The fight for the American west: how myth obscures reality

The spread of the United States' population throughout the 19th century led to increasing conflict with the country's indigenous peoples. The story of the 'wild west' has become a central part of American mythology – yet as Peter Cozzens explains, the truth has often been obscured...

Armed Apache Warriors, Geronimo's Camp

The Bannock tribe of southern Idaho Territory had finally had enough. For three decades, the wagon trains of white migrants had ripped up their country. American pioneers slaughtered game, murdered Bannock men and raped women with impunity.

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A well-intentioned federal promise to give the Bannocks “absolute and undisturbed use” of a large parcel of rich prairieland in exchange for their gradual settlement on a reservation came to naught when a government stenographer misnamed the location. Settlers soon overran the prairie, depriving the Bannocks of their primary source of food. Supplemental government rations proved sorely inadequate. In 1878, with starvation looming, Bannock warriors burst forth from their reservation, burning ranches and ambushing stagecoaches. In response, the instruction went out to the army: punish the Bannock people.

A newspaper reporter asked George Crook, an eminent American general, if he found it difficult to send soldiers to be killed under such circumstances. “That is not the hardest thing,” he replied. “A harder thing is to be forced to kill Indians when they are clearly in the right.” The reporter had toucheda raw nerve. “I do not wonder,” Crook continued, “and you will not either, that when Indians see their wives and children starving and their last source of supplies cut off, they go to war. And then we are sent out there to kill them. It is an outrage. All tribes tell the same story. They are surrounded on all sides, the game is destroyed or driven away, they are left to starve, and there remains but one thing for them to do – fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage.”

Generals pursued a strategy of attacking villages in the winter, when American Indian warriors were least able to resist

That a general would decry the treatment of native peoples, referred to here as Native Americans but often known at the time as American Indians, seems implausible because it contradicts an enduring myth – that the United States army was hellbent on their eradication. This false assumption reveals a larger truth: that no epoch in US history is more heavily shrouded in myth than the era of the American Indian Wars. Indeed, much popular and academic history, film and fiction has depicted the period as a struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains to accommodate changes in the national conscience.


Listen: Was the American west really as wild as the movies suggest? Karen Jones responds to listener questions about frontier life, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


Blood and betrayal

The conflict had its roots in settler expansion on to tribal lands. That process began in earnest in 1848 with the discovery of gold in California, ceded to the United States following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. It accelerated still further after the American Civil War ended in 1865, as a restless nation of 38 million, released from internecine slaughter, hungered for western lands claimed at the time by no more than 200,000 native inhabitants. The ensuing two-and-a-half decades of intermittent conflict and broken treaties concluded with the clash at Wounded Knee Creek in December 1890, a senseless effusion of blood that nearly obliterated a band of Lakota people.

Even before the tragedy at Wounded Knee, the history of the era began to become distorted. For decades thereafter, the white public of the United States romanticised white settlers and the fighters who supported them, and vilified or trivialised Native Americans who fought back. The army were seen as the shining knights of an enlightened government determined to conquer the wilderness and ‘civilise’ the west and its native inhabitants.

In 1970 the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme as Americans began to recognise the countless wrongs done to the country’s indigenous people. The public yearned for a new saga that would articulate their growing sense of shared guilt, and Dee Brown provided that narrative with his passionately wrought but decidedly one-sided 1970 history Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. An international bestseller, it was joined later that year by the Dustin Hoffman-starring comedy-drama Little Big Man, which reinforced the notion of settlers as genocidal usurpers, and the view of the government and the army as eager partners in exterminating the native peoples of the west.

This new narrative, no more objective than the one it replaced, encouraged myths that continue to shape American and international popular conceptions of the conflict. Three, in particular, persist with uncommon tenacity. The first, which Crook’s remarks directly challenge, is that the US army was the Native Americans’ implacable foe, intent on their annihilation. The second is that federal Indian policy sought to exterminate those who stood in the path of white emigration to the west. The third is that Native Americans were united in opposing the onslaught.

Frontier politics

The notion of an army eager for a fight is easy to understand. William T Sherman and Philip H Sheridan, the two generals responsible for overall military operations in the west during most of the American Indian Wars, made remarks that sounded exterminationist, but in fact reflected their frustration at the army’s failures.

After an incident in December 1866 in which an inexperienced captain stumbled into an ambush that wiped out his 80-man detachment, Sherman growled that those responsible should be hunted down with “vindictive earnestness… even to their extermination: men, women, and children”. Sheridan is said to have remarked to a Native American peace chief that “the only good Indians I ever saw were dead”. Both generals pursued a strategy of attacking Plains Indian villages in the winter, when warriors were least able to resist and the odds of non-combatant casualties were high. It was the only chance the army had to defeat an enemy too elusive to defeat in fair weather.

Neither, however, advocated the wanton killing of non-combatants, and they were quick to accept Native American surrenders and to acknowledge the desperation that drove the resistance. Expressing pity for “the poor devil [who] naturally wriggles against his doom”, Sherman enjoined a class of military graduates to achieve the “inevitable result” of dispossessing the United States’ indigenous people of their lands as humanely as possible. Subordinate commanders concurred: the plight of the country’s indigenous peoples disturbed most senior officers, and more often than not they sympathised with the Indians they were charged with subduing.

Colonel John Gibbon, the US army officer famous for having repelled the final great Confederate assault at Gettysburg in the American Civil War, often expressed misgivings over his frontier duties. Reflecting on the morality of an impending dawn attack on one village, Gibbon later wrote privately to his bishop: “Knowing our peaceful disposition as you do, you can fancy us seated for hours in the darkness of the night within plain hearing of a parcel of crying babies and the talk of their fathers and mothers, waiting for light enough to commence [the] slaughter… I could not help thinking that this inhuman task was forced upon us by a system of fraud and injustice which had compelled those poor wretches to assume a hostile attitude toward the whites.”

In June 1874, meanwhile, Major General John Pope even suggested that soldiers be sent to help Native American people eliminate white buffalo-hunters who were butchering the reservation herds on which the Southern Plains tribes depended for much of their food. When Native Americans attacked the hunters’ gathering place, the governor of Kansas appealed to Pope to dispatch troops to raise the siege. Pope turned him down flat. “Indians, like white men,” he said, “are not reconciled to starve peacefully. The buffalo hunters have justly earned all that may befall them. If I were to send troops to these unlawful establishments, it would be to break them up and not protect them.” In the event, the interloping buffalo hunters ended up repelling the attack themselves without army intervention.

Read more: How wild was the ‘Wild West’?

How the west was won

So much for the attitude of the military commanders. What, then, may be said of the policy that the government ordered them to enforce? Though its wisdom and morality may be questioned, it cannot be asserted that the government intended to physically exterminate Native Americans. That the survival of Native Americans depended on eradicating their traditional way of life, however, was taken for granted – not just by the government, but also by humanitarians who styled themselves as defenders of Indian rights.

As one old Lakota chief said of the government after the conflict was over: “They made us many promises, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

When the civil war ended, federal policy was in tatters. No one had been able to fashion a coherent programme, so things were left, as General Sherman put it, “to caprice and the haphazard”. Rampant corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, founded in 1824 to fill a vacuum in government in managing relationships with Native American people, compounded the problem. A popular story was told of a chief who described his agent to Sherman thus: “Our agent great man. When he comes, he brings everything in a little bag; when he goes, it takes two steamboats to carry away his things.”

In 1869, newly elected president Ulysses S Grant famously declared: “Let us have peace.” He instituted a carrot-and-stick body of principles that came to be called the ‘peace policy’. Grant replaced corrupt agents with religious men and army officers, established independent oversight of the Indian Bureau, and appointed as commissioner of Indian Affairs a full-blooded member of the Seneca people, Ely S Parker. Subscribing to the prevailing view that the future of Native Americans lay in acculturation, Parker directed agents to assemble Native American people in their jurisdictions on permanent reservations well removed from white people, start them on the road to ‘civilisation’, and above all treat them with kindness and patience. Those who refused to settle on reservations would be turned over to military control and treated as “friendly or hostile as circumstances might justify”. Although kindness and patience – not to mention common decency – were often lacking in the implementation, the principles articulated by Parker officially guided federal policy throughout most of the era of the American Indian Wars.

Yet the end result was to dispossess Native Americans of their lands. As one old Lakota chief said of the government after the conflict was over: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

Myths and mistakes

How, then, did Native Americans respond to the broken promises and relentless white encroachment? They did not, as myth would have it, necessarily resist dispossession, either as individual tribes or in concert. Not only did they fail to unite to oppose the westward expansion of ‘civilisation’, but they also continued to wage war on one another. Intertribal warfare was too deeply ingrained in their cultures for them to act otherwise. There was no sense of a unified identity until it was too late.

During this period, an army officer asked a Cheyenne chief why his tribe preyed on their Crow neighbours. “We stole the hunting grounds of the Crows because they were the best,” he replied. “We wanted more room.” Or, as a Lakota chief told a government negotiator: “You have split my land and I don’t like it. These lands once belonged to the Kiowas and the Crows, but we whipped these nations out of them, and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of the Indians.”

There was no sense of a unified identity until it was too late

Commonly forgotten in this mythos are the tribes that accepted the white presence, seeing the government as guarantors of their survival against powerful tribal foes. The Shoshones, Crows and Pawnees proved valuable army allies, following the adage that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

The Pawnees, for example, were vitally important to the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. In the summer of 1867, Lakota and Cheyenne raids on work crews had brought work nearly to a halt. When the army proved unable to defeat the war parties a battalion of Pawnees, recruited as soldiers, mauled the attackers so badly that raids stopped and work resumed unimpeded. Although their contribution to one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century has largely been lost to history, it’s fair to say that the Pawnee Battalion shaved a year off the construction of the transcontinental railroad.

As destructive as intertribal conflict was, the factor that ultimately doomed the resistance was the inability of individual tribes to rally against the threat. Only those that allied themselves with the government maintained unity; no tribe famous for fighting the government was ever united for war or peace. Each tribe had its traditionalist factions, which advocated war against the government when necessary, and accommodationist factions, which pushed for peace; these struggled for dominance and clashed, sometimes violently, with each other.

The Kiowas of the Southern Plains offer a particularly tragic example of a tribe torn asunder. In the winter of 1866 the head chief died, leaving three contenders for his position. One, Kicking Bird, advocated peaceful accommodation with the government; another, Satanta, participated in nearly every Kiowa raid until 1875, when he was incarcerated for having broken a prison parole by fighting in the previous year’s so-called Red River War, the final great struggle for the Southern Plains.

Kicking Bird kept most of the Kiowas out of the war. Nevertheless, the government compelled him to identify Kiowa ‘instigators’ for imprisonment. To ease the burden on his people, he filled the quota mostly with tribal delinquents – but also chose the war leader Maman-ti, who publicly hexed him by saying: “You think you have done well. You think you are free, a big man with the whites. But you will not live long; I will see to that.” Kicking Bird died the next day after drinking a cup of coffee; the army surgeon who treated him said he had been poisoned with strychnine.

There had been a fatalistic element in Kicking Bird’s struggle to maintain peace. In the conflict between incomers and Native Americans, Kicking Bird had foreseen the apocalypse. “I fear blood must flow, and my heart is sad,” he told a white friend before the Red River War. “The white man is strong, but he cannot destroy us all in one year. It will take him two or three, maybe four years. And then the world will turn to water or burn up. It is our mother and cannot live when the Indians are all dead.”

Mother Earth wept, but she endured. Yet though the native peoples of the American West survived on reservations, their way of life perished.

Peter Cozzens is the author of The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West (Alfred A Knopf, 2016 [US]; Atlantic, 2017 [UK]).

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This article was taken from issue 03 of BBC World Histories magazine