American Indians: Far West

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American Indians: Far West

As Indians east of the Mississippi embroiled themselves in international wars, engaged in religious revitalization movements, and faced Indian removal, Indians west of the Mississippi were also experiencing profound changes in their way of life. Between 1750 and 1815, new opportunities brought substantial economic, social, and cultural changes to the Indians of California, the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest coast.

At some time in the past, the Cheyennes' Creator, Maheo, warned the Cheyenne people that adopting horses would result in great changes in their way of life. Indeed, all across the Plains during the eighteenth century, American Indians dealt with changes in material culture, social organization, and intertribal relations as a result of the adoption of the horse culture. Horses had arrived in North America with Hernán Cortés in 1519. Spanish soldiers and settlers then took horses to northern Mexico, where they eventually spread into the Southwest. Indian groups in northern Mexico, for instance, raided Spanish settlements and subsequently traded the horses they captured to Indians in New Mexico and Texas. A second mass migration of horses occurred in 1680, when Spanish soldiers and settlers fled New Mexico in the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt. From New Mexico, various Indians traded horses to Indians living on the northern Great Plains.

Horses made hunting bison more efficient and quicker and brought new material culture items such as saddles and bridles. For some, like the Cheyennes,

Comanches, and Lakotas, the horse culture brought wealth and power—but not without costs. First, the drive to acquire horses put tribes in direct conflict with one another and increased the incidence of warfare on the Great Plains. The Lakotas embarked on an impressive expansion during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, moving from Minnesota to occupying parts of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado. In the process they dislodged the Mandans, Hidatsas, Arikaras, Omahas, and Pawnees. Second, the acquisition of horses precipitated social fissures. Horses became the prime indicator of wealth within Indian groups; the man with the most horses usually controlled an unequal portion of wealth. Plains Indians became stratified into, as the Kiowas called them, the fine (those with more than a hundred horses), the middling (those with around twenty horses), and the poor (those with few or no horses). These social changes also affected women's roles. When women harvested wild food sources or practiced agriculture, they were the primary economic providers of their group. With the advent of the horse and buffalo economy, men became the primary providers (they hunted the buffalo), and women tended to become the processors of trade items (bison hides). Third, horses required vast acreage for grazing and thus threatened the ecology of the northern and southern Plains. Plains Indians tended to winter in river valleys, which were rich in timber and grasses. As a result of the long period of habitation as well as environmental changes on the Plains, these riverine valleys became denuded of trees and grasses. When Americans began to migrate across the Plains in the mid-nineteenth century, it only exacerbated an already worsening situation.

The horse and bison economy also put Plains Indians in contact with southwestern tribes. For instance, between 1740 and 1830 the Comanches held annual trade fairs in the panhandle of Oklahoma. These trade fairs became a rich and vibrant marketplace for bison hides, Pueblo pottery, European guns and horses, and human captives. The fairs were part of a larger regional economy in the Southwest that depended on the reciprocal raiding by Navajos and the Spanish for livestock and humans. Navajos frequently launched attacks on neighboring Spanish settlements, absconding with sheep and human captives; Spanish and Mexican militias would then attempt to recapture them, taking Navajo captives in the process. Thus Indians and the Spanish were part of a tightly woven, though sometimes hidden, web of kin and economic relations.

Farther west, Spanish officials established missions, military bases, and civilian communities in California to combat what they saw as a threat from Russian and English traders in the Pacific Northwest. Led by Father Junípero Serra in 1769, Franciscan friars established a string of twenty-one missions, intended to convert California Indians to Christianity, that stretched from San Diego to San Francisco. These institutions of religious conversion were completely dependent on Indian labor to harvest crops, tend cattle, and make artisanal objects. The missions had high mortality rates for Indians. In response to beatings by friars, Indians often ran away or participated in open revolt.

Russians, British, and Americans in the Pacific Northwest also affected Indian life. They established a trade in sea otter pelts from the Aleutian Islands to northern California; although Pacific Northwest Indians welcomed the new trade items and the potential allies, the trade came at great cost. Europeans and Americans brought epidemic diseases that affected indigenous populations, and unscrupulous traders exchanged alcohol for the pelts, leading to other social problems.

Native Americans of the far West confronted small bands of Europeans and Euro-Americans in search of both furs and souls. By the time Americans began to move west across the Mississippi, the region had already undergone a century of enormous change.

See alsoExpansion; Exploration and Explorers; Fur and Pelt Trade; Livestock Production; Spanish Empire; West .


Calloway, Colin G. One Vast Winter Count: The Indian West Before Lewis and Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Hämäläinen, Pekka. "The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures." Journal of American History 90 (December 2003): 833–862.

William J. Bauer, Jr.

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American Indians: Far West

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American Indians: Far West