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Westward Expansion and Indian Culture

Westward Expansion and Indian Culture

It has long been argued that the process of western expansion helped form the American character. Such arguments hold that white Americans were hardened and strengthened as they moved westward across the continent, carving communities out of the wilderness. But it must be remembered that westward expansion had equally momentous consequences for the peoples who already occupied the land. These people, known as Indians, Native Americans, or American Indians, experienced the westward expansion of European and American settlers as a four-hundred-year assault on their culture, their land, and their very lives. In this assault, Europeans and Americans used war, enslavement, and disease to wrest control of the continent from its native inhabitants.

The common culture of trade

The end result of the centuries-long conflict between whites and Indians was the devastation of traditional Native American culture. But in the middle of the eighteenth century the population of whites and Native Americans was fairly evenly balanced. The tribes of the eastern seaboard had largely been defeated and driven westward by the expanding British colonies. However, there were a number of tribes in the trans-Appalachian region (the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River) and in the present-day Midwest that had established stable relationships with the French traders and soldiers who occupied the area. The French, at least, did not wish to conquer the Indians; they wanted to trade with them. For years French fur traders plied the woods and plains of America, trading knives, blankets, tools, and kettles for the Indians' beaver furs. Later, English and colonial American traders also began trading with Native American tribes. Years of contact with European and colonial American fur traders reshaped Indian culture. By the eighteenth century, Native Americans had a great deal of experience in dealing with white people, and they had incorporated white goods, guns, and horses into their cultural life.

Trade between whites and Native Americans encouraged other forms of cultural interaction. Many white traders married Indian women and were embraced by the women's tribes as family members. Whites and Indians traveled together on exploring and hunting missions, learning each other's language and way of life. But for all that they shared, there still existed a great cultural divide between the two peoples. In trade, for example, white traders sought to obtain as many furs as possible for the least amount of goods, and they were willing to bribe or trick Native Americans into an unfair exchange. Such traders believed the purpose of economic exchange was to protect their own interests and maximize their profit. The Native Americans had very different views. For them, exchanging goods was a way of cementing a friendship or an alliance. Friends, it was assumed, would look out for each other. Since white traders had so much more than they did, Native Americans often wondered why their friends did not give away more goods.

French-Canadian trader Pierre-Antoine Tabeau, quoted in The Native Americans, expressed his surprise at the Indians' view of trade:

The Arikaras [a tribe in North Dakota] look upon the whites as beneficent spirits who ought, since they can, to supply all its needs and it looks upon the merchandise, brought to the village, as if destined for it and belonging to it.... [I]t is a principle with them that he who has divides with him who has not. "You are foolish," said one of the most intelligent seriously to me. "Why do you wish to make all this powder and these balls since you do not hunt? Of what use are all these knives to you? Is not one enough with which to cut the meat? It is only your wicked heart that prevents you from giving them to us."

The fur trade helped maintain a general peace among the French, Native American, English, and colonial American peoples who occupied the North American continent, but that peace was only secure as long as no one of the powers felt strong enough to force its will on the others. For the first half of the eighteenth century, the relatively even balance of power kept a fragile peace, punctuated by occasional bloodshed as one group or another felt it necessary to claim new land or defend old. In the 1750s, however, a series of conflicts shattered this delicate balance and set the stage for white-Native American relations to change dramatically.

The end of Native American power

The French and Indian War (1754–63) was the first signal to the Native American tribes that the balance of power was shifting. The French, who had long been allied with the major midwestern Indian tribes, were defeated by the British and in 1763 gave the victorious British and Spanish vast tracts of American land, including most of the Ohio River Valley and the region that later became known as the Louisiana Territory (the area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains). Native American tribes were shocked at the French defeat and appalled that the French believed they could give away land to which they held no real claim. The Shawnee, according to Richard White in The Native Americans, demanded to know "by what right the French could pretend" to give away this land. The Native American tribes despaired that they now must deal solely with the English and their aggressive colonists, neither of whom had ever treated the Indians with cordiality or respect.

The next major setback for Indian peoples came with the American victory in the Revolutionary War (1776–83). Forced to choose sides in the conflict between the British and the colonists, the most powerful Native American tribes sided with the British. Cherokee, Iroquois, and Algonquian warriors all fought alongside the British, and to great effect. Had the war been decided based on the battles supported by Indian warriors in the west, the British would surely have won. But the British were defeated in the east, and with their forces stretched thin, they conceded defeat and granted full control of the contested lands to the Americans in 1783.

No longer impeded by British rule, which had limited westward expansion of the colonies, the Americans began moving out into the fertile trans-Appalachian region. Any Indian resistance to white encroachment was interpreted as hostility, and Americans became determined to drive the "uncivilized" and "hostile" Indians from the land. American settlers in the region were defended by a variety of military expeditions. Native American tribes (with the continued backing of the British, who hoped to maintain the fur trade in the Midwest) succeeded at mounting a credible resistance. But a third war, the War of 1812 (1812–14), finally drove the British from the U.S. interior and smashed any hopes the Native Americans had of unifying to resist the white advance. After 1814, Native American tribes were left to defend themselves against a powerful nation increasingly determined to control the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Each tribe adjusted to the march of westward expansion in its own way, but all eventually succumbed to the drive of the Americans to conquer the land. The following pages look at the way three tribes—the Iroquois, the Sioux, and the Navajo—dealt with the pressures of westward expansion.

The Iroquois

Occupying most of present-day western New York, the five tribes that made up the Iroquois—the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—had long ago established a peace among themselves that made them one of the most influential Indian nations in the East. Legend has it that the five tribes so loved war that they could not give it up. Indeed, warfare was the primary means by which men gained status and moved into positions of leadership. But the tribes had recognized that war between them was too destructive. Over a period of years (perhaps as early as the fifteenth century), wise leaders from the five tribes realized the benefits of joining the tribes into the Iroquois Confederacy. The five tribes agreed to fight one another no more and to direct their warriors' energies toward the many enemies that lived to the north, east, and south.

The first Europeans to confront the Iroquois found them a powerful force indeed. Both French and Dutch traders had to contend with the Iroquois, who controlled the fur-rich country south of Lake Ontario. The Iroquois resisted any alliances with the French, who had often sided with enemy tribes, and instead negotiated treaties with the Dutch and later the English. The whites benefited from the furs the Iroquois trapped in their streams and woods, while the Iroquois enjoyed and then came to depend on the goods they acquired from the white men, including cloth, metal goods, farm tools, axes, firearms, and ammunition.

The Iroquois had not abandoned war when they began to interact with Europeans. Even as white diseases decimated their population in the seventeenth century, the Iroquois stepped up their warfare on other Native American peoples, taking many hostages to rebuild their tribe. Armed with European weapons, the Iroquois were more formidable than ever. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Iroquois had defeated the Huron, the Wyandot, and the Erie and emerged as the most powerful tribe in the region. Only the French—with their superior numbers, weaponry, and organization—were strong enough to defeat the Iroquois, and they did so late in the century. Realizing that they could not stand against the French forces, the Iroquois leaders attempted instead to maintain neutrality, playing the French off the English, who had taken over control of the colony of New York from the Dutch in 1664. This neutrality endured through most of the eighteenth century, allowing the Iroquois to rebuild their communities and their population.

Fighting in the white man's wars

The neutrality of the Iroquois lasted only until the French and Indian War (1754–63). During this conflict between the French and the British over control of the American interior, the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy were divided. Eastern tribes like the Mohawk supported the British, while the western Seneca fought alongside the French. When the English won the war, they occupied the French forts and were generally less accommodating to the Indians than the French had been. Resenting English dominance, the Seneca rebelled in 1763 and 1764 and were severely reprimanded, losing claim to much of their land.

With the coming of the Revolutionary War in 1776, the Iroquois were again forced to take sides. Again, some warriors allied themselves with the British while others fought with the colonists. In some battles, Iroquois fought against Iroquois. The British and their Iroquois allies so terrorized colonists in western New York that in 1779 General George Washington (1732–1799) ordered Major General John Sullivan to lead his forces into Iroquois country. Sullivan's campaign wiped out nearly every major Iroquois village and laid waste to crops and farmland. The Iroquois, led by warriors Joseph Brant, Kayengkwaahton (also known as "Old Smoke"), and Cornplanter, fought back fiercely and reclaimed many of their tribal lands. However, when British forces surrendered in 1783, they ceded to the Americans all of the Iroquois land.

In negotiating the treaties that followed the end of the war, the hostile Iroquois tribes at first insisted that they had not been defeated, but the superior strength of the U.S. Army persuaded them to back down. Signed under protest, these treaties banned the Iroquois from much of western New York and Pennsylvania and from all of Ohio. Many of the Iroquois retreated into Canada to live on the Grand River Reservation (also known as the Six Nations Reserve) on the north shore of Lake Erie. Their leader, Joseph Brant (1742–1807), recognized that the reservation could not provide enough land to support the men's major activity—hunting—and urged men to take up the agricultural work that had traditionally been left to women. Though Brant's plan to turn the tribe into farmers eventually worked, for years after the war the loss of morale on the reservation bred drunkenness, violence, and family instability.

The Navajo

The Navajo peoples of present-day New Mexico and Arizona were affected very differently by westward expansion than the eastern tribes were. In fact, the advance of the Americans was not the first time they had dealt with a foreign nation encroaching upon their tribal lands—Spain was the first to colonize the desert Southwest, beginning in the late sixteenth century. Because of their geographical location and culture, the Navajo resisted the depopulation faced by other more closely spaced tribes and did not experience cultural annihilation. At the end of the twentieth century, the Navajo had the largest population of all native peoples and were thriving in the land claimed long ago by their ancestors.

Archaeologists believe that the Navajo moved into the Southwest from far northwestern Canada and Alaska more than five hundred years ago. Unlike other native peoples, the Navajo did not live in large tribes but rather in small bands that claimed membership in larger clans. Though they recognized similarities with their fellow Navajo, they did not follow a single leader. Perhaps because of this, the Navajo proved adept at borrowing cultural customs from the Native American tribes that already lived in the Southwest. From the Hopi and the Pueblo they learned how to raise crops in the harsh desert landscape and how to construct dwellings. When they came into contact with Spaniards in the seventeenth century, they quickly acquired horses, sheep, and cattle. The Navajo depended upon sheepherding as the basis of their economic life into the twentieth century. The Navajo traced their family connections through their mothers, and women, men, and children all gathered food and tended sheep. Navajo religious beliefs focused on hozho, a complex term that combines balance, beauty, harmony, and goodness.

The Navajo's loose organization and their ability to thrive in the harshest desert landscapes left them relatively untouched by Spanish colonization. While the large Pueblo communities along the Rio Grande became bases for Spanish missionaries and soldiers, the Navajo remained secluded in the more remote parts of northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. When the Pueblo revolted against the Spanish in 1680 and were later attacked, many of them moved into Navajo lands. The Navajo adopted many Pueblo customs, including their agricultural methods—especially the raising of corn.

The American menace

The Navajo's contact with American colonists and soldiers began after the United States acquired present-day New Mexico and Arizona from Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War (1846–48); this contact brought conflicts and hardship the tribe had never before endured. At the first meeting between American officials and Navajo representatives, a false accusation of horse theft ended in violence when white soldiers shot and killed seven Navajo. The survivors of the meeting spread word of the invaders' hostility. Navajo leader Manuelito, the son-in-law of one of the dead, vowed to avenge his relative's death and spoke for those who wished to resist white settlement. Other Navajo leaders wanted peace, but no Navajo leader could speak for the whole tribe. Even when Navajo tribes made treaties with the Americans, other Navajo felt no obligation to comply.

In the early 1850s, the U.S. Army announced its intention to dominate Navajo lands with the construction of Fort Defiance in the middle of traditional Navajo grazing lands. Minor skirmishes between Indians and soldiers heightened tensions, and in April 1860 Manuelito and another Navajo leader named Barboncito led one thousand warriors in a major attack on Fort Defiance. Though they nearly succeeded in taking the fort, the Indians were eventually driven back. This and other attacks convinced American leaders that they must drive the Navajo from their lands, and Colonel James Carleton took charge of this task in the fall of 1862.

Carleton selected legendary trapper and explorer Kit Carson (1809–1868) to lead the roundup of the Navajo and announced that every Indian who did not surrender and relocate to the reservation he had selected would be killed. But few Navajo surrendered to Carleton's bullying. Most disappeared into the hills and mountains, eluding capture for half a year and wearing out many American soldiers in the process. Eventually, however, thousands of the Navajo gathered in a network of canyons and rivers in an area of present-day Arizona known as Canyon de Chelly. Carson's men tracked the Navajo there and relentlessly burned their fields, poisoned their wells, and killed many, including women and children. These actions forced the surrender of nearly six thousand Navajo early in 1864. The Navajo were marched to Fort Defiance, and though many escaped during the journey and hid in the isolated canyons of northern Arizona, many more learned that they would be sent to a reservation far from their home.

The Long Walk

On March 6, 1864, the soldiers at Fort Defiance gathered twenty-five hundred Navajo refugees and started them on a long trek past the borders of their homeland to the reservation of Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner in east-central New Mexico. This was the Long Walk, a part of Navajo history still remembered with great sorrow and bitterness. Many people died or were killed on that journey. The army had not supplied enough food, but the Indians were forced to continue marching despite hunger and cold. Those who were too sick, weak, or old to keep up were killed or left behind.

By the time the group reached the Rio Grande, the spring melt had flooded the river, making it very treacherous to cross. The Indians tried to get across any way they could, but many were swept away and drowned. At the end of their ordeal they arrived at the wasteland that was to be their new home. The Bosque Redondo reservation, which Carleton had promised would be a garden of Eden, was nothing but a desolate, barren flatland with no means of support for the Indians. Carleton had not provided enough food or supplies for the inhabitants of the remote reservation, nor had he considered how difficult it would be for the exiles to become self-supporting as farmers on such a worthless piece of land.

A people united

For all the horror of life on the reservation, the Navajo's time at Bosque Redondo had one positive effect: it helped them realize their unity as a tribe. Slowly, the Navajo came to recognize that their interests would be best served if they acted in unison. By 1868, after four miserable and devastating years at Bosque Redondo, a group led by Barboncito negotiated with the Americans for their release. Offered land alongside the other tribes living in Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma), Barboncito replied, according to The Navajos author Peter Iverson, "I hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country than my own." Eventually, the Navajo signed a treaty that granted them 3.5 million acres of their original land in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. The U.S. government also agreed to supply the Navajo with fifteen thousand sheep and goats and five hundred cattle. In return, the Navajo agreed to end their hostilities and to allow the construction of railroads through their land. In the early morning hours on June 18, 1868, more than seven thousand Navajo began their six-week journey home from exile.

Returned to the land they loved, the Navajo rebounded from their subjection like no other Indian tribe in America. Their population grew, and their sheep herds grew even faster. By the late 1870s the Navajo petitioned for an expansion of their reservation. The land granted to them was the first of many additions, and by the twentieth century the lands controlled by the Navajo had nearly tripled from their original reservation. Sheepherding continued to be a major element of Navajo life, but with increased contact with white Americans in the twentieth century, the Navajo also began to profit from the sale of traditionally designed rugs, jewelry, and pottery. In the late twentieth century a significant proportion of the Navajo still spoke their native language and followed traditional cultural customs. Living in a desert land that whites did not covet, this Indian tribe managed to survive westward expansion intact.

The Plains Indians

Their land was known on the white man's maps as the Great American Desert. Stretching from the Mississippi River on the east to the foot of the Rocky Mountains on the west, and from the Canadian border all the way south to Texas, the land roamed by the Plains Indians was a vast prairie, dry in the summer, windblown and cold in the winter. It was a land of waving grasses and millions of buffalo, antelope, and prairie dogs. Long after tribes in the rest of the country had been either exterminated or forced onto reservations, the inhabitants of the Plains lived independent of the white man's laws. The Sioux (the largest of the Plains tribes, containing many smaller clans), Crow, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Comanche, and many others spoke different dialects and had different cultural customs, but they shared common cultural traits. They hunted for buffalo; were often nomadic, traveling to where the hunting was good; and preferred war to life on the reservation. These tribes clung to their ways even in the face of an unprecedented onslaught of white attacks against the native peoples.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, Plains tribes had engaged in small-scale agriculture and had hunted on foot—a difficult task when hunting thousand-pound buffalo. These Native Americans lived in tepees (or tipis), conical structures that consisted of long poles joined together at the peak and wrapped in buffalo hides. They moved their tepees by means of travois (pronounced truh-VOY), a simple vehicle consisting of a net or blanket supported by two long poles, which were often pulled by their dogs. Their limited mobility changed dramatically after 1680, when various Native Americans came into possession of horses brought into the country by the Spanish.

The horse transformed Plains culture, allowing tribes to move long distances across the prairies and, most important, allowing them to rely on buffalo for the majority of their food supply. Warriors embraced the horse as a fighting companion, as revealed in this comment by Crow chief Plenty Coups, quoted in 500 Nations:

My horse fights with me and fasts with me, because if he is to carry me in battle he must know my heart and I must know his or we shall never become brothers. I have been told that the white man, who is almost a god, and yet a great fool, does not believe that the horse has a spirit. This cannot be true. I have many times seen my horse's soul in his eyes.

Plains culture changed again in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when eastern tribes fleeing the expansion of the British colonies began to move into the trans-Mississippi region. The increased competition for hunting grounds and for buffalo led to warfare between the tribes, and over time the Plains Indians became skilled warriors, often attacking from their swiftly moving horses. The Sioux tribes were especially known for their skills as warriors. The most populous of the Sioux peoples, the Dakotas, may have numbered as high as twenty-five thousand members. They were an athletic tribe, with high cheekbones and prominent noses. They wore bright war paint when going to battle and were known for their lavish headdresses adorned with feathers, which commemorated their feats of daring. For years, popular illustrations of Indians always pictured a Dakota Sioux; it was this tribe that was depicted on the old Indian-head penny and nickel.

The white invasion

When whites first began to move across the Plains in the 1830s, Plains Indians noted their passage with interest but no great concern. After all, these small bands of travelers were just passing through, not disturbing Indian hunting grounds or staking claim to Native American land. As the traffic increased in the 1840s and 1850s, carrying travelers to gold claims and fertile land in the Far West, the white presence became a problem. As Alvin M. Josephy Jr. explains in 500 Nations: "Although the Americans made no critical demands on the tribes for cessions of Great Plains territory, their increasing traffic drove away game, destroyed wild-food gathering grounds, polluted water sources, and spread measles, whooping cough, and other dread sicknesses among the Indians. Then in 1858 and 1859, gold discoveries on the South Platte River at the foot of Colorado's Rockies started a stampede of whites across the buffalo-hunting grounds of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa, and Comanche Indians."

Using the Buffalo

The Plains Indians depended on the buffalo not only for food but also for a variety of other uses. The hides of buffalo calves provided swaddling for newborn babies, while the thick hides of adult buffalo were sewn together to make the coverings for the giant tepees the Indians used for shelter. Hides were also used to make clothing, moccasins, bags, and other items. Buffalo bones were used to make tools such as scrapers, knives, and cooking utensils; rib bones were used as runners for sleds. Even buffalo dung was used, for fires.

Buffalo products also had less pragmatic uses. Skulls, horns, and decorated hides were used in ceremonies and for ornamentation. Other parts of the animal were used to make rattles and drums, dolls and toys, and shields.

Many stories about the American West have turned out to be myths or exaggerations, but this one is true: the Indians used every last bit of the buffalo that they killed.

The effects of this encroachment cannot be overemphasized. Disease nearly exterminated some tribes. The Mandan tribe saw its population decrease from thirty-five hundred to less than two hundred after a smallpox epidemic. Richard White, writing in The Native Americans, described the last moments of Mandan chief Four Bears': "The whites, whom, he said, 'I always considered as Brothers [have] turned out to be my Worst Enemies.' He did not fear death, but it was too much 'to die with my face rotten that even the Wolves will shrink in horror at seeing Me.'" In the late 1850s and early 1860s, army troops determined to protect settlers and travelers tried to herd various Native American tribes onto reservations or toward Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma—ignoring previous treaties that granted the Indians free access to the land in exchange for permitting white passage through the country.

In the early 1860s Indian leaders were divided over whether they should make peace with the white invaders or oppose them. When the primary proponent of peace, Black Kettle, and his people were ruthlessly slaughtered in the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 (see Chapter 7), those who wanted to make war had even more reason to do so. Following the end of the Civil War (1861–65), the Indians had no choice but to fight, for top U.S. military leaders had set their sights on removing the Indian "threat" from the southern Plains.

Though the military scored victories against the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, perhaps the most damage to Plains Indian life was inflicted in the early 1870s by buffalo hunters. According to Josephy, "In 1871, an eastern tannery had developed a method to produce superior leather from buffalo hides.... The price of buffalo hides had shot up, and almost overnight the southern plains had filled with hide hunters, killing buffalo by the hundreds of thousands. It was an obscene period. Between 1872 and 1874, the hunters ... slaughtered almost four million of the great beasts...." By the mid-1880s the buffalo population had been reduced from some thirty million to fewer than one thousand. "A bond of spiritual understanding between Native Americans and the buffalo, going back thousands of years, had been ripped apart," according to Josephy. Deprived of their primary source of food, many Native Americans had no choice but to go onto the reservations and accept government rations. The Indians of the southern Plains had been defeated—but the northern tribes remained, and they were unifying for a showdown with white forces.

War on the northern Plains

The contest for the northern Plains began, as in the south, following the massacre of Black Kettle's people in 1864. Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, determined to avenge the murders, terrorized white settlers and travelers along the Platte River, a main byway on the Oregon Trail (see Chapter 5). They set fire to ranches, burned whole towns, and ripped down miles of telegraph wire, making communication and travel across the prairies tremendously difficult. Army troops led by General John Pope (1822–1892) attempted to defeat these tribes in battle, but Pope could never find enough Indians or achieve a decisive military victory. In fact, Lakota warriors led by Red Cloud (1822–1909) proved so successful at interrupting movement along the Bozeman Trail through Wyoming and Montana that the army decided to evacuate its forts in that part of the country. In the late 1860s, it seemed as if the northern Plains tribes might successfully defend their land.

A variety of treaties between the government and Indians barred white settlement on Native American lands and pledged that Indians would not disturb white travelers. But such treaties almost always failed: Native American tribes did not always accept the authority of treaty signers to bargain away their rights, and whites simply ignored the prohibitions on settlement. White settlers believed that American lands should be theirs for the taking, and they expected that the U.S. Army would support them if they ran into trouble. Most often they were right. The Treaty of 1868 guaranteed the Sioux the western half of present-day South Dakota, but when prospectors found gold in the Black Hills area—sacred ground to the Native Americans—settlers and miners poured into the region, protected by the might of the U.S. Army. In 1874 the army constructed a fort in the heart of the Black Hills, starting the confrontation that would end the Indian wars in the United States and devastate the northern Plains tribes.

With war in the wind, representatives of the U.S. government met with twenty thousand Sioux in 1875 to settle claims to the land. Tribal leaders railed against the government for its treachery. According to Josephy, Lower Yanktonai chief Wanigi Ska (White Ghost) told the white men:

You have driven away our game and our means of livelihood out of the country, until now we have nothing left that is valuable except the hills that you ask us to give up.... The earth is full of minerals of all kinds, and on the earth the ground is covered with forests of heavy pine, and when we give these up to the Great Father we know that we give up the last thing that is valuable either to us or to the white people.

Hunkpapa Sioux leader Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890) was more succinct: "We want no white men here. The Black Hills belong to me. If the whites try to take them, I will fight." Negotiations broke down, and General Philip Sheridan simply ordered all the Sioux to report to their assigned reservations. No Native Americans obeyed Sheridan's order, and the war started.

For a time, the Plains tribes thwarted the army. Eastern newspapers mocked the efforts of the experienced white soldiers to capture a band of "savages." In late June 1876 some eight hundred troops led by General George Custer (1839–1876) attacked a Sioux encampment on the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Not suspecting the strength of the Sioux forces, Custer and his men were wiped out. It was the Sioux's greatest victory and perhaps the greatest victory the American Indians ever had. (See Chapter 7.)

Following the Battle of Little Bighorn the Indians separated into smaller groups but they were hunted down by Generals Alfred Terry and George Crook. Sitting Bull and his band escaped into Canada; Oglala Sioux chief Crazy Horse (c. 1842–1877) was hounded by soldiers until 1877, when he finally surrendered and led his people onto a reservation; he died a few months later. Other tribes were slowly sent to reservations as well. Their spirit had been broken by the white soldiers' never-ending pursuit and the continuing stream of white settlers who claimed Indian land as their own.

Forced onto reservations

Like other defeated Indian tribes across the nation, the Plains tribes were confined to reservations. Overcrowded and with poor land, the reservations were a miserable place to live for people accustomed to roaming freely across a great expanse of territory. In the 1880s many Indians on the northern reservations began to follow a new religion called the Ghost Dance, which promised to drive the white man from their land and return them to power. The communal dances and ceremonies scared the whites guarding the reservations, as did the presence of famous chiefs like Sitting Bull. For his alleged support of the Ghost Dance, Sitting Bull was arrested and murdered by the police in 1890.

Also in 1890, a group of Indians led by Miniconjou Lakota chief Big Foot hoped to escape the desperation on their reservation and join the Oglala reservation of Red Cloud. At the time, the U.S. Army was pursuing the arrest of Ghost Dance leaders. The U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry rounded up the weary travelers in late December 1890 and led them to Wounded Knee Creek. On the morning of December 29, the Indians were ordered to give up their weapons. When a gun was accidently discharged, the soldiers started a bloodbath like no other in Indian history. Surrounding the virtually defenseless Indians, the soldiers opened fire with their battery of Hotchkiss guns (primitive machine guns), killing hundreds of men, women, and children. Even those who tried to crawl away from the battle were shot and left to die in the snow. Oglala holy man Black Elk, quoted in 500 Nations, said of Wounded Knee: "A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.... The nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."


The massacre at Wounded Knee marked the end of meaningful Native American resistance in America. Of the hundreds of tribes and millions of Indians who had roamed the continent before the white men arrived, only thousands remained, herded onto reservations not of their choosing and forced to rebuild their cultures from the scraps that their white conquerors left them. America's native populations were the clear losers in the nation's westward expansion. The majority of Indians in America remain on their reservations. Many tribes experienced a resurgence in the late twentieth century, thanks to their opening of casinos and, in the Pacific Northwest, their success in protecting tribal fishing rights. But the fact that they remain isolated on reservations stands as a constant reminder of their defeat.

For More Information


Ballantine, Betty, and Ian Ballantine, eds. The Native Americans: An Illustrated History. Atlanta, GA: Turner Publishing, 1993.

Fichter, George S. How the Plains Indians Lived. New York: David McKay, 1980.

Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Iverson, Peter. The Navajos. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Snow, Dean R. The Iroquois. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Underhill, Ruth M. The Navajos. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956, 1989.

White, Jon Manchip. Everyday Life of the North American Indians. New York: Indian Head Books, 1979.

Web sites

Georgia College and State University. Ina Dillard Russel Library Special Collections: Native American Resources. [Online] (accessed April 6, 2000).

The Navajo Website. [Online] (accessed April 6, 2000).

"Pueblo Indians and Revolts." New Mexico History. [Online] (accessed April 6, 2000).

Sacred Beings: Buffalo and Deer, Sustainers of Life. [Online] (accessed April 14, 2000).

Sheppard, Donald E. "Native American Conquest: Early American History for Teens." New Perspectives on the West. [Online] (accessed April 14, 2000).

Wounded Knee. [Online] (accessed April 6, 2000).

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  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.