(The UNITED STATES, 1865-1900 – continued)

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American Indians and Western Expansion, 1850-81

Chief joseph

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.
Click for description.

The plains Indians had been hunters, and hunting societies had been sparsely populated, occupying the large amount of land needed to sustain them. And by the mid-1800s the Indians were hopelessly outnumbered by the whites. Farming societies were much more densely populated than hunting societies, and the U.S. had modern farming techniques and manufacturing. Moreover, it had a political unity that the Indians lacked. In short, it had more power than the Indians. The question was how was it to use that power vis-à-vis the Indians. The record of civilizations respecting the less powerful they had come upon was poor – the Japanese against the Ainu, for example, or the Spanish against the Indians of Mexico, or the colonists along the Atlantic coast of North America in the 1600s. The U.S. had laws on how citizens were supposed to treat each other, and they established treaties with the Indians, but what they lacked in general, in the 1800s, was enough respect for the Indians to enforce those treaties with the same vigor that they enforced laws within the United States, in other words to leave the Indians as they were and with their right to their own territory.

In California in 1850, it is said, the Indian population was around 100,000 – the kind of estimate that is always questionable. By 1850 the Gold Rush had been underway for a year. A decade later California's Indian population was counted as 35,000. In 1860, vigilantes attacked a small community of Indians near Eureka, California, killing around eighty, many of them women and children. Also in 1860 a war began in what is today the state of Nevada, a war that escalated from a Paiute Indian retaliation against whites for the rape of two Paiute girls. In the early 1860s were clashes with Apaches, the Navaho, the Cherokee and the Shoshone in Idaho. In the early 1860s miners were invading the Rocky Mountains and the plains in the thousands, threatening the Indians and producing clashes with the Indians.

The Sioux had been on the warpath since 1862. That year they massacred or captured almost 1,000 people on the Minnesota frontier. In 1863, 38 Dakota Sioux were convicted of taking part in the massacre and hanged, in the town of Mankato, Minnesota, before a crowd of angry whites in the largest public execution in U.S. history.

By 1865 the Winnebago Indians had been removed from Iowa and Minnesota and from what would eventually be the state of South Dakota, and they were put on a reservation in Nebraska – a move that killed around 700 of them. Between 1869 and 1876, two hundred battles were fought between the U.S. army and Indians – the Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Arapaho and the Sioux. The Indians had acquired the white man's rifles and were excellent marksmen. There was no leader who united the tribes. Tribes had been fighting tribes, and the U.S. allied itself with some tribes, who became for some the so-called good Indians, against the others. 

Newspapers had been characterizing the fight by the continent's oldest inhabitants to preserve their land for their use as "savagery." The ethos of economic development that had taken hold among people of European ancestry gave rise to justification for the confiscation of territory: the Indians, it was claimed, were not properly exploiting the lands that they considered theirs.

In 1873 – the year that cable cars were introduced in San Francisco – whites were killing buffalo at an estimated rate of three million per year. Congress passed a law protecting the herds from extermination, but President Grant vetoed it. The buffalo were to be replaced by another creature that could live off of the grass of the plains: the cattle bred by ranchers pursing the meat business.

In 1875, prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, holy ground to the Sioux and an area that the U.S. government had promised the Sioux would be theirs forever. General Sheridan of the U.S. Army held back the gold seekers for awhile, but eventually they broke through, and attacks by the Sioux against the intruders followed. The Sioux and neighboring Cheyenne defied the U.S. and gathered under the Sioux chieftain, Sitting Bull, to fight for their land. And in the spring of 1876 they were victorious in two skirmishes against the U.S. cavalry sent against them by General Sheridan.

In the year 1876, Colorado became a state, and the telephone was invented. And in June, 2,500 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors annihilated Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and 210 or so of his Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn River. The nation was outraged and demanded retribution. The U.S. redrew the boundaries of the reservations and opened the Black Hills to white settlement.

In January 1877, a punitive expedition under Colonel Nelson Miles caught up with and defeated the Sioux and Cheyenne. Later that year, under the new administration of President Hayes, the Crow and Blackfoot were ejected from their reservations. In Colorado, holdings of the Ute were confiscated and opened to settlement. Gold was discovered on the Salmon River in Idaho, and whites began invading territory that the Nez Perce had been promised would be theirs. War erupted between the U.S. and the Nez Perce, who were defeated and sent to a reservation in Oklahoma.


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