The Indian Wars
of the United States

~1600 - ~1890

Indian wars were the struggles between Indians and white people for the rich lands that became the United States. The savage battles provide the background for many exciting stories and legends about frontier life and the nation's development.

English settlers established their first small colonies along the Atlantic Coast in the early 1600's. As they moved into Indian lands in greater and greater numbers, quarrels developed between the Indians and the whites. These disagreements often led to the death of an Indian or a settler. Most Indian wars resulted from such conflicts. Indian wars continued until the 1890's.

Indian wars were not like wars as we know them today. We would call them "campaigns," because the fighting generally took place within a small area, and involved comparatively few people. An Indian war usually took place between only one tribe and the white people who lived nearby. Sometimes the fighting spread, and many tribes joined in fighting the whites. Whites quickly adopted the tactics of the Indians, who struck in surprise attacks, usually at dawn. Indians killed or captured as many white men, women, and children as possible, and often scalped the dead. A French missionary wrote of Indians at war: "They approach like foxes, fight like lions, and disappear like birds."

A basic cause for the fighting between white people and Indians was the different way of life of each group. Some Indian tribes raised corn and other vegetables, but they all hunted wild animals for food and clothing. Most white settlers made a living by farming. In the East, they cut down forests to get farmland. After they destroyed trees and underbrush, wild animals could no longer live there. In the West, white hunters killed thousands of buffaloes just for their skins. The Indians usually had to choose between moving to new hunting grounds, which were often occupied by hostile tribes, or fighting to keep their old ones. They knew that the whites threatened both their lives and their security.

Both Indians and whites were to blame for the many frontier wars. The colonists refused to recognize Indian rights. They believed that Indians were savages without souls. The Indians, in turn, did not understand the colonists' ways of doing things. For example, when Indians signed a treaty, they thought they had sold only the right to use the land, not the land itself. They did not realize that they could no longer hunt on the lands of their ancestors, just because their chiefs had made marks on a piece of paper.

The Indian wars could end in only one way. European settlers came in a steady stream, and had large families. They quickly outnumbered the Indians, claimed their lands, and pushed them westward. When white people first landed in what is now the United States, about 1 million Indians lived there. Disease, strong liquor, and almost 300 years of warfare reduced this number to about 237,000 by 1900.

But the European settlers did not bring the first warfare to the area. Indian tribes had fought among themselves for thousands of years. They struggled constantly for the best hunting grounds and village sites, for revenge after the killing of a member of their tribe, and for personal glory. An Indian brave earned his highest honors in personal combat with an enemy. Some tribes honored a warrior more for merely touching an opponent than for killing the opponent. Many Indians thought that war and hunting were the only suitable occupations for a man. But not all Indian tribes were equally warlike. Some, including the Iroquois and the Apache, fought almost all the time. Others, such as the Delaware, usually remained peaceful. After the whites came, Indians fought mainly for survival. Many peaceful tribes had to "take up the hatchet" and "go on the warpath."

Most Indian wars were little more than futile attempts by desperate, poorly equipped Indians to keep their land and their way of life. The white people won in the end, and often rewrote history to suit themselves. A famous Indian-fighter, General Nelson A. Miles, said that "The art of war among the white people is called strategy or tactics; when practiced by the Indians it is called treachery."

Colonial days

The colonists and Indians got along well together at first. The English treated the various Indian tribes as independent powers, and bought land from them by treaties. But mistrust gradually developed between the colonists and Indians, and minor incidents flared into wars.

English colonists settled Jamestown in 1607. The friendly chief Powhatan ruled the confederated tribes of the area. A few years after he died in 1618, Opechancanough became chief. The new leader hated the English, and planned secretly to destroy their settlements. At this time, Jamestown and the other English colonies in Virginia had fewer than 4,000 settlers. In March 1622, Opechancanough led a furious assault along a 140-mile front, and killed 347 colonists. The survivors retreated to Jamestown, and laid plans to massacre the Indians. They invited the Indians back to plant corn. In the fall, the whites attacked. They destroyed the fields of corn, killed many Indians, and left the rest to starve. Twelve years of warfare followed. The Indians and whites made peace in 1634, but Opechancanough attacked again in 1644. The Indians killed over 300 English people, but were finally defeated after a fierce two-day battle.

The Pequot War (1637). New England colonists feared the Pequot Indians of the Connecticut River Valley more than any other Indians of the area. In 1636, Massachusetts settlers accused a Pequot of murdering a colonist. In revenge, the settlers burned a Pequot village on what is now Block Island, Rhode Island. Then Sassacus, the head Pequot chief, gathered his warriors together. Another chief, Uncas, helped the settlers with his band of Pequot (later called Mohegan). The colonists and their Indian allies attacked a Pequot village near West Mystic, Connecticut, at sunrise on June 5, 1637. They burned alive between 600 and 700 Indians. Cotton Mather, the Puritan scholar, wrote that the colonists thought this "a sweet sacrifice, and ... gave the praise thereof to God." Later that month, the colonists captured most of the remaining Pequot Indians and sold them into slavery in Bermuda.

King Philip's War (1675-1676). Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag Indians, had been a great friend of the Plymouth colonists. But they treated his two sons, Alexander (Wamsutta) and Philip (Metacomet), unfairly. After Philip became chief in 1662, he began plotting against the colonists, because he felt that his people could survive only by driving the whites out. In June 1675, he led an attack on Swansea, Massachusetts. During the next year, both sides raided villages and massacred hundreds of victims. The colonists captured Philip's wife and son and sold them into slavery. New England troops finally trapped Philip with a large force of Narragansett Indians in a swamp near South Kingston, Rhode Island. They defeated the Indians, ending the war in southern New England. Philip escaped but was hunted down and killed in 1676. Fighting in northern New England continued until 1678. The Indians killed more than 1,000 colonists, and completely destroyed 12 towns.

The Pueblo revolt (1680-1692). Spaniards began moving into what is now Arizona and New Mexico as early as 1540. They conquered more than 100 Indian pueblos, or villages. Spanish soldiers and priests set up a forced-labor system almost like slavery, and prevented the Pueblo Indians from worshiping their ancient gods. Finally the Indians struck back. Led by Pope, from San Juan pueblo, they attacked several Spanish settlements in August 1680. The Indians killed over 400 Spaniards, and besieged 1,000 more in Santa Fe. After several days without water, the Spaniards escaped to El Paso del Norte (now El Paso, Texas), and Pope became the master of New Mexico.

The Pueblo Indians ruled for 12 years, and destroyed almost every trace of the Roman Catholic Church. But Spanish soldiers under Diego de Vargas easily reconquered the territory in 1692, after Pope's death.

The French and Indian wars (1689-1763) were actually one long struggle between France and Britain for possession of North America. Both countries tried to win help from the Indians by bribing them with liquor and guns. Most Algonquian-speaking tribes had always been friendly to the French. So the Iroquois, who were traditional enemies of the Algonquian tribes, sided with the British.

Along the frontier

As settlers pushed westward across North America, the British and French tried many times to settle "the Indian problem." Their leaders offered several unsuccessful plans for an Indian Barrier State along the Mississippi River that would isolate the Indians from the land-hungry pioneers. A British proclamation in 1763 forbade white settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains.

After the Revolutionary War, the new government of the United States tried to protect the Indians by treaty. The government bought land as before, but set aside parts of it for the Indians. The first Indian reservation established by the United States government was created in 1786. But nothing could stop the American pioneers in their westward march.

Finally the government decided that the Indians could no longer remain living on their own land, surrounded by hostile settlers, but should move farther west to land that Americans did not want. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. This law gave the President power to move the Indians to land located west of the Mississippi River.

Pontiac's War (1763). During the French and Indian War, British traders and fur trappers had moved into the Ohio River valley of the Middle West. They drove out the French, and refused to continue the French custom of giving the Indians presents every year.

In 1762, Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, began to organize the many tribes of the region to fight the newcomers. It was probably the most far-reaching alliance of Indian tribes ever attempted in North America. In 1763, Pontiac's forces seized every British post between the Straits of Mackinac and western New York except Detroit and Fort Pitt. They besieged the fort at Detroit for about five months, but finally had to withdraw to their hunting grounds in October partly because the French cut off supplies.

Lord Dunmore's War (1774). A wave of traders and settlers in the 1770's alarmed the Indians in the southern Ohio River valley. These tribes included the Delaware, the Wyandot, the Shawnee, and the Cayuga Iroquois. Their raids gave Kentucky the name of "the dark and bloody ground." Virginia claimed the area, and its governor, Lord Dunmore, sent troops to restore order. On Oct. 10, 1774, about 3,000 soldiers defeated 1,000 Indians at what is now Point Pleasant, W. Va. The Indians then gave up their hunting lands south of the Ohio River.

Other Midwestern conflicts (1775-1832). During the Revolutionary War, the British encouraged the Indians to fight the American colonists. Henry Hamilton, British lieutenant governor at Detroit, was called "Hair Buyer," because he was said to have bought many American scalps from Indians. However, the United States won the Northwest Territory from the British during the Revolutionary War. After the war, the British hoped to regain the area and again encouraged the Indians to fight the Americans. In an area of the Northwest Territory that later became Indiana, Miami Indians under Chief Little Turtle defeated troops led by Brigadier General Josiah Harmar in 1790. A year later, an inexperienced army under Major General Arthur St. Clair retreated after a surprise attack. The Indians then formed a confederacy that included the Shawnee under Black Wolf, and the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi under Blue Jacket. Nearly 2,000 warriors gathered along the Maumee River in Ohio as Major General "Mad Anthony" Wayne marched against them in August 1794. The two forces met in a field strewn with fallen trees near what is now Toledo, Ohio. In the 40-minute Battle of Fallen Timbers, the American forces dealt the Indians a crushing blow from which they never recovered.

In the early 1800's, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother, known as the Shawnee Prophet, tried to form another alliance against the whites. Tecumseh traveled throughout the Middle West and the South, and won many Indians to his cause. While Tecumseh was in the South, the Prophet stirred up trouble in Indiana. William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, organized the militia and marched to the Indians' village on the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. The Prophet's men attacked Harrison's army before dawn on Nov. 7, 1811, at present-day Battle Ground, Ind. [near West Lafayette]. The two forces fought hand-to-hand in a chilly drizzle, and the Indians fled just after daylight. Harrison's victory in the Battle of Tippecanoe helped elect him to the presidency 29 years later, in 1840. He and his running mate, John Tyler, rallied American voters with the famous slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too."

Many tribes in Tecumseh's alliance joined the British and fought against the Americans in the War of 1812. They helped the British defeat Brigadier General William Hull at Detroit, and forced many white settlers in the region to retreat eastward after the Fort Dearborn massacre of 1812. But most Indian resistance in the Middle West crumbled after Tecumseh died in 1813, and after the British surrendered their posts the following year. The last Indian war in the area, the Black Hawk War, took place in 1832. This unsuccessful attempt by the Sauk and Fox Indians to regain one of their villages (now Rock Island, Ill.) has become well known because Abraham Lincoln took part in it, although he saw no action.

In the South (1813-1842). Tecumseh had stirred up the Creek Indians, who "took up the hatchet" throughout Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. In 1813 they attacked Fort Mims in Alabama, and massacred several hundred settlers. Panic seized the entire southern frontier. Andrew Jackson rallied a force of militiamen with the slogan "Remember Fort Mims." They broke the power of the Creek in 1814 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River in east-central Alabama. The Creek then gave up a huge tract of land. The Seminole, a southern branch of the Creek in Florida, became angry because the Creek gave up the land. They rose against the whites in the First Seminole War (1817-1818). Jackson marched into Florida with 3,000 men. His action forced Spain to give up that territory but did not completely subdue the Seminole, who began fighting again in 1835. In this Second Seminole War, they struggled desperately for seven years. Their chief, Osceola, vowed to fight "till the last drop of Seminole blood has moistened the dust of his hunting ground." The whites captured Osceola in 1837, but the Seminole fought on until they were nearly wiped out. Many surviving Seminole moved west, but some who had retreated into the Everglades remained there.

Death on the Plains

When the government first moved the Indians beyond the Mississippi River, it settled them in the Indian Country. This huge region included almost all the land between the Missouri River and the Oregon Territory. Treaties guaranteed this land to the Indians "as long as the rivers shall run and the grass shall grow." Americans at first considered the area too dry for farming. But pioneers who traveled to the Southwest, California, and Oregon soon began to cast hungry eyes on the land they passed through. Prospectors discovered gold and silver on Indian land. The government began buying parts of the land back from the Indians during the 1850's, and settled them on reservations throughout the West.

The Plains Indians fought to keep their hunting lands and to avoid being confined to reservations. These Indians, unlike those in the East, owned horses. American soldiers praised their daring enemies as "the best fighters the sun ever shone on." But fighting between Indians and whites was so bitter that many Westerners claimed that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

In this later period of Indian warfare, the U.S. Army took over from the state militias the job of fighting Indians. Also, the Indian Bureau, formerly in the War Department, became part of the Department of the Interior.

The Sioux wars (1854-1890) began with small clashes at Fort Laramie, Wyo., and nearby posts. In 1862, Little Crow led an uprising in Minnesota. The Indians massacred hundreds of settlers in the New Ulm area before Army troops subdued them. Many of the surviving Sioux joined other Sioux farther west. In the 1860's, Red Cloud and other strong chiefs drove out whites who entered Sioux territory. In 1868, in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, some of the Sioux agreed to live on a reservation in what is now South Dakota. But with the gold rush to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874, miners poured into the area, disregarding the Indians' rights. Skirmishes broke out, and the government ordered all Sioux onto the reservation. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse refused to bring in their people. Outraged by attacks against the Sioux by the U.S. Army, Sitting Bull declared: "We are an island of Indians in a lake of whites... . These soldiers want war. All right, we'll give it to them!"

On June 17, 1876, a force of Sioux surprised Brigadier General George Crook's troops and defeated them in the Battle of the Rosebud in southeastern Montana. The Army then sent another force against the Indians. On June 25, troops led by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer encountered several thousand Sioux and Cheyenne warriors on the Little Bighorn River. Not a single soldier in Custer's immediate command of about 210 men survived "Custer's Last Stand." The Indians then split into bands in order to escape more easily. The Army caught some, and others gave themselves up. A few of the Indians, including Sitting Bull's band, fled to Canada.

A final Sioux uprising occurred in 1890, in connection with the religious cult of "the Ghost Dance". Major General Nelson A. Miles feared another war. He ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull, who had settled on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. When Sitting Bull resisted arrest, Indian policemen killed him. Big Foot then assumed command of the last band of hostile Sioux. The Army trapped these Indians on Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota in December 1890, and destroyed them.

The Southern Plains (1860-1879). In Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, other Plains Indians also fought against being placed on reservations. Hostile tribes included the Arapaho, the Comanche, the Cheyenne under Black Kettle, and the Kiowa under Satanta. These tribes were provoked by such incidents as the Sand Creek massacre of 1864, when a large force of militia in Colorado ambushed a village of peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne, and killed warriors, women, and children alike. Indian raids on settlements in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas came to a climax in the Red River War of 1874-1875. Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan directed a campaign against the Indians, who surrendered after over 14 battles.

The Ute tribe also rose against the whites at various times. In Utah, the Walker War of 1853 and the Black Hawk War of 1865-1867 caused many casualties among the Mormon settlers. In 1879, the Meeker Massacre marked the final Ute outbreak in Colorado. Chief Ouray restrained his people and stopped the revolt after N. C. Meeker, an unpopular Indian agent of the government, had been killed.

In California and the Northwest

Extremely bitter feeling marked Indian conflicts in California and the Northwest. During the 1850's, many California Indians died from disease and in warfare against miners and local militia. In the Northwest, the Whitman massacre in 1847 led to the Cayuse War of 1847-1850. Few Cayuse Indians survived this war. Whites also committed many atrocities in the Rogue River wars of the 1850's.

The Modoc War (1872-1873). The Modoc Indians of northern California and southern Oregon could barely survive on the poor reservation given them in 1864. In 1872, a group led by Captain Jack (also called Kintpuash) escaped to return to their old hunting grounds. Fighting broke out between the group and Army troops in late 1872, when the Army tried to force the Indians back to the reservation. With the Army in pursuit, the Indians fled to Tule Lake in California. There, lava beds formed by an extinct volcano furnished almost perfect fortifications. The fighting resumed in early 1873, at Tule Lake. A small band of about 60 poorly armed Indians held out for about five months, until the Army forced them to surrender. The Army hanged Captain Jack and three of his men for murder in October 1873.

The Nez Perce War (1877) began when a band of Nez Perce Indians under Chief Joseph refused to move from their home in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. A group of warriors attacked settlers during negotiations in 1877, and Joseph reluctantly went to war. In June, about 70 Indians held off about 100 soldiers at White Bird Canyon in Idaho. Chief Joseph then led about 800 of his people in a remarkable retreat southeast through Montana and then back north across Yellowstone Park. The Indians traveled over 1,000 miles and escaped from several army forces while trying to reach safety in Canada. The Indians stopped to rest near the Bears Paw Mountains in Montana, 40 miles from the Canadian border, thinking that they had shaken off their pursuers. But Nelson A. Miles, then a colonel, led his troops in a rapid march of over 200 miles to catch the Indians. Joseph and his weary band surrendered after a five-day battle.

Desert battleground

Indians in the Southwest had a different background from that of other Indians in the United States. The Spaniards, who ruled this territory for many years, believed in making them dependent on their masters. They did not settle the Indians on reservations or take them away from their hunting grounds. But they sometimes massacred whole villages if the Indians disobeyed them. Many Americans favored the same violent method. The whites would often start a fight, then call on the government to kill the "hostile" Indians.

Navajo conflicts (1846-1864). The Navajo of Arizona and New Mexico easily adopted the customs of the whites. But sometimes they raided settlements of Americans, Mexicans, and other Indians. The government sent many expeditions against the Navajo, but fighting always broke out again. Finally, in 1863, Kit Carson marched with 400 men around the Navajo stronghold, the Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. His troops killed much livestock and destroyed many crops. In 1864, they entered the canyon and captured the remaining Indians. The Navajo were taken to Fort Sumner in New Mexico and imprisoned there until 1868.

Apache warfare (1861-1890's) terrorized Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico for many years. The Apache disliked reservation life. They were determined to live as they had in the past or to die fighting. Their raids increased in the 1860's because the Civil War closed many frontier army posts. Leaders such as Cochise, Victorio, Mangas Coloradas, and Geronimo led small bands of brave, cruel warriors in hundreds of lightning attacks on lonely outposts. In 1873 and 1883, General George Crook led expeditions that returned the bands to reservations temporarily.

In 1885, one group of 11 Apache braves escaped from a reservation. In four weeks, they traveled more than 1,200 miles, killed 38 people, and captured 250 horses and mules. Army troops pursued them, but they eventually reached safety in Mexico. The government decided on a campaign to bring about the final defeat of the Apache. Soldiers were ordered to "kill every Indian man capable of bearing arms and capture the women and children." Geronimo and his band surrendered in 1886. However, occasional raids by other bands continued. The Apache wars died away during the 1890's.

Contributor: Jerome A. Greene, M.A., Historian, National Park Service.

Additional resources

Dillon, Richard H. North American Indian Wars. 1983. Reprint. Bk. Sales, 1993.

Hampton, Bruce. Children of Grace: The Nez Perce War of 1877. Henry Holt, 1994.

Hoig, Stan. Tribal Wars of the Southern Plains. Univ. of Okla. Pr., 1993.

Roberts, David. Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars. Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Steele, Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America, 1513-1765. Oxford, 1994.

SOURCE: IBM 1999 World Book

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