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The Indian Wars

Perhaps because of a tendency to view the record of a military establishment in terms of conflict, the U.S. Army's operational experience in the quarter century following the Civil War has come to be known as the Indian wars. Previous struggles with the Indian, dating back to colonial times, had been limited as to scope and opponent and took place in a period when the Indian could withdraw or be pushed into vast reaches of uninhabited and as yet unwanted territory to westward. By 1865 this safety valve was fast disappearing; routes of travel and pockets of settlement had multiplied across the western two-thirds of the nation, and as the Civil War closed, white Americans in greater numbers and with greater energy than before resumed the quest for land, gold, commerce, and adventure that had been largely interrupted by the war. The showdown between the older Americans and the new "" between two ways of life that were basically incompatible "" was at hand.

The besieged red man, with white civilization pressing in and a main source of livelihood "" the buffalo "" threatened with extinction, was faced with a fundamental choice: surrender or fight. Many chose to fight, and over the course of some twenty-five years the struggle ranged over the plains, mountains, and deserts of the American West, a guerrilla war characterized by skirmishes, pursuits, massacres, raids, expeditions, battles, and campaigns, of varying size and intensity. Given its central role in dealing with the Indian, the Army made a major contribution to continental consolidation.

In the wilderness of North America the settler from the Old World would not find many areas suitable for warfare in the traditional style. Moreover, the Indians neither knew the rules nor cared to learn them. They lived in fortified villages surrounded by a stockade constructed of logs. Still in the neolithic stage, they fashioned their weapons of stone, horn, or hardwood. For shock action and fighting at close quarters they used the tomahawk and the knife. As missile weapons, they placed chief reliance on the bow and flint-tipped arrow. For forest warfare, the Indian bow was superior in some respects to the colonial matchlock. It was light, practically silent, could be used in all weather, and, in the hands of a skilled warrior, was an extremely accurate weapon with a rapid rate of fire.

The Western Indian Wars

The glamor of the Wild West and charging horse cavalry surrounds what was really a series of broken treaties, massacres by both sides, and forced relocation of native tribes whenever their land was coveted for gold or settlement.
  • Apache-Geronimo surrendered in 1886. Geronimo died on Feb. 17, 1909, a prisoner of war.
  • Modoc-Boston Charlie, Black Jim, Schonchin John, and Captain Jack were hanged on the morning of October 3, 1873. The surviving Modocs were taken to the Quapaw Agency in Oklahoma where disease accomplished what bullets could not.
  • Sioux/Cheyenne/Arapaho-231 men were killed at the battle of the Little Bighorn 25 Jun 1876.
  • Sioux-Crazy Horse surrendered on May 6, 1877, in September 1877, while being led to a guardhouse, a soldier ran him through with a bayonet. Sitting Bull surrendered on July 19, 1881, on December 15, 1890, one of the 43 Lakota Sioux policemen sent to bring him into Standing Rock Reservation, put a bullet through his head.
  • Nez PercÃ-©-Chief Joseph was surrounded by troops on 5th October, 1877.
  • Bannocks/Paiutes-On July 15th, 1878 a band of reservation Umatilla's entered Chief Egan's camp, pretending that they wanted to join the resistance, instead, they killed him.
  • Sioux-On December 29, 1890, soldiers entered the Indian camp at Wounded Knee Creek demanding that all Indian firearms be relinquished. A scuffle ensued and a firearm discharged. The silence of the morning was broken and soon other guns echoed in the river bed. When it ended, at least 150 Indians had been killed and 50 wounded. In comparison, army casualties were 25 killed and 39 wounded.

Indian tactics were admirably suited to the forest. Formations were open and organization loose. Each warrior operated largely on his own, fighting from the cover of trees and utilizing skillfully his knowledge of the terrain and his ability to conceal his presence. Emphasis was placed on swift movement and surprise, pitched battle avoided whenever possible. If victory could be won by stealth, ambush, deceit, or treachery, the Indian did not hesitate to use such practices.

Once engaged he was a fierce fighter, for by his code valor and heroism were outstanding virtues and death in battle the best of all possible deaths. Rarely were prisoners of war taken in Indian battles, and torture was an accepted custom, governed by code. To die under torture without a cry of pain was to achieve greatness.

Faced with such a foe and with these informal tactics, the first settlers quickly realized that the formal and rigid methods they had brought with them from Europe would be unavailing. The enemy simply would not fight “openly in ye feeld,” as Captain Underhill of Connecticut learned when he “chose to beat up the drum and bid them to battle” while marching his men forward with colors flying. “But none,” he complained, “would come near us.”

Even if the red man had not already been accustomed to fight from cover, he would have done so quickly after his first encounters with the settlers. Ineffective as the traditional advance of the infantry line was against him, the Indian could not easily dismiss the fire that came from that line. Moreover, his arrows had no effect on the metal armor worn by the early settlers, or even on the heavy leather coats used later. Forty musketeers, wrote Francis Higginson of Massachusetts Bay, could drive 500 “savages” from the field.

The method of attack favored by the Indians was the hit-and-run raid. Striking an isolated cabin or small settlement by surprise, they killed the inhabitants, looted, and then disappeared into the forest. When the settlers organized small bands to pursue the raiders, the Indians ambushed them. Even when he acquired firearms, the Indian did not alter his method of fighting, simply substituting the missile action of the musket for that of the arrow. Moreover, he was now dependent upon the white man for his supply of ammunition.

Against these methods the settlers slowly built up their own system of defense. The transition from the early palisades to permanent forts at strategic points along the frontier was accomplished in rapid order. The first and most important improvement was the blockhouse with its overhanging second story. Placed at the corners of the palisade, it enabled the defenders to enfilade the entire front and to fire down upon the attacker below.

The settlers did not rely wholly on forts and blockhouses but sought to gain advance notice of raiding parties by sending out scouts. Already wise in wood lore, they adapted their methods to this technique readily. But the system worked even better when the scouts were Indians—members of a friendly tribe. The white man learned the value of surprise and stealth, too, fighting in open formations and raiding Indian villages when they least expected it—at dawn and in the winter season when the Indian preferred not to fight. In some respects the Indian, who refused to post a watch at night, made the job easier. Time and again he was attacked at dawn by the white man, his village destroyed, his crops burned, but he never learned the value of security. The two severest defeats he suffered followed from this failure. In each case the Indians had retired to what they thought was an impregnable stronghold—a camp surrounded by a log palisade in the midst of a swamp—and in each case they were surprised.

This struggle for survival between red man and white, fought without rules along the outermost fringe of civilization, reflected its primitive and savage setting. The arrival of the white man did not alter the Indian custom of torturing prisoners of war before putting them to death. One man named Tilly was tied to a stake, his skin flayed off, hot embers placed between flesh and skin, and his fingers and toes cut off one by one. At this stage, mercifully, he died. Nor was this an isolated case.

Though the Seventeenth Century is filled with the noise of battle, most of the fighting was done by small groups in individual and often isolated settlements along the frontier. Unimportant in themselves, these conflicts with the Indians had enormous significance in the aggregate, for they paved the way for the conquest of a continent. Once established along the Atlantic seabord the English settlers moved slowly westward, pushing the Indian back, in the first great wave of migration that ultimately reached the shores of the Pacific, 3,000 miles away.

The Indian wars of the United States were not a ruthless conquest of an inferior people. The wars were not inevitable because of the savagery of the Indians, who, indeed, chalked up a grisly record of slaughter, torture and rapine. The wars were not an epic and heroic struggle of the Indians for home and country. The Indian was neither the bloody villain of motion picture and television screenplays, nor the injured innocent of some social historians.

The Indian was not pushed relentlessly westward until he reached "The End of the Trail" as in James Earle Fraser's statue facing the Pacific Ocean. The Indian wars were none of these things - yet all of these ideas entered into some or all of them. The Indian wars were primarily a conflict between ways of life that were wholly incompatible.

A half million, three-quarters of a million or a million Indians - all population estimates are wild guesses - lived within the boundaries of what became forty-eight states of the United States of America. When? The date may be 1492 or 1789 or any other, for the Indians, in their natural state, increased very slowly, if at all. There may have been an actual decrease sometime during the nineteenth century, for white men's diseases killed more Indians than were slain in all the wars they ever fought, but it is generally conceded that their descendants today number as many as there ever were. Again an exact figure is impossible because there is no agreement on who is Indian, and few do not have some admixture of white blood.

The Indians inhabited this country, but they did not occupy it. They wandered over it. In 1841, most of the Indians in the West still lived precariously by hunting, supplemented by a primitive agriculture. Only a few supported themselves entirely by farming, and many of these - notably the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest-are still to be found, more than a hundred years later, where they have been for centuries. But the nomadic Indians, dependent on the chase, soon killed or frightened off all the game in a considerable area. They were forced to keep moving. Such Indians had no more idea of owning land than they did of owning the waters they traversed in their canoes or the air over their heads. It is said that the Indians who disposed of Manhattan for twenty-four dollars were somewhat in the same position as the man who sold the Brooklyn Bridge for ten dollars; they didn't own it, just chanced to be on the island for a week-end fishing trip.

From the beginning, the United States government's policy favored fair dealing with the Indians. But in making treaties white men always assumed that the red men had unenlightened imitations of their own institutions. The government wanted title to land which the Indians were hunting on, took it for granted that the Indians owned it, even convinced them that this was so and they could therefore transfer title. For white men to realize that Indians might have entirely different ideas, ideals, motives and ways of life was inconceivable.

Indian councils were assumed to be representative legislatures. Americans generally, and even officially, supposed that each tribe had an elected chief executive. Government agents sent to deal with Indian tribes frequently had difficulty in identifying the "chief," but that problem was not insoluble as no Indian would admit that he was not a chief.

No word has been more abused in writing about Indians than "chief." It is often pointed out, for example, that Roman Nose and Geronimo were not technically chiefs of their tribes. They were, however, leaders of war parties, and "chief" means that, if it means anything. Similarly it is often said that Sitting Bull was not a chief, but a "medicine man" - which means, in this sense, a spiritual leader in recognition of many years of successful leadership of war parties. For a time, certainly, he was the most influential man among several tribes of Sioux and their allies, but he was not their commander-in-chief, and he did not direct the strategy that resulted in the defeat of General Custer. There was no such strategy.

Despite the many army officers who set forth in their memoirs opinions that their slippery opponents were led by a strategic genius, a "Red Napoleon," Indians had no strategy and were strangers to tactics for the convincing reason that they had no discipline.

Chiefs never issued specific orders and were unable to exact unquestioning obedience. Their followers, each a rugged individualist, might, and likely would, take the advice of a trusted leader, but if he decided that his "medicine" dictated it was time to quit, he quit.

Among Plains Indians any ambitious young warrior could, at a proper time, proclaim his intention of leading a war party or a horse-stealing expedition, which amounted to much the same thing. To those who joined him, he became "chief" of that particular foray. If successful, he could reasonably expect a larger following next time, but if he had lost one man, killed or missing, the raid was counted a failure, no matter how many horses had been stolen. Continued success might encourage all warriors of the village or tribe to join him. Thus Indians developed leadership through a process of natural selection - they followed the most able. But the "chief" could not command his band to "charge," "right wheel" or "left by twos, march." All he could say was, "Follow me!"

The high honor of counting coup as a motive for valor was seldom understood by the white man. Among most of the Plains tribes a youth did not become a man, could not even take a wife, until he had counted coup. Coup - French for blow or stroke - was counted by striking an enemy with a coup stick, not a weapon but an ordinary stick, perhaps bearing "medicine" symbols. The highest coup was counted by touching an armed, active enemy in battle. A warrior who shot down an enemy with firearm or arrow could only count coup by physically striking the body of his victim. A coup could also be counted by the first warrior to reach the body of a dead enemy even though he was not the killer.

There were other degrees of coups, varying from tribe to tribe, and the system became quite technical. Once a coup was claimed by a brave who lowered a rock on a string over a bluff until it touched an enemy. The validity of this coup caused grave argument around the council fire. Such academic debate may seem both trivial and amusing, but not to a warrior whose feathered headdress was the record of his coups, with each eagle feather notched or tasseled to show the degree of coup it commemorated.

To count coup in battle young warriors would fight with daring disregard for their own lives, but normally the Indian was a firm believer in the adage: "He who fights and runs away may live to fight another day." Except when cornered, or in defense of family, he seldom fought unless the advantages were great and the risk slight, as many a weary trooper, pounding in pursuit under a blazing sun, could testify.

On the other hand, fighting, to the Indian, was as much a natural function as eating; conflict was ingrained in his nature. All strangers were enemies; the Indian had no concept of permanent peace. Even the term "peace pipe" is a misnomer, for the pipe ceremony signified alliance as well as friendship. The white man rarely understood this.

Fighting between tribes that were traditional enemies was often as cruel and vengeful as any recorded between red man and white, and quite as marked by slaughter of women and children and other atrocities. On the other hand, an intertribal fight with casual strangers might be carried on for an entire day of prudent and cautious skirmishing with no one seriously hurt.

Fighting was generally a leisure-time recreation, scheduled after the fall buffalo hunt and before holing up for winter's hardships. Many Indians took no pride in fighting white men because the white men would not play the game according to Indian rules. Soldiers frequently made the same complaint against the Indians.

Few Indians saw any real threat to their way of life from white invaders. Normally Indians saw so few, either soldiers or settlers, that many regarded the white men as a very minor tribe - to be chased off, of course, as they would any other strangers. Fighting against soldiers was usually only a temporary interruption of the customary intertribal warfare. There never was a time when all Indians were united against white invaders; indeed it was rare in Indian wars for an entire tribe to be hostile. Many tribes, such as the Pawnee and the Crows, did most of their fighting as allies of the whites.

Few Indians were good marksmen, either with bow and arrow or with firearms. In hunting, their objective was food, and to make a sure shot at close range they became experts at stalking game. When these talents were turned to man-hunting, the Indian became an elusive and deadly foe. He was master of the surprise attack and in the use of decoy and ambush. It was an old army saying that Plains Indians were the "best light cavalry in the world." That was true, but with limitations. Indians would have been quite incapable of the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. They never failed to "reason why," and if reason told them that the chance of dying was greater than that of doing, they promptly whirled their wiry cayuses and headed for the far horizon. As individual fighters, as hit-and-run guerrillas, as raiders and as scouts, they were superb.

Even in defense of their homes and families, however, their lack of discipline often brought disaster. The annals of the West are full of stories of villages surprised at dawn, or even in broad day, by soldiers or enemy tribes who slaughtered ill-prepared warriors, captured women and children, stampeded horses and burned tepees. Chiefs had no authority to post guards or send out scouts. Tribes of Plains Indians were highly organized for buffalo hunts, because failure meant starvation, but were unorganized for warfare, which was mainly an avocation. Yet few primitive peoples were as good at fighting as the American Indians, or won as many battles against highly trained professional soldiers. But the Indians won no wars.

The wars that followed continued intermittently for over a century, and, as the course of empire moved westward, were resumed on every frontier. But after the first years, the cause of the red man was doomed. The whites were too numerous and their superiority in weapons and equipment too great for the Indian. And the initial advantage he enjoyed from fighting on his own ground and on his own terms, he soon lost when the white man proved himself a quick student in the art of forest warfare with its emphasis on surprise and speed, open formations, and cover and concealment. It was a lesson the white man never forgot.

In Canada the Royal Mounted Police (established in 1874) were empowered to treat with the Indians--and then back the treaties against the encroachments of settlers. As a result Canada did not suffer the Indian wars that plagued her southern neighbor. While the several thousand soldiers of the US Army struggled to preserve peace on the American frontier, no more than 300 Northwest Mounties were sufficient to do the same in Canada's West, even after the settlers came.

The end of the 1800s brought tremendous change to the Indian Nations within the United States. It marked the end of the Indian wars and the beginning of the Reservation period in American history. A large number of culturally diverse tribes from the various regions of the United States were relocated to "Indian Territory." This region was to become the state of Oklahoma.

Jay Monaghan, (Editor). The Book of the American West. Simon & Schuster. 1963.


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