Reporting the Indian Wars

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Reporting the Indian Wars


Only the Brave Need Apply. After the Civil War the conflict between white frontiersmen and the Plains Indians changed from a guerrilla conflict to an all-out war fought between various western tribes and the U.S. Army. Lasting from 1866 until 1891, the Indian wars provided fresh opportunities to practice the reporting techniques developed during the Civil War. Aside from courage, a correspondent needed a good horse, a weapon, and a reliable courier to carry dispatches to a town with a telegraph office. Many times journalists had to fight as a matter of survival.

Could Anyone Expect Less? The first phase of the wars, lasting until 1878, was fought on the open plains. As Gen. Philip Sheridan stated: We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this that they made war. Could anyone expect less? The second phase came after the government set aside reservations for the Native Americans. Plains Indians did not adapt well to reservation life, and the government did not provide enough food. Efforts to leave the reservations became commonplace. The plains were irredeemably transformed in the fifteen years after the first railroad was completed through the Indian hunting grounds in 1860. Railroad towns grew up, and mining settlements followed. The endless prairie had become home to the whites.

Breakouts and Cleanups. After Gen. George Armstrong Custer and five entire companies of his regiment were killed at the Little Big Horn by the Sioux and Cheyenne (25 June 1876), the U.S. Army increased its efforts and eventually succeeded in breaking Indian resistance on the Great Plains. Correspondents covering the campaigns against the Nez Perce (1877), Bannock (1878), Northern Cheyenne (1878-1879), Ute (1879-1880), Apache (1885-1886), and Sioux (1890-1891) received better treatment from the army. When he went to cover the Third Cavalry in 1879, veteran Indian-war reporter John Finery of the Chicago Times was assigned an old trooped to take care of his horse. The cavalryman rode behind him as if Finery were an officer. His dispatches from the Apache campaign were among the last straightforward reports to come out of the western war. The so-called New Journalism had taken hold in New York, and the competition for circulation made later stories exaggerated, rumor based, and often outright false.


During the late nineteenth century most American newspaper reporters worked up to sixteen hours a day for just twenty to thirty dollars a week. Some beginning journalists earned as little as eight dollars, and other reporters were paid only by the number of lines they got into the paper. There was no reporters union, and many continued to be paid according to the same wage scale they had worked for during the Civil War. Reporters sometimes banded together to cover the city, but publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and James Gordon Bennett Jr. frowned on such cooperation. They instituted a spy system, kept benefits at a minimum, and limited story space, thus fueling sensationalism as reporters competed to get their stories in the paper.

One exception was Arthur Brisbane, whom Hearst lured to his paper with a salary of two-thirds what Pulitzer paid him, but with the promise of a $1,000 raise for every ten thousand copies the Evening Journal gained in circulation. At the height of the Spanish-American War, the paper sold almost two million copies in a single day, and printers ran out of paper. Because of the bonus clause in his contract his salary for the year topped $140,000.

Source: Michael Emery and Edwin Emery, The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media, 7th edition, revised and expanded (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992);

Joyce Milton, The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of Yellow Journalism (New York: carper & Row, 1989).

Half-Truth and Embroidery. Coverage of the Sioux conformation with the Seventh Cavalry in 1890 played on fears of a widespread Indian uprising all across the West, when in fact quashing of the Sioux uprising signaled the end of the Indian wars. More than twenty correspondents covered the events, including the illustrator Frederic Remington for Harpers Weekly, but only three actually witnessed

the killing of Sitting Bull and the infamous massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee. Some were experienced reporters while others had never seen a battle or submitted a story before, Most field reports based on embroidered accounts from scouts and camp followers. The Indian agency trading post and Findlays Hotel at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, became maelstroms of gossip and half-truths. Reporters amused themselves by collectively composing their own newspapers, such as the Badlands Budget and a parody dime novel called Short Bull, the Brigand of the Bad Lands. While the typical reader got a good picture of government mismanagement, the Indian point of view was absent from all coverage of the wars. In dress rehearsal for the excesses and half-truths of Spanish-American War reporting.


Oliver Knight, Following the Indian Wars: The Story Newspaper Correspondents Among the Indian Campaigners (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960);

George R. Kolbenschalg, A Whirlwind Passes: News Correspondents and the Sioux Indian Disturbance of 1890-1891 (Vermillion: University of South Dakota Press, 1990).

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Reporting the Indian Wars

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