Warfare, Indian

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WARFARE, INDIAN. Warfare represents a vital aspect of Native American history for many reasons, not least of which is the tremendous impact of armed conflict on Native communities after the arrival of European intruders. Additionally, many enduring negative stereotypes of Native Americans stem from their supposedly "war-like" and "savage" nature. Native American peoples do indeed possess a strong military tradition, yet they used military force consciously to control the consequences of warfare within their communities. That struggle became much more difficult after the arrival of European intruders.

Pre-Contact Warfare

Modern authorities do not agree about the nature of warfare among Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans. Those who rely on literary sources and indigenous oral tradition contend that pre-contact warfare was comparatively limited. They believe that Indians went to war for only a few reasons: to avenge the deaths of relatives; to obtain plunder, prestige, or acceptance as an adult member of the community; and to take captives. According to these scholars, pre-contact conflicts tended to be small-scale, limited in range, and seasonal in duration. Archaeologists and others who rely on physical evidence, however, object to the characterization of pre-contact warfare as game-like and ineffective, and point to discoveries of palisaded enclosures, mass graves, and skeletal remains with imbedded projectile points and gruesome, intentional damage. This latter group of scholars maintains that the weak logistical capacities of pre-state societies in the Americas affected their ability to sustain continuous combat, but did not lessen their capacity to conduct brutal warfare.

Pre-contact warfare in North America included formal battles, small ambush raids, and large-scale assaults. Each variety played a role in Native societies, and each was deeply imbued with ritual. Considerable attention has been given to the elaborate, pre-arranged "set-piece" battles, which involved ornate dress and accoutrements, roughly equivalent armament, mutual taunting by the opposing sides, and relatively low rates of casualties resulting from hand-to-hand combat. However, small-scale ambushes and raids were by far the most common forms of inter-group conflict before the arrival of Europeans. These raids brought food, material goods, livestock, and human trophies (scalps and captives) to the aggressor nations, and they provided a means for individual warriors or their families to achieve social prestige within their communities. The social gains resulting from warfare, which in many groups included advancement to adult status for young men, outweighed concern over the potential for loss of life.

Ambush tactics seldom permitted the aggressor nation to acquire new territory or to assimilate a rival group. Instead, they killed a few people at a time, often individuals or small groups isolated from their home population, including a higher proportion of women. Archaeological evidence suggests that a significant percentage of ambush victims, surprised and often outnumbered, received fatal wounds as they attempted to flee. These wounds included scalping, an indigenous practice that was later encouraged by Europeans through the offering of scalp bounties.

In addition to economic and political motivations, many Indian groups found in war a means to redirect the self-destructive emotions associated with grief arising from the deaths of community members. These "mourning wars" were intended to fill the void in the community's spiritual power caused by the loss of an individual (whether by natural causes or in battle) by capturing an equal number of enemy personnel. The captives were adopted into the community, publicly tortured to death, or, in some cases, ritually cannibalized to appropriate the victim's spiritual power. This renewed sense of balance served to enhance group cohesion and identity.

Warfare might have occurred as a private conflict initiated by aggrieved families against an enemy or as a national conflict that involved a significant portion of a group's fighting men. Whatever the case, because most Native American peoples kept military activities segregated from their normal peacetime routine, specific ceremonies were necessary to prepare warriors, and even entire communities, for war and a return to peace. Fasting, sexual abstinence, and group rituals of singing and dancing were the most common ways in which warriors prepared themselves. Warriors departed after receiving provisions and some form of protection from community spiritual authorities. Because war parties were voluntary in nature and members were often linked by kinship, their leaders were especially unwilling to sustain losses. A war party's activities usually ended with a single successful battle or the death of a member of the group, even if accidental. Upon their return, purification rituals helped warriors reintegrate into community life.

Many scholars have noted the role of animal hunting in training future warriors; they believe that warfare functioned in large part to provide young men with another positive outlet for their aggressive tendencies by establishing clear guidelines for advancing their status through military exploits. Men between the ages of twelve and forty filled the ranks of warriors in most Native nations, and war honors tended to place a greater premium on courage, individual initiative, and stealth than on mere body or scalp counts. Traditional enemies were also valued, insofar as they provided permanent and comparatively predictable targets. Some conflicts went on for centuries as a result of seemingly endless cycles of ambush, murder, and retaliation. Given the various benefits of warfare for Native communities prior to the arrival of Europeans, however, it seems clear that it was not in one nation's best interests to totally obliterate or assimilate an enemy people, even when it was within their capacities to do so.

The Early Contact Period, 1600–1815

However frequent and brutal pre-contact indigenous warfare was, it differed markedly from the style of warfare practiced by European colonists. Native warriors soon learned that these new, uninvited neighbors tended to pursue sustained campaigns that persisted until their enemies were completely defeated or, at least, widely dispersed. European colonists were equally surprised by what they considered a cowardly approach to warfare among Native peoples, but after some initial scoffing at the Indians' "skulking way of war," many learned to respect the threat posed by Native war parties that could "approach like foxes, fight like lions, and disappear like birds."

After the arrival of Europeans, who brought epidemic diseases and subsequent catastrophic demographic losses among Native Americans, new motives for warfare developed among Native nations. These included defense of territorial boundaries from colonial encroachment; competition with other nations for good hunting territory to supply pelts and skins to European traders; aggression by groups possessing new technological advantages over neighboring peoples; aiding a colonial ally during imperial conflicts; and raids for new sources of material wealth (including cash bounties for scalps and revenue from the ransom of captives). As a consequence, warfare grew more frequent and deadly at a time when most Native nations could ill afford decreased populations. Scholars estimate that over one thousand battles and wars between Native groups and peoples of European descent took place between 1500 and 1890.

Historical portrayals of warfare between North American colonists and the Native population have emphasized the excessively brutal nature of these conflicts, comparing them unfavorably to the supposedly less sanguine battles in contemporary Europe. The stereotype of the inherently "savage" Native American has persisted, bolstered by a few ghastly examples of Indian hostility toward noncombatants. Yet considerable evidence suggests that Native Americans were equally appalled by the European practices of "total war," such as the burning of the Pequot village on Connecticut's Mystic River and the indiscriminate massacre of its residents by a colonial army in 1637. In the end, neither European colonists nor Native Americans held a monopoly on cruelty; typical assaults on settlements, whether by Natives or by colonists, involved killing noncombatants, destroying crops and livestock, burning dwellings, and taking captives.

By 1700, Indian warriors had largely converted from bows and arrows to the Europeans' flintlock muskets. While slower, noisier, less reliable, and less accurate than archery, firearms sent bullets to their targets more quickly than bows, and bullets caused greater damage on impact. The early adoption of firearms gave certain groups temporary advantages, the classic examples being the "Beaver Wars," involving the Dutch-armed Iroquois against neighboring Native peoples in the Northeast and Midwest (1643–1680), and the expansion of the western Sioux in the northeastern plains following their adoption of horses and firearms after 1700. In addition, the Indians' use of flintlocks for both warfare and hunting produced higher levels of marksmanship among Native warriors than among their colonial counterparts. As lighter, more accurate guns appeared over the course of the eighteenth century, Native riflemen became even more formidable in conflicts with the less capable settler militias and European regular troops.

The widespread adoption of firearms by virtually all Native American groups brought about dependence on European arms and ammunition. This dependence was greatly mitigated first by the rivalries among the different colonial powers, who were always seeking to secure Native allies with offers of guns, and second by the development of metalworking skills among many Native groups. One element, however, eventually proved critical in determining the ultimate military fate of Native Americans: gunpowder. This highly refined and fragile commodity remained a European monopoly, and occasional shortages or embargoes greatly diminished the threat posed by Native armies to the settler population.

Firearms dominated, but Native Americans retained bows and arrows as stealth weapons and continued to carry hand-to-hand combat weapons such as hatchets, knives, clubs, and spears. A common stratagem among Native war parties during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a modified version of their earlier form of ambush; the enemy would be surprised with an initial volley of gunfire or arrows, and then these weapons would be discarded as the aggressors rushed out of their concealed positions to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. A preference for surprise attacks, however, did not preclude occasional assaults by Native groups on the fortified locations of both Native and non-Native enemies. Indian warriors also adapted flanking formations employed in communal hunting to sustained engagements with enemies, controlling movements with field signals consisting of hand movements and imitations of animal noises. They took advantage of the landscape to maintain steady fire on their targets and utilized a "half-moon" formation to outflank their enemies, adding a degree of terror to their actions with what witnesses described as blood-curdling yelling. Evidence also indicates that Native warriors adapted their advances and retreats to the logistics of their firearms by having warriors with loaded weapons cover the movements of those who needed to reload their guns.

The military talents of Native warriors did not go unnoticed by European colonists. As early as the mid-seventeenth century, colonial authorities attempted to recruit "friendly" Indians for service as scouts to guide colonial armies through unfamiliar territory, and often, to locate the enemy and prevent ambushes. Native allies received supplies, pay, and plunder for these services; as such, they often exploited opportunities provided by auxiliary service to pursue their own, parallel conflict with an enemy. European and colonial officers generally regarded their allied Indian warriors as troublesome, undisciplined, and untrustworthy, yet very few were willing to dispense with Indian auxiliaries entirely.

The capacity of Native warriors to adapt new technology to their own objectives is clearly illustrated in Pontiac's War (1763–1766), when the Algonquian nations of the Great Lakes initiated a committed effort to expel British military and Anglo American settlers from their territory. Native warriors attacked British forts and settlements for more than fifteen months after the out-break of hostilities in May 1763, killing over two thousand settlers and four hundred British soldiers. The Algonquians also captured, destroyed, or forced the abandonment of nine interior forts, employing a melding of traditional Algonquian and European means of warfare. These included surprise assaults on military personnel, flaming arrows, carts and barges loaded with combustibles, and undermining the walls of at least one fort by tunneling. The tactical resourcefulness demonstrated by the Algonquians of Pontiac's War enabled them to achieve a military stalemate and favorable terms of peace in 1766. Success of this degree for Native peoples in warfare would, however, become increasingly rare after the United States achieved independence from Great Britain in 1783. Native Americans faced an aggressively expansionist American population, one convinced of its right to appropriate, occupy, and improve land that they believed "savages" merely roamed.

Under charismatic spiritual leadership and assuming an increasingly "pan-Native" character, new confederacies of allied Native American nations continued armed resistance for three decades after the Peace of Paris (1783). Aided by British and Spanish officials in Canada and Florida, throughout the 1780s, groups of dedicated Native militants waged effective guerrilla attacks on settlers streaming across a frontier from eastern Ohio to Tennessee. Initial efforts by the small American regular army to put down Native resistance proved futile, as the confederate Indian forces inflicted extremely heavy casualties in two successive campaigns (1790–1791).

Under General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, a reorganized American force succeeded in defeating the Northern Confederacy at Fallen Timbers (1794). The subsequent Treaty of Greenville (1795) secured to the United States extensive cessions of Native territory in the Old Northwest. Yet, ongoing pressure by American settlers motivated Shawnee war leader Tecumseh, and his brother Tenskwatawa, to undertake what proved to be the final organized pan-Native resistance to United States expansion east of the Mississippi River. Guided by Tenskwatawa's spiritual message opposing accommodation to white civilization after 1805, the Shawnee militants reconstituted a pan-tribal military force at Prophet's Town (near modern Lafayette, Indiana). After a moderately successful preemptive American attack on Tecumseh's warriors at the November 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, Native American resistance leaders moved to exploit the new conditions arising from the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. Despite several battlefield victories early in the conflict, eastern Native American efforts to roll back the American settlement frontier were undermined by the loss of Tecumseh at the October 1813 Battle of the Thames and by the decline of the War of 1812.

The Demise of Independent Warring, 1815–1890

The acquisition of huge tracts of land by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) brought Native nations west of the Mississippi River into conflict with American settlers and armies. Many of these western Indian groups had only recently taken advantage of imported horses and firearms to move onto the Plains and create a new cultural complex founded on equestrian buffalo hunting. Nevertheless, many of the most powerful western nations possessed highly skilled cavalries, sustained by an intense warrior ethos. The policies of the United States federal government during the tenure of President Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809), however, aimed to transform the Native Americans of the Plains from mobile hunters to sedentary agriculturists. Prior to 1849, the War Department was responsible for the administration of Indian affairs, and fighting Natives who resisted became the principal occupation of the United States Army during the first half of the nineteenth century. The high stakes of these conflicts are reflected in the large number of American political leaders who rose to prominence following careers as "Indian fighters."

Native American warfare after 1800 revolved around the defense of large tracts of buffalo-hunting territory, protection of arms-and horse-trading routes, and revenge for atrocities by enemies. Inter-group conflicts continued, but after the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1834, the United States military had authorization to intervene. Native warriors usually prevailed in initial engagements with trespassing frontier settlers and poorly organized local militias, but they were then subjected to harsh punitive attacks from increasingly skilled and heavily armed American regular troops and penalized with appropriations of their territory. After 1832, the United States Army reintroduced cavalry for fighting mounted Indian warriors.

By 1845, over 80 percent of the Native population living east of the Mississippi River had been relocated, under military supervision, to "Indian Territory" in the area that became Oklahoma and Kansas. The massive territorial expansion of the American nation during the 1840s and 1850s, motivated in part by the discovery of gold in California in 1848, meant that a frontier no longer existed between Native and settler populations in the west. After 1865, General William T. Sherman assumed control of the "Indian Wars," launching year-round attacks on hostile Native communities and advocating destruction of both tribal horse herds and the buffalo, the basis of Native American subsistence on the Plains.

The final phase of Indian warfare in the United States produced many renowned Native leaders whose names became part of the American vernacular: Red Cloud and Crazy Horse (Oglala Lakota); Chief Joseph (Nez Perce); and Cochise and Geronimo (Apache). Despite their heroic efforts, ultimately they could not contend with the waves of settlers entering their territory by wagon and by train, who killed vast numbers of life-giving buffalo and who were supported by a determined and experienced military that relied heavily on native scouts.

The final conflict of the "Indian Wars" occurred on 29 December 1890 at Wounded Knee, a remote corner of the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Here, the Seventh Cavalry used artillery and barrages from soldiers carrying repeating rifles to destroy Big Foot's band and killed at least 150 Sioux men, women, and children.


By any measure, warfare exacted a heavy toll on Native communities after the arrival of Europeans in North America. By 1890, virtually all Native American nations lived in confinement on reservations, often at great distances from their traditional homelands. Militarily defeated, their communities struggled to cope with the collapse of traditional values and institutions that attended their loss of independence and self-government. The experience of the "Indian wars" has promoted enduring stereotypes of Native peoples as wild, bloodthirsty savages and has influenced administrative policies aimed at complete subordination of Native Americans. The schizophrenic attitude of the dominant American culture toward Native Americans in the late nineteenth century is illustrated by the appearance of nostalgic "Wild West" shows reenacting famous battles, government officials strenuously tried to dismantle traditional Native American life. Despite attempts to eliminate the threat of Native warriors, it is important to note that Native American men and women have entered all branches of the United States' armed forces during the twentieth century in numbers far exceeding their proportion of the population. As soldiers, sailors, and pilots, Native Americans have consistently earned distinction for their talents and courage.


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Richter, Daniel K. "War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience." William and Mary Quarterly 3d ser., 40 (1983): 528-59.

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Starkey, Armstrong. European and Native American Warfare, 1675–1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Steele, Ian Kenneth. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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


See alsoWars with Indian Nations ; Wounded Knee Massacre andvol. 9:Captivity Narrative of a Colonial Woman ; General Custer's Last Fight ; Logan's Speech ; Sleep Not Longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws ; Speech of Little Crow .