Native Americans, U.S. Military Relations with

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Native Americans, U.S. Military Relations with. American military history twists around and through Native American lives like a corkscrew. Of all the direct relationships that developed between Native Americans and the various offices, agencies, and branches of the federal government, none has been more ambiguous than that which evolved between the tribes and the U.S. Army. As an agent of conquest, the army undeniably used violence and terror to subjugate the tribes. But the violence was arbitrary and sporadic rather than methodical and unremitting. The army also performed numerous administrative tasks connected with Indian affairs, played an important diplomatic and ceremonial role in treaty negotiations, served as a constabulary on the reservations, sometimes provided tribes with rudimentary health care, distributed rations and annuities, and often acted as an intermediary between different tribes as well as between local whites and tribal leaders. The army recruited native males for military service, and numerous Indians developed strong bonds with the U.S. military as allies, auxiliaries, or scouts in conflicts with other tribal groups or foreign enemies. In short, the Native American–military relationship was a strange mixture of extreme emotions and behaviors: violence and compassion, hatred and comradeship, deceit and sincerity, moderation and excess.

The post–Revolutionary War United States made a national policy of expansion, despite the fact that the government lacked the military and financial strength to wage large‐scale wars of conquest against the tribes. Tribal land cessions and peace and friendship treaties between the tribes and Congress failed to halt white encroachments on Indian lands. Warfare erupted along the frontier. When Congress established the War Department in 1789, it allocated Indian affairs to the secretary of war, defining the “Indian problem” as one to be solved by military means.

Secretary of War Henry Knox, however, recognized that a military solution to the problem on the frontier would cost far too much blood and treasure. Several tribes, especially the Cherokees and Creeks in the South and the Shawnees, Kickapoos, Miamis, and others north of the Ohio River, held substantial military power. Knox's misgivings proved well founded in 1790 and again in 1791, when two military expeditions into the country north of the Ohio met with disaster at the hands of an Indian confederacy under the Miami war leader Little Turtle.

Knox and George Washington therefore designed an Indian policy to carry forward expansion in a more orderly fashion. This policy provided for an impartial dispensation of justice, a method of purchasing (rather than simply taking) Indian lands, the regulation of commerce with a view to ending the liquor trade, the punishment of those who infringed on tribal rights, and the promotion of “civilization,” or the propagation of economic techniques that would enable tribes to survive on greatly diminished landholdings. These ideas were incorporated into the Trade and Intercourse Acts between 1790 and 1834, and the army was authorized to police the frontier and implement the new policy. The War Department retained administrative control over Indian affairs until 1849, when the Indian Office was transferred to the new Department of the Interior.

From the 1790s on, the army functioned in the dichotomous role of trained fighting force and diplomatic representative. As Americans extended their frontiers, the army erected forts on the boundaries of Indian lands. These fortifications could be sallying points for punitive expeditions against the tribes, but were also trading posts, meeting places for treaty negotiations, depots for issuing rations, and temporary jails for rounded‐up whites who violated Indian territorial rights. Indians often came to the forts to complain of maltreatment or encroaching white settlers. A few treaties required army surgeons to provide health care for the tribes. A number of officers served as Indian agents and often used the forts as their administrative headquarters.

In the 1830s, the army acquired the onerous task of removal. The Indian Removal Act (1830) decreed that the eastern tribes were to be relocated west of the Mississippi. The army was assigned to round up tribal members, place them in stockades, and transport them to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), which Congress created in 1834. Removal was neither war nor an effort to protect human rights, and officers not infrequently questioned the ultimate goals of their missions. Cherokee removal particularly galled the officer corps. Major W. G. Davis, who assessed the Cherokee improvements on their lands, protested to the secretary of war that the Cherokee removal treaty was fraudulent and that the removal itself stained the army's reputation. Both Brig. Gen. R. G. Dunlap and the overall federal commander Gen. John Ellis Wool looked upon the whites waiting to move onto Cherokee property with disdain and asked to be relieved of their commands.

Until the Civil War, the army was primarily a small frontier force that mapped new regions, built roads, and implemented Indian policies. Except during major wars, such as the War of 1812, the second of the Seminole Wars, and the Mexican War, regular army strength never exceeded 10,000 soldiers and officers. The Civil War's phenomenal increase of regular and volunteer regiments helped to militarize public attitudes and produced a series of ruthless and sanguinary wars against the western Indians. The long Apache Wars, the bloody Santee Sioux War in Minnesota, and the massacres of the Navajos at Canyon de Chelly, the Cheyennes at Sand Creek, and the Aravaipa Apaches at Camp Grant can all be traced directly to the actions of volunteer militia, overzealous and inexperienced junior officers, and armed citizens' groups.

After the Civil War, the army was reduced in size and once more became basically a frontier force. Between 1867 and 1876, army manpower fell from 57,000 to about 25,000, where it remained until the outbreak of the Spanish‐American War. It was not, however, the same kind of army as it had been prior to the great conflict of 1861 to 1865. The warfare between the tribes of the Far West and the whites was a nightmare of violence, and the army seemed a potential agency to control the situation; there was even a movement to transfer the Indian Office back to the War Department. It was thought that regular army officers were better educated, had no local political axes to grind, and could look upon Indian affairs from a purely professional standpoint.

Christian missionary influences prevented the transfer of the Indian Office, but William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan, Nelson A. Miles, George Crook, and other veterans of Civil War service made efficient and merciless war on the tribes, regardless of the army's subordination to civilian Indian agencies. The army destroyed tribal horse herds, burned homes and food caches, chased Indians who had left their reservations, quelled internal disturbances, and generally made total war on recalcitrant native people until the 1890s. The outbreaks of warfare were unceasing, and the ruthlessness of these campaigns left a legacy of animosity toward the army that has lasted among some native people to this day.

Although the army made relentless war on Native Americans, the tribes did not break easily. On several occasions they foiled and defeated army units by better tactics and greater mobility. Badly needing personnel knowledgeable of Indian tactics and of western terrain, in 1866 the army formed the Indian Scouting Service. Thereafter, Native American men were recruited and paid regular army wages to track down and fight their traditional tribal enemies or, most notably in the Apache outbreaks, their own people. The Indian Scouting Service was disbanded in 1943, after achieving a record of bravery in action unequaled in American military history.

By the time the Scouting Service had been formed, many whites had already formed the opinion that Indians were naturally adept at making war and would make excellent soldiers. In 1890, Secretary of War Redfield Proctor authorized raising several all‐Indian infantry and cavalry units in order to capitalize on the presumed Indian proclivity for war and to legitimize Indians as American citizens. For a variety of reasons, these units were disbanded after seven years; but the active recruitment of Native Americans for military service has continued. Native Americans have served in every American war of the twentieth century in numbers greatly exceeding their proportional population. This, too, is a legacy of the long, stormy relationship between Indians and the U.S. military.
[See also Indian Treaties and Congresses; Native Americans in the Military; Native American Wars.]


Francis Paul Prucha , American Indian Policy in the Formative Years, 1962.
Don Rickey, Jr. , Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay, 1963.
Francis Paul Prucha , The Sword of the Republic, 1969.
Fairfax Downey and and Jacques Noel Jacobsen, Jr. , The Red Bluecoats, 1973.
Robert M. Utley , Frontier Regulars, 1973.
Robert M. Utley and and Wilcomb E. Washburn , Indian Wars, 1977.
Thomas W. Dunlay , Wolves for the Blue Soldiers: Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860–90, 1982.
Tom Holm , Stereotypes, State Elites and the Military Use of American Indian Troops, Plural Societies, 15, 1984, pp. 265–82.
Maurice Matloff, ed., American Military History, 1985.

Tom Holm

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