Indian Wars

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The term "Indian wars" evokes some clichés of U.S. culture: the heroic General George Armstrong Custer and his men surrounded by whooping savages, shooting it out to the last man; a long line of dusty cavalry-men winding through western canyons, spied upon by sneaky savages about to descend; a row of beautiful savages arrayed on the crest of a hill on the plains, pausing a moment before meeting their fate. If these images, inescapable in twentieth-century film and television, did not originate in the period in question, they certainly came to their full flowering as cultural conventions at that time, in the endless reiterations of dime novels, Wild West shows, newspaper accounts, magazine stories, and popular histories. These images mask the violent political, economic, and cultural conflicts that characterized the continental expansion of the United States; indeed, these images are a means not only of justifying that violent political conflict but also of normalizing it, making it seem both necessary and inevitable. Indians must and will be defeated so that American ingenuity and commerce can secure its place on the continent; the endless references to Indian wars tell that story over and over again.

It is necessary, however, to separate the history of armed conflict between European Americans and native peoples in the late nineteenth century from the more familiar mythology of those conflicts. But even that history began in myth. U.S. intellectuals, political leaders, and ordinary people imagined the country's expansion in remarkably abstract terms: they believed that, in the United States, civilization (white people) faced a pitched battle with savagery (Indians). Because human history progressed ever forward, savagery would be defeated and Indians would either be "exterminated" or, hypothetically, "absorbed" into U.S. society, becoming civilized Christians and farmers and no longer living as Indians. But behind this story that European Americans told themselves was a set of historical facts that contradicted it: the conflict between Europeans and Native American peoples has been principally about control of land, not misunderstandings about culture. One of the distinct peculiarities of the European colonization of North America was that, in order to form alliances and legitimate their control of Indian land, Europeans entered into treaties with Indians. Treaties are contracts between nations, and in them Europeans recognized Native American political autonomy—they did not, as is sometimes maintained, "grant" that autonomy. With the formation of the United States, treaties took on added meaning; political leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington maintained that treaties with Indians established that the United States held its land legitimately and not through armed conquest, which demonstrated that it adhered to its founding principles. While in the late eighteenth century the United States did not yet have the military and technological power to subject native peoples to its will, even after it gained that material superiority, treaties remained a significant aspect of U.S. political culture. The United States was supposed to live up to its principles, to be a benevolent nation adhering to the rule of law. Political leaders maintained that the United States would buy land from Indians if they would consent to sell it.

The myth of the inevitable, foreordained conflict between savagery and civilization in the United States has obscured that political history. It has also explained and justified violence: any dead Indian in the United States could be understood as an inevitable result of this grand conflict between the abstract forces of savagery and civilization, rather than, say, the result of a specific political conflict that might have its origins in a legitimate complaint. In the face of this overwhelming insistence on the naturalness of Indians' disappearance (political or biological), native peoples continued to maintain that the treaties showed they could coexist politically with the United States—without being exterminated or absorbed or by it. The treaties gave native peoples not only a political mechanism but also their own abstract concept around which to organize their resistance to being wiped out. They insisted that, as citizens of Indian nations, they could even be Christians and farmers; they rejected the notion that to be civilized was to be a citizen of the United States. When it became clear after the Civil War that Indians would not die out, contrary to what had been asserted earlier in the nineteenth century, the U.S. government actively sought to destroy Native American political authority and autonomy and confiscate Native American land, making treaties and, infamously, breaking them, and also engaging in the armed conflicts known as the Indian wars in the post–Civil War western United States.


After the Civil War, the U.S. army had several responsibilities west of the Mississippi, where it was the federal government's only representative. Its principal jobs were to protect settlers, defend emigrant routes, and occupy territory. It also protected railroad and telegraph lines, which were essential to commerce and military operations. With regard to native peoples, the army's job was to subjugate them, remove them to reservations (and keep them on the reservations), and "assist" in their acculturation, which could mean anything from hunting down those who continued to practice and spread tribal cultural practices that the federal government had criminalized to preventing Native Americans from hunting buffalo to assisting in rounding up Native American children to be sent to government boarding schools. In 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed William Tecumseh Sherman to be commanding general of the army (a native of Ohio, Sherman had been named for the Shawnee chief who led an alliance against the Americans in the early nineteenth century, then died at the battle of the Thames, Ontario, in 1813). Philip H. Sheridan served as Sherman's second in command, then succeeded Sherman as commanding general in 1882. Although military campaigns against Indians experienced a lull for several years in the late 1860s and early 1870s because of Grant's "peace policy" toward indigenous people, campaigns stepped up again by 1872. Most of the major armed conflicts were over by 1880, although the army did not know it at the time.

In the nineteenth-century United States, fears of a standing army in peacetime were deep-seated, and after the Civil War the army fell precipitously out of favor, losing the interest of politicians and the financial support of the federal government. Even public outrage over Custer's defeat did not change the general attitude of both elected officials and the bureaucracy. Cabinet-level meetings on issues related to native peoples were rare, and the planning for various campaigns against Indian nations was not done in Washington. Indeed, according to historians, what planning existed was at best ad hoc. At the same time, the bureaucracy for administering native peoples was a subject of much contention. The Office of Indian Affairs had been transferred from the Department of War to the Department of the Interior in 1849; the reservations were run by an infamously corrupt bureaucracy, which had attracted the attention of civilian reformers such as Helen Hunt Jackson. Many officers wished to transfer the Indian office back to the War Department so that they could have clear control of Indian affairs, but a congressional bill to provide for the transfer failed to pass in 1878. Afterward, Congress showed little interest in the army until the Spanish-American War of 1898.

In the actual conduct of armed conflict, both sides had advantages and disadvantages—sometimes the same ones, such as the lack of a coherent policy. Native fighters knew the geography better than whites, had access to many horses per fighter rather than just one, as was the case with cavalrymen, and had the ability to take the initiative in planning. On the negative side, Native American leaders did not have total control over their warriors. Most of the conflicts were carried out through ambushes of one side or the other; contrary to stereotype, most attacks made by the army did not occur at dawn but rather during daylight hours, and more conflicts occurred in summer than in winter. The army tended to attack whenever meeting native people, and it often attacked from an advantageous position. Historians have also noted that it is difficult to measure the scope of armed conflict between native peoples and European Americans in the post–Civil War era because white civilians often took up arms against native people on their own, and their actions were less likely to be recorded than those of the military.

Major conflicts during the period included campaigns against the Apaches in the Southwest in the 1870s, leading to Geronimo's surrender in 1886; against the Sioux and Cheyennes throughout the 1870s, with Native American victories at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn, the death of Crazy Horse in captivity in 1877, Sitting Bull's escape across the border to Canada, and the eventual surrender of his band in 1881; the Modoc War in 1872–1873 in California; the Nez Percé War in 1877 in Montana; and the Ute rebellion in Colorado in 1879. The Geronimo campaign of 1885–1886 is usually considered the last offensive by Indian warriors, and the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre is generally taken to be the last significant military conflict.

Americans overwhelmingly understood the resistance of Indian nations to U.S. authority as further evidence that an abstract conflict between savagery and civilization was taking place in their own time. It was axiomatic to Americans that civilization would prevail and savages would die, either through their own perfidy or the simple fact that they would inevitably be eclipsed by a superior society. In this setting, military leaders commonly represented native people as less than human. General Philip Sheridan in this excerpt indicates that Indian women and children killed in their villages had only brought death on themselves, because of who they were presumably, not what they had done.

In taking the offensive, I have to select that season when I can catch the fiends; and, if a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack. During the war did any one hesitate to attack a village or town occupied by the enemy because women and children were within its limits? Did we cease to throw shells into Vicksburg or Atlanta because women and children were there?

Philip Sheridan to William T. Sherman, 9 May 1873, Division of the Missouri, Letters Sent, RG 393, Records of the U.S. Army.


Historians widely acknowledge the U.S. military's use of "total war" principles in its conflicts with native peoples in this era. "Total war" designates the use of force against an enemy's resources and against noncombatants; historians disagree on whether the period of the Indian Wars was the first time this principle was consistently deployed in the United States, or whether it had been used much earlier. They agree, however, that after the Civil War, military leaders argued that the total war strategies they had used against Confederate noncombatants and resources could and should be transferred to their wars with Indians. During the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman posited three principles of total war: first, that the military must destroy property to shorten the war and deprive the enemy of resources; second, that the enemy must be deprived of spirit or demoralized; and third, that the enemy must be understood—by both sides—to be collectively responsible for what is being rained down on it; that is, the enemy deserves what it gets. Sherman's 1864 March to the Sea through the southeastern states and Sheridan's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley that same year served as models for the campaigns against native peoples. Sherman gave the directives as commanding general of the army, and Sheridan carried out those directives in the West.

While the U.S. army's purpose before the Civil War had been mainly to push native peoples farther and farther west, away from the advancing borders of settlement, after the Civil War its purpose was to contain and confine native peoples, to push them onto relatively small, easily controlled reservations; those who resisted were fair game and, as far as most of the military was concerned, deserved what they got, which was often death. It is important to note here that, while Sheridan and Sherman had expressed just as much anger and mercilessness toward the civilian population of the Confederacy, far fewer noncombatants died in the Civil War than in the Indian wars. Attacks on encampments in particular often killed women, children, and old people while able-bodied men were away hunting. At the time, Sheridan was supposed to have said that as far as Indians went, "the only good one I ever saw was dead," though he always denied having made the statement. As an extension of total war principles, both Sherman and Sheridan actively supported the extermination of the great buffalo herds on the plains, though this was not official U.S. policy. Sheridan wrote the buffalo hunters "were destroying the Indians' commissary; and it is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. . . . For the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated" (quoted in Janda, pp. 24–25). Killing the buffalo had the intended effect: with their resources cut off, the people were demoralized.


Writings about the Indian Wars proliferated after the Civil War, particularly after the 1880s, and remained popular through the 1920s. What is striking about these writings is how conventionalized the political conflict with indigenous people is, to the point that the narratives all follow the same script: Indians are savages who must and will die if they do not submit to the civilization that is fast engulfing them. In this setting, famous—or infamous—tribal leaders, such as Cochise, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Captain Jack, or Chief Joseph, become caricatures, each acting out the same story. There are roughly four types of narratives relating to the Indian wars in popular writing of the time, although they certainly overlap: frontier wars narratives, which are a development of the "border wars" narratives of the antebellum era; personal accounts, often of military men and sometimes of their wives; accounts of famous tribal leaders such as Sitting Bull and Geronimo; and late captivity narratives.

Of the first type, examples include James W. Buel's Heroes of the Plains (1883), Jacob Piatt Dunn's Massacres of the Mountains (1886), and D. M. Kelsey's Our Pioneer Heroes and Their Daring Deeds (1882), which covered the entire history of European settlement from Hernando De Soto and Samuel de Champlain to Generals George Crook and Nelson A. Miles. Several prominent and many not-so-prominent military men and their wives produced accounts of their lives in the West. Margaret Irvin Carrington's Ab-sa-ra-ka, Home of the Crows (1868) was an account of her experiences on her husband's military post in Montana. George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) himself produced My Life on the Plains; or, Personal Experiences with Indians in 1874, a book that became Wild Life on the Plains and Horrors of Indian Warfare in 1883 and afterward, a title change that marks the shift in the 1880s to increasingly sensationalized accounts of Indians. Elizabeth Bacon Custer (1842–1933) made a career out of immortalizing her dead husband, providing an income for herself for the rest of her long life. She published Boots and Saddles; or, Life in Dakota with General Custer in 1885 and reprinted it six times over the next thirty years. Her second effort, Tenting on the Plains; or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas, was first published in 1887 and was also reprinted many times. Her Following the Guidon was published in 1890 and only reprinted once, in 1899. The Boy General: Story of the Life of Major-General George A. Custer, as told to Mary E. Burt, appeared in 1901 and was reprinted in 1909.

Two generals are notable for their contributions to the Indian wars genres. General Nelson A. Miles (1839–1925), who, like Custer, was a tireless self-promoter, published Personal Recollections and Observations of General Nelson A. Miles (1896). Miles led campaigns against the Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and Arapaho in Texas in the 1870s; drove Sitting Bull's band into Canada; captured Chief Joseph as well as Geronimo; and led the army in its disastrous military response to the Ghost Dance among the Lakotas in 1890. In 1911 he published Serving the Republic along with many magazine articles on the Indian wars, the "Indian problem," and by the turn of the century, U.S. imperial affairs around the world. Miles was one of many writers who made the connection between the U.S. mission to civilize the savages of North America and its new mission to civilize savages around the globe. General Oliver Otis Howard (1830–1909)—an outspoken supporter of the rights of African Americans for whom Howard University in Washington, D.C., is named—published several books on his experiences: Nez Perce Joseph (1881), Autobiography (1907), My Life and Experiences among Our Hostile Indians (1907), and Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known (1908).

The "famous Indian chiefs" narratives began to appear earlier in the nineteenth century, during the removal era. Examples include the Life of Black Hawk (1833), which the Sauk chief dictated to J. B. Patterson, and biographies of the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant and the Seneca leader Red Jacket by William L. Stone, published in 1838 and 1841, respectively. In the late nineteenth century S. M. Barrett published Geronimo's Story of His Life (1906). These biographical narratives were not nearly as popular as the "Indian massacres" stories, although such books often included rudimentary biographical narratives of Indian warriors, such as James W. Buel's account of Sitting Bull's life in Heroes of the Plains in 1883. Also falling off in popularity from levels earlier in the nineteenth century were captivity narratives, such as James T. DeShields's Cynthia Ann Parker: The Story of Her Capture (1886) and Emeline Fuller's Left by the Indians (1892).

See alsoAnnexation and Expansion; Battle of the Little Big Horn; Jurisprudence; Violence; Weaponry; Wounded Knee


Primary Works

Carrington, Margaret Irvin. Ab-sa-ra-ka, Home of the Crows. 1868. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Custer, Elizabeth Bacon. Boots and Saddles; or, Life in Dakota with General Custer. 1885. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

Miles, Nelson A. Personal Recollections and Observations. Vol. 2. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Secondary Works

Janda, Lance. "Shutting the Gates of Mercy: The American Origins of Total War, 1860–1880." Journal of Military History 59 (January 1995): 7–26.

Keenan, Jerry. Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars, 1492–1890. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Michno, Gregory F. Encyclopedia of Indian Wars: Western Battles and Skirmishes, 1850–1890. Missoula, Mont.: Mountain Press, 2003.

Ostler, Jeffrey. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Utley, Robert. The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846–1890. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.

Welch, James. Fools Crow. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Welch, James, with Paul Stekler. Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. 1833. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Williams, Walter L. "United States Indian Policy and the Debate over Philippine Annexation: Implications for the Origins of American Imperialism." Journal of American History 66, no. 4 (March 1980): 810–831.

Wooster, Robert. The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865–1903. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Maureen Konkle

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Indian Wars