Conflicts with Western Tribes (1864–1890)

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Conflicts with Western Tribes (1864–1890)


Settlement of the West

Westward expansion beyond the American frontier was one of the most significant historical events in North American history. The United States quickly became one of the twentieth century’s most powerful nations after settling more than three million square miles of rich, diverse land. Despite the rewards, the expansion resulted in great destruction, suffering, and cultural loss to Native American peoples. Warfare between whites and Native Americans began as early as 1809 and ended in 1890, when the Indians were ultimately defeated and forced to live on reservations. Despite heavy military involvement in the Indian Wars, the final conquest of Native Americans rested squarely on the shoulders of the vast numbers of white settlers who wrested land from the native peoples.

Early Expansion

The dream of westward expansion goes back to the American Revolution. Beginning with the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, which encouraged the survey and sale of lands west of what had been the British colonies, the government promoted expansion while protecting Native Americans—an idea that would later prove quite contradictory. In the beginning, pioneers were motivated to buy and cultivate more and more land to grow crops to not only feed themselves, but to sell for a profit. This small but growing capitalist endeavor foreshadowed the direction westward expansion would take in later years.

Beyond the Mississippi

The same things that drew pioneers west to the Mississippi—economic opportunity, the chance to buy and work their own land, and an escape from an earlier way of life—compelled them to continue heading ever westward. But the far West held vast resources of not just rich soil and immense grazing lands, but gold, silver, iron, copper, coal, and timber, too. The Louisiana Purchase heralded the first venture west of the Mississippi. President Thomas Jefferson’s (1743–1826) purchase of France’s vast North American holdings in 1803 was characterized by a frontier ideology that included the following beliefs: Indians are to be treated as savages, American settlers are justified in dispossessing lands from previous inhabitants in the name of nation building, the government serves as the primary promoter of expansion and protector of the nation’s economy, and conquered lands are to be incorporated into the United States.

Frontier expansion did not occur in a uniformly westward direction from the Mississippi. Advances in transportation, including the building of railroads, made it easier for pioneers to move both north and south so that by 1850, Arkansas, Michigan, Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin had all been admitted as states. Parts of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains were settled less quickly due to the difficult, far-flung terrain. Movement was dictated by a number of factors, including resources that were taken and developed at different times and for different purposes. Frontier settlement, then, occurred in a series of explosive changes rather than a steady advance.

The Mining Frontier

In January 1848, mill builders in a California settlement discovered traces of gold in the American River. Their find sparked the gold rush of 1849, an event that drew thousands of people from the eastern United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the gold fields. Although few found the fortune they sought and returned home, many stayed and established the state of California. Sadly, white settlers did so by wresting land claims from Hispanic inhabitants and killing many Native Americans. Before the end of the California gold rush, more than $1 billion in gold had been mined.

Believing that if gold could be found in California, it could be found in other parts of the West, prospectors began scouring neighboring states for the elusive and precious metal. In 1859, there was a gold rush in Colorado, followed by others in Idaho and Montana in the 1860s, and Arizona and Nevada in the 1870s. Even if gold was not to be found, sources of useful mineral deposits were discovered along the way. Silver was found in far-western Nevada, resulting in a silver strike that brought more than $300 million. Other silver strikes happened in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Arizona, which made the West one of the world’s largest reservoirs of precious metals.

Railroad Expansion

On July 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1965) signed the Pacific Railway Act into law. The law provided government support for the building of the first transcontinental railroad, an enormously complex and expensive undertaking deemed a necessity at the time. The explosive growth along the Pacific Coast demanded a means of transportation that would connect it with eastern states. Furthermore, the government saw the connecting of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by railway as a natural and fitting product of the settlement of the West. The Central Pacific Company and the Union Pacific Railroad were chosen to construct the first transcontinental railroad, an endeavor funded largely by the United States government. Congress loaned the two construction companies hundreds of millions of dollars to build it and also gave them millions of acres of western land they could then sell to settlers as a way of paying back their loans. The sale of the land also served to populate the West and established a market for freight services and railroad passengers. The Union Pacific Railroad was built westward from Omaha, Nebraska, while the Central Pacific was built eastward from Sacramento, California. The two met at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, to much fanfare. Over the next twenty years, other transcontinental railroads were built, connecting larger lines and reaching into remote areas. Of the many developments made manifest during westward expansion, the growth of the railroads ranks among the most significant.

Conflicts with Native Americans

Western settlement was, essentially, a conquest of lands once inhabited by Native Americans. Although efforts were made by white settlers to resolve conflicts with the Indians through treaties, these were regularly and promptly ignored by white settlers with the support of the United States government. Hostilities between the two parties formed the basis of a series of battles that had their origins in the 1600s but escalated during westward expansion. These Indian Wars included the Sand Creek Massacre, the Sioux Wars, the Black Hills War, the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the Wounded Knee Massacre, among roughly thirty-five others. The final battle, the Wounded Knee Massacre, which occurred on December 29, 1890, was essentially the final Indian conquest. It resulted in the forced relocation of all Native Americans to reservations and marked the “closing” of the American frontier.

Transcontinental Railroad

The transcontinental railroad linked the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States, making North America the first continent to boast such a rail line. It had been a national dream to connect the states of the vast country since the 1850s, so when the last tracks were laid on May 10, 1869, the war-weary nation had something to celebrate. Now the country had an efficient and reliable method of transporting goods, people, and raw materials great distances, something short-run rail lines built in the 1840s could not do.

Planning the Railroad

The scheme to build a transcontinental railroad was visionary in many respects. The distance it would have to cover was vast, the engineering obstacles it would have to overcome were huge, and the funds necessary to build it were phenomenally large. It was widely agreed that government funds would be required to complete the project. But first, the geographic location of the route had to be sorted out. Early planners felt the way to determine the best route would be to study the natural topography, climate, and terrain of a chosen few possibilities. In 1853, Congress authorized a survey of these possible routes to the Pacific Ocean to test the idea. The U.S. Army Topographical Corps was chosen to set out on expeditions across the country and returned with a multivolume report of its findings. The Corps discovered four particularly workable routes, with two standouts. One would link either Chicago or St. Louis with San Francisco; the other would run between New Orleans and Los Angeles. The railroad, it was decided, would travel, roughly, the forty-second parallel, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California.

On July 1, 1862, the Pacific Railway Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. The act provided government support for the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Congress decided to entrust the building of the railroad to two companies. The first, the Central Pacific Company, had previously constructed a railway crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range east to Nevada in order to tap the Comstock mining trades. The second, the Union Pacific Railroad, was commissioned to build from the hundredth meridian westward to meet the Central Pacific on the California-Nevada border. The completion target for the transcontinental railroad was set for 1876.

Construction Begins

Union Pacific construction began in Omaha in December of 1863, but problems with financing forced delays for nearly two years. Congress agreed to double the land grants and agreed to a second mortgage on the original loan, which gave private lenders more confidence in helping fund the risky—and expensive—venture. The Central Pacific began construction the same year with monies funded by the Pacific Railroad Fund, which was collected through a special California property tax. Its progress was slowed not by financial need but by the difficult terrain presented by the Sierra Nevada. The railroad hired thousands of Chinese and other immigrants for the most dangerous labor, which they patiently and expertly performed from 1863 to 1867, the year they crested the Sierra Nevada. They were rewarded with easier downgrades after that and before too long, the endpoint was in their sights.

Successful Completion

The progress of building the railroad after 1867 picked up because of the end of the Civil War. Groups of men, especially Irish laborers, headed west after the war to seek work on construction crews. Grenville M. Dodge (1831–1916), an Army officer adept at command, took responsibility for organizing construction. His abilities occasionally included arming war veterans to fight Indians intent on interfering with railroad construction, though he focused his attention on coordinating an efficient line of surveyors, roadbed builders, spikers, and bolters. Before long, the line made its way into Wyoming. In the spring of 1869, Union Pacific and Central Pacific crews came within sight of one another. Congress decided that Promontory Point, Utah, would be the site of the junction of the two lines. To great fanfare and celebration, the connection of the rails took place on May 10, 1869. The completion of the transcontinental railroad was a truly nation-building event and the country, despite hardships and drawbacks, had been made better for it.

How the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America

To help fund the railroad, the government offered federal aid in the form of grants of public lands to railroad promoters. This benefited private investors who took on extensive construction costs with unprecedented profits from the sale of railroad land to settlers. The sale of the land raised capital for the railroad, served to populate the west, and established a lucrative market for freight services and railroad passengers. Many of the country’s great fortunes were made by the men who helped build and control the transcontinental railroad. On the other hand, conflicts between Chinese and European railroad workers led to the pervasive and long-lasting anti-Chinese movement in California that began in the 1860s. The Iron Horse affected the Native American peoples, too, by displacing tribes along the transcontinental route. With the subsequent boom towns, construction, and the influx of settlers came the destruction of wild animals the native peoples depended on for their survival. This sparked friction between the Indians, U.S. troops, and settlers, which eventually exploded into full-scale warfare in the 1870s.

Major Figures


Geronimo (1830–1909) was an Apache warrior and medicine man. Portrayals of him on film and in writing are numerous and wide-ranging, but Geronimo’s fascinating life story is best told in his own words. First related to his second cousin, Asa Daklugie, Geronimo’s life story was later told to S. M. Barrett, then superintendent of education at Lawton, Oklahoma. Barrett published Geronimo, His Own Story in 1906.

Early Life

Geronimo was born just before 1830, the year President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) introduced the Indian Removal Act. Although many historians claim the birth year as 1827, Geronimo claimed that he was born in June of 1829 in No-doyohn Canyon, Arizona. His tribe, the Bedonkohe band of Apaches, inhabited the mountainous country that extended east and west of the state. The fourth in a family of four boys and four girls, Geronimo was called Goyathlay, or “One Who Yawns,” for the first part of his life. Around 1846, Goyathlay joined the council of warriors and began fighting for his people. He soon exchanged a wealth of ponies for a wife, an Apache woman named Alope who bore Geronimo three children. He would go on to marry another three wives and father five more children.

Geronimo and the Mexican Raids

In the summer of 1858, while Geronimo was away on a peaceful trading trip to Old Mexico, Mexican troops attacked the Bedonkohe campsite. The soldiers killed the warrior guards and most of the women and children, escaping with stolen ponies, supplies, and arms. Geronimo’s mother, wife, and three children were among those massacred. Mangas Coloradas, a great Apache leader, instructed Geronimo to quietly return to Arizona. The warrior did so, while planning a way to avenge his people and his family.

In the summer of 1859, Geronimo approached Chiricahua Apache chief, Cochise, about joining forces. The chief agreed, later gaining additional support from Nedni Apache chief, Whoa. The three tribes were on their way to Mexico when a battle broke out between the Apaches and a regiment of Mexican soldiers. Despite emerging victorious, Geronimo’s taste for revenge was not appeased by the battle. Seeking to punish the Mexicans further, he persuaded two fellow Apaches to invade Mexico with him. As a result, Geronimo’s friends were killed and Geronimo was blamed for their deaths. Undaunted, the warrior convinced twenty-five of his people to join him in another battle. This time Geronimo suffered a head injury that did not heal for months. Even though his people emerged victors from the battle, the loss of life was great enough to keep the Apaches from fighting for at least another year. After a string of unsuccessful invasions, Geronimo and his people finally enjoyed a string of successes in 1862 and 1863. During the summer of 1863, the Apaches conducted their most effective Mexican invasion, raiding enough food and provisions to last the Indians a year.

Geronimo conducted these yearly raids to great success year after year, until 1868, when the Apaches were attacked by Mexican troops. The Apaches retaliated by killing the cowboys responsible for watching the stock. Geronimo and his men then rounded up all the Mexican and cowboy stock and drove them back to the Apache camp. After 1868, Geronimo rarely ventured into Mexican territory, and the Mexican disturbances came to an end. In 1873, a Mexican attack occurred in the Sierra Madre Mountains, but it only lasted a few minutes and resulted in predominantly Mexican casualties.

Battling the White Man

Geronimo and his warriors were forced by General George Crook (1828–1890) to surrender to government authorities in 1882. They were ordered to remain at the San Carlos Reservation, but Geronimo managed to escape. When, in 1883, most of his followers had returned to the reservation, Geronimo was persuaded to do the same. He explained the return of the Apache to San Carlos as being nothing more than an effort to persuade others to accompany him to Mexico. He wanted the white officers to know they had not come back simply because they had been ordered to.

When a rumor spread that white soldiers were planning to arrest Apache leaders, the Indians became tense. In a council meeting, Geronimo declared that it would be better to die on the warpath than be killed in prison, so he and 250 Apache warriors escaped the reservation. They met white opposition on the Apache Pass and once along the way to Old Mexico. Finally, the Apaches were left to peacefully roam the Sierra de Sahuaripa Mountains. For a year, Geronimo and his people kept horses and raised cattle rightfully obtained from Mexican farmers. When Geronimo returned to San Carlos, General Crook confiscated his livestock. The frustrated chief immediately set about making plans to travel to Fort Apache.

Crook ordered his men to arrest the warrior if he tried to escape. If Geronimo resisted, Crook’s men were told to kill him. Despite the general’s threats, Geronimo escaped San Carlos with roughly four hundred Bedonkohe, Chokonen, and Nedni Apaches in tow. When government Indian scouts discovered the natives camping in the mountains west of Casa Grande, a battle erupted. During the fighting, a boy was killed, and most of the women and children were captured. When the Apaches were attacked again in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains, they were forced to face the inevitable. Geronimo said that it was “senseless to fight when you cannot hope to win.”

Geronimo and his followers initially joined General Crook on his way back to the United States and San Carlos, but fearing another attack, decided to remain in Mexico. After Geronimo and forty of his people escaped his grasp again, General Crook tendered his resignation. He was replaced by General Nelson A. Miles (1839–1925).

Although General Miles had promised Geronimo a new life on the reservation with his family in return for the warrior’s promise to “quit the warpath,” Geronimo and his followers were sent to Fort Pickens, Pensacola, Florida, instead. Many Apaches died of tuberculosis and other diseases, and Geronimo was held as a prisoner of war for the rest of his life. The Apache chief tried to adapt to reservation life by learning the white man’s economic system. His livelihood later involved raising watermelon and selling his photograph and signature. Under the watchful eye of government officers, Geronimo traveled to fairs and exhibits in places like Omaha and St. Louis, earning twenty-five cents for every signed photograph he sold to the thousands of spectators who gathered to see him.

Geronimo joined the Dutch Reformed Church in 1903 and attended regular services until he was expelled for gambling. He died of pneumonia in 1909 and is remembered for his courage and for standing up for what belonged to him and his people.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull (around 1831–1890) was a tribal leader, warrior, holy man, and tenacious opponent of white settlement. Sitting Bull’s legacy has been an inspiration to generations of Sioux.

The year of Sitting Bull’s birth is widely disputed, though recent research holds that he was born in 1831. Unlike his birth year, his birthplace, the Grand River in present-day South Dakota, is not a subject of argument. He was called Jumping Badger until he was fourteen. That year, he proved himself a courageous and steady warrior during a battle with the Crow Indians. After the battle, his father named him Sitting Bull, taking the name Jumping Bull for himself. Sitting Bull and his people comprised the Hunkpapa band of Lakota Sioux and followed the old ways of the tribe, which included following buffalo herds, fighting enemy tribes, and performing spiritual rites handed down by their ancestors. The Hunkpapas were able to live according to these traditions until the 1850s, when the whites began to threaten the tribe’s very existence.

New Enemies

Before the 1850s, for as long as Sitting Bull could remember, the Hunkpapas traded with whites at posts along the Missouri River. This peaceful coexistence was shattered by several events, including the Minnesota Sioux uprising of 1862 and the discovery of gold in western Montana. The influx of white settlers into Sioux territory finally forced the Lakotas into an all-out war with the United States in the early 1860s.

Beginning with his first battle at the age of fourteen, Sitting Bull proved himself to be an especially talented warrior. By 1856, he had earned the distinction of being one of two honored sash-wearers of the Hunkpapa’s Strong Heart warrior society. He soon rose through the ranks, becoming leader of the Strong Hearts and then cofounder of the elite Midnight Strong Hearts. As tribal leader, Sitting Bull was able to keep Hunkpapa tribal grounds free of competition from other tribes.

By 1862, Sitting Bull had earned a reputation for being both a respected tribal war chief and holy man. His leadership abilities were proven in 1863, when several bands of Sioux joined the Hunkpapas in a battle with Generals Henry Hastings Sibley (1811–1891) and Alfred Sully (1821–1879) in Dakota. This initial skirmish set off a series of battles over the next few years, including clashes with General Patrick E. Connor (1820–1891) in the Powder River country in 1865. That year, Sitting Bull initiated a focused and deadly campaign against the forts along the Upper Missouri River. Two years later, the Lakota elected Sitting Bull leader of several Sioux bands. This type of political organization went against Lakota tradition, but illustrated the respect that many Sioux felt for Sitting Bull’s leadership. With Oglala Chief Crazy Horse (1841–1877) as second in command, the Sioux continued their direct assaults on the Upper Missouri River forts, especially Forts Rice and Buford, until 1870.

Fighting Relocation

The white plan to relocate all Lakota tribes onto reservation lands inspired the Treaty of 1868. Some tribes resisted the treaty and remained on the buffalo ranges of the Powder and Yellowstone valleys, while others acquiesced and settled the Great Sioux Reservation in western Dakota. Sitting Bull, now leader of all “nontreaty” Lakotas, opposed all U.S. government programs. He would have nothing to do with their treaties or rations or anything that stood in the way of living his life according to Sioux tradition. His steadfast renunciation of all things white helped him and Crazy Horse lead a united coalition of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes for the next eight years.

On March 17, 1876, General George Crook and his troops attacked a Lakota encampment along the Powder River. Survivors joined Crazy Horse, who led them to Sitting Bull’s village between the Little Missouri and Powder rivers. Among the many bands assembled at Sitting Bull’s village were over ten thousand Lakota, including Hunkpapa, Oglala, Sans Arc, Minniconjou, Cheyenne, and Yanktonais. The massive group gradually made its way to the Rosebud and Little Big Horn rivers, where Sitting Bull anticipated a mighty clash. A series of visions had told him that a great Indian victory lay ahead, which reinforced his and his followers’s sense of invincibility and outrage. Just as his visions had shown him, Sitting Bull and his thousands of followers easily overwhelmed General George Custer (1839–1876) and his troops on June 25. The historic defeat of U.S. troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn was a major Indian victory. Unfortunately, it shocked the American government into flooding the Sioux lands with soldiers hungry for revenge. Relentless military pressure forced many Sioux to surrender, while Sitting Bull and others retreated to Canada.

Sitting Bull’s Final Years

Sitting Bull and his people crossed the border into Canada in May of 1877. They were joined by Crazy Horse’s followers after he was stabbed to death in September of that year. Life in Canada was hard for the Indians. Food was scarce, buffalo were few in number, and Sitting Bull’s followers, threatened by Canadian officials, began defecting in large numbers. In 1881, Sitting Bull finally surrendered. After being held as a prisoner of war for two years, he joined his followers at Standing Rock Agency, Dakota Territory, where Agent James McLaughlin attempted to transform them into Christians, farmers, and American patriots. Sitting Bull resisted, so the agent, in retaliation, sent the warrior chief to tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Sitting Bull was a featured attraction in the exhibit for almost two years.

The 1880s saw a tremendous change in Native American life. With the vanishing buffalo went the tribal economy and culture. The U.S. military sought to shatter tribal relationships and strip all “nonprogressive” chiefs, such as Sitting Bull, of their power. Native children were sent to boarding schools and taught white traditions, while Christianity was forced upon native adults who were made to relinquish the ancient spiritual practices they called their own. The final straw came with the Sioux Act of 1889. It broke up the Great Sioux Reservation and allowed homesteaders to take over almost half of it. By 1890, the Sioux were a beaten people.

The Ghost Dance movement revived their hope for a short time, but when Sitting Bull became an apostle, McLaughlin and other military authorities decided he should be removed from the reservation and his people. This initiated a shootout that resulted in the death of the great chief and several of his followers. His body was originally buried without ceremony at Fort Yates, but the Hunkpapas requested it be moved to the Grand River. Some believe that Sitting Bull’s nephew, Clarence Gray Eagle, buried the revered warrior’s bones at a site near the river, but no one knows for sure. Sitting Bull is remembered as a man of great humanity and spirit, a powerful military and spiritual leader, and a tireless and uncompromising supporter of the Sioux people.

John Bozeman

John Bozeman (around 1835–1867) is credited with discovering a direct, efficient route from Montana to parts east, and for settling present-day Bozeman, Montana.

Not much is known of John M. Bozeman’s early life, save for the fact that he was a native of the state of Georgia who abandoned his wife and three small children to try his luck at mining Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1861. The twenty-six-year-old soon discovered that better gravel lands lay in Montana, so he and eleven companions set out for Virginia City where they arrived in June 1862. Thousands of gold seekers flooded places like Alder Gulch, Bannack, and Virginia City, Montana, despite the circuitous routes many had to take to get there—especially those traveling from the east. This led Bozeman and his partner, John M. Jacobs, to decide to set out to discover a more direct route east from Bannack in the winter of 1862. The two men initially took the old trail leading into lands east of the Bighorn Mountains, ignoring the treaty that reserved use of the trail to the Sioux Indians. The dangerousness of their actions eluded them until the Sioux attacked Bozeman and Jacobs. The Sioux robbed them of their guns, ammunition, and horses, and left them to return to Montana on foot. Undeterred, Bozeman returned the following spring heading a group of emigrants and freighters. An Indian attack a hundred miles north of Fort Laramie persuaded the group to take a safer route west of the Bighorn Mountains into Virginia City via Bridger Pass.

The Bozeman Trail

Bozeman remained persistent, altering his attempts to venture through Indian country by traveling primarily at night. In 1863, he and a party of men made their way through the Bighorn Basin to the Montana settlements. They entered the Gallatin River valley through a pass they named Bozeman Pass. A year later, Bozeman, Jim Bridger, and Allen Hurlbut established the Bozeman Trail. That year, four trains carrying fifteen hundred people traveled from the North Platte River at Richard’s Bridge east of present-day Casper, Wyoming, to the Montana settlements via the trail. They encountered only one attack by a large Cheyenne and Sioux war party on the Powder River east of present-day Kaycee, Wyoming, but the Indians became increasingly frustrated at how their treaty lands were being invaded in the coming years. Attacks escalated, causing the American government to police the Bozeman Trail and erect Forts Reno, Phil Kearny, and C. F. Smith to protect civilian travelers. On December 21, 1866, combined forces of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians massacred Captain William J. Fetterman’s (around 1833–1866) entire command of eighty-one men near Fort Kearny. This led to the abandonment of the Bozeman Trail east and south of Fort C. F. Smith.

The Fetterman Massacre

Despite the fact that the Bozeman Trail wended its way through traditional Sioux hunting grounds and that Sioux Chief Red Cloud (1822–1909) vowed to shut down the trail to defend the territory, the American government was determined to keep the road open at all costs. Fort Kearny—one of three forts erected to protect the passage—was run by Colonel Henry Carrington (1824–1912), a man inexperienced in dealing with both Indians and soldiers. In November 1866, shortly after Carrington had assumed his post at Fort Kearny, Captain William Fetterman joined the regiment. Unlike Carrington, Fetterman was an experienced fighter having served with the Eighteenth Regiment during the Civil War. He was well respected and believed that Indians, no matter how mighty or numerous, could not match the fighting skills of a regiment of well-trained United States soldiers. Soon, Fetterman was at the head of a rebellion against Carrington. He riled his fellow soldiers with talk of teaching the Indians a lesson and quickly convinced them that he could defeat the entire Sioux Nation with just eighty men.

While Fetterman boasted, Red Cloud was busy assembling a massive army of several thousand fighting men. On December 6, 1866, a sizeable party of warriors attacked an unescorted wood train departing the fort. Carrington attempted to retaliate, but was met by an imposing force that persuaded him to retreat back to the fort. Two died and five were wounded in the decoy strike. The Indians staged another decoy two weeks later, but Carrington did not fall for it. This forced Red Cloud to choose December 21, the last day of woodcutting for the winter, as the day he and his warriors would perform their major strike. At 11 a.m., the Indians attacked the wood train. Fetterman demanded the right to lead the rescue and Carrington allowed it. Fetterman rounded up seventy-nine men and set out to meet the warriors. Despite Fetterman’s experience and ferocious hatred for the Indians, two thousand Indians soon surrounded the captain and his men. Within twenty minutes, all eighty men were dead. According to legend, as the Indians closed in for their final assault, Fetterman and his second in command, Captain Fred Brown, stood, placed their pistols at the side of each others’ heads, and fired simultaneously. So ended Fetterman’s boast about being able to defeat the entire Sioux Nation.

The Fetterman Massacre reestablished Indian claims to the area. Within two years of the battle, the forts along the Bozeman Trail were abandoned.

The Rise and Fall of John M. Bozeman

In 1864, the year John Bozeman established the Bozeman Trail, he started an agricultural community in the Gallatin River valley. There, he raised wheat and potatoes to feed the Montana miners. That same year, the pioneer planned the town of Bozeman, Montana, around his farming colony. Elected the recorder of the district and appointed probate judge of Gallatin County in 1865, Bozeman used his influence to encourage the construction of the first flourmill in the valley. This enterprise proved so successful, its capacity had to be doubled in 1866.After that time, he led no more wagon trains into Montana.

On April 16, 1867, a mere five months after the Fetterman Massacre, Bozeman and a companion departed Virginia City and headed into Indian territory. Two days later, at the crossing of the Yellowstone River, five Indians approached their camp. Bozeman, believing them to be friendly Crow, discovered too late that they were Blackfeet. He was shot dead, while his wounded companion escaped.

Colonel John M. Chivington

John M. Chivington (1821–1892) is the infamous minister and military leader who, with the help of his regiment of Colorado Volunteers, slaughtered hundreds of Cheyenne Indians at their government-protected Sand Creek encampment in 1864.

Chivington was born into an Ohio farm family in 1821. His father died five years later, leaving the burden of the farm to Chivington’s mother and older brothers. Because he was required to help out with the farming, Chivington received little in the way of a formal education. In his early twenties, he was drawn toward Methodism and was ordained in 1844. So began Chivington’s long career as a minister. He took whatever assignment the church gave him, so he and his wife and children moved from Ohio to Illinois to Missouri within the span of four years. Being something of a frontier minister, he spent most of his time establishing congregations and supervising the construction of churches. In 1853, he participated in a Methodist missionary expedition to Kansas, preaching to the Wyandot Indians.

The Fighting Parson

Chivington vehemently opposed slavery and the idea of secession, a position that brought him much trouble in Missouri in 1856. Pro-slavery congregation members sent him a threatening letter demanding that he stop preaching. That Sunday, Chivington approached the pulpit of his church armed with a Bible and two pistols. He declared, “By the grace of God and these two revolvers, I am going to preach here today.” The statement earned him the nickname, the “Fighting Parson.” Following the incident, the Methodist Church sent Chivington to Omaha, Nebraska, where he and his family stayed until 1860. He was then sent to Denver, where he was made presiding elder of the Rocky Mountain District of the Methodist Church.

Military Life

In addition to serving his Denver congregation as minister, Chivington also volunteered with the Colorado Volunteer Regiment in his spare time. Because of his experience with the regiment, Colorado’s territorial governor, William Gilpin (1813–1894), offered Chivington a position as chaplain when the Civil War broke out. Chivington declined, requesting a “fighting” instead of a “praying” position. In 1862, Chivington, who was now a Major in the regiment, played a leading role in defeating Confederate forces at Glorietta Pass in eastern New Mexico. He was widely regarded as a military hero after leading his troops in a surprise attack on the enemy’s supply train.

After defeating the Confederacy’s Western forces, Chivington returned to Denver and a promising future of great prominence. He was a likely Republican candidate for Colorado’s first congressional seat and a leading advocate of statehood. While Chivington dreamed of a successful political future, tensions escalated between the burgeoning white population and the Cheyenne Indians. Chivington took advantage of the moment and publicly blasted anyone, including the territorial governor, who called for peace and treaty-making with the Cheyenne. In 1864, he announced, “I say that if any of them are caught in your vicinity, the only thing to do is kill them.” He told a meeting of deacons a month later, “It simply is not possible for Indians to obey or even understand any treaty. I am fully satisfied, gentlemen, that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet in Colorado.” Several months later, Major Chivington made good on his genocidal promise when he led a regiment of Colorado Volunteers into the “battle” of Sand Creek, where they exterminated hundreds of peaceful Cheyenne.

The Sand Creek Massacre

Black Kettle (around 1805–1868), the chief of the Cheyenne, had been attempting to keep peace with the whites of the southeastern Colorado Territory during a series of skirmishes between area gold miners and neighboring Indians. In a conference with the governor, the chief was instructed to take his people to a nearby encampment at Sand Creek where they were guaranteed safe conduct and placed under the protection of the fort. Black Kettle did so and the Cheyenne soon settled into peaceful village life. Then, at dawn on November 29, 1864, roughly 750 troops of the Colorado Volunteer Regiment attacked the Indians. Colonel John Chivington led the attack, ordering his men to kill, scalp, and mutilate every Indian they found. Because most of the young men of the camp were away hunting buffalo, the majority of Cheyenne murdered that day were women and children. In the middle of the massacre, Chief Black Kettle raised two flags of truce: a white flag and an American flag. President Abraham Lincoln had given the American flag to Black Kettle when the two met in Washington, D.C. The president promised the chief that the military would not harm his people as long as the stars and stripes flew above their village. Between two hundred and four hundred Indians were killed that day—estimates vary widely—while only nine militiamen died, mainly as a result of friendly fire. The wanton massacre inspired Sioux and Arapaho Indians to join Cheyenne warriors in new attacks against Plains settlers, which set off a winter war.

Although the Sand Creek Massacre was first heralded as a major victory, the attack soon became the subject of a military investigation and two congressional hearings. It attracted attention even in the midst of the Civil War, with thousands dying every day, and made American Indian policy and military brutality subjects of renewed scrutiny. Today, the tragedy remains a topic of bitter controversy among historians and a charged issue among American Indian activists.

After Sand Creek

Chivington was initially praised for the massacre at Sand Creek, but soon rumors of drunken soldiers butchering unarmed women and children began to circulate. Chivington arrested six of his men on charges of cowardice in battle, which seemed to confirm the rumors. The arrested men were in fact militia members who had refused to participate in the carnage and now spoke openly about the atrocities they witnessed. Soon, Congress prepared for a formal investigation into Sand Creek, and the U.S. secretary of war ordered the six men released.

No criminal charges were ever filed against Chivington, though he was forced to resign from the Colorado militia, withdraw from politics, and stay away from the statehood campaign. He moved back to Nebraska in 1865 and worked as a freight hauler. After that, he lived in California before moving back to Ohio, where he became the editor of a small newspaper. In 1883, he attempted to reenter politics but was forced to withdraw his campaign for a state legislature seat when word spread of his connection to Sand Creek. Before dying of cancer in 1892, he worked as a Denver deputy sheriff.

Red Cloud

Red Cloud (1822–1909) was chief of the Oglalas, the largest band of Teton Sioux. He worked tirelessly to promote peaceful relations between his people and the U.S. government, even though it meant losing the support of some of his people.

Facts about Red Cloud’s early life are shrouded in mystery. The most colorful birth story holds that he was named after a meteor that slashed a red streak through the sky on September 20, 1822, the night he was born. Others maintain Red Cloud was a family name. His place of birth is also a source of conjecture. Red Cloud named the Platte River as his birthplace, but was accused of saying so only to justify his claim on the region. His father was called Lone Man and his mother was Walks as She Thinks.

A Born Warrior

Red Cloud revealed his talents as a skilled warrior early in life. He was just sixteen years old when he claimed his first scalp, a trophy taken from a defeated Pawnee. He received a near-fatal wound in the first war party he ever led, but went on to become a leading warrior by the time he was forty years old. Eventually, after claiming victory in bouts with the Crows, the Utes, and the Shoshonis, and after killing Bull Bear, chief of a rival band of Oglalas, he became head of the Oglalas.

Red Cloud’s War

The Oglala were on friendly terms with whites traveling through their land up until the spring of 1865. That year, the white influx grew to unbearable numbers when gold was discovered in Montana. Gold diggers drove away precious buffalo herds as they crossed through Oglala hunting grounds; that changed the face of white/Oglala relations forever. On July 25 and 26 of 1865, the Oglala fought encroaching white trespassers at Platte Bridge. The next offensive came in mid-August and was fought against James A. Sawyer’s Pumpkin Buttes surveying party. These initial skirmishes led the way for a series of battles from 1866 to 1868 that have become known as Red Cloud’s War.

The Bozeman Trail, a passageway used by white settlers to reach Montana gold fields, was at issue due to the fact that it crossed supposedly “protected” Sioux hunting grounds. In the spring of 1866, Sioux and Northern Cheyenne were attempting to reach a peace agreement with U.S. government officials over the trail. Negotiations seemed to be going well until Colonel Henry Carrington and his troops arrived. Red Cloud grew suspicious. He believed the military sought to claim the trail for its own, despite what treaty agreements said. Red Cloud denounced the peace commissioners for taking lands and then trying to negotiate for them. He also persuaded fellow warriors to abandon diplomatic meetings with the whites and take up arms in defense of their homeland. Red Cloud then began a campaign of aggression against military troops posted at forts located on the Bozeman Trail. The most famous of these skirmishes happened on December 21, 1866. In a surprise attack, Red Cloud and a mighty army of two thousand Sioux warriors killed Captain William J. Fetterman and every one of his seventy-nine troops. The Fetterman Massacre was the beginning of the end for Bozeman Trail forts.

Prior to a treaty conference to be held at Fort Laramie in November of 1867, Red Cloud announced Fort Phil Kearney and Fort C. F. Smith, both situated along the Bozeman Trail, would have to be removed before he would sign anything. He had made his point after the Fetterman Massacre, so whites took his threat seriously. Because they would not feel comfortable until his name was on that treaty, and because a new road west of Fort Laramie, far from the disputed lands, was to be established in the near future, the forts were abandoned by August of 1868. Red Cloud finally signed the treaty, even though he did not agree with some of the terms. He made this known before signing, believing that his stated objections would become part of the treaty. In April 1870, Red Cloud went to Washington, D.C., to discuss the treaty and reservation plans with President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885). The trip was a success, and Red Cloud won many white supporters. The major point of dissension, the location of the Sioux supply distribution center, was negotiated to the approval of both Red Cloud and government officials. Although Red Cloud requested that the agency be located at Fort Randall on the Missouri River, it was finally decided that it would be moved to the Platte River near the present-day Nebraska-Wyoming border.

Red Cloud Negotiates

A second trip to Washington in 1874 did not go as well. The government hoped to buy more Sioux land, specifically, Black Hills land, because gold had recently been discovered there. Red Cloud, on the other hand, came to Washington to protest the quality of agency goods being distributed to his people. Negotiations were chaotic because the Sioux were split over the decision to sell the Black Hills land. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail would sell the land, but only for the right price. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, though, preferred to go to war rather than lose more land. Red Cloud maintained his preference to make peace with the whites, even after they accused him of secretly supporting the warriors.

Many of Red Cloud’s people lost faith in him after the Washington negotiations, but the Sioux leader continued to insist that the government honor the treaties and supply his people with higher-quality allotments. Although it looked to the Sioux like Red Cloud was giving in to white demands, he wrote many speeches decrying their treatment of his people. Alternately, the white government faulted Red Cloud for hindering the progress of the Sioux. By the end of the Indian Wars, the warrior had lost the support of the militant Sioux who forcibly removed him from the Pine Ridge Reservation. After his children secured his return and he was peacefully settled there, the government rewarded him with a two-story house. This did not keep the Sioux leader from biting the hand that fed him. He continued to decry the government for its treatment of Native Americans, speaking out against the whites whenever he could. He died on December 10, 1909, and is buried in the Holy Rosary Mission cemetery in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

George Custer

George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) is universally remembered for his role in the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand. The massacre in which Custer lost his life ranks as one of the greatest Native American victories of the Indian Wars.

Custer was born on December 5, 1839, to Emmanuel and Maria Custer in New Rumley, Harrison County, Ohio. Custer’s primary ambition since childhood was to become a soldier. In 1857, after high school and a brief teaching career, Custer was admitted into West Point. Despite poor academic performance and a tendency toward wild behavior, he graduated at the bottom of his class. It was 1861 and the Civil War had just begun.

The Civil War Years

From West Point, Custer was ordered to report for duty as a second lieutenant assigned to the Second Cavalry. He was immediately sent to fight in the Battle of Bull Run, one of the more significant battles of the Civil War. Custer proved a cool and steady leader in battle, which led him to jump four ranks, from captain to brigadier general, before the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg. On the third day of the clash, twenty-three-year-old General Custer led a crucial charge that sent Jeb Stuart’s Confederate Cavalry into retreat for the first time in the war. The battle wound up being one of the turning points of the Civil War, and Custer became known in the press as a “Boy General.” By 1863, the swaggering, flashily dressed Custer celebrated another victory over Jeb Stuart, which helped secure his reputation as one of the finest cavalrymen of the Union armies.

In 1864, Custer married a judge’s daughter from Monroe, Michigan. Elizabeth Bacon was beautiful and supportive and soon became Custer’s greatest champion as well as a successful military hostess. In turn, Custer quit his hard-drinking ways and continued to rise in favor with his superiors. Commander Philip Sheridan (1831–1888) was most impressed with Custer’s abilities. He became a lifelong admirer, awarding the young general with command of a division later that year. In early 1865, Custer brought the Shenandoah Valley war to its final, successful conclusion, and at the age of twenty-five emerged from the war an untarnished hero.

The Plains Wars

Custer was not nearly as highly regarded after the war. When he was sent to the Southwest in 1866 to serve as captain in the Fifth Cavalry, Custer quickly earned a reputation for treating his animals better than he treated his men. He shot deserters without trial, shaved the heads of dissatisfied soldiers, and unfairly advanced favored friends and family. His conduct got him demoted to colonel, with little prospect of promotion. The “Boy General” was now widely regarded as a renegade. His bad behavior reached its pinnacle when he left his post in the thick of a campaign to meet his wife. For his absence without leave, Custer was court-martialed and found guilty. Despite the seriousness of the charges, which included “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline,” Custer received a light sentence. Thanks to friends in high places, the colonel faced a minor one-year suspension from command instead of the career-debilitating punishment his crime rightfully deserved.

Before the year was up, his greatest supporter, Philip Sheridan, called Custer to serve in a campaign in western Kansas. Army commanders Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman (1820–1891) were pressured to eliminate the Native American population from the Great Plains, so in the winter of 1868, Custer found himself tracking Indians trails through the snow. When he came upon a Cheyenne encampment along the Washita River, he ordered a surprise attack and got lucky. He and his men annihilated the entire village, capturing a significant number of women and children and destroying the winter food supply. The massacre became known as the Battle of the Washita.

For the next several years, Custer acted as commander of the Seventh Cavalry, leading them to victory in a number of Indian campaigns throughout North Dakota. In the summer of 1874, on orders from the War Department, he led a regiment of twelve hundred men on an exploration through the Black Hills. The massive expedition led to the discovery of Black Hills gold and the Sioux War some time later. In 1876, Custer was scheduled to lead a campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne, but went to Washington, instead. He was called to testify before a congressional committee investigating Indian Bureau fraud. Custer’s remarks shed an unfavorable light on Secretary of War W. W. Belknap (1829–1890), which incensed President Ulysses S. Grant. The president ordered Custer’s removal from command. This action inspired a vehement response from the public as well as from General Alfred Terry (1827–1890), who requested that Custer accompany him in the ongoing Sioux campaign. The outcry forced President Grant to restore Custer to commander of the Seventh Cavalry.

The Battle of Little Bighorn

Custer arrived in Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, in the summer of 1876. He was to lead the Seventh in a campaign to corral all Indians found outside treaty area limits. Confident in his ability to defeat the Sioux and their allies if they were to fight, he and his regiment set out for the Little Bighorn River. On June 25, Custer’s Indian scouts discovered an enormous Indian camp. Just as he had done at the Battle of Washita, Custer ordered a sudden surprise attack, splitting his force into three battalions in an effort to cut off any escape routes. His impetuosity caused him to underestimate the number and force of the well-armed warriors he soon met on the battlefield. Between 2,500 and 4,000 Sioux and Cheyenne overwhelmed the Seventh Cavalry, killing, stripping, scalping, and otherwise mutilating everyone. On June 26, Custer was driven onto the slope of what is now called Custer Hill and killed. His body was found stripped, not mutilated, and pierced by two bullets.

Custer’s actions at the Battle of Little Bighorn inspired an instant firestorm of controversy that historians have debated and will continue to debate for many years. After his death, Custer was charged with disobeying orders and risking the lives of his men to allegedly regain President Grant’s favor. Defenders reply that Custer was given the order of full discretion and little else. Republicans who long regarded Custer as a warmonger saw his death as a direct response to his own recklessness. Democrats, on the other hand, treated Custer as a martyr. Despite the debate over Custer’s part in it, the Battle of Little Bighorn likely hastened the surrender of the Sioux in 1877, the event that marked the end of the Indian Wars.

Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse (1841–1877), the famous Oglala Sioux warrior, is best known for his role in the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.

Born in the fall of 1841 in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, Tashunca-uitco, translated “Crazy Horse,” was the son of an Oglala holy man, also called Crazy Horse. The child was originally given the name Curly because of his fair skin and light-colored, curly hair. He took his father’s name after demonstrating great humility and bravery in a skirmish against the Arapaho in which he killed two enemy warriors. He was not quite sixteen years old at the time.

Becoming a Warrior

Crazy Horse became a young warrior during a critical moment in American and Native American history. The Oregon Trail, which opened in the early 1840s and served as a passage for white settlers heading west, crossed through the ancestral homelands of the Teton Sioux. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, whites flooded the Sioux territory, trampling the verdant grazing ranges of the Great Plains and driving away the buffalo in their quest for material wealth. The massive influx led to violent clashes between the Plains Indians and the soldiers sent to protect white settlers. It was during this dangerous time that Crazy Horse proved himself a legendary Oglala warrior. He was granted status as an akicita, or “shirt wearer,” one who governs Sioux tribal councils and enforces tribal law. It was around this time that he also became known as a great military strategist and leader, showing skill and daring in battle. At thirteen, he stole horses from the Crow Indians. At nineteen, he led his first war party. Because he was quiet, kept to himself, and had few friends, Crazy Horse earned the nickname, Tasunke Witko, or the “strange one.” Before riding into battle, Crazy Horse would attach a single hawk feather to his braided hair, paint his face with lightning streaks and hailstones, tie two small stones behind his ear, and brush dirt over himself and his horse. An early vision told him that if he did these things he would never be killed in battle.

Crazy Horse and Red Cloud

It is widely known that Crazy Horse fought alongside Oglala Chief Red Cloud in the most successful war against the United States ever fought by an Indian nation, the Fetterman Massacre. Few know that it was Crazy Horse’s strategic planning that led to the December 21, 1866, victory. The success of this alliance between Crazy Horse and Red Cloud led to the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty, whose provisions mandated the abandonment of forts along the Bozeman Trail. More importantly, the treaty promised that the Sioux could reclaim possession of tribal lands, including the present-day western half of South Dakota and much of Montana and Wyoming.

Of course, the treaty did not hold. Custer’s Black Hills expedition of 1874 brought war to the Plains and the eventual cessation of independent Indian nations. A year later, Red Cloud made a deal with the government and sold the rights to his people’s sacred Black Hills. Red Cloud’s apparent willingness to do so caused Crazy Horse to break ranks with him. They would never fight side by side again.

The Battle of Little Bighorn

Crazy Horse played an important strategic role in the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand. The famous standoff began at the beginning of 1876 when federal authorities ordered Lakota chiefs, including Crazy Horse, Gall, and Sitting Bull, to report to their reservations by January 31. When the chiefs refused, General Philip Sheridan ordered General Alfred Terry, General George Crook, and Colonel John Gibbon (around 1827–1896) to form a combined assault and drive Sitting Bull and the other chiefs to the reservation. On June 17, Crazy Horse led five hundred warriors in a surprise attack on General Crook’s troops on the Rosebud River, forcing the military to retreat. On June 25, a member of General Terry’s force, George Armstrong Custer, discovered Sitting Bull’s camp on the Little Bighorn River. Terry ordered Custer to force the enemy down the Little Bighorn to its mouth, where Gibbon’s forces were waiting. When Custer charges the Indian encampment, his regiment of 225 troopers, the elite Seventh Cavalry, find themselves outnumbered four-to-one. The 2,500 to 3,000 Sioux and Cheyenne led by Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Gall easily overwhelmed Custer’s troops, killing every last man. After the battle, Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapas fled to Canada, leaving Crazy Horse and his small band of warriors to continue fighting through the harsh winter of 1876 and 1877.

Crazy Horse’s Demise

On May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse finally surrendered to General George Crook after receiving assurances that he and his people would be able to settle in Montana’s Powder River country. Ever defiant, Crazy Horse and a band of eight hundred warriors arrived singing songs of war and brandishing weapons. Not surprisingly, he found it difficult to adjust to reservation life. Months later, rumors that Crazy Horse intended to take the younger men and return to battle compelled authorities to arrest him. Crazy Horse initially fled, but was finally convinced that he would be treated fairly if he complied. Upon his arrival at Fort Robinson, the warrior realized he had been betrayed when soldiers surrounded him. In an attempt to break free, Crazy Horse was bayoneted twice by a soldier and killed. His body was given to his mother and father, who buried Crazy Horse in a secret location in his precious Black Hills. The site of his grave remains a mystery.

Crazy Horse continues to live on in American popular culture. From the nineteenth-century dime novels that stereotyped him as a savage to increasingly sympathetic portrayals of him in films from 1926 to 1996, the story of Crazy Horse remains a subject of enduring fascination. The controversy that continues over whether or not the Sioux chief was ever photographed adds another distinct layer of interest to his legacy. The Lakota people maintain that Crazy Horse was never photographed because he would not allow anyone to photograph him. They maintain that his people protected him from people with cameras. Despite vehement claims, others still insist that a photo of Crazy Horse exists.

Bill Cody

Bill Cody (1846–1917), better known as Buffalo Bill Cody, created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, an outdoor frontier extravaganza that toured the United States and Europe from 1883 to the early 1900s. At the turn of the twentieth century, Bill Cody was one of the world’s most famous Americans, having come to symbolize the American frontier.

William Frederick Cody was born to Isaac and Mary Cody in Scott County, Iowa, in 1846. After the Codys’s eldest son, Samuel, died in 1853, the family headed west, settling in Kansas, where Isaac got a job supplying wood and hay to nearby Fort Leavenworth. After Isaac’s death in 1857, young William and his sister Julia were left to care for their surviving siblings and ailing mother. To support the family, Cody worked as a mounted messenger and herder for Russell, Majors, and Waddell, a freighting firm that would go on to found the Pony Express. Cody honed his skills as a plainsman by spending two years trapping beaver and prospecting for gold in Colorado before being hired as a Pony Express rider—a dangerous job requiring skilled horsemanship and a love of adventure. The young man then served as a Union scout during the Civil War in campaigns against the Comanche and Kiowa tribes. In 1863, at the age of seventeen, Cody enlisted with the Seventh Kansas Cavalry, a post that took him as far as Missouri and Tennessee. After the war, Cody married Louisa Frederici and continued to work for the U.S. Army as a dispatch carrier and scout out of Fort Ellsworth, Kansas.

The Legend of Buffalo Bill Cody

William F. Cody had already lived a full, exciting life before embarking on the career that earned him his nickname. In 1867, Cody began hunting buffalo to feed Kansas Pacific Railroad construction crews. Cody claimed to have killed 4,280 head of buffalo in seventeen short months on the job. Legend has it that Cody beat fellow hunter William Comstock for the name “Buffalo Bill” in an eight-hour shooting match. The name stuck, even when Cody went back to work for the Army as chief of scouts for the Fifth Cavalry. Between 1868 and 1872, Cody participated in sixteen battles, including a skirmish at Summit Springs, Colorado where he helped defeat the Cheyenne. For his dedicated service, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872.

Becoming a National Folk Hero

Buffalo Bill’s real-life reputation for bravery and skill started to become the stuff of romantic fiction in 1869. Dime novelist Ned Buntline created a folk hero out of Cody’s alter ego that year, one who ranked with Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Davy Crockett in the cultural imagination. Three years later, Buntline talked Cody into playing himself in Buntline’s play, The Scouts of the Plains. Even though Cody was no actor, audiences loved his natural showmanship and good humor. He continued acting for another ten seasons before becoming an author. In 1879, he produced the first edition of his autobiography and published the beginning of a series of Buffalo Bill dime novels. A total of seventeen hundred frontier tales were published, with as many as six hundred written by Prentiss Ingraham. These digressions could not compete with his love of hunting and scouting, though. Between theater seasons, Cody escorted elite Easterners and European royalty on hunting expeditions—excursions that helped spread his fame around the world. In 1876, Cody was called back to serve as an Army scout after Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, the most famous battle of the Indian Wars. During this scouting mission, Cody killed a Cheyenne chief in hand-to-hand combat, an event he later wove into Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer, a melodrama written and produced for the fall theater season.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

Beginning in 1843, popular entertainment took the form of frontier extravaganzas that glamorized life in the West. These vaudeville shows helped shape the romantic view of the Old West, but not as powerfully as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Cody’s celebration of the West combined his theatrical genius with his experience as hunter, scout, and horseman. Beginning in 1883, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West took the form of spectacular outdoor theater that dramatized highlights of frontier life. Audiences were treated to buffalo hunts with real buffalos, Pony Express rides, Indian attacks featuring real Indians, and a reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand, featuring participants of the actual battle. A stampede of buffalo, deer, elk, cattle, and wild horses herded by cowboys and Indians comprised the grand finale of most shows. In 1884, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, billed as “Little Sure Shot,” became the star of the Wild West. A year later, it was Chief Sitting Bull, “the slayer of General Custer.” The inclusion of authentic Western personalities was one of the hallmarks of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and a primary reason for its enthusiastic success. In 1887, Cody took the extravaganza to London to perform as part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration. Two years later, the Wild West toured the whole of Europe, beginning with a gala opening in Paris. It is widely held that this tour and Ned Buntline’s Wild West dime novels are responsible for the enduring European fascination with the Old West. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West returned to the United States in 1893 to great fanfare and economic success before beginning its slow decline. The show was managed by various entities and partners for another twenty-five years, finally ending a year after Cody’s death on January 10, 1917.

Buffalo Bill and the Indian Wars

Cody shared an interesting and somewhat controversial relationship with the Indians featured in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Critics take issue—to this day—with the fact that they were depicted as dangerous savages, yet in reality, Cody was one of few whites willing to hire Native Americans at the time. This is due in large part to the fact that the Indian Wars were part of frontier life during Buffalo Bill’s heyday. By 1890, Cody was living a celebrity’s existence as Buffalo Bill, but the Army still considered him a vital resource in its dealings with the Indians. That year, Cody was called to serve during the last major Sioux uprising. He was accompanied by Indians from his troupe who proved effective peacemakers there and at Wounded Knee, where they helped restore order after the massacre. Cody freed a number of Indian prisoners after their defeat and included them in his show. Although it was considered dubious for Buffalo Bill to free Indian prisoners and include them in his show, the effort gave the Indians an opportunity to escape the terrible living conditions of the reservation and provided them with a view of the world beyond the American frontier.

George Crook

George Crook (1828–1890) was a West Point–educated career soldier who spent the majority of his professional life in the northwestern United States fighting in the Indian Wars. He is remembered as an unusually moral and friendly man whose beliefs on the subject of Native Americans were far in advance of other white men’s of the times. He supported equal rights for Native Americans in legal matters and believed they deserved every privilege of citizenship.

George Crook was born on September 8, 1828, near Dayton, Ohio. On July 1, 1848, Crook entered West Point and upon graduation four years later was commissioned lieutenant of infantry. He engaged in explorations of the Northwest and protected settlers from occasional Indian raids there until the Civil War. In September 1861, he was named colonel of the Thirty-sixth Ohio Infantry, serving in West Virginia where, in May 1862, he was promoted to major in the regular army.

The Civil War Years

Crook steadily rose through the ranks during his tenure as a soldier during the Civil War. As brigadier general of volunteers, he commanded a brigade that was attached to the Antietam campaign, an effort that led to the first major Civil War battle to be fought on Northern soil. For his conduct in the battles of South Mountain and Antietam, Crook was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In 1863, he took part in the Chickamauga campaign, leading a cavalry division of the Army. Soon after, he pursued General Wheeler’s cavalry corps, for which he earned the title of colonel. In February 1864, he was back in West Virginia. Under the orders of General Grant, Crook interrupted railway communication between East Tennessee and Lynchburg. In so doing, he defeated the Confederates, captured the station at Dublin, and destroyed the railway and New River bridge. He was rewarded with a promotion to brigadier general. Several months later, Crook was placed in command of West Virginia, during which time he participated in three important battles, Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek, and was again promoted. As major general of the regular army, he commanded one of General Grant’s cavalry divisions, taking part in the final battles of the war.

The Indian Wars

From West Virginia, Crook traveled to the district of Boise, Idaho, where he was assigned duties as lieutenant colonel of the Twenty-third Infantry. For three years he worked in that capacity to bring an end to the Indian War that had been raging in southern Oregon, Idaho, and northern California. He received the commendation of his superiors and the thanks of the Oregon legislature for his participation in the years-long campaign. It was during this time that Crook first confronted the moral dilemmas posed by Indian warfare. He understood that white aggression and expansion provoked Indian violence, but he also believed peace could only be achieved through force.

In 1871, President Grant sent Crook to end the war with the Apaches and various other violent northern Arizona tribes. He was so successful that he received thanks from the territory’s legislature. In 1873, he was promoted to brigadier general in the regular army. Two years later, Crook was placed in command of the Department of the Platte. This assignment involved anticipating and quashing any trouble instigated by the Sioux and Cheyenne, who were becoming hostile over the gold diggers who were pouring into the Black Hills of Dakota. Crook played a prominent role in the great Sioux War of 1876, camping in the field for an entire year of daunting hardships. The most well-known conflict occurred in June of that year. Crook led a three-pronged attack on the Indians, only to be stopped at Rosebud Creek by Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse. As Crook retreated, General George Armstrong Custer closed in on a Sioux encampment on the Little Bighorn River where he and his troops were soundly defeated. The Battle of Little Bighorn was a Sioux victory, but the tribe divided afterward, which left it vulnerable in future military conflicts.

Crook’s Final Years

Crook had little difficulty dealing with familiar tribes, but the same could not be said for those he had never before encountered. This was made plain when he was sent to Arizona in 1882 to suppress the Chiricahua tribe of Apaches who had taken refuge in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Under Chief Geronimo, the Chiricahua had raided settlements on both sides of the boundary. No American or Mexican force had ever penetrated the mountains until Crook led an expedition there in 1883. He found and induced the tribe of some five hundred Chiricahua to return to their reservation. Two years later, Geronimo and a much smaller number of followers fled to the mountains and were pursued until only twenty-four were left. With the aid of his Indian scouts, Crook secured the Apache chief’s surrender. General Sheridan, after deciding that Indian scouts were not to be trusted, persuaded President Grover Cleveland to refuse anything but Geronimo’s unconditional surrender. When the chief slipped away, a frustrated Crook resigned his command. Sheridan replace him with rival officer Nelson Appleton Miles, who accepted Geronimo’s final surrender. In response, all the Chiricahuas, even the devoted scouts, were sent to live on a reservation in faraway Florida. Crook was so incensed by this cruel and outrageous punishment that he spent his remaining years lobbying unsuccessfully for the scouts’s return to their native Arizona.

Crook returned to commanding the Department of the Platte. He stayed there until April 1888, when he was sent to Chicago as major general and assigned command of the Division of the Missouri. He died on March 21, 1890, and was survived by his wife, Mary Dailey Crook.

Despite the fact that Crook spent most of his life on the frontier, he did not participate in profane behavior or use rough language, he never drank alcohol, and he was sympathetic to the plight of the Native Americans. He leaned more toward pardoning than punishing Indians who struggled helplessly to protect their lands from white encroachment and became known during his lifetime for supporting and protecting the rights of Indian scouts. He was fearless both physically and morally and never ran from personal danger or responsibility. He was known for his modest and kind disposition and for making friends with people from every corner of society.

Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph (1840–1905) was a chief of the Nez Perce and is remembered as a gentle, intelligent, and articulate diplomat who spent much of his life petitioning the United States government for the right to return to his home in Wallowa Valley, Oregon. Although he was a skilled warrior, he preferred diplomacy to violence and was revered for his eloquence.

Chief Joseph was born in 1840 in Wallowa Valley, Oregon. He belonged to the Nez Perce, a band of the Shahaptian tribal family. His father, Old Chief Joseph, named him Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht, or “Thunder Rolling in the Mountains,” and taught him the traditional tribal lore of his family. He also allowed the Presbyterian minister Henry Spalding to name the baby Ephraim and to teach him the ways of the Christian faith. Before the first wagon train passed through their valley in 1843, the Nez Perce had befriended white explorers and surveyors such as Lewis and Clark and enjoyed friendly contact with white fur trappers and missionaries like Spalding. Soon, the few whites passing through on the Oregon Trail every year became thousands, and the Nez Perce braced themselves for the inevitable.

The Division of the Nez Perce

In 1855, white politicians began trying to persuade the Nez Perce to hand over their lands to incoming white settlers. The Christian converts favored surrendering their lands in exchange for a reservation and money. The non-Christian Nez Perce, on the other hand, refused to negotiate. In the 1860s, when gold was discovered along the Clearwater River, white prospectors increased pressure on the native peoples. When a branch of the Nez Perce signed a treaty giving away a significant portion of their land, Old Chief Joseph called it the “Thief Treaty” and tore it up. He and his son then renounced the Christian faith and the Nez Perce were forever divided into “treaty” and “non-treaty” factions. Unlike whites, the Native Americans did not abide by a defined institutional structure that allowed one leader to speak for the rest of the group. If members disapproved of a chief’s decision, they simply disavowed themselves of that decision and dispersed.

War Begins

Old Chief Joseph died in 1871. The fate of the “non-treaty” Nez Perce now rested on Chief Joseph’s shoulders. Despite the fact that he had his people’s title to the Wallowa Valley confirmed by an 1873 treaty, the commissioner for Indian Affairs reversed the ruling two years later and allowed the building of a wagon road through it. Using diplomacy and intellectual persuasion, Chief Joseph convinced the U.S. Army commander, General Oliver Otis Howard (1830–1909), that the Native Americans were justified in claiming the valley for themselves. Even so, Howard felt compelled to follow orders and demanded that Joseph’s band relocate to a reservation at Lapwai, Idaho, within thirty days. To ensure compliance, Howard took Nez Perce negotiator Toohoolhoolzote hostage.

Instead of fighting, Chief Joseph agreed to lead his people to the reservation and Toohoolhoolzote was released. The trek to Lapwai took the Nez Perce across the raging Snake River, a dangerous passage that cost them many animals. As the band approached the reservation, Wahlitits, whose father was killed by settlers years prior, took revenge by killing four white settlers known to be Indian-haters. This ignited a war that Joseph had spent years trying to avoid. The Nez Perce easily overtook cavalry officer Captain Perry by killing over a third of his men in an ambush. Unfortunately, this prompted General Howard to call in a larger contingent, which caused the Nez Perce to flee.

For the next several months, Howard’s troops tracked Chief Joseph’s tribe, which increased in strength and number as they moved southeast. At the Big Hole River in Montana, Colonel John Gibbon, another Indian fighter, intercepted the tribe and killed one of Chief Joseph’s wives. The Nez Perce retaliated by killing thirty cavalry members. From there, Chief Joseph led his people south and then east to Yellowstone, Wyoming, before heading north to Canada. At the end of September in 1877, just forty miles short of their destination, the Nez Perce were attacked by Colonel Nelson Miles and his cavalry. Chief Joseph instructed his twelve-year-old daughter to ride away as quickly as she could while he took up a gun and began fighting. The siege occurred during freezing conditions and lasted over a week. Toohoolhoolzote and Chief Joseph’s brother, Ollokot, were among the many Indians to die. Colonel Miles promised the chief that his people would be allowed to return to Idaho if they ceased firing. In answer to Miles’s deal, Joseph replied, “It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. I want time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more for ever.”

Becoming Famous, Respected, and Homeless

Colonel Miles was impressed by the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph. He publicly declared his admiration for the tribe’s intelligence, self-reliance, and independence, and was therefore dismayed that the U.S. government would not allow him to honor his promise to escort the tribe back to Idaho. Instead, the Nez Perce were taken first to Bismarck, North Dakota, where Chief Joseph was honored by local townspeople, and then to swampy Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where many contracted malaria. They finally ended up on a reservation in Oklahoma. Chief Joseph continued his steady stream of letters of complaint to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to the several Army officers he had befriended along the way—including Howard and Miles—and to the president.

Chief Joseph’s eloquent letters and speeches, whose echoes of familiar democratic themes struck a chord with educated Americans, won him a following of sympathizers. Despite the support of those who empathized with his plight and saw the justice in his point of view, Chief Joseph was never allowed to return to Wallowa Valley. In 1879, he met with President Rutherford Hayes (1822–1893) in Washington, D.C., to plead for repatriation. He was rebuffed. Senior members of the government reassured the chief that he would be allowed to go home, but the bureaucracy of the system proved them wrong. In an article he wrote for the North American Review, Joseph wrote that he just wanted to live in the Wallowa Valley, the site of his father’s grave, because “a man who would not love his father’s grave is worse than a wild animal.” The article ends, “We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognized as men.”

In 1885, the Nez Perce were finally granted the right to return to the Pacific Northwest, but reservation life at Colville—not Wallowa—was difficult and humiliating. In 1897, Joseph returned to Washington, D.C., to attend the dedication of General Grant’s tomb with Howard and Miles, who continued to champion the chief’s cause. He was treated like a social celebrity, even stayed with Buffalo Bill, but still made no progress. Chief Joseph died in 1905 after nearly thirty years on the reservation, his many decades of fruitless petitioning resulting in nothing more than broken promises.

Quanah Parker

Comanche leader Quanah Parker (around 1852–1911) is remembered for successfully straddling the divide between the traditional ways of his people and settled reservation life. His own mixed ancestry—his father was a Comanche war leader, his mother a white Texan—may have helped him adapt to the changing physical and cultural landscape brought on by white settlement.

Quanah, or Fragrant, was born to Peta Nocona, Comanche war leader, and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white woman raised as a Quahadi Comanche, in a Cedar Lake, Texas, encampment. Cynthia came from a prominent Texas family that settled Fort Parker before the territory was granted statehood. On May 19, 1836, a band of Comanches raided the fort, killing several family members and capturing nine-year-old Cynthia and her brother. The natives soon adopted the two white children, but Cynthia’s brother died. She was renamed Preloch. She and Peta Nocona were married when Cynthia was in her mid-teens. Three years after Quanah was born, Preloch gave birth to Quanah’s sister, Topsannah, or Prairie Flower. Preloch and Topsannah were recaptured by the Texas Rangers in 1861 and returned to the custody of the Parker family. Topsannah died a few years later, followed by Preloch, or Cynthia, in 1870. Having become a full Comanche, Cynthia spent her final years mourning the loss of her Indian family and friends.

Quanah’s Early Years

Quanah grew up during a particularly difficult moment in Quahadi Comanche history. White settlement had increased to such a degree that Indians of all tribes and nations, along with the buffalo herds they followed, had been almost completely crowded out. After losing his beloved mother and sister, Quanah suffered the death of his father around 1866. The young Comanche with the gray eyes was raised by relatives and taunted by other Quahadi for his mixed ancestry. Despite physical characteristics that set him apart from his people, like his mother he felt fully Comanche and lived his life according to their cultural and spiritual traditions.

Relocation of the Quahadi

The Treaty of Medicine Lodge, which outlined the resettlement of Arapaho, Kiowa Apache, Cheyenne, Riowa, and Comanche Indians onto reservations in present-day Oklahoma, was signed in 1867. Of these groups, the Quahadi Comanche resisted resettlement the longest, outlasting many other Comanche bands that accepted the terms of the treaty. The Quahadi punished whites that settled the frontier with seven years of sporadic raids, suffering occasional bouts of violent retaliation for their attacks. But the white settlers did less harm than the buffalo hunters, a growing population of professionals bent on making money at the expense of Plains Indian culture. As the buffalo dwindled, Native Americans who relied on them faced starvation. In 1875, a united coalition of seven hundred warriors, including Quanah and fellow members of the Quahadi band, attacked buffalo hunters grouped at Adobe Walls, a trading post located in the present-day Texas panhandle. The fighting lasted three days, ending with the retreat of the Indian forces. The Quahadi leader of the Adobe Walls raid, medicine man Eschiti, was also thought to be responsible for the band’s eventual agreement to reservation resettlement that same year.

Quanah’s Rise to Power

Reservation life was incredibly difficult for the Quahadi. Besides having to witness the death of their way of life, they had to face the death of their people as well. A shocking number of Quahadi became sick and died in the first several years of settlement, a fact that may have led to Quanah’s eventual rise to power. With fewer competitors, he was able to rather quickly move from “ration chief,” a fairly lowly position, to member of the Comanche Council. The council met to discuss decisions made by the reservation’s Indian agent, with whom they consistently agreed throughout the late 1870s. The agent mistakenly believed Quanah’s mixed race would make him an easy convert to white ways, and so he tried to get on Quanah’s good side from the beginning. Quahadi members who were suspicious of Quanah’s allegiance saw the agent attempting to groom Quanah for leadership, which caused further conflict. Luckily, Quanah sided with traditional Comanche leaders in the one council dispute they had with the agent. His detractors saw this as one of his last “loyal” acts.

In 1881, the Comanche Council protested the trespassing of Texas cattle barons and their stock on Comanche grasslands. Just as the Indian reservation agent had done, the cattlemen saw Quanah Parker as a man who might be persuaded to see their side of things. To convince him, they agreed to pay him and Eschiti to ride alongside white “cattle police” and make sure Comanche property lines were being respected. This promotion led to Quanah earning not only money but cattle and influence among the cattlemen. Before long, Quanah had enough money and pull to start his own ranch. He built Star House, a mansion decorated to suit decidedly wealthy, non-Indian tastes. Quanah’s detractors saw Star House as an affront to other Comanche leaders. Others suggested he needed the space for his seven wives and seven children.

Influencing Two Worlds

Despite his influence in the white world, his support of formal education for native people, and his advocacy of developing a money economy in the Indian Territory, Quanah was also a fervent supporter of polygamy and the Peyote Cult, a highly ritualized religious ceremony involving the ingestion of mescal buttons. Quanah was first introduced to the cactus and its medicinal attributes by a female Indian healer. Soon, the peyote ceremony had swept through a number of Oklahoma tribes that quickly adopted its ritual songs and prayers. Oral historians indicate that Quanah may have been one of the first peyotists to integrate elements of Christian symbolism into the ceremony. His belief in the Peyote Cult was so powerful that he became a ritual leader, rejecting the Ghost Dance movement when it made its way to Comanche lands.

In 1884, Quanah traveled to Washington, D.C., to fight property changes that would divide tribal lands into individual plots. This was the first of twenty trips he would eventually make to secure a better land deal for the Comanches. Despite his attempts to bolster Comanche rights, many blamed Quanah for the eventual breakdown of ancient tribal traditions and the division of Comanche lands. His very public image as a “progressive” Indian made him a celebrity in the eyes of white America but caused many of his own people to grow increasingly bitter over his bicultural beliefs.

Quanah’s Final Years

Quanah Parker became seriously ill in early February of 1911. Suffering from a weak heart and rheumatism, the famous Comanche took to his bed at Star House. With Tonarcy, his principal wife, at his side, he died quietly on February 23. The procession to his final resting place is said to have stretched over a mile. Despite his many detractors and critics, Quanah Parker was highly revered during his lifetime. After a Christian funeral service, the controversial Comanche leader was buried beside his mother and sister in Cache County, Oklahoma. In 1957, all three were reinterred at Fort Sill Military Cemetery.


Wovoka (around 1856–1932) was the Paiute spiritual leader, known widely as the Paiute Messiah, who created the Ghost Dance religion of the late 1880s. Inspired by a vision that came to Wovoka during a serious illness, the Ghost Dance religion is blamed for events leading up to the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

Wovoka, or “Wood Cutter,” was born around 1856 to well-known Paiute medicine man Tavid, also called Numo-tibo, and his wife, Tiya. Wovoka and his three brothers were born in either Smith Valley or Mason Valley, Nevada. At around fourteen years of age, Wovoka began working for the Wilsons, a devout Presbyterian white family that may have previously employed Tiya. In addition to giving him work, the Wilsons allowed Wovoka to live on their land in Mason Valley. Wovoka also took meals with them and learned their religious ways. During this period of time, Wovoka took the name Jack Wilson. One day, while cutting trees for his adopted family, Wovoka fell ill and slipped into a coma. His recovery during a total eclipse of the sun on January 1, 1889, was not seen as a coincidence. He was instead credited for saving the universe by bringing back the sun.

The Birth of the Ghost Dance Religion

Wovoka, having already showed signs of sharing his father’s shamanistic abilities, proclaimed that he had experienced a spiritual vision during his illness. In it, he said, God told him that a great transformation would come by the spring of 1891 if believers began dancing the Ghost Dance and following God’s instructions. The transformation would bring the dead back to life, the buffalo back to fruition, and the elimination of the white man from the earth. God also said that Wovoka would be elevated to “President of the West,” and that he would share political power with then-president Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901). In order for this to happen, Ghost Dance believers would have to live a morally pure life in harmony with the whites.

The vision was a much needed ray of hope for Native Americans of all tribes and nations. Most had already witnessed the death of their way of life and the near-extinction of the buffalo. They could no longer roam free, having been forced to live on U.S. government-run reservations. White settlement onto native lands had stripped them of their dignity, and years of fighting had left them tired and hopeless.

News of Wovoka’s vision and its message of hope spread throughout the disheartened Indian Territory like wildfire. Soon, over thirty tribes had sent representatives to Wovoka to learn the Ghost Dance and its secrets. Sioux delegates, Short Bull and Kicking Bear, returned to South Dakota with the happy news that wearing a Ghost Shirt would keep battling warriors free from harm. Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux chief, quickly became a believer and proponent of the Ghost Dance and the wearing of the Ghost Shirt. His support, as well as the rampant acceptance of the new religion among almost all native peoples, struck fear in the hearts of white settlers and military personnel. Major Indian victories during the 1862 Minnesota uprising and the Battle of Little Bighorn were still fresh in their memories, and the anti-white message of the Ghost Dance “craze” reminded them that the future of the newly established states of North and South Dakota was still uncertain. In their minds, the Ghost Dance movement had to be stopped.

The Wounded Knee Massacre

In the winter of 1890, panicked Indian agents at the Dakota reservations demanded that Chief Sitting Bull be arrested for exciting his people with the Ghost Dance. The revitalized masses were witnessed dancing in the snow for days on end, which made the agents nervous. Soon, military personnel were ordered to arrest the chief at the Standing Rock Reservation. On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was shot and killed during the attempt. Hearing of Sitting Bull’s death, Sioux Chief Big Foot decided to lead his people to safety at the Pine Ridge Reservation. On December 28, U.S. army troops intercepted them and brought them to an encampment along Wounded Knee Creek. The next morning, Colonel James Forsyth and his men arrived at the encampment. Forsyth demanded that all Indian firearms be relinquished. While disarming the Sioux, a scuffle broke out and a shot was fired. In less than an hour, close to five hundred military guards had massacred roughly two hundred unarmed Sioux women and children. Among the dead was Chief Big Foot (around 1825–1890). Colonel Forsyth was later charged for killing the innocents, but he was never punished. The Wounded Knee Massacre marked the end of the Indian Wars.

Wovoka’s Life After Wounded Knee

By 1893, the Ghost Dance movement had ended. This did not diminish Wovoka’s power or fame. His people continued to revere him as a great medicine man, while whites who knew him understood that his intelligence and peaceful nature kept him from inciting violence of any kind. Wovoka traveled from Nevada to reservations in the former Indian territory of Oklahoma and Wyoming, Kansas, and Montana. Admirers plied him with gifts and money wherever he went. In 1924, cowboy actor Tim McCoy invited him to visit the set of a movie he was making in northern California. While there, the Arapahos hired to appear in the film showed the spiritual leader their utmost admiration.

Wovoka’s fame and wealth did not keep him from living a simple life. He followed traditional Paiute customs and lived in a rough, two-bedroom house most of his life. Anthropologist Michael Hittman, a Wovoka scholar, has written that the medicine man believed in “the Great Revelation” until his death. He also provided shamanic services to a clamoring public for as long as he could. He lived long enough to see a Kaw from Kansas, Charles Curtis (1860–1936), elected vice president when Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) won the presidency in 1928.

Wovoka died on September 29, 1932, just a month after the death of his wife of over fifty years. After his death, some dismissed the spiritual leader as a fraud, but he was more widely remembered as an influential mystic who had a profound impact on American history.

Black Elk

Black Elk (1863–1950) was an Oglala Sioux, or Lakota, medicine man who devoted his life to the preservation of Native American peoples and culture. An account of his early life, as well as his philosophy, was written by John G. Neihardt in his book Black Elk Speaks in 1932.

Nicholas Black Elk, known more widely as “Black Elk,” was born in December 1863 along the Little Powder River, which runs through Wyoming and eastern Montana. His father, also called Black Elk, was a Lakota Sioux shaman, or medicine man, in keeping with the rest of his paternal lineage. The elder Black Elk was wounded when the U.S. Cavalry fought the Oglala band, under the leadership of the great Oglala chief, Red Cloud, in 1866. After losing faith in his chief, Black Elk took his family to join another esteemed Oglala chief, Crazy Horse. The move allowed young Black Elk to participate in Custer’s famous defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn in June of 1876. A year later, after Crazy Horse was murdered, young Black Elk and the rest of his band fled to Canada to join Sitting Bull. There, for the next several years, he and his people witnessed the beginning of the reservation era and the extermination of the buffalo.

The most formative event of Black Elk’s life occurred when he was nine years old. While suffering a serious illness, young Black Elk experienced a vision. In it, he was taken to the spiritual heart of the Lakota world and presented to the Six Grandfathers who symbolized The Great Mysteriousness, or Wakan Tanka. He was given instructions similar to those found in shamanic initiation rites, which he reenacted throughout his life as a way of preserving the survival and unity of his people. The vision was a spiritual calling, one that urged Black Elk to lead his people to keep the nation’s “hoop”—thought of as a circle representing the traditional community identity and the social and cultural coherence of the Sioux nation—intact by nurturing the sacred tree. The vision and its complex meaning were presented by Neihardt, Nebraska’s poet laureate, in Black Elk Speaks.

Black Elk’s Spiritual Faith

After touring the United States and Europe with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show from 1886 to 1889, Black Elk returned to his people, who were now forced to live in reservations. He found them suffering greatly, and they were placing their faith in a new religious movement called Ghost Dance. Black Elk was a respected spiritual leader of the Oglala who had led many dances and rituals, but the new messianic movement spurred by the Paiute Indian known as Wovoka was too powerful to ignore. Black Elk soon became a Ghost Dancer, believing in a dance that would bring about a day without white people and the reemergence of the buffalo. He even helped introduce the donning of Ghost Shirts, vestments that supposedly rendered bullets harmless to the wearer. The movement made U.S. soldiers in charge of keeping order on the reservations very nervous. Their panic led to the last and most horrible of Native American massacres: Wounded Knee.

The second most formative event of Black Elk’s life occurred in 1904. After speaking with a priest from the Holy Rosary Mission, he decided he wanted to be baptized. This was after the death of his first wife, Katie War Bonnett, in 1903. She converted to Catholicism during their marriage and had all three of their children baptized. On December 6, 1904, the feast day of Saint Nicholas, Black Elk was accepted into the Catholic faith. From that day forward he was called Nicholas Black Elk. He soon became a catechist, responsible for instructing new converts, preaching, and if necessary, administering the sacraments. Black Elk’s conversion did not lessen his devotion to his people or the vision that guided his native perspective, though. He saw no contradiction between his tribe’s spiritual traditions and those espoused by Christianity. Instead, he sought answers to the mysteries of both belief systems with great zeal and energy and is, therefore, remembered as a holy man by both Native Americans and Christians alike.

His Literary Legacy

In 1930, Black Elk met distinguished writer, poet, and critic John G. Neihardt on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Neihardt believed the story of Black Elk’s life could serve humankind in a powerful and inspirational way, so the two began working together on the book that would become Black Elk Speaks. In it, Black Elk remembers pre-reservation Sioux life and spiritual practices at great length, but the core of the book centers on the vision that called the holy man to become a spiritual leader when he was just nine years old. Black Elk’s vivid remembrance of the vision had the effect of resurrecting its power, despite his devotion to the Catholic faith for almost thirty years. Neihardt’s description of its retelling remains a standard of visionary religious literature, attracting comparative mythology, symbology, and depth psychology scholars among its many readers. It has also prompted Native American revitalization movements and a renewed interest in traditional rituals.

It was Joseph Epes Brown’s 1953 book The Sacred Pipe that made plain the traditional rituals referred to in Black Elk Speaks. Brown, one of the founders of Native American studies, renowned author, and professor of Religious Studies at the University of Montana, was keenly interested in the traditions and beliefs of the American Indian. His interest led him to Black Elk and the Oglala Sioux in 1947. Brown lived with Black Elk that year, interviewing the revered medicine man and recording the account of the seven rites of his people. Black Elk urged Brown to write a book so that the sacred beliefs of the Oglala Sioux could be preserved and understood by both native and non-native peoples. The Sacred Pipe details the purpose and function of the tribe’s ancient ceremonies and explains the complexity, order, and beauty of the tribe’s culture and past.

Black Elk’s Final Years

Although Black Elk’s life was riddled with ill health—he suffered from tuberculosis and poor eyesight—and economic difficulties brought on by a reservation existence, he continually maintained a spirituality infused with hopefulness. He devoted his life to improving, restoring, and preserving Native American culture, especially through his books with Neihardt and Brown, until his death on August 17, 1950. Before that day, Black Elk had told Brown that unusual phenomena would appear in the sky on the day he died. Those attending Black Elk’s wake reported seeing the foretold “unusual phenomena” including a profusion of falling stars, particularly bright northern lights, and symbols, including a hoop and a figure-eight pattern that night. He continues to impact Native American culture, as evidenced by the resurrection of the Sun Dance within a decade of his death by his nephew Frank Fools Crow. By sharing such rituals of empowerment, he ensured they would not be dependent on oral tradition, thus giving them the opportunity to flourish.

Major Battles

Sand Creek Massacre

The Sand Creek Massacre, a surprise attack on a peaceful Cheyenne camp, was a shocking and outrageous United States military action that led to congressional investigations of its perpetrators. The November 1864 event, part of the larger Colorado War, continues to serve as scathing evidence of the country’s treatment of Native Americans during westward expansion.

Events Leading Up to the Massacre

Beginning in the late 1850s, white settlers began flooding the foothills and mountains of the Rocky Mountain range during the Colorado Gold Rush. The region, then part of the western Kansas territory, was home to both Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who soon found themselves in conflict with white gold diggers demanding the removal of Native American land claims. Despite the conflict, many Indians sought peace with the whites. Black Kettle, the chief of the Cheyenne, was especially interested in ending the fighting between the Indians and the whites. When he became aware of the fact that all citizens of Colorado had government-sanctioned permission to kill and destroy any Indians they discovered outside reservation boundaries, he held a council of Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs. They agreed to comply with peace requirements defined by John Evans 1814–1897), the governor of the Colorado Territory.

The chiefs wrote a letter to Major Colley, the Indian agent at Fort Lyon, expressing their desire for peace and had the Indians One-Eye and Eagle Head deliver it on horseback. The Indians were intercepted by three soldiers who delivered them to Fort Lyon’s commanding officer, Major Edward W. Wynkoop. A true Indian-hater, Wynkoop was suspicious of their motives, despite the contents of the letter, but decided to use One-Eye and Eagle Head as both guides and hostages on the expedition back to their Smoky Hill camp, where Black Kettle awaited. The chiefs’s terms for peace included the release of white prisoners into Wynkoop’s custody, so the major was forced to make the journey himself. It took One-Eye, Eagle Head, Wynkoop, and his troops five days on horseback to make the trek—enough time for the major to change his long-held beliefs about Indians. According to Dee Brown’s book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Wynkoop is reported to have said, “I felt myself in the presence of superior beings; and these were the representatives of a race that I heretofore looked upon without exception as being cruel, treacherous, and bloodthirsty without feeling or affection for friend or kindred.”

When Black Kettle and his chiefs met Wynkoop and his men for a council, both sides promised to do everything they could to keep the peace. As a result, Wynkoop and seven Indian leaders traveled the four hundred miles to Denver to meet with Governor Evans. Wynkoop had to beg the governor to meet with Black Kettle and his men. Finally, the governor agreed, and a council was held between him, Wynkoop, the Indian chiefs, and Colonel John M. Chivington, a Fort Leavenworth officer known for his ferocious hatred of Indians. The Indians, unsure of the final outcome of the meeting, were sure of one thing: The only real white ally they had was Wynkoop. They decided to stick with their friend, the one they now called Tall Chief Wynkoop, and move to a military encampment along Sand Creek, which was roughly forty miles northeast of Fort Lyon. They were treated so well that the seven Indian leaders made the decision to move their people to the encampment along Sand Creek. Their people consisted of Arapaho and Sioux Indians. The Arapaho, so comfortable with the United States military, decided to leave the encampment and move to the military fort where they were treated to regular rations. Soon, Wynkoop’s friendly dealings with what Colorado and Kansas officials deemed “the enemy” led to his being replaced by Major Scott J. Anthony, one of Chivington’s Colorado Volunteers. His first order was to cut the Arapaho’s rations and demand the surrender of their weapons. Despite his brusque first remarks, he assured the Cheyenne camped at Sand Creek that they were under the protection of Fort Lyon and that they should continue to hunt buffalo until he received permission from the Army to begin issuing winter rations. This convinced Black Kettle to stay at Sand Creek through the winter.

The Massacre Itself

Colonel Chivington never intended to keep the peace with the Indians. In fact, he had been preparing a force of Colorado regiments with the sole intent of bringing violence down upon their heads. Despite his calm words of reassurance, Major Anthony was also secretly hoping for a chance to attack the Indians assembled at Sand Creek. When Chivington and his officers arrived at Fort Lyon on November 27, the colonel talked excitedly about “wading in gore” and “collecting scalps,” which Anthony supported. He assured his superior that the men at Fort Lyon were anxious to join Chivington’s Indian attack. But not all the men shared their enthusiasm. Captain Silas Soule, Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, and Lieutenant James Connor protested the planned attack on the peaceful Sand Creek encampment. This infuriated Chivington, who threatened to court-martial the soldiers if they did not participate. Soule, Cramer, and Connor were forced to join the expedition, but secretly resolved not to order their men to attack unless it was in self-defense.

On the evening of November 28, Chivington led more than seven hundred men, including Anthony’s Fort Lyon troops, toward Sand Creek. Because most of the young warriors were away hunting buffalo, the camp was comprised of six hundred Indians, two-thirds of which were women and children. The soldiers attacked at sunrise, the pounding of their horse’s hooves the only warning of their sudden presence. Soon, women and children were heard screaming, terrified by the sight of hundreds of soldiers in their midst. Black Kettle raised an American flag above his lodge and called to his people to not be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them as long as the flag flew. Then the troops began firing from two sides of the camp. Hundreds of women and children huddled around Black Kettle’s flag, still believing that the soldiers would stop firing once they saw the flag. Sadly, even after Black Kettle raised a white flag, the soldiers continued firing indiscriminately into the crowds of unarmed Indians.

In a few short hours, Chivington and his men had murdered 105 Indian women and children and 28 men. Many, including Black Kettle, escaped due to lack of discipline, drunkenness, and bad marksmanship on the part of the soldiers. As if the killings were not enough, the soldiers mutilated their victims in the most horrible ways. If the dead bodies were not scalped, they were sexually disfigured.

The Aftermath

Black Kettle and every other Cheyenne and Arapaho chief who had attempted to negotiate with the white man for peace were stripped of their power after the Sand Creek Massacre. An alliance of revenge-seeking Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux Indians launched a series of raids along the South Platte in January of 1865, signaling a new wave of violence between whites and Indians that would last for years. Despite its being initially heralded as a significant victory, the massacre quickly became the subject of a military investigation and two congressional hearings. It attracted nationwide attention, even in the midst of the Civil War, and led to renewed scrutiny of military brutality. Colonel Chivington, though forced to resign from the military, escaped criminal charges for his role in the massacre.

Red Cloud’s War

Red Cloud’s War is an umbrella term used to describe a series of battles that occurred between 1866 and 1868 between Oglala leader, Red Cloud, and the U.S. military. Red Cloud and the Indian Nation emerged as victors in what has since been described as the most successful campaign against the United States ever fought by Native Americans.

Oglala Sioux warrior, Red Cloud, gained prominence as a great leader in the territorial wars against the Pawnees, Utes, Crows, and Shoshonis before gold was discovered in present-day Montana. After the discovery in the late 1850s, Red Cloud was forced to fight a new enemy in a different kind of territorial war. The flood of Montana-bound white settlers trespassing through Sioux grazing lands was tolerated until their presence drove the buffalo away. Red Cloud knew that the buffalo were not the only creatures the whites would soon attempt to drive out.

Before the Wars

The first sign of trouble came when the Bozeman Trail, which traversed the heart of Lakota territory, was“discovered” by John Bozeman. Bozeman had been looking for a direct passage to the Montana gold fields from the North Platte River in present-day Wyoming and found it, disregarding the fact that it cut straight through protected land. Cheyenne and Sioux war parties became increasingly frustrated over the invasion of their treaty lands and began attacking white Bozeman Trail travelers. In an effort to protect the whites from escalating Indian attacks, the U. S. military erected Forts Reno, Phil Kearny, and C. F. Smith along the trail. The forts, manned by armed military, served as policing stations. Now white settlers and miners, less fearful of vengeful Indians, came in caravans, all but wiping out the Sioux livelihood, the buffalo.

The Wars Begin

Red Cloud vowed to shut down the Bozeman Trail and defend his territory while the military stood firm, determined to keep the passage open at all costs. The Oglala leader was especially motivated to resist white settlement after witnessing the expulsion of the Eastern Lakota from Minnesota in 1862 and 1863. This travesty, he decided, would not be his people’s destiny. Red Cloud and a united front of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians began a focused and relentless assault on the forts beginning in 1865. On July 25 and 26 of that year, the Oglala attacked white trespassers at Platte Bridge. The next campaign, fought in mid-August, was fought against James A. Sawyer’s Pumpkin Buttes surveying party. These initial skirmishes paved the way for Red Cloud’s War. The climax of the strategic battles fought between 1866 and 1868 was the Fetterman Massacre of 1866.

The Fetterman Massacre

Fort Kearney was run by Colonel Henry Carrington, an inexperienced Indian fighter and military leader. In November of 1866, shortly after Carrington had assumed his post there, Captain William Fetterman joined the Fort Kearney regiment. Fetterman was a highly respected Civil War veteran who believed the Indians, no matter how fierce or numerous, were no match against a regiment of well-trained U.S. soldiers. Before long, Fetterman was the leader of an anti-Carrington rebellion. His followers believed him when he boasted of teaching the Indians a lesson. Fetterman convinced them that he could defeat the entire Sioux nation with just eighty men. Little he could not have known how quickly his boast would be put to the test.

On December 6, 1866, a mere fraction of the thousands of warriors assembled by Red Cloud attacked an unescorted wood train departing Fort Kearney. Carrington attempted to retaliate, but was met by a second imposing force that persuaded him to retreat back to the fort. Two weeks later, a contingent of Indians staged another decoy. This time Carrington did not fall for it. This forced Red Cloud to choose December 21, the last wood cutting day of the winter, as the day he and his warriors would launch their major strike. At 11 a.m., the Indians attacked the wood train, this time facing Fetterman, not Carrington, and seventy-nine of Fetterman’s followers. The captain and his men were quickly overwhelmed by a massive army of two thousand Indians. It only took twenty minutes for all eighty men to be slaughtered.

The Fallout

Red Cloud and his allied forces continued their assaults on the three Bozeman Trail fort troops throughout the winter, which kept the regiments in a constant state of exhausting fear. The Fetterman Massacre made a profound impression on the military, as well as the white miners and settlers who had become accustomed to traversing the route. Red Cloud orchestrated a series of continued attacks over the next two years, which led to the government finally surrendering. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 ordered the abandonment of the three forts along the Bozeman Trail and granted the Lakota possession of lands stretching from the Missouri River westward through the Black Hills of Dakota, or the western half of present-day South Dakota and much of Wyoming and Montana.

The signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty signaled the end of Red Cloud’s War and marked Red Cloud as the only Indian leader to win an extended war against the United States. But his victory was bittersweet. Signing the treaty meant Red Cloud was essentially giving in to the white man’s demands, despite the fact that he was signing on his own terms. Although he had forced the closure of the Bozeman Trail and the abandonment of its forts, he and his people were now under contract to remain on reservation lands, lands that were soon divided and taken away by the very government that assured their protection. General George Custer’s 1874 Black Hills expedition brought an end to the peace the treaty promised and heralded the end of independent Indian nations. It was not long before Red Cloud, one of the most powerful and ferocious of Sioux leaders, began speaking out against the U.S. government in a tireless attempt to hold them to their promises. He kept up his nonviolent campaign for the rest of his life, losing the support of militant Sioux warriors who would have preferred war over years of treaty negotiations.

Red River War

During the Red River War of 1874, the U.S. Army and the Southern Plains Indians fought as many as twenty battles. The war’s official end came in June 1875 when Quanah Parker, leader of the Quahadi Comanche Indians, surrendered at Fort Sill. The surrender marked the defeat of the Comanche Indians and the end of the Southern Plains’ way of life.

The U.S. army was devoted to ridding the Texas panhandle region of Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians during the summer of 1874. Like most anti-Indian campaigns, this one was inspired by westward-bound white settlers demanding protection against Indian raids. The army responded by establishing a series of frontier forts across the nomadic tribes’s buffalo plains homeland.

The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867

The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 created two reservations in Indian territory. The Comanche and Kiowa settled in one, while the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho settled in the other. The whites promised that, in addition to receiving food, housing, and supplies—including guns and ammunition—the Indians would be allowed to hunt on any lands south of the Arkansas River “so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase.” The plains between the Arkansas River and the Red River was thick with buffalo crowded out of the north, so the Indians consented and agreed to stop raiding and attacking white settlers. Ten chiefs signed the treaty and then voluntarily led their followers to the reservations.

But commercial buffalo hunters soon invaded the area promised to the Indians, ignoring the terms of the treaty. Between 1872 and 1874, 3.7 million buffalo were destroyed. Of that number, just 150,000 were killed by Indians. The buffalo, needed by white commercial hunters only for their hide, were slaughtered and stripped by the thousands. Their carcasses were left to rot on the plains. Without U.S. intervention, the buffalo herds grew thinner, forcing the Indians to rely on reservation rations.

Food was poor in quality and inadequate, but the Indians had nothing else. The restrictions of reservation life were also confusing and almost impossible to follow. By the spring of 1874, the Indians were in poor shape. Discontented young warriors left for the Texas plains as conditions worsened. There was much talk of killing, driving the white man out, and war.

A War to Save the Buffalo

Two Quahadi leaders spoke of supporting a war to save the buffalo. Isa-tai, a prophet and medicine man, was the first to suggest it. Quanah Parker, the young Quahadi chief, was the second. Parker suggested they strike at the hunters’s base, the trading post called Adobe Walls, near the Canadian River. Everyone agreed that if the soldiers refused to drive the white hunters from Quahadi buffalo ranges, then the Indians must do it. In the early-morning hours of June 27, 1874, Isa-tai and Parker led some seven hundred warriors westward from Elk Creek. Isa-tai made medicine along the way, promising that it would keep the white men from being able to shoot the warriors. Before sunrise, they reached Adobe Walls, moved in, and attacked. After several hours of fighting, the Indians admitted that the whites were too well-armed and numerous to overwhelm. They retreated and then turned their frustration on Isa-tai and his broken promise.

The tribes separated after the attack on Adobe Walls. They spread out across the Texas panhandle region and attempted to live according to the old way of life, despite diminishing ancestral lands and buffalo. The heat made life on the plains difficult that summer. Streams dried up and grasshoppers consumed the dry grass. Most white hunters left the area, leaving the Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Cheyenne bands to wander the desolate landscape searching for buffalo. When forced to rely on rations, they were denied already inadequate portions as punishment for roaming beyond reservation borders. Their desperation forced them to fight, which gave the U.S. army reason to attempt to subdue them for good. The government responded to continued outbreaks with a new policy designed to drive the Indians from the area and make room for incoming white settlers.

The War Ends

A military offensive was put together to enforce the new policy. In September of 1874, five officers led five columns of soldiers from different directions into the heart of the panhandle region. The troops were ordered to maintain a continuous offensive until the Indians were defeated. Colonel Nelson A. Miles traveled south from Fort Dodge; Lieutenant Colonel John W. Davidson moved westward from Fort Sill; Lieutenant Colonel George P. Buell went northwest from Fort Griffin; Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie came northward from Fort Concho; and Major William R. Price traveled eastward from Fort Union.

Thousands of soldiers swarmed the Palo Duro Canyon, where hundreds of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne were camping. On September 26, Kiowa Chief Lone Wolf and his followers suffered a surprise military attack. The soldiers drove the Indians from the encampment by burning their teepees, slaughtering their animals, and destroying their winter supplies. Indians who escaped with their lives now had no food, clothing, or shelter. And still the military pushed. Thousands of troops in four separate columns continued to hunt for Indians, capturing as many as they could and returning them to Fort Sill. Lone Wolf and 252 Kiowa escaped capture but had no strength left. On February 25, 1875, they surrendered at Fort Sill. Quanah Parker and the Quahadis surrendered there three months later.

Indians who surrendered were disarmed and herded into a corral. Their horses were shot and all their other belongings were destroyed or burned. Indian chiefs and tribal leaders were confined behind high walls in an icehouse with no roof. They were thrown hunks of raw meat to eat, as if they were animals. Finally, twenty-six Kiowa were sent to faraway Fort Marion, Florida, as punishment for their crimes. Within ten years, all the great leaders had either died or killed themselves. The Indians, unable to save the buffalo, also suffered the indignity of being stripped of their power. The Kiowas and Comanches would never again be able to live according to their traditions, and the buffalo had completely vanished.

The Black Hills War

The Black Hills War, a series of battles that took place between 1875 and 1877, began when General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry invaded protected Sioux land in search of rumored gold. The Treaty of 1868, which gave the sacred Black Hills, or “Paha Sapa,” to the Sioux Indians, was blatantly ignored by a subsequent flood of gold-crazy white settlers and government officials who wanted the mineral-rich land for themselves. After two years of fighting, Chief Sitting Bull retreated to Canada, Chief Crazy Horse was killed, and the Black Hills, the material and spiritual center of the Sioux universe, was taken from the Indians and never returned.

In 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant deemed the Black Hills a worthless tract of land and so let the Indians have it. As a result, the Treaty of 1868 stated, “No white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the territory, or without consent of the Indians to pass through the same.” But the Black Hills were considered holy by the Sioux. Warriors went there to speak with the Great Spirit and to experience visions. Ten nations of Sioux Indians had friends and family buried there. So when General Custer, the man who massacred Chief Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyenne on the Washita River in 1868, had the audacity to intrude upon it without Sioux consent, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, and other Cheyenne, Oglala, and Arapaho leaders became incensed.

Long Hair’s Expedition

The Black Hills, located along the border of present-day Wyoming and South Dakota, were a mystery to whites until General George Custer’s famous 1874 expedition into their interior. Gold-hungry whites clamored to know what riches lay beneath the protected hills, so the U.S. army was ordered to make a reconnaissance to find out. Custer, known as “Pahuska,” or Long Hair, by the Sioux, was chosen to lead the Seventh Cavalry, more than one thousand soldiers, across the plains to the Black Hills. Because they received no warning of his arrival, the Sioux could only watch as he and his blue-clad cavalrymen intruded upon their holy land. President Ulysses S. Grant, known to the Indians as “The Great Father,” understood their rage and promised “to prevent all invasion of this country by intruders so long as by law and treaty it is secured to the Indians.” Even Grant could not stop the frothing masses of white men after Custer announced that the Black Hills were filled with gold, “from the grass roots down.” Before long, the trail that Custer had worn into the heart of Paha Sapa with the wheels of his supply wagons became known as Thieves’s Road.

The War Begins

By the spring of 1875, thousands of miners had stolen into the Black Hills by way of Thieves’s Road. After the army failed to rid the hills of the lawbreakers, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail began sending strong protests to Washington. The Great Father responded with an order to set up a commission to meet with the Indians and negotiate a price for parts of their sacred land. The commission was composed, as usual, of politicians, missionaries, military officers, and traders. When they arrived at the White River meeting place on September 20, 1875, they found more than twenty thousand Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians waiting. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other non-agency chiefs refused to attend the council, claiming they would never sell Sioux land, especially the Black Hills.

It did not take long for the whites to realize the futility of trying to buy Black Hills land, so they switched tactics and began negotiating for mineral rights. This option seemed equally preposterous to the Indians. Red Cloud, who was not in attendance, sent a message to the proceedings requesting a recess. He felt the tribes needed time to hold councils of their own to discuss the whites’s proposals. During the recess, some chiefs suggested that since the U.S. government had no apparent intention of enforcing the treaty, they should demand a great deal of money for the gold taken from their hills. Others argued that the hills were not for sale and that if the government would not keep the miners out, the warriors would. When the commission reconvened, Spotted Tail, chosen by Red Cloud to speak for all the Sioux, rejected offers to sell or lease the Black Hills.

The commissioners returned to Washington, reported their failure, and recommended that Congress offer the Sioux a final offer of a forced purchase. Frustrated by the Indian’s noncompliance, the government demanded that all non-agency Indians and Indians roaming off the reservations hunting buffalo report to their agents by January 31. The independent Indians accepted the demand as a declaration of war against them. On March 17, 1876, General George Crook attacked a peaceful camp of Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Sioux warriors along the Powder River. Although the soldiers destroyed their teepees, burned their food and saddles, and stole almost all their horses, many Indians escaped and recovered their horses later that night. Incensed by the attack, Crazy Horse led the Oglalas and Cheyennes to the Tongue River, where Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapas had spent the winter. The gathered tribes headed north when the weather warmed, joining bands of Brules, Sans Arcs, and Blackfoot Sioux who were camped along the Rosebud River. The group, numbered in the several thousands and led by Crazy Horse, whipped Crooks’s men on June 17, 1876. The skirmish became known as the Battle of the Rosebud. But the biggest Indian victory was yet to come. The Indians decided to head west to Little Bighorn, where the antelope were plentiful and the grass lush and thick. The encampment at Little Bighorn spread for miles as the population of Indians had reached about ten thousand. On June 24, the Indians received word that General Custer and his Seventh Cavalry were marching toward Little Bighorn. Because he was unaware of the size of the Indian encampment, he was quickly overwhelmed. The Sioux killed every last white, including Long Hair, taking not a single soldier prisoner.

The War Ends

After the Battle of Little Bighorn, the massive collection of Sioux tribes separated and went in different directions. In 1877, the U.S. government, maintaining that the Indians had violated the Treaty of 1868 by going to war with the United States, made a new law stating that they had to give up all rights to the Powder River country and the Black Hills. Further, the Sioux would have their reservations moved to the Missouri River, a region plundered by white miners. President Grant then sent a commission to harass chiefs into signing away their rights to the Black Hills. Every chief responded by reminding the commissioners of the government’s many broken promises and the fact that it was the U.S. that started the war with the Indians—not the other way around. Despite their protestations, they understood they had been defeated. The Black Hills had been stolen from them, the Powder River game had been driven out, and without rations or game they would starve. One after another chief reluctantly signed the commissioner’s documents until the government secured the Black Hills treasures—the mysteries, vast forests, and billions of dollars of gold—for themselves.

Little Bighorn

The Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” was the pinnacle of the Great Sioux War of 1876 and, ironically, the undoing of the Sioux people. Despite their victory over General George Armstrong Custer and his military forces on June 25 and 26, 1876, the Sioux were forced to surrender and settle into reservation life after the U.S. government took their sacred Black Hills from them just one year later.

The events leading up to the Battle of Little Bighorn mimic those of nearly every other battle fought during the Indian Wars. Like every significant engagement between Indians and the military, the fight was over land. This time, the Sioux were battling for the homeland of their ancestors, what was, to them, the sacred Black Hills of present-day South Dakota. In 1874, General Custer was ordered to lead an expedition into the protected territory to see if rumors about gold being hidden there were true. Ignoring the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which guaranteed the Sioux ownership of the Black Hills, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano sent Custer and his troops to invade the boundaries without Indian consent and find the gold they were looking for. Within the year, white gold prospectors were streaming into the area. According to the Fort Laramie Treaty, the military was responsible for keeping trespassers from invading protected lands, but they were unable to oust Black Hills intruders. The Sioux and Cheyenne Indians decided that if the U.S. government would not defend the Black Hills, they would.

Preparing for Battle

The U.S. government had hoped to weaken the Sioux’s ability to fight the imminent sale of the Black Hills by forcing them onto the Great Sioux Reservation, but the Indians maintained their resolve. Outraged by continued intrusions into their protected lands, Sioux and Cheyenne Indians left the reservation in late 1875. They met with the great warrior Sitting Bull in Montana to discuss a plan of attack. The following spring, the Indians had fought the U.S. cavalry twice, winning both times. These victories gave them the courage to continue fighting through the summer.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military was planning its own attack. To force the Indians back onto the reservations, the army ordered three separate columns of troops that would engage in coordinated fashion. Organized around Montana’s Yellowstone River Basin, General George Crook was to advance to the south, Colonel John Oliver Gibbon was to advance from the west, and General Alfred Howe Terry was to advance from the east. Among Terry’s regiment was the elite Seventh Cavalry, led by General Custer, an aggressive and flamboyant Civil War hero. On June 22, Terry sent Custer and his regiment to Rosebud Creek to look for Indians who may have gathered in the Little Bighorn Valley. Terry planned to accompany Gibbon along the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers. This way, they reasoned, they could head off any Indians that might try to escape northward if Custer struck from the south.

The Battle Begins

Custer located the Sioux village along the Rosebud River about fifteen miles away on the morning of June 25. He also spotted a closer gathering of about forty Sioux warriors. Although he had been ordered to wait and attack the next day, Custer was afraid the warriors would alert the village of his location by then. He ignored his directive and divided his forces into three parties. Captain Frederick Benteen was sent to the upper valley of the Little Bighorn River to prevent any escape in that direction. Major Marcus Reno was supposed to cross the river and charge the Indian village directly. Custer planned to use the rest of the regiment to strike the encampment from the northern and southern ends simultaneously, but he made this decision without knowing what sort of terrain they would face. More importantly, he did not know the Indian army was three times the size of his meager force.

Reno and his troop of 175 soldiers attacked the northern end of the camp and were quickly overwhelmed. As soon as they became desperate, he ordered his men to cease charging, fought for ten minutes, and then withdrew into the brush along the river. They continued to be hunted by the Sioux and Cheyenne army, which chased the regiment uphill to the bluffs east of the river. After driving these forces out, the Indians saw 210 of Custer’s men coming at the other end of the village. The Sioux and Cheyenne crossed the river and forced themselves into the advancing soldiers, driving them to a high ridge to the north. At the same time, Crazy Horse led his Oglala Sioux warriors downstream before doubling back in a sweeping arc, swallowing Custer and his men in one fell swoop. The Indians rained gunfire and arrows upon the soldiers, closing in on them with great force. Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and use the carcasses as protection, but the bullets proved too powerful. Within an hour, Custer and his men were killed in one of the worst military disasters in American history.

After defeating Custer’s regiment, the Indians continued to fight Reno and Benteen’s now-united forces for another day. When they learned that two other columns of soldiers were headed their way, they decided to flee and let the soldiers escape. Once the battle was over, the Indians returned to strip and mutilate the bodies of the uniformed soldiers. They did this because they believed the soul of a mutilated body was not allowed to enter the kingdom of heaven, but forced instead to wander the earth for all eternity. For reasons that remain a mystery, the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors stripped and cleaned Custer’s body, but they did not scalp or otherwise mutilate it. The general had been wearing buckskins instead of a uniform when he died, which may have led the Indians to believe that he was an innocent, not a soldier. If this were true, it would explain why his body was left intact. Others suppose that Custer’s body was left alone because his usually long hair had been shorn before battle, which would make him hard to scalp.

The Battle of Little Bighorn was the Indian’s greatest victory against the white man. Unfortunately for them, the slaying of a popular Civil War hero outraged American civilians and military troops alike. The country demanded retribution and took it by redrawing boundary lines and opening the Black Hills to white settlers. Within a year, the Sioux nation surrendered, accepted defeat, and settled into reservation life.

Nez Perce War

The Nez Perce War was fought in present-day Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming in 1877 and was comprised of a series of battles between the Nez Perce and the U.S. government. It resulted in the surrender of the Nez Perce to military officers and the end of the tribe’s way of life.

The Nez Perce were proud of the fact that they had not killed a white man in seventy years. After becoming friends with Lewis and Clark in 1805, the tribe had welcomed white visitors, offered them food, and looked after their horses. Sadly, beginning in 1855, the U.S. government began a campaign of harassment against the Nez Perce. Many chiefs were persuaded to sign treaties that gave away Nez Perce land and gold. Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce, refused to sign any of the white man’s treaties that included taking away his people’s lands. After refusing to sign the 1863 treaty that would take away the Wallowa Valley and three-fourths of their remaining land, Chief Joseph planted poles along the boundary of those lands. In 1871, the whites simply came to the Wallowa Valley and ordered the Nez Perce to go to the Lapwai reservation. Again, Chief Joseph refused to pay attention to the military. He said, “we will defend this land as long as a drop of Indian blood warms the hearts of our men.”

Before the War

On June 16, 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant issued an executive order that withdrew Wallowa Valley from white settlement. Two years later he changed his mind. Now, the Wallowa Valley was open to white settlement and the Nez Perce were expected to move to the Lapwai reservation within a reasonable amount of time. In 1877, the government sent General Oliver O. Howard to remove all Nez Perce from the Wallowa Valley. Privately, General Howard believed it was wrong to take Chief Joseph’s land from him. But he was eager to shed his reputation as an Indian-lover and so decided to carry out his orders in a swift and meticulous manner. In May 1877, he summoned Joseph to a council at the Lapwai reservation to discuss the date he and his people would surrender.

Chief Joseph chose Wallowa prophet, Toohoolhoolzote, as his council spokesman. The prophet began the meeting by informing Howard that they would never give up their land, even if other Nez Perce had. Howard responded by saying that the government had set aside a reservation for them and explained that the Indians must go there to live. Toohoolhoolzote kept the officer engaged in an extended argument about land ownership until Howard became exasperated. He ordered the prophet be arrested and taken to the guardhouse. Then he told Chief Joseph that he and his people had thirty days to relocate to Lapwai.

Chief Joseph knew it was over. Military troops were stationed at their camp when he and his fellow leaders returned home. They held a council and decided to round up their stock and prepare to leave immediately. When Toohoolhoolzote was able to join them, he announced that only blood could cleanse him of his humiliation. He was not alone. Although Chief Joseph continued to press for peace, several young warriors were busy discussing war.

The War Begins

On the journey to Lapwai, several young warriors slipped away from camp and killed eleven white men in retaliation for their theft of land and stock. Chief Joseph wished the young warriors had not killed the white men, because he still preferred peace, but he understood his people’s growing frustration. When they reached White Bird Creek, sixteen miles away, they were met by soldiers and the first real battle of the Nez Perce War.

After a series of victories, the Nez Perce grew to include 250 warriors, 450 noncombatants, and 2,000 horses. They had also assumed ownership of several rifles and a wealth of ammunition. On July 25, the massive band came upon Captain Charles Rawn and his regiment. Chief Joseph and two of his subchiefs approached the regiment while waving a white flag. Joseph calmly let Rawn know that he planned on passing through the barricade that the regiment was constructing without fighting—if Rawn’s men allowed it. After days of deliberation and a half-hearted attempt to stop them, the Nez Perce were permitted to pass and head south. On August 9, U.S. military troops under the command of Colonel John Gibbon fired upon a Nez Perce encampment along the Big Hole River. Eighty Nez Perce were killed in the surprise attack. More than two-thirds of them were women and children. The Indians retaliated by attacking General Howard’s troops and crossing into Yellowstone National Park on August 22. The Indians were forced to fight nearly every day for the next month. In a battle in the Bear Paw Mountains, where they believed they might be safe, the Nez Perce suffered a surprise attack that left Joseph’s brother, Ollokot, and the prophet Toohoolhoolzote dead. The Indians were short of food, and their horses were terribly worn out, but they managed to secure the enemy’s arms and ammunition. After dark, they attempted to slip away, only to find themselves surrounded. But instead of firing on the Indians, General Miles sent a messenger under a white flag to demand that Joseph surrender. Joseph replied that he would think about it. Later that day, a few of Miles’s Sioux scouts rode out under another white flag. They assured Joseph that Miles was sincere in his desire for peace, which convinced Joseph to go to the commander’s tent. The Indian chief was held prisoner while Miles resumed his attack. The military received reinforcements while the Nez Perce warriors dwindled in number. Joseph called his chiefs together for the last time. They wanted to continue fighting to the death. They had struggled for over thirteen hundred miles and they were not ready to give up. On the fifth day of the siege, Joseph went to Miles, gave up his gun, and delivered an eloquent speech that has since become the most quoted of all American Indian speeches. In it, he says, “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

The Wounded Knee Massacre

The Wounded Knee Massacre, which occurred on December 29, 1890, brought the Indian Wars to a violent close and ended the traditional Sioux way of life forever. Much like other Indian massacres that took place during westward expansion, the victims were mostly unarmed men, women, and children. Historians and Native American activists debate the events at Wounded Knee to this day while songs, books, poems, and visual art of all kinds keeps the slaughter in the public consciousness.

A People Retreats

The Hunkpapa Sioux, demoralized by the assassination of their leader, Chief Sitting Bull, found solace in the Ghost Dance, the religious movement that promised the end of the white man and the resurrection of all buffalo and fallen Indians. The Hunkpapas were so devoted to the Ghost Dance and its prophecy that they decided not to retaliate against the whites who took Sitting Bull’s life. They sought refuge with Red Cloud, one of the last remaining great chiefs instead. On December 17, 1890, about one hundred of the fleeing Hunkpapas reached Big Foot’s Minneconjou encampment near Cherry Creek on their way to Red Cloud’s Pine Ridge home. Unfortunately, Big Foot had just been placed on the U.S. War Department’s list of “fomenters of disturbances,” which led to an order being issued for his capture and arrest. Upon their arrival at Cherry Creek, the Hunkpapas shared the news of Sitting Bull’s death, which prompted Big Foot and his people to head for Pine Ridge, too. On the way, Big Foot contracted pneumonia and began hemorrhaging.

The Military Intervenes

On December 28, the Pine Ridge-bound Minneconjous spied four approaching cavalry troops. Big Foot promptly ordered a white flag be flown above the wagon he was traveling in. When the U.S. regiments reached the Indians, Big Foot left the comfort and warmth of his wagon sickbed to greet Major Samuel Whitside of the elite Seventh Cavalry. The major announced that he had orders to remove the chief to a cavalry camp on Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot, blood dripping from his nose, replied that he was headed in that direction, because he was taking his people to Pine Ridge. The major arranged for Big Foot to travel in the Army ambulance, which was warmer and offered a smoother ride, and then told his half-breed scout to disarm the remaining Indians. John Shangreau, the scout, convinced the major to wait until they reached camp to take away the Indians’s horses and arms. He explained that demanding these things from them now would only compel the Indians to fight. If that happened, the women and children would all be killed, and the men would get away. Whitside conceded, and once Big Foot was situated in the ambulance, formed a column for the trek to Wounded Knee Creek. Two cavalry troops led, followed by the wagons, the ambulance, and a compact group of Minneconjous. The other two cavalry troops and two Hotchkiss guns brought up the rear.

Arriving at Wounded Knee Creek

The column reached Chankpe Opi Wakpala, or Wounded Knee, at twilight. The frozen, silent landscape served as a somber background to their arrival. The soldiers were ordered to take a careful count of the Indians and tallied 120 men and 230 women and children. Major Whitside was still anxious to disarm the Indians but decided to wait until the light of morning to do so. Tents were erected near the military camp, and rations were distributed among the hungry travelers. A stove was placed in Big Foot’s tent, and a surgeon was summoned to examine the ailing chief. To discourage the Indian hostages from fleeing in the night, Whitside ordered his men to post the two Hotchkiss guns on the rises surrounding the encampment. The barrels of the rifled guns were pointed toward the Indian tents.

Later that night, Colonel James W. Forsyth, now commanding General George A. Custer’s men, arrived with the rest of the Seventh Regiment. He took charge of operations at Wounded Knee, informing Whitside that he had received orders to take Big Foot’s band to the Union Pacific Railroad. The Indians were to be shipped to a military prison in Omaha, Nebraska. Before settling in for a night of whiskey drinking—to celebrate Big Foot’s capture—Forsyth and his officers placed two more Hotchkiss guns on the slope above the Indian encampment.

Despite their protective Ghost Shirts and their belief in the promises of the Ghost Dance, Big Foot’s people were afraid of the soldiers that surrounded them. The Indians had killed many white military leaders fourteen years earlier at the Battle of Little Bighorn and feared that Whitside, Forsyth, and the Seventh Cavalry might still harbor vengeful feelings for them.

The Massacre

Early the next morning, a bugle call woke the Indians, who were soon surrounded by mounted soldiers. The soldiers instructed the Indian men to meet in the center of the horses for a talk. After the talk, they said, they were to move on to the military headquarters at Pine Ridge. Big Foot was brought from his tent, and the older men gathered around him. After the Indians had received their breakfast rations, Colonel Forsyth, unconvinced that the Indians had handed over all their weapons, began searching the teepees and tents. Axes, knives, and tent stakes were added to the pile of guns, but the soldiers were still not satisfied. They ordered the warriors to submit to body searches. Although this angered every one of them greatly, only two Indians overtly protested. Yellow Bird, a medicine man, began chanting a holy song and dancing a few Ghost Dance steps, attempting to assure his fellow warriors that the soldiers’ bullets would not hurt them. The second, a young Minneconjou named Black Coyote, rebelled when the soldiers attempted to take his Winchester rifle from him. He did not want to give up the rifle because it was expensive and it belonged to him, he said. As the soldiers grabbed him and spun him around, attempting to wrench the rifle from his hands, a shot rang out, followed closely by a large crash. No one knows who fired the first shot, but because the atmosphere was so tense, the lone, mysterious report led to a barrage of gunfire and indiscriminate killing.

Big Foot was among the first to fall dying into the snow. The first few seconds of fighting filled the air with powder smoke and the deafening sounds of firing carbines. Those Indians that had them fought with knives, clubs, and pistols at close range. The unarmed could do nothing but flee. The Hotchkiss guns tore the Indian camp to shreds, killing the men, women, and children who were attempting to escape. When the slaughter came to an end, Big Foot and more than half his people were dead or seriously wounded. Although 153 were counted dead, many of the uncounted wounded crawled away to die. The closest estimate reveals that of the original 350 men, women, and children, 300 lost their lives at Wounded Knee.

The Home Front

American Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution is widely regarded as one of the most crucial changes in human history. The Industrial Revolution (1790–1860) began in the early eighteenth century in England before spreading across Europe and Asia. Because it impacted nearly every facet of society, including economics, philosophy, politics, and culture, it quickly reached the Americas and the rest of the world. In America, the Industrial Revolution in the early decades of the nineteenth century exploited the country’s rich store of natural resources, land, and immigrant labor. In a few short decades, the tremendous surge in technological and economic growth brought about by the Industrial Revolution changed American life forever.

In the Beginning

The Industrial Revolution was the shift from home and hand production to machine and factory production of goods. Replacing skilled workers with machines allowed goods to be produced faster and cheaper. The shift from home to factory production changed predominantly agricultural societies into ones controlled by manufacturing and industry. As in England, textiles were the first manufactured product in the United States to be improved by a mechanical invention. Samuel Slater (1768–1835), considered by some to be the father of the American Industrial Revolution, secretly immigrated to this country from England in 1789. Believing that the textile industry had reached its apex in Britain, he took what he knew about textile machine production and opened the first American spinning mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1790. Unlike others with textile manufacturing experience who had come to the United States before him, Slater knew how to build and operate the machines he would need in his water-powered mill. He also had a winning organizational system, a business component that would later prove to be as important to manufacturing as the machines that made production possible.

Once Slater established his mill, new inventions and production methods began to proliferate. In 1791, John Fitch received a patent for his steamboat design. In 1794, Eli Whitney (1765–1825) patented his cotton gin, which revolutionized the cotton industry and reinvigorated the slave trade in the American South. Five years later, Whitney invented the American system of manufacturing. His system used partially skilled labor, machine tools, and jigs to standardize interchangeable parts to be configured using an assembly line method. He later used the system to manufacture ten thousand muskets for the government. But it was not until the mid-1850s that the American Industrial Revolution began to permeate through all of society by means of the development of the railroad. Just as innovations in industry changed the country from an agrarian society into a mechanized one, the railroad system transformed more than just the actual American landscape. It transformed America.

How the Railroad Changed America

In 1815, John Stevens (1749–1838) received the first railroad charter in North America. Considered the father of American railroads, Stevens was instrumental in building the first operational railway systems on which steam locomotives would run. In 1830, the first American-built steam locomotive was operated on a common-carrier railroad. After that, railroads began transporting freight back and forth between the Great Lakes and the East Coast, paving the way for a growing network of rail lines that spanned relatively short distances. The preponderance of rail lines helped businessmen become rich, and they began dreaming of a railroad that would stretch from coast to coast. The opening of the country’s western territories brought with it stories of the vast expanses of land, rich in minerals, to be found west of the Mississippi and these businessmen wanted a piece of it.

In 1863, construction began on the United States’s first transcontinental railroad. Despite the Civil War, the challenges of the relatively unexplored western geography, and treacherous weather, the railroad was completed on May 10, 1869. Americans celebrated this profound achievement as a giant step forward in the country’s westward expansion, but its impact on America’s economic future turned out to be an added bonus. Many of country’s greatest fortunes were made by the men who helped build and later control the transcontinental railroad. The ability to transport both goods and passengers to the West created and sustained tremendous growth and allowed new settlements and businesses to prosper. Capitalism and industrialization converged on the railroad system, which helped the American economy move to the forefront of world commerce.

City Life

As the Industrial Revolution developed, farmers found themselves in a precarious financial situation. New scientific cultivation methods and increased mechanization produced record crop yields, which caused prices to drop. As production costs increased and farmers’s earnings plummeted, many found themselves in debt. When the Midwest and the East experienced the worst agricultural depression in the country’s history in the 1870s and 1880s, farmers began looking to the citiess’ urban centers for relief. Jobs with good wages, electricity, and wonders like the telephone persuaded agrarians to trade the countryside for city life. Joining the farmers were increasing numbers of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Upon arrival, both found hastily built cities rife with poverty, disease, and crime. Housing for most factory workers was usually in tenement buildings that quickly declined into slums. Living conditions were deplorable, and the slums were breeding grounds for typhoid, smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, and other diseases that thrived in unsanitary environments. Layoffs were common, so much of the labor market was out of work at any given time, which contributed to an overall sense of uncertainty. Worst of all, child labor was rampant. In 1900, as many as three million American children worked full-time to help support their families.

The Legacy of the American Industrial Revolution

In the 1880s and 1890s, the social classes were divided by an extreme gap. The novel The Gilded Age, published in 1873 and written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, criticizes the politics and rampant corruption that allowed some Americans to become incredibly rich while others were left in extreme poverty. The novel’s title would later become synonymous with the age that saw the lower classes in cities such as Chicago and New York suffering in slums while the elite built lavish mansions beside them and enjoyed the fruits of industrialization. Farms and manufacturing plants produced an abundance of goods, especially products of convenience such as clothing and processed foods, which gave rise to a consumer culture that had not previously existed. Finally, revolutions in technology, urbanization, and transportation meant that Americans had the time and money to spend on leisure activities. Entertainment industries thrived as people from all classes became spectators and participants in organized sports, vaudeville shows, circuses, and theater of all kinds. The character of American life quickly changed in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Icons of popular culture, including the camera, the telephone, and the typewriter, proliferated and in some ways contributed to the America of the modern age.

Political Scandals

Despite a few notable successes, Ulysses S. Grant’s two administrations, lasting from 1869 to 1877, were marked by massive corruption and indecisive leadership. The westward expansion that occurred during his presidency offered countless tempting opportunities for financial gain—both legal and illegal—and businessmen and government officials stood to gain the most. Vast resources like land, forests, oil, gas, iron, and gold were suddenly available to individuals and government entities whose discretionary powers had yet to be defined. Zoning changes, franchises, tax rulings, property assessments, operating permits, and the like became lucrative government favors awarded to the business firms most willing to resort to sordid methods. Once exposed, these methods became widely publicized political scandals. The “Gilded Age,”—so-called for its rampant corruption and profiteering—saw political scandals occurring mostly in urban centers where the Industrial Revolution had its greatest impact. Beginning in the 1860s with the Credit Mobilier scandal and the impeachment of Grant’s secretary of war, William Belknap, corruption was a fact of life during the expansion of the United States.

Black Friday

The earliest scandal in the first Grant administration involved the gold market. James “Diamond Jim” Fisk (1834–1872) and Jay Gould (1836–1892), two of the most notorious Wall Street speculators, came up with a scheme to buy up all the available gold and force the price to go up. Before the false rise in gold prices collapsed, Fisk and Gould planned to sell their gold to fellow speculators and walk away with a nice profit. Of course, they needed access to government information, which came in the form of Grant’s sister Virginia. Virginia Grant’s husband, Abel R. Corbin (1808–1881), was a New York financier with obvious ties to the White House and an acquaintance of Gould’s. When Fisk and Gould learned through Corbin that Grant was planning on decreasing government sales of gold, the speculators began buying up all the gold they could. When Grant received a letter from Corbin asking him to disallow gold sales in the fall, the president began to suspect that his brother-in-law was speculating in the gold market. He had Virginia ask Corbin to cease speculating in a letter Corbin received on September 23, 1869. That was when Corbin, Fisk, and Gould realized their plan was about to come undone. Grant instructed his secretary of the treasury the next day to sell $5 million in gold, which ruined Fisk’s and Gould’s attempt to corner the market. On Friday, September 24, 1869, the value of gold fell drastically, wiping out speculators and causing many businesses and banks to fail. Since then, the date has been referred to as “Black Friday.”

The Credit Mobilier Scandal

The biggest political scandal of the mid-nineteenth century happened during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The United States government was far more enthusiastic about a railroad running through the Rocky Mountains than investors were. The incredible risk inherent to the project forced Congress to make the deal as attractive as possible, so it gave the Union Pacific, one of two companies chartered to construct the railway, huge land grants, mineral rights to the land, and huge subsidies for construction. This assured investors that what had previously appeared quite risky was now a seemingly safe investment. But the controllers of Union Pacific were still wary about the profitability of actually running the railroad. In the beginning, Union Pacific Vice President Thomas Durant (1820–1885)believed the real money would be made in constructing the railroad, not operating it. So Durant and his fellow investors came up with what they believed was a foolproof plan. Instead of paying outside contractors to build the railroad, top Union Pacific stockholders would simply pay themselves. They did this by taking over the Credit Mobilier, a construction company that won a contract to build 667 miles of Union Pacific railroad. The company charged Union Pacific tens of millions of dollars more than the actual cost of construction, which went straight into the pockets of the men running Union Pacific and the politicians who had been either sold or given shares in the construction. By the time they were finished, the profiteers had made at least $23 million—probably much more than that in actuality—and bankrupted Union Pacific. Those who had invested in the railroad but not the construction company were left with almost worthless securities. The New York Sun broke the story of the scandal on the eve of the 1872 election. Speaker of the House James G. Blaine (1830–1893), a Republican from Maine, was implicated along with Grant’s outgoing vice president, Schuyler Colfax, incoming vice president Henry Wilson (1812–1875), and congressmen Oakes Ames of Massachusetts and James Brooks (1810–1873) of New York. The 1872–1873 scandal was the biggest of the Gilded Age scandals. Despite the corruption behind the scenes, the railroad went on to transform the United States economy.

The Whiskey Ring Scandal

The Whiskey Ring Scandal, exposed in 1875, was one of the longest running and most complicated of the nineteenth century political scandals. It involved a diversion of tax revenues in a conspiracy among politicians, government agents, distillers, and distributors. This system of fraud began in St. Louis and over time spread to Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. Whiskey had been taxed since the late eighteenth century, but certain politicians saw an opportunity to profit by having revenue officers raise a sort of campaign fund among the distillers. These revenuers diverted the tax paid to the U.S. government to storekeepers, collectors, and political officials according to a fixed schedule of payouts. Newspapers and higher officials were bribed to keep quiet until the ring assumed national proportions. On May 10, 1875, the Treasury seized countless distilleries for failure to pay adequate taxes, arrested dozens of Treasury agents, and confiscated boxes of incriminating documentation. One of the highest ranking politicians involved in the fraud was Orville Babcock (1835–1884), personal secretary to President Grant. Grant was so sure of Babcock’s innocence that he wrote a sworn deposition that was read at Babcock’s trial. Despite overwhelming evidence against him, Babcock was saved from conviction. He did not return to the White House, though. Instead, Grant appointed him chief inspector of lighthouses.

The Collapse of Reconstruction

The Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War, though daunting, held the promise of real freedom for blacks across the country. Unfortunately, the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1867, which defined American citizenship for the first time, did not guarantee that freedom. Though strides were made, Reconstruction inspired expressions of social and political backlash, including the rise of white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the Supreme Court decision to uphold the racist “separate-but-equal” philosophy behind Plessy v. Ferguson.

The War Ends

The Civil War officially ended on April 9, 1865, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee’s surrender marked the end of four years of the deadliest fighting in U.S. history—fighting that killed 620,000 men and brought economic devastation to the South. While Southern whites mourned their losses, blacks all over the country celebrated their victory. They believed that, finally, whites would recognize them as equal citizens. For the first time, former slaves were able to leave their masters, legalize their marriages, and shed their outwardly submissive behavior. But the process of Reconstruction was arduous and complicated, and former slaves found life after the war less rewarding than they had hoped. They soon discovered that whites cared more about their inalienable right to property than they did about black equality. President Lincoln’s “10 percent plan” outlined the terms of readmitting the rebel states into the Union, but beyond announcing that former slaves could not be returned to bondage and calling for southerners to take an oath of loyalty and accept the abolition of slavery, he said little regarding former slaves. Had Lincoln the chance, he might have elaborated on a plan for integrating newly freed slaves into the Union. Unfortunately, John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865) extinguished that possibility when he fatally shot the president just five days after Lee’s surrender.

Reconstruction Realities

Radical Republicans unhappy with what they saw as moderate Reconstruction policies pushed for a complete Reconstruction of southern society, even before Lincoln’s death. In early 1865, northerners such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner led the congressional adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the United States. In March of that year, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency that helped establish schools, legalize marriages of former slaves, negotiate labor contracts for freed people, and distribute food to millions of white and black citizens. But by December of that year, southern states had already established laws that, while recognizing the abolition of slavery, prohibited blacks from voting, holding public office, assembling freely, or bearing arms. Most offensive were the vagrancy laws that held that blacks caught “strolling about in idleness” could be arrested and contracted out to planters. The First Reconstruction Act of 1867 countered the southerners’s attempts to strip blacks of their right to equal citizenship. It initiated an unprecedented era of biracial democracy and allowed black men the right to vote, hold office, serve as jurors, and become police officers. Most importantly, many southern states, for the first time, provided state-funded public education to blacks. By 1877, more than six hundred thousand black children had enrolled in public schools.

While the federal government worked to protect black rights, white supremacist organizations rose up in an effort to reassert white dominance and racial superiority by terrorizing black southerners and their supporters. The Mississippi Plan emerged as a model to overthrow the Republican government, and through the use of violence and systematic repression, Democrats regained control of the state in 1875. Encouraged by President Grant’s refusal to protect Republican voters, other southern states began instituting their own “Mississippi Plans.” In less than twenty years, every southern state had followed suit and caused the near cessation of black voting.

By 1877, the period of Radical Reconstruction led by the Republicans had come to a close. “Jim Crow” laws legalizing racial segregation in every arena, including education, public facilities, and religion, became the norm. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, decided that the concept behind “separate-but-equal” was valid and constitutional. By now, blacks were politically powerless and economically dependent. Those who achieved some measure of success were vulnerable to the wrath of racist whites who were determined to “keep blacks in their place.” They did so with increasing physical violence, lynching thousands of blacks between 1889 and 1941. The dream of Reconstruction had become a nightmare.

Jim Crow

The phrase “Jim Crow” has become shorthand for both the overt and subtle effects of racial segregation. Based on a slave character played by white minstrel performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice, the phrase “Jim Crow” was first popularized in 1828. To play Jim, a slave owned by a Mr. Crow, Rice blackened his face with burnt cork and wore a ragged costume. Mocking African Americans, he shuffled, danced, and sang a song called “Jump Jim Crow.” His blackface minstrel show and the song became so popular that both quickly became part of American popular culture. Jim Crow later became synonymous with “separate-but-equal” racial designations given to such public places as schools, churches, residential areas, and cemeteries, as well as drinking fountains, restrooms, and restaurants. These designations signified whites’s control over almost every aspect of public life and the belief that African Americans deserved the inferior and inadequate facilities they were forced to use.

Although the phrase alluded to the legal aspects of segregation, it also referred to symbolic patterns of behavior that framed black and white social relations. For example, blacks were naturally supposed to defer to whites, but never the other way around. Whether Jim Crow was manifested in signs or symbols, customs or laws, it affected the lives of every African American, regardless of class or gender. Jim Crow nurtured discriminatory practices, validated racism, and helped shape biased racial stereotypes. Rejection of these deeply entrenched racist beliefs and doctrines would soon inspire the Civil Rights Movement and the banning of racial segregation.

Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court established the constitutionality and validity of separate-but-equal accommodations for blacks and whites in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Essentially, the decision validated Jim Crow. Despite its significance, the decision was met with apathy at the time, was ignored by the press, and was relegated to a footnote by Supreme Court historians of the early and mid-twentieth century. The case was the second of two test cases planned to challenge the constitutionality of an 1890 Louisiana state segregation statute. The events of the case began on June 7, 1892, when Homer Plessy (1863–1925) boarded the all-white car on a New Orleans train bound for Covington. After he was arrested and charged with violating Louisiana law, lead counsel Albion Tourgee, a white proponent of racial equality, appealed the state court conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. Plessy v. Ferguson challenged the statute under the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection, due process, and privileges and immunities clauses. It also argued that the segregation law constituted a badge of slavery, which violated the Thirteenth Amendment prohibition against slavery. The Court found a legitimate distinction between legal equality and socially acceptable segregation. This ruling continued to justify the doctrine of segregation in subsequent years. The one dissenting opinion was written by Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911), who argued that the Louisiana statute violated the personal liberty of every citizen.

International Context

Decline of the Ottoman Empire

At its zenith in the seventeenth century, the vast political and geographic Ottoman Empire sprawled across southeastern Europe, southwestern Asia, and northern Africa. The empire came into being at the beginning of the fourteenth century and died out six hundred years later. Over the centuries, it was considered one of the world’s most powerful and influential Muslim civilizations. While their military and cultural might allowed the Muslim Turks to rule several continents at one time, the Ottoman sultanate leadership and outdated economic structure were blamed for bringing about the empire’s eventual downfall.

The Beginning of the End

The sultanate began to weaken in the last decade of Sultan Suleyman’s (1494–1566) reign. Known widely as “Suleyman the Magnificent,” because of the many valuable improvements he made to the empire, the sultan accomplished much during his forty-six-year reign. He transformed the Ottoman judicial system and army, doubled his territory, and turned Istanbul, the heart of the empire, into a premier city featuring treasured buildings, aqueducts, and theological schools. Europe was unable to capitalize on the weakening sultanate because it was tied up in religious wars until the end of the seventeenth century. At that time, the Ottomans began negotiating treaties. The 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz, for example, handed over Austria and Poland to Christian Europe.

Despite such moves, Europe still respected Ottoman military might. For example, when Tsar Peter I sent troops into Ottoman Asia in 1696, he was able to successfully occupy the Sea of Azov and the Crimean rim. In 1711, though, the Ottomans restored the occupied lands to the empire and claimed the Black Sea for themselves. Russia continued to fight the empire for the Black Sea for another several decades until the Ottomans finally relinquished it with a treaty in 1792. Thus began an accelerated push for European expansion into the Ottoman Empire. When European countries formed what seemed to be a united front against the Turkish government, the Ottomans began to fear the worst.

European Powers Strengthen

In 1818, the Concert of Europe, the self-styled coalition of Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia, admitted France to its ranks. The Bourbon monarchy was persuaded to join forces with Great Britain to form the Concert’s primary maritime power. Between 1818 and 1914, the great powers resorted to war among themselves just once. In that instance, Great Britain, France, and Russia fought each other in the Crimean War between 1854 and 1856. Austria served as mediator, while Prussia remained neutral. Britain and France counted the Kingdom of Sardinia as an ally against Russia.

After the Crimean War, Russia revisited its obsession with the Black Sea and began taking over the property that surrounded it, both in Europe and in Asia. In 1856, Sultan Abdulmecit reinforced the Reform Edict, or Islabat Fermani, and briefly interrupted this Russian practice. At the same time, French investors, despite Britains’s vehement opposition, created the Suez Canal Company. In 1869, the waterway was completed, and by 1914, Algeria and Tunisia had become part of France’s empire. In a further step, France bankrolled Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian railways as well as harbors and became the dominant shareholder in the Ottoman Empire’s official agent, the Ottoman Imperial Bank. The now Europeans effectively controlled the Ottoman Empire.

The Balkan Rebellion

In the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, Russia reigned as its greatest enemy. Of all the key territories expansionist Russia desired, Istanbul, or Constantinople, was the jewel in the crown. If they could seize that city, they would control the Black Sea trade route between Europe and Asia. Because of the many defeats and stalemates in wars against Russia, the Ottomans had low morale. The once-confident military state that easily protected the Islamic world from European conquest was quickly crumbling.

In 1875, the Slavic peoples living in the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina took advantage of the empire’s weakness and led an uprising against it. Montenegro and Serbia, two neighboring Slavic states, joined the rebellion next, followed by Bulgaria a year later. The revolt was part of a larger political movement. The Pan-Slavic Movement sought to unify all Slavic peoples controlled by the Ottoman Empire, Austria, and Germany, and live as independent nations protected by Russia. Because Russia was eager to conquer the Ottomans and take Istanbul, it became an ally of the rebels and declared war on the empire. By 1878, the Ottomans had to admit defeat. They signed a peace treaty that released all the Balkan provinces—including Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria—from Ottoman rule and were forced to hand over vast tracts of Ottoman territory to Russia.

The Balkan Wars

The Ottoman Empire was dragged into further European land grabs in the latter half of the nineteenth century. By 1911, there was Italian and French competition for Ottoman-ruled Libya. The weakened empire was beaten and was forced to sign a peace treaty with Italy granting it Libya and the Dodecanese Islands. That Ottoman defeat inspired Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro to fight the Ottomans for ownership of the provinces north of Greece, Thrace, and the southern European coast of the Black Sea. Their victory drove the Ottomans to the edge of Europe. Down, but not out, the Ottomans joined forces with Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro in the Second Balkan War to roll back Bulgarian territorial gains. The battle resulted in the last military victory in Ottoman history.

By 1919, all that was left of the Ottoman Empire was Turkey, which extended from the southern European coast of the Black Sea west to Asia Minor, east to Iran, and south to Syria and Iraq. Three years later, the Ottoman Empire came to its official end when Turkey was declared a republic. Liberal nationalists, or “Young Turks,” as they were called, staged an open revolt against the Ottomans in the early 1920s and brought the Ottoman Empire to its eventual conclusion. Their goal was to westernize and modernize Turkey, which they did.


Risorgimento (“The Resurgence” in Italian), the name given the nineteenth century Italian unification movement, was a time of great cultural nationalism and political activism. Its roots go back to eighteenth century Italian cultural leaders such as Roman Catholic priest and Italian historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672–1750), Italian tragic poet and dramatist Vittorio Alfieri (1749–1803), and economist and philosopher Antonio Genovesi (1712–1769). Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872), inspired by the fervor of those cultural giants—Alfieri was a self-proclaimed prophet who used his gifts to revive the national spirit of Italy, while Genovesi was the first philospher to write in Italian instead of Latin—formed the secret society Giovine Italia, or Young Italy, and became a leading force behind unification. Mazzini’s radical program was anticlerical and republican and only vaguely hinted at economic and social reforms. The more moderate and successful unification advocate was Victor Emmanuel II (1820–1878), the king of Sardinia. The king, due to his shrewd collaboration with Count Camillo di Cavour and Cavour’s program of liberal reforms, became the central figure and symbol of Risorgimento and the first ruler of unified Italy. The fight for unification gathered momentum in 1831, the year Mazzini attempted to spark a war of liberation, and ended in 1870 when the Franco-Prussian war led to the withdrawal of French forces from Rome.

Early Nineteenth-Century Italy

The Italian peninsula was divided into eleven states by the late eighteenth century. France, after conquering the majority of the region in the 1790s, controlled most of these states until 1814. At that time, Viennese peacemakers, anxious to suppress revolutionary movements and future French domination, worked to ensure that Austria ruled the peninsula. The country directly controlled Lombardy and Venetia, while the ruling house of Europe, the Hapsburg monarchy, was chosen as the sovereign ruler of most of the other Italian states. By 1815, the idea of Italian unification was hardly considered. Local loyalties and hostile regional antagonisms so prominent in 1815 were momentarily forgotten during the revolutions of 1820 and 1821. Secret societies served to unite people who had grievances against the Austrian monarchies, but they were unsuccessful. Society members could not agree on either the means or the ends they hoped to achieve.

Mazzini and Young Italy

Giuseppe Mazzini started Young Italy, a secret society dedicated to making Italy a free, independent, republican nation, in 1831. He had little faith in the peasantry, so he focused his attention on urban artisans and the educated middle class, groups of people whom he believed were more interested in inciting a war against Austria. Had he been working for land reform, he might have sought to secure the support of the rural masses. His efforts to inspire a war of national liberation failed, and he was forced to disband Young Italy in 1836. Although his movement proved too idealistic, it did put the idea of unification on the political agenda. More importantly, the idea of an independent Italy captured the imagination of historians, writers, and composers who brought Italy’s glorious past back to life in their operas, books, and poems.

The Revolutions of 1848 and 1849

Growing national awareness and poor harvests in 1846 and 1847 inspired a revolution in Paris in February 1848 and another revolution in Vienna in March of the same year. Despite rising nationalism, local grievances brought about these rebellions. Pope Pius IX (1792–1878), in fact, disassociated himself from the war against Austria and demanded that Italians remain loyal to their rulers. When Mazzini became the head of a Roman Republic, Pius fled to Naples and appealed to France, Austria, and Spain for assistance. Despite his valiant efforts, Italian patriot and military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882) could not defeat the decisive campaign of twenty thousand French troops that stormed the state. Rome fell on July 16, 1849. Afterward, the Pope returned and set up a reactionary government. From this point on, the Catholic Church served as a major obstacle on the road to Italian unification.

By now, the hopes of liberals and nationalists had been dashed. Revolutionary groups failed to cooperate effectively, Austrian military strength proved too overwhelming, and peasant masses that might have helped in the revolutions had been ignored. A new agenda was sorely needed.

The Fight for Unification

Popular in Sardinia for his respect for the constitution and liberal reforms, King Victor Emmanuel II devoted himself to the task of unifying Italy. In 1852, Emmanuel named Count Camillo di Cavour (1810–1861) as the prime minister of Piedmont. The two, despite Cavour’s loyalty to the Piedmontese monarchy, would join forces to become the leaders of Risorgimento. In a July 1858 meeting, Cavour struck a deal with Napoleon III (1808–1873). Their combined efforts to oust the Austrians from Piedmont and share the spoils provoked the first war of unification. After several reorganizations of power and the installment of provisional governments in several regions, nationalists in central Italy picked up the fight.

Garibaldi, having abandoned his republican ideals, became a guerrilla leader in the fight for unification. Emmanuel supported Garibaldi, but Cavour made it clear that he did not. More importantly, the masses adored Garibaldi, and his troops were devoted to him. Unlike the wily Cavour, Garibaldi acted rather than thought. In May 1860, the military leader and 1,089 red-shirted volunteers sailed for Sicily. Upon arrival, Garibaldi won the support of Sicilian peasants by promising them land reform and tax reduction in exchange for their support. His plan led to success and he appointed himself dictator of Sicily. On September 7, after dodging a political attempt by Cavour to persuade Italians to credit Emmanuel for the takeover of Sicily instead, Garibaldi arrived in Naples and received a hero’s welcome. By 1861, Garibaldi and his army of fifty thousand troops had secured every state in the peninsula. Instead of fighting Emmanuel’s forces in Naples, Garibaldi handed over his conquests and saluted Emmanuel as the first king of Italy.

It would take another nine years to complete Italian unification. The rivalry between northern and southern states proved to be a major problem. Southerners found it difficult to distinguish unification from Piedmontese colonization. The Pope’s hostility toward the new state was another obstacle. Garibaldi and his determination to bring Rome and Venice into the fold only added further difficulties. It took the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to bring Risorgimento to its eventual conclusion. After French forces were forced from Rome, Italian troops occupied the city. Pope Pius IX refused to negotiate, but the Romans, in October 1870, voted overwhelmingly for unification and became the new country’s capital.

Sino-Japanese War

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895 was the culmination of two important nineteenth century East Asian events: the decline of China’s Ch’ing Dynasty and Japan’s expanding military. The historic rivalry between China and Japan for control of Korea may have sparked the war, but larger, more complex developments in international politics provided the fuel.

The Origins of War

Japan had long sought to gain military control over the Korean peninsula due to its proximity to Japan. Finally, in 1875, Japanese designs on Korea exploded into a naval confrontation. Japan threatened to use force if Korea did not open relations with Japanese diplomats and merchants. This offended China because it saw Korea as a tributary state. Japan went one step further the following year and referred to Korea as an independent nation. Internal Korean conflicts resulted between conservatives who favored the Chinese and progressives who looked up to Japan as a model of modernization. Tensions between the two groups led to an anti-Japanese revolt in Seoul. When the Korean ruling family called for and received Chinese military assistance, Japan sent a force of fifteen hundred troops to occupy the Korean capital. Unprepared to fight China, Japan negotiated for the withdrawal of the forces of both countries. The 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, signed by Chinese and Japanese representatives, had declared that each power must notify the other if it intended to send military troops into Korea.

Korea continued to destabilize over the next nine years. During that time, Japan stepped up military preparations for war. Since the 1875 commercial invasion, Japanese merchants had glutted the Korean market with manufactured imports and rice. This led to an increase in anti-Japanese feeling as Koreans became more convinced that Japan was behind their growing economic problems. The Tong Hak Society, a decidedly anti-Japanese conservative religious group, promised peasants that if they opposed the government, the Japanese economic stronghold would end. This led to the Tong Hak peasant uprisings of 1894, the year the war started. When the southern Korean provinces exploded in riots, the government was again forced to call upon the Chinese military for assistance. China, according to the provisions of the Tianjin treaty, immediately notified Japan.

War Begins

Japan, confident in its military might this time, saw the anti-Japanese uprisings as an excuse for war. Although the riots had been suppressed by the time they got there, Japan sent five thousand troops to Seoul with orders to occupy the city. That provocation was further intensified when Japan ignored another provision of the Tianjin treaty. Instead of withdrawing immediately, as the treaty demanded, Japan stormed the Seoul palace and deposed the pro-Chinese Korean government. Effective immediately, all treaties were cancelled. The newly installed puppet government ordered all Chinese forces from the Korean peninsula. China responded by posting eight thousand troops along the Yalu River and called for another eight thousand from the Manchurian province. The war that had been avoided in 1858 had become a reality.

War was officially declared on August 1, 1894, but the first shots were fired almost a week earlier. On July 25, Japanese soldiers attacked a Chinese force at Asan, forty miles south of Seoul. The Chinese were defeated four days later at Songhwan, retreated to the north to Pyong-Yang, and waited for reinforcements. During this time, Japanese forces scored a major victory when they sunk a Chinese transport ship carrying the reinforcements bound for Asan. One thousand Chinese troops drowned in the attack. Within days, Japanese troops had gained control of the whole of southern Korea.

By September 15, more troops had swarmed the peninsula. Three Japanese columns bound for Pyong-Yang captured the city after fierce fighting. Meanwhile, Chinese forces along the Yalu were being reinforced by sea. A day after the Battle of Pyong-Yang, the Chinese fleet suffered a major defeat at Hai-Yang-Tao in what has become known as the Battle of the Yellow Sea. Survivors fled to Wei-hai-wei, where they were ultimately defeated in February 1895. This was not the decisive battle of the war, though. That occurred at Port Arthur, where the Second Japanese Army defeated a heavily fortified Chinese stronghold. This Chinese defeat occurred within a few days of the initial attack on November 21, 1894. The defeat convinced China to seek peace, but Japan rejected the initial offer. They hoped to better their position with future victories. A peace conference was forestalled until March 1895, resulting in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which officially ended the war on April 17, 1895.

The Spoils of War

Japanese Premier Ito Hirobumi (1841–1909) and Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu (1844–1897) saw China’s hopeless situation as an advantage and intended to make the most of it during peace talks. Japanese forces had reduced the Chinese forces by inflicting enormous losses and were prepared to march on Peking. They had achieved all of their objectives during the Korean occupation. China, on the other hand, had nothing—that is, until a Japanese would-be assassin shot Chinese statesman Li Hong-Zhang (1823–1901) in the face during the peace conference. The attack sent shock waves around the world and caused Japan great embarrassment. Li hoped Western leaders would intervene in the conflict and discourage Japan from making harsh demands, but the treaty that was drawn up during the peace talks, the Treaty of Shimonoseki, was a blow to China. The April 17 treaty demanded that China recognize Korea as an independent Japanese protectorate. Further, it called for China’s ceding of Taiwan, the Liaotung Peninsula in southern Manchuria, and the Pescadores to Japan. China also had to allow Japanese fishing vessels along the Yangtze River. Finally, the country had to open four additional ports to Japanese vessels, pay an indemnity of 360 million yen, and allow Japanese manufacturing within its borders.

The Fallout of the Sino-Japanese War

The crippling blows dealt to China equaled the soaring benefits handed to Japan as a result of the war and the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The Chinese government was forced to incur foreign debt in exchange for further western economic exploitation, while Japan used the money to expand its military and industrial holdings. Clearly, the Sino-Japanese War resulted in the firm establishment of Japan as the leading political, economic, and military leader of all of Asia. China, on the other hand, became a lesser power and faced further internal political upheavals. Despite its obvious victory, Japan faced international pressure resulting from the imperialist overtones of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Russia, which had its own obvious designs on Korea and Manchuria, persuaded France and Germany to join in its protest of the ceding to Japan of the Liaotung Peninsula. The “Triple Intervention,” as it was commonly called, humiliated Japan. Over the next fifty years, the humiliation served to fuel Japan’s imperialist resolve.

German Unification

On January 18, 1871, modern Germany was born. Prior to unification, the country was divided into independent states that comprised the sovereign regions of Prussia, the North German Confederation, the Confederation of German States, and the South German states. The rise of liberalism and German nationalism prompted the move toward unification, which was finally achieved—after several attempts—under the leadership of the first Prussian minister-president, Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898). Using unconstitutional and military methods, Bismarck, known as the “Iron Chancellor” after declaring that unification would come about by “blood and iron,” used the Austro-Prussian, or Seven Weeks’s War, which excluded Austria from the North German Confederation, to pave the way toward Germany’s eventual unification. Appointed minister-president of Prussia in 1862, Bismarck devoted his energy to unifying Germany and successfully accomplished his goal in just eight years.

The Franco-Prussian War

With Austria excluded from the North German Confederation, Bismarck was able to institute a new constitution that organized a strong federal union of twenty-two North German states. This new North German Confederation was designed to eventually include South German states, Baden, Wurtenburg, Bavaria, and Hesse-Darmstadt. Because the southern states were cautious about guarding their sovereignty, and because their liberal parties vehemently opposed the authoritarian and military Prussian system, Bismarck knew they would only be driven to unification out of necessity. This leads historians to argue over whether Bismarck planned a war with France to drum up the German support he eventually received. Some believe that it was a premeditated strategy, while others contend that the leader never planned the war. Regardless, on July 19, 1870, France declared war after a perceived insult from King William I of Prussia (1787–1888) via Bismarck about the question of the German influence over succession to the Spanish throne.

Within a few days, just as Bismarck had hoped, Bavaria, Wurtenburg, Baten, and Hesse-Darmstadt had joined Prussia in its war against France. After three months of victories, the German states met in the Palace of Louis XIV at Versailles to discuss the future of Germany. Bavaria and Wurtenburg were reluctant to join the North German Confederation, but Baden and Hesse showed no resistance. The foreign ministers of Bavaria and Wurtenburg met with Bismarck in conferences throughout the war. They expressed their fear of losing sovereignty and showed clear signs of resisting unification. But then, on September 1, the Germans captured Napoleon and one hundred thousand of his men at the battle of Sedan. The demonstrated intensity of German nationalism persuaded Bavaria and Wurtenburg that unity was inevitable.

Diplomacy Begins

From September 22 to September 26, 1870, Bismarck conferred with representatives of the dissenting southern states. The representatives had by now accepted the idea of eventual inclusion in a vast German empire and used the constitution of the North German Confederation as a basis for talks. After proposing many special privileges and exceptions to the document, they realized unification would be a more diplomatic than constitutional effort. From that point on, Bismarck led a campaign of diplomacy that was met with a mix of strong support and bitter opposition. The National Liberal Party organized a campaign of support in the South German states, while the Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia (1831–1888) waged his own military campaigns in France. When Bismarck met with the two reluctant states in Versailles, he found them divided. By pitting the split states against one another, a situation Bismarck both relished and exploited, the minister-president was able to persuade Wurtenburg to settle. After isolating Bavaria for ten days, Bismarck secured the state’s signature on a treaty on November 25.

The treaty granted Bavaria “special rights” that seemed significant but meant nothing in reality. The “reserved rights” granted by the treaty were more substantial. They allowed Wurtenburg to control its own postal and telegraph systems and gave both Wurtenburg and Bavaria a degree of military independence. Bismarck recognized how costly these concessions were but decided they were worth the price. They did not fundamentally alter the Constitution, and every state agreed to accept the provision that made King William German Emperor, even though the South German states vehemently opposed the notion. Bismarck was able to secure the provision by bribing its most outspoken opponent, the king of Bavaria, Ludwig II (1845–1886). Until 1892, the Bavarian king received an annual thirty thousand marks from a special fund. Extending his diplomatic efforts even further, Bismarck used the king of Bavaria as an assistant in an endeavor to shield William I from embarrassment. Instead of making him emperor by act of parliament, Bismarck wrote a letter to the Prussian monarch asking him to accept the title instead. Then he sent the letter to Ludwig II for his signature. Having the request come from the king of Bavaria kept it from appearing unseemly.

Germany is Unified

As king of Prussia, William I was disappointed by his new title. “German Emperor” did not appeal to him as much as “Emperor of Germany”. The Constitution of the North German Confederation was amended so that “Emperor” replaced “President,” and “Empire” replaced “Confederation,” the new emperor insisted on waiting until January 18, 1871, the 170th anniversary of the Prussian Crown, to formally declare unification and his new title. He would thus begin his reign as a Prussian who ruled Germany. Bismarck enthusiastically supported the decision, because he was, above all else, a Prussian loyalist. In just eight years, Otto von Bismarck saved the Prussian monarchy and unified the German states. His anti-liberal, absolutist style symbolized a new type of nationalism that inspired even his most stalwart opponents.

European Colonization of Africa and Asia

Colonization, the ruling or displacing of indigenous populations by settler colonies claiming sovereignty beyond their national borders, usually refers to European imperialism, though colonization as a phenomenon is not limited to Europe. In the case of European colonization, though, most adventures into other continents were motivated by exploration and expanded by greed and a paternalistic belief in the superiority of white Europeans. This is especially true in the case of African colonization. European colonization of Africa began in the fifteenth century, when the Portuguese discovered a new trade route to India. Despite attempts to colonize the Indian and East Asian mainland, European interests only succeeded in controlling the ports—and that alone took two centuries. This was not the case in Africa. Missionaries came to the continent, in ever-increasing numbers beginning in the early 1800s, hoping to convert pagan, Muslim, and non-religious indigenous peoples to Christianity. Explorers came next, seeking raw materials and new industries. The largely unknown continent, with its vast tracts of unspoiled land, proved a gold mine for foreign investors. Before long, advancements in technology and industrialization spurred further exploration and land grabs by Europeans. Beginning in the 1880s, a so-called “Scramble for Africa” was on. Germany, Italy, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain fought each other over African land and natural resources that they had stolen from the African people. Colonization led to the destruction of indigenous cultural traditions, the weakening of family ties, and the enforcement of alien systems of law and economy.

European Colonization of Asia

In the fifteenth century, when Portugal discovered a new trade route to India, the Portuguese became zealous about seizing the most lucrative ports of East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and certain regions of India. The once-free ports were now controlled by the Europeans, who sought to eliminate any rivals. They attempted to enforce a monopoly in the spice trade by forcing local traders to pay customs duties in exchange for safe passage, but Asian maritime powers challenged the Europeans, ensuring the difficulty of a Western monopoly.

Centuries later, Dutch, French, and English traders began competing with the Portuguese for control over trade routes, textiles, and factory ownership. But India maintained political control over its interests by demanding gold and silver from the Europeans. As hard as they tried to expand their interests into the Indian mainland, the Europeans were overpowered by the might and organization of the Asians. When the Mughal Empire began to disintegrate, that might and organization was lost and the Europeans saw an opportunity to finally control Indian Ocean trade. By the 1870s, Britain had won the battle to become ruler of India, a position it held until August 15, 1947, when India won its independence.

European Colonization of Africa

The first foreign colonies in Africa were formally established in Sierra Leone in 1787. After 1870, European intervention in Africa began its steady and rapid increase. King Leopold II of Belgium (1839–1909) began the accelerated race for African land and resource control in 1876. He organized the International Africa Association, which was supposedly created to serve humanitarian and scientific purposes. In reality, the association served as a cover for him to make bogus treaties with several African chiefs and snatch nine hundred thousand square miles of territory for himself. To squelch any further such land grabs, Germany called a conference in 1884, and twelve European nations and representatives from the Ottoman Empire and the United States attended. The African people were allowed no representation. Many rules were made during the conference, but few were followed. Instead, European colonizers continued to deceive African natives out of their land by forming treaties with chiefs who could not read or understand them. Europeans gave the Africans alcohol, fancy costumes, and trinkets in exchange for tribal lands. By 1914, Ethiopia was the only African empire to remain independent from colonial rule.


Eugenics, the scientific and social movement that promotes racial “fitness” through selective breeding, gained widespread attention after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859. The book and its findings inspired biologists to seek out the mechanisms of human heredity. Before long, the term “eugenics” was coined to describe the heritability of intelligence, and eugenicists, after years of research, determined that genes determined behavior. Further, they believed that mental and moral behavior was different among racial and ethnic groups. Eugenicists, then, took issue with Social Darwinism, the popular philosophy that applied Darwin’s principles of evolutionary struggle and survival to human life. They argued that social policy initiatives inspired by Social Darwinism could not possibly benefit the poor or socially “unfit” if genes determined behavior.

In an attempt to gain scientific legitimacy, eugenicists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries espoused a two-pronged program to preserve the most “fit” of the species. The first prong, “negative eugenics,” would prevent reproduction among unfit stocks, while the second prong, “positive eugenics,” would encourage breeding among morally and mentally superior stocks, which would, they believed, remove the threat of deleterious human traits from the race. “Racial hygiene,” as the program was often called, was a response to increased waves of immigration into the United States during the early twentieth century. By 1912, the year of the first International Eugenics Congress, eugenic ideas had become socially accepted on a global scale. In 1907, Indiana became the first American state to enact a sterilization law. This opened the door to the formation of the Eugenics Records Office, which promoted aggressive negative eugenics campaigns championing sterilization measures and published extensive reports on the mental deficiencies of poor people, criminals, and various racial and ethnic groups. By 1911, the idea that disparities in health were genetically ordered, not influenced by environmental or socioeconomic factors, was widely accepted.

After World War I, studies relating IQ to race came into vogue, which shifted the focus of eugenics to define a genetic basis for intelligence. In 1927, the Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case gave further legitimacy to negative eugenics when it ordered compulsory sterilization of mentally handicapped citizens. This prompted the sterilization of thousands of people across the country. Popular and scientific skepticism of eugenic studies arose when news of experiments conducted by the Nazis during World War II became widespread. Anthropologists and biologists, armed with new data regarding genetic variation that challenged eugenics’s rigid biological representations of race, bolstered the case against the movement.



The mass immigration of foreign citizens to the United States during the nineteenth century changed the country forever. The new arrivals brought ethnic and religious diversity with them, particularly to the crowded urban centers of New York and Chicago. Scandinavians were largely responsible for settling in the American Midwest. Despite their contribution to the geographic and cultural landscape, immigrants were treated with open hostility that bred anti-alien movements and exclusionary laws. The rapid rise in immigration after 1827 can be traced to U.S. economic expansion. In 1832, 60,000 foreigners arrived on Amerca’s shores. In 1844, 75,000 more sought entry. The Irish and German potato famines and political upheavals, as well as failed revolutions in central Europe and Germany, drove those numbers up to 234,000 in 1847 and 380,000 by 1851. This unprecedented rate of immigration continued through 1854, by which time nearly 2.7 million people had entered the country. Immigration slowed during the Civil War years, 1861–1865, but it regained momentum afterward. Roughly 26.5 million foreigners became American immigrants between 1866 and 1914.

Anti-Catholic Sentiment

The majority of immigrants arriving at American ports throughout the nineteenth century were Catholic. British anti-Catholicism, fed by post-Reformation propaganda, had been rampant long before the first colonists came to America. The sentiment was carried to the New World. Bitter opposition greeted the notion of building Catholic churches and schools, and anti-Catholics disallowed the Mass from being celebrated publicly. This anti-alien feeling came from nativists who were largely American-born Protestants. They were convinced that opposing the desperately poor Irish and strange-tongued Germans somehow protected America.

In the first half of the century, nativists stepped up their anti-Catholic campaigns to include attacks on Catholic convents, schools, and churches; the publication of anti-Catholic newpapers and books; and massive demonstrations in which so-called “true” Americans assembled. By 1840, nativists channeled their hostility into political activism. The American Republican Party and the American Party, which later became known as the Know-Nothing Party, were two anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant groups to emerge during this time. By 1854, the Know-Nothings became the second most powerful political organization in the country. It enjoyed a very brief heyday—the party was in decline by 1856—that revealed the intensity of anti-Catholic sentiment in the country at the time.

During the Civil War, all Union supporters—American- and foreign-born—called something of a truce. After the Confederacy surrendered, nativist activity went into sharp decline. But the economic expansion that followed the war brought a renewed and reinvigorated rise in anti-Catholic sentiment along with the staggering influx of immigrants seeking a better life. In response to the “new immigration” of the 1880s, a wave that brought southern and eastern European newcomers to the United States, many nativist fraternal groups were formed. The largest and most significant of these was the American Protective Association, or the APA. The APA, founded in Iowa in 1887, boasted 500,000 members bound by the belief that the “new immigrants” were the “refuse of Europe.” The APA fizzled and disappeared by the end of the century.

Immigrants from Scandinavia

Scandinavian immigration began in the 1820s but reached its high point between 1861 and 1910. During this time, 1.9 million Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians settled in the United States. The causes for their emigration from their native countries included agricultural crises in those countries that had been caused partly by competition from imported goods and partly by surplus population. The Scandinavians also saw reverses in industrial and mining efforts during the late 1870s. The first Scandinavians to arrive in America made their homes in New York, but the majority that came later took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and headed straight to the Midwest. Lured by the promise of cheap land, the Scandinavians were largely responsible for settling Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.

Immigrants from China

Despite their intense impact on American finance and culture, the number of Chinese immigrants during the nineteenth century pales in comparison to other groups. Only about 41,000 Chinese came the United States before the Civil War, and just 284,567 arrived between 1861 and 1910. Many Chinese were forced to emigrate when their country’s population doubled in the century before 1850. Political turmoil and openness to Western influence were other factors leading to an increase in Chinese emigration. In the 1850s, the majority of Chinese immigrants came to California—where they worked peripheral jobs in the gold mining industry—from the Pearl River Delta in southeastern China. In the 1860s, large numbers of Chinese found work with the Central Pacific Railroad as builders of the transcontinental railroad. Despite their heroic efforts, their stellar work ethic, and their willingness to labor for very low wages, the Chinese were widely despised by whites. The drive to end Chinese immigration began in 1873 with the California Workingmen’s Party. Led by Irish-born, anti-Chinese labor leader Denis Kearney, the party was supported by railroad employers who no longer needed an army of unskilled workers. Nine years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned further immigration of Chinese citizens, was passed.

Immigrants from Italy

Three million Italians arrived on America’s shores between 1881 and 1910. In the next decade, another one million came. Italians made up the largest number of immigrants and helped mark the shift between the “old” and the “new” immigration. The old immigrants came from northern and western European countries, while the new immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Unlike their precursors, Italian immigrants were able to temporarily migrate to America, earn money, and then return to their countries of origin—where the economic situation was quite dire but where they would not suffer from ethnic or religious persecution. They would then start businesses and buy land there. Atlantic crossings in modern ocean liners made remigration feasible—travel was relatively easy, and land in their native countries was modestly priced. But not all Italians remigrated. Those who tended to stay in America were driven from their homelands by high taxes, little access to rare fertile land, and the spread of disease throughout the country’s vast vineyards.

Gilded Age

The era commonly referred to as the Gilded Age was a time of great anxiety and change for the United States. The quarter century from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the twentieth century was marked by an accelerated pace that transformed the predominantly rural country into an industrialized urban nation. Almost overnight, the largely northern European and African populace came to include vast numbers of people from all over the world. The rise in mechanization created huge corporations and a new class of wage laborers, and shifted the economy away from small farms and businesses. The “get rich quick” climate of the era encouraged rampant political corruption and fraudulent business practices that led to White House scandals and widespread layoffs. These factors prompted a dramatic shift in social mores, politics, and economics. Historians alternately refer to this period as the Age of Energy, the Age of Excess, and the Age of Industry, but The Gilded Age, the 1837 book by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warren that satirizes the post-Civil War era and its wildly corrupt, excessive, and frenzied nature, is the name that best describes this truly unique period of American history.


The most significant development of the Gilded Age was the rise of large corporations. In just twenty-five years, Americans traded hand-made goods for those sold by bureaucratically managed companies. The implications of this shift were monumental. By 1900, every American bought products from companies, supplied them with raw materials, or worked for them in some capacity. Corporations created competition in the marketplace by increasing production and lowering prices, and gave rise to a vast labor class of wage earners that had not previously existed. For the first time, people who owned businesses did not run them. Instead, salaried managers and a hierarchy of personnel did the work of the company. The railroad industry revolutionized business management out of necessity. The successful coordination of crews, fuel, repairs, and schedules over large geographic areas necessitated the creation of systematic management. Business leaders like Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) borrowed these management systems, which stressed cost accounting and undercutting competitor prices, and became quite successful. Unfortunately, this same system led to chronic overproduction in many industries, including the railroads. The combination of overproduction and rampant speculation led to a series of economic crises. The first so-called “panic” was precipitated by the 1873 collapse of the Jay Cooke and Company banking house. The collapse led to five and a half years of depression followed by a brief recovery, from 1879 to 1882. The national economy continued to move back and forth between boom times and depressions until 1898.

These economic downturns directly affected the new labor class of wage earners who worked for large industries and corporations. Chronic overproduction led to employee layoffs, wage cuts, and increased work for the same pay. Workers resisted these tactics by organizing unions and holding strikes. As a result, there were 9,668 strikes and lockouts between 1881 and 1890, with 1,400 of them happening in 1886 alone. Most of them were failures due to the violent suppression of workers’s organizations, ethnic divisions in the labor force, and the avoidance of electoral politics by large unions.


In 1832, 60,000 foreigners arrived on Amerca’s shores. In 1844, 75,000 more of them sought entry. The Irish and German potato famines and political upheavals, as well as failed revolutions in central Europe and Germany, drove those numbers up to 234,000 in 1847 and 380,000 by 1851. This unprecedented rate of immigration continued through 1854, by which time nearly 2.7 million people had entered the country. Immigration slowed during the Civil War years but regained momentum immediately afterward. Roughly 26.5 million foreigners became American immigrants between 1866 and 1914. The dramatic spike in immigration during the Gilded Age led to a climate of hostility between American nativists and foreign newcomers. Sheer racism accounted for much of the hatred, but resentment toward common laborers, usually the Irish or the Chinese, was blamed on low wage competition. Anti-alien hostility sometimes turned violent. In 1871, a white mob lynched eighteen Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles. In 1885, twenty-eight Chinese were murdered in Rock Springs, Wyoming, by another mob. Restrictive federal regulation followed in the form of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned further immigration of Chinese citizens. By 1890, nativistic fury was aimed at the “new immigrants” arriving from southern and eastern Europe, a group of people deemed “inferior” according to the quasi-scientific racism of the time. A rise in patriotism and Social Darwinism brought about a rise in exclusive hereditary societies such as the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, which was formed in 1889.

Victorian feelings about race, which tended to be harshly dualistic, caused European and Asian immigrants, and African American and Native Americans, to suffer equally. In the Victorian view, white, civilized, Protestant, American citizens were good, while non-white, savage, Catholic, and foreign citizens were bad. This belief system forced minority groups to the margins of society, where they stayed until the mid-twentieth century.


The combination of industrialization and immigration led to the dramatic rise of urbanization. In 1870, the nation boasted just fourteen cities with populations of 100,000 people. By 1900, it had thirty-eight, with Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York each claiming populations of over one million. The population of Chicago doubled between 1880 and 1890, and then doubled again by 1910. The concentration of new industries around transportation centers was the primary reason for the rise of the city. Mass transportation until 1890 was very slow because it relied on mules, horses, or mechanical cables for power. This meant that workers of all classes needed to live close to work. Urban wageworkers, despite working twelve- and fourteen-hour days, earned barely enough to live on. In 1890, the average non-farm worker labored over ten hours a day and made roughly $475 a year, far below nation’s average poverty level. This left no money for entertainment, which usually consisted of a daily newspaper or a trip to the park. Domestic life was hard. Many workers walked to work to save streetcar fare or took in boarders to make ends meet. The latter practice became commonplace. The 1890 census found that twenty-three percent of all households contained seven or more people. This led to excessive overcrowding, illustrated by the fact that by 1900, the tenement district of Manhattan’s Lower East Side claimed the dubious honor of being the most densely populated place in the world.


The term “populism” is rooted in the late nineteenth century political movement largely dominated by farmers, laborers, and radicals. Formed in the spirit of protest, the Populists sought to reform the political, economic, and monetary systems of the day. But populism has evolved over the years. Now the term refers to any political speech, style, or movement that appeals to the concerns of common people. This third party, born of anger, quickly became one of the most significant political movements in U.S. history, and its ideas continue to have power and appeal today.

The Origins of Populism

The farmers saw the railroads, as well as the many corporations that handled distribution and processing of foods, as middlemen that fattened their own wallets while shortchanging the producers. As wage labor developed, they dreamed of being their own bosses and the long-term prosperity such a life would bring. Motivated by the promise of self-reliance and economic independence, they endured prairie fires, grasshopper infestations, droughts, frosts, and numerous other hardships without complaint. They could abide hard times brought by the hand of God, but when politicians, bankers, and railroad tycoons started to make life difficult, they became angry.

In 1873, more than 1.5 million farmers became members of the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, or the Grange, as it was commonly called. The organization was founded by Oliver Hudson Kelley (1826–1913) in 1867 to serve as a secret society similar to the Masons that would educate farmers about the difficulties they faced and help ease their isolation. But farmers that signed on in 1873 sought more than education and social intercourse. They were concerned about the railroad’s power to set the rates and control the costs of shipping their crops to market. The farmers saw the railroads, as well as the many corporations that handled distribution and processing of foods, as middlemen that fattened their own wallets while shortchanging producers and consumers alike. To fight back, Grange members first began forming their own cooperatives. Doing that allowed them to negotiate directly with manufacturers and buy necessities at lower prices. Then they tried buying their own grain elevators and packing plants to remove the middlemen from the process. That did not work as well as they had hoped, but it did prompt some Grangers to push for state-owned and/or state-regulated railroads and related corporations.

In the 1870s, some Grangers and Eastern laborers came together to form the Greenback Party, a political organization dedicated to creating economic expansion. Because the same amount of money had been in circulation since 1865, increased business activity since that time made the dollar worth more and debts harder to pay off. The Greenback Party proposed the continued use of the “greenbacks,” or paper money, issued after the Civil War, or the creation of a gold and silver monetary system, or bimetalism. Despite its best efforts, the party failed to promote presidential candidates in the 1876, 1880, and 1884 elections and became largely defunct after 1884.

What the Grange and Greenback Party lacked was a truly broad-based, sustained political agenda. The political movement they needed, one founded on agrarian radicalism, was begun in Texas in the mid-1880s. Charles Macune and S. O. Daws formed the Farmers’s Alliance and encouraged members to engage in cooperative purchasing, manufacturing, and lending. By doing so, they would forge a new “cooperative commonwealth” that would effectively take economic power from the corporations and put it into the hands of the individuals. The movement took on a resemblance to religious fervor. Instead of just talking about the alliance, farmers persuaded and convinced. They sat down in people’s kitchens, hosted picnics, and sang songs. Soon, regular people, black and white, male and female, were speaking knowledgeably about the problems of monopolies, single currencies, and credit.

In 1889, the northern and southern halves of the Alliance met in St. Louis, Missouri, in a first attempt at becoming a unified, independent political party. An official organization was not formed at the meeting, but several common goals and political principles were decided. Alliance candidates in the 1890 election, even without the backing of a formal party, won four gubernatorial contests, the control of a handful of state legislatures, and more than fifty national House and Senate seats.

The People’s Party is Formed

Thirteen hundred representatives of the northern and southern branches of the Farmers’s Alliance inaugurated the People’s Party, the largest third party in U.S. history in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1892. Populists, as People’s Party members became known, believed in the principle that wealth belongs to the person that creates it, not corporations or middlemen who simply profit from the redistribution of the fruits of other men’s labor. This powerfully simple guiding principle helped the Populists gain power fairly quickly. But as the party became more powerful, its detractors, especially elite land- and business-owning Kansans, Minnesotans, and Nebraskans, became more numerous. The vehemence of their opponents led Populist leaders to fuse with the mainstream Democratic Party after the 1896 Democratic convention. The decision, though controversial, was reached after Populists heard William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) rail against Republican dependence on the gold standard. The bimetallist Jennings supported many other Populist ideals, which made him the perfect Democratic presidential candidate for Populists to support. But Bryan faced a formidable opponent in Republican William McKinley (1843–1901). He came to the campaign with more money and experience and was the first American politician to hire a professional fundraiser and campaign manager.

Populism Lives On

Because of McKinley’s political strength and the fact that many Americans considered the Populist’s ideas radical, threatening to the ideals of democracy and capitalism, and potentially dangerous, Bryan lost the 1896 presidential election. Although he was defeated, many Populist proposals were later taken over by progressive candidates in other parties. This shift brought about the rise of progressives who fought for a just and equitable society. Prompted by the desire to wipe out widespread corruption on the local, state, and national level, progressivism led to the formation of grassroots organizations that tackled the problems brought on by industrialization and rapid urbanization. Reformers continued to work on all levels to fight political, economic, and moral corruption. The People’s Party’s most enduring contribution to American politics might well be its use of populist rhetoric as an effective political tool. It has become a powerful political style that lives on to this day due to its belief in egalitarianism, honesty, democracy, and productivity.



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Conflicts with Western Tribes (1864–1890)

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