for days. Adherents believed that while they were dancing, they would be taken up while new earth, plants, and animals covered the invading Wasichu. They would be returned to an earth that was free of the depredations of the white invaders.

As with many Native American rituals, The Ghost Dance was pronounced illegal by the American government. Its practice was forbidden. Still, a few Sioux continued to practice the ritual. Indian Bureau agents blamed Sitting Bull for the movement, and he was killed in the course of a bungled arrest attempt on December 15. The Sioux who had followed Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and the practitioners of the outlawed millennial religion, sought to escape arrest, death, or a forced march to a reservation by fleeing south through the Dakota Badlands. These people, about 300 men, women, and children, were massacred by American Army troops—members of the Seventh Cavalry that had once been led by George Custer—on the snow-covered banks of Wounded Knee Creek (Cankpe Opi Wakpala) on December 19, 1890.

Along with expelling all five of the major Southeastern nations, the United States also removed most of the remaining American Indians in the North. Although

tribal representatives had ceded their territory in Illinois to the United States, many of the Sauk and Fox tribes, led by a warrior named Black Hawk, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the removal agreement. When Black Hawk's followers moved back onto land ceded under the treaty, white settlers called for assistance. In 1831 to 1832, United States troops and Illinois volunteers defeated Black Hawk's forces and forced the Sauks and Foxes out of the state. In 1843 the United States War Department estimated that it had removed almost 90,000 American Indians to the West. Many more died on their journey west. It is estimated that over 4,000 (as many as a quarter) of the Cherokees, for instance, died on the "Trail of Tears."

war and reservations (1843–1865)

Even before the completion of the Removal, thousands of Euro-Americans began moving westward across the Mississippi in search of a new life or cheap land. The acquisition of western lands from Mexico in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War, and the discovery of gold in California in 1848, along with other valuable ores throughout the West, prompted thousands of Americans to journey across the continent on the Oregon, Santa Fe, Mormon, and Bozeman trails. While most Native Americans maintained peaceful relations with the migrants, many American Indians became embittered by the seemingly endless streams of white people who traversed their lands and killed their game. Animosities between whites and American Indians spread over the West, and the period between 1850 and 1890 was marked by scores of conflicts between Native Americans on one side and the United States Army, or civilian militias, on the other.

In the 1850s the United States government moved to protect its citizens and its railroad interests. The government established forts throughout the West and along the overland trails and used them as strategic locations to conduct operations against hostile tribes. The federal strategy was to defeat a tribe, force it to cede territory, and isolate tribal members onto a "reservation," a portion of land reserved to the tribe. For example, in 1854 federal troops killed or captured over 100 Brule Sioux at the Battle of Blue Water and forced them to sign a treaty at Fort Pierre. American forces also defeated Cheyenne warriors at Solomon Fork in Kansas in 1857 and engaged various groups of Kiowas, Comanches, Apaches, and Navajos in recently annexed Texas and New Mexico between 1855 and 1861. In California, the U.S. Army and groups of marauding miners destroyed American Indian resistance to trespasses into their territory. In the Oregon and Washington territories, a general American Indian rebellion of over a dozen tribes threatened federal control over the region. In several wars between 1855 and 1858, the U.S. Army defeated the recalcitrant tribes and moved them to reservations. In all, according to federal military records, the Army fought 160 actions against American Indians between 1848 and 1860, suffered close to 500 casualties, and killed, wounded, or captured almost 700 Native people.

Conflict between the United States and the American Indian tribes did not abate during the Civil War. In 1862 the Santee Sioux attacked settlements and forts in Minnesota. After killing perhaps as many as 800 whites, they were put down by a combined force of army regulars and state militia. A military commission sentenced 303 of the Sioux to death; President Abraham Lincoln stayed all but thirty-eight of the executions. The United States ordered the remainder of the tribe to a reservation in the Dakotas. In 1864 a major conflict broke out between white miners and Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians in eastern Colorado. Colorado militia under Major Chivington attacked an American Indian encampment at Sand Creek and massacred over 200 American Indians, most of them women and children. In 1868, over one hundred of those who escaped the Sand Creek attack, including their leader Black Kettle, were slaughtered at the Washita River by federal troops under Colonel George A. Custer. The United States also defeated the Navajos in 1864 and forced 8,000 of their people to take the "Long Walk" across New Mexico to a reservation. Federal troops also sent the Utes, Bannocks, Northern Shoshones, and Northern Paiutes to reservations during the Civil War. The Civil War also pulled the nations living in the American Indian Territory into the conflict; after the war, the Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Seminoles were forced to surrender territory and free their slaves as the price of renewing peaceful relations with the United States.

final subjugation (1866–1890)

After the Civil War, the United States Army campaigned relentlessly to extinguish the American Indian military threat in the West. In 1871 Congress ended its policy of treating with the American Indian nations. By 1875 the army had eliminated Kiowa and Comanche resistance in the southern Plains in the Red River War. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, thousands of miners flooded into the sacred American Indian land. In 1875 the Sioux left the reservation they had been forced to occupy in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. When the United States ordered them back, large groups of warriors gathered in Montana under the leadership of several prominent leaders, including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Custer's Seventh Cavalry located and attacked the American Indian encampment at the Little Bighorn River in 1876. The American Indian force killed Custer and annihilated his troops. By 1881, however, the United States had forced them back to their reservations. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were subsequently killed by American Indian reservation police. In 1890 the Seventh Cavalry massacred over 200 Sioux men, women, and children who were participating in a religious ritual, Wovoka's Ghost Dance, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Wounded Knee was the last major conflict between the Plains tribes and the United States Army.

The United States also stamped out American Indian resistance in the Pacific Northwest. In 1877 the federal government ordered the Nez Perce to surrender their lands and move to a reservation. Chief Joseph, the leader of the Nez Perce, led his people on a dramatic 1,700 mile campaign toward Canada before they were captured and temporarily relocated to the American Indian Territory. In the Southwest, after ten years of sporadic warfare under the leadership of Cochise, Victorio, and Geronimo, the diminished and demoralized Apaches surrendered and retired to a reservation.


According to federal records, between 1866 and 1890 the United States Army engaged in 1,040 combat actions against American Indian opponents. In that time, the army experienced some 2,000 casualties and killed over 4,000 American Indians, wounded close to 1,300, and captured over 10,000 more. With the military subjugation of the western American Indians, federal policy makers, at the prompting of Christian philanthropists, moved to abolish the tribal form of government, communal landholding, and American Indian culture. In the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, Congress established a process to divide tribal lands into homestead tracts and allot them to individual heads of households. In many cases, American Indians were defrauded out of their allotments and left destitute. In encouraging assimilation, the federal government also forced many American Indian children to attend boarding schools, like the Carlisle Indian School, designed to erase the child's tribal influence and inculcate Anglo-American mores.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the collective populations of the American Indian nations had been reduced by perhaps as much as 90 percent since the arrival of Europeans to North America. The American Indian nations had been forced to surrender almost all of their land, and most Native Americans had been forced onto reservations where they typically lived in poverty without any of the rights possessed by white Americans of the time. Not until 1934 would American Indians be offered the opportunity to become citizens of this country and receive full voting rights. They still struggle with poverty, poor health, and land ownership.


Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Garrison, Tim Alan. The Legal Ideology of Removal: The Southern Judiciary and the Sovereignty of Native American Nations. Athens: University of Georgia, 2002.

Jackson, Donald, ed. Black Hawk: An Autobiography. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1955.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Leach, Douglas Edward. The Northern Colonial Frontier, 1607–1763. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Robinson, W. Stitt. The Southern Colonial Frontier, 1607–1763. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979.

Trennert, Robert A., Jr. Alternative to Extinction: Federal Indian Policy and the Beginnings of the Reservation System, 1846–1851. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1975.

Utley, Robert M. Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848–1865. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Utley, Robert M. Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indians, 1866–1891. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Washburn, Wilcomb E., ed. Handbook of North American Indians: Volume 4, History of Indian-White Relations. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

Wilson, James. The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. New York: Grove Press, 1998.

Tim Alan Garrison

See also:Dawes Severalty Act; Transcontinental Railroad.

About this article

Indian Removal and Response

Updated About content Print Article