Army on the Frontier

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ARMY ON THE FRONTIER. From the founding of the nation through the end of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Army played a crucial role in American westward expansion. During this time, Americans generally feared a large standing army as a potential instrument of oppression, so the regular army deliberately was kept small in relation to the total population and was divided between coastal fortifications and the frontier. Along the frontier, the zone of contact between the settled portions of the country and the uncharted territory inhabited by the various American Indian nations, the army was first and foremost an agent of expansion. One of the army's primary duties was exploration. Army expeditions, commanded by such notables as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, and John C. Frémont, mapped and catalogued the interior of the United States and stirred up American interest in the West. The frontier army also assisted in the rapid settlement of the frontier. Soldiers built forts, constructed paths and roads, laid telegraph cables, built reservoirs and dams, guarded railroad lines, and often served as a frontier constabulary in areas where civilian law had yet to be implemented. Following the American Civil War, many of these menial tasks were assigned to black units, known as buffalo soldiers, while combat was reserved for white troops.

Yet the army's principal and most recognized task on the frontier was the prosecution of federal Indian policy. Along the eastern frontier, the army carried out Indian removal, the government's policy of forcefully removing Indians from desirable areas, as tragically epitomized by the transfer of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma Territory to make way for white settlement. By the late 1840s, the army had essentially cleared the eastern portion of the country of its original inhabitants and assumed an increasing role in the expansion of the United States beyond the Mississippi River. As increasing numbers of settlers poured into the West during the 1840s and 1850s, the army established a regional defense system along the overland trails, composed of forts located at strategic intervals to provide protection and provisions to the migrants.

This system of protected migration worked reasonably well as long as the main wave of settlers bypassed Indian territory in the continent's interior and continued on to the Pacific Coast. Following the close of the Civil War, however, settlers increasingly took an interest in the Great Plains, which brought conflict with the region's Indian inhabitants. As a result of settler-Indian conflicts in the West, the policy of Indian removal was replaced by a new federal agenda that called for the confinement of Native peoples on reservations, usually a barren or otherwise undesirable tract set aside as a permanent Indian refuge. Many Indian tribes refused to surrender their freedom and accept reservation status. They resisted the federal government's attempts to confine them to specific geographical limits, and it fell to the army to force their compliance.

From 1860 to 1886, the army waged war against the western Indians up and down the frontier, although it proved exceedingly difficult to enforce reservation treaties upon the variegated Native population of the West. The frontier army quickly learned that pacifying the Plains Indians was not an easy task. Unless the Indians had greatly superior numbers, they avoided pitched battles, preferring to hit and run, ambush detachments, and cut off stragglers. As frustrations and setbacks mounted, the army turned to a policy of total warfare along the frontier. Beginning with George Armstrong Custer's November 1868 attack on a Cheyenne camp at Washita Creek, Oklahoma, mounted cavalry columns increasingly implemented a strategy devised by General Philip Sheridan, commander of the frontier department after the Civil War, whereby the army attacked the migratory Great Plains tribes in the winter after they had established their stationary seasonal camps along a river or stream. The cavalry attacked the winter villages, killed not only the warriors but also the women and children, and destroyed the Indians' shelter, food, and livestock. Left at the mercy of the elements, most Indians surrendered and moved onto reservations.

The symbolic and literal culmination of this policy occurred on 29December 1890 near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, when a division of the Seventh Cavalry killed several hundred Lakota Sioux who resisted reservation confinement. These tactics often brought frontier army commanders into conflict with civilian authorities in the nation's capital, particularly the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but the success of the army's tactics in clearing the frontier usually outdistanced concern over its methods.


Goetzmann, William H. Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1991.

Tate, Michael L. The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

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

———. Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1891. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Daniel P.Barr

See alsoArmy, United States ; Army Posts ; Black Cavalry in the West ; Black Infantry in the West ; Frontier ; Frontier Thesis, Turner's ; Indian Policy, U.S., 1775–1830 ; Indian Policy, U.S., 1830–1900 ; Indian Removal ; Indian Reservations ; Indian Territory ; Westward Migration .